DATE September 26, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Director Mike Mills on his career and feature
film debut "Thumbsucker"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new film "Thumbsucker" is the first feature directed by my guest, Mike
Mills, but you've probably already seen some of his work. He's directed
commercials for Nike, Levi, Volkswagen and MasterCard. He did The Gap khaki
commercial inspired by "West Side Story." He's directed music videos for
Moby, Yoko Ono, Jack Black and Air, and has designed album covers for Sonic
Youth and the Beastie Boys. His first graphics were designed for his
skateboards. He also co-founded the agency The Directors Bureau, whose
members include Sofia and Roman Coppola.
Mills grew up in a home in which design and fine art were very important. His
father directed an art museum in Santa Barbara; his mother sold Vera scarves
and was a contractor and architect. Mike Mills' new movie, "Thumbsucker," is
adapted from a Walter Kirn novel of the same name. It stars Lou Pucci as
Justin, a troubled 17-year-old high school student who still sucks his thumb
out of insecurity. His parents--played by Vincent d'Onofrio and Tilda
Swinton--are having midlife crises and disagree about how to handle him.
Justin's guidance counselor thinks he has attention deficit hyperactive
disorder and suggests medication. In spite of his mother's skepticism, he
begins taking the pills and the transformation is amazing. Here he is with
his school's debate coach, played by Vince Vaughn.
(Soundbite of "Thumbsucker")
Mr. VINCE VAUGHN: (As Mr. Geary) How are you doing with the medication?
Mr. LOU TAYLOR PUCCI: (As Justin Cobb) I read "Moby Dick" straight through.
Mr. VAUGHN: (As Mr. Geary) That's great. But how do you feel?
Mr. PUCCI: (As Justin Cobb) I feel like me. I never really did before
Mr. VAUGHN: (As Mr. Geary) Have you had any other breakthroughs besides the
Mr. PUCCI: (As Justin Cobb) It used to be kind of a hassle to put on
underwear in the morning, but now it's kind of easy, you know. I actually
listened to the words to the Pledge of Allegiance today, and it gave me
Mr. VAUGHN: (As Mr. Geary) I've always felt that you have a real sensitivity
when it comes to language. And I know that you're smart. I think that you
see a lot more than you take responsibility for. And that kind of perception
that you have, that can't be taught by anyone. Rebecca left the debate team.
Did she say anything to you about why or...
Mr. PUCCI: (As Justin Cobb) No.
Mr. VAUGHN: (As Mr. Geary) Well, I need somebody to step up and take her
place. I'd like for you to compete with us.
Mr. PUCCI: (As Justin Cobb) (Scoffs) You think I could do it?
Mr. VAUGHN: (As Mr. Geary) Yes, I do.
GROSS: That's a scene from Mike Mills' new movie, "Thumbsucker."
Mike Mills, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MIKE MILLS (Director, "Thumbsucker"): Thank you.
GROSS: Now the main character in the film, in "Thumbsucker," can't stop
sucking his thumb even though he's a teen-ager on the verge of going into
college. Is there anything you relate to about that?
Mr. MILLS: Well, I didn't suck my thumb, but I had all the anxiety. It might
have been a good thing if I did suck my thumb; I might have been able to
soothe myself a little bit. But I mean, beyond that, it's not like I had any
of these kinds of tics or these sort of mannerisms, but I so much relate to
that Justin character, and it became a very personal project for me writing
GROSS: You know, it's funny. I know that you were also a skateboarder as a
teen-ager. And I would think that as a skateboarder, you would've--you know,
you would have had, like, your crowd and you would have been assertive in your
own way and that it would've been different for you than the kid in the film.
Mr. MILLS: Hmm. You know, skateboarding now is quite a trendy--you know,
it's a great way to get a girlfriend, to be a skateboarder now. Skating, when
I was really doing it, when I was competing in it, was really just the biggest
bunch of misfits you ever met, and, you know, all the people who couldn't find
a place in the rest of the world found it in skateboarding. So we were all,
you know, very disenfranchised from any sort of friendliness or any sort
feeling of like, you know, `We've made it.'
GROSS: You know, the teen-ager in your movie is having a lot of troubles, and
he's diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is given
pills for it. And he decides to take the pills, and it really changes him. I
mean, suddenly he's, like, more focused, he's more successful, he's more
aggressive, and in some ways, he's more obnoxious. Did you have much
experience with pills like that, either taking them or watching friends who
Mr. MILLS: Not at that age. You know, I'm 39, and I do feel like a lot of
that--you know, the medication of--you know, the introduction of pharmacology
into the high school wasn't really there when I was there, or maybe it was and
I just didn't know about it. But it's funny. When we were doing the film, we
would go around to high schools looking for locations, and, of course, I had
to look--I had to go try to find a nurse's office that was right for us, and
then they'd say, `Well, do you want to see where we keep the meds?' And I
was, like, `Sure.' And we open the door, and there's probably 100 bottles,
you know, at each public high school we looked at, and I thought, `Wow, that's
stunning.' That's so unlike my world and the world that I knew. And maybe
that's part of why I find it interesting or--you know, it's in the book, but
it's definitely something that I find so contemporary.
