Turbulent Entanglements: The Making of SQUIRRELS TO THE NUTS

By James Kenney

A top-class, lively screwball comedy that offers everything that makes this genre special. Turbulent Entanglements. Fast pace. Precise timing. Sparkling dialogue. Charming punchlines.(from the German press kit for Broadway Therapy, AKA Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels to the Nuts)

(Lagniappe/Lionsgate)

Peter Bogdanovich’s final narrative feature, Squirrels to the Nuts, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this year to rapturous response from Bogdanovich fans after the only existing copy of his 113-minute cut was found on eBay, a story recounted here.  It is currently having select screenings, including this coming Monday, August 15th, at Williamstown’s Images Cinema.

I am unaware if a comprehensive press kit for She’s Funny That Way was ever released in the United States – in the digital morass of the 21st century, traditional promotional materials are no longer sent out for a film with as minuscule release as the compromised Funny had; if anything, there was a website up for a short period with information on the film.  Luckily, there was a full physical press release for Bogdanovich’s film prepared in Germany (if I can track down the film, I can track down the press release!), with choice quotes from Bogdanovich and producer Holly Wiersma, and an intriguing short primer about “screwball comedy” for 21st century audiences perhaps only acquainted with the genre as a term they’ve heard lacking context.

So here is a detailed translation of the German Press Kit for Squirrels to the Nuts, where the film in its compromised She’s Funny That Way edit was retitled Broadway Therapy (a better title than Funny That Way, at least).  I translated it myself using the surprisingly resilient Google Translate, and have kept some of the translated phrasing that might sound awkward if I wasn’t sure what the unnamed original author was trying to relay, or, well, if it was kind of charming.  But this detailed document on the genesis and casting of Squirrels, with ample discussion from the late Peter Bogdanovich himself, is essential for fans of the film and the filmmaker [in brackets you will find occasional commentary from me], and needs to exist as more than a dog-eared eight-year-old document I found on eBay:

After a twelve-year break from cinema, the American master director Peter Bogdanovich (What’s Up, Doc?) presents Broadway Therapy, a top-class, lively screwball comedy that offers everything that makes this genre special: turbulent entanglements. Fast pace. Precise timing. Sparkling dialogue. Charming punchlines. On a love carousel with Lubitsch swing, a top-class cast from Owen Wilson to Imogen Poots and Rhys Ifans to Jennifer Aniston flirts and bickers with bubbling wit. And Quentin Tarantino himself gives everyone a little lesson in film history [Tarantino is only found in the inadequate sequences shot in 2014 for the retooled Funny That Way; he was not involved in 2013’s principal photography for the initial Squirrels edit]. At the world premiere at the Venice Festival, the amusing homage to Wilder, Capra and Co. was enthusiastically celebrated [Wilder was a king of the genre, but Bogdanovich would likely not cop to any direct Wilder homage as he and Wilder did not get along].

With The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon Peter Bogdanovich has created classics of film art and made a name for himself as a prominent representative of “New Hollywood.” After a twelve-year hiatus from the cinema, the master director is now returning to the big screen with the high-spirited comedy Broadway Therapy. The star-studded work combines classic romantic comedy with screwball comedy. Although the story takes place in today’s New York, it pays homage to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s and its punchy, witty comedies whose charming heroes find themselves in the most absurd of situations.

if you want a fast-paced scene, then you really have to step on the gas….” 

In order to return to the charm of the classic Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, the film’s dialogue had increased pacing. “Comedies need a certain speed, and that’s what we’ve been working on, so a common director’s cue was ‘faster!'” explains Bogdanovich, recalling meeting Frank Capra and his theory about pacing in film: “Frank felt that movies slowed things down. ‘If you played a scene normally, it would later look slower on the screen. Only if you play it a little faster does it appear normal. And if you want a fast-paced scene, then you really have to step on the gas.’ That’s where Capra is absolutely right, that’s why cinema is bigger than life. I remember making What’s Up, Doc? when Barbra Streisand asked, ‘Can we take a pause?’ To which I replied: ‘There will be no pauses in this film!.’

