Watching Danny DeVito's Tribeca Film Festival short Curmudgeons, which stars DeVito himself and the late David Margulies as two elderly Brooklynites, reminded me of my Brooklyn-born, Jewish grandparents. For all their bicker and banter—"This soup tastes like hot garbage! What are you, trying to kill me?!" says Margulies' character to his nurse—they are actually big softies, endearing jokesters who have fun pushing buttons in their old age.
Curmudgeons is one of Margulies' final performances; the Ghostbusters and Sopranos actor died just a few months ago. But the film itself is characterized by life: as the two curmudgeons approach their horizon, they discover that they can still surprise themselves.
No Film School sat down with DeVito and writer Joshua Conkel to talk about the merits of optimism, the anxiety of art, and the beauty of making short form content.
"Life is a continuum. It doesn't have to end unless you give up, and you never know what's around the corner."
NFS: How did you guys find each other and start collaborating?
Conkel: Lucy [DeVito, Danny's daughter] and I both belong to Ensemble Studio Theater, an off-Broadway theater— me as a playwright, she as an actress. This started as a play there and Danny and Lucy came and saw it.
DeVito: Lucy said, "Boy, this would make a really great short film." Then we contacted Josh and he wrote the screenplay and here we are.
Conkel: Also, David Margulies and Danny are old friends, and David was in the play.
DeVito: Yeah, I worked with David in 1968 at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, the first time we did things together, and then we worked together after that at the Public Theater and we've done plays at the Mercury Theater off-Broadway. He directed one that I was in. We've done workshops together. All kinds of stuff. Short films. Little things that we worked on along the way. Good friends over the years, and then finally this.
NFS: Once you decided to make it, what was the process of actually getting the film off the ground?
DeVito: Lucy and Jake were the producers... I produced it with them, and they talked me into directing, too. But I didn't need much pushing. I wanted to do something. I wanted to be in it, so I said, "Okay, well, I've done this before."
We had a lot of help from people in Brooklyn, where we shot the movie. I have a good friend who lives there, Isaac Chera, and he turned us on to the location and introduced us to a lot of people over there. There wasn't a lot of dough and everybody had to do it as a labor of love.
"It's so great to have a piece of bite-sized content that also has some depth to it."
Conkel: I thought it was going to be smaller, actually. I thought I would show up to the shoot and it would be two guys with a DSLR and that's it. To me, it felt really big because I show up and there's craft services and all these people from LA. It didn't feel small at all. It felt massive and still does.
DeVito: It seems like we can't go anywhere without bringing a lot of people with us. Lucy and Jake and I, we just have a lot of friends.
We actually had two DPs. We had a DP, Anastas Michos, who's done several movies with me, we couldn't get because he was working. We wound up hiring Lucas Bielan—hiring, I say that very loosely. He ended up doing our movie. Then at one point Anastas became available, so we got a gift. We had 2 DPs. Lucas was the DP, and then Anastas came on as the camera operator. We wound up with 2 cameras.
Conkel: The shoot was a lot of fun but also sort of strange because we shot at an Orthodox Jewish retirement center and they were all so excited to have us and so excited to see Danny.
DeVito: We had a great time. Of course, we couldn't shoot on Saturday, so we had to change the schedule.
Conkel: And we had all Kosher craft services. The elderly people's dialogue that you hear at the beginning is all recorded on the sly. That's not scripted; it's just them talking.
DeVito: We shot with natural light. We start at the beginning, so we shot in order. We didn't shoot block shooting or anything like that, and then as soon as the light went down, we had to quit. It was good for us because we couldn't stay too long. We didn't want to overstay our welcome, so we made it, instead of a 2-day schedule, a 3-day schedule, and then we shot the exteriors one morning.
NFS: Danny, you've made a lot of shorts. What do you find interesting about the short form?
DeVito: The economics of telling the story in 15 minutes or even 5 minutes is really fun and challenging. It's kind of refreshing. In Josh's case, he created great characters, and that's what you look for. You look for identifiable characters that you can hook into, and also a story that is going to have mystery. There's a lot of mystery in [Curmudgeons]. You don't know what's going to happen, and that's the good thing about it. I think that's the testament of good writing.
"Anxiety pushes you. It's a motivator for allowing you to walk out onto the edge of the abyss."
Conkel: If you can write a short that's a whole story rather than just a skit—something that has a beginning, a middle, an end, and real characters, and is funny and touching, but you still get in and get out—I think that that's such a unique challenge. It's so great to have a piece of bite-sized content that also has some depth to it.
NFS: What can a director who has acted bring to the table that a director who hasn't had acting experience can't?
DeVito: There are a lot of very good directors who have never acted. A lot of directors have acted. It's just a matter of understanding both sides of the coin, so if you say, "I understand what you're going through as a journalist or a reporter, and I know what's going on in your head, because I've done this," it's the same thing with acting. I know exactly what the problems are, basically. You can tell me. You've been there yourself, so you understand. It's more of an understanding kind of thing, and you allow them to have their space and deal with whatever it is, and you can help them along.
You have to embrace their space where they are in their head and inside their heart and how they're feeling. You have to allow it and you have to trust it, and you know that everybody goes through the same insecurities and the same things. Actors, we all go through them. Directors. Writers. Everybody has the same kind of anxiety about the work because it's art, and the anxiety pushes you. It's a motivator for allowing you to walk out onto the edge of the abyss.
"Curmudgeons"NFS: It's a particular kind of empathy, then?
DeVito: That's exactly it. Some directors are collaborative, who like to hear about what you're feeling or what's going on. Some folks [do it all in casting]. They could cast the movie and never say another word, just set on the cameras and rely on their relationship with the DP and allow the actors to do what they do. He or she is not an actor but they know what they want. They know what the character needs, and how they relate to the script, so they don't have to have been an actor. "Go over there, there's your space, you do what you got to do. I'm going to make sure that it's on film," or in this case, 1's and 0's.
"I understand that life is a continuum. It doesn't have to end unless you give up, and you never know what's around the corner. "
NFS: What was it about the film's subject matter that really spoke to you?
DeVito: Because of my age, I understand that life is a continuum. It doesn't have to end unless you give up, and you never know what's around the corner. You never really know what's going to happen to you. I felt that this story spoke to my optimism about the future. It could be a place where you could find something that would be beneficial to you, no matter how old you are, and no matter who's putting you in what spot. You never know. You can't give up hope that there's something there, around the corner.
NFS: Have you thought about what's around the corner from this short film?
Conkel: Yeah, Danny and I are trying to think of something to do together for TV. We have no idea what that would be yet...
NFS: Like a series, maybe for HBO?
DeVito: Maybe, yeah, something that's long-form. Josh is a great writer. I'm looking for something to do, so we're hunting. We'll find something that we respond to. Maybe build on what we have here. That would be cool.
Be sure to check back for more coverage of Tribeca 2016.