Forget Batman and Spider-man. If you’ve heard of R. Crumb, you may also be aware of Harvey Pekar. Before camcorders, before webcams, before nonstop reality TV there was Pekar and his homegrown autobiographical comic-book series American Splendor. Since 1976, the pages of American Splendor have found Cleveland’s grouchy antihero puzzling, fuming and marveling over his own day-to-day existence. Pekar expresses in his comics what so many of us think and feel but would never dream of saying. No experience is too ordinary, no thought too incorrect. Pekar gave readers something real and resonant, not to mention funny and entertaining. His stories dealt with the simple, pedestrian trials that vex most of us.
The writing/directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have found a highly inventive way to bring us Harvey Pekar and American Splendor on celluloid. Their film is a hybrid, combining adaptation, biopic, animation, and documentary elements. We follow Harvey, as superbly played by Paul Giamatti, through his daily life, whether working his dead-end job, standing in line at the supermarket or searching for his lost keys. Interspersed among the scenes of his life are interviews and documentary footage offering glimpses of the real Harvey Pekar, as well as cameos by an animated version that invokes Pekar’s irreverent humor. As documentarians, Springer Berman and Pulcini were attracted to Pekar’s own comic-realistic representation of a working-class life, and they populated their film with characters who are funny, brave, flawed, and full of humanity. For them, Harvey Pekar is a true pioneer.
Springer Berman and Pulcini began their collaboration at Columbia University Graduate Film School. Their award-winning debut documentary about the waiters, busboys and coat-check women whose restaurant was closing, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s, was named one of the ten best movies of 1998 by USA Today and CNN. American Splendor premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, It will be presented in the “Un Certain Regards” category at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Springer Berman and Pulcini are married and live in New York City.
Bette Gordon Of all the films I’ve seen that comprise the biographical genre, yours is the most humane and sensitive. Other films—Grey Gardens, Crumb, and My Brother’s Keeper—have tried to tell the life story of an interesting but odd character who plugged into something about American culture, but it’s difficult to chronicle someone’s life without exploiting them. How did you find that balance?
Robert Pulcini There is this amazing interior voice in Harvey’s comic books. He brings you into his world. He can be completely misanthropic on one page, and then you turn to the next page and there’s this very sensitive, questioning artistic soul. That’s what we loved about American Splendor, it’s the whole spectrum. We took to him, we connected, and that comes through in the film.
Shari Springer Berman We both have a schizophrenic background: we write narrative screenplays, but we also make documentaries. And having worked with real people a lot, we try to be very sensitive to representing someone’s life. It’s a two-way street. We had to win over Harvey’s respect and trust, and he had to win over ours. Once we got there we were able to make a film that represents him in the way he would like to be represented. Harvey didn’t want to do some idealized version of himself. He asked us not to do a Hollywood happy ending.
RP That self-portrayal is what’s so compelling about his comic books. He’s the main character, but he’s everyman.
BG How did the project evolve? Did you grow up reading comics? I know Ted Hope, your producer, loves comics.
RP I was a comic fanatic growing up; I collected them. But while I was aware of American Splendor, I had never read them until Ted called us one day and said, “I think I have a project for you.”
SSB I wasn’t into comic books as a kid. I came to them in the ’80s, when there was a certain kind of music; you saw indie movies, and you read alternative comic books. It was part of the way you lived your life. That was my world.
BG So, you had an interesting comic book series. How did you find the storyline? American Splendor chronicles a real-life situation. But there are so many situations. And they are this person’s life. How did you find the structure?
RP Our documentary background really helped in telling the story. In documentary filmmaking you take unrelated moments and make connections with them, creating something that has a beginning, a middle and an end—an arc. It was the same with American Splendor. The comic books are like raw documentary footage.
SSB We found an overriding theme and that became our structure. We started with a love story between the man and his art form and how ultimately he found a life. He really had a miserable life, and he found a little piece of happiness. He found a wife, he found a legacy, he found a way of expressing himself, he beat a disease . . .
BG The arc of the story takes him from this early point when he’s a file clerk in a Cleveland Veteran’s hospital, through each step of his development—using himself, his job, his fellow workers and his wife as subjects—all the way up to when he retires. How did you know what to leave out? I find that daunting, in a film about somebody’s life.
RP We narrowed it down to the subject matter he’d portrayed in his comic books; our job was to adapt an existing work. We chose the stories and used them in places where they could actually push the film’s narrative along.
