In She’s Funny That Way, the new screwball comedy from director Peter Bogdanovich, Owen Wilson plays a john with a heart of gold. He’s a successful Broadway director and a philandering husband, but a generous soul. On his first night in New York to cast his new play, he hires an escort (Imogen Poots) for the evening. She’s an aspiring actress, of course, and he’s so fond of her company that he pays her a suitcase of money so she can stop moonlighting and start a better life.
Her better life begins the next day, when she shows up at the theater to read for the role of an escort in the director’s new play — which co-stars his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her ex-lover (Rhys Ifans). Wilson’s director is aghast, but everyone else is charmed, especially the playwright (Will Forte), who’s stuck in an unhealthy relationship with an impatient therapist (Jennifer Aniston), who also treats the darling escort. Got all that?
She’s Funny That Way is Bogdanovich’s first feature since The Cat’s Meow in 2001. He’s stayed busy with documentaries and television since then, as well as acting gigs like his supporting role on The Sopranos. But this is a project that he’s wanted to make for more than 15 years. He co-wrote it with his then-wife Louise Stratten, and it gained momentum when a cast of all-stars came aboard and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach lent their support as executive producers.
Bogdanovich, who turns 76 next week, has had his ups and downs since he directed The Last Picture Show and became part of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation of young filmmakers that changed Hollywood in the 1970s. He’d been a film and art writer and critic before moving behind the camera, and he remains a masterful raconteur with an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. He spoke to EW about his new comedy, discussed the depressing current state of filmmaking, and shared his plans for finally finishing Orson Welles lost, last film.
She’s Funny That Way opens theatrically and on VOD on Aug. 21.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I love screwball comedies, but they are not in vogue. What made you want to spend the time and energy to bring this story to the screen.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Louise and I wrote this script a long time ago, around 1999, 2000. We were having a difficult time, not she and I [personally], just things on the outside. It was just a difficult period. We thought we’d write a comedy to sort of take our minds off our problems. I feel the same way you do; I love screwball comedies. I think they’re wonderfully American. I just like the form. We had two things that we started with: we had the title, Squirrels to the Nuts, which I always liked but which we changed because people were confused. (They thought it was a kids’ picture.) Then we had this notion that a guy would pay an escort to stop being an escort, which is based on something that actually happened to me in Singapore when I was making Saint Jack, a picture about an American pimp in Singapore. We met a lot of escorts and pimps and madames and so on and so forth. We used two or three of the girls in the movie, and a couple of them I really got to like quite a bit and felt sorry for them. They really wanted to go home, so I gave them extra money so they could go home. They quit what they were doing and did go home. So I always thought it would be an interesting comedy to write about a guy who gives an escort money to stop being an escort and then gets into a lot of trouble for being a nice guy.
Your last film, The Cat’s Meow, was 2001. You’ve stayed extremely busy, working mostly in television. But did you always think you were going to direct another film?
Sure. What happened was we put Squirrels to the Nuts on the back burner because we had written it for John Ritter in a way. I loved him. We had done three pictures together, and I just thought he was brilliant at physical comedy in particular. After he died suddenly, very unexpectedly, we put it aside. Then I got to know Owen Wilson through Wes Anderson, who I was friendly with since the ‘90s. I spent quite a bit of time with Owen, and I really thought he could play this. We rewrote it slightly for him, and he agreed to do it. Then Jennifer [Aniston] agreed to do it. Those were the first two we had. We asked Jennifer to play the wife, and she said she wanted to play the therapist. So I said okay, and I thought she did a great job.
You co-wrote this with Louise and you have Cybill Shepherd in this as well. Is there a secret to staying friendly with exes?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t see any point in people who are close getting distant because they’re not married [anymore]. I knew Louise since she was a child because [her sister] Dorothy introduced me to her when she was 11 and a half. We went through that tragedy together, and we became friends, and sort of things happen. Then it was time for her to go on her own way, and that was fine with me. As I say, we stayed very close friends; she’s my dearest friend actually now. And Cybill and I have stayed friends from the time we broke up. We’ve been in touch ever since. I speak to her every couple of weeks, less sometimes. Yeah, I’ve stayed pretty friendly with everybody I’ve had a thing with. The most difficult was my first wife [Polly Platt]. But we were sort of friendly towards the end [of her life] too.
