Writer-director Bob Byington’s new comedy 7 Chinese Brothers stars Jason Schwartzman as a hard-drinking, wise-cracking, endearing Austin slacker with very slim prospects for professional or personal growth. His charismatic co-stars include Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Root, Eleanore Pienta, Tunde Adebimpe, Alex Karpovsky, and Schwartzman’s own French bulldog, Arrow, with whom his character carries on several one-way conversations. It’s a sort of movie that many people make, but few make well. Byington and Schwartzman sat down to chat about it when in town during the San Francisco International Film Festival.
What would you like to tell us about 7 Chinese Brothers?
Bob Byington: People who like Jason I think are going to like it.
And people who don’t like Jason?
BB: I don’t know who we’ll win over.
Jason Schwartzman: People who don’t like me won’t watch it.
Aw, what’s not to like?
JS: Ask my wife for an answer to that one.
Well, Bob, how was it working with him?
BB: We had to kind of retrofit his character Larry a little bit. He wanted to play him a bit more defiantly. Larry wasn’t written as defiant. And that helped. It was early in rehearsal. So we came up with ways of making him more proactive.
How much rehearsal did you have?
JS: I’d say maybe two weeks. But one nice thing is that I met Bob maybe about a year before we started shooting. And just talking on the phone, and getting to know him, in a weird way that is sort of like rehearsal. Just talking and sharing things and reflecting on things, or I guess just kind of musing on things. And just laughing and finding things funny. It’s really tremendously important, that bonding. I know people where our senses of humor are so different that it is pretty brutal to be with each other. So it’s nice that Bob and I get along.
BB: Jason brought his dog into the movie, too.
That relationship is where it begins and ends.
BB: It’s central, yeah.
JS: In the script the dog was different. It was a German Shepherd. Very aggressive. And Arrow’s not aggressive.
BB: We were never going to try to make Arrow into the scripted dog.
JS: But it really did change so much, because it became so much just sitting with the dog and talking to the dog, and just lying around more with him.
BB: I wish there was more of that in the movie.
BB: Ah, it’s my favorite stuff in the movie. I think my favorite sequence is when Larry is telling the dog to get up, and then is driving with him, and singing. I wish the whole movie was just that.
JS: I know Arrow’s agents would agree.
Do you feel any actual pressure to make compromises on the shape of the story?
BB: I do have final cut. We had a cut with a little bit more Arrow in it, and I’m the one who decided to take him back a little bit. And I don’t regret it. I just respond to that characterization of that relationship as a viewer.
JS: I also think it was fun to work with Arrow, just on a production level. He’s not a trained animal, obviously, but he’s ideal to work with. A lot of dogs really are very hyper and never stay in one place. But Arrow really is just lethargic, I think, in a way that is abnormal. He really is like Garfield. He would dictate the scenes in a lot of ways. If we were working with a trained dog that had a handler and everything, they’d take the dog in, give it a treat, try to get the dog to do something, and then take him away all the time.
You wouldn’t really get to hang out.
JS: No. And Arrow, he’d come in and look around, and find a place that he wants to lie down, and he’s like an anchor. And then we’d be like, “Ok, I guess this scene’s going to take place by the window.” I think that type of energy got into making the movie, and I think there’s something about that.
I’ve told people that the charm of this movie is sort of intangible, hard to describe.
JS: That’s like what my ex girlfriend said when I said, “Why are you breaking up with me?” It’s intangible.
It seems like there’s a quiet confidence here. How do you know what’ll play, and how to get certain moments to add up in the way that they do?
BB: There is a thing where you can tell that something clicks. It’s not confidence so much as just deciding to do it.
JS: Bob and I have talked about having a disclaimer. Like, it’s not a movie about a comedian. It’s a guy who’s doing, like, bits, because he thinks they might be funny…but I like how he goes so quickly from “Here’s something that might make you laugh” to “I’ve checked out of this situation.”
BB: If you’re not a skilled comedian, you’ll love this movie.
One of my favorite scenes is the one where your character has a brief, random interaction with a guy played by Alex Ross Perry, who directed you in Listen Up Philip. They’re strangers to each other, but there’s all this hostility, and then it gets diffused in a sort of weird way. It’s so touching, and funny. That’s sort of a magic scene to me.
BB: I love that scene. And one thing I love is that it’s to-the-letter scripted. I remember when Alex came to be in the movie I was really happy because I think he’s a great actor. But I wanted him to run the lines with the script supervisor. We sent the script supervisor to Alex during lunch and I said, “Tell him to run the scene with you,” and the script supervisor came back and said, “He won’t do it. He won’t run the lines.” That’s Alex in a nutshell. Only he has the balls to say, “I’m not doing that.”
JS: But he knew the scene. He nailed it.
BB: He did. But he really did kind of torture me a bit.
JS: I also love the scene because it has such a fun feeling and memory of that night of shooting.
BB: They have an intimacy that was born of them having worked together. That they used for this scene.
There are a lot of overlaps in your moviemaking community. I’ve seen you, Bob, in quite a few movies lately. Do you make it a point of showing up in other people’s films?
BB: I think so. I think if they ask, you try to do it. And there’s just something about being a director and talking to another director, you kinda know they get it in a way.
And you learn things about directing from being an actor on somebody else’s set?
BB: Oh, absolutely. Alex is so fun to watch at work. I learn so much.