SSB I loved the story where Harvey talks about his relationship with his father, who was very Orthodox and spoke mostly Yiddish. Harvey had no emotional connection to him; the only thing they could possibly have connected over was music. But his father loved cantorial music and Harvey liked jazz. So they couldn’t even find a common language there. I spent a lot of time thinking about how we might include that story. In the end, it’s a great stand-alone story, but it didn’t fit in the arc.
BG It would have sent the film in a different direction.
SSB We were able to allude to certain things. Harvey talks about how he realized that he was embarrassed by his father. Ideas can sneak their way in, even if we couldn’t put in the whole story.
BG Recently comic books have been rediscovered as a structure for storytelling. The Hulk (coming out soon), Spider-man, Waking Life by Richard Linklater, Ghost World and so on. We can go back to Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings which have a similar relationship to the world of the American landscape. Or Ghost World. When I ask my students for material for possible adaptations, they bring up comic books. Comic books are storyboard panels anyway. I wonder why it took so long for artists and filmmakers to get around to comics.
SSB I think that Hollywood always saw comic books as being super fantasy. It took a movie like Ghost World to see them almost as literature. There’s such a wide variety: autobiographical comic books, like American Splendor, graphic novels, like Ghost World, horror ones, like From Hell, and historical ones, like Road to Perdition.
BG And maybe its a more visually oriented culture right now. Or maybe there is more creative work coming out of alternative comic books.
What about the way you use the intersection of documentary and fiction in your film? You’ve used that concept in previous films. In American Splendor, the real Harvey Pekar, his wife, and friends, talk about his life even as it is being dramatized.
RP We try to bring narrative, dramatic filmmaking elements to documentary style. We’ve orchestrated shots in our documentaries, we use a lot of music, and we try to establish characters the way you would establish them in a screenplay. With American Splendor, we brought a documentary instinct to narrative film. It is a hybrid, both documentary and drama. We fell in love with the real Harvey’s voice when we heard him on NPR.
SSB His voice is great—so deadpan.
RP A very gravelly quality, and his word choice—kind of post-beat jazzy.
SSB That really set the tone for the whole shoot. We would joke that we had a crew full of Harveys, in spirit: record collectors, music people, alternative comic book aficionados. There was a certain type that seemed to gravitate toward the project. We love the authenticity in documentaries and in narratives, of a place, a person, a world. We just wanted to dive into Harvey’s world. And whatever we needed to do that, whether it was the narrative drama or some hybrid that really kept us to the material, that’s what we used.
BG And your other films?
SSB We did Chasen’s. We went to this Hollywood restaurant for the last two weeks before it closed and parked ourselves there, observing the people. It was this world of celebrities, but we became fascinated with the people who had been working there for 20, up to 50 years. The waiters, the busboys, and the coat-check women. That was the world we threw ourselves into.
BG You wanted to tell their stories. You shifted the balance and made the noncelebrities the center of the film.
SSB That’s what we did. The celebrity stories were less interesting, although they came and went as supporting players. Then we made The Young and the Dead, about the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We spent about eight months filming, on and off, in the cemetery with these young, good-looking hipsters who had bought the cemetery to bring death rituals into the 21st-century.
RP The role of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is to memorialize people through the media that they leave behind in their life. The cemetery collects that media and organizes it for the families. Again, it was a completely weird universe. We just immersed ourselves in it.
BG So you go for these alien universes and you find the humanity. How did you find out about the cemetery?
RP There was a Wim Wenders photo spread of it in the New York Times Magazine, and there was an article in the style section.
SSB It was on status after death, the last velvet rope, about being buried in the grandest of style.
BG It’s kind of a creepy idea.
RP Creepy and wonderful. We immediately responded to it because it sounded like it could be humorous, and also philosophical.
SSB As screenwriters, we primarily explore a particular universe. Now we’re writing a biopic that we’re also going to direct, about Michael Romanoff, one of the great impostors of all time. It’s this post-czar world where the aristocracy is dying or dead and all these impostors are riding around. And so with each one of these films we get involved in a different universe. It doesn’t get boring.
BG You call American Splendor an antibiopic. What does that mean?
RP We had to have Harvey in the film, debunking the notion of dramatizing his life. We had to have fun with it because that’s what Harvey does in his comics. It came very naturally to us, because it seemed organic to the kind of comics he’s written. We designed a way to work him into the story without disrupting it.
SSB It’s a traditional biopic that self-destructs after a while. Which is very true to Harvey’s spirit.
