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American Splendor: The Small Budget Movie That Delivered Big Bang for the Buck

January 23, 2004

A Writers Guild Screening with Special Guests

By Lisa Yapp

If you are interested in what fresh thinking directors are up to these days definitely see American Spendor. It’s out on DVD now. The film uniquely combines three genres mixing real life characters with their actor and cartoon counterparts. The characters aren’t heroic in the traditional sense, but they emerge as fascinating. Not since Midnight Cowboy have two weirdos been so perfect for each other as underground comic book writer, Harvey Pekar, and his stay-in-bed wife Joyce played by Hope Davis.

The film opened to rave reviews though I had doubts about liking it. I didn’t think I’d care about Harvey, a file clerk at the Veteran’s Hospital with a PhD in Neuroticism. But, I was wrong! When you meet the real-life Harvey it’s easy to see how this man who charmed many women into marriage could charm a movie audience into loving him.

But, the most incredible story surrounding the film has to be about the director/writer team – Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They met each other at Columbia. They married and, like so many others, moved to Hollywood. But, unlike so many others, they had a plan.

First they produced a series of documentaries about the industry. Hello He Lied and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches was made for AMC. Their next, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s is about the closing of Chasens, a Hollywood industry hangout.

Both films required interviews with a lot of Hollywood heavyweights to make. The couple says they did these films to “make sense of the business”. But, it’s a pretty clever way to showcase their skills before some movers and shakers.

Shari said she had zero expectations that HBO was going to like their pitch for the film. All they had were a couple of ideas and a pile of comic books. But HBO did. They wrote the script in three weeks including only scenes that were about “the odd love story between man and medium”. It was green lighted for $2 million dollars and the entire movie from pitch to premiere took under a year to complete.

The small budget didn’t allow for any rehearsals for the actors. Instead, they edited special versions of a public access show Harvey had hosted in Cleveland. The actors were given tapes of real life characters like Harvey, Toby (a friend) and Joyce (Harvey’s wife) to study. The film was shot in 24 days in Cleveland.

If you have seen the film it looks very yellow, almost aged. That’s because they put it through a “tobacco filter” twice to produce a 70’s quality.

From the beginning, they knew they needed to weave real-life footage of the characters around the actors. That’s because some of the real life people in Harvey’s life are so weird you have to see them to realize that the actors playing them aren’t overacting. Finally, the cartoon elements were written and added in post.

Shari said she doubted if she would continue to explore mixing the genres. But, that seemed to bother Harvey. He barked at them, “Look, I think you are onto something with that” and the audience seemed to agree with a round of applause. He said they still had a way to go to claim that innovation as their own. Maybe they should listen to their star. He’s gotten them this far.

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