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Melvin Goes to Dinner creator shares insights in film, industry

Interviewer: Rene Tony Donnes

Editor’s note: Melvin Goes to Dinner had its Hawai‘i premier Nov. 7 as a part of the Hawai‘i International Film Festival. Kalamalama reviewed the film in its Nov. 27 issue. René Donnes had an exclusive interview with screenwriter and star of the movie, Michael Blieden, by telephone at his Los Angeles home.


DONNES: What can you tell people about the entertainment industry?

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, really 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 coherent.

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 2001.

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?
A: Phyro-Giants.
B: What?
A: Phyro-Giants.
B: Phyro-Giants?

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 it.
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 but more.
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 used.

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 (a division of Showtime Entertainment). It is scheduled to be shown on the Sundance Channel in February 2004.



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