Stephen Kessler took
an unusual path to underground success as a director.
He started directing commercials in 1989, landing high-profile
ad campaigns for Snapple and Saturn and the "Got Milk"
ads. In 1991, he garnered an Academy Award nomination
for his short film, Birch Street Gym. He took his
first shot at big-budget Hollywood filmmaking with Vegas
Vacation in 1997. Thats where he got his first
taste of directing legends like My Dinner with Andres
Wallace Shawn and comic innovator Sid Ceasar, infamous
characters like Siegfried and Roy, and glitzy showbiz
kings like Wayne Newton.
The experience came in
handy directing his latest film, The Independent
a mockumentary that follows the life of fictional b-movie
director Morty Fineman. Kessler directed a mixed bag of
talent, from the actors at the core of the filmJerry
Stiller as Fineman and Janeane Garofalo, Anne Meara, Jonathan
directors Roger Corman, Ron Howard, and Peter Bogdanovich
to b-movie queens like Julie Strain. Gadfly caught
up with Kessler by phone while he was hunting for videos
at his local mega-chain store.
Gadfly: How did you
go about directing the mix of different actors in Vegas
Vacation and The Independent? I know you had
to direct Wallace Shawn, Siegfried and Roy, and Wayne
Kessler: Siegfried in particular
did a lot of confidence-building. And it was funny because
when the film came out, I guess I hadnt seen the
guy in about a year, and he said to me, "You know, I really
want to thank you, because were up on the stage
and I was very nervous, and you said to me, Just
be Siegfried." And I said, "Well, youre welcome,
And even people like Julie
Strain... I mean, Julie is someone who really has a great
amount of natural ability, and there isnt much I
have to do but tell her, you know, just pull it back,
I just want it to be a bit more natural, just be yourself
a little more. You know, the stuff she does in the opening
scene of The Independent is pretty much all improvised
(all her improvising). And its great. So whenever
people come in front the camera, whether theyre
really accomplished actors or theyve never acted
before, you just kind of try to see what their comfort
level is and just start making adjustments from there.
no difference necessarily between directing Wallace Shawn
and Wayne Newton?
No. As a matter of fact,
[in Vegas Vacation] Wayne Newton had a really great
understanding of what I wanted him to do, without my having
to say a word. Certainly hes not playing Wayne Newton
but hes playing a
I mean, hes actually
doing a really good characterization of who people think
Wayne Newton is. Thats what makes him so funny.
Wallace Shawn actually
said, "I want to see the script before I decide to do
it." He read the script, he loved the jokes, the jokes
he had to do. And actually we did really try to give him
some great jokes. Like, I remember this one joke where
Chevy [Chase] has like five dollars left and he says,
"What can I do with five dollars?" And Wallace Shawns
line was, "I dont know, buy a bullet and rent a
gun?" But he also, he had a lot of ideas about
one who was always, "Is it funny if I do it this way?
Should I do it this way?" But he was great, Wallace Shawn,
So did the Vegas
Vacation folks approach you or did you vie for the
spot to direct the film?
Hey, could you hold on
for just a second? [To video clerk] Could you tell me
if you have a film here called Crimes and Misdemeanors?
DVD or video
[Back to interview] See
heres the thing, you know, a movie like Crimes
and Misdemeanors, brilliant film. You cant even
get it at Blockbuster. And then look how many copies there
are of Keanu Reeves Hardball. Im looking
at like twenty right now, on one table. [Back to clerk]
Its checked out? Thats DVD rental over there?
Gotta get a back-up movie. Okay Im ready to talk
So we were on, how did
you come to direct Vegas Vacation?
Well, I had triedafter
I did Birch Street Gym, I had tried to do this
script I had written, which was kind of a very sincere
dramatic comedy. And I thought it was going to be very
easy, but it was actually almost impossible. And after
a while, I hadnt been working, and my agent and
some friends of mine said, "You should just take some
studio job." And so I looked at what was around and Vegas
Vacation was something that was happening, and I liked
the idea of satirizing Las Vegas as becoming this family
destination. And that was the start of it, you know? I
had to go through a lot of interviews with Jerry Weintraub,
who was the producer. And basically just go through a
whole song and dance.
Did the work with the
advertising campaigns help you land the job?
Yeah. Yeah they did. I
mean, because, it helps if people know youre working,
and, you know, other people believe in you enough to give
I got to see a
preview [of The Independent] here in Boston with
Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Janeane Garofalo, and Jonathan
Yeah. One of the really
amazing things is how devoted these guys are to this movie.
Which, you know, basically they made no money on.
You had met some
of them at commercial auditions? Janeane Garofalo said
that you met when she had auditioned for a "Lunchables"
Right. For some Oscar Meyer
product. I had been looking for like young stand-ups who
just hadnt been in a hundred commercials. You know,
and Janeane came in and she was just blindingly funny,
and of course not what Oscar Meyer was looking for.
Were all of the
parts tightly scripted?
It really was tightly scripted,
although some of the funniest lines in the movie were
improvised. Some of the stuff Bob Odenkirk said as Death
were his improvs, which were great. Brian Possain: "Ive
seen all of your movies. Ive seen all of Scorseses,
too, but theyre not half as easy to masturbate to."
Brian improvised that line. It was great. Janeane improvised
some great stuff. I try to stick to the script somewhat
but kind of let people move out from there, and a lot
of times you just get really great stuff.
How loving are
these parodies of these different films?
I think its kind
of more for the people that watch them to judge. I really
like the films. I try to be really faithful to not only
the physical look of the film but the spirit of the film,
the casting of the film. You know, we used real motorcycle
gang people in the motorcycle gang film. The Eco Angels
is actually based on a film called The Mini-Skirt Mob.
That kind of thing. So there are films like that. And
then there are films like Whale of a Cop. Whale
of a Cop was based on a story a friend of mine who
was a Hollywood writer told me. And some are just stupid
stuff we made up like Brothers Divided.
Are you a big
You know, oddly enough,
I am not a huge b-movie fan. But, you know, I like them.
I always find them funny. I always findthe
Something Weird video has trailer compilations.
Those are always hysterical to watch.
Youre not one
of those guys who has a den full of Roger Corman film
No. Even when I was a little
kid the movies I liked werent Star Wars,
they were like Woody Allen. People on a bench talking
to each other was the kind of stuff I always liked.
You once said
that you just enjoy making funny movies, not necessarily
movies where people are getting blown up or that are really
violent or heavy. How do you intend to stick to that?
Even though theres
violence in The Independent, the violence is there
to kind of make a point. I try to juxtapose senseless
movie violence with the reality of how dull it is when
one person shoots another person. Thats why when
Larry Hankins character gets killed in The Independent,
I tried to film it in as uninteresting a way as possible.
Movie violence, you know, I mean, its a fine form
of entertainment, but I dont really feel like I
have to entertain people that way or that I want to. So
I try to do something that entertains people in a different
feel that therell be any pressure to make the kind
of films you dont want to make as time goes on?
No. Nobodys asking
me to do those kinds of movies. No pressure at all. The
only pressure I have is to do stupid comedies. Thats
kind of the biggest pressure, and I just deal with it
on a case by case basis. To me, I have to see something
there. Something worthwhile.