GROSS: Now you have an incredible cast in this, your very first movie.
Mr. MILLS: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: You have Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tilda Swinton.
How did you do it?
Mr. MILLS: You know, you never think--you know, when you finish your script
and you start sending it out to the world, you don't think that those people
are going to be in your movie, especially not all of them. And I certainly
didn't. And we went out to get financing and went through this
year-and-a-half, two-yearlong saga of getting told no by just about every film
distributor or, you know, independent financier in America and most of the
them in Europe, you know? And so it was a great tragedy, and I thought, `Oh,
my career is just screwed here. I just so messed up our'--I'm not--I just--I
don't know. I just created this horrible thing that no one wants to finance.
And it took a long time, and I really had to go through a lot of those doors
myself and get told myself no. And I never had had to deal with that much
Simultaneously, the script's going out to actors and agents and it's having a
totally different life in that world, and it's kind of having its own little
brush-fire effect where one actor tells another, and an agent tells another,
and we're getting this accumulation of calls from this crazy amount of people.
And so that was the thing that kept me alive through those years. It was
like, `Man, Tilda Swinton wants to be in this movie.' That gave me faith even
when everybody else was saying no, you know?
GROSS: Now I know that skateboarding has been a big part of your life, both
as a skateboarder but also as an artist. Some of the first work you did
related to skateboards. You designed your own skateboards, and you designed
logos for or graphics, I should say, for those skateboards. How did you get
Mr. MILLS: Oh, you know, growing up in Santa Barbara, being a 13-year-old,
it's definitely one of your options that's out there. And skateboarding's had
many sort of ups and downs, becoming popular, dropping out, and I hit one of
them just at the right time where I was 13 and they had all these big skate
parks in Southern California, and it was at a point in the history of the
culture where there's lots of contests. You know, it was kind of at a high
point. You know, it was fairly organized, and I got in right then at a very
But it also introduced me to--skateboarding is much more than an activity.
It's definitely not a sport. It's sort of--you know, it's a subculture, and
it's intertwined with punk rock and all the ethos of that. So you immediately
have heroes that are all about individuating from mainstream, individuating
from expectations, being subversive in some way, always being sort of like a
clothing language trickster, you know, never wanting to be defined and
definitely this kind of do-it-yourself attitude. And so, of course, I
immediately started, you know, first in a series of horrible punk bands to
torture my parents with and, you know--you know, for a long time I always
thought, `OK, I'm going to be a professional skateboarder or, you know, have a
skateboard company or I'm going to be a musician, you know?' and I had
that--that dream went on right until the end of high school, where I was,
like, `Oh, no. None of those are going to happen. Luckily I can draw OK.
I'll get into art school.'
GROSS: So what kind of art did you design for your skateboards when you were
Mr. MILLS: Oh, well, neatly enough, this kind of fits the Justin character.
So when I was in high school, I actually made some skateboards in my wood
shop, as ridiculous as that is. And I would get lots of blank boards because
I knew people in different companies and I could get blank boards. But I was
trying to make them all look adult and official and legitimate, you know? It
wasn't--they weren't underground or punk in any way. I was actually trying to
look sort of corporate or, like, real, you know? And later on, you know, in a
funny way, skating kind of came back in my mid-, late-20s, and I started doing
designs for companies like Stereo, which is a skate company, or Supreme, which
is a shop in New York, and in that way, it sort of--that's why I think people
sort of associate me with the skate culture. But it really is funny. I'm
doing the same thing I did when I was 14, 15 years old.
GROSS: When you were actually doing it for real and getting paid for it, did
you still feel that they should look like official, corporately made
skateboards, or did you try to make them more unusual?
Mr. MILLS: Well, funnily, and to really put all this together, my whole way
of dealing with punk rock, like, as adult has been sort of to really look at
the cliches of punk rock, because by the time I'm 30, punk rock is sort of a
cliche. CBGB, mohawks, whatever you want to call it, sort of a ripped and
torn culture, is sort of what you expect. So I often play with doing things
very straight, very almost corporate-looking as a subversion of what you'd
expect from punk rock. I did a Sonic Youth cover once that was--had a picture
of their merchandising shirt on the front, and everything about it was, like,
regular and straight and, in a way, just trying to flip what you'd expect from
them. The same thing I did with Supreme. I did things that were very neat
and regular and plain, and it was, again--it just felt wrong for what you
would expect from that culture, from that person, from the kid wearing that
shirt on the street. It felt wrong, and that's why I liked it, and to me,
that is--the excitement I got out of punk in the first place was that
wrongness, that incongruity, that sort of banana peel under people's
GROSS: My guest is Mike Mills. He directed the new film "Thumbsucker."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Mike Mills, director of the new film "Thumbsucker." He's
also directed commercials and videos and has designed graphics for T-shirts
You came to art through what you were doing in punk music and in
skateboarding. Your father was the director of an art museum in Santa
Barbara. He was in the high art world. Did you relate to that world when you
were growing up?
Mr. MILLS: Not at all. I hated it. You know, I--the worst thing to do, to
have to go to the museum. It was a pain in the ass. You know, we had to do
it all the time, go to these openings. And my father was--you know, my father
was sort of like a social king, and he had to talk to everybody, and trying to
get my father to leave any party or leave the museum was this endless
Kafkaesque, you know, `Oh, he's never gonna leave,' you know? So it was a
And they were very social, my parents. They had parties, you know, probably
every two weeks with, like, 100 people over at the house, and, I mean, all
these strange, you know, characters that drank too much and were lurking
around the house. And my impression of the whole thing was, like, these
people are just nuts, you know, and this whole thing is nuts. And it's your
parents, you know? It's the last thing you're going to identify with. And I
used to have to--he would make me take these after-school art classes or art
clinics because, you know, you're the art museum director's son. You have to
support the arts. And luckily I did have a thing about drawing, but it was
largely against my will participating in all these kind of formal things.
And I didn't come around to art--see, now all the art I was doing was, like,
you know, posters for my band, stuff around skating and, you know, my parents
really--they encouraged me, but they didn't really--it wasn't art, you know,
and to me, it certainly wasn't their art, and there was this gap between me
and them. And when I had that, you know, epiphany at 17, 18 of, like, `Oh,
man, I'm not going to be a professional skateboarder,' I suddenly, you know,
had to go over--I remember one time asking my dad, `OK, Pop, tell me about
20th century art.' And then it was this seminal moment in our relationship
where I caved in and kind of went over to his side.
GROSS: And did you like the art world any better when you were in art school?
Mr. MILLS: I did at first, and I, you know, loved so many people I went to
school with and I was so amazed by them and influenced by them. Cooper Union
at the time was a strange place to go to school. It had all, like, the
emotional warmth of, like, the Port Authority, you know? There's no, like,
counselors, there's no dorms. You live at the 92nd Street Y. There's--in my
freshman year, someone shot a BB gun at somebody else in a critique and
someone else beat someone else up.
And, you know, it's--but, you know, we had a great time, and then one of my
biggest teachers or the person who influenced me the most was a man names Hans
Haacke, who is, you know, a conceptual political artist who does lots of work
about the institutions of art and the kind of duplicities of it. So, you
know, all my teen-age rebellion from art all of a sudden got a new father
figure who gave me rational, justified opinions on why I should hate art
again, you know, and eventually led me and a lot of my friends who were kind
of just--you know, this is the '80s art world, Mary Boone Gallery blowing up;
people like Julian Schnabel are huge. We're all feeling a little, you know,
disillusioned, and a lot of us got into graphics or anything like that because
the money was up front, it's obviously crass and because you're more in the
public sphere, and I remember the first time I saw one of my posters, "Wheat,"
pasted on Broadway, I thought, `Oh, I made it, you know? I am not in the
rarified world of art. I am participating in the world of people and I'm in
the real world, you know?'
GROSS: Well, yeah. It's interesting that you put it that way because--I
mean, we're talking about the gallery scene, the painting scene in the '80s as
having this, like, really unpleasant business underside that--where money was
really important and there was plenty of it. At the same time, you went on
to--you didn't really want that, and at the same time, you went on to do
commercials, and two of your best-known commercials are Gap commercials for
khakis, and these are the two, like, "West Side Story" commercials. One was,
like, choreographed to "Cool" and the other to the mambo from the "Dance at
the Gym." And, I mean, they're really catchy commercials. But they're
commercials, and I know, like, when I was coming of age, the idea of doing
commercials seemed so, well, commercial, you know?
Mr. MILLS: Right. Exactly.
GROSS: You did commercials, you were selling out, whereas now...
Mr. MILLS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...with commercials, I mean, bands break records in commercials, bands
get discovered in commercials. I mean, commercials are considered, like, much
more hip and less strictly just about money. So where did you see yourself
fitting in there? What did doing commercials mean to you?
Mr. MILLS: Yeah. Well, it's a very complicated road that I--I don't have
resolved or solved, and I think it's one of the more interesting problems of
being some sort of, whatever you want to call it, artist-type person who's
trying to have a larger audience than the art world provides. And our problem
with the art world wasn't that it involved money but that it hid the money,
and it pretended that it was all about sort of an auteur definition of the
artist and his creativity in his mind and that somehow it was above and
beyond, you know, human duplicities.
And then when you work for a print maker and you see that, you know, I did
it--there's a very famous artist who I won't name, and I worked for a print
maker and I had to--he came in one morning really hung over, sketched out his
wood print--his wood block that he wanted on a napkin, tossed it to me. I cut
the whole thing out, you know, blew it up to the size he'd want, executed the
whole thing. We printed it up. Someone from The Brooklyn Museum came by and
said, `Look at the maturity in the handwork and the beauty, and you can
clearly see his'--I'm going to give it away, partly--`his Scottish roots' and
da da da. And I just was, like, `Oh, my God. This is, you know'--and to be
honest, it kind of--it's, you know, like my parents again, reminding me of all
the things that you don't like about your parents.
And so anyways, we just didn't like that it was hiding the money and that it
was hiding--it was, you know, mythologizing things that weren't really true.
So that's kind of what got us into wanting just the money to be--you know, the
crassness of it to be more exposed, more transparent, more on the surface.