Bogdanovich developed the screenplay 15 years ago with his now-divorced wife Louise Stratten. She was supposed to play the role of Isabella Patterson, now being taken over by Imogen Poots. As Arnold, who is now embodied by Owen Wilson, John Ritter was intended. After his tragic death, Bogdanovich and Stratten decided to postpone the project.

Years later, new plans were made. Watching Breaking Bad and Mad Men with his friend Owen Wilson at his Malibu home, the director got the idea to revisit Broadway Therapy.

They call me pop and I call them my sons…

His ex-wife, Louise Stratten, suggested he bring in director friends Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach as executive producers. “They read the script, liked it and offered their support,” Bogdanovich recalls. “They’re both fans of mine and I’m a fan of theirs. Our relationship is very cordial: they call me pop and I call them my sons — son Noah and son Wes. Both have been incredibly helpful in bringing this project to fruition. Also thanks to Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Quentin Tarantino read the script back when John Ritter was set to star and liked it very much. During the filming I called Quentin and asked if he would like to guest star. He laughed: ‘Of course I’ll do it. It would be a real kick for me to appear in a Bogdanovich film.’ I said: ‘Great, do you have time the day after tomorrow?'” [a reminder that again Tarantino was brought in at the last minute during the 2014 additional photography for Funny].

Producer Holly Wiersma about the project: “I liked this screenplay because it reminds of the classic Hollywood films that have since disappeared. At best, Woody Allen still shoots comedies this way, otherwise such films are no longer made today.”

Bogdanovich reports on the origins of the project: “We discarded the original title Squirrel for the Nuts. [It hints at his frustrations with the final result that Bogdanovich uses the press kit to alert people of his original preferred title] The starting point of the story is now a hero who gives a prostitute a lot of money so that she will give up her profession. I did it a few times myself when we were filming Saint Jack in Singapore. Ben Gazzara plays a small-time pimp who dreams of opening his own brothel. We had met real life prostitutes and I felt so sorry for two of them that I gave them some money so they could change their lives. So that was the impetus for the script.” The strange thing with the squirrels and the nuts is the director’s homage to his fellow-filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. “I like this ‘Squirrel for the Nuts’ quote from Lubitsch’s last film, Cluny Brown. He’s one of my all-time favorite directors.” Bogdanovich continues, “Louise Stratten and I wanted to write a screenplay together. We were going through a difficult period in our lives at the time, so we decided to do a comedy to cheer ourselves up.” [the “squirrels to the nuts” gag, which appears in but isn’t really explained in the Funny recut, is properly set up and paid off in Squirrels]

Owen Wilson was the first actor to join the project. “He’s one of the few actors of our time who is a true movie star and brings his compelling personality to every role. He’s always a pleasure to talk to and I feel fortunate to be his friend. When I offered Owen the part and the script he felt it was a bit too much slapstick for his liking. So I eliminated those slapstick scenes originally written for John Ritter, who was famous for such stunts. At the same time, Owen contributed some excellent dialogue, which in the film is very funny. You can clearly feel that he was once the writer for Wes Anderson’s first three films.”
 
He’s more boyish and not a sexhead…

For Bogdanovich and Wiersma, Owen Wilson was the perfect casting for the role of Arnold. “Owen has three qualities that make him ideal for this part,” explains producer Wiersma. “He’s everyone. At the same time, you can always feel his star qualities. And you like him. There aren’t many actors who could play Arnold and make him look so likeable. In the test performances, Owen regularly did best with the audience. [it is dispiriting how much test screenings are central to all current releases, as Squirrels’ one random test screening in New York City led to the producers increasingly demanding changes to Bogdanovich’s vision. If they had to test, they should have tested the film with suitable audiences, as the response to Bogdanovich’s version in 2022 has been outstanding]. And he’s playing a guy who cheats on his wife or talks to prostitutes on the phone while his kids wait on the other line. Arnold does things that are really despicable — but you still like him. Few actors can inspire that kind of sympathy.” “
 
You forgive him because you like him,” Bogdanovich adds. “Owen’s a very handsome guy, but he’s not menacingly attractive like Errol Flynn or Cary Grant. He’s more boyish and not a sexhead, which helps for the character. You think he’d help women, not take advantage of them. He helps women in his own way.”

