July 09, 2013
Special to The Credits – Motion Picture Association of America
David works with elephant
If you’ve ever seen a rhino in a television commercial, his name is Tank and he’s the only working rhino in show business. Maybe you’ve noticed zebras, bears, leopards, African lions, panthers or Siberian tigers in TV ads or on the big screen and wondered how they’re train to stand still, lie down, run around or roar on command for the camera?
Meeks with his Zebra Zeke
Many of the animals you see on the big and small screen belong to David Meeks, director of Hollywild Animal Park in South Carolina. Meeks is the East Coast animal wrangler filmmakers call when they need, say, a panther in their in movie. The business side of the 100-acre park is called Cinema Animal Talent, and it’s been going strong for over 30 years. Tank, the white rhino, is one of Meeks’ biggest stars.
With over 700 exotic animals living in the park, Meeks has tapped on his zoological collection for over 60 major motion pictures and countless print ads and television commercials since the early 1980’s. For nearly a decade his cougars shilled for Lincoln-Mercury and pounced in The Last of the Mohicans and Reversal of Fortune. Pongo the orangutan did commercials for Mazda, and Donna the Asian elephant appeared in Ryder Trucks and Land Rover ads. Tank the rhino can’t stop getting work, offering his majestic prehistoric-looking bulk for Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Land Rover ads. Meeks’ lynxes have worked for Minolta, while Alfonso the Leopard Appaloosa horse was in The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, along with some of Meeks’ crafty Capuchin monkeys.
Meeks’ film credits include, A Breed Apart, Order of the Black Eagle, Date with an Angel, Never Say Goodbye, Prince of Tides, Reuben, Reuben, Rottweilers, The Real McCoy, The Stand, Betsey’s Wedding Days, Days of Thunder, Monkey Shines, Prancer, Blood Savage and many, many others.
Recently the park had a joyous occasion when a long-horned African Watusi (a breed of cattle native to Africa) accidentally bred with an American Bison. They tagged the resulting offspring a Waffalo and cheerfully named them Pop Tart and Eggo.
The Credits had a chance to talk with Meeks about his unique career.
David Meeks with his rhino star Tank
The Credits: How do you even begin training animals to camera ready?
I don’t call it training because you can’t really train a wild animal. I call it “conditioning” and you have to keep it up even when they’re not in a film. You have to have a rapport with an animal—be firm but be fair. They’re not circus animals. And they don’t understand our humor.
But you’ve got these animals doing tricks…
An exotic animal will only do tricks if he thinks you won’t hurt him. He can react badly if you don’t know how to read his body language and make him relax. When I see that they’re uncomfortable I’ll tell the director, “We have to take a break.” I know what the animals are saying. They’ll scream it at you. You can’t second-guess an animal’s behavior. It’s instinctive for them to act from experience. Even a mixed martial arts master is nothing going up against a lion, a primate or a bear. If the animal doesn’t respect you, you’re gone.
What was one of the most unusual things you were asked to have an animal do?
One film company wanted to do a complete body scan of our rhino— film every inch of the animal’s body so that they could make him do everything a rhino can’t do, like cartwheels or a split. They wanted to make his horns perfect, too, but I realized that if they did that they would never need to use a real rhino again. I didn’t do it. The real thing looks much better.
Meeks with a potential new star
What are a few of the features your animals or you have appeared in?
There are so many. In Stephen King’s miniseries The Stand, where it was good versus evil, we used cockroaches, deer, a dog, a butterfly, hundreds of bats, a crow and a cow. I had to go all the way to Utah to find this giant Holstein. We used bats in The Big Chill, too. In Betsey’s Wedding I stunt doubled for Alan Alda when he had to fight a Bengal tiger we had provided. In another movie I doubled for Gary Sinise. For A Breed Apart, we provided the eagle, which at the time was considered an endangered species. Recently we shipped monkeys to Florida for an upcoming episode of Shipping Wars. And even though we didn’t have a lion in it, my lions were used for study purposes in The Lion King.
Have you ever had to modify an animal’s appearance for the purposes of a film?
