There are a couple of things you may want to know about the guys behind the madcap comedy, Welcome to Collinwood. First, William H. Macy, one of the film’s top-notch ensemble players, is the nice fella you think he is, speaking proudly about being an American actor and using phrases like ‘pleased as punch’ to do so. Second, Joe and Anthony Russo, the writer/director team behind the highly stylized heist film, are Hollywood’s magic story of the moment, two guys from Cleveland who finally made it when this man named Soderbergh called them after seeing their no-budget 1997 feature and said that he and a guy named Clooney would like to work with them. These brothers now find themselves at the beginning of a beautiful friendship
The trio brought the film and themselves to the Boston Film Festival, where Macy received the annual Film Excellence Award.
filmcritic.com: What does it feel like to receive that first phone call from Steven Soderbergh?
Joe Russo: It’s the call you can’t believe. The immediate thing that comes to mind is ‘who is screwing with me? Which friend is this?’ We had no connections to the industry whatsoever. We had credit card debt from our first movie, Pieces, and we were a million miles away from Hollywood. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a link.
Anthony Russo: What Soderbergh and Clooney have done at Warner Bros., with the creation of this company [Section Eight], is forge a home for movies trying to bridge the gap between the best that Hollywood has to offer and the best, most personal, sort of storytelling. We’re very inspired to take on that fight because, in the end, our favorite movies are everybody else’s favorite movies.
William H. Macy: It’s a credit to Steven and George that this movie was shot in Cleveland — it was exactly where these guys envisioned these scenes taking place. Any other producer would’ve made them shoot it in Toronto, which would’ve been okay, but it would’ve been generic. You would’ve had no personality. You would’ve had to fake everything. It takes ‘filmmaker’ producers to know that was worth the extra money.
How early in the film’s development did you guys picture it as a 1930s-styled madcap comedy?
AR: From the very inception of the project. We wanted to tell a throwback story. We came of age, so to speak, with the filmmakers of the ’90s, where you had that kind of very ironic American indie ruling the scene. We dabbled in that ourselves to a degree with our first film, but we wore ourselves out on that sort of point-of-view. We started to reach really deep to a kind of classic cinema, a classic narrative structure.
JR: We grew up watching The Late Show and The Bowery Boys and The Little Rascals and this film is kind of a strange amalgam of our history. We joke that we want the film to be as if you put The Bowery Boys in one car and Truffaut in another car and they smashed into each other…
WHM: …and out pops Michael Jeter. I don’t know how they (the Russos) came up with this. They watch all those French films that never really begin or end, they just run for about an hour-and-a-half and then ‘Fin’ runs across the screen. I go, ‘What?! What was that?!’ (Big laughs from the Russos)
The scene where George Clooney’s character gives a lesson in safecracking seemed like a mockery of the similar scene in Ocean’s Eleven. What was the production timeline for the two movies?
AR: Same time.
WHM: George was on leave when he came out to do that scene. He’s the real deal, a real movie star. He swept onto the set and it was like a tornado. We were about three-quarters of the way through and people were tired and George was like a shot of adrenaline. He took the whole crew out the first night. I, being older and wiser than these guys, didn’t go. The next morning they looked like they’d been run over by a truck. If George had worked one more day, we would’ve had to hospitalize the actors.
William, what are your thoughts on receiving the Boston Film Festival’s Film Excellence Award?
WHM: It’s really sweet. It’s a good feeling. I received another of these, and they had a little film clip with a compilation of the things that I’ve done, and I’d never seen anything like that. I was proud — it made me feel good about myself.
Was there a point in your career where you knew you’d have more flexibility in choosing scripts? Was it Fargo?
WHM: Fargo did it. But it took about a year or two before the ancillary benefits came about. A great moment was when I read the script for Boogie Nights. Paul (Thomas Anderson, writer/director) wanted to meet with me. I met him at the Formosa Café and I sort of gathered my wits to say what I was going to do with the character. About five minutes into it, I thought, ‘Holy moly HE’s auditioning! It’s not me! I’m buying, I’m not selling!’ It was a great feeling! I sort of sat back, ordered a scotch that was a great moment when I realized that Paul Thomas Anderson was actually auditioning for me.
So what do you now look for in a script?
WHM: I love great writing. I like it to be spare and to the point. I like the plot to movie along pretty quickly. I’ve got two little girls now and I’m doubly resolved not to do really stupid, violent films. I’m so over with those. Then I figure out if it’s a role I want to play, and if there’s any money, and if I’ll have to leave town. And, do I have to get wet, and if so, how long will I be wet?
By wet, you mean like in Jurassic Park III?
WHM: Man, that was rough! It was awful.
What is your take on the current status of films being released today?
WHM: I am proud as punch about the amount and quality of today’s American films. I like to make fun of Hollywood but it makes me really proud to be a part of it. People talk about a Golden Age of film or a heyday — there was no heyday. There are great films every single year.
You’ve been doing a lot of television lately…
WHM: Oh, I love TV. I just wish it were better. I have a writing partner, Steven Schachter. He and I, like Joe and Anthony, have had these brushes with network television, and it’s really rough. The shows that are good are the ones that have one big person that runs it, like a David Kelley. The network goes to David Kelley and gives him notes and he tells them where the door is. I saw Everybody Loves Raymond last week. Hysterical that’s as good as it gets. I mean, on a different level, it was as good as the work we did on Collinwood. It was straight ahead, honest, funny, fast-paced, well acted. It was just great. I’d someday like to do a series, I just wish it weren’t so arduous, so done by committee.
Did you have that ‘big person’ experience when you did Sports Night (the now-defunct ABC series)?
WHM: [Show creator and writer] Aaron Sorkin is a pal, and they [the networks] were on him like a cheap suit. He had to duke it out for everything and the irony is he was right, they were wrong. They canceled Sports Night and they put on dreck in its place. They took off the future of television and replaced it with garbage and they didn’t lose their jobs. Aaron said, ‘I don’t wa
nna use the laugh track,’ and they forced him to use the laugh track until, ultimately, they turned the volume down. Laugh tracks are so ancient history. America is smarter than that. The only stupid people left are the executives.