She portrays a total beast…

The role of Arnold’s wife Delta was originally slated for Jennifer Aniston, but the actress had other plans, Bogdanovich explains: “Jennifer said she would much rather play the role of therapist Jane. I replied that Delta was a much more important character, but she had long since decided on Jane. So I said, ‘Okay, then you’re Jane.’ “Jennifer does an excellent job,” praises her director. “She insisted on a wig and the hairstyle suits her perfectly. For Jennifer, the role was a new experience because she had never played a woman like that before. She portrays a total beast, which amuses the audience all the more because everyone knows that Jennifer is nothing like Jane.”

“Jennifer is so compelling as Jane because you see her in a completely different role than before,” emphasizes Wiersma. Here she really goes all out with her wig and hysterical demeanor. She said that What’s Up, Doc? was one of her favorite films and she would like to work with Peter Bogdanovich. Jennifer was the second actress we cast and she stayed with us for a year while we got the project off the ground. She was great to work with.”

Speaking of Imogen Poots as Isabella, Bogdanovich says, “She’s an extraordinary actress that I didn’t know at all before. I was given a list of possible candidates. I met four of them in Los Angeles. Then I traveled to New York, where Imogen introduced herself. We met in the Palm Gardens of the Plaza Hotel, a somewhat old-fashioned place for a meeting. Within five minutes I knew I had found my Isabella. Imogen didn’t audition, we just chatted and while doing so, she caught me with her idiosyncrasy. I was convinced. After 20 minutes I said to her, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’ll tell you now: you have the part. We’ll work out the details later.’

“Cry with your eyes, don’t make faces…”

Describing working with Imogen Poots, the director said: “It’s not an easy role, but Imogen made everything seem very easy. She never gave me a headache. In the sequence where she auditions for the role, I demanded that she cry. because tears are generally considered a sign of acting quality. If you can cry well, you’re a good actor, I told her. She pulled off her tearful performance with flying colors, but there was one small problem. ‘Well done, but now your make-up unfortunately smudged,’ I whispered to her. I’d like you to cry and still look good.’ To which she replied: ‘Jesus, Peter!’ I said, ‘You can do this. Cry with your eyes. Don’t make faces.’ And she did it brilliantly!”

Speaking of his star’s qualities, the director says: “Imogen really lives the role and doesn’t just play it. She’s idiosyncratic without being affected. She’s also enormously likeable and attractive — without being an Ava Gardner. Imogen is one great actress whose presence dominates the screen. The camera loves her, as the saying goes.”

On casting Kathryn Hahn as Arnold’s wife Delta, director Bogdanovich says, “Kathryn is a good friend of Jennifer’s and was suggested by her. They both have the same agent and manager. I met her, liked her, saw some of her work — and That’s it. Kathryn is wonderful and she’s probably never looked her best in a movie until ours. She said herself, ‘I look good.’ And I said, ‘Sure, you have to. You’re playing a leading role here and you should look good accordingly!’ Kathryn has a natural talent for comedy, she doesn’t need to be given great directions. She didn’t play the character as a prima donna, but down to earth — who she is.”

“It’s the actor who matters!”

The director describes the relationship of the film couple as follows: “Kathryn and Owen make such a believable couple that I even had to consider whether they would end up separating or not [this quote interestingly relates to their relationship ending one way in Squirrels and a very different way (clumsily explained through narration) in Funny]. The two hand the ball to each other perfectly The relationship seems very warm, which is very helpful for the believability of the story. This is particularly impressive in the scene in the taxi where they start to argue vigorously. We did this sequence without any prior rehearsals, which can only be achieved with excellent actors. I once said to Orson Welles, ‘It’s a pretty good film, but not very well acted.’ He then yelled: ‘How can it be a good film if it’s not well acted? What else is important? Who cares about camera work? It’s the actors who matter!’ And Orson is absolutely right about that.”

“I’m lucky that Jennifer Aniston gave us a little help with casting,” says producer Wiersma. “Kathryn is just amazing in the movie. Even though she’s played so many different roles, you’ve never seen her like this before. I think this character is very close to who she is. She’s so cool and so pretty. And she is such a pretty woman but she has never been able to exhibit it in her previous films. She does not exaggerate her role, but plays it as a normal woman. Many women have been betrayed in one way or another, but Kathryn does not play the betrayed as the victim or the betrayed as the mean villain. She was everyone’s favorite on set.”