Yeah, for this film Prancer [a Christmas movie about a girl who comes across a reindeer with an injured leg]. When director John Hancock came to me to do a Christmas movie I figured they would want a reindeer. I’d never even seen a reindeer up close and never worked with one. But he told me they preferred to use a fallow deer because it’s prettier. I told them any deer that has antlers is a male, and this time of the year they are in rut [their mating season], and there’s no way I’ll work with a deer in rut next to an 8 year-old girl. Even a deer that’s tame and workable will kill you when it’s in rut.
Who knew deers in mating season were so deadly.
Yeah. So I don’t hear from them for a while, and then one day I get a call back and they said I said I could use a reindeer, but now the problem is the timing. I tell them the females lose their antlers before the males and you could have a reindeer that loses its antlers in the middle of the shoot. So I flew up to see them and said we have to have several reindeer on the set because they are herd oriented and they need to stay together. So we used a female and had fake antlers made for her. A puppeteer made a fake reindeer head for close ups but they only had to use it once.
Did any of your animals do something you couldn’t have predicted?
We were in Nashville to do an ad. Every time I’d go there I had to do four or five commercials at a time. The last time I was up there I had a female chimp called Rosie. Chimps are really smart. They work on credit [meaning, incredibly, that they’re so smart they know they’ll be rewarded at a later time.] I said, “Rosie, could you please do some cartwheels over here?” But you can’t rush her. I can see the stool she’s sitting on is too close to the cabinets and there’s a paint bucket nearby. The director says they’ll have the stool secured, and I left the set and went to the trailer with Rosie. When I got back they said it was all fixed. So I dressed her up, put her diaper on, and the stool was still not locked down. Then I saw her go for the paint bucket. She snatched it up and when I grabbed it out of her hand she bit me. Every time animals do something there’s a good reason. They think you make it rain or make the sun shine. They look at you negatively or positively and they think and ask questions. They will instinctively blame you for your mistakes.
Meeks provided the Carolina Panthers with the real version of their namesake
What was the most dangerous thing that happened on set?
Once when we were filming in Chimney Rock, North Carolina late at night, I had my black panther walk between a cave and a rock. There was a fire nearby and she was on a piece of transparent monofilament we use for a leash [a thin plastic wire like a fishing line that can’t be seen, so it’s used as a leash during filming].When she crossed the fire the filament burned up and I didn’t know where she was. In this case I should have used a steel cable even though it doesn’t stretch. If something goes wrong on a shoot, you have to let the big cat run until you can get them back.
Whoa, you have to let a panther just run? Is that the craziest thing that’s happened to you on a set?
No. I was doing a Ryder Trucks commercial with the actor Steve Landesberg. I had worked with him before in Leader of the Band. We head off to Atlanta with this Asian elephant provided by this trainer I know, Rex.
When we got to the set I saw that the elephant was reaching out her trunk. I could tell she was fixing to hit Steve and I was worried. The line in the ad was, “When I’ve got something really big, I choose a Ryder Truck.” I asked Rex, “Has that elephant ever smacked anyone?” He hesitated. So I asked Rex if the elephant maybe needed a break, and he agreed. But then Rex said, “Nah. Shoot the rest of it.”
As soon as the cameras begin to roll, the elephant knocked Steve clear out of the shot.
JULY 02, 2013 BY JORDAN WRIGHT Special to The Credits – MPAA
Filmmakers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon with Liam James on the set of THE WAY, WAY BACK – Courtesy Fox Searchlight
After winning an Oscar for their screenplay for The Descendants, the screenwriting duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash appeared to have burst onto the scene as a couple of unknowns. In reality the writing and directing team have been on Hollywood filmmakers’ short list since 2007, when their script for The Way, Way Back was being read and praised by insiders. The Credits sat down with the old friends and collaborators in advance of their already well reviewed coming-of-age comedy to find out about their process, their history, and what’s on tap next.
The Credits: Can you talk about how you two break down a script that you’re working on? What is your process?
Rash: It evolves. We break the stories down and do the treatments together, and then we get started based only on my wonderful neuroses. That’s to say there are times when Nat needs to send me to a coffee shop while he tends to his family so this single guy can sit and talk to himself. After that we get back together.
You both went to prep school. Was that experience helpful in writing a coming of age film?
