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Michael Blieden: The ARF Interview january 16 2004, 04:09 am
submitted by: normal mc

Immediately after finishing ‘Melvin Goes To Dinner’ (read the review here), I checked out the film's official site. I noticed a catch-all mail address and took a shot, hoping for someone associated with the film would want to subject themselves to the ARF treatment. I was surprised I heard back so quickly from Michael Blieden, the titular ‘Melvin’. His play ‘Phyro-Giants!’ was the source material, and he also adapted the screenplay.

Mr. Blieden proved to be a good sport about it all, completely ignoring my lack of journalistic training. He’s getting a free ARF mug for playing along. Over the course of a few emails, this interview materialized. Here is what he had to share…

‘Melvin Goes To Dinner’

ARF: You've said a lot of the story is an amalgam of stories from friends, etc. Have you had a 'Melvin' type dinner or engagement where everything comes out, strangers sharing, etc?

Michael Blieden: A good friend of mine called me up, this was back in 1998 and I was living in New York at the time, and he asked if I wanted to meet him for dinner. He was in town for one night. So I showed up at this little restaurant in Soho, The Cupping Room (known well to you NY’ers) and there were two women there. Neither of them were my friend's wife. One was a friend from business school, and the other was a friend of the first's. The two women had bumped into each other on the street. That's the exact setup that's in the movie. The rest of the evening did not progress as the movie does. The biggest similarity to the actual dinner and the fictional dinner is that in both cases all the people involved sat down thinking "this isn't going to be fun" and then 4 hours later we had told each other a ton of personal shit.

ARF: 'Phyro-Giants' - where did that term come from? How much from 'Phyro' made it to 'Melvin'?

MB: The term came from an actual mental patient that a friend of mine treated in another state. Pretty much the entire play made it into the movie, and that was what Bob Odenkirk and I had talked about from the beginning. I didn't start writing the script until he and I had had a few conversations about what we wanted I knew then that he would likely direct the movie if the script turned out well. We wanted to essentially preserve as much of the play as possible. In the end we achieved that by keeping all the material, then adding little bits of stuff to get you away from the table every 6 or 7 minutes. The net effect is that the audience is at the dinner table for the entire movie, without ever feeling like they stayed for too long.

ARF: How autobiographical a character is Melvin, or for that matter, Joey?

MB: Joey pretty much represents my views on theology, religion, etc. For that reason I felt like I had to give those lines to another character. From a philosophical standpoint his character is the most autobiographical. But Melvin really is me. I was talking with Bob about ‘The Frank International Film Festival’, which is a short film featured on the ‘Melvin’ DVD, and he was saying how funny it will be for people to watch ‘Melvin’ then see me in the short, because I'm basically the same character. People will realize that I really am that way.

ARF: What's the strongest aspect of 'Melvin' as a film?

MB: I think the strongest aspect of Melvin is the natural quality of the performances. Much of that is the dialogue, so I can take some credit. The movie is not improvised at all. It's totally scripted. But mostly it's a credit to the cast and all the humanity and realism they brought to every line. The performances are really outstanding.

ARF: Did the characters translate to screen as you had hoped? How much of that was performance vs. the writing?

MB: Well, the characters came alive in through their actors much better than I could have hoped. The movie cast is the same as the theater cast, and that's because everyone (me not included) was so fucking good. They completely embodied those characters and for that reason Odenkirk decided not to replace anyone.

ARF: How did you get Bob Odenkirk aboard?

MB: Bob's wife Naomi is a talent manager, and she manages Stephanie Courtney (Alex). She saw the play several times and eventually told Bob that he had to come see it. The first time that he saw the play I think he kind of couldn't believe that he enjoyed it. The thing about plays is that if they're written by someone you know they're generally not that good. So he came to see the play about 6 more times. After that I think he was convinced that the script was solid. We went to dinner and... this is an interesting Bob story. He was talking about ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, and how a lot of the storylines involve Ray lying to his wife. He said casually, as if it was obvious "You can't lie to your wife. There isn't time. If you fuck something up you tell her and you deal with it. There's too much other stuff to worry about." And that was the thing that impressed me most about our first meeting. I realized then that he was a man of character.

ARF: Of all the kudos, are the 'Frank' awards the most meaningful?

MB: Well, I feel a little cheap about the whole thing, because a week before the festival Bob and I took out $10,000 full page ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter saying "Frank, For Your Consideration..." And then we listed ‘Melvin’ in all the standard categories. We even made up a few categories: "Best Dry Humping Scene" and "Stupidest Animated Purse Flying Over Paris In A Movie That Should Have Been Half As Long". We got the Purse award but strangely the “Dry Humping” award went to ‘Le Divorce’.

ARF: Small, independent movies lend themselves to deeper character development, almost by necessity. Does it bother you that these personal, expressive films are often overlooked by joe public, since they are often shut out at the multi-plexes?

MB: I don't really have enough experience to be resentful of what the studios or distribution companies do or don't do. The fact of the matter is that I wrote a very unlikely film and a few people (The Odenkirks, Jeff Sussman, DJ Paul) helped me get it made. I'm just happy my parents and friends got to see it. Now people I've never met are seeing it. That's gravy. 10 years from now is when I'll start being annoyed that I'm shut out of the multiplexes.

But my own experience aside I understand the question, and I guess it is partly upsetting. I don't want to criticize the state of the industry too much because, like Lenny Bruce said, and I'm totally paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect of: If there weren't so many hypocrites and assholes out there I would have no act. I think there's an audience for this movie because it's an alternative to ‘Bad Boys 2’, which by the way I was really looking forward to, for some reason. Then I saw it and I was like, kind of offended at how lame it was. The storyline they used was basically the same storyline I used with some friends of mine when we made a drug heist video in 12th grade, and we were just ripping it off from ‘Miami Vice’! I believe you have to really care about your audience. And for god sakes put some thought into what you're doing beyond details such as how many rounds of gunfire can I pack into the next 3 minutes.