There’s one scene that must’ve been very personal for you because of the loves of your life, and that’s the unicorn scene.
Yeah. You’re the first person to mention that. It is quite a personal scene.
Was it something you thought long and hard about including?
Well, yeah, it’s sort of the theme of the picture right there. We don’t stress it because it’s a comedy. But anybody who’s thoughtful, they might get it. I had been to the Cloisters where those unicorn tapestries are, and I thought they were beautiful. And I thought it would be interesting to have them go to the Cloisters — it’s a New York thing — that led us to the unicorns, which leads us to that dialogue where he says, “Prostitution used to be a sacred profession.” And she says, “When was that?” And he says, “Before spirituality and sexuality were split apart.” That harkens back to the days when people knew what the unicorn stood for, which is a matriarchal calendar from 3000 B.C. Spirituality and sexuality were not split apart in those days, as in matriarchal cultures it was a spiritual thing as well as a sensual thing. So I just thought I’d drop that in for anybody who’s listening, they might get it and look into it.
It’s also personal to you because of the unicorn pin you had given Dorothy before she was killed and the subsequent title of the book you wrote about what happened to her—
Yeah, The Killing of the Unicorn. Well, certainly, that was part of it. That’s where it all began. That book contains the explanation of what the unicorn was, too, in the last chapter.
There’s certainly a lot of you in Owen’s charter. There are some lines where he talks about seeing himself as a feminist and a mentor to multiple women. Are his relationships reflective of the relationships you’ve had. Do you often find yourself in a position of mentor?
Well, I have. And being a director, it’s not an unusual position to find yourself in, especially when you have actors that are new to the business… like Cybill Shepherd or Tatum O’Neal. You’re sort of a mentor to them, a guide. I’ve been there.
Do you expect to direct again soon?
I have one that I’ve been saving to do, another one called Wait For Me. Brett Ratner’s going to produce it, and we’re working on it right now. We’re in the process of attaching actors.
What’s its tone or genre?
Well, it’s a strange hybrid. It’s a script I’ve been working on for 30 years really. It’s kind of personal. A comedy/drama slash fantasy, because there’s six ghosts involved. It’s about a movie director slash star — somebody like Woody Allen or John Cassevates or Orson Welles or Charlie Chaplin — and he’s basically known for comedy. And he’s been married six times and he’s got six daughters, and his last wife, the one he seems to have been most keen on, was killed in a plane crash, six years before the movie begins. And the guy’s life in those six years, since it happened, has turned to sh-t. He’s in bad shape. He can’t be hired by Hollywood because he chopped up a projection room and beat up a producer. So he’s persona non grata in Hollywood. Before the picture begins, he spends quite a bit of time in Italy, conning the Italians that he’s got a story, that he’s got to check locations. So he’s been traveling all around Italy. I don’t want to get into the whole plot, but the point is the ghost of his last wife shows up eventually. And there’s a rock star that gets into trouble. He’s a friend of his, and he’s in love with one of his daughters. It’s a complicated comedy/drama/fantasy, and I’m very keen on it. And Brett likes it and we’re going to do it.
You might be the world’s most qualified expert on Orson Welles. How involved are you in the effort to finish and release The Other Side of the Wind?
I’m going to be more involved once we start actually doing the work. I haven’t been involved at all in terms of getting money together. I’ve just been suffering through the time it takes to do it. But I will be involved in cutting it together, which is what has to be done. Mainly because Orson had asked me to. Sometime in the mid ’70s, we were having lunch and he suddenly turned to me out of the blue and said, “If anything ever happens to me, I want you to promise me you’ll finish the picture.” I said, “Jesus Christ, Orson. Why do you say such a thing?” “Nothing’s going to happen to me, but if it does, I want you to promise me you’ll finish the picture.” I said, “Well, of course I would.” He said, “Well, that’s fine, now we can change the subject.” And so he died in ’85, and I’ve been trying to get the picture together ever since then, but it’s extraordinary difficult, mainly because it was very difficult to get a clear change of title. There had been actors who hadn’t been paid or never got a contract. There’s people who come out of the woodwork and say they own part of it. It’s just been a nightmare. But we’re sort of on the verge.
