One of the more arresting scenes in “Bernard and Huey,” which has its fair share, starts out behind a curtain of magnifying glasses that have been strung together to form a curtain, obscuring what’s behind it to some degree, but not enough to deny a viewer the reality of the circumstances, which is fitting for a situation in which Bernard (Jim Rash) finds himself in a compromising position in his relationship with his longtime friend’s daughter Zelda (Mae Whitman), at least half his age. As the swinging lenses reflect the murky morality of what Bernard is up to, twirling even further because of the verve of Jules Feiffer’s biting screenplay, you admire the cleverness of the visual metaphor, but as with everything the film’s director Dan Mirvish does, the sneaky brilliance of it doesn’t end there, all because it made use of $100 worth of magnifying glasses that would’ve gone to waste, intended to be used for a reward for the film’s Kickstarter campaign, if he hadn’t figured out a place for them.
“We had a very reasonable [Kickstarter] goal of $10,000, because as I always tell people you shouldn’t try to raise your whole budget that way and if you can get to 10 percent of your budget, that’s enough to pay a casting director and set a start date and those kinds of things, and we hit that in nine days, which was great,” says Mirvish. ”But the problem is once you hit your goal, people stop giving you money. So I was like, “Wait, we still have 21 days left to go?!? How are we going to keep raising money?'”
While noticing that the crowdsourced projects that raised the most money weren’t other films, but inventions, Mirvish had already been tinkering with tricking out his Canon DSLR camera, by drilling a hole into the already existing lens cap to place a prismatic toy lens inside that would distort the image in interesting ways, when he thought of mass producing the lens cap as a $35 perk. For the man who once created a film festival — Slamdance — after being unable to find a proper home for his first feature “Omaha,” it was yet another example of the director finding the sweet spot in between solving an artistic conundrum and finding the money to pay for it in the first place as the creation he dubbed “Mirvishscope” grabbed attention from the likes of IndieWire and Filmmaker Magazine to help ring up an additional $15,000, and though for many filmmakers, such behind-the-scenes ingenuity may be more impressive than what’s onscreen, it isn’t in the case of “Bernard and Huey,” which reunites two friends after 25 years who face very different realities than what they had anticipated as college kids hanging about in Greenwich Village.
The film itself waited nearly as long to see the light of day, drawn from a script Feiffer based on the famed twosome he often snuck into the pages of the Village Voice and Playboy, yet its observations of the overly self-regarding Bernard and the shaggy Huey (David Koechner) as they try to wend their way out of their respective funks are acute, sharpened by the same wit the writer/cartoonist showed in his scripts for such films as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Little Murders, and boasts a strong cast of women to keep the duo in check, including Nancy Travis, Bellamy Young and Sasha Alexander. Shortly before the film hits theaters, Mirvish spoke about his epic search for the film’s screenplay, the small updates he incorporated to make it contemporary and how the film’s camera style gave him more time to think about compositions and less stress on the production.
How did this come about?
I was making my last film, “Between Us” and that was more of a drama, and “Carnal Knowledge” was a big influence, just tonally and some of the visuals of it. So while I was in post-production, I thought “What happened to Jules Feiffer?’” I knew a little bit about him and had read some of his cartoons when I was in college, so I just googled him and found an interview with him that said he was still alive and in his 80s, living in the Hamptons and still very active doing graphic novels and plays and teaching. At the very end of the article, it just had this little throwaway line that said he had several unproduced screenplays, and I thought, “Well, whatever they are, they’re probably good. I mean, this is a guy that won a Pulitzer, an Oscar, two Obies, a Tony nomination [and a National Cartoonist Lifetime Achievement Award] — better than an EGOT, that’s a POOTN. So who wouldn’t want that, right?
I knew he had this relationship with Robert Altman, and Altman was my mentor on my first film and I still work closely with Dana, Altman’s grandson, and we reached out to Jules together. When we got ahold of him, he said, “Yeah, I think I’ve got some screenplays, but I’ve been divorced a few times and everything’s in storage. I don’t know exactly where everything is, so try me back in four months. Maybe I’ll have something for you.” So we tried him back four months later. “Yeah, I still don’t know where anything is. Try me back in another four months.” And this went on for a year-and-a-half. We still hadn’t found anything [in our own search]. Then finally my friend Kevin DeNovis, another filmmaker knew I was having this [back-and-forth] with Jules, and said, “Hey Dan, I seem to remember reading one of his screenplays in Scenario Magazine,” [which] sometimes published unproduced screenplays. And I said, “That’s great, Kevin. Do you still have your copy of the magazine?” And he says, “No, I just got divorced. Everything’s in storage.”
