Zak Penn on “The Grand”

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03252008_thegrand1.jpgBy Michelle Orange

Four years after the release of “Incident at Loch Ness,” a wily mockumentary with a big, German question mark at its center, writer-director Zak Penn returns with “The Grand,” his friend Werner Herzog once again in tow, this time as a participant in a high stakes poker tournament. More forthright than “Loch Ness,” Penn’s comedy still balances the outrageous with the heartfelt, tapping the improv skills of a cast that includes Michael McKean, Judy Greer, Richard Kind and Woody Harrelson as the odds-off favorite. Penn found time in between working on “Section 8,” a sci-fi series for ABC, and writing the script for a remake of “The Dirty Dozen” to talk about making a movie where he didn’t know the ending, the German, and the conundrum of the mockumentary tag.

You said in an interview in 2004 that “Incident at Loch Ness” was more about making movies than searching for monsters, and that “the poker movie” [which became “The Grand”] would be about more than poker, but you weren’t sure at the time what those other things would be. What did they turn out to be?

What I discovered is that the movie is actually about dysfunctional families. There are two themes — one is whether you believe in the idea of being lucky and how that dictates your life. Lainie [Cheryl Hines] accepts the fact that you can’t control the cards and you can’t control your family, whereas her brother [David Cross] believes that he can control everything around him. Jack [Harrelson] has given himself over to luck, he wants to believe he’s helpless to do anything about anything. Harold [Chris Parnell] completely controls his environment. But the other thing the movie turned into is an exploration of families. I didn’t even realize this until the movie was finished, but if you look at the relationship between Harold and his mother [Estelle Harris], or Gabe Kaplan and his kids, or Jack and his grandfather — most of the characters are struggling with some sense of the pressure of a previous generation. That became the heart of the movie.

So you started with a treatment for the film, and let the actors improvise and drive the details. Did the themes develop over time?

The luck thing is something I knew from the outset, so when we did the interviews with the characters, one of the first things I asked was “How do you feel about luck? Are you lucky? Are you skillful? Do you believe in luck?” I asked them questions hoping that it would make sense somehow to cut in later, which it did. On that level, I very intentionally went after a theme and tried to work it into scenes. But the family stuff, a lot of it came out in the improvs, and my job as writer/director is to say, “That was great, do that again.”

The incredible irony of the movie is that, in playing the whole final table for real, and not knowing as a filmmaker what the ending was, we left the entire movie up to chance. The character who won was not who was set up to win. We said, whoever’s character wins, wins in the movie and we shot 12 different endings to cover all the iterations of people winning or losing. It was all shot the way you would shoot a televised poker event. We shot with 10 cameras. I told everyone we’re playing real tournament rules. If you get eliminated, you leave.

Did anyone have to learn how to play?

I think Chris [Parnell] had to learn how to play, he didn’t know how. Dennis Farina knew a little bit, but he had to bone up.

03252008_thegrand3.jpgThe film has been described as being in the mockumentary mold, but you’ve talked about mapping the structure along the lines of “Spellbound,” a pretty sincere documentary. “The Grand” is actually broader and has a bigger heart than what I’d consider a mockumentary. I wasn’t sure you were actually mocking anything, except maybe geek-driven competitive documentaries.

Technically, mockumentary refers to a movie that’s pretending to be a documentary and yet is making fun of them, like “Spinal Tap.” And “Incident at Loch Ness” is a good example. That film is clearly a mockumentary, in that it’s literally mocking the form of documentary. Yes, on some level “The Grand” uses mockumentary techniques, but if you actually watch “Best in Show” again, is it a mockumentary? There’s no narrator, no person shown making the film. It’s not structured like a documentary, it’s structured like a story. Sometimes people are talking to the camera, but for the most part, people are acting in scenes and the camera just happens to be there. So, for example, in a scripted documentary like “Spinal Tap,” there are no scenes that don’t have a documentary crew as an implied part of the film. Would you call “JFK” a mockumentary because people talk to the camera? No, it’s just a technique that [Oliver] Stone uses. Not to get too technical, but in “The Grand,” the sit-down interviews are all part of the poker show [within the film]. It uses documentary techniques to tell a story, sure, but it’s not a mockumentary, there’s no implied filmmaker. 80% of the movie is just shot the way a movie would be shot.

What do you think the attraction of the format is to filmmakers, and what is the function (and future) of mockumentary in a culture that — at this point — essentially mocks itself?

Well, if there weren’t sit-down interviews in “The Grand,” would we be having this discussion? Would we call it a mockumentary? Do you call “The Office” a mockumentary? Ostensibly, there’s a filmmaker there, but it doesn’t seem like it because they never deal with it. I would argue that only two things in the movie make it feel like a mockumentary, the interviews and the kind of Ken Burns-ish photo montages that tell you about the characters. And the reason for both of those are purely production-oriented. The most efficient, cheapest and easiest thing to shoot when you’re doing a low budget film are scenes of people talking directly to the camera. You can shoot for an hour straight with one set-up and get all sorts of usable footage with one camera and you can get around some of the editing problems you can have on a low-budget movie, which is you can’t do re-shoots or ten extra set-ups. If I’d had more money, I would have ditched a lot of that. I’d have found a way to turn it into a regular scene. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about that. It is an interesting issue — it’s an aesthetic issue and there’s also a very real production and practical issue behind it all.

In the film, Werner Herzog’s character, the German, praises Las Vegas for being “a place without irony, there are only winners and losers.” And Herzog is on record as claiming not to have a sense of irony — his character plays heavily into the sort of Herzog persona, did you have to convince him to do that?

Not at all. There was definitely some trepidation on his part before we did “Loch Ness,” about what I was going to do — although not really, Werner’s not the type, he’ll go head first or not at all. But once he saw “Loch Ness” and saw how I was using his persona, how I was allowing him not to take himself seriously — which is something I think he longs to do — he likes being funny, and so it was pretty easy. Seeing Werner in this role, there’s an extra bonus level of funny to it because it is who it is. But it really is as far removed from him as you can get, in terms of character. He’s a very gentle, sweet guy, he’s really friendly. But the idea of him as a frightening Bond villain — and that’s the way I pitched it to him — was kind of perfect.

03252008_thegrand2.jpgHis introduction is pretty spectacular. It’s like John Wayne in “Stagecoach,” it’s right up there with the classic entrance scenes.

That’s more of a classic performance scene and a lot of Werner’s part is like that. You just have to be quick on your feet and stay in character [in improv], and he can do both of those things. Particularly in German, he’s really good in German. He didn’t have a problem with it, but I’m not going to tell you that he could get up on stage with the Groundlings and be as good as David Cross.

What’s your take on Vegas? The film seems ambivalent — you have Jack Faro trying to keep the old downtown alive amidst soulless overdevelopment, but the Vegas that the Dennis Farina character is nostalgic for involves 13-year-old hookers and racial segregation.

You’ve actually pinpointed another of the themes I had in mind originally, which was that idea of false nostalgia, which I pitched to [co-writer] Matt Bierman, who came up with the story originally. One of the things that always strikes me about Vegas is this sense that no matter when you go there, everyone’s always longing for when it was better. It was better when the gangsters were there, it was better when it was classy, it was better when it was seedy…for a while, it was family friendly and people complained. Now, it’s seedy again and people long for when it was family friendly. And poker is kind of like that too — that is the part of the film that is actually about poker. You talk to some poker players and they talk about how it used to be so much better, and how all of these internet players have ruined it. But the internet is what made poker so popular; before that, poker was just a game that was played in Vegas and a few other places, and in fact, it’s kind of nice that poker has become a much more democratic game. We lived in Vegas at the Golden Nugget, which is something I felt very strongly about, for about seven weeks and shot there for four weeks total.

You’ve had a 15 year-plus poker game going — what’s your attraction to the game? Is there a character who comes closest to you in style or attitude toward luck?

I believe that luck is an example of the human mind transposing order onto something that is inherently chaotic. For many people, luck has come to mean something that rubs off on you or sticks to you, like by sitting in a certain seat you can influence what’s happening, whereas I firmly believe that you’re perceiving a pattern in retrospect where there is none. I like poker because it’s not just a game of luck — there’s a lot of skill involved. And you can overcome the cards, unlike blackjack, where you just play against chance. Poker poses as a game of chance but is actually a game of strategy. I actually thought I was a better player before I made this movie. Once I had hung out with a bunch of pros, I learned I was not as good as I thought. But Lainie is the character who is most normal and grounded in her approach and is probably the audience surrogate. She has the healthiest attitude toward the game, so naturally I’d have to put myself in her boat. Either her or Doyle Brunson.

[Photos: Zak Penn on set; Dennis Farina and Hank Azaria; Werner Herzog — “The Grand” Anchor Bay, 2007]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.