BG The real Harvey, the dramatized Harvey, and the cartoon Harvey melt together. You no longer distinguish between Harvey Pekar; Paul Giamatti, the actor who plays him; and Harvey in his comics. The film nicely blurred the reality/non-reality aspects.
RP That’s the experience of reading Harvey’s comics: he writes the text but so many different artists draw him. You have all these distinct, sometimes conflicting representations of him. But ultimately there’s this character that can’t be suppressed—he always comes through.
BG In the effort to stay true to the ordinary life that Harvey wrote about, the moments that are ordinary yet special, there is a paradox. The minute you dramatize a life, it loses its ordinariness. It’s an interesting conundrum. It’s also about how the ordinary life becomes celebrated, and yet we’re also celebrating the ordinary.
SSB The minute Harvey made himself into a character he stopped being ordinary. But in the world of ordinariness, we hit as much as we could, given the fact that we put a frame around it.
BG And yes, the minute he put the frame around his life, in the comics, it became something different. It’s an interesting idea, that the frame that you start with changes because of the fact that you are trying to depict it.
SSB By virtue of being in Harvey’s life, we now have become part of his story. We’re on Harvey’s latest comic book cover.
BG Oh, that’s right!
SSB An artist came to the set and drew us shooting the film.
BG Let’s talk about the structure. You used a stylized set, a glaringly white room with minimal props, for the real Harvey. That was balanced in the dramatic scenes by a fictionalized reality that had a gritty quality. And for the comic book sequences you used animation. At what point did you make the decision to use the real Harvey?
RP That’s the way we conceived of making the film.
BG There are two Harveys in the screenplay, the real Harvey and the actor who plays Harvey?
RP It actually says in the script, “Real Harvey.”
BG The other Harvey starts feeling more real than the real Harvey.
RP That’s why we chose to make the “real moments,” the documentary moments in the film with Harvey Pekar, as artificial as possible. We wanted a drastic separation between the story that we were telling and the glimpses of real people. We decided that that would be the place where we would explore the comic book frame. The white room is not unlike a white page. We looked at a lot of his comics—Harvey picks and chooses exactly what objects will represent a room. What do you need to convey the feeling he wants? One record player, one album, and a piece of trash on the floor. That’s what we did with the documentary scenes.
SSB Harvey Pekar is into naturalism, realism, the whole Theodore Dreiser thing. He also talked about films from that era.
BG Does he like 1970s films?
SSB He likes the Italian Neorealists.
BG That makes a lot of sense.
SSB It fits in with his worldview.
BG What does he love about Dreiser?
RP Both of them were obsessed with the American workplace and its impact on people in their class, on class structure, the daily grind.
SSB Harvey was very interested in the working man, but not necessarily in a polemical way. We thought that Harvey’s love of naturalism in his comics was wedded to the 1970s movies, like Fat City, Midnight Cowboy, and Deer Hunter, part of which was shot in Cleveland. We wanted to recreate that 1970s movie look in the narrative portion of the movie; it had to be underlit, with an earth tone. The film stocks now are very different. They are really vibrant.
BG Too vibrant. They practically jump off the screen.
SSB We had to do a lot of stuff to the film stock to degrade it, so that it would look more like the ’70s. We flashed the film and used a tobacco filter. It worked out beautifully.
BG Did you think about shooting this as a digital film?
RP Never—Harvey’s world is kind of crude. It really called for film.
RP We’d have lost the grain. Love the grainy.
RP We did shoot all the documentary stuff in high definition video.
BG The third component of the film is the comic animation. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was innovative, and now the form comes back in your film. When did you decide to do that, and technically, what were your choices?
RP That too, was written into the script. We shot in spaces where we hoped the animation would show up well, and when we finished shooting in Cleveland and brought our stuff back to New York, we met with these two amazing guys and their Macs. They are comic book fanatics. And they were totally familiar with American Splendor.
SSB The company’s called Twinkle, but it’s simply Gary Leib and John Kuramoto. They are three blocks from where we were editing. So it was a constant percolation between us, just trying things. They really were both collaborators on the look of the animation. When they read the script—you know, we had very little money, it was a pretty low-budget movie—Gary and John said, “We can’t do CGI stuff, but that’s not what this movie calls for anyway. It’s about paper comics.”
BG You needed the texture of paper drawing. Did you have any of the artists who drew his comic books come in and draw Harvey?
RP We had Doug Allen, who does the comic book Steven. He hadn’t worked with Harvey before that, but Harvey’s a fan of his, and they probably will work together after the movie comes out. He was very familiar with the American Splendor style.
