Robert B. Weide is the producer of one of America’s greatest ever sitcoms, if not the greatest, Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s surrounded himself with comedy for his entire career. He’s made documentaries on the likes of Woody Allen and The Marx Brothers. He’s directed Simon Pegg in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Now he directs Simon’s best mate Nick Frost in a series that he has also written, Mr. Sloane.
How does a guy from the other side of the pond end up writing so accurately about the British psyche?
I don’t know. I suppose it’s because human beings are human beings wherever they go, so to me it wasn’t that much of a stretch. When you think about the issues Sloane deals with, like love and loss and loneliness, I think these are all very universal themes. As to the specifics of the culture, I did spend a year in England when I did How to Lose Friends & Alienate People with Simon Pegg. I think you can soak up quite a bit if you keep your ears open.
As far as historical accuracy, there were certainly a number of British eyes that landed on the script between writing and filming. They helped me steer the script in the right direction. For example, in the opening scene of the first episode I had a waitress in the pub ask Sloane, “the usual?” then serve him and all his mates a slice of cake. The first Brit to lay eyes on the script was a guy called Graham Smith. He just looked at it and said “No, no, no. Not only did they not serve food, there wouldn’t have been anyone to serve it. Barmaids in those days would wipe the tables and not a lot else. You’re thinking of the modern day Gastro Pubs, but back in the 60’s you went in a pub, ordered a beer and that was it.” So those kinds of things I had to be told.
There’s also a researcher at Big Talk by the name of Alison Cain, who would research all kinds of stuff. But the thing I remember her telling me is how Sloane would answer the phone back in those days. I had him saying “Sloane here” but she found out that more often than not he would have answered the phone by reciting his own number. I liked that better, especially as I thought it would be funny after the suicide attempt. That line was good because it lets you know it’s not just going to be about a guy who’s always trying to kill himself.
It’s a great pleasure if people say that it captures the time and the place. It’s kind of odd really, I’d never even been to England until 2006 when I was in my late forties. There’s plenty of British culture that comes over here between music and TV, so if you’re paying attention it’s easy to pick up. I was into Monty Python even before the shows were syndicated. I had a friend who would lend me all his audio records, so I would memorise all those sketches before the TV show came out here, which was odd because very few people in the states knew who they were until Flying Circus came here.
People are always asking how Ophelia Lovibond, who plays Robin, managed to get such a hold of the (American) accent. I had always assumed she was taught at the Royal Acadamy or something. But no, she just got it from watching movies and American television. She happens to have an exceptional ear for it, but my point is there’s a lot you can pick up just by keeping your eyes and ears open.
Speaking of Ophelia Lovibond, there’s quite a few excellent British actors in this series, did they go to you or did you go to them?
With Nick, whom I wrote the show for, he was the first piece of the puzzle; not to get Nick Frost for a show but to do a show for Nick Frost. Olivia Coleman I’ve known since I’ve started to come to London, when I was going to do an American version of Peep Show. Actually she auditioned for How to Lose Friends. I wanted her for a part but she was very pregnant at the time. I auditioned her anyway, underestimating just how pregnant she was. We’ve remained friendly ever since. Again, I wrote the part of Janet for her, although unlike Nick she wasn’t aware of it. The idea was to write it, hand her the script and hope she would say yes, which she did, thankfully.
So that was Olivia, and Peter Serafinowicz was an idea I had after I wrote the script, trying to come up with people I thought could be interesting. Peter and I hadn’t met at that point, but we had emailed, or tweeted each other or something. We knew each other’s work, but we didn’t meet until he came in to read for the role. I had a sense he would be very good for this, but I wasn’t in a position where I could just give it to him. I think he would be the first to admit it wasn’t a great audition. It wasn’t terrible, it was just ok. But you know Nick is also one of those actors where if he needs to audition, then forget it. He just can’t audition, but he’s great on camera.
That’s the thing with Peter, I don’t think Peter’s ever had to read for a role, he just creates his own things or gets roles offered to him. There’s something very engaging about him on camera. You can’t take your eyes off him. So I wanted to give him the part despite the fact that there were people probably who did better auditions. Of course, I got no argument from anyone else, they were all thrilled to have him.
We saw a lot of great actresses for the part of Robin. Ophelia originally didn’t come in. She was out of town, so she put herself on tape with her mum reading cues off camera. She sent it in and I said right away “Wow. She really ticks all the boxes.”
What was it about the 60’s that inspired you to set Sloane there?
Well I’ll tell you what initially inspired the idea. I was in my car, driving out here in Los Angeles, on the way to see my mother. I caught a quick glimpse of a guy in the car to my right. He looked like Nick Frost, but with very short hair and kind of retro glasses, a jacket and tie. So he looked like a very conservative Nick Frost, as if he had been an accountant in the Mad Man era.