JS: I was recently one of the executive producers for this show on Amazon, and it was the first time I was really in a position like that, where I was watching actors and allowed to suggest some things. And that was really something. It gave me a different perspective on actors, for sure. Obviously if you like movies and you read about them, you see interviews where directors talk about that stuff, about directing. But to really be in that situation where you can say let’s try this or that, it’s a really interesting spot to be in.
BB: I know that on Listen Up Philip you didn’t have an abrasive relationship with Alex, but there’s something about that movie where one might almost think that you did. But it wasn’t like that.
JS: Not at all. I can’t work abrasively. Some people do. They need a real tension. I’m not kidding myself that every situation has to be a garden. And some days are not good days. But for some people it’s a necessary thing to have conflict. I don’t prefer to work that way. I also don’t need it to be a bunch of high-fiving. Like, “Yeah, this is so fun!” I don’t need it to be that either.
BB: Well, you’re also very prepared. It would be difficult to create conflict with an actor who’s as prepared as Jason is. If an actor comes in and they don’t know their lines, for instance, it’s fairly easy to be irritated with that.
So how do you prepare?
JS: I can’t read it and memorize it. I try to get somebody who works on the movie to go through it with me. I need to do repetition, but I can’t look at it. Because I’ll never stop looking at it. I guess it’s sort of auditory. That’s what works for me. I just have to keep doing it. I know one actor, his way is to write them over and over again, and never say them out loud until he gets to the set. Which I like, but this is a lot of paper. I was like: I can’t waste this much paper.
But does it affect how you perform? If you get it so in your head that you stop listening to the other person?
JS: Those things happen. Like sometimes you’re not even doing the scene anymore, it’s just a bunch of sounds. Everything happens. But I’ve found that the worst days for me are when I don’t know my lines 100 percent. I can’t even process what you’re saying to me. That’s when I start sweating. Obviously, when you’re in a movie, you can’t memorize the whole script the way you’d like. My most important thing is to try to be close to the production, or the director. I like to feel like we’re all together.
BB: Know your lines like a Beatles song.
JS: That’s good. Is that like a maxim?
BB: I think I told Kevin Corrigan that once.
JS: That’s amazing. Know your lines like a Beatles song? That’s a good one!
BB: But…he’s not like that.
He’s more into the Stones?
BB: There’s something that’s a little rigid in that way of thinking for him.
JS: I get it. I get that some people might like to have them just slightly out of reach.
BB: I’ve been on sets where I was acting and I didn’t know my lines very well, and it sucks. It sucks!
JS: It’s scary.
BB: like you said, it’s all you’re thinking about. Instead of all the things you’re supposed to be thinking about. You’re not listening to the other actor and that’s a terrible, terrible feeling.
JS: There may have been a few times in my life where I’m thinking about the lines and because of that it adds something weird and good to the scene, but definitely not often.
BB: I didn’t know my lines very well on Alex’s set, and it was not fun. I said “like” every third word.
Our conversation here is taking place during the San Francisco International Film Festival. How has this festival experience been for you?
BB: Audiences here have a kind of thinking quality.
And that’s good? You like that?
BB: On the last film, I did. I should say, I do like dumb comedy. I do like dumb jokes.
JS: Me too.
BB: That was a bonding thing, that we both like stupid jokes.
You say that as if maybe people don’t expect to hear that from you.
BB: Well, I think a San Francisco audience may potentially be more interested in a kind of literate humor. Or more intellectual humor. So they might be kind of waiting for that, or looking for that. I don’t know. It’s confusing. I want to make a comedy that a San Francisco audience would like. I like that Play it Again, Samwas shot in San Francisco. There’s something very smart about that movie.
JS: Yeah, how does he eat that rice so fast? You know that scene where he’s eating the rice with the chopsticks? Is it sped up, or is that how he’s eating it?
I haven’t seen it in long enough to remember that. The next time I watch it, I’ll think of you. What other thoughts do you have about this place as a movie town?
JS: I have family up here. My cousin Roman [Coppola] moved here last year, and he lives here. My uncle August [Coppola] used to live here. He was a brilliant, brilliant man. And I used to go to his house. There were so many books around, and he didn’t have a television. This is a weird and sort of embarrassing thing to say, but even as a kid I remember thinking, “I could be smart, if I lived here.” Like, you don’t have a TV, you get a bunch of books, you get a couple of these daggers that seem to be from other countries, and put them on your shelf — I mean literally, not books that are dagger-like, but actual daggers, from places like Peru.
BB: The pressure’s on if your name is August, right out of the gate.
JS: I know. But I love it here, and I love the emphasis on appreciating culture and art and thinking. Having thoughts. You don’t encounter that all the time.
BB: We were just over by City Lights, and the old Purple Onion used to be over there, and there’s a Zach Galifianakis show that’s there, and he’s talking about an audience member not laughing at any of his jokes, and he says this guy looks like he’s trying to crack a safe. And that’s my image of San Francisco audiences. They look at your movie like they’re peering at it.
JS: Have you ever been to 101 Music? I went there today. It’s the greatest place in the world.
That’s the record store in North Beach with all the funky old instruments?
JS: Yep. [Fishes business card out of pocket.] Look, it says, “Music for all faiths.”
BB: It’s like you brought it up so you could bring that card out.
Aside from that card, did you get anything while you were there?
JS: I didn’t this time around, but last time around I got this crazy keyboard which was made in Germany and was designed to make Eastern music. It plays microtones. Western instruments are tuned differently, we don’t have that. But this thing had a button that said “microtone.” I was like, “What is this?!” That was amazing.