Jun 06

Grace & Frankie and The History of Modern Cinema:
(Warning:  For Film Geeks only)

My Director's Notebook - Grace & Frankie Episode 209

Normally when I get a gig on an episodic television show, I’ll watch all existing episodes, read all scripts un-produced, and maybe do some filmic research in the vein of the show itself – e.g. before directing Brooklyn 99 it’s possible I stole a shot or three from Serpico, The French Connection, and Midnight Run.

But Grace & Frankie provided a unique opportunity. Instead of watching films about older characters happening upon catharthis in their seventies (Cocoon, Calendar Girls, Grumpy Old Men, and God forbid I’d have to sit through Amour again), I decided to dig deep into the epic resumes of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Lily Tomlin in The Late Show. Sam Waterston in Interiors.

This became my source material, my bible, my inspiration: the long, varied and often overlapping careers of four living legends. What I discovered is as good a history lesson in modern cinema as any class you can take at USC or the Learning Annex.

Grace & Frankie Ep. 209 - Table Read

Note:  I’m sure between them they could share more revealing intersections with the great artists and technicians of the last 50 years in Hollywood. No doubt they could amaze you with a thousand small-world coincidences that capture the journey of their collective lives in an industry built on relationships and often redundancy. But they’re not writing this blog — I never thought to ask them — though maybe I should have. Instead, you’ll just have to live with my stream of consciousness, which may or may not lead you to this postulation:

The small degrees of our separation are beyond our comprehension. As the philosopher Heschel says, and I’m paraphrasing, it’s not that we don’t understand all that is, it’s that we can’t understand. Usually we regard as meaningful that which can be seen or expressed. But this ignores the vast realm of our experience. It ignores the ineffable – that which can’t be seen or is difficult to express. He encourages being in awe of this mystery. And the path to awe is to strive to make the invisible visible. Though sometimes it’s the other way around – being in awe forces you to see things you hadn’t seen before.

((For more on this theme I point you to Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson — who, incidentally, is an uncredited director on Robert Altman’s, Prairie Home Companion (2006) which stars Lily Tomlin, who made her film debut in Altman’s Nashville (1975) opposite Michael Murphy, who plays the ethically enigmatic lawyer in Magnolia.))

So in an attempt to make some of the invisible visible, let’s start at the beginning.  The following should be read fast and with great cinematic enthusiasm:

Jane Fonda’s first film role was in Tall Story (1960),  co-starring Anthony Perkins of Psycho (1960) fame, who appears in Murder on The Orient Express (1974), directed by Sidney Lumet, who besides directing Dog Day Afternoon (1975),  The Verdict (1982), and Jane Fonda in The Morning After (1988), was the godfather of sound editor Leslie Gimbel, whose work includes Light Sleeper (1992), which was directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver (1976), which stars Harvey Keitel, who was originally cast as Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), before being replaced by Martin Sheen, who had previously starred in Badlands (1973), produced by Edward R. Pressman, the producer of True Stories (1986), which stars John Goodman, who gives a legendary performance in The Coen Brothers’, The Big Lebowski (1998), which is narrated by Sam Elliot, who makes out with Jane Fonda at the end of my episode of Grace and Frankie.

Speaking of my search for connection, the big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston, not only guest starred on my second episode of Andy Barker P.I. (2006), but co-starred with Sam Waterston in the Lincoln Center revival of Abe Lincoln in New York. Sam Waterston has played Abraham Lincoln three times on film, including the 1988 mini-series Lincoln, which was directed by Lamont Johnson, who directed Martin Sheen in The Execution of Private Slovak (1974), which co-starred Gary Busey, who appears in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) with Jeff Bridges. Everything comes back to The Big Lebowski.  You’d think I was making jokes until you realize that Jeff Bridges starred with Jane Fonda in the aforementioned The Morning After, and with Sam Waterston in two films, Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Rancho Deluxe (1975), which was directed by Frank Perry, who also wrote and directed Hello Again (1987), which starred Shelly Long, who later that year made Outrageous Fortune (1987) with Bette Midler, who later that year shot Big Business (1988) with Lily Tomlin.  Big Business was photographed by Dean Cundey, who in addition to shooting Back To The Future (1985) and Jurassic Park (1993), also shot Road House (1989), which stars The Big Lebowski’s Ben Gazzara who I read lines with in a play in Connecticut in 1991 with Al Pacino.  Heres a story about it.

Al Pacino didn’t remember me when I ran into him in the lobby of CAA in 2004. And he passed on David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers in 1988.  Coincidence? Cronenberg directed The Dead Zone (1983) with Martin Sheen, and The Fly (1986) with John Getz, who stars in Blood Simple (1984)and appears in this episode of Grace & Frankie in two scenes with Martin Sheen, who stars in a mockumentary I made in 2002 called The Zucker Follies, where he performs the opening monologue from Apocalypse Now – though when I asked Martin about it, it’s unclear whether he had any recollection of the beautiful 30 minutes we shared.  Martin Sheen and Lily Tomlin worked on 4 seasons of The West Wing together, though neither of them were in my episode, so whatever.  Though Sam Waterston was in my episode of The Newsroom and I met Jane Fonda in the hallway before a take and she was lovely, so we’re back on track.

Who says you need Kevin Bacon to play this game?
Kevin Bacon appears in JFK with Martin Sheen, which I saw with my college girlfriend in 1991. She believed Oswald acted alone and subsequently didn’t enjoy the film, though she did like Annie Hall (1977), a movie in which Woody Allen breaks up with Carol Kane for similarly denying a conspiracy.  My relationship fell apart for other reasons. Woody Allen and Carol Kane both make an appearance in my short film, Searching For Allison Porchnik (1997), though Woody never returned the favor — as you’ll notice I am in not one of his movies — three of which star Sam Waterston and three of which were shot by famed Swedish cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist, who shot Agnes of God (1985) with Jane Fonda, who, as you know, starred in Nine-To-Five (1980) with Lily Tomlin. Nine-To-Five was written and directed by Collin Higgins who wrote Harold and Maude, directed by Hal Ashby, who directed Jane Fonda in an astounding performance in Coming Home (1978), which was written by Waldo Salt, the writer of Midnight Cowboy (1969), directed by John Schlesinger, who directed The Believers (1987) with Martin Sheen — which is out of print, by the way, and nowhere on streaming, so if anyone has a copy, I’ll get it back to you.
This is all to say, get started on Grace & Frankie Season 2 on your Netflix and pay particular attention to Episode 9, written by the brilliant Nancy Fichman and Jennifer Hoppe. You may see compositions vaguely reminiscent of moments these actors have fallen into before. But just so I prove the old adage true — “it’s not where you get it from, it’s where you take it to,” you’ll notice significant shifts:
For example, in this staging here, I put Jane Fonda on the right side of the bench, to avoid comparison with her position opposite Maximillian Schell in Fred Zinnemann’s, Julia (1977).
Or in this case, you’ll notice I changed the make and model of automobile, so as not to muddle my episode with The Great Gatsby (1973).
And to avoid confusion with The California Kid (1974) where Martin Sheen is looking right — in Grace & Frankie, Martin Sheen is looking left.
Finally, if you’re looking for blatant theft, Jane Fonda kissing Sam Elliot is pretty much a direct lift from Jane Fonda kissing Robert Redford in Electric Horseman.  We don’t like to say stealing, we like to say homage:
When I got the call to direct Grace & Frankie, I had begun teaching a film class for women directors in my living room  - mostly because I had broken my arms in a bike accident, had to turn down a couple gigs, and needed to keep my directing mind sharp.   And also because I know a variety of women writers, and since there’s no better time to be a woman filmmaker in the history of filmmaking, it’s been good times giving them the tools necessary to direct their own work.
The first class I taught, inspired by the great visual design teacher, Bruce Block, was on the graphic structure of Klute, the 1971 thriller, directed by Alan J. Pakula, who would go on to direct All The President’s Men(1974), Presumed Innocent (1991), and the great comedy Starting Over (1978), with yes, young Kevin Bacon, and Burt Reynolds, who stars in Smokey and The Bandit (1977), directed by Hal Needham, who got his start as a stuntman on Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman, who would win the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which was written and directed by Robert Benton, who made a delightful movie you should watch, called The Late Show (1977) starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin.

A taught thriller, Klute set the look and the language of urban darkness, grit and decay that we associate with Seventies Cinema. The whole film is shot in flat space to achieve the effect of claustrophobia;  despite the large, populated, open city, these characters are trapped – trapped in their own self-imposed isolation, and ultimately, for a brief moment, with each other. Gordon Willis, the director of photography, who’s next film was The Godfather (1972) believed in lighting only what he wanted you to see to tell the story.  The result is a specific darkness, that had previously never been a part of the language of cinema, and to this day, influences generations of filmmakers.  Watch Klute and David Fincher’s Seven (1995) back-to-back, then call me.

I told Jane the convenient timing of my Klute class and she said, “what’s a Klute class?”   So forty-five years after the release of Klute, I sat Jane Fonda down and talked her through the visual design of the movie she won her first Oscar for — frame by frame.  She loved it.  I suggested to my wife, that this was as good a moment as any to retire, but she reminded me that she’d like a bigger house.

8 Responses to “GRACE & FRANKIE”

  1. Love this! Missed your blogs, and this is better than the Jewish Geography version that you can play, by far.
    I want to see Klute now.
    Jane Fonda got lucky–what a gift that experience was for both of you.
    You actually went frame by frame?

  2. had I literally taken her frame by frame, we’d still be in class. just the frames I selected. perhaps I should be more clear.

  3. AWESOME BLOG!! I want to come to your directing class! You have really had an impressive career and more to come, right? Also, what happened with your biking accident? Oh dear.

  4. more to come? um… I hope so.

  5. No joke, I followed this 20 degrees of separation (mostly) and I will never play trivia pursuit with you unless I am actually on your team! Very enlightening! Your knowledge and experience is really impressive and this was lots of fun to read! Thanks!!

  6. When I was in grad school, three years after Apocalypse Now, Sheen came and talked to us and said he did 500 pushups a day — we thought he was a badass. Amazing cast you got to work with. They must have loved you for all this knowledge. Porchnik!

  7. As entertaining a writer and director, as you are a human being. This is AWESOME!

  8. Holy Moly. I hadn’t realized that the url to this had been sitting unread for ages in a window with other urls I’d wanted to check out.. My husband had shared it with me. I was cleaning house on my computer and stumbled on this page. What a treat!

    And a good thing, too. Or I clearly would have mistaken your episode for The Great Gatsby. Whew!

    BTW I loved that class! Only got to attend one. Do more!


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