Part of the reason I do what I do and love what I love was a college film class called Films of the 1970s, which included The Last Picture Show and Chinatown and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and the contrast between the wonderful films that were made in that era and what’s being produced by Hollywood in 2015 is kind of striking. The studios go to Sundance now not to pick up smaller personal films, but to recruit younger, cheaper filmmakers who will bring a fresh take to some franchise sequel or reboot. Today’s movie fans might be deprived of the next wave of wonderful films from singular filmmakers like the ones I was groomed on. I’m interested in your take on what it means to be a young filmmaker in 2015, creatively and practically, as opposed to when you came up.
Well, that’s a big question. To answer it succinctly, I’d say that things are not in great shape. The studios really don’t make anything except sequels and blockbusters. Those Marvel kind of movies, the superhero movies, are cartoons. They’re spending a lot of money on each one of those. I’ve been discussing this with a few people the last few months, because I was convinced that this ghost picture, Wait For Me, was a studio picture, and they said, no it isn’t. In fact, they said that a picture like What’s Up, Doc?, which came out in ’72 and was the third biggest grosser of the year — after The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure — wouldn’t be a studio picture today either. Which is really scary. It was a flat-out family comedy, really. To think that that wouldn’t fly as a studio picture today is kind of depressing, I think. But there’s a very active independent world and independent money and so on and so forth which keeps things going, and the most interesting films being made are generally not studio pictures. It was in fact quite a surprise that Paramount did Selma.
Glad you mentioned that, because that brings me to another point. Selma had several British actors playing iconic historical Americans. Your film has a British actor, Imogen Poots, with an outer-borough accent, as its lead. Is this current British invasion a trend or a blip and why aren’t our homegrown actors getting those jobs?
Imogen Poots is just extraordinary. She’s really amazing. I just sat and talked with her for 10 minutes and I knew she was the right girl for the part. As a person, she was very quirky and unusual. She was quirky but she wasn’t trying to be — unlike some actresses, who try to be quirky or eccentric. She wasn’t trying; she just was. And I thought she’d be brilliant, and she was.
I don’t know if it’s a trend, or just a lot of talented English actors around right now. But you know, we don’t have any tradition in America. There’s no tradition in acting. There’s no tradition in anything. My dear teacher Stella Adler used to say, “It takes more than 200 years to become an American.” Meaning there’s no traditions of tradition here. It’s a young country, and clearly, it’s still a wild and untamed country since we have murders every f–king week. This gun culture is grotesque. [Ed. note: This interview took place before the movie theater shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana.]
The BBC recently publish a list of the 100 Greatest American Films made, and no surprise, Citizen Kane was No. 1. As someone who’s written so much about Kane, what do you think is so timeless and important about that film, even in 2015?
The construction is very unusual, and complicated, and doesn’t date. It just seems fresh, even though it’s been imitated since then. Nobody’s every really done it like Orson did on that picture. And because it deals with important subjects like newspapers and the plutocracy. It’s a serious picture and still holds up, not just the construction but the brilliance of the performances. So if you had to pick one great “greatest film” every made, you tend to go with Citizen Kane. It seems like great film, and it is a great film. I’m not sure it is the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly a great movie.
If you had a vote, what’s the one film that stands out for you.
I don’t know, my favorite director is Jean Renoir. Orson said that Grand Illusion is the movie he would pick if he could only take one movie to a desert island. But Grand Illusion really deals with a subject that isn’t as pressing as Citizen Kane still is. I don’t know; I don’t have favorite films. I have favorite directors, whose company I like to be in. I can never boil it down to one.