Thankfully, the Academy Library in L.A. was the only library in America with a copy of the magazine and luckily, I live not far from there, so I went over and they had “Bernard and Huey” and a little article explaining the backstory of why it hadn’t been produced. The magazine was from 1989 and it explained that it was based on the cartoons from 1957 and the Playboy cartoons from 1982 to 1985 and in ’86, Showtime commissioned [Jules\ to write the screenplay. But the week he turned it in, Showtime changed ownership and their whole business model, so they never paid him for the script and just kind of handed it back to him. I called Jules after I found the script and he said, “Oh yeah, ‘Bernard and Huey,’ that’s the one!” And then he said, “But I seem to remember my assistant sent them an abridged version of the script. What you read may not have been the final version of the screenplay.” So I said, “Well, that’s fine. I’ll just call your old assistant. Maybe she has a floppy disk of the whole thing.” [And Jules said,] “Oh no, she’s dead.” And I thought, “Oh no. I’m sorry to hear that. Well, what about your agent?” He had a big Hollywood agent at the time. “Oh no, he’s dead too.” And then I said, “What about your lawyer?” “Oh no longer my counsel. He’s dead.” So that was horrible.
But [Jules] had this producing partner Michael Brandman and thankfully, he was still alive, still married and still has his archive. And he was able to track down a hard copy of the screenplay that he still had and then a couple months later, we actually found the original handwritten copy of the screenplay at the Library of Congress, which was cool because that was on yellow legal pads because Jules always had the assistant do the typing for him — and it still had his dead lawyer’s phone number written in the margins. So that’s how we found it.
There’s references to crowdfunding and the Circle Jerks, which presumably weren’t in the original script though I wouldn’t put it past Feiffer to foretell the future. What did you feel comfortable with changing in the original script when it’s this legendary writer, if anything?
As soon as I read the script, I said to Jules, “Look, it’s hard enough to make one period movie, much less two period movies on my kind of budget, so how do you feel about updating it and moving everything up 30 years” because in the original script, the contemporary scenes were set in 1986 and the flashbacks were in 1960. He liked that idea and the interesting thing was how little had to change when we did that. Yeah, in the original “Bernard and Huey,” they were jazz fans and Village beats, so I changed them to be punk fans and a couple of the musical references changed, but I really wanted to preserve the original dialogue [because] that’s the whole point of having a Feiffer script. What’s interesting is the one plot change that we made was that in the original, [Huey’s daughter] Zelda was an aspiring cartoonist — her career goal was to be in the cartoon [section] in the back of the Village Voice and if you think about it in 1986, that’s exactly what Feiffer was doing. It really was the apex of cartooning. That’s where Matt Groening was doing it before “The Simpsons.” But you do it 30 years later, there’s no real back of the alternative weeklies as a career goal, and Feiffer himself is now doing graphic novels, and if you’re 25, that’s what you want to do, so we really just changed it to what Feiffer himself is doing now. So we just changed it to both of them working at a publishing house and we even went to Feiffer’s editor at Norton and took pictures of his office and used that as the model for Bernard’s office. The little post-it notes [everywhere] – that’s actually comes straight from Feiffer’s editor.
And just to step back one second, the interesting thing I think is that if someone had made this film 15 years ago, the temptation would’ve been to make Zelda a digital graphic designer or a web designer, but the benefit of waiting 30 years is that a lot of the sideplot involving the printer and self-publishing is very cyclical, so remarkably very little had to change from the original. As [for the actual] cartoons [Zelda draws], my next door neighbor said, “Oh, my niece just graduated from college. Can she intern on your film?” And we met her and we said, “Do you have any particular talents?” And we found out she was an illustrator, so we made her do the penis cartoon [Zelda specializes in], which took a little explaining to my next door neighbors. [laughs] But all of those cartoons are described in specific detail in Feiffer’s original script. He said, “Those should be in R. Crumb style,” and she didn’t really know Crumb, so I had to show her his style of drawing.
How did Jim Rash and David Koechner become your “Bernard and Huey”?
When you make an independent film, the smart thing is to never have specific actors absolutely in mind. We looked at all kinds of people — I think we’re still waiting for Don Cheadle to get back to us on the offer for Bernard, but of the two of them, Koechner came on pretty early in the process. His agent suggested him to us and I was actually listening to a podcast with Adam Scott, talking about the two of them working on “Krampus,” and Koechner had also been in “Dill Scallion,” which years ago had been a film at Slamdance and I’m still friends with the director Jordan Brady, [who] said, “Oh yeah, Koechner is great to work with.” So I met with David and we cast him. Then Rash came onboard sort of accidentally. I was still raising money for the film and had this old list of production companies I was calling. I talked to an assistant at this one production company, and I said, “Can I talk to your boss? We’re raising money for the film.” He said, “Oh, what’s the film?” I said, “Bernard and Huey.” And he said, “I love that script.” And I [asked], “How have you read that?” And he told me, “We’re also a management company and we read the script and we just pitched Jim Rash to your casting director.” And I said, “Wait, do you mean Oscar winner Jim Rash? That would look great on a poster.”