And I should say, it's not like what I'm saying is right, you know? This is
me at 20, you know what I mean? That was my thinking at 20, 21 and what we
were trying to do. And as imperfect as it was, that was our thinking at the
And then getting into ads, you know, it's a thorny thing. Like what you said
before about how ads are now hip and not--you know, sort of perceived as not
selling out is, I think, exactly why they're so dangerous and even to
filmmakers like myself. And in the ad world, you're treated like a king as a
director. The director's really overvalued. And you're kind of led to
believe that you are making art, that you're not making commerce, you know
what I mean?
Mr. MILLS: At the same time, if you didn't go to film school and you don't
know how to operate a crew, you haven't done anything and you have some want
to practice, you know, and art school does develop this idea that you should
practice your craft or you need to practice to get a certain level--I mean, me
and a lot of people I knew did ads as kind of like going to film school or as
a way to learn, 'cause it's so expensive, you're going to learn on someone
else's dime. And I remember one of the first big ads I did was for Nike, and
I didn't know how to do--I didn't know what a medium shot and a wide shot and
a tight shot was. And I remember, like, two days before the shoot, I went
into the accountant at the production company, 'cause I knew that he wouldn't
And I said, you know, `Tom, is a medium shot where--it's like from your head
to your waist?' You know? And, `So what's a tight shot? From your head to
your midchest?' I mean, you can just put--cut them together and it'll work?'
And he's proudly telling me because, you know, a director's asking him a
question, and I went and shot it the next day, you know. So I really felt
like I was getting one over on the man, you know, and that I was being Robin
Hood. And I was taking the money I was earning and I was paying for my short
film and documentaries, and I was making it so that I could do art in a
gallery and not have any need to make any money off of it, you know. And at
the same time I thought I was being somehow subversive by being out in the
public in that level, being, you know, that hugely exposed and, at the same
time, having a gallery show about death, you know? And I thought, `Oh, this
GROSS: As a teen-ager, you were into skateboarding. Do you still ever do it?
Mr. MILLS: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don't skate all the time, but I definitely
still skate. And my--this is a funny image, but, you know, my skateboard is
in the back of my, you know, Volvo station wagon. That's who I am now.
Mr. MILLS: That's who I've become. But, you know, there's some parks around
that I like to go to and sort of skate in a very retired-like fashion, you
GROSS: What design is on your skateboard?
Mr. MILLS: I got this one--it's kind of totally unlike me. I got it when we
were shooting the film. It's from a shop up in Portland, and it's, like,
black with a skull on it. It's completely unlike my taste.
Mr. MILLS: But there you go. I can't control everything.
GROSS: I bet it looks great in the station wagon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLS: Yeah.
GROSS: Mike Mills, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. MILLS: Thank you. It's been a real honor being on your show.
GROSS: Mike Mills' first feature film, "Thumbsucker," is now out in theaters.
You can find links to his short films and his design site at our Web site,
freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Trouble, oh, trouble, set me free.
(Unintelligible) and it's too much, too much for me. Trouble, oh, trouble,
can't you see? ...(Unintelligible) and there's nothing much left to me.
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with actors Peter Falk and Paul Reiser. They play
father and son in the new film "The Thing About My Folks." Reiser wrote the
screenplay. And rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Martin Scorsese's new
documentary about Bob Dylan, which will be shown tonight on public TV.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Paul Reiser and Peter Falk discuss their roles in the
new movie, "The Thing About My Folks"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The comic and actor Paul Reiser has teamed up with actor Peter Falk, playing a
father and son redefining their relationship in the new film, "The Thing About
My Folks." Reiser wrote the screenplay with Falk in mind. Reiser is best
known for his former sitcom "Mad About You." Recently he was featured in the
comedy documentary, "The Aristocrats." Falk has starred in many movies,
including three by his late friend, John Cassavetes, and he was the star of
At the beginning of "The Thing About My Folks," Paul Reiser is in his
Manhattan apartment with his wife, putting the children to bed, when the
doorbell rings and Reiser's father, played by Falk, unexpectedly shows up.
After denying that anything's wrong, he takes out a note written by his wife,
Reiser's mother, saying that she's leaving, but it doesn't say why. With the
mystery unsolved, Reiser convinces Falk to take a drive in the country, where
Reiser is looking at a home he's thinking of buying. Falk is mystified that
his son is considering moving to the country.
(Soundbite of "The Thing About My Folks")
Mr. PETER FALK: I knew it was really ...(unintelligible) you're buying a
Mr. PAUL REISER: It's not a farm, it's a farmhouse. Farmhouse. It's a
house with land. It's just something that--you know, it's something we've
been talking about for a while and--because I don't know if we want the girls
to grow up in the city.
Mr. FALK: The suburbs I could understand.
Mr. REISER: Yeah, but I just like the idea of the country. You know, it
appeals to me. You know, it's safe. It's quiet. I could do my writing
Mr. FALK: What does that mean, a farm? You'd have, like, what, chickens?
Mr. REISER: No, no, no, not chickens. It's not a farm. It's just--yeah, I
mean, you could grow stuff if you want. You could grow tomatoes or corn or
something, I'm sure.
