DONNES: What can you tell people about the entertainment
BLIEDEN: Well, entertainment is a very difficult business insofar
as there is no prescribed path. There is really no degree program
that can help you. There is really no sort of hierarchy that
you can climb.… There is just solitude and perseverance.
Beyond that, it is just up to everyone to trust that you’re
doing the right thing, and it is also the trend in entertainment
that there is really no sign that you’re on the right
track until all of a sudden there is some sort of huge success.
DONNES: Tell me about the characters you wrote for Melvin.
Who are they? What are they?
BLIEDEN: These are characters who are deeply flawed people.
They are also people who I would love to be friends with. I
was really writing a fantasy: Who would my ideal friends be?
What would they say? How would they talk? What would they think?
And I didn’t put any limits on where that would go. As
it turned out, the movie is really how my fantasy went: I created
some very complicated people, who had made a lot of mistakes,
and who were reasonably successful—but they were struggling
in a lot of areas in their lives. The thing that makes them
really great people is that they have a good sense of humor
about what they’re going through, and they’re able
to discuss it with a lot of honesty. That seemed to be the
most graceful set of qualities I could give a group of people,
and that’s why I care about them so much.
DONNES: How have audiences reacted to Melvin?
BLIEDEN: I feel that people have been taking the movie very
personally.… The movie has gotten me into many deep
discussions with people, and people come up to me and tell
me their stories: how they differ from what’s in the
movie, but essentially how their stories are similar to what
happens in the movie. People on a very basic level have been
totally getting the movie in a really satisfying way, and
they feel like it’s something made to reflect their
lives, to make them feel OK on some level.
DONNES: You had quite a lot of brand name talent involved
for an independent, low-budget movie. You were working with
people who could have been off somewhere making a lot of money.
Was it the material that brought them on board?
BLIEDEN: You’re absolutely right. I’ve learned
in the last year that if people respond to the material, they’ll
get involved, and that’s as complicated as the equation
gets. People want to do good stuff. They want to get paid,
too, but.… With the stage play, all the actors volunteered
their time. I didn’t pay anyone a dime for the play.
In fact, I couldn’t have paid them.
For the movie, everyone knew what we were up against, and
they just wanted to be a part of it. It was really gratifying,
encouraging, and you know the thing that I’ve learned
is that it’s all about the writing. That’s what
everyone looks at. That’s what everyone will respond
to. That’s what gets the actors involved. It’s
what gets the money involved. You know, just focus on the writing.
If you have something to say, and you care about what you say,
then everything can fall into place.
DONNES: How do you write dialog, whether it’s for a
script you’re writing, or a screenplay?
BLIEDEN: Generally, I’m like one of those guys who writes
constantly, carrying around a notepad—that kind of corny,
writer stereotype. A woman who was actually at one of the screenings
in Hawai‘i put it best: Jana Wolf. She wrote a book called
Secret Thoughts of Adoptive Mothers, and she didn’t write
it to get published. She said, “I just write so I don’t
explode.” And I said, ‘I’m gonna start saying
that, and I’m going to quote you on it. That’s
just the best way to put it. . . .’ I have trouble keeping
things together sometimes, and writing things down helps me
. . . .
That’s kind of where all the writing comes from to begin
with. When I’m afraid of something that someone will
say, or having an argument with someone, I usually actually
write it out as a script. So over the course of a year, I will
have a lot of stuff written, and it will generally revolve
around a theme, because it came from me, my life, and what
I was going through. It is generally a body of writing that’s
I’ll generally open a new document when I have a new
idea, and I’ll just write a character named “man” or
a character named “woman”, or “person 1” and “person
2” and I’ll just write down the central core of
the idea or scene, or the one line of dialog. Sometimes I’ll
think of the line or one thing that someone says, and that’ll
end up being the entire character. Like Sarah, for example.
. . that line of hers: “It’s not admirable. Look,
I’m just being honest. And if his wife got hit by a car
tomorrow, I’d probably start sleeping with him again.” That
was one of the first lines I wrote for the play. And I pretty
much created the Sarah character to justify that line. I wrote
that line in 1998, and I didn’t finish the play until
DONNES: Was there any sanitizing of the script, or compromises
that you were uncomfortable with during the process of adapting
your play into movie.
BLIEDEN: I was amazed. . . Because we had such a small executive
staff, we kind of got to do whatever we wanted. [Director Bob
Odenkirk] and I had to agree on everything—that was very
important. So whatever I wanted to do, I definitely had to
clear it with Bob. And regarding any major decisions, Bob and
I would clear it with [the producers]. With a studio movie,
or a larger-budget movie, there are just a lot more people
you’ve got to run stuff by, but because we were so small,
we didn’t have to.