I was a big fan of Jim not really so much from “Community,” but from “Sky High,” the Disney superhero movie, which is one of my kids’ favorite movies and [Slamdance alum] Mike Mitchell directed, and I also knew that Jim had worked with the Russo Brothers on “Community,” and they said, “Oh yeah, he’s great. You should cast him.” So Jim and I met and we both had a connection to Alexander Payne [who Rash and Nat Faxon co-wrote “The Desendants” with] and we hit it off. But the point of the story is that we were very open to actors of different body types – fat, short, skinny, whatever, because so much of [casting a film] is about schedule and availability. In the end, we lucked out because not only were the two guys we got fantastic actors, but they look exactly like the cartoon! It just worked out that way – so much so that Feiffer even joked, “Why did you find a guy who looked so much like me for Bernard! Couldn’t you have hired somebody more handsome?!?”
Visually, the film is pretty striking – the way you isolate characters with light, particularly. How did you figure out the visual style of this?
I worked closely with Todd Somodevilla, my DP, who came on fairly early on the project, so we really had a lot of time to talk about the aesthetics before we started shooting. Even though we were moving the time period up, because of the pedigree of Feiffer and the whole history of the project, I still wanted to pay at least some homage to the aesthetics of the early ‘70s films, including “Carnal Knowledge” and “Little Murders” without having it be too on the nose, so we would look at these movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s and we’d take screengrabs from a lot of these films, particularly films that were shot by Gordon Willis – not “The Godfather,” but basically everything else because he shot “Little Murders,” which Feiffer wrote, and we’d create these elaborate PDFs and communicate back and forth between Los Angeles and New York about the references and come up with a cohesive aesthetic.
Part of it was practical. We shot “Between Us” on two cameras, which is great if you want to get a lot of coverage, but it also slows down the production. With two cameras, you need two camera operators, two first ADs, two second ADS and the DP needs to be back at Video Village – you have to create a video village because you’re looking at two monitors. Then you have to feed all those people and you can’t really concentrate on the framing of any one shot because you have to light for both cameras. So with a true single-camera, you can have a much smaller crew and less cables running around and really emphasize the framing of each individual shot [which] led us to the aesthetic of the long oners where the actors keep the frame for four minutes.
Part of that was also informed by rehearsals [because] all of the actors came in and out of my kitchen and we really worked on the film for three or four days, and I could really see that not only did we have great actors, but they’re all on the same wavelength. These actors could sustain a scene in ways that other films and other casts you can’t necessarily do that. It worked because this cast was as good as they were, so that really gave us the freedom to try those shots.
It also seems like there must be a story behind the song “Teenage Debutante” that you’re credited with performing alongside Jim Rash and David Koechner. Is there?
In the original script, which was set in the ‘60s, they were singing some jazz song and there was a moment where they make a reference to a lyric, so when we moved everything up, the obvious thing was to sing the lyrics from a punk song from the ‘80s. But being a low-budget indie filmmaker, I don’t want to try to get the rights to a Circle Jerks or a Clash song – that could be expensive and it could take time, right? So [“Teenage Debutante”] was a placeholder at first. I said, “Why don’t we just use a song I wrote 30 years ago?” I was in a band in Omaha. It wasn’t really a punk band. We didn’t really know how to play our instruments. [laughs] But the point was I had a song and I had the rights to it because I wrote it, so we used that when we were shooting. In post-production, I went back and found my original recording of it, which wasn’t that great, but I thought, why don’t I just get together with my composer Luis Guerra, who is a good friend of mine, and we’ll just rerecord this song. Then Luis said, “Dan, why don’t you just sing it.” We were in Luis’ garage, so I said, “Alright” and we just completely re-recorded it.
There’s slightly more to this story, which I don’t know if you picked up on, but when we were in post-production, we noticed there’s a bright red bra that shows up twice incongruently – [once] in a flashback scene when Huey and Bernard are talking in Huey’s apartment, and weirdly enough, that exact same bra shows up in the magnifying glass scene in Zelda’s apartment. We thought, “Oh no, this is a major continuity error. The art department accidentally used the exact same bra twice.” And then we were like, “Well, if anyone ever asked about it, we could always make the argument that it was [Zelda’s mother’]s bra from 30 years ago that she gave to her daughter or something weird like that.” So this comes back to the song – one of the last lines of the original song is “But it was the tie-dyed bra that really, really shocked your mom.” So as we were re-recording it – it’s my song anyway – [we changed it to] “But it was the bright red bra that really, really shocked your mom.” So if you listen really, really carefully in the film, right when you see it in that flashback scene, that’s what you hear.”
That must’ve been a sign from the universe that this was meant to be.
There you go – I don’t think you were expecting that much, right?
“Bernard and Huey” opens in limited release on June 8th, including the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and in New York at the Village East. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It will also be available on demand and on iTunes and Vudu.