Can you give us a little background to Larry Crowne?

Tom: We started thinking about this- myself and [producer] Gary Goetzman, and I talked with Nia Vardalos, who wrote My Big Fat Greek Wedding, about six years ago. Originally, we just started out with the idea of a man’s reinvention, a man who loses his job and ends up in college one reason or another, and we actually imagined back then that I go to college and Julia Roberts is my teacher and guess what happens !

We did this in two phases. Nia worked on the screenplay for about like two and a half years and other movies and then it sat fallow for a while, and then I picked it up- so she worked solo and I worked solo. And as the years go by, we just kept adding layers and layers to it.

While we were making the film, some economic issues from the Western World, particularly America, came up and we incorporated some of the realities of the mortgage prices and losing one’s home- so much so that a news story about a strategic foreclosure was aired on a Sunday and we shot a scene where Larry delivers his papers back to the bank within a week of itself. So we constantly expanded the theme of reinvention from just the idea that it would be an interesting thing to what would be an important thing for a guy to do so.

Can you tell us whether it is difficult to balance both the sad aspects of the movie with the more comedic aspects of it?

Tom: The fact is that everybody gets bad news all the time. It’s about numbers going up and percentages dropping, and derivatives markets shrinking up. But what it happens is on a very individual level- it happens to your lives and to you every single day.

We’re in an optional business- the audience opts to go to your film and so you have to make it, I think, not just attractive, but you also get credit if you make it close to real life. And so our desire is always certainly to entertain an audience, but it will also have to include the audience in what’s going on. You’ll notice in “Larry Crowne” there’s no father-in-law who’s trying to destroy Larry, there’s no evil  bad guy who’s pissed off at Larry, there’s not some guy in college who wants to make a fool out of him. It’s just a bunch of people getting by in their lives.

I think we can be authentic to what people really desire out of their daily lives- which is having a hope for what their future will be- without illustrating the tragic nature of what is going on. And I think audiences go to the cinema to find faith in themselves, so we want to make a funny, motion picture and at the same time, we want to make a film that’s rooted in reality.

Did the fact that it started out as a comedy change because of what was happening around the world?  

Tom: I would say that there are ways it did, because it was no longer just pure entertainment. For example, we had a number of sequences that were set in U-Mart before Larry got fired that were pretty overly comedic, but it didn’t balance that with the rest of what was going on in the film. And even the issues that Mercedes [Julia Roberts’ character] was going through, it can’t just be somebody who’s arbitrarily dissatisfied with her life- the part about her as an educator was somewhat word for word from what we heard from an awful lot of people like her. So the nature of the comedy became less presentional, to ‘let’s make sure it comes out of some true behaviour of what’s going on’, and we ended up relying up on a much bigger scale.

What’s the difference between acting with Julia Roberts and directing one?

Tom: Julia Roberts is the best there is- there's a reason she’s become a screen icon of legendary stature and beauty. When we imagine the teacher that would teach Larry Crowne, she was always who we wanted. I don’t think I would have gotten her if we hadn’t worked earlier on a movie called ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’- we got to know her very well and had a very relaxed time, so that she knew the type of job this was and the type of boss I would be. The collaboration that we had matched up very well between our characters- Larry and Mercedes.

Is directing yourself in a major role like this different from being directed by someone else like Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard?

Tom: Being a director is always a test of your communicative skills, of always talking to somebody,- you’re really trying to cajole them into doing something that they really don’t want to do, or you’re trying to communicate to them in a nice way that there’s no way you’re going to let them do the thing that they really want to do.

When I’m working with a director, I rely on total serendipity on what may and may not work. If he wants to do 17 takes, let’s do 17. If he wants to do one and walk away, I’m fine with that. I don’t look at the monitor and go over every nuance because I’m the last arbiter of what’s going to work and what is not. Probably on “Larry Crowne”, I gave myself more takes on camera than I gave other people because I was so delighted by what they were doing.

How do you pick what you want to act, what you want to produce and what you want to direct?

Tom: I don’t read screenplays as a director; I only read them as an actor, or as a writing sample to see how the writer has developed the theme. The things that I’ve directed I’ve written myself, or have grown out of Playtone, and I’ve been involved from the get-go until they get to a point where I don’t want to give it over to another director to screw up the hard work that we’ve done.

Even on something like “Larry Crowne”, early on I talked to a couple of directors in order to develop it. By and large, directors don’t want to develop anything that doesn’t come out of their head and the worst place to begin any project is with an actor saying ‘hey I wrote a script and you direct it’. No director wants to take on that job- that’s a recipe for disaster. 

When it comes to exploring these things that come out of the Playtone wheelhouse, it’s nothing more than somebody coming to work one day and saying ‘hey there’s this interesting idea about somebody that goes through something’. We try to make movies and television projects that other people don’t make. We always try to bend the rules somewhat, in order to be doing something that’s just different from everything else on the market.

Unemployment is a pretty universal theme for people. Are the themes of hope and overcoming cynicism something that Asian audiences will get?

Tom: I don’t know. I have no idea. The particulars of losing one’s home and what not- I have no idea if that’s going to translate. But I think what can is the relative joy of, or the excitement, or the pleasure, that you can get of throwing yourself into a new atmosphere. I don’t know if reinvention is somehow built into the psyche of another society, because it seems to be what the American dream is all about- anytime you want to, you pack up and start all over again.

But I think that the school where Larry goes to in the movie is such a special place on film and loaded up with special people that no matter what culture you come from, you can understand Larry Crowne is better off after he goes back to school and meets a girl like Talia. I would trust that cinema is such a worldwide language that it would translate to any audience- but wouldn’t be surprised that we made a horrible, horrible mistake.

How do you choose your next project?

Tom: There’s no formula that goes along with it- something will come along that will be fascinating, or not. I’ve said this before so forgive me if I tell the story again- it’s very hard to say no to some projects because the screenplay is great, the people who are going to do it are incredibly talented, the people pay you money, you get to shoot it in Singapore. It could just be so tantalising, but if you don’t get it, if you don’t identify with the theme, you have to say no. saying yes to a screenplay is simple- you see it, you love it, you can’t wait to do it- but saying no  can be really really hard to do.

If it works out, my next film will be a completely different film from ‘Larry Crowne’. It’ll be an adaptation of a book called ‘Cloud Atlas’ by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. The desire to work on something is really ‘am I so intrigued by the theme, and how he’s going to do it’- that’s my sole criteria of going back to work as an actor and as a director.

Are there places you won’t go as a storyteller?

Tom: I make movies that I would like to see myself, and there’s a whole kind of story that I wouldn’t touch. Did you have the horror films ‘Saw’ here in Singapore? I wondered to myself ‘what the hell is this’? Who wants to see people slowly cut up by some guy? I don’t get that. I’m not sure what themes are examined by ‘Saw’, but maybe these are themes that I can find somewhere else.

The thing is, if you’re making movies at the same level that people are paying to go see, you’re making some form of social document that’s going to last a long time whether it’s good or bad- and I’ve made some bad movies that will last as long as the good ones will. But in order to go off and do all that work, you’re really going to be have to be making something that’s going to sell, and somehow matter.

I think the only way it can matter is if it’s really about something that you’re trying to find- even if it’s a silly comedy, or even if it’s about some science fiction, or superhero movie, you have to land on a very particular kind of square that you’re somehow holding the mirror up to human nature and examining it the human condition. I think that’s my job and I’m very happy when we can succeed in doing that.

By Gabriel Chong, Photo Credit- ScreenSingapore