MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Files:Going the Distance from Fact to Fiction with Director Nanette Burstein

Change is good, although it’s not always easy to reinvent oneself. But New York filmmaker Nanette Burstein, a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominee for On the Ropes (which she co-directed with Brett Morgen), doesn’t miss a step in her transition from nonfiction film to narrative features.

Her first fiction film, New Line Cinema’s Going the Distance, is a lively, sometimes raunchy romantic comedy about a Stanford University journalism student (Drew Barrymore) who, during a summer internship in Manhattan, falls for a record label promoter (Justin Long). Until then he had found it easier to commit to his buddies Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day than to girlfriends, but he and she decide to rack up the frequent flyer miles by giving a long-distance relationship a shot.

Burstein, who is married to author and war correspondent Scott Anderson (together they co-own the popular Half King Bar & Restaurant in Chelsea with pal and Restrepo director Sebastian Junger), has been logging quite a few miles herself while promoting her new film. I caught up with her while she was staying at Chicago’s new Trump International Hotel and Tower—which ironically, considering that the newspaper business figures prominently in Going the Distance, is situated on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Andrea Gronvall: You pick good stories and you tell them very well. When you started making documentaries did you plan to segue one day to narrative features?

Nanette Burstein: Yeah, I had always wanted to do both, and I admired certain people’s careers, like Jonathan Demme—and Michael Apted, to a degree. But with Demme you could see how each [mode] enhances the other; by doing both documentaries and fiction films he’s become a very interesting filmmaker. I’m a big fan. Rachel Getting Married was clearly made by someone who’s a documentary filmmaker.

AG: How did you get involved with this project?

NB: I had decided after American Teen, which was the last documentary I made, that I really wanted to try a fiction feature. I have a Hollywood agent, and I think studios saw the body of my work, and could envision the translation to fiction filmmaking. I read a lot of scripts; I didn’t like anything, but I really liked this script [by Geoff LaTulippe] a lot. I loved the honesty and the humor and the heart and the tone of it.

AG: On the Ropes, about women boxers, had a great rawness to it. Your documentary about producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, showed considerable stylistic innovation.

NB: Yeah, totally stylized!

AG: And there’s also a freshness to Going the Distance–even though, technically, it’s a genre film. Was there any movie that inspired you, or conversely, made you think, “No, I don’t want to fall into that romantic comedy trap!”

NB: I think tonally the script reminded me of Knocked Up, and how you could actually make a story that felt really honest and was really funny—and uncensored funny. And that you really cared about the story, that it was actually about something. It’s about becoming a grownup, and all that comes with that. I really appreciated Knocked Up. Some of the stylistic choices I made are more of a reflection of me, and my previous work.

AG: Like what?

NB: Like there’s these fun little animated airplanes flying across the map. I really wanted to remind the audience of how far away Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are from each other, because you understand it intellectually, but by seeing it on a map you feel how far it is. And I used a title sequence at the beginning that’s animated as well to show this struggle of a long-distance relationship. And then the split screens—you know, I always try to use style to enhance the story. It’s never about being big, or bold, or flashy. It’s always about how can I take advantage of stylistic devices to build the story or the character.

AG: It’s interesting that you mentioned Knocked Up because there is an element of gross-out comedy to Going the Distance that’s certainly in synch with Judd Apatow’s film. But that element is tempered; in a way, this is kind of a gross-out comedy for chicks. Not that this is specifically a chick flick. I like how Barrymore’s character manages to get a foothold in this three-way bromance that’s going on, by just sort of being like one of the guys.

NB: She’s totally like one of the guys! But she’s still charming; you see a Drew Barrymore you’ve never seen before.

AG: I think she’s becoming a role model for her young fans.

NB: I think so, too. She’s a tremendous actress, and as she gets older, she wants to do movies that reflect more of who she is now, and how she’s growing up. She’s very proud of this movie.

AG: How long did it take you to shoot it? How long did it take you to prep?

NB: It took us two and a half months to prep it, and nine weeks of shooting–and eight months of editing, by the time it was completely finished. We didn’t have a huge budget; it was under 30 million dollars, modest for a studio film with a huge star.

AG: Both the dialogue, and the way that your actors deliver it, sound like the way that people often talk. How much was scripted? How much was ad-libbing, or improv?

NB: We’d shoot the script, and then we would shoot improvised takes of every scene. By the end, in the final edit I would say it’s 50-50. There were some brilliantly scripted lines there, but sometimes you just don’t know how funny something’s going to be until you’re in the moment. I had such brilliant comedic performers: Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jim Gaffigan, and Christina Applegate–even people who just showed up for a day, like Rob Riggle.

AG: I love him! He was so funny as one of the resentful husbands who think Long is making them look bad.

NB: He’s hilarious! They were able to come up with the funniest moments that you couldn’t have predicted. But that was always planned to be the approach: let’s improvise a lot of this movie, and cast great comedic actors who are really good at that.

AG: Tell me more about Charlie Day.

NB: He creates a show called It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for FX; he’s one of the leads, and writes and executive produces it. And he has a very loyal following, myself included. He’s doing another movie now with Jason Sudeikis and Jason Bateman. I think he’ll be a big star.

AG: He has one of the most poignant exchanges of dialogue in the entire film. Right in the middle of some outrageous stuff, in that scene in the bar where the three buddies are cruising for older women, he says to Justin Long

NB: “You don’t have to be here.”

AG: And it just goes to the soul of the picture. Your movie very much speaks to our time. It’s hard enough to get a job and keep it, let alone get one that you’ll love–and then to factor love for another person into the equation! Was it a deliberate decision to situate the couple’s careers in two industries that are today so challenged?

NB: Yes, very deliberate.

AG: That line about newspapers not being a growth industry got a huge laugh.

NB: In the press screening, I’m sure!

AG: In every press screening, I’m sure.

– by Andrea Gronvall

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon