Jeff Daniels is greeting well-wishers at a premiere, but you aren't likely to see this one on Entertainment Tonight. Except for a couple of publicists, he's greeting fans alone. There's no red carpet, the star is dressed more like a member of Pearl Jam with flannels and jeans. The snowy weather out the window looks nothing like LA It's actually Kansas City.
When I finally get through to him, I ask if he'd be willing to sign my copy of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which he plays both a movie character who walks off the screen into Mia Farrow's complicated Depression-era life and the actor who played him and now wants him to return to the movie. I told Daniels how much I loved the movie and that is was an intriguing blend of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.
After signing, he points to the poster for his newest flick (which he also wrote and directed), he replies, "This one's going to be just like it." After a second or two, a mischievous grin creeps over his boyish face. The first clue that his statement might be a bit of a joke is that the new film is titled Super Sucker.
While he may have worked on prestige pictures like The Purple Rose of Cairo, last fall's The Hours, Terms of Endearment and Gettysburg, his most popular role is probably Harry "Har" Dunne from Peter and Bobby's Dumb & Dumber. Super Sucker deals with a feud between two vacuum cleaner salesmen named Fred Barlow and Winslow Schnaebelt (Daniels and Harve Presnell). In a conceit that would make the Farrellys proud, Barlow is unable to compete with Schnaebelt's superior organization until he discovers a forgotten attachment called the 'Homemaker's Little Helper' and its ability to operate in 'hard to reach places.'
If the idea of vacuum cleaner and these bizarre unintended benefits seems outlandish, Daniels explained in a later roundtable interview that the web is full of people who seemed to have more than an emotional attachment to their home cleaning systems. "It's been two years, maybe a little longer since I did the research, but (there are) a lot of chat rooms, a lot of those," he recalled. "They would get together, and they would talk about their vacuum cleaner collections. That's where I found out about the 'nap nipper.' 'Question: Does anybody have a nap nipper on the Hoover 2500 1958 model? I can't find the little whatever. I'm missing one part. And so on.' Somebody from Arizona would say, 'Well I've got that. I'll send one because I've got a Hoover 2900.' And they were just going back and forth, so I was able to pick up 'oscillating brushes' and a lot of the other terminology from those guys."
He also found the situation to be a way of commenting on Midwestern attitudes toward sex. He elaborates, "Aside from looking for a comic idea for our second film, I was in London shooting 101 Dalmatians. It's 10:00 at night, and on page three of the tabloids, there's nudity. In Europe and Amsterdam, they just seem to be a lot more open. You come back to America and 'The Land of the Free,' and it's this [he makes a gesture as if he's trying to hide something], especially in the Midwest.
"Living in Michigan and wanting to shoot films here about [the region], there's a funny idea about the veneer of normalcy that we portray, and behind closed doors Bunny Barlow (played by Michelle Mountain) is upstairs with the 'Homemaker's Little Helper.' It just sounded funny, and then for him to not even comment on it or to judge it or anything. Fred's first reaction is, 'This could sell,' which pushes the comedy even further. Instead of marriage problems, it was really just kind of treated normally." He adds, "When you see Bonnie in bed with the thing, it’s the headboard and stuff like that. Plus, if we’re gonna go graphic with it, then we’re a porn [film]. And also do just that and get her rolling over because it’s all about Fred’s reaction."
Fred Barlow's optimism is endemic within sales culture, and Daniels eagerly researched it and incorporated it into the film. "I actually slipped into a sales convention in Toledo with a thousand Fred Barlows. They had a thousand of them, from Dayton, Ft. Wayne, Michigan, all over the place. I literally -- when they had these curtains at this banquet hall -- had a video camera. This would have been the lead story on the Toledo news if they'd have caught me back there.
Listening to Daniels recalling his research is almost like getting a free performance. He assumes characters as he speaks and instantly assumes their personas. "It was like a revival, very evangelical. They were really getting these guys pumped up. You could see the people who were trying to take the gig that thought they might be able to make some money. They'd die after a month. They just don't want to go door-to-door. This is their last meeting. They aren't going to last," he recalls, every now and then playing both audience and emcee.
"And then it's the other guys -- Rob from Sylvania, Ohio, who sold last year $450,000 worth of vacuums, literally. That was his number. He was the number one guy. They bring Rob up here, and Rob gets the Ferrari because it's such a huge industry. And they give Rob the car. 'You want to be like Rob, don't you? How many of you want to be like Rob?'"
