Standing at the front of a Philadelphia movie theater, writer/comic/actor Reiser is basking in the applause from a packed auditorium following a screening of the film The Thing About My Folks, which he has written and stars in. But the journey to get his script onto the screen was a difficult one, even with the clout of having created and starred in one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s.
“Up until about two months ago, this film was seen only at my house, three people at a time,” confesses a grateful-sounding Reiser as the applause dies down. “This is so much better and more efficient.”
“And I was one of those people,” chimes in Resier’s Folks co-star, Peter Falk, from Reiser’s right.
“That’s correct,” deadpans Resier. “It was me, Peter and two complete strangers in my living room.”
It’s the first night of a three week, 20 city promotional tour for the two actors, but Reiser and Falk already have an easy chemistry between them, having spent a majority of the film’s compact 25-day shooting schedule together.
Reiser stars as a harried New York writer whose life becomes even more complicated when his father Sam (Falk) announces that his wife and Ben’s mother (Olympia Dukakis) has walked out after 47 years of marriage. While his sisters search for their mother, Ben and Sam take an impromptu road trip through upstate New York attempting to fish, taking in small-town baseball games, arguing and getting to really know each other as people beyond their normal father-son dynamic.
“This film has been a long time in the making,” states Reiser. “I had the idea for it years ago. I always wanted to write this thing, where Peter Falk would play my father. So I wrote it and sent it to Peter and he said ‘Yes.’ We went to every studio and we were turned down by every studio they have in Hollywood. Some people who didn’t even have studios turned us down. They said, ‘We’re in textiles, but we’re going to say “no” anyways.’”
Salvation came in the form of the new independent studio on the block, Picturehouse, who agreed to take on the film.
“In a way, it was a blessing,” says Reiser of his script’s rejection by the major studios. “Doing it independently means there’s nobody to throw their two cents in saying, ‘What if they got into a chase with some guys on a bad drug deal’ or ‘What if there was an exploding dog?’”
As is often the case with smaller, intimate, character-based stories, the question as to how autobiographical The Thing About My Folks is looms.
“It’s a work of fiction based on actual Jews,” states Reiser, with a chuckle. “It’s very much my parents, but the story is made up. I recognize that dialogue, but legally I’m covered.” He also admits that his film character’s three sisters may bare a passing resemblance to his own three sisters. “I have three sisters and one of them was always saying ‘Why am I the last one to know?’ [like one of the sisters in the film]. And it was one of those nice things where when she saw the movie she couldn’t really get mad at me because then she would have to acknowledge that that [character] was her.”
“Rain Man was a movie that I’ve always loved,” Reiser admits. “I remember Barry Levinson talking about it and said that it had been to several directors beforehand and they said ‘We don’t know what to do with this, its just two guys in a car, talking.’ And Barry said ‘That’s why this is good. You get me the car and two guys with something to talk about and that’s enough.’ I knew what I wanted and I knew Peter’s voice, so it was easy, in that sense, to do. It’s like a pressure box and things come out and things can come out in a car. It’s a fun thing to write, two people in a car.”
Knowing that he wanted Falk to play his father, Reiser was nervous that he might not be able to convince the actor to take the part.
“In my mind, it was so right for him,” says Reiser. “My only concern was that I didn’t frighten Peter with my intensity. And God bless him, he read it and called me that night and said ‘I’m on page 54 and I love this.’”
“I always get caught up in a story if it takes me places where I don’t expect to go,” adds Falk. “That’s what this movie is. The fact that you laugh so much, you’re not quiet prepared for that emotional explosion at the end.”
“If he had said no, I would have cried like a baby,” Reiser adds.
Reiser and Falk make a potent screen combination, sharing breezy banter that comes off as very naturalistic. Falk is quick to point out that a majority of the dialogue, although sounding off the cuff, is performed as written in the script.
“There was very little improvisation,” says Falk. “This man is a hell of a writer. He can write and it sounds like it was improvised but it wasn’t.”
“There were only two spots where we improvised,” Resier clarifies. “The scene where we were fishing and I was explaining to him how to hook the bait. I know nothing about fishing, and I deliberately didn’t even look anything up. I just said, ‘The dumber I sound the better.’ So, I had written some dopey lines with me trying to explain it to the other knuncklehead and before we shot it, Peter pulled me over and said, “Now what do you mean here where it says the hook? Is that where- are you holding it? Where does the worm go?’ And I said, ‘Peter this is no worm, see what I’m- the hole goes in the…and you stick it in there.’ The director just said ‘Why don’t we just shoot that? That’s unbelievable. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.’
“If you notice, there’s a shot of the two of us and then quickly, after Peter talks, we cut away because I couldn’t keep a straight face,” Reiser says.
The second moment of improvisation came during the shooting of a scene in a small town pool hall. “Peter’s got the pool cue to the guy’s throat, “explains Reiser, “and he’s saying ‘You better apologize.’. I had some line written for the guy like, ‘Screw you,’ but I just said ’Change it to whatever you want to say, say something offensive.’ And the guy says “Eat s*** and die.’ Peter had never heard that phrase before. The look on his face…”
Falk chuckles at memory. “That was great moment,” he deadpans.
Reiser knows that a film that is a character-driven comedy is far from what has become standard fare at a majority of cineplexes. He does feel that there is an audience for The Truth About My Folks, it’s just a matter of reaching that audience.
“It’s hard to really identify THE MARKET for this movie,” admits Falk. “You can certainly look at it and go ‘Well, people in their seventies are going to like this.’ And that’s fine, and there are plenty of them. But I’ve said that’s for my generation, people in their mid-40s and up, and that’s fine. But we’ve been finding that it’s people in their 30s and 20s who are also responding to this movie.
“There’s something about saying something is a comedy, that sounds like a challenge. As a stand-up, I used to think that stand-up comedy is the only art form that gets heckeled. Nobody ever yelled at Van Gogh, “You can’t paint! You suck!’ But there’s something about comedy that makes people go, “Oh yeah, well show me if you’re so funny.” And at the same time I think if you tell people “It’s a tearjerker, it’ll move you,’ there’s a resistance. ‘Don’t tell me I’ll cry, I’ll tell you. ’ So you have to be careful. You can’t give it away. It certainly is a comedy, but that’s not what I think people walk out saying. They walk out feeling something.”