Mr. FALK: In upstate New York?
Mr. REISER: Yeah, you--if you--why not?
Mr. FALK: New Jersey has the fantastic corn.
Mr. REISER: All right. Well, you know what? The point isn't to grow the
Mr. FALK: New York is, I think, may be too cold for corn.
Mr. REISER: Forget I said corn. Drop the corn. The point is the house.
You go in, it's a house in the country. So it sounds like a nice thing.
Mr. FALK: I don't--yeah, I don't--it's a quiet place in the country, yeah,
Mr. REISER: That's all, a house in the country.
Mr. FALK: Well, you're not going to buy it without looking at it first,
Mr. REISER: What are we doing? We're going--we're driving to go look at it,
Mr. FALK: Well, you know, you never know.
Mr. REISER: No, I know. I know.
GROSS: Paul Reiser, Peter Falk, welcome to FRESH AIR. Paul Reiser, you're
the screenwriter of the movie and the star with Peter Falk. Why did you want
Peter Falk to play the part of the father?
Mr. REISER: Oh, it never dawned on me that it would be anybody else. It
wasn't even a decision. It was actually--the truth, I grew up adoring Peter
Falk, and I just loved everything I ever saw him do, and I got that from my
father. And about 20 years ago I was back in New Jersey watching my father--I
happened to be back, and he happened to have a Peter Falk movie on TV. And
watching my father laugh at Peter just gave me that--was the kickoff in the
birth of this movie; that something about Peter Falk playing my father and--I
don't know. And then it became this.
GROSS: Peter Falk, did you look at pictures of Paul Reiser's father, anything
like that, to...
Mr. FALK: No, I didn't do that at all.
GROSS: ...get what was on his mind?
Mr. FALK: No. No, I didn't see any pictures of Paul's father or anything
like that. I--the first thing I got was a script, and I responded to that
character very early.
GROSS: What did you respond to?
Mr. FALK: I got the feeling that this guy could be wrong a lot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALK: But I liked the fact that he would never admit it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Paul Reiser, what did you tell Peter Falk you wanted to bring out in
the character? What did you tell him about your father?
Mr. REISER: You know, I didn't tell him anything. I had this--this had been
sitting in my head and in my heart for so many years that when I finally got
it out, I just was worried about expressing to Peter Falk, the actor, the man,
how much this meant to me, how long I had been sitting on it, how much it has
to be Peter and, `oh, boy, how much you have to read it.' I want to get all
that intensity out without scaring him. And he called me back--he called me
in the middle of the script. I--somewhere I still have the tape. `I'm on
page 54, and I love it. I love this story.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: One of the things I really like about the movie is the--I like the
dialogue in the movie and particularly Peter Falk's dialogue because it's so
much of, like, that generation and New York.
Mr. FALK: Yeah.
GROSS: And, I mean, for instance, like, you're reading a John Grisham book
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So you say something like, `This guy--one book after another, this
guy.' And it's just--so can you talk a little bit about the writing? And,
Peter Falk, I'm sure some of this was just your own take...
Mr. FALK: Yeah. But, I mean, the fact that my son decided to be a writer--I
mean, everybody has a choice. They should do what they want to do. But on
the other hand, I could think of a lot better things for him to be doing than
to be a writer. Whoever heard of a writer? I never knew a writer before.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALK: So now he's a writer, but in the meantime--he writes books. In the
meantime, when are they going to come out? When are they going to be
Mr. REISER: You know, all these extra layers with Peter's acting just, you
know--and that very line, where he goes--he says, `You can take a day off?
Why--you're driving in the country with me. You sure you can take a day off
like this?' I say, `Yeah, I'm fine. I finished the article I had to do.' You
know, I'm 45 and I'm still saying, `No, I finished my homework, Dad.' And then
the line is, `And your book?' And I say, `No, I'm still working on my book.'
But on that line, Peter does something with his hand that just waffles
back--`And your book?' And the hand gesture's as if to say, `That crazy
nonsense you call your work? What the heck is going on?' And it's so loaded,
and it kills me every time I see it. It's so--it's such a negativity, too.
My father was very much like Peter, very jovial, very sweet, and yet the word
`no' was at the beginning of every sentence. Even when he was saying `yes,'
`no' was what came out. `Did you like the restaurant?' `No, it was very
good.' `What?' `No, it was very good.' I said, `Well, what is "no" applying
to?' He says, `No, I'm saying it's very good.'
GROSS: Talk about hearing your father's voice in your head 'cause it's a
style of speaking that I think is of a generation.
Mr. REISER: It is of a generation, and it--you're right, it is a bit New
York-ish, I suppose. And by the time I sat down to write it, I don't really
know that I could--I knew the difference anymore between what I thought was my
father's voice and what I know as Peter's voice. So there's certain rhythms I
just know that's just--when you write a Peter Falk sentence, it's going to do
those little things where it wraps around itself and it repeats. When he
bangs the car up and Sam says to him--the father says to him, `Hey, listen, a
new car you can always get.' And you look at that on paper and go, `That is
just the most ass-backwards sentence I've ever seen.' And the proper thing is,
`Hey, you can always get a new car,' but, no, he wouldn't say that. He goes,
`A new car you can always get.'