So yes, I guess ultimately I have an issue with the vapidness of some multi-plex fare. But even that doesn't necessarily speak to your question of why aren't the alternatives being embraced. Well, to a degree I think they are. I mean, I just saw ‘Calendar Girls’ at The Grove in LA, which is basically like our town square now. That's definitely not Bad Boys 2.

And as for me personally being shut out of mainstream theaters, I do have a lot of sympathy for distributors. As good as I think my movie is, I think it's very difficult to market. I mean, it's difficult for me to make it sound interesting, because all I can tell people is that it's four actors they've never heard of sitting around a table talking. And can you imagine anything more boring than that? This particular movie can only get out there through word of mouth. That's the only way.

ARF: 10 years from now will you really be shut out of multiplexes? Where will you be in ten years?

MB: I'll still be dating unavailable women, while raising two daughters in a mansion in Beverly Hills with my best friend, their lesbian mother, a fitness instructor at a ritzy health club I've opened.

ARF: Safe to say that 'Melvin' is sequel proof? We won't be seeing 'Melvin Goes To Dinner... Again!' in ten years, will we?

MB: That would really be sad, wouldn't it?

ARF: Quick thoughts on how the 'Melvin' characters made out after the movie ends?

MB: I think that Joey and Sarah end up together, although people have debated this. I think that Melvin and Trenice sleep together a few more times, then he asks her if there's any chance she'll leave her husband. She says she'll think it over, then stops returning his calls. After a week he gives up. Two years later he goes back to medicine.

ARF: Is Stephanie Courtney single, because I have an unhealthy crush on her.

MB: Is she not the cutest thing in this movie? Totally crush worthy. And very single by the way.

New Projects, Other Stuff

ARF: So, are you gonna sell out anytime soon? Any 'wacky neighbor' roles on a WB sitcom coming up?

MB: Most likely I will. I'm about as finicky as it gets in terms of turning down sitcom roles. But acting on a sitcom is at least better than selling cigarrettes. At worst the stuff is innocuous. It's never violent or degrading. And you can't beat that kind of dough. So as long as I'm as poor as I currently am, I won't be snubbing too many of the sitcom folks.

And as for the WB in particular, I just edited an episode of ‘Surreal Life 2’ which will premiere on that network this Sunday. I never thought I'd say this about reality tv, but it's hilarious. I enjoyed the work quite a bit.

ARF: What other projects are you working on now?

MB: I wrote a movie called ‘1995’ and I'm trying to get it made.

ARF: You went to the University of Michigan, so let me ask this: we have an old friend who went there and maybe you know him. Jon Hall - ring a bell?

MB: Doesn't ring a bell. I graduated in 1993. It was worth a try though.

ARF: What did you do on 'The Daily Show'? Could you be classified as 'on-air talent'?

MB: Yes I was on-air. I hosted a segment called ‘Blieden's Video Review’ where I reviewed music videos as if they were movies.

ARF: On 'Everything's Relative' you were a staff writer. Any Jeffrey Tambor-related stories you could share?

MB: I wish I had some. I didn't interact with him much. But he's the funniest motherfucker. Watch for Matt Price and I as undercover agents on his new show ‘Arrested Development’.

Bonus Round

ARF: Give us your guilty pleasures... music, film, tv, snack foods...

MB: ‘How's It Gonna Be’ by Third Eye Blind, ‘adult’ films, Zone Perfect bars, fudge graham flavor

ARF: What's in your cd/tape/MP3 player right now?

MB: Liz Phair, ‘Whitechocolatespacegg’.

ARF: Last book you read?

MB: George Eliot, ‘Scenes Of Clerical Life’.

ARF: Creamy or chunky peanut butter?

MB: Chunky. No fucking contest.

ARF: Favorite movie?

MB: Changes all the time. This month it's Soderbergh's ‘Solaris’.

ARF: Favorite use of the 'f' word?

MB: I like it plain with no special additions, as in: "I'd really like to fuck you."

ARF: Tiger Woods has been called 'the Michael Jordan of golf'. Michael Blieden is the Michael Jordan of...

MB: Leaving the house then remembering something I forgot, coming back into the house, then going out to the car again, then compulsively coming back to the front door one more time because I didn't remember locking it. And to be fair I am not the Michael Jordan of this, but I am the Ron Cey.

ARF: Are you planning on reading this interview when it is posted?

MB: Yes.

Answer Michael Blieden's Question of the Day here!

Photos used without permission, go ahead and sue, we're broke.

dj tanner
dj tanner 4789 posts
comment no. 1

Ron Cey... brilliant!

It looks like I need to check this movie out. Where would be the best place to look for it?

your mother
your mother 73 posts
comment no. 2

ummmmm.... probably not in a theater, eh?

normal mc
normal mc 7472 posts
comment no. 3

No, it had limited release. It's available on DVD, though. Worth the effort to look it up.

one4k4 1071 posts
comment no. 4

This is really nice. I think we should have a "voting" forum, and the users can ask one or two voted questions.. everybody stumbits a question and the best ones get asked too..

I'm going to finish reading this now..

dj tanner
dj tanner 4789 posts
comment no. 5

Believe it or not, I started writing code for a voting engine. Sadly, however, it was when I was living in Florida and the Democrats stole it from me.

normal mc
normal mc 7472 posts
comment no. 6

Thanks for the link exchange, Mr. Blieden!

dj tanner
dj tanner 4789 posts
comment no. 7

Check out Michael Blieden's guest appearance on Fox's Arrested Development this Sunday, March 7th, at 9:30 PM EST.