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Zwart For Zwart’s Sake: Harald Zwart On Directing “One Night at McCool’s”

One Night at McCool’s is told Rashomon-style, following the misadventures of three lonely schlubs as they each fall head-over-heels in love with irresistible vixen Jewel (Liv Tyler). Through a web of flashbacks told from each man’s unreliable perspective, the object of their desire is seen alternately as a virgin, a whore, or something in-between. None of them seem to agree on exactly who Jewel is, or what her effect has been on the others.

The extreme violence that pierces McCool’s quaint bubblegum exterior cut me to the quick, something I looked forward to discussing with Norwegian filmmaker Harald Zwart. This interview provided filmcritic.com the unique opportunity of chatting with a director after one of our staff writers cut his project to ribbons. My esteemed colleague Annette Cardwell said in her review, ‘Even for those of us who get a kick out of dumb and vulgar gags, this latest poseur has nothing else to prop it up. The plot is never once fun or engrossing.’

As it turns out, Zwart was perfectly happy to sit down for the interview and share his thoughts on the extremities displayed throughout McCool’s. As for whether the movie is cheeky good fun, as the filmmaker intended, or is a lousy piece of shit, as Annette was quick to testify, it really all depends on your point-of-view. Would you look at that? Life imitates art!

filmcritic.com: So, you’re originally from Norway and now you’re based in Los Angeles. What was this transition like for you?

Harald Zwart: Not too bad! I’ve always been a great fan of America and Americana, and everything that has to do with America, so I adapted. I love it here.

On the Internet Movie Database, it said you had directed many commercials and music videos. I was wondering what other experience you’ve had as a filmmaker.

I’d done a TV series with Peter Stormare, Lena Olin, and Mark Hamill (who I’ve been a great fan of for many, many years). I had also made several narrative shorts before that. Right now, my incredibly talented wife and I have a production company called Motion Blur, where we make commercials.

Is it true you were the first Norwegian director to become a member of the DGA?

As far as I know! Ask the guy who’s made a fan page about me. It’s awfully pretentious — it’s called HaraldZwartFanPage.com. (laughs) Every now and then I browse the Internet just to see if there are any new articles. Suddenly finding a fan page about yourself is very surreal. I think there are a couple of thousand hits on there, most of them from myself, I’m sure!

What attracted you to the script for One Night at McCool’s?

It’s a wonderfully intricate little character drama. The Rashomon aspect is fun, and I thought the humor was just fabulous. I’m sorry to see that we couldn’t share it with more people. It seems like we’re drowning in everything else that’s out in theaters these days. But I’m very proud of our movie the way it is.

What did you make of the critical response, or do you even care about that?

No, I care. I care a lot. I think just the fact that people are either very positive or very negative shows that it’s at least not something down the middle of the road. And I don’t know if you read the Time Magazine article last week —

Not yet.

They were raving! Some magazines are more credible than others, and I think Time is more credible than Florida something, or New York something. I tend to lean to the ones that I think are credible, and so far they’ve been pretty good. Y’know, they get it or they don’t.

What would you say to the argument that the violence in McCool’s is irresponsible?

I debated that a long time with myself and, of course, with the studio also. But they’re pretty edgy people and were very supportive. For me, film is an emotional experience. If I can have you laughing, then suddenly have the laughter get stuck in your throat, and then have you back laughing again, I’m providing sensations both good and bad.

Also, McCool’s wasn’t necessarily made for a general audience either. I mean, I’ve had several offers which were more broad or appealing for a mass audience, but this was such an exciting little film with such weird characters. And, I’m all commercial! I love broad movies and I’m dying to end up in the $100 million club doing movies that make a lot of money, but this piece was just so original. I thought it would have been really a shame to take the edge off it, so we decided to keep it kind of strange and dark.

Did you work closely with screenwriter Stan Seidel?

Yeah, very close. He passed away last August. I was really sad to see him go because I was hoping for a long-term relationship there. I called him morning and night with little changes that I wanted to do, wanting everything to be written by him. He was on set every day. And it was a great exchange — if you can do that with a writer, it’s like pennies from heaven!

It’s rare for a director to allow the screenwriter on set.

Yeah, I asked him to come. Some days he was like, ‘Wellll…’, because he was sick. He didn’t want me to know that when I called him in the middle of the night with ideas on how a scene should work, he was strapped up in all kinds of instruments and on life support. So that was strange, but he didn’t want me to treat him any differently.

