jason stives conducts pop-break’s first interview with a film director …
The master-crafting of a comedy is far more difficult than most people are willing to believe. Finding the funny bone to the movie audience comes in different shades because everyone has different taste, and certain humor can please some but not others — and sometimes not at all. Even so, on a large wide-release platform, it can be very intimidating, especially if the film not only receives poor reviews but minimal box-office receipts. It’s even more difficult if it’s your first film.
Director Trent Cooper is only two films deep into his career, with another film titled Holy Takedown (starring Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum) in pre-production. But already, each film has issued life lessons accordingly, with Trent’s first film, Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector, receiving mixed reviews and box-office returns. However, this hasn’t fazed him much, and instead he has taken it with stride, moving forward and now releasing his second film, Father of Invention. The film, also co-written by Cooper, stars Kevin Spacey as a former millionaire infomercial guru who must rebuild his professional and personal life from the ground up after serving time in prison for injuring some of his customers.
I had the chance to have a chat with Trent on the phone to discuss Father Of Invention and its inter-connecting themes of second chances and life lessons, along the way musing about the works of Jack Lemmon, silent movies, and the broad stroke of comedy.
Trent Cooper: Did you get a chance to see the movie?
Pop-Break: I have! I saw it the other night, and I have to say what struck me the most was you created a very simple film in the sense that is was plotted easily and you didn’t focus too much on themes.
TC: It’s funny because that is what we basically set out to do. It’s very much derived from classic films, like old Billy Wilder films. So the audience is never too sure if they are watching a drama or a comedy, and hopefully the characters speak to you and you feel for them and just go on this whole journey for 95 minutes. [laughs]
PB: The thing I found very striking was you chose to tackle a very familiar subject in someone making amends for their actions after a great fall. Even after seeing that idea so many times over the years, what made you decide that based on themes that would be in the film that was something to revisit if not in a different locale and position?
TC: Well, I reference it in my own life every day, and it seems to be a constant theme that always comes up in every script I write. It’s this idea of finding a balance between your personal passion and what really matters, like family, your kids, and love. Just finding that balance between love and passion is like the trick of life. So that’s how I related to it, I feel like the audiences love to see that.
PB: You got this character, Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey), and what I liked is that considering he has to make up for a whole mess of things, you chose to make everyone else around him make amends for the things in their lives. Whether it was Donna (Anna Anissimova) coming to terms with her parents’ divorce, Phoebe (Heather Graham) and her lesbian tendencies. They just have to face their own lives from how they feel or act towards him.
TC: Yeah, everybody is a little damaged coming in, and without knowing they are on their own little path to redemption and getting their second chances. It’s kind of cool to give your supporting cast their own journey and a little bit of depth — it makes the experience more fun. If they hadn’t chose to take part in this experience and be around each other when it happens, none of this growth would ever occur for them. I think it’s great to have them deal with second chances, and it’s all happening in this interwoven way.
PB: And you also opted not to make Robert seem like a complete bastard in that you chose to not make everything he did grounds for redemption. He is just a smart man misguided by desire and wanting to see things better for people around him.
TC: Yeah, and I love that line late in the movie where he says, ‘I’m a father. I’m not going to apologize for trying to give my daughter a good life.’ He makes a good argument there because I think, and this is a longer deeper discussion about family and raising kids, I feel like as fathers it is constantly pounded into our brains as you grow up. It’s your job to provide for them and give them a better life that maybe you didn’t have. But then there is this point where if you spend your whole like 20 years trying to do this, you are going to miss everything. You might sense the connection that you could’ve had. And I think this movie asks that question, you know check yourself a bit, is a good life that important to give, or can it just happen on your own principles?
PB: What surprised me was the range of actors you had cast. Kevin Spacey obviously is such a world renowned actor, but combine that with people like Heather Graham and Johnny Knoxville, it’s so strange. Especially someone like Knoxville or even John Stamos, who you don’t normally see get film roles as they are normally associated with television. How did the whole cast of the film come together?
TC: It really starts with Mary Vernieu, who was the casting director. She has cast many of my favorite films from Crazy Heart to Black Swan, The Wrestler, and films like that. So she is amazing and she does all my projects now, and one of the things she taught me was that we needed to find something fresh for the people and just have people on screen together you don’t anticipate. It’s just like in the movie where you are having a connection with people you wouldn’t expect to be in the same place as the other. That’s what Robert Axle is doing and that’s what we tried to do. So you imagine a film with Kevin Spacey and Johnny Knoxville, and you never think of doing that [laughs], and they are awesome together. Same with Craig Robinson and Virginia Madsen, and it kind of honors the spirit of the film in connecting different people together.
PB: I have to say I have always admired Kevin Spacey as an actor, and he reminds me greatly of someone like Jack Lemmon, who is one of my favorite actors. Spacey seems to have the Lemmon quality of just being great with range and never afraid of it. What was it like directing him on set?
TC: Well, for starters, I am a huge Jack Lemmon fan, and one of the things I was hoping was that Kevin would give me like a million Jack Lemmon stories [laughs] because he was a big Jack fan and was his mentor. I believe they did like three plays together, and that was one of the real joys of this film. The other thing that connected us was Kevin and I share a great love for old silent films. Kevin handles physical comedy in the way Buster Keaton would handle slapstick in that he would be calm right in the middle of all this chaos and you see that in the film at some of the bigger comedic moments. But yeah I am totally with you on the whole Jack thing and I feel like he is kind of the second coming of Jack Lemmon. There would be moments in the film where I would see him in certain angles and be like, ‘Wow, he is so Jack.’ [laughs] But I would never say it because actors don’t want to hear that but I felt it and could see it.
He is a top pro, though, and he is extremely devoted, he comes to work ready. He really pushed me and it was great, it’s kind of like hiring a personal trainer to get you in shape, and he is going to work your ass. That’s Kevin, but he is a fun guy, and he always had a ton of time for me each day before, during, and after the shoot. It reminded me in the way theater comes together in the right kind of cast in the right level of people working together. It’s like the purist form of filmmaking.
PB: In looking up your filmography, I noticed that this is only your second film the first being Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector. It seems like you have learned a lot since that first film. With tackling your first film and then moving onto the next what have you learned in that time, what has the learning experience been like?
TC: Well, look, I love comedy, all kinds, broad comedy, smart comedy, witty dialogue and the old school and new stuff. So I am constantly dabbling in different forms. I use to do commercials, and then my first short film I did (The Comeback) was with Samuel Jackson and it was very much in the Christopher Guest mockumentary style. Then the thing I did with Larry was very much broad comedy, you know, red-state blue-collar kind of comedy — Larry’s audience basically. Now, this was more character=driven and more subtle in the humor, and the next thing I’m doing is a high school comedy in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite, and we are all very excited about that. For me, you make your own opportunities and try to get it made, and every time it’s a new way to learn something about what you love. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the comedy guy, but I also want to try it all out. It’s a hard job, sure, and what is tough about the job is you make literally thousands of creative decisions a day and then the two or three you mess up, you are like, wow, but it’s a learning experience that I love to constantly embrace with every new project.