Michael Lehmann Interview

07 January 2009

Lehmann talks about no-sex-for-lent laffer '40 Days,' his best chance to repeat his sleeper hit success

Lehmann talks about no-sex-for-lent laffer '40 Days,' his best chance to repeat his sleeper hit success

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Director Michael Lehmann may not be a household name, but anyone who was a teenager in the late 1980s knows his best work. He's the man who made "Heathers," that subversive, sardonic teen angst flick that acted as an antidote to the decade's inescapable onslaught of weightlessly formulaic John Hughes high school comedies like "Pretty In Pink" and "Sixteen Candles."

After helping launch the careers of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, who played the very dark comedy's romantic semi-psychos on an in-crowd murder spree, Lehmann moved on to a hit-and-miss career ("Airheads" and "The Truth About Cats & Dogs" in the plus column, "My Giant" and "Hudson Hawk" in the minus) that afforded him opportunities to work with big budget and even bigger stars. Bruce Willis, Adam Sandler, Uma Thurman and Billy Crystal have all starred in Lehmann movies.

But his best shot in years at equaling the sleeper success of "Heathers" may be "40 Days and 40 Nights," another laugh-out-loud concept comedy that turns its genre on its ear.

Josh Hartnett stars in the film as sexually compulsive web designer who swears off any and all forms of sex (kissing, caressing, even self-gratification) for Lent because promiscuity isn't helping him heal a broken heart. It sounds like just another misogynistic romp through the young male libido, but "40 Days" largely forgoes the kind of puerile, simplistic laughs offered up in witless wonders like "American Pie," "Tomcats" and "Saving Silverman," opting instead for heart and imagination.

A one-time San Franciscan, the 40-something but youthfully energetic Lehmann returned to this city -- where he once answered phones for Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope production company -- to shoot "40 Days" last year. And now he's in town again talk about the film.

Of course, we had to begin with the most obvious question...

Q: So, did anybody involved in the movie try to give up sex?

A: Josh said when he started he was going to give up all sex, and I said, "Yeah, you're gonna last about five days." He said he went two and a half weeks. That's pretty good! Good looking guy that age...

Q: ...and a movie star besides!

A: I've been married for 20 years, so giving up sex is like second nature! [Laughs.]

Q: Hartnett is truly great in this. His best performance since "The Virgin Suicides." The way he physically personifies the progression of frustration -- by 3/4 of the way through the movie he's walking around everywhere bent over with his hands thrust in his pockets and he's kind of twitchy...

A: He's pretty physical. He can do that stuff well. Yeah, I think he did a good job. That was a tricky performance for him because he's not a comedian, he's not a "Saturday Night Live" kind of comedian, and he has to carry a comedy. I don't think he realized going in how hard it is to do comedy. The pressure is on you. If you do a drama, you kind of know when you've (shot a scene) whether it works or not. In a comedy, at the end of the shooting day, you have no idea. Josh would say, "Is this gonna be funny?" And I'd say, "Josh, you can take my word for it, it's gonna be funny."

So his approach -- which I really think was the right one and I encouraged him a lot -- was to just play the character true to who he would be in a situation and let the humor flow from that. Obviously he worked a lot on how to physically show the frustration. But he's good. I mean, he surprised me with how good he was at pulling this stuff off.

Q: How did he feel when he saw the finished picture?

A: I think he was really pretty happy. The first time he saw it, I didn't sit with him because he was in New York and I was in San Francisco. I remember anxiously waiting, you know? You want the actor to be happy with the movie. You really want the actor to think they did a good job and all that. But he called me and he was delighted. I think he was so worried that the movie wouldn't work. But I'd been telling him for months as I'd been cutting it, "It works! You're great! You'll be happy. You'll be surprised. I really wish you could sit down in a theater full of people and hear them laugh."

Q: I went into "40 Days" with a little trepidation: a 20-something sex comedy, hoping against hope that it wouldn't be another misogynistic libido romp like "Tomcats" or "Saving Silverman," and I was so happy that is was much more than that.

A: You know, this is tricky because the movie, by nature, is a youth sex comedy, and that's a very low-grade genre. People (like you) are gonna be going in saying, "S**t, I have to see another one of these films!" Or if they're young people going in, they're gonna go in saying, "Yeah, I wanna see another one of these films." And it's not really another one of these films. I mean, I had to fulfill some genre obligations. But I tried to make it as different as I could and make it more on my own terms. I think I did OK with that.

Q: Worked for me, but how long ago did you shoot this? The film clearly takes place when dot-coms were plentiful and profitable. Did it get shelved?

A: We shot this after Josh did "Pearl Harbor" and before he went off to do "Black Hawk Down." It could have been ready for release last fall, but it's a movie set during Lent! It's not a fall movie. And there was no reason to rush, because "Pearl Harbor" was coming out, and (that) was a chance for Josh Hartnett to get some exposure! We were going to release on January 18, but "Black Hawk Down" chose to move (its wide release date) to January 18. That only helped us too, because it exposed even more people to Josh Hartnett. So we moved again. So if it looks like it sat on a shelf for a long time, it didn't really.

Q: Yet it clearly takes place in a world before the dot-economy went kaput.

A: Yeah. And had we released it last fall, that would have been even more obvious because it was more in the news. But if you think about it, every time you log on and there's a web page, somebody's making it. Somebody's doing that stuff. The office wouldn't be that big (anymore), but you know, welcome to Hollywood.

Q: Well, there are things that date every movie. Maybe this one will be a time capsule like "Heathers" has become. Do people still talk to you about "Heathers"?

A: Everybody talks to me about it! I haven't seen "Heathers" in a few years, but the real interesting thing will be to look at it 10 years from now or 15 years from now when everything about it is really, really dated. I don't know if it will make any sense or not, but I'm hoping it will become one of those oddball documents of an earlier time. You couldn't make that movie today. Nowadays if you made a twisted, dark, anarchic comedy, somebody would insist it be commercialized somehow. There's just no venue for this sort of stuff outside of the big corporations that finance movies. And if you tried to make it an independent film, the patina of independent filmmaking now has too much gloss on it. It would be looked down on because there is, in a way, a venue now for making more intelligent independent films that shuts the door on those really twisted, dark independent films.


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