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A Conversation with Bob Byington

A Conversation with Bob Byington

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With Somebody Up There Likes Me, his sixth movie, director Bob Byington made a film for a broader audience. Shown in the Concorso internazionale section, the film does not only leave open questions to the audience, even Bob is not sure how it came to this end.

What is in the suitcase?
Actually, I don’t know. People have offered theories, which is great. I just want to say: it has certainly nothing to do with film history. I like the idea to leave this open and not taking away the “Wow”. I don’t want to make decisions about this and prevent people of getting engaged.

Who do you think is “up there”?
I have no idea. The title just pumped into my head as a kind of fully formed idea. I was at a film festival where Wim Wenders was talking about Wings of Desire and how you would look up and see these angels. That was a big part of the inspiration for the film. I am sort of interested in the idea of what is up there, literally what is above us but I haven’t gotten much further than what the film shows.

The film deals a lot with death. Three characters die throughout the movie and supposedly go “up there”. How come they all die of illnesses and so sudden?
I was interested in the idea of the comedy of sudden death. My father died 8 years ago and that was not funny. Losing him didn’t make sense for me and left me with some type of randomness to death. This film is partly about me dealing with that and processing it, which takes a while. I haven’t responded by laughing and I haven’t found humor when people have died in my life. So for some reason I wanted to try to connect comedy and death.

How would you define the kind of humor in the film?
It is deliberate that everyone has the same humor among the characters. If I have to find words, I would definitely define it as dry. It is a deadpan farce. Characters are in absurd situations and they don’t respond in big ways but quietly to things like marriage, funeral, divorce, affairs and what else is happening. What if people responded the same way at a wedding as they do at a funeral? That is what interests me in a film.

There is a special notion of time in the film. Everything happens at intervals of 5 years. In advancing in life, Max doesn’t get older. Why only him?
Max does grow older, we just see him the same way he sees himself. I identify myself with him in this concern: the impulse of my self now and 20 years ago is still the same. When I look into the mirror, in my eyes I still see the person I was in college but when I look at pictures of that time, I think: who is this? So Max stays the person he sees himself and that is a person without age.

You’re last film, Harmony and Me, was 3 years ago. Somebody is addressed to a broader audience. What has changed in your filmmaking?
Well, I wanted to try to make a bigger film. The group I work with and I wanted to have a better production value, we wanted to have at least one actor that somebody had heard of rather than a group of actors that nobody had heard of, like I did in the past. This is the first time I worked with an actor with a high profile in the United States and now we can say: We have a movie where Nick Offerman is in and that is like a shorthand for the kind of movie it is, so we don’t have to explain that. That is how the system works in the United States.

The bigger production also influenced the style of acting. It was less improvising as in the last ones and more with a script. How did the actors, especially the non-actors like Keith Poulson, deal with that?
Nick as an actor dealt with it without any trouble at all. Concerning Keith, it was very important to me that he was very comfortable, that he knew the lines backwards and forwards so that it wasn’t an issue for him at all. In rehearsals we had a couple of moments where we weren’t sure it was going to work. The non-actors have a different way of doing certain things, but they created a great chemistry together with the actors. I think we got into a place where both type of actors weren’t anxious about that.

You wrote he script for Nick Offerman and Keith Poulson. How did it work to find the rest of the group in order that they match in the group?
We had our eye on Jess Weixler who plays Lyla, the female protagonist. I met with her and she was very much how I imagined her to be. I felt she was just too good to be true. That was also my primary objection with her, but after I looked around, I realized Jess was just as great as she seemed to be so she was set too. Stephanie Hunt, who plays the nanny, came to an open call and she got the part the moment she walked in. Like Jess, she has this bubbling charm and a great star quality.

How much of yourself is in the film? Not in an autobiographical sense but did you for example dream about an own pizza-place or do you especially like breadsticks?
No, but I like the idea to access many people with that. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like pizza. Or ice cream! I personally don’t eat ice cream but I date somebody who has to eat it every day or she explodes. Much of the film I am less aware when I am writing, it just comes up. Also the thing with the breadsticks, I don’t know where that is from, it just happened. I even wanted Lyla to eat more breadsticks.

Keith Poulson is part of the band Bishop Allen where also the protagonist of your last film, Justin Rice, plays in. How comes that musicians of the same band play in your movies?
Actually, it happened the way around. We met Justin in 2008 and then we casted Keith as Justin’s little brother in Harmony and Me. They took on a relationship that was close to brothers and after the movie, Justin asked Keith to join the band. That was the single most charming thing that happened out of Harmony and Me. It was heartening, I like the movie but that is an actual proof that it is out there in the world making it a better place.

Why didn’t you appear in this film?
It didn’t materialize. I was going to play the steakhouse patron but we ended up thinking it was better if somebody else did it. It was lack of courage, I guess. When you direct and act yourself, you got a lot of work to do, it is not to be taken lightly. But I imagine I am going to be in the next film of me again.

What should be in your suitcase before you go “up there”?
It is funny, our producer Hans Graffunder took a picture of our big drive after the movie was made. Everything was in there and Hans said: that is what is in the suitcase. It was the most convincing photo. So I want a hard drive when I go up there.

Claudia Piwecki
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