Question & Answer
Illeana Douglas and Greg Pritikin
USA, 2002. Rated R. 90 minutes.
Adrien Brody, Illeana Douglas, Milla Jovovich, Vera Farmiga, Jessica Walter,
Ron Leibman, Jared Harris
Article and interviews by Dominic Varle.
reg Pritikin is a man humbly and enthusiastically riding his luck. The production of Dummy, his major debut as writer/director, was blessed with several moments of good fortune that should cumulatively raise his movie above the indie fray. Not least of these was his casting of Adrien Brody in his last film before The Pianist, for which Brody won the Oscar for Best Actor earlier this year. As Steven, a white collar drudge who quits to be a ventriloquist, Brody inhabits the same small-town world that produced Pritkin and his co-star Illeana Douglas, as Steven's similarly stymied sister, Heidi.
Saddled with the responsibilities of the first-born and denied parental support to pursue a singing career, Heidi's frustration at making her living as a wedding planner is compounded when she breaks up with her fiancé. The modest tragedy of every character in Dummy is proportionate to the modesty of their dreams, and Heidi is no exception. Douglas' ability to play comedy broadly (playing a prostitute/assistant to Jay Mohr's studio exec in Fox's Action), straighter (Happy, Texas), or hardly at all (Stir of Echoes) made her a must-cast for Pritikin. The daughter of two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas, she is herself a veteran of solid supporting roles. She has appeared in over 40 films, including Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas and Cape Fear, Gus Van Sant's To Die For, and Robert Redford's Quiz Show, and has something of a cult following after roles in Stir of Echoes and Ghost World.
For Douglas, it was Dummy's script that got her interested. "You're always hoping to find a fresh and idiosyncratic voice every time you read a script by a new writer," she says, and was impressed by the way it holds together as a comedy, romance, and drama. "Each [character] could be the lead in their own movie." Pritikin, who grew up watching 16mm prints from his father's extensive collection, was making Super-8 movies at a young age. After paying his dues as a fiction writer and playwright in Chicago, Pritikin (with childhood friend Gary Rosen) made Totally Confused, which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival. After writing the screenplay for Dummy in just four weeks, Pritikin again turned to producer Bob Fagin.
Dummy's accomplished cast also includes Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), Vera Farmiga (15 Minutes), Jared Harris (Happiness, Igby Goes Down) and real-life husband and wife Jessica Walter (who played Clint Eastwood's unbalanced fan in Play Misty for Me) and Ron Leibman (Auto Focus, Norma Rae). Jovovich's loose, outrageous and uproariously funny performance as Steven's best friend is a world away from her roles in The Fifth Element and The Messenger, and comes close to stealing the show. "I wanted to take away her sexiness, make her a completely different person" says the director. "[And] just as Adrien learned ventriloquism, she [Jovovich] learned Yiddish on her own. She's completely butchering it, and that's just how her character would do it, too."
Far from making a hash of the ventriloquism, Brody's dedication to the art was universally admired by the crew and cast. "It was just mind-blowing," says Fagan. "At the same time Adrien was learning ventriloquism, he was also learning to fence and ride horseback." Of Steven, Brody himself says, "[E]ven if he isn't the best, [he] cannot be faulted for how hard he tries. That had real resonance for me." Though Brody's performance is the centerpiece of Dummy, the quality of Pritikin's script and the hugely talented ensemble cast cannot be underestimated.
In New York, Pritikin and Douglas chatted with reporters ahead of the film's release about the making of Dummy, the definition of success in suburban America, how not to serve divorce papers on a celebrity, and why Adrien Brody is big in Kansas.
Read Dominic's review of DUMMY.
Question: How did you get into filmmaking and screenwriting?
Pritikin: Well, I didn't have any skills to get a real job. I always fancied myself as a writer, but I was broke. I'm still broke. So I worked in a tobacco store for a few years, and for a while I was a process server. I was the guy who served divorce papers [from author Phillip Roth] on Claire Bloom. It's in her autobiography, page 200 I think, where I had the audacity to ask for her autograph. It's a rough job.