Bogdanovich said of Will Forte, who played the role of playwright Joshua Fleet, “Will is a real leading man — and he looks like a real playwright because he comes across as extremely intelligent. Orson Welles once said, ‘American actors take the part as an author or intellectual.’ That’s why such characters are often cast with Englishmen. Orson himself seemed like someone who thinks and reads, but such types are rare. Cary Grant was one such example, which is why he was able to impersonate professors and doctors believably. With American actors that is usually difficult. I remember well when Bob Redford had to hire two Brits to play the American intellectuals on Quiz Show. Will Forte is always believed as being able to write a stage play. Working with him was a real pleasure. Anyway, there weren’t any actors on this film who have been difficult.”

“Will Forte was also tapped into the role by Jennifer Aniston,” adds producer Wiersma. “The two have acted together on other independent films before. When we first met Will, he had just wrapped up Nebraska and we fell in love with him immediately. He was the perfect mix of playwright and therapist boyfriend.”

A movie star with rock star qualities…

Speaking of Rhys Ifans, who plays the role of Seth Gilbert, Bogdanovich said: “Rhys was late to the project, I think we only cast him a day before he was set to play. He was suggested by George Drakoulias, one of our producers who previously produced my documentary on ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ [Petty songs appear through Squirrels, though not in Funny] George had already worked with Rhys on Noah Baumbach’s ‘Greenberg’ and raved about him as a movie star with rock star qualities. When I met him I was immediately hooked and the next day he came to the Shoot! Rhys understood the role so completely that I hardly had to direct him. The looks he gives Owen are absolutely perfect. He’s very clever in this role.”

About Austin Pendleton, who plays the lovestruck judge, the director says: “After What’s up, Doc? I’ve wanted to do something with Austin ever since. We tailored the role of judge for him, as well as detective for George Morfogen [Morfogen played a similar detective role in Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed]. Both of them were originally a bit younger in the script, but we really wanted them to be in the film. George has been a friend of mine since I was 18. We met at Joe Papp’s production of ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare in the Park, where I played a spearman and he played Iago’s pupil. We have performed together several times and have continued to collaborate behind the camera. George was my co-producer on ‘ Saint Jack’, Mask’ and ‘They All Laughed’, in which he also acted.”

“Coincidences that become habit”

The director comments on his film: “The story of Broadway Therapy is a bit complicated. …It’s all about chance. Robert Graves, one of my favorite authors, once said that there are so many coincidences in life that they become habit!”

Producer Holly Wiersma adds: “Peter Bogdanovich delivers an homage to the Hollywood he is familiar with and whose icons he spent so many years of his career with. There is a scene where Isabella talks about Audrey Hepburn and quotes her. Peter was on the set with Audrey 33 years ago filming ‘They all laughed’ and now he’s filming with Imogen who’s talking about Audrey As if that weren’t enough there are nods to Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bogart and Bacall Bacall was the first Person who gave Peter permission to use her photo, that was two months before her death.” [this all relates to dialogue found only in the quickly shot additional footage added to Funny. Squirrels takes place entirely in New York and is concerned exclusively with the theater. The idea of her being a Cinderella protagonist who is now a big film star was only added to Funny].

Speaking about the role of music, which has always played a crucial role in his films, the director says: “We tried very different types of music, but none seemed to fit. In the end we decided to hire a composer and we found him Ed Shearmur. It was a first for me to use a consistent score on a film. Ed saw the film, liked it and knew immediately what we needed. We just use a few songs at the beginning and at the end.” [this is a tip-off that something was seriously wrong. As Bogdanovich says, he had never used a “consistent score” before, and has been quite vocal in his opposition to scoring his films, and sure enough, his Squirrels cut does not have a traditional score – only Frank Sinatra and Tom Petty songs are used as counterpoint at key moments.  Funny has Shearmur’s “comedy score” ladled all over the film alongside Poots’ incessant narration]

Adding to the charm of Broadway Therapy are a number of guest appearances by cast members from previous Bogdanovich films, including Tatum O’Neal, Colleