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Tom Noonan Still Reflecting on “What Happened”

Tom Noonan Still Reflecting on “What Happened” (photo)

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For anyone that’s seen Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was,” it would be certainly understandable why the actor/writer/director, who so effortlessly played the misanthropic paralegal on a first date with one of his co-workers, would be a little suspicious of an evening celebrating the film in Los Angeles over the long weekend.

“I thought I would make it and it would go away and it kept coming back,” said Noonan of the 1994 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner. “And I’m glad.”

The screening of “What Happened Was” at Cinefamily was a rare treat regardless, since the dark, low-budget comedy has never been released on DVD. But Noonan flew in from New York to be a part of the repertory theater’s “That Guy!” series, which offered a similar tribute to Bruce Dern a day later and will continue on this month with fetes for character actors such as “Blood Simple”‘s M. Emmet Walsh and Udo Kier. Apparently, the fact that Noonan was sitting through his own work was equally rare, since he admitted he almost never watches his own work when he was describing his approach to playing so many memorable roles.

“To me, the reason people go to movies is to experience someone who’s being honest with themselves, who’s authentic,” said Noonan. “And all that stuff you do like reading and preparing and research, I think, just takes you away from who you are. I’m on the show “Damages.” I’ve never seen “Damages.” I don’t go to the readthroughs. When I read the script, all I read is my lines unless someone’s line comes in between – I don’t want to know nothing. It just doesn’t help me. All I want to do is talk about what it’s like to be me.”

01182011_WhatHappenedWas2.jpgOf course, unlike so many other “That Guys,” Noonan’s full range as an actor and as an artist is on display in “What Happened Was,” which operates as a battle of wits between Noonan and co-star Karen Sillas. It was self-financed from roles he had taken in films like “The Last Action Hero” and “Robocop 2” – as Noonan broke down his approach to taking work in one of the funnier moments of the evening – “What I’ll often do is I’ll take a job in a pretty good movie and then I’ll go off and do a lot of shit and I’ll turn it all down until I’m totally broke, then I’ll pick something really bad as the next thing I do.”

As it turned out, “really bad” could have different definitions in the case of “What Happened Was” since according to Noonan, the film ultimately may have cost him his marriage after then-wife Karen Young refused to take the role opposite him (and he dedicated the film to her) and few other actresses seemed interested.

“After my now-ex-wife wouldn’t do it, I have [the Paradise Theatre] in New York and a slot that I was going to put the play up during and I had to cast it. I had about a week, two weeks. So I started offering everybody I knew and I knew a lot of sort of well-known people. Frances McDormand. Elizabeth McGovern, all these people and they all read it and said, ‘you’re a nice guy, but there’s nothing here.'”

Only Sillas, who was suggested by Noonan’s agent at the last minute, seemed up for the role, which would segue from the stage run to the film without interruption, though Noonan would shoot the whole thing on video first and take out the last 40 pages of a 105-page script before committing it to celluloid. He would waste nothing, using only 8000 feet of film and even used a sound from the crux of the film, where Sillas’ character Jackie tells a horrifying story she intended as the first chapter of a fairytale, as a recurring motif throughout.

“I took the sound of [Sillas’] voice in telling the story, especially when she goes “huuuuuuuuuh” – that sound and put it under everything in the film like when she moves every chair, so you’re hearing her do that screech through the whole movie. I mixed it and you hear it. It’s subliminal.”

01182011_Manhunter.jpgModerator and Cinefamily owner Hadrian Belove encouraged Noonan to tell war stories from some of his other films, which he did with gusto. In particular, Belove wanted to know about Noonan’s work on “Manhunter,” which led to the high point of the evening, a story about how he first got cast in the film, which I’ll print in its entirety:

[Michael Mann] sort of felt like I embodied the feeling of that movie. All he really wanted me to do was to have that feeling that he sort of saw in me in the audition. Because in the audition, I was really good. I scared the shit out of this woman in the room. What happened is they wanted to put all Steppenwolf people in ‘Manhunter’ – John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, those people. And a lot of them either weren’t available or couldn’t do it, so he went to other people who sort of reminded him of them, which I guess I did. The day I went to audition, I had an appointment and they had me waiting for like an hour and a half to go in to read. And this script sounds so creepy and fucked up and I thought fuck this guy. I’m leaving…and I wanted to leave, which I do on occasion. But I waited and when I finally went in, I walk in the door [Michael Mann] started to talk to me, I said ‘Don’t talk to me. I’m going to read and then I’m going to leave. That’s what we’re doing.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ And I sat down and I’m so pissed off and this woman reading with me had just become a casting person. And I wasn’t doing anything. I was just sort of sitting back in a chair – I did the scene [when Francis Dolarhyde ties the guy] to the chair, [and says] “Do you see. Do you see…”

And this woman, she was like shaking and [Mann] was like walking around the room, real excited and watching me. Then I said, ‘Okay.’ And I started to leave. He said, “I wanted to ask you a question…” I said, ‘I told you.’ [smiles] And I left. You don’t talk to Michael Mann like that. He’s like a real control freak like Napoleon. So I left and I called my agent and he said, “You’ve got to go back there. He wants to talk.” I said, ‘Fuck him. He kept me waiting for an hour and a half.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to go talk to him.’ So I go back to the office and I come in, I say, ‘You get one question.’ This is not the way to talk to Michael. And he said, “How are you so scary?” And I said, [whispers in most ominous voice] “Scary is people who aren’t scared themselves.”

Noonan would go on to explain that Mann is, in fact, “the greatest guy in the world” – they would later work on “Heat” together – and perhaps it was his commitment to character that cemented the relationship, even if it was unintentional. Noonan said on “Manhunter,” when an assistant director came into his trailer as the sun was setting, the AD asked if he wanted the lights on, to which he jokingly replied, “Francis doesn’t use lights.” Noonan complained, “For the rest of the movie, I couldn’t have any lights on in any room that was dark… the crew would go around making stories and they were terrified of me.”

Other little factoids were learned: For the time being, Noonan only wants to appear in William S. Burroughs-esque attire (per his recent performance on “Louie”) and on “Robocop 2,” he constantly teased Peter Weller by knocking on his helmet and asking, “Peter, are you in there? And I’d say, why are you using a stand-in? Why can’t we get Peter?” But in total, Noonan seemed genuinely humbled by the screening and closed by saying, “It’s very moving to have done something in my life that I actually sort of am proud of and people sort of get it and it’s sort of amazing.”

It should also be mentioned that the Cinefamily opened the evening with this short, “Tom Goes to the Bar,” a slightly surreal black-and-white short featuring an upside-down Noonan and directed by future “Galaxy Quest” director Dean Parisot and edited by the late Tarantino collaborator Sally Menke, which was fascinating in its own right:

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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