Question:What's the inspiration for Steven's family?
Pritikin: [Reaches into wallet] You want to see pictures?
Question: There are some archetypes or stereotypes in Dummy, such as the way you portray the parents, where you seem to poking fun at Americanized Jewish culture, while showing a reverence for European Jewish culture.
Pritikin: No. My attitude wasn't to make some message about Jewish culture. I was not making a social commentary. The characters are Jewish because I am. They say, "Write what you know," and that's what I know. I wasn't raised in a Catholic family, but I'm sure things are much the same. Millawho is not playing a Jewish charactergets more reverence from me than the more unlikeable Jewish characters because she takes a dedicated interest in the Yiddish culture. The problems with the middle class is that they value pomp and circumstance, overlooking real accomplishments and triumphs. My sympathies as a writer and director are with Milla's passion for Yiddish rather than planning a big, garish wedding, because that is more admirable to me.
Question: What was the inspiration of this film for you?
Pritikin: I have a friend who is the world's worst ventriloquist. I guess it's the idea of our definition of success. Dummy is not a movie about someone that wants to be a film star, or President, or whatever unrealistic goal. Basically all these people are unhappy in their lives because there's something else they want to do, and they've never been able to do it. The joy was in getting all the characters to the point where they are doing what they want to be doing. These characters have very small goals. We're rooting for them even though, in Milla's case she's just a wedding singer. That's success to her character. That's the lesson, if any is to be learned, from this. Just do what you want to do, and don't let anybody tell you how unsuccessful you aren't.
Question: What did Adrien bring to the movie? Which movies of his had you seen before casting?
Pritikin: He was my first choice from the start. As soon as I was told we could entertain the notion of casting anyone we wanted I immediately thought of Adrien for the part of Steven. He has this intense vulnerability, this innocence about him, and yet he's still good looking enough to be a leading man. I wanted to exploit both these sides, and have an unconventional leading man. In Summer of Sam he plays quite an aggressive character, but he has moments of incredible vulnerability. The first movie I saw him in was Six Ways to Sunday. To find an actor that good, that's what a director wants to work with:--someone who can completely transform themselves so that you don't recognize them.
Question: Like Milla Jovovich?
Pritikin: That was the exciting challenge with Millato take someone who people didn't even know spoke English, completely desexualize her, flip her persona on its head. That was a lot of fun. Actually, not such a big challenge, as she's not so far from that character, being a crazy punk from California. Hopefully people will see Dummy and go, "Wow! She's not the accented KGB spy or whatever we thought she was."
Question: Did things change for Adrien after he won the Oscar?
Pritikin: Well, we had the premiere [for Dummy] about two weeks before he won, so we were already out there. But after that [the Oscars], he couldn't leave his house. We stopped going out to the dives we used to hang out in, because he would just get swamped by admirers. People in Kansas now know who he is. So, he's very happy.
Question: Did Adrien have an interest in ventriloquism before making Dummy?
Pritikin: Well, he was an amateur magicianwhich is a related artwhich helped, but he had three weeks training before making the movie.
Question: He looks like he's a good ventriloquist. Was his dummy's dialog over-dubbed?
Pritikin: The only time it was added was at the end where Adrien really has to throw his voice, but apart from that, none. He was supposed to be an okay ventriloquist, not a great one.
Question: Is ventriloquism a dead art?
Pritikin: Well, it's a dead art like some people say that Yiddish is a dead language. You may think it [Yiddish] is dead but if you go to some neighborhoods in Brooklyn it's all they speak. So as long as there are kids, there will be someone with a puppet or a dummy entertaining them. God help us that the day comes that children are not entertained by a ventriloquist. That's the day when MTV has won, and it's time to move to France.
Question: Finally, why does the film have two editors?
Pritikin: Because it takes one to fuck it up, and one to save it.
