Actor Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar in American Splendor
As a file clerk at a Veterans Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, Harvey Pekar would seem like an unlikely character to base a comic book hero on, much less the featured character in a film where audiences at the Sundance and the Cannes film festivals would be cheering him on. Yet directing duo Shari Springer Berman, SOA '95, and Robert Pulcini, SOA '94, brought his story to the big screen, and found critical acclaim-winning the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and the Cannes Film Festival's Fipresci Award from the International Film Critics' Association.
Lonely and disenchanted with his job, the eccentric Pekar turned the events of his everyday life into a long running counter-culture comic book series, American Splendor, which he began in 1976. The work is autobiographical and includes himself, his friends, and even his wife as characters. The stories address mundane issues, ranging from his poor dishwashing habits to people in checkout lines.
Interestingly, this comic book legend can't draw. He wrote the dialogue and diagrammed each frame using stick figures. Other comic book artists then created the graphics to accompany the narration. When reading different editions of American Splendor, it is not too hard to notice distinguishable differences in its appearance, since different illustrators often drew different editions.
In the 1980s Pekar made a few appearances on the David Letterman Show, leading several filmmakers to inquire about making a movie based on his comics. For years nothing developed, until producer Ted Hope approached screenwriting and directing duo Berman and Pulcini.
Although they were only vaguely familiar with Pekar's work before undertaking the project, they fell in love with his comic books. As documentary filmmakers they are most interested with the people behind the scenes and piecing tidbits together to create a story that flows from beginning to end.
"In his comic books Harvey documents his own ordinary life which makes it very hard to adapt [into a screenplay] because there is no narrative," said Berman. "We spent a lot of time finding the right context for his stories."
While there was initial discussion that the film would be a documentary, Berman and Pulcini delved further into Pekar's work and spent some time with him in Cleveland, deciding to switch back and forth between documentary and narrative, with occasional animation and voice-overs by the real, gravely-voiced Pekar.
Actor Paul Giamatti, who bears little resemblance to Pekar, plays him in the narrative portions of the film, and Pekar, himself, appears in the documentary sections. An unusual technique that Berman and Pulcini employed to reflect the multiple "looks" in Pekar's comic books.
"On paper it was great," said Pulcini. "When we were actually shooting the film we wondered how we would make it work."
"We really weren't sure about it until we saw the audience reaction at Sundance," Berman admitted.
"Harvey didn't interfere in the shooting, or read the script," said Pulcini. "He wanted the film to be an accurate portrayal, including his flaws-true to the spirit of who he is."
How does this screenwriting/directing duo, who has also been married for eight years, work together?
"We don't sit down at the computer together and start typing," explains Berman. They begin by brainstorming an outline. One will start to write a few scenes and the other will review and polish the work. When the time comes to shoot the film, Pulcini tends to be more focused on the camera and visuals while Berman often works more with the actors.
The couple admits to disagreeing occasionally throughout the process. "If we are arguing it usually means that something is wrong," says Berman. "Ultimately it is better for the film when we talk through it."
Because of the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, they are grateful to have a partner whose opinion they trust and respect, and who can offer a necessary critical voice.
The importance of collaboration is one of the underlying principles that they learned at the School of the Arts. One of their main influences at Columbia was Professor Ralph Rosenblum, who taught them valuable lessons about editing and directing.
"Writing the script is just the beginning," says Berman. "You can do anything in the editing room, especially with documentaries. I often hear Ralph in my head saying 'let go of the script!'"
Incorporating animation and other optical effects into the film, it took Berman and Pulcini a full year to edit American Splendor. Contributing to the lengthy editing process was the use of the real Harvey and the actor Giamatti.
Their hard work and effort paid off, first at Sundance, where they won the Festival's Grand Jury Prize and then at Cannes, with the award from International Film Critics' Association. The film opened in New York, Los Angeles, and Pekar's hometown, Cleveland, on August 15.
How does Pekar feel about the film and the attention? Berman and Pulcini think he is as happy as he can be with the film. At Cannes, the film premiered on his 20th wedding anniversary. After the screening the audience descended on him and his wife Joyce who celebrated with a big Hollywood-style kiss.
Reflecting on the screening at Sundance, Pekar wrote in Arftorum's Summer 2003 edition "The audience loved it. That was surprising, to have hundreds of people cheering me. We saw the movie a couple more times and it got the same enthusiastic response."