BG This third Harvey, the animated Harvey, had to have a certain naturalistic look and feel. Technically, how did you do it?
RP Mostly we worked with plates.
BG And then matted them together? That’s the old-fashioned technology we all started with, when we used to do mats or rear-screen projections! It’s almost anti-technology.
SSB We were laughing because some of the technology we used on this movie is, like, Buster Keaton techniques.
BG It’s kind of nice.
SSB It was all over the place. This movie was finished two days before we flew out to Sundance. We were doing technical stuff until the last minute.
BG It has a very fluid narrative, even with the different forms. Did you ever think, Why don’t we take this idea of the cartoon Harvey and go even more into that world of what it might be like in his head? Did you think about being crazier? Pushing it to some extreme?
RP We never wanted to lose the heart of the story or let the style of the movie take over. If we were ever in danger of people not being emotionally invested in the movie, then it would have failed. If we got carried away with ideas, we would have lost the emotional core of this film.
SSB That was a constant battle, because you do start to get excited. So we kept ourselves on a very tight leash. We were slaves to the narrative. And it paid off. We were on the edge—we pushed the movie as far as we could push it.
BG How do you guys work together? You’re a team from way back. Did you meet at Columbia?
RP Yeah, Shari produced my short film. I edited her short film. And then we started writing together.
SSB Yeah, and then we got married.
BG How do work and marriage play out in your creative lives? Do you find you’re co-directors and co-writers, or does somebody write more than direct?
RP We never really sit down at the computer together; you know, one person will push forward and the other person will then sit down and take over, rewrite . . . and then we fight and fight and fight—
SSB Fighting is part of the process.
BG And fighting makes for more drama both in and outside the work. (laughter)
RP Exactly. With documentaries, we have multiple cameras. I’d follow one story and Shari would follow another. Then we’d meet up and say, What did you get? We would talk through each other. American Splendor took a little adjusting to. I would focus more on camera and Shari would focus on the actors, then we’d switch.
BG Harvey and his wife are quite a team themselves: she’s part of his story, and he’s part of hers. That must have been a nice way for them to accept you, and you them. You were two teams.
SSB Exactly, it made it much more comfortable for them and for us. There would be moments when Joyce would pull me aside and complain about Harvey, and then Harvey would pull Bob aside and complain about Joyce. There was definitely that element of understanding the difficulties of working together and being married. Our process adapted pretty well to doing a narrative.
BG Let’s talk briefly about the casting. You put together an amazing cast.
SSB I was shocked that such a small movie generated such huge interest from so many people. Big-name people were interested.
RP There’s a very fragile relationship between seeing the person who plays Harvey and seeing the real guy. You don’t want one to upstage the other. It had to be an easy transition. You didn’t want it to be purely an intellectual transition, we wanted to be able to do it naturally. Paul saw himself playing the character in the comic books; he didn’t work on imitating Harvey. He captured the spirit of that character in the comics, including those great pictures of Harvey’s posture. And that’s why it works.
BG They do look amazingly alike in their aura.
RP It’s a spiritual connection more than a physical one.
BG I think Hope Davis did a great job.
RP Hope is the last person we saw. That was the hardest role.
BG Because of their tenuous relationship?
RP She’s such a specific character.
SSB A lot of really good actresses came in. Her lines are really funny and a lot of them went for a Woody Allen type humor. I love Woody Allen but—
RP There’s something very specifically New York about Woody Allen. That’s the way a lot of people read that role. But this is working class Cleveland.
SSB By trying not to go for the jugular, or the laugh, Hope was funnier. She totally embraced the character without trying to be funny, and that turned out to be very funny.
RP She has this very studious quality, she’s always analyzing people and she has that natural ability to look through other people. Harvey has this crazy physical energy, and Hope balanced that.
BG When you see the real Harvey and the real Joyce, you think, Oh yeah, I see it. It’s different but it’s the same. Are there any other films that have the fictional characters and the real people in the same film?
RP I can’t think of any offhand.
BG A movie that comes to mind—it’s nothing like what you’re doing, but I responded to it in the same way—is Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel’s film on the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. It looked at the character in a similar way, very humane.
SSB You know what I loved about that movie? It felt like poetry. It used the device of poetry to tell the story.
BG Now, the David Letterman sequences—
RP It’s the real footage. They’re actual appearances. Harvey went on his show a lot in the ’80s. Well, one of them is not Letterman. The very last one.
BG Aha. I thought so.