Daniels' comparison between Super Sucker and The Purple Rose of Cairo wasn't a complete jest, though. Like his former director Woody Allen, Daniels made Super Sucker and his previous directing effort, Escanaba in da Moonlight, with regional performers and technicians, in this case Michigan, instead of importing Hollywood talent.
When he hasn't been appearing in films for other directors, Daniels has, since 1991, been writing plays, acting and directing with the Chelsea, Michigan-based Purple Rose Theater Company. Veterans from this group have collaborated with Daniels on both films. For example, Purple Rose veteran Matt Letscher, who plays Barlow's protégé, Howard, in Super Sucker, has built on his experience to land prominent roles like the lead he plays in the TV series Good Morning, Miami. He and Daniels ended up collaborating on non-Purple Rose projects like Gettysburg and its prequel Gods and Generals.
Allen's emphasis on regional (in his case, New York) talent has obviously left a strong impression on Daniels. He recalls, "For years, [Allen] would shoot in the fall, edit in the spring, and he'd be writing the next one. Everybody on the crew knew that they would be going back to work on Labor Day and shoot Woody's next movie. He was just churning them out. I can't do that, but when we're ready to go again, there will be a series of phone calls to the same guys. It won't be, 'It's the third movie; we have five million; let's get some people from LA' We're developing the people that we have. We're only going to get better."
Selling Michigan-based films is a good deal harder. Daniels has had to use some Fred Barlow-like ingenuity to get Escanaba in da Moonlight and Super Sucker to find venues and audiences for the films. Distributors balked at both movies, even though Super Sucker won the audience award at U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. With both films, Purple Rose became the distribution company as well as the distributor.
Making films with a mainstream sensibility on the kind of budget that seems more suited to a Hal Hartley or a Jim Jarmusch film has forced Daniels and his collaborators to practically create their own market. He recalls, "It’s cost us. It’s hurt us. We know we’re battling the perception of indies, which is serious, meaningful and important, uncommercial. And Sundance has told us that. We were close on our first film and even closer on this one. They said, 'When it comes to picking a drama that’s uncommercial or something like that or a comedy like yours, we’ll pick the drama every time.' We argue that, but it doesn’t matter. We’ve been told by distributors, 'You’ve made a mainstream, commercial comedy on an indie budget. Too bad you didn’t have $ 30 million and Adam Sandler playing your protégé.' And you’re going, ‘Is is funny? Did it work? And is there room in the indie world for comedy?’"
While distributors and festivals may have been unwilling to deal with the Purple Rose films, exhibitors have been far more open. "With Escanaba, we had thirty screens in Michigan," Daniels recalls. "We called up the theaters and malls, got into these malls and multiplexes. They said, 'Hey, if it sells Cherry Cokes, we're there.' And it was a comedy about deer hunting in Michigan, and it outsold J-Lo and Matthew McConaughey's The Wedding Planner three-to-one. Yeah, we were only in Michigan, but it grossed $2.3 million in Michigan and Wisconsin. We're not gonna do big in Florida, but Hollywood noticed.
"We're in first-tier theaters. I was surprised with Escanaba because I thought the studios had it all locked up and there would be a battle. With Escanaba, they said that if it sells, we'll put it on screen number eight. We had some theaters in Michigan and Indiana where the studio called and said, "Get that thing out of there. We want J-Lo on two screens." They said, "Well, J-Lo ain't selling, and this one is. They're lined up to see this one. Send me something that works, and I will.' They're cowboys, these exhibitors. They're willing to talk back. We had one theater in Detroit that played Escanaba for one night, and then the studio called and said, 'Get it off there.' Only one theater of how many? It sounds pretty good," he says. On video, Escanaba in da Moonlight eventually sold 85,000 units.
