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RACHAEL: I want to ask what you, Alexander, think funny is. Can you remember the most recent big laugh that you had?
ALEXANDER: Oh, the once-every-four-years laugh? I don't get those so much anymore. I remember one from 1994, because I laughed for the better part of a week.
RACHAEL: What happened?
ALEXANDER: I was living up in Chico, California ...
RACHAEL: ... Which is a sort of funny Marx Brothers premise on its own.
ALEXANDER: At the time, I couldn't get a movie made. I was having L.A. desperation, so I sold most of my furniture and moved up to Chico. I'd always thought about moving to a town where I didn't know anyone. My writing partner Jim Taylor came and we worked on a draft of Citizen Ruth for a couple of weeks. One night, around one, we were out at the only twenty-four-hour diner in town and we started chatting with the waitress. She was talking about her boyfriend, an athlete, frat kind of guy. She was upset because she felt she couldn't spend time at his place anymore because, ever since he got his new kegorator, his buddies were over there all the time. Do you know what a kegorator is?
RACHAEL: No, but I bet it's a good example of onomatopoeia.
ALEXANDER: Usually a keg will get warm once the ice melts, and you can't drink it anymore. A kegorator is a sleeve that you put your keg in which keeps it cold indefinitely. So we were asking her how she was dealing with the problem and she said, "when I get bored with all those guys over there, I just go back to my place." And Jim said, "Where you can enjoy your Lady Kegorator." That Lady Kegorator line just killed me.
RACHAEL: Just for the sake of the readers, let's analyze it for a second what about a Lady Kegorator works so well for you?
ALEXANDER: It has echoes of Norelco, or Lady Norelco. Within the context of the situation, it was absurd.
RACHAEL: The kegorator struck you, rightly, as an absurd idea with an absurd name, presumably one you'd never heard before. But it was presenting a real problem for this waitress...
ALEXANDER: Yeah, she was with these guys who wouldn't leave, every night, all because of the kegorator.
RACHAEL: And through the humor, a solution presented itself. It reminds me of a moment in Citizen Ruth, one of my favorite moments in all of your work. In the last act of the film, when Ruth is trying to get her money from the pro-lifers, she falls down an entire flight of stairs. It's a horrible, hilarious pratfall, but it provides the solution to her problem. Until that moment, Ruth was at a complete impasse, symbolized by the fact that she is pregnant. The fall is actually a culminating moment for her character.
ALEXANDER: But it's horrific because when pregnant women fall down a flight of stairs they can miscarry, which in fact she does the next morning.
RACHAEL: She had been completely stuck until that moment, and the fall gives her a way to move forward. This might be a good time to talk about the new movie, About Schmidt. When we meet Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, things have wound down for him. He's another character who's stuck.
ALEXANDER: I liked the idea of a guy retiring and being in crisis. I looked to The Graduate a person at a crossroads in life, passing from one stage to the next. Everyone is saying, "Oh you should be so proud of what you've done." Instead, you're just filled with complete...
RACHAEL: ... paralysis.
ALEXANDER: You're more lost then ever. Then, mining that for comedy. I got involved with this film after the script had been written.
RACHAEL: How did the project come about?
ALEXANDER: When I was sent Louis Begley's book by the producers, I warmed to it. I thought, "I'd love to see a movie about an older guy trying to figure things out." I'm a big fan of other movies that do so Ikuru, Wild Strawberries those are the good ones. There are some lesser ones like Koch and Rocket Gibraltar.
RACHAEL: In Woody Allen's Another Woman, the Gena Rowlands character is in a very Schmidt-esque crisis. We're supposed to laugh when the sister-in-law tells Rowland's character that her brother hates her. And like Schmidt, what makes it funny is how incredibly sad it is.
ALEXANDER: I love that movie.
RACHAEL: A lot of About Schmidt is based on an early script of yours called The Coward, isn't it?
ALEXANDER: Yes. In fact, the first forty minutes of the film are very, very close to the first forty pages of The Coward, which I wrote when I'd just gotten out of film school.