GROSS: My guests are Peter Falk and Paul Reiser. They star in the new film
"The Thing About My Folks." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Paul Reiser and Peter Falk. They play father and son in
the new film "The Thing About My Folks," which was written by Reiser.
Peter Falk, tell me something about your father.
Mr. FALK: He worked hard.
GROSS: In what?
Mr. FALK: He owned a store, women's and children's, dry-goods store. When
he was younger, he worked in a grocery store, fruits--sold fruits. But what
he wanted more than anything else, what he really wanted, was his own store.
That's what he wanted, and he finally got one.
GROSS: So the women and children's store was his own store?
Mr. FALK: The women's and children's store, yeah. And he...
GROSS: Did you go into that a lot when you were a kid?
Mr. FALK: Yeah. He used to make me come down there and help out during the
GROSS: Did he expect you to go into the business?
Mr. FALK: He would have liked it, but I think he was wise enough to realize
that maybe that wasn't going to happen.
GROSS: How did he feel about you going into acting?
Mr. FALK: What he said to me was--when I told him, he said, `You mean to tell
me you're going to paint your face and make an ass of yourself for the rest of
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: A little confidence, huh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So when your father said that to you, did you feel like he didn't
believe in you? Was it a crisis? Did you just shrug your shoulders and go
Mr. FALK: No, I gave him--I answered him truthfully. I said, `Yes.' And
this is why people liked him. What he did--he put out his hand and said,
`Good luck.' I shook hands, and that was it.
GROSS: Was it that way with your father, too, Paul?
Mr. REISER: Yeah. Actually I--my dad had a business, a health food
GROSS: Oh, a health food...
Mr. REISER: A health food wholesaling--he started it before there was health
food in, like, the late '30s.
GROSS: What did he sell in it?
Mr. REISER: What did he sell? Well, in the beginning, you know, it was
GROSS: Carrot juice.
Mr. REISER: ...carrot juice and salt-free foods and sugar-free foods and
stuff like that. But that was before it became, you know, a nationally
conscious thing. But--so there was always his hope--and, actually, it was my
expectation--that I'd go into the business as well. And when I actually left
and said, `I want to be a comedian. I want to go into this world,' he had a
hard time understanding it. And it wasn't quite as quick closure as Peter
described it for his family--his father; it was a little adjustment period.
Until--what actually sold it to him--it's funny, when you talk about your
father wanted his own shop, my father was trained as a chemical engineer, and
he didn't end up using that; he did this thing, but he just wanted to have his
own thing. When I was able to explain to him that, for me, going into comedy
and acting and writing was the equivalent of what he did--he went off on his
own and he established himself, and I needed to do that--when he understood it
in those terms and was able to put sort of a business application to it, like,
`OK, so these are your beginning years, just like we didn't make a profit for
a few years. OK, I understand that,' and that I was going to pursue it with
the same kind of passion and discipline, really, more than passion, was that
it was important to me and that I took it seriously, then he got it. He said,
`OK, you know'--and he was my biggest fan, and he was a great, great
GROSS: Peter Falk, did you ever do, like, Shakespeare or Ibsen, you know, the
kind of classic theater where you're supposed to be speaking a more kind of
like standard almost British type of English? 'Cause I hear such, like, a
rich New York flavor in your voice and, you know, I don't know if there were
times when you...
Mr. FALK: Well, when I first became a professional actor, that was
off-Broadway, and those were the--and we did "Purple Dust"; that was an
O'Casey play, and he was a very rich writer. And he didn't write just
naturalistic dialogue. I also did "Playboy of the Western World." Oh, wait a
minute, and then when I--you know, when you first became an actor, I did one
smart thing. I did one smart thing.
GROSS: And what was that?
Mr. FALK: I said, `I'm going to go to Barnard College. They only have women
there. And if they put on a play, they're looking for men. They're looking
for male actors.' And I went to Barnard College. I wasn't admitted to the
college, but how could they put on a play...
GROSS: Oh, wait, so you went to Barnard just to offer yourself as an actor
for their play?
Mr. FALK: Just--yes, just to do a play.
GROSS: And it worked?
Mr. FALK: And it worked. And we did a--it was--oh, I don't recall the name
of the play, but it was a well-known melodrama written in verse from the 16th
Mr. REISER: So was your voice and your speech much different than the people
that you know?
Mr. FALK: Yes, yes. It was hard to talk in 16th-century verse, (in accent)
like this here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALK: (In accent) This here didn't work there.
Mr. REISER: Well, Peter did, like, creative things. I remember he was
telling a story how he was--you were watching some actors leave a theater, and
so you trailed them for, like, six or seven blocks just to hear how actors
talk. Who was that?
