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Q&A – Paper Man’s Jeff Daniels on Pain, Pressure, and the Writing Process

Jeff Daniels isn’t just an actor — he’s also a playwright and a songwriter. (Have you heard his red-carpet parody, “Are You As Excited About Me As I Am?”) So when he takes on a role like that of Richard Dunn, the not-so-best-selling author of Paper Man, it’s no stretch for him to understand the pressures of deadlines, the isolation of writing, and the mind-set required to create. At the movie’s beginning, Richard’s locked himself away in a house on Long Island, where his main companion is his imaginary friend (Ryan Reynolds) — until he meets troubled teen Abby (Emma Stone). Daniels talks about the methods Richard uses to get unblocked and how he would go about it himself.

Q: What is it about playing writers that appeals to you?

A: Well, certainly, I know the drill. I know the pain. [Laughs] I get it. And The Squid and the Whale, that kind of stuck-in-your-head thing. But it has to be more about what the character is going through — movies based on writers who can’t write are boring. It’s got to be more.

Q: A lot of your writer characters seem to be stuck, not just in writing.

A: Yeah, in Paper Man, Richard is stuck on page one of his next novel, and he’s stuck in life. And Arlen Faber, in Answer Man, he’s successful, but he thinks he’s a fraud. They’re stuck in their own heads. They’re stuck in their personal lives.

Q: And then he meets a young girl and asks her to babysit, but there’s no baby. Ordinarily, you’d be creeped out by that.

A: It’s not sex. It’s not a Lolita thing. It’s something bigger than that. He finds this girl who make him laugh, who makes him come out of his head, and I think he spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out why.

Q: It’s almost like that person revives who he used to be.

A: I think it’s a weird thing with writing, because everything’s so structured, so thought-out, and then you meet someone like Lauren Graham, in Answer Man, or Emma Stone, in Paper Man, and here’s someone who isn’t under the restrictions and limitations of character and story, who just bounces through their lives. Whether he knows that knowing Emma Stone is going to lead to writing the second book or not, all he knows is that he wants to find out more.

Q: When Richard’s wife [played by Lisa Kudrow] visits, she mentions that she married him because he used to make her laugh. What happened to that guy?

A: He’s long gone. He hasn’t been happy in a long time. It builds up in a guy like him. She’s very successful, and he’s not. So he can’t compare to his wife, and all their friends are people he doesn’t care about, who make him feel like a failure. It’s a depression. And now he’s supposed to create something in this black void that he’s in.

Q: He needs a writing coach. What kind of advice would you give him to get over his block?

A: There are a couple ways I beat it. I don’t write until I absolutely have to. I’ll throw stuff in a file on my computer, like I’ll just collect characters, dialogue, snippets, anything. But don’t write. You’re not allowed to write yet. And eventually you get this file of ideas and then, when you absolutely have to, that’s when you set aside that month and go.

Q: Richard’s set aside the time, he’s even got the place — the house on Long Island. Why doesn’t that work for him?

A: Because he’s judging himself way too early. He’s sitting down in front of blank page. You can’t do that. Even if you don’t do the outline and the synopsis and treatment and all that stuff, just start writing, even if it’s garbage. Don’t judge it. I know it sucks. I know that the first ten pages is horrible. But get to page eleven, and then you can rewrite. But I couldn’t isolate myself like him to write. I write plays anywhere — in hotels, on planes — because I’m always off making a movie, but I may still have to turn it in by June 1. The other thing is, no one should see it. Nobody wants to hear a writer talk about what he’s writing.

Q: Like the nearly extinct heath hen Richard’s trying to write about.

A: The adventures of a heath hen. And it’s a comedy! [Laughs] Writing is an elusive thing. I’ve never been one of those guys, “Let me play you a verse of this thing that I don’t even have the chord progression for yet.” Just so you can tell me it’s really great and I can keep going? Play it when it’s finished! [Laughs]

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