During this year's Tribeca fest, I had a chance to talk to Paul Soter, director of the noir romcom Watching the Detectives, starring Cillian Muphy and Lucy Liu. Paul's name is already probably familiar to anyone who knows Broken Lizard, but he's intent on branching out as a mainstream writer-director, and his first film is proof that he has the chops. A strange and intriguing mixture of film noir and romcom spoof, Detectives is sure to get a distribution deal and be remembered as one of the festival's success stories -- it's also further proof that Murphy has a Gary Oldman-like ability to disappear in just about any role. The same guy who played an Irish revolutionary in 1916 is now completely convincing as a video store slacker who can't believe his good luck, when a mysterious babe walks into his store and into his life.
The whole time I was watching this movie I thought it was set in L.A., but someone told me that's not the case?
PS: Well, it was shot in New York City, but set to be kind of anywhere. I had originally conceived it to be more like a college town. There's an area where I grew up in Denver where there's a lot of mom and pop indie record stores, comic book stores, kind of places like that. Originally, the idea was that I was going to shoot it in Austin, Texas, and then for various reasons and then it turned out that we had to shoot it in New York. It turned out to be kind of a tricky thing, to come out here and find a way to shoot something in this city, that hopefully didn't look like the city. So we ended up shooting in Brooklyn, Queens, Bayonne, New Jersey, sort of all over the place -- everywhere, but the city. You say there was something in it that made you think of Los Angeles?
It may be just the whole film noir vibe that runs through it, that made me think of L.A.
PS: I'm glad to hear it, because I always hope that I pulled it off and it didn't just look like, around the city.
Did you talk to the actors about actually injecting a film noir vibe into the film, the acting, the dialogue, and so forth? Lucy Liu's character has a very femme fatale thing going on.
PS: Yeah, definitely. I tried to explain to them that a lot of the idea behind making the movie was that you take the dynamic between the male and female that exists in so many film noir movies and try and transplant that into a current film set, in the current day. So, you know, yeah, in terms of Lucy being a sexy, mysterious, possibly dangerous woman and Cillian being this guy who sort of thinks he knows the score, but everyone but he knows that he's being taken for a ride. Yeah, I wanted them to sort of be aware that that's what was going on while they were doing it.
Was it difficult to get Lucy on board?
PS: No, it wasn't. As I was writing it, I was thinking, 'if I can write something for a female character that's pretty different, I thought I'd have a good chance of getting Lucy or somebody like Lucy. I think in comedies, especially romantic comedies, it just seems to me that there's not a lot of juicy female roles that get to generate the comedy, that get to be the ones who come in and pull off some of the big laughs, and I just thought 'you know, if I write something like that, I think or at least I hope that somebody would say 'hey, I don't get to do many chances to do something like this, 'and from what I understand, that's what Lucy responded to about it.
Have you ever known anyone like Lucy's character, who pulls elaborate pranks on people?
PS: No, it was really about the fantasy that a lot of moviegoers -- guys, especially - create where you watch all these movies and you think 'why can't there be real women like this?' these sort of mysterious and dangerous women. As I got older and looked back on it, it seemed very funny that someone would wish to have a femme fatale come into their life, because it would actually destroy your life, probably. That's what a femme fatale does -- that's her job. So no, I've never known anybody like that. I've had people tell me they've sort of dated people, who to some extent had that spirit of mischief and adventure, but you know, it was more about ... I would almost hate to meet someone like that. It was actually my fear in making the movie -- is somebody like this going to drive people crazy? Because somebody like this in real life might not be totally pleasant to be around. But I feel like people seem to be enjoying the character.
Was it a loose set, lots of ad-libbing or more strict?
PS: You know, it had to be really tight for the most part. We had so little time ... we had 22 days to shoot the whole thing, and there was so much to try to cover and so much to try to get. It depended on some of the locations, some of the scenes. The stuff in the video stores with the guys, we were able to kind of let stuff play out a little long. We would say 'okay, here's the scene, let me get it once or twice the way it's scripted,' but because I wanted there to be that feeling among those guys of really shooting the shit and real familiarity, and since they all really hit it off, I think what happened is that we would extend scenes a little bit, or they would go off on tangents here and there. We were able to do it then because it didn't really sort of take up a lot of time and didn't sidetrack us. We just got to get a little bonus material out of the stuff that's sort of ... Michael Payne, the guy who plays Lucian, his conversations about Citizen Kane and Jerry Lewis ... some of that stuff was off the cuff.