Mr. FALK: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I was not a professional actor, but I
heard--and I couldn't believe it; I said, `This can't be true'--that a fellow
that I went to high school with had started a winter repertory company in New
Haven, Connecticut. I was working in Hartford, and that was about an hour's
drive. This is impossible. Somebody that I went to high school with has
started--no, can't be. I drive down, and there's the theater, and there's the
guy's name. There is the guy's name. And not only his name up there, he's
doing a play, "Bell Book and Candle." Who was in it? Roddy McDowall; Maria
Riva, Marlene Dietrich's daughter...
GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mr. FALK: ...and--I can't remember the gentleman that--that middle-aged
Hollywood character actor. And I said, `Wow, this is actually happening.' I
said--Jimmy Cronin(ph)--that was my friend's name--I said, `I'll going in the
theater. I'm going to ask Jimmy, "How did this happen?"' So I went in, and I
heard some voices, and I stopped. And down in the orchestra, near the stage,
there were three people. And I stopped, I said, `Holy jamolies, that's Roddy
McDowall. That's Estelle Winwood. That's--"Bell, Book and Candle."' I said,
`Holy jamolies, these are real--I know these--they're stars, these people.
I'm going to go down there and I'm going to listen how they talk.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALK: And I went down, and as--but I wanted to get in a position where I
could hear but not be seen. By the time I got where I wanted, they stood up
and started to walk out, so I followed them. They turned right, they went
into a drugstore which had booths. And the booth in front of them was taken;
the booth in back of them was taken. I sat at the fountain. I was on the
eary(ph). You know what it is? I'm trying to hear from the fountain. But I
had to turn my head. In profile, that one ear could pick up a lot of the
conversations, but not a lot.
Mr. REISER: And what were they talking?
Mr. FALK: It turned out, as they got up to leave, I could hear clearly what
they were saying, and what they were saying was, `The way to make money in
real estate is to buy land in California. That's what Bob Hope's doing.' I
was terribly disappointed.
GROSS: What did you expect they were going to be talking about?
Mr. FALK: Oh, I--whatever it was, I knew it was going to be witty. It was
going to be sparkling. It was going to have a wit and a life, something that
I've never heard before. It wasn't going to be real estate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So did it make acting seem any more or less accessible to you, having
heard this conversation?
Mr. FALK: It was a setback.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FALK: And I didn't go forward. It took me another year before I went to
Eva Le Galliene's class.
GROSS: Now one more thing. The movie starts, more or less, with your father
pouring talcum powder all over his body, and you talk in the voice-over about
how much your father loved talcum powder. Where does that come from?
Mr. REISER: That came from my father loving talcum powder. I'm not bright
enough to make up something that hasn't actually happened to me. Like, I can
only--my sphere of reference is only as wide as my life. And my father used
to always come out of the shower and powder himself, and you would see just,
you know, cakes and layers of powder all over the floor, like an outtake from
"Scarface," just all this white powder all over the house. And then it wasn't
until--and the smell--there's something about smells that lingers so deep in
the memory. And then of course when I had kids and I started smelling powder
again, oh, man, you start thinking of that memory. So there's something that
just sort of runs through this theme of my life of talcum powder. But again,
finding out that a lot of people come over after the screenings and go, `Hey,
you know, that's me. My father always used the powder.' You don't see it.
People don't talk about talcum powder. But suddenly it's a rich vein of
GROSS: Peter Falk, did that do anything for you, you know, throwing baby
powder all over your body? Did it bring back any memories of...
Mr. FALK: I...
Mr. REISER: It reminds you of the first time we shot it.
GROSS: Are you the powder kind of guy?
Mr. FALK: I mean, I've been in a lot of movies, done a lot of scenes. I
would put that scene among the top favorites of all time for me...
Mr. FALK: ...watching that scene.
Mr. FALK: It's hilarious to me, and it's original. It's innovative. I've
never seen a scene like it. It--and you like the guy so much. What a
terrific way to begin a movie.
Mr. REISER: Talk about getting close to somebody. You're right there. He's
naked, and you're in there with him.
GROSS: Peter Falk, Paul Reiser, thank you both so much for talking with us.
Mr. REISER: Thank you.
Mr. FALK: Oh, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Paul Reiser and Peter Falk star in the new movie "The Thing About My
Folks," which was written by Reiser.
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new documentary about Bob Dylan
directed by Martin Scorsese. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Martin Scorsese's biography of Bob Dylan, "No Direction
TERRY GROSS, host:
Martin Scorsese's new biography of Bob Dylan, called "No Direction Home," will
be shown tonight and tomorrow night on public television. The
three-and-a-half-hour documentary is part of PBS' "American Masters" series.
The DVD and the soundtrack have already been released. Our rock critic Ken
Tucker considers what this film reveals about Dylan and Scorsese.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Poor black glass star, make no amends. Poor black
water don't make no tears. Say you love me but then maybe love. Don't you
remember making, making love 'cause you've got your ...(unintelligible) now you
looking for some tears. It's beginning to work for you like your lifetime
never did. ...(Unintelligible) me...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
That's Bob Dylan in concert soon after his 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited"
had placed him in millions of minds at the very center of American culture.
