• Industry

Peter Bogdanovich, Back in the Director’s Chair

Two-time Golden Globe nominee Peter Bogdanovich certainly knows a thing or two about screwball comedies. Back in the 1970s, the legendary director revived the classic Hollywood genre with his hit films Paper Moon (which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director) and What’s Up, Doc?.
Now at age 76, Bogdanovich returns to the directing chair after a 15-year absence (following the 2001 period drama The Cat’s Meow) to revive the fast-talking farce again with She’s Funny That Way. The film stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.
“Nobody knows how to make them anymore,” the blunt-talking filmmaker says of the screwball genre. “Comedy today is not constructed in a complicated way. They tend to rely on body-fluid humor … I don’t think that’s funny.” Bogdanovich is holding court at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills where a day of press promoting his new film has left the director weary. “Forgive me if I don’t get up,” he says as he sits back in his chair adjusting his trademark neck scarf over his lightly colored suit.
An interview with Bogdanovich always involves an entertaining walk down movie memory lane, as he recalls (and often perfectly imitates) encounters with many of the great actors and directors he got to know over the years including Orson Welles, John Ford and Cary Grant.
The son of immigrant parents, Bogdanovich grew up in New York and began his career programming films for the Museum of Modern Art and as a film journalist for Esquire magazine. He relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to become a filmmaker and rose quickly after the release of his 1971 Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated The Last Picture Show. But after three early box office and critical successes, a series of movie flops and personal and financial dramas eventually led him to declare bankruptcy and move out of his Bel Air home. Despite the travails, Bogdanovich has always worked, including as an actor, with his best-known role as therapist Dr. Elliot Kupferberg on The Sopranos. “Well, I started as an actor studying with Stella Adler,” he notes. He has also directed a four-hour documentary on musician Tom Petty and is a well-regarded film historian with two notable books, 1997’s Who the Hell Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors and 2004’s Who the Hell’s In It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors.
But the director’s chair is where he feels most at home. “I really enjoyed making this film and particularly a comedy,” he says. “I like to hear people laugh. When I made What’s Up, Doc?, I called Cary Grant to tell him that it was opening at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. He told me to stand at the back and listen to 6,500 people laugh at what you did. He was right it was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had.”
It took She’s Funny That Way a long time to get on the screen. The script was first written in 1999 with his then-wife Louise Stratten and was intended to star John Ritter. With Ritter’s death in 2003, Bogdanovich shelved the project until he met with Owen Wilson some years later.
“I got to know him and like him and thought he would be perfect for the film,” Bogdanovich says. Filmmakers Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, who are fans of the director, also came on board as co-producers. Wilson plays a successful Hollywood director about to direct a Broadway play. He offers a Brooklyn call girl (played by British actress Imogen Poots) during a rendezvous $30,000 to help change her life. She accepts the offer and the chain reaction that ensues entwines in a farcical way across different lives, ultimately leading back to the director.
The premise of the story echoed a real life situation in Bogdanovich’s life. “We did a picture called Saint Jack in Singapore and the nature of the story we had to do research on the local prostitutes,” he recalls. “A couple of the girls were miserable and wanted to go home and I got them extra money so they could do that. I thought it would be a great premise of a movie that a guy gives an escort enough money to change her life and then what happens?”
Perhaps one of the most vivid characters he draws is the therapist played by Aniston. “She is outrageous,” he says. “Probably the worst most self-involved therapist you could ever meet.”
Some familiar faces from Bogdanovich’s past films also appear, including Cybill Shepherd, Tatum O’Neal and Joanna Lumley. The director cast British-born Poots without even auditioning her. “I met her and I knew she was perfect,” he says. “She was quirky and unusual and I told her within 15 minutes that she had the part. I have often cast people without reading them for the part including Tatum and Cybill.”
With this film now behind him, Bogdanovich is already planning another called Wait For Me, about an aging filmmaker. “I don’t really know how to do anything else, so I guess I will keep doing it,” he says with a laugh.
Katherine Tulich