Faxon: It was more about our memories of summertime and the people that influenced us when we spent our summers in Nantucket. I remember when I was first included in doing cool stuff with the older kids and being part of the gang. It was more about recollections.
Rash: I wasn’t popular like Nat probably was. I pulled more from pain—specifically in the first scene, which we used verbatim from an incident when my stepfather called me a three on a scale from one to ten. We just have a fondness for rites of passage, the moment when something shifted for us. We bond with that protagonist.
What was the lifecycle of this script? It’s been kicking around getting good buzz for a while.
Faxon: This script was sitting around for a while. It was written back in 2005 before The Descendants. And it had gotten on The Black List. It did open a lot of doors for us, and we got some great meetings, one of which was with Alexander Payne’s production company that has the rights to The Descendants. Even still, making a movie in Hollywood is always a challenge no matter what level you’re at, and this was no exception. We had to find financing and casting to put all the pieces together. It was a struggle all the way through.
Allison Janney as “Betty” in ‘The Way, Way Back.’ Courtesy Fox Searchlight
Who was the first talent you got on board?
Rash:Allison Janney. We knew her through different circles and had written the part pretty much with her in mind. So we started with her and it really was a building pattern from there. The last piece was Steve Carrell.
How did your journey into becoming filmmakers begin?
Rash: We met at The Groundlings Theatre in late 1998 when we became part of The Sunday Company, which is the farm team that feeds the main company. Eventually we both got to The Groundlings and we were there for about 11 or 12 years. That’s where we became friends and started writing television together. We’re both actors and we’re still acting.
Faxon: For me I had a lot of characters in my family that I used to imitate and make fun of at the dinner table and get some good laughs. Later I did school plays. I knew early on that I wanted to get into the entertainment industry. After college I moved to LA and got involved in The Groundlings and in acting and sketch comedy, and did commercials. Slowly I got TV jobs. I didn’t know anybody out there. It’s hard. Nobody tells you how to play the game.
Rash: I was consuming some dysfunction and pain and then utilizing it later. It started clicking then. I took screenwriting classes and worked for the student TV channel. I did some theatre and then went to LA.
As writers, what are your favorite books? Do you gravitate to any particular author?
Faxon: I am rereading “A Prayer for Owen Meany” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” Also Jonathan Tropper’s “This is Where I Leave You.”
Rash: “A Separate Peace” and, of course, “The Catcher in the Rye.” At Lawrenceville I liked Southern literature, although I really struggled through Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom.”
Faxon: I loved Russian literature early on. I found the stories and the writing to be fascinating. Coming from the East Coast I like Nathaniel Philbrick stories and survival tales. Right now I’m reading [Jennifer Egan’s] “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which is a collection of stories in which the characters are interwoven. For comic writers I like David Sedaris and Bill Bryson and the twisted characters of Carl Hiaasen.
Liam James as “Duncan” and Sam Rockwell as “Owen” on the set of ‘The Way, Way Back’ Photo by Claire Folger, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
How was the filming process on The Way, Way Back?
Rash: We pretty much got hit with a lot of rain when we started. The house stuff was shot outside of Marshfield, MA in Green Harbor, and the water park was in East Wareham, MA. The town was very supportive and very helpful during the whole shoot. One night, during a very climactic scene we were shooting in someone’s backyard, most of the town came out to watch from their mini cocktail parties. There was this sort of theatre-in-the-round thing going on and the actors really enjoyed it.
Faxon: Certainly we had challenges at the water park since we shot in the evening. There were a lot of hot days and all we wanted to do was go down the slide. One night the folks at Water Wizz, a family owned place, opened the park for us and it was so much fun.
Rash: We’re writing another movie with Fox Searchlight, a sort of dysfunctional tap-into-some-pain type story, and then we’re writing an action comedy for Kristin Wiig, who is a friend of ours from The Groundlings. It’s a little grittier and little darker.
Featured image: Filmmakers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon with Liam James on the set of The Way, Way Back
JUNE 14, 2013 BY JORDAN WRIGHT Special to The Credits – MPAA
According to a 2007 British survey Hans Zimmer is considered “one of the world’s 100 living geniuses.” He shares space on the list with the likes of Stephen Hawking, Prince and Philip Glass. Zimmer’s own list of achievements includes an Academy Award, several Golden Globes, Grammys, Lifetime Achievement Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and dozens of film credits that attest to his significant contribution to many of the industry’s finest films.