And so for the rest of that drive I had no one to talk to and no distractions, so I had nothing else to do but think about that guy. I started to talk into my phone, I still have the original ramblings, and I can give you a date and a time stamp at the exact moment that Mr. Sloane was born. Right there and then I called him Jeremy Sloane and I called the show Mr. Sloane. I made him a substitute teacher who’s lost his accounting job and his wife; he’s also got a bit of a drinking problem, a bit of an eating problem and a bit of a loneliness problem.
So it grew out of there and the stories I was coming up with fit that period. That idea of this very square guy who has no interest in modern music or pop culture; a guy whose idea of a good time is staying in and listening to Gilbert and Sullivan records. It’s a man out of time which I like. The kind of guy whose wife left home to find herself, felt like a story that was better addressed in the 60’s when women were starting to wonder what their lives were going to be, “Am I just going to be putting this guy’s dinner on the table at six, watching him go off to the pub and be left here on my own?”
I thought that was interesting as a period concept, again playing off the idea that he’s stuck in a different time, that he would meet a younger woman who would introduce him to 60’s music and marijuana. Plus, frankly, I like the idea of a TV show that’s set in a decade with no computers and no cell phones. It makes the show look and feel different to almost anything else on the air, save Downton Abbey.
It’s almost cathartic in that sense, he has his problems but they’re not the fast paced stress filled problems of the 21st century.
Yeah, things like ledgers were still hand written and there were no answering machines. If you hear the phone ring just after you attempt suicide you pretty much have to pick it up; and friends would still meet up in the pub every night, instead of talk on Facebook. Although one of the things that struck me when I first went to England was how ingrained pub culture is in people’s daily lives. If two people want to go out for a meal in the evening, you say what time you want to meet up and they’ll say “I’ll probably be out of work at six, I’ll be out of the pub at seven.” It’s just an accepted part of daily life, just like taking lunch or having a shower in the morning. So I liked the idea that come hell or high water those four guys would be in the pub every night talking about anything and everything, from their wives to where peanuts come from.
You mentioned 60’s music earlier on. Who’s idea was the Kink’s?
Well that was mine. But the funny thing is, people are assuming I’m a big Kink’s aficionado. I’m not, I really like their music but I’m not one of those people who have all of their records or who knows their whole history. But I do have a greatest hits CD on my iPod, so consequently it’s part of the music I travel with. At around the time I was thinking about the show A Well Respected Man came on and I thought “Holy cow! That’s him. This song is about him.” The lyrics eventually go off a little bit but the first couple of verses are perfect. So I thought I’ve got to get the song for the theme, even started picturing the opening credit sequence with it. That animated sequence is very much what I had in mind when I put my first ramblings into my iPhone.
Fortunately we were able to get the rights to it. It’s a very expensive song. There’s a deal where you can get some stuff inexpensively if you use it within the show, but if you use it as a theme you then have to pay a lot more. I even started to chicken out of it when the budget was getting tight. Finally I said I would be willing to sacrifice the song but then everyone said “Oh no we can’t get rid of that, it’s too perfect.”
You seem to like Sloane, but you make him suffer an awful lot. Do you ever get a twinge of guilt?
I think whether it’s comedy or drama, I think your main character has to suffer a little bit otherwise where’s your story? If nothing ever happens to them and they’re just happy all the time you’ve got nothing. I think the thing that sets Sloane apart from most of his fellow comedic heroes or anti-heroes is that they’re jerks. They might be sympathetic jerks or even lovable jerks like Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Alan Partridge or even Larry David, who bring their troubles on themselves with their bad behavior. But the thing that’s different about Sloane is that he really is well meaning, but bad things still happen to him. That was something I had a little fun with, making an audience root for him, then making him go through rotten stuff. So the show is about seeing how he handles it and how he recovers from it. That’s such a universal thing.
By the way, we used to go through this with Curb (Your Enthusiasm) all the time; people used to ask “Where did you get those ideas from, what made you put Larry through this,” and we would tell them, more often than not, it’s something that actually happened to us. Think about the number of times you’ve been in a public restroom and someone has done something you don’t want the next person to think you did. So you think “Oh god am I really going to have to clean up this person’s mess?” Or do you explain to the next person coming in that “that wasn’t me?” Larry and I used to say all the time that the motto of the show was “It just doesn’t pay to leave your house.”
And that’s kind of Sloane’s thing, every time he meets Robin early on, you know she’s so sweet, good natured and pretty, but every time she meets him it’s under the worst possible circumstances. Like in the hardware shop, some guy has just passed wind and he doesn’t want her to think it’s him. So he’s hoping that the next time he sees her it’s going to be in the best possible light, when in fact it’s when he’s on his hands and knees in an alleyway next to the pub covered in piss and vomit, desperate to explain himself. We’ve all been there.
So you get the audience sympathy behind the character, then you slowly torture him. I just love that as a comedic structure. It’s like at the end of the first episode, he’s met the girl, he has her phone number, then the phone number gets ruined and he crashes his car. So you pick him up a bit, then drop him. It’s just a fun thing to do. I do feel a little guilty about it, but Sloane will land on his feet.
You mentioned Curb Your Enthusiasm. What was it like seeing a show, one that openly mocks the idea of celebrity and popularity, become so popular?
I always think that as the creator of a show or somebody who’s involved with the show, you’re always the last to know about the effect it’s having on the public, and the fact that Curb was successful probably had a lot to do with the fact that Larry and I didn’t care about whether or not it got cancelled. We just did what we felt was amusing to us and if other people liked it, great. After every series I told Larry that this one was going to be my last and then I’d get talked into another one. So I think that sort of distance and lack of worry about appealing to an audience tends to make a show unique, meaning people tend to connect with it.
With Sloane it’s never occurred to me to check and see what kind of ratings we’re getting, I really don’t care. So with that kind of attitude it is a little crazy to be the producer of something so popular. Although I should say Curb was never a massive ratings getter. Someting like Sex and the City was much more popular. I always used to say we had a small but disloyal following. If you follow comedy it would seem to be a very popular show because people would talk about it. But ultimately I think the percentage of the general population who know what Curb is or who Larry David is, is very small.
For much of your early career you were involved in documentaries on stand up and film comics, you covered comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and W.C. Fields. What is it that drew you to those subjects?
My documentaries were all based around comics I grew up admiring, so it’s all subjective. The Marx Brothers were my first loves of cinema, and they led me to other comedians of that time such as Laurel and Hardy, Keaton and Chaplin, so it was just a fascination of mine. Guys like them, Lenny Bruce and Kurt Vonnegut, I’ve been making a documentary about Kurt for thirty years. He’s sort of my literary hero. So these became my public thank-you notes to these guys. I wouldn’t know how to do a documentary on a subject I wasn’t really fond of because they’re hard work, they take a long time and you don’t make much money. So you have to be passionate about your subjects.
Where did your love of Kurt Vonnegut come from?
I started reading Kurt Vonnegut in high school. I felt I had found my author and ended up reading everything of his. I started working on the Marx Brothers film when I was 22 and soon after that aired I wrote him (Vonnegut) a letter out of the blue saying that I made a film about The Marx Brothers because I loved their work and I loved his so I wanted to make a film about him. He wrote me back and he sent me his phone number; he said “Call me and when you’re next in New York we’ll get together.”
So I did, and we met later that year, although I didn’t start filming until six years later, in 1988, and then I was filming on and off throughout his life. It was never really properly financed, so it was always out of my own pocket. Sometimes I would have the money but not the time, and sometimes I would have the time but not the money, so it was very rare I had both. But I would film him now and again over the course of many years. He died in April of 2007. He and I became very close during that period and I felt it had affected the project because I could no longer just pretend this was an objective documentary about an author, because he was now a friend of mine.
Then somebody else suggested that this should be a part of the story. That it should become more of a first-person account like (Searching for) Sugar Man. So now it’s not just a documentary about Kurt Vonnegut, but also about why it’s taken thirty years to make the very film you’re watching. So the film, which once began with Vonnegut’s birth, now starts with the letter I to him sent in 1982. And I’m physically in the film at this point. You’ll see me going through storage to dig up the 16mm film that I shot in 1988 and taking it to the lab to get high-def transfers. I’ve not seen this footage in twenty-five years at this point.
So it’s a film that documents its own revival and resuscitation after all this time. It seems to have provided a more human angle than a straight biopic of Vonnegut’s life. It was a big validation for me to have his friendship, because I admired him in a way that some readers might admire J.D. Salinger or Jack Kerouac, and that’s a part of the story now.
You seemed to have made many documentaries during the formative part of your career, yet comedy seemed to be your main focus. Were you building yourself up to making your own comedies?
If you look at my so-called career it’s been all over the place. There’s a continuity for me in that virtually everything I’ve done is either something I’ve created or been brought into, but it’s all been of great interest to me. I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I’ve never taken a gig just because I need a job. All of my projects I’ve had a connection to. From the outside, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. When I was younger and developing an interest in comedy and film, I knew I wanted to be involved, but I didn’t know in what capacity and I never had a real specific gameplan.
So it’s just been case by case, like with the Marx Brothers film, I was aware there was no such documentary covering them, so I got the financing together and became a documentary filmmaker. One day I just wrote a feature film based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel, Mother Night. I didn’t know a meeting with Larry David would result in a phone call in 1998 asking me to direct a HBO special (the Curb pilot). Then Jeff Bridges liked my Mother Night script so he came to me with The Giver. So no, I’ve never had any kind of game plan.
When I was in grade school, I was always the class clown. I was very disruptive because I was always making jokes. As often as not, the teacher would actually like it depending on their sense of humor. I would MC all the talent shows, in college I would play around with stand up a bit just to get a taste of it. Although, if I’m introducing a film or making a speech of some sort, I’ll always try to keep it light with a few laughs. So that exorcises my performance demons and the rest is just me exploiting other, funnier, more talented people.
Mr Sloane is available with Sky On Demand until the end of the month and currently available on DVD and iTunes. The Giver will be out in the UK sometime in the Summer.