Cillian works a pretty flawless American accent these days -- is that a challenge for him?
PS: He really does. You know, when we talked beforehand, he said 'I'm very serious about this. I'm very concerned, and I want to do a great job. I'm going to try to, as much as possible, try to stay in that accent the whole time we're shooting.' He seemed to step into it so easily that it turned out that I got a feeling he didn't end up having to lose himself that much. I remember when we basically finished shooting, he kind of went back to his own accent. He's from Cork, and I find that Irish accent is a very soft Irish accent, so even when you meet him in real life, it doesn't overpower you like I think with a lot of other Irish people it does. So his own voice is not incredibly different, but I think he's also just a dynamite actor. I'm an actor too, and I think 'I could just never do it.' I have such a respect for people who can do that and then also really do a good job of acting and doing all the other things you've got to be concentrating on as an actor. He's just a talented guy.
What was the most difficult part of directing your first film?
PS: Working with actors was really great and the technical stuff, I just really prepped so much ahead of time. Because of the Broken Lizard movies I've been involved in filmmaking top to bottom for four or five films now. I knew how everything worked. It wasn't as stressful as I thought it would be. I think the hardest part was that I would have liked to have had more time for everything. You have really good actors in Cillian and Lucy and everyone else, and really smart people too, and you know, with Broken Lizard movies, because we write these things together, there's a lot of time spent on discussing scenes, playing with things, trying out new things, and its always very enriching and some of that stuff ends up in the movie and some of it ends up helping your character. I would have liked to have had more time to prep. We didn't even get Cillian in the country until two days before we started shooting, so everybody kind of got thrown in, but I liked the process a lot. Just having to rush through so many things. We got exactly what I wanted, we got exactly what was in the script, but I think I would have loved to have the time to keep playing with stuff.
Only two days before shooting? How did you rehearse?
PS: We had some phone conversations, we had a meeting between myself and Cillian and Lucy a month or so prior, so we spent a day kind of talking about the script and going through some stuff, and it got crazy because there were some visa issues that kept Cillian from coming in earlier. He got in on a Saturday night and we were starting shooting Monday, and he had to do all his wardrobe stuff on Saturday night, so I thought 'at least we've got Sunday.' It ended up being a thing where we ended up goofing off on Sunday and watching the World Cup finals. As I got to know them in those first few days, it was much more important to be comfortable with each other than it was to put the scenes on their feet and do actual rehearsing and do nitty-gritty, and that made sense. I think they wanted to be able to relax around each other. One day of hanging out had a lot more sort of valuable payoff than I think extensive rehearsal would have.
You're writing Super Troopers 2, right?
PS: We're going in to pitch it to Fox on Tuesday. We've had a few discussions about it, and I think they want to do it. I get the feeling that, yeah, that's what's up next.
Do you want to direct again or was a necessity in the case of this film?
PS: No, no, no, I really wanted to try it. I loved everything about it. I would love to get going again. There's one script out there that I co-wrote that we sold to Warner Bros. that I would love -- it's a bigger movie -- I'd love to try to convince them that I could direct it. There's like a genre film, kind of a horror-thriller that I just wrote that also would be something I'd like to try to get set up, so there are a few things out there, and my experience now is that if you want to do one project a year from now, you pursue three or four projects and one of them will come together. So I've got a bunch of things I would love to do, and hopefully over the next year, I'll be able to do one of them.
How goes the distribution process for Detectives?
PS: My understanding is that so far there are three or four companies where somebody saw it at the festival and liked it enough to say 'we're interested, and now its a matter of passing it on to this other decision maker.' So yeah, there seem to be three or four companies in the mix. I think it's been an interesting experience. It's not like Sundance, where there's a feeding frenzy and things sort of have to happen immediately and you kind of know right off the bat that 'it's gonna go with this company and this and that' and it's seem to all go at a much more leisurely pace at Tribeca, at least this year. That's what I've heard about other films as well. I've talked to other directors and they've said 'so and so is interested and so and so is interested.' So we'll kind of spend the next few weeks getting into it with them and sorting it out. That seems to be how it's shaking out with this, but it appears to be that it will have some form of theatrical release, hopefully not too far away.