Zimmer’s scored a slew of classics. Driving Miss Daisy, Rain Man and The Lion King are a few of his famous past films, as well as more recent blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean, Madagascar, The Da Vinci Code, Sherlock Holmes, The Thin Red Line and Dark Knight. Today’s release of Man of Steelcontinues this living legend’s legacy of creating the mood and musical identity of some of our biggest films.
There may not be a single filmgoer who has not been touched by his music. The Credits spoke to him about his craft, his passions, and his hopes for Man of Steel.
Hans Zimmer – photo credit to his wife, Zoe Zimmer
The Credits: Can you talk about your approach to composing for Man of Steel? How did your sense of the script guide you?
Zimmer: Not one bit. I never read it. I told David Goyer [Man of Steel scriptwriter] forgive me for not reading it. For me there are two types of directors. There’s the writer/director and the director that works from somebody else’s script—and what’s important for me is figuring out what the director has in his head. So I said to Zack [Snyder, Man of Steel director] let’s sit down. Tell me the story. And while the telling is going on I find out what’s really in his heart—what the emphasis is for him. The weird part of the process is that as someone tells you the story you start to come up with sounds and music. So in my head I’m scoring Zack telling me a story. That helps with starting. But also I was somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Because I was working on Dark Knight Rises at the same time and I didn’t think I was quite up for it. The master, John Williams, had done rather well by it, and it was part of my growing up and DNA loving John Williams’ score. The inevitable comparisons are out there, but I couldn’t care less about what anybody says. Find me a composer who isn’t driven by paranoia and neurosis.
I don’t ever remember seeing a film that had a musical score throughout most every scene. It must have been quite a task to create such an enormous score. What was the reasoning behind that decision?
It’s because the score is fairly new. It goes from me playing a little upright piano to these rather grand gestures that you’d expect. In an odd way, though it’s a Superman movie, there’s an absolute inherent reality in this film, because America really is America, and America is real. So it felt like it would be nice to create this “through line” from the word go to the end. When we get to the second half it gets pretty intense, but we tried to use music to create beautiful silences as well. For example, when Krypton blows up, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, the tendency would be to go hugely bombastic and throw everything at it–but it’s just one single solo violin.
Can you talk about the musical transitions in the film when you segue from battles to farm scenes? Do you look at the film and it comes to you or is it a separate process?
Transitions are tricky because we change tones so dramatically, and you just hope that you’re replacing very kinetic energy with emotional energy, because I did try to make the farm scenes tiny and emotionally poignant. Part of the disadvantage I have in this interview is I haven’t seen the movie with an audience. All I know is that I spent many months loving the process and that’s truly the whole thing. I love writing music and sitting with my friends and colleagues and the musicians and the director and we’re building something and hoping people will love it as much as we love the process. But by the end of it you have no idea if you’ve succeeded or not. You just try your best.
How hard was it to make this music different when everyone already knows the music from the Christopher Reeves’ movies and John Williams’ score?
It really comes from the filmmakers having a very different take on how we can tell the story. I remember when we were doing Gladiator with Ridley Scott and he was speaking about when he first saw Spartacus and how it resonated with him and how those movies should sound. And I kept saying to him but that’s my job, that the next bunch of fourteen-year olds should have their own music.
And that’s what Chris [Producer, Christopher Nolan] wanted me to do…to find my own language. If Zack had sat down with John Williams and told him the story the way he told it to me, John would have written a very different score from the one he wrote [for the earlier film], because it’s a very different movie. Ultimately I write from a very personal perspective. I have to find my own personal bits. Being a stranger in a strange land, being a foreigner in a culture that is not necessarily your own culture, and forever being torn between the two cultures, I think is interesting. And so for me as a foreigner I think there’s a chance to hold up a mirror to America and to let it see the things it’s become a little bored with. The things it takes for granted.
What do you mean by ‘the things America takes for granted’?