RACHAEL: How did you merge that script with Begley's novel, About Schmidt?
ALEXANDER: I was making Election at the time, and I wasn't able to begin thinking about Schmidt. So I tried to be like other directors and supervise a writer who would develop the script. I found a screenwriter, and I gave him notes. We had very good communication. He adapted the novel faithfully, but when I read the script, I couldn't relate to it. He's a really wonderful screenwriter, but the one thing he didn't do which I had instructed him to do was to get away from the novel and the dialogue, and find more cinematic ways of expressing things. So often scriptwriters are afraid. Here we are in the cinema, but they're afraid not to use dialogue.
RACHAEL: Because you're a filmmaker, you don't write that way. Your scripts are often spare, with little stage direction. You leave room for the visual.
ALEXANDER: Long story short, I thought maybe Jim and I could work on it. He wasn't all that excited about the project but I said, "Come on, we can use some elements from The Coward and move it to Omaha."
RACHAEL: Omaha being a major selling point.
ALEXANDER: And the more we started adapting About Schmidt, the more we took from The Coward. It's really a rewrite of The Coward but with Jim Taylor, and with Mr. Begley's big ideas that Schmidt's wife dies, that he has an only daughter who is about to marry a boob, and there is a wedding. These ideas allowed us to solve some narrative problems that I had not solved in The Coward. But the whole premise, the set up, the world, the retirement dinner at the beginning, that's all from The Coward. Schmidt's Winnebago is the only exception. The Winnebago came from the rewrite that Jim and I did later.
RACHAEL: For you, what's the funniest scene in Schmidt?
ALEXANDER: I like the last reel of the film I like Jack's toast at the wedding, and I like his closing voiceover, expressing the spiritual nadir in which he finds himself.
RACHAEL: The voiceover is essential to this movie. In a way, it's almost like getting a second performance from Jack Nicholson for free. The audience seemed to find it hilarious at the New York Film Festival screening.
ALEXANDER: I'm a fan of voiceover in films, when it's well done.
RACHAEL: Did you and Jack have an agreed-upon explanation for Schmidt's choices, or lack thereof?
ALEXANDER: No, I think it was just understood between us. He read the screenplay, internalized it, and became that man.
RACHAEL: The final note in Schmidt's struggle is that he has to accept Randall, the thorn in his side, the waterbed salesman, the man with the "wishful-thinking mullet," as his daughter's husband.
ALEXANDER: When Schmidt makes his father-of-the-bride speech, he says, "What I really want to say," ... and the audience is expecting something to happen. Suddenly there's a climactic moment that you couldn't necessarily see coming and he chickens out. The moment is not so much a change in his character as it is a confirmation of his character. Like the title of my first script, Schmidt's a coward. He's never had the wherewithal to do what he really wants to do. What's nice is that his cowardice, at that precise moment, happens to be the nice thing to do allowing his daughter to find her own happiness through this dolt. We can choose to see it that way, but he doesn't. He just says, "Oh, I've chickened out yet again and my life really is nothing." I like that moment for those reasons.
RACHAEL: Before we started shooting, you and I had several conversations about giving Schmidt a pivotal moment, and, goddamnit, there isn't one. That is unique.
ALEXANDER: Yes, there is no change.
RACHAEL: Your next project, Sideways, based on Rex Pickett's book, is set in California. You're leaving Omaha?
ALEXANDER: I've had a great time shooting three movies in Omaha, but I'm anxious to move on. I'm always a prisoner of the story I'm working on. Since Sideways is about two guys who go wine tasting for a week, it must be shot in California. I'll get back to Omaha one day, but for now I'm eager to explore other places.
RACHAEL: Sideways addresses themes of crisis, impasse and delusion similar to what you explored in Schmidt.
ALEXANDER: I think Sideways is disappointedly related to my first three movies. After Sideways, I want to try something new, a really different genre not just another struggle of self-deluded, unaware people trying futiley to find some meaning in life.