Super Sucker, which doesn't have as pronounced a Michigan slant, opened even wider on January 24, 2003 [Super Bowl weekend] on 125 screens in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and Missouri. As with its predecessor, it's playing in multiplexes contrary to industry logic. "Why can't we open in the middle of the country? Why does it have to be New York and LA? Their answer is 'because that's the way it's done.' So, we just said there's a better way to do it. Give us the distribution money. We'll even take less advance -- no advance -- and a back end, and let us do this. We know how to do this," he says. "It was shot in the Midwest, made in the Midwest about the Midwest. Let’s open it in the Midwest. We’re often ignored. We get it later. We're treated like we're not sophisticated; we won't get the jokes. If it was up to my partner Bob Brown, we'd never go to New York and L.A, or the last two cities we'd go to in America would be New York and LA I hope we have that problem," he says with a grin. When asked what he thinks of his side gigs of writing and directing, Daniels says he enjoys directing while finding it to be a bit like being a traffic cop. As for writing, he states, "I ask anybody 'Are you a writer?' And if they just say, 'I love it.' I say, 'You're not really a writer. That scene that you won't deal with, the one that's really terrible on page twelve, you need to deal with it now. As you sit there, just eight hours, and it's just two pages. All that means, is it's just not working. It's maddening. I love and hate it.
The release of Super Sucker comes between Daniels' appearances in two films that are radically different from his broad comedy. He plays Ed Harris' estranged lover in the somber but acclaimed adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours and reprises one of his most popular roles in the upcoming Civil War drama Gods and Generals. On the former film, Daniels says, "It really is wonderful. It's got a great shot at Best Picture. For me, that was like being in an All-Star Game. Not only the girls [Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore], but Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, [director] Stephen Daldry, Stephen Dillane, and [playwright and screenwriter] David Hare. I just basically knelt in front of him when I met him."
In Gods and Generals, Daniels reprises his role as American Civil War hero Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the same character who won him similar acclaim in Gettysburg. Chamberlain is one of the actor's favorite roles, so he eagerly recalls doing the research.
"When I did the research on [Chamberlain], I went to Maine," says Daniels. "I met a couple of guys, Tom Desjardin, who's written about the 20th Maine [which Chamberlain commanded], was the only guy up there not to treat him like Jesus. I remember going to some of the Historical Society people and saying to them, 'What are his flaws? I can't play a saint. I've got to play his weaknesses.' One woman said, 'He had no flaws,' and she was dead serious. Tom said, 'The wife, maybe the wife. Maybe he was trying to prove to his wife, who was constantly going to New York that he wasn't just a Bible-thumping professor, that he was a man.' That's stuff that you can use. So, that helped."
Much of what makes Chamberlain a fascinating cinematic and historical figure is the fact that, as a former religion teacher, he was far from blood-and-guts commander. When he is assigned to deal with a group of mutineers, he gets them to fight through persuasion instead of punishment and still manages to lead a victorious defense against a ferocious Confederate advance. "It was not his world. I think Tom Desjardin said, 'If you do nothing -- he thought this was going to be a disaster, a Hollywood actor doing Gettysburg -- show his ability to think on his feet.' That's the key to Chamberlain. You can see it on Little Round Top when they put Chamberlain in position in the movie. Think your way through this problem. You can see it right before bayonets and that whole thing, thinking. I don't have it planned already. There isn't any textbook He's thinking his way through it," explains Daniels. He adds that fans of the first film will be treated better production value in the newer film. "If you like Gettysburg, you'll love this one, I hope, because we had more money. Ted Turner wrote a check for $55 million. That's different than the money we had to shoot the miniseries Gettysburg. It was shot for the square box. Only after the fact did we -- Ted, the guys at TNT -- said, "This is a movie. It'll win the Oscar, and suddenly, it was a four-hour movie. It wasn't shot as a movie, which is widescreen and vistas, and that's what we were able to do with Gods and Generals."
Daniels also fondly recalls humanizing an even more imposing historical figure, George Washington, in the A&E production of Howard Fast's The Crossing, which comes out on DVD in February. He recalls, "We worked hard to make him a man, not the myth and to take him off the dollar bill. I was pouring through this one book that said he was aloof, quiet, moody -- all of those things that are playable or the flaws. We tried to do that. We also had the advantage of that it was only three days in his life, not seven years or something. It was just that concentrated period, so it allowed us to be specific to that piece of time. But we tried to be authentic, versus the dollar bill come to life."Daniels also realizes that he's created another icon of sorts. Wherever he goes, there are questions about playing Harry in Dumb and Dumber. He also has a diplomatic reply for those who wonder why he wasn't recruited for the new prequel When Harry Met Lloyd: Dumb and Dumberer. "Jim (Carrey) wasn't interested; the s aren't involved; nobody contacted me. It was probably cheaper to cast two guys in their twenties. I wish them the best, and I hope they got signed to long contracts. I'd be willing to do a cameo," He said. He then added that he hoped that during the process of performing the cameo a truck would back up, dumping large sums of money.