Sixty-five was a pivotal year for Dylan, the one in which his beginnings as a
chubby-cheeked acoustic strumming ragamuffin had fully given way to a lean,
often mean, electric-powered human event. Director Martin Scorsese has culled
through hundreds of hours of new unseen interviews conducted by Dylan's
manager and archivist Jeff Rosen and woven in interviews with everyone from
the late but glowing Allen Ginsberg to a very alive and regally and bitter
Adding the pop cultural context that is Scorsese's great gift, the filmmaker
comes up with a documentary whose greatest achievement is that it doesn't
demystify Dylan; it re-mystifies him. Here's the present-day Dylan, now in
his 60s, talking about what appealed to him in his early readings of writers
such as Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Mr. DYLAN: I fell into that atmosphere were everything Kerouac was saying
about the world being completely mad and the only people for him that were
interesting were the mad people, the mad ones, the ones who are, you know, mad
to live and mad to talk, mad to be saved, desires everything at the same time,
the ones who never yawn, all those mad ones, and I felt like I fit right into
TUCKER: Soon after this, Dylan in tight close-up, his cheeks slashed with two
long vertical creases, a rouez(ph) mustache above his lips says of his youth
in Hibbing, Minnesota, quote, "I didn't feel like I had a past." He notes that
listening to people like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie made him feel
restless, homeless, yet thoroughly connected to a certain American tradition,
that of the traveler, the rootless man who, he says, may be a carnival
performer one night or a folksinger the next.
This is what has always perplexed and sometimes vexed people about Dylan.
Pegged as a singer-songwriter and therefore supposedly someone who was singing
his own thoughts and beliefs, it's clear in "No Direction Home" that Dylan
loves show business, the idea of assuming new characters, of speaking in
different voices and tongues. You don't laugh when he refers to himself as,
quote, "a musical expeditionary." Proving the range of that quest, Martin
Scorsese brilliantly contrasts the comments Dylan makes about Woody Guthrie
songs that they, quote, "didn't seem archaic to me," with some slashing rock
'n' roll concert footage with the musicians who would become The Band.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Well, I see you've got your brand-new leopard-skin
pillbox hat. Yes, I see you've got your brand new leopard-skin pillbox hat.
Well, you must tell me, baby, how your head feels under something like that,
under your brand-new leopard-skin pillbox hat. Well, you wear it so pretty.
Honey, can't I jump on it, huh? That's right. Just want to see...
TUCKER: The two obvious precedents for the Dylan film and Martin Scorsese's
canon are "Italian American," is 1974 documentary about his family which
featured the sort of intimate conversations that characterized "No Direction
Home" and Scorsese's 1978 documentary "Before The Flood" about Dylan's 1974
so-called comeback tour with The Band. But I think that in its constant
exploration of how someone creates his own identity with both unfettered
imagination and no small amount of ruthlessness, "No Direction Home" also taps
into themes that Scorsese has mulled over in his fictional work, in everything
from "New York, New York" to "The King of Comedy" to "The Color of Money."
Certainly among the striking things about "No Direction Home" are the
recurring themes of self-invention, authenticity and ambition.
In this film, folkies like Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez speak in still somewhat
bewildered tones of wonderment about the roles that Dylan played: Woody
Guthrie wanna be, beat poet with a guitar and in what the movie labels as the
first film shot of Dylan in New York City, a clownish persona that may well
remind you of Charlie Chaplin.
Folk musicians and folk fans were confounded by a man who could take their
genre's modern legacy of progressive politics and gentile humility and turn it
into a platform for pop stardom and an egotism both playful and lethal,
depending on whom it was aimed at. Longtime Dylan friend and accompanist Bob
Neuwirth is insightful on this subject.
(Soundbite of "No Direction Home")
Mr. BOB NEUWIRTH: I think he always made exactly the work that he wanted to
make at the time he wanted to make it. The audience came to Bob, and that's
one of the things that makes him so unique in the history of American music,
is the audience came to Bob Dylan.
TUCKER: "No Direction Home" is a treasure trove of small moments that will
connect Dylan's odyssey from Minnesota to Greenwich Village and beyond to your
own personal trek through life. Scorsese's camera pans across a picture of a
smokey village nightspot, and you can see sitting at a table for a brief
flash, the face of the great poet Frank O'Hara, the reason I moved to New York
"No Direction Home" stops just before Dylan's 1966 motorcycle crash that kept
him in seclusion and off stage for seven years, but I'm here to tell you I saw
him perform just a few months ago and the sheer volume, the loudness that so
offended the purist 40 years ago, remains exhilarating, rude and eloquent.
Dylan and his current backing group finished "Desolation Row," put down their
instruments and came to the front of the stage, standing in a line. Dylan
looked to his left at his colleagues, looked to his right, then looked out at
the crowd and nodded once. He was saying in effect, `We may as well have had
machine guns in our hands. We blew you away and you know it.'
Watching "No Direction Home," you'll understand where that ongoing blast-back
power comes from.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York magazine. He reviewed "No
Direction Home," Martin Scorsese's biography of Bob Dylan. The two-part
documentary will be shown tonight and tomorrow night on Public Television.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Ballad of a Thin Man")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand.
You see somebody naked and you say, `Who is that man?' You try so hard but
you don't understand just what you'll say when you get home. Yes, because
you know something is happening here but you don't...
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