DONNES: Can you give me an example of an issue that you and
Bob Odenkirk needed to resolve?
BLIEDEN: One of our biggest disagreements, and this really
was an argument, was over the title. Originally, the movie
had the same title as the play: Phyro-Giants.
DONNES: Can you tell me what was behind the name change?
BLIEDEN: The producers just hated having this nonsense word, “Phyro-Giants.” At
that point [the producers] were working full time with the
movie, and they would have this conversation with people:
A: I’m producing a movie.
B: What’s it called?
And it was really this debacle for them, and they got really
sick of it. They all came to me, through Bob [Odenkirk], and
said, “You must change the title.” I really fought
it for a long time, but ultimately there was no fight. I was
one of five. I couldn’t trump anyone.
DONNES: The movie is on the short side, coming in at under
90 minutes. Has anyone commented that the movie was too short?
BLIEDEN: In comedy, the shows I did were always one hour
long. For some reason, that was just the right length.
I guess it
comes from the fact that my background is in comedy, and in
comedy things are generally shorter. Every theater show I’ve
done—and I’ve done a lot—has always come
out to about one hour. The original play was an hour and five
minutes. Many people said it wasn’t a “proper” play.
I ran it by some theater producers early on, and they asked
me if I’d consider expanding it to make it a real play.
I think an hour-long play is the perfect length: go to the
theater, see the play, then go out to dinner and talk about
Also, I do believe in “shorter over longer” and
[in the case of Melvin] the material really dictated the length
of the movie.
DONNES: I get the impression that you are not a “movie
person.” Is that true, and has making Melvin made you
more of one?
BLIEDEN: That’s true, but it’s funny. Since doing
[the movie] I pay much more attention to movies, and I dissect
them a little bit more, or try to learn from them a little
I think there’s no way to understand the process of making
a feature length film until you’ve done it. And then
suddenly the whole process is illuminated, just enough to make
you think that you’d like to do it again. It is such
a complex organism that once you’ve got the bug, you’re
always trying to understand it a little bit differently, and
a little but better. So now that I’m determined to do
it again, and make a career out of it, there’s no choice
but to become a student of film.
DONNES: What can we expect from you next?
BLIEDEN: Well, I’ve been working on a script called 1995,
which is about two people struggling with their own senses
of inadequacy, in the mid-nineties, at the beginning of the
tech boom. That was a time in our history when everybody’s
inadequacy issues were very blatantly on the table: mass consumption,
materialism, etc. There was this sort of weird ethos at that
time when the people who were making billions of dollars were
finally getting their due in life, as if [making billions]
has ever been a standard for real happiness and success. It
was like we all bought into that, and the people who were actually
winning were the “nerds,” and the standard for “winning” was
that they were making [a lot] of money. And they were making
it in very bizarre way, which was by participating in a massive
Ponzi scheme to defraud people’s retirement funds. I
thought that would make a decent backdrop for the idea of two
people who are dealing with their own inadequacies.
DONNES: When will 1995 be ready?
BLIEDEN: I’ve finished writing it, and now I have to
find someone willing to pay for it.
DONNES: Melvin touches on some religious issues, as well as
issues of gender. Not to say that Melvin was the proper place
for this, but you do not tackle any issues of race. Is that
not something that interests you?
BLIEDEN: It’s an issue for me, and it’s something
that I’ve thought so much about tackling and have done
a lot of writing in preparation for dealing with, but I’m
not quite sure what it is I’ve got to say about it, and
what my point is.
It didn’t seem like there was a place for it in this
movie, but it’s something I’m perplexed by, and
when you get into it, you have to get into the bigger questions:
What exactly are our prisons? Why do they exist? You know,
they are just so full of people. Why are our teachers not being
paid $70,000 a year? All these questions are inextricably tied
to the race question, and it’s a big sociological problem.
I just haven’t quite figured out how to get there yet.
There’s something actually satisfying in thinking that
you’ve actually gotten somewhere with an issue. If you’re
going to put something out that tackles one of these issues,
you have to feel like you have something new to say, that you
are actually going to make progress, that you actually forward
our evolution, and our thinking about that issue. That’s
when it’s satisfying, not just when the issue is just
Melvin Goes to Dinner is currently playing in limited release
nationwide. The DVD is scheduled for release Dec. 16, and
will be distributed by Sundance Channel Home Entertainment
of Showtime Entertainment). It is scheduled to be shown on
the Sundance Channel in February 2004.