I remember when we were in the Grand Canyon shooting Thelma and Louise and we were saying, “Wow! It’s the Grand Canyon!” and there were these kids standing there saying, “Dad, Can we go home? It’s just the Grand Canyon.” So as a foreigner that used to look at America with wonderment, I just want to give that back to America. To say, “Look at your towns. Look at your people. See what’s good and decent and noble.” I have no idea if I’ve succeeded. At the end of the day it comes down to two questions; were you entertained or did it make you feel something? That’s all you can hope for. That somewhere in one little corner of this vast movie you got to feel something and you were in this world.
It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to use the old Superman theme. Because suddenly you would have recognized it and thought, this is the old Superman, and then you would have been aware you were watching a movie. I was terrified of parody in any sense, even unwitting parody. Part of my very simple plan was to exorcise anything out of my orchestra, like the main instruments that I remember John Williams using, like the trumpet fanfare. I didn’t use any of that. By narrowing my palate I felt I was doing something different.
Do you compose electronically, on a piano or on another conventional instrument?
Nothing conventional! I had two weeks of piano lessons. That’s my formal education. I write the stuff in my head and then I use a computer with a music word processor. After all, I am a child of the twentieth century and whatever works is how I get there.
Have you ever had your music pirated?
Yes, of course my music gets pirated all the time! The thing that worries me the most, from a film composer’s point of view, is that the more things get pirated, the less value they have. And the flip side of this is there are all kinds of horrible and nasty things you can say about Hollywood. But you should always remember that Hollywood is the last place on earth that commissions orchestral music on a daily, if not hourly, basis. It gives children a reason to have a passion to learn an instrument and actually make a living at it. So every time one of those very expensive film scores gets pirated what you are doing is directly affecting if we’re going to have, or not have, orchestras left in this world. If we lose orchestras, it’s going to rob us of more than just a bit of culture. There’s a lot of heart that’s going to go missing.
In Mozart’s time he had to make sure he could get his score published the following day because during the premiere there would be people in the audience scribbling along and pirating it the next day. Pirating has been going on forever.
Featured image: Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in Man of Steel. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
May 1, 2013 Jordan Wright
Special to The Credits – MPAA
Iceman Director Ariel Vromen
How does an ‘extreme’ special unit Israeli Air Force soldier, law student and world-traveling DJ become a successful director working with some of the country’s biggest stars? Here’s the circuitous route Ariel Vromen took on his path from performing military maneuvers in Israel and reading dense law texts in England to getting behind the camera. Vromen faced an endless string of challenges to get his latest project, TheIceman, onto the big screen. Inspired by real events, the film follows Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a notorious contract killer who, when not doing his grim work for the mob, was a devoted family man. When he was finally arrested in 1986, Kuklinki’s wife and daughters were stunned by the revelation of what he did for a living.
Vromen played the film in a slew of prestigious film festivals all over the world, tirelessly campaigning to lock down distribution for this passion project. He pulled it off. The film hits theaters on May 3.
We spoke with Vromen about The Iceman, his plight from law school to movie set, and his love for filmmaking.
Ariel Vromen on the set of ‘The Iceman.’ Courtesy Millenium Entertainment
How did you go from law school in England to filmmaking in LA?
I was a child of thirteen when I got my first camera at my Bar Mitzvah. I used to do a lot of short films. I was very attracted to film. But then when I went into the army, an extreme special unit in the Israeli Air Force, it shut down the creativity within me. Going to law school afterwards felt more serious for me. In law school, I started to be exposed to music. I started to work on electronic music and became a DJ, traveling around the world. I partnered with a lot of people and worked on soundtracks. That’s what brought creativity back into my life. After law school, when it was time to practice law, I said, “There’s no way!’ I had to try to do something I always wanted to do in my life. I was almost thirty then, I really started pretty late. That was the journey, from being creative to not being creative to returning to that world. When I came back to film, my interest was not in directing or writing…I was passionate about sound design. I did a short film in 2002 (Jewel of the Sahara), but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I became more attracted to directing.
How did you get your foot in the door in such a short time?
