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SXSW '05 Interview: 'Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party' Director Robert Brinkmann

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party' Pitch: Filmmakers Robert Brinkmann and Andrew Putschoegl follow Stephen on his birthday and document a performance he gives for the cameras and a group of friends, during which he tells stories about his experiences in Hollywood. Instead of his regular role as a supporting actor, Stephen takes the stage in Birthday Party and shows that he has the charisma to hold the audience’s attention without the help of a script.

"All Stephen Tobolowsky all the time."

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
I have never been to SXSW. In fact, I just returned from the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, which was the first time I ever went to a festival with a movie of my own. It's no wonder, since I have never directed and produced a feature film before in my life, so it really couldn't have happened.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
I was a huge film buff. I went to the local revival house every day and was part of a film club, which made Super 8 shorts. All the other members were much older than me, but I was the only one who could run the camera. I would have answered director in a heartbeat, but, even then, I was a "cinematographer" first.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I went to USC film school and shot a student film, which won awards (including the FOCUS Award for Best Cinematography) and landed the director a job with Stephen Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. I, on the other hand, started by working 32 hour days shooting music videos for free.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
I'm getting a lot more press than I used to.

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
Actually, I had no festival in mind. I just wanted to make a film. When I showed it to my friend Joel, he said I should submit it to Sundance. That's the first time the thought of a festival crossed my mind. As soon as I started looking into it, I realized that SXSW would be the best place to be. Sometimes, the right answer finds you before you have asked the question...

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
Fifteen years ago, I was at Stephen's birthday party at his house in the Hollywood hills. I watched as he was surrounded by almost everyone there, telling a story, and thought this would make an interesting film. A few years later I mentioned the idea to him. It wasn't until HD technology became advanced enough, so that I could afford to make a commercially viable feature on my own, that I approached him again and we went ahead with the project. We worked on his stories and selected the raw material, there was no script.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
You must think of your marketing angle before you start your film. You may disagree with a studio's choices, but they think that way for a reason.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
I did look at My Dinner with Andre and Swimming to Cambodia again. I liked those films, and they are in the same genre, but I also wanted to make sure we weren't doing anything too similar.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
I'm not a big fan of remakes, unless they truly improve upon the original. John Carpenter did one of the best remakes with The Thing. Why anyone would remake a masterpiece like Kurosawa's Ikiru I will never understand. If I had to remake something, I would like to remake the third Alien movie and save my favorite franchise. If that's too expensive I would go for Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid - he is a genius and the film is great, but I think it could be turned into a different film, which connects with a bigger audience.

Two parter – name an actor you'd KILL to work with, and then name an actor in your own film that you really think is destined for great things.
Stephen Tobolowsky has been overlooked for too long. He is a great actor and, as our film proves, has plenty of charisma. No doubt, he will continue to do great work. Morgan Freeman is an actor I would work with under any circumstances.He is so great, that I would cast him in the role of Cinderella if I had to. He would always be better than the alternative.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
It's great to see your film with a large audience of people you don't know. It's the greatest reward to see others enjoy your work they way it was intended. I only wish there were less politics involved in getting into festivals and being recognized. With all the competition, though, that's more of a utopian wish.

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
I definitely haven't made it until I sell my film and get my money back. I think when someone gives me enough money to make another film I want to make, I might actually say 'yes'.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
I did not! I financed, produced, directed, shot, and co-edited my film, and still didn't want to use that credit. I think that credit should not be used, unless it has a meaning. It means something, when it says "a film by Martin Scorsese" or "a film by Michael Mann" - these guys are visionaries with a body of work, which exemplifies the meaning of that credit. If you are not Curtis Hanson or Ridley Scott or Clint Eastwood and have made a number of films which are exemplary, save it.


Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, starring Stephen Tobolowsky, Ann Hearn, Mena Suvari & Amy Adams, will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information, and be sure to check out the official Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party website!.

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originally posted: 02/16/05 17:49:43
last updated: 02/17/05 10:10:07
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