Do you think that had any affect on the very dark tone of the script?

No, well — maybe. I think his attitude was always to live every day as if it were his last. He was just a very sarcastic guy, appreciative of every moment he had. And it’s like (McCool’s co-star) Paul Reiser says: You could walk across the street and get hit by a car — and that’s sort of what happens to Paul at the end of the movie.

Could you talk about the specific ‘look’ of the film?

It was meant to be reflective of Jewel’s dream that ‘everything that glitters’ is valuable in her world. And I thought it was about time to make a really bright movie with all the colors of the rainbow because there have been so many incredibly monochromatic bleach bypass projects out there. [Monochromatic bleach bypass projects??? -Ed.]

What would you say is the ‘Harald Zwart Style of Filmmaking?’

Don’t go home to the editing room without having tried everything! I’ll give an example: that quick scene where Liv Tyler has her lesbian affair with Paul Reiser’s wife was never in the script, it was just stuff I came up with on the day. I shot it when the producer was out at lunch because I knew it was better just to try it and see what they thought afterward. I mean, I have a solid plan that we start out with and can always fall back on, but sometimes actors do things that are completely unpredictable. You have to make sure your schedule is flexible so you can try out certain things.

With Jewel, I was thinking of the Greek sirens that lure sailors into the rocks — was any of that in mind?

That’s a good little allegory, actually. It’s very close. I was more inspired by the classic paintings of Edward Munch — I think it was Munch — where you see the whore and the Madonna and the mother in the middle. That was kind of more the three-way split of one woman that we worked out from.

Is it fair to say your movie is about how men look at women?

It’s not my look at women! I totally respect women. I’m married to a very strong and beautiful woman. But some guys (laughs) If critics don’t get that differen
ce that it’s not my view of the women but my comment on how men see women, I’m sure they could be awfully offended! I’m not prejudiced myself and wanted to have fun with all sexes and sexualities, but some people just take things too seriously. If you think about it, trying not to offend people is sort of a racist view in itself! Sometimes if you’re too obsessed with not offending people, that means you have a problem with it!

Do you think that’s peculiar to American culture or that it’s true all across the world?

Well, the world (except for maybe the far east) is getting more and more the same. You go to Norway and it’s not that different from America or Amsterdam or south of France or wherever. But there is a difference. In England or France, you can make very offensive, fun commercials because they don’t have a huge audience containing all kind of demographics. They can afford to offend some people. Here in the States, it’s so multicultural — there are so many toes you can potentially step on. Things end up being really polished to please every one of them.

Maybe where I come from is a more European push, whereas Americans tend to be more careful. But who knows? With movies like American Beauty, the studios are starting to think a little outside the classic Hollywood box.

What do you think Liv Tyler brought to the role of Jewel?

Well, apart from being a great actress and being able to pull off three different characters, which she did flawlessly, the camera loves her! There’s not a lot I need to do to convey the fact that guys just fall over for her. The thing that surprised me the most about her was that she was incredibly funny. She has a great sense of humor. And I think she shows a great comedic talent in the film.

Were you happy with the process of test screenings?

Yeah, that was a great experience — especially for a comedy. It’s just unbelievable how you can trim your movie to work best and then see the progression at each screening.

Well, it must be easy to tell with a comedy. They’re either laughing —

— or they don’t! Those cards, the focus group and all that, you take with a grain of salt. But when you’re in the theatre with a test audience, that’s as true as you can get! When they laugh, you just leave that scene alone. When they don’t laugh, you know you’ve got some cutting to do. We also had a different ending that got cut out because it wasn’t working, which is gonna be available on the DVD along with a bunch of other deleted scenes, early screen tests, stuff like that.

The trailer cut together for the movie really bothered me, because it gave away what happened to Paul Reiser at the end.

Yeah, well, that’s just an unbelievably tough call. I was actually supporting showing that dumpster scene because we were lacking some sort of big laugh in the trailer itself, and we needed something strong. But, it’s just one of those things where you never know! In some ways, I was totally against it because I think it’s a shame to show those things but the other half of me said, ‘Gotta get the people into the seats!

What is your new project, Supernatural Law?

Supernatural Law is in very early stages at Universal. It’s based on a New York comic strip and is a mix between Men in Black and Ghostbusters. It’s gonna be fun.

So it’s gonna be a big special effects driven movie?

Yeah. My dream is to make a movie that ends up being a ride at Universal Studios!

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