RP But anytime you see the television screen in the film, that’s real live footage.
BG And when you are on the Letterman set—
RP That’s a reenactment.
SSB It was very hard to cut between that and the actual show. Harvey’s ranting about GE and the network’s pandering to its corporate owners. You have to watch it a few times to really understand what’s going on. He starts yelling about all this political stuff, and there’s no humor unless you remember that nobody talked about that stuff then. That’s when he was booted off the show. The re-creation worked pretty well, because we’d already set up the dynamic of being in the Green Room with Joyce watching him on the television set.
BG It worked for me anyway.
The film enters a more traditional arc when Harvey gets cancer. The tone of the film changes; he seems to recede. And Joyce comes forward. You feel a bit like you are losing him, not literally, but I wondered how much of that you really wanted to show. I mean, he wrote about it, so you had to do it.
SSB I think that it was very important to show the year of Harvey’s cancer. That overriding theme—a love affair between a man and his form of creative expression. Ultimately it is literally writing the comic book version of his illness—
BG —that kept him alive.
SSB By doing the comic book, he was able to withstand a very torturous chemotherapy. The book goes into graphic detail. We didn’t in the movie, because nobody really wants to watch that. He had a lot of pain, and emotional pain as well. Harvey would have killed us if we had cut that out—it’s sort of like his life. Everything’s going great for Harvey, and he gets cancer. But in the end, which again is true life, out of this really dark period came Danielle, their foster daughter.
BG Yes. I understand, his relationship to his work, which is the central focus of the film, was almost magnified by the cancer. His comics are so much a part of the fabric of who he is in his life.
RP He gets through the drudgery of his life by writing those comics, and ultimately, that helps him get through the cancer. His obsessive-compulsive nature, with that form of expression, became a coping mechanism. And also, he brings an artist in to collaborate with, and Joyce helps in the telling. That’s a big emotional step for him. He starts letting people in his life in a different way.
SSB There is a subtle change in the shooting, when he recovers. We stop using the tobacco filter. It’s as if Harvey is being seen in a different life.
BG What do you guys think of the current climate in filmmaking in New York? We call it indie, but is it indie? Do you consider yourselves indie filmmakers?
RP The independent spirit used to be about the financing, and then it became about the spirit of the movie.
SSB It’s a new genre now, as opposed to film noir or comedy. American Splendor was financed by HBO, which is a piece of AOL Time Warner. It couldn’t be more corporate if we tried.
RP Yet it couldn’t be more independent in the way it’s been constructed. We were able to make the film without any consideration of weekend box office numbers, or any of that stuff, any of those little things that influence the way we tell a story.
BG Once you are in the theaters, that’s where the problem lies—getting a film that has different subject matter, or a different means of production, out into the world.
SSB Yeah, we face that in a real way with a documentary. Talk about trying to get people to pay attention to theatrical documentary.
RP We never imagined that our film would have a theatrical release. We of course hoped, you know, every filmmaker dreams that it is going to play on big screens, but—
BG You thought it would go right to HBO television.
SSB That was the original agreement. And what was great about HBO is that at Sundance they weren’t interested in the highest bidder, they were interested in the best deal for the movie.
BG I went to see a movie a few years ago. Fat Girl, did you see that?
SSB Ted really liked that.
BG I did too. I was sitting in the audience and there is a moment where a mother is with her two daughters in a car and a killer jumps on the car when you least expect it. The whole audience gasped, and it was just one of those communal experiences that you could not have experienced at home; it made it that much more intense. And I thought, that’s why I’m sitting in this dark movie theater right now. There’s something addictive about that experience. And I remember watching Hitchcock films growing up, and that same feeling of communal spirit in the audience was so important. It made the films even scarier.
RP It’s true.
SSB In the ’80s, you went to a certain movie theater and watched a certain movie—
BG Yeah, like what you said before about the comics and the music. In New York there was an enormous collaborative spirit between musicians and artists and performers. I don’t feel that so much anymore, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
RP I think it does exist here. That’s why I love being downtown.
BG I like the feeling of a group of people walking down the street. Sitting in a café, maybe somebody has just seen the same movie as you, and you almost want to turn around and say something. That’s why I live in New York.
—Bette Gordon is an independent filmmaker and director whose best-known film, Variety (1985), dealt with issues of sexuality and voyeurism and sparked heated debates on women and pornography. Her most recent film, Luminous Motion (1998), the tale of a struggling mother and her young son, received rave reviews in 2000. Gordon is an associate professor in the film department at Columbia University.