Question: Have you been watching Action [the canceled 1999 Fox sitcom] on Trio?
Douglas: [laughs] I haven't, but I'd like to, because I sure do have nice memories from doing the show. We had a blast, a crazy, crazy run. Buddy Hackett used to greet me every morning by putting his head in my breasts and saying, "'Scuse me lady, can I park my Buick here?" People always ask me about Action more than anything else. Why was it canceled? I still don't know.
Question: What do you make of the punk/goth following you've gotten after your roles in Stir of Echoes and Ghost World?
Douglas: [Laughs] It's a little odd. Nice, but odd. I know of this Swedish girl who's into WiccaI'm told that's a Good Witch thingwho has a site called whyIloveIlleana.com or something, which is always nice to hear. I normally never look at these things, but I glanced at it, 'cause she keeps writing me letters.
Question: Were you a goth yourself in high school?
Douglas: Well, that was the late 1970s, which was the era of Christie Brinkley - so I was way on the opposite. I guess I leaned more towards being an Enid [Ghost World's protagonist]. I wore a lot of vintage clothing. I had an obsession that I was a male character in a film. I dressed like a reporter, with a little card in my hat. I had these fantasies of who I wanted to be, so I'd dress like an explorer, a cowboy. I dressed up like Elton John a lot too. That was another period.
Question: What drew you to the role of Heidi in Dummy?
Douglas: I loved so much that it was a family comedy, in an unguarded way that captured that whole dysfunctional family thing. And I loved the idea of the 'Nerd as Hero,' which Ghost World also had. I liked that it wasn't afraid to show people with little dreams, but dreams that are really important to them. It's nice to see a movie where people are actually succeeding. I grew up in a small suburban town where your idea of success is moving miles away, and I think the characters in the film feel that way.
Question: What was it like working with Adrien Brody?
Douglas: I remember when we met he said, "I've been offered two movies, The Pianist and Dumb and Dumber 2," and I said, "Do Dumb and Dumber 2, it'll be a big hit!" Knowing that he was attached to Dummy was a big part of me wanting to do this film. We didn't have trailers during filming, so we'd all ride to work [in Wayne, NJ] together and then have to sit quietly in the basement of the house while Greg was filming upstairs. It was a funny experience, standing in line to do our scenes, all sharing one bathroom to get changed in. There was a really familial feeling, and we had a lot of silly laughs. So when Adrien won the Oscar, we all felt this brotherly love for him, we were all so happy. It's fantastic that more people will get to see this movie as a result of that.
Question: Did you have any particular difficulty playing opposite a ventriloquist and his dummy?
Douglas: Well, I come from a pretty strange family, but my character, Heidi, thinks it's bizarre. Actually, after I got to know Adrien he let me put my hand inside the dummy, which was nice. I was thrilled to do that. And I love anything to do with ventriloquism and magic; Greg and I got talking about that Anthony Hopkins movie [Magic (1978)]that's a scary movie.
Question: Do you find it easy to switch between doing independent films and studio movies?
Douglas: It used to be much easier for me to flit between a studio and an independent film, but now it depends a lot more on the director. I enjoy doing independent films more, only because there's more freedom for me. There's not as many cooks tampering with what you are trying to do. There's too much insecurity on studio sets with all the people standing around whispering…
Question: So you are getting choosier?
Douglas: Well, I've done a few studio films in the last few years where I feel like I've done good work, and then I only end up in two scenes. That's been very disappointing. So I am choosier now. When I'm thinking about doing a studio film I have to really know and like the director, and feel that it's not going to be taken out of his hands and re-cut. Like The Adventures of Pluto Nash, by the time it came out it was completely different from what we had signed up for. I don't know what happened between what we did and the final version. At the time I remember thinking, "Hmm, 'space-comedy.' Could it work? I dunno…" The best situation is where they cast you and then they trust you, like Ghost World.
CONTINUE TO DOMINIC'S REVIEW OF DUMMY
Article and interviews
© September 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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