You know, it’s about perseverance and hard work and luck. As you get older you adjust yourself faster and, if you’re smart enough, you learn from your mistakes. You understand what you did wrong and what you need to do better, and if you’re focused enough, then you just go for it. There are no set rules or one specific journey. At the end of the day, you have to decide what kind of filmmaker you want to be. That happened to me after trying to direct a couple of features. To make your own film, it’s almost a miracle. The hardest part for many people in show business is to control your ego, especially if the film’s good.
Was law school helpful to you once you entered the film world?
Yes. It puts you into that mode of determination, of researching and understanding the material. It takes a lot of discipline to get up in the morning and work every day until 6 a.m. If you have a deadline, you can’t give up and you can’t be lazy. I wouldn’t say it’s fair, but if you really focus and believe in what you want to get out of it, and you’re putting all your energy into it, then anyone can achieve it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
How did you develop relationships with fellow filmmakers, as well as distributors like Millennium Entertainment?
It’s funny, because I am much more connected to people that work with me like my editor, Danny Rafic. As for the DP department, I’m still on the search for the same person that will come on again and again for the style that I’m looking for. It would be nice to know that I have one DP that is there for life.
As for distribution, The Iceman was produced and financed by Millenium. It’s complicated. You’ve finished the film and done your screenings at festivals and you think it’s the end. Absolutely not! It’s just the beginning. Being on top of the distributor, doing release planning and strategic marketing, is probably as important as planning your shots and testing your film. Even though not everybody is happy to get your emails in the morning, you’ve got to ask a lot of questions. It’s the only way. You’ve got to be passionate about it. The job is not over when you pick a distributor.
We’ve been touring with Iceman since last September. It was in so many festivals, in Venice, Telluride, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, Florida, New York, New Orleans, Haifa. Despite the fact that it is such a controversial, dark film, with a dark subject matter, people really connected to it. They want to see the character redeem himself. It was a big challenge to make people relate. In the end I’m very pleased with the movie.
Ariel Vromen talks with his crew on the set of ‘The Iceman’
Can you talk about the challenges you had on The Iceman?
Hmmm…casting, financing, insisting on Michael Shannon to be the lead, nobody wants to give me money, competitive projects, dealing with threatening letters from a legal department on a weekly basis, trying to make Shreveport look like New York and New Jersey. Go figure that out. Shooting it in thirty days and having so much to cover in terms of three time periods. Sixty-eight locations, the post-production time restraints to get it into festivals, marketing, making sure it’s the best timing, and just keeping the momentum going. I think there were a lot of challenges! Ask me if there was anything that went smoothly.
Okay. Did anything go smoothly?
I would say the only thing that went really, really great was the work with my actors and the time I loved the most was editing in post-production. Ultimately it was all about creating, not about fighting.
About to film a scene on the set of ‘The Iceman.’ Courtesy Millenium Entertainment
As an independent filmmaker who works project to project without much of a financial safety net, what are your thoughts on protecting the content you create?
Piracy is absolutely a disease. Unfortunately there is a period of time, as it gets closer to the movie’s release, when the DVDs have been shipped, and you can only do so much for the content protection. However, the whole new way of distribution via the DCPs [Digital Cinema Package] really makes it helpful. But the moment that someone wants to put your work out there to the public, even knowing that essential element that you gave your life for something, it’s like somebody who has a virus they’re carrying and they want to spread it around. They just don’t care. You cannot control it.
What can we do?
I think it’s a matter of education. Like if someone goes to the supermarket and they want a yogurt and a bottle of wine and they take it and decide to just walk out. You can’t just say it’s wrong. You have to educate people and enforce it. Already the industry is suffering so much. Even though the numbers seem high, they can be deceiving. Someday we won’t be able to make these films.
There are so many countries where piracy has become commonplace, because people don’t get those movies, like in Turkey, Russia, China, Thailand and also Israel, where I’m from. They will even put them [pirated copies] on TV. When I was in Russia in 2007, I saw my film Danika playing on National Russian Television and it was a piracy copy. I hope people will understand that at the end of the day, we are just stealing from ourselves.
Featured Image: Director Ariel Vromen works with actor Michael Shannon on the set of ‘The Iceman.’ Courtesy Millenium Entertainment
APRIL 10, 2013 BY JORDAN WRIGHT
Special to The Credits – MPAA
Featured image of Mimi Kennedy on HBO’s Veep. Photo by Lacey Terrell, courtesy HBO
Mimi Kennedy pops up on the screen in the most unexpected places, but as an actor, writer and political activist that should be no surprise. She recently played the formidable madam in a house of ill repute in ABC’s Scandal, Jason Segel’s tough talking mother on the big screen in The Five-Year Engagementandthe soigneé mother-in-law-to-be in Woody Allen’s all-star cast of Midnight in Paris. Known early on for her TV role as Dharma’s hippie mother in Dharma & Greg, last year Kennedy appeared on Anger Management, Up All Night and In Plain Sight. And now, she has recently wrapped shooting in Baltimore with director Armando Ianucci and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for HBO’s second season of Veep. Set to air this Sunday, April 14, this hilarious political satire is based on Ianucci’s BBC series The Thick of It, which was a take on the Tony Blair style of modern British government. It later hatched the American film In The Loop. Veep stars Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, a one-time presidential hopeful now mired in her role as Vice President.
Kennedy joins a cast of comedy juggernauts, including Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale and Timothy Simons. The Credits caught up with Kennedy at her LA home to talk about her new role on HBO’s most reliable comedy.
The Credits: What is your role on Veep?
Kennedy: I play the House Majority Leader.
What was the most exciting part about being cast in Veep?
At first I was just so thrilled that Armando had written me into the script. But when I was on the plane to DC on my way to the shooting, I see this tall drink of water and it’s Zach Woods. He told me Ianucci was reuniting the American cast members who had been in In The Loop. David Rasche and Chris Addison, also in Baltimore directing an episode that would be in rehearsal while we were there, would be in the episode too, and we’d see writers Simon Blackwell, Jesse Armstrong and Tony Roche again, who wrote and worked on In The Loop. Unfortunately James Gandolfini was the only one of the American cast members that wouldn’t be back since he was shooting elsewhere. I felt as if Armando had planned a surprise birthday party for us.
What was the atmosphere on the set?
Armando gathers the cast and we read the script at the table. Then we get scenes on our feet. He lets us loosely just riff on what we think is going on between our characters. So when he introduces a new character he can see the flavor of the relationship developing, which gives the writers more ideas about how to point a scene or what else to introduce. That’s what we did for two days. Then they write a new script, generally the same arc as the original script, though adding some of what they might have picked up in rehearsal. We shoot all of that. After that, they come up with new pages and say, “The scene is this now.” You will see very different details and different jokes and that’s the fun of it. They’ll say, “What if you guys do this?” It’s shot in a warehouse in Baltimore with hand-held cameras and the actors are given a lot of freedom to move around and improvise.
What’s it like working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus?
She’s fantastic to work with—deadpan funny, my favorite style. Julia and I were in a scene together and the set up was we had to negotiate some budget compromises before midnight. We had to do it at her daughter’s birthday party. So she’s torn as a mother between having to do it at her daughter’s noisy 20-somethings party with a DJ playing and her ex there, and I’m yelling over the music, “We have to do this now.” We go into the ladies room to talk it out and there’s a fight in there. So we go into her office and I have this huge allergy attack from some flowers. I lost my voice for two days from all the sneezing, choking and coughing I faked. At one point I laughed so hard at something Julia was doing that I broke up and she said, “Close your eyes!” I’m sure she gets that all the time, because she’s so hilarious. In fact the whole cast is brilliant to work with.
Frank Rich, one of my favorite culture/political writers [former theatre critic for the New York Times (then an Op Ed columnist), contributor to New York Magazine] is one of the executive producers so talking to him was a “rich” experience for me! He and I knew each other tangentially. He informs the writers about American policy issues, although they have all kinds of consultants. At one point Julia was saying, “Let’s leave. Turn right, turn right.” And I said, “I always turn right. You follow me right.” And they said, “We can’t use that. We can’t refer to the left or right or liberal or conservative.” They try to stay to the center so it’s not predictable. They walk that line. The whole thing moves very fast, even when they’re improvising. And they pack a lot in. Armando said the first cut of In The Loop was four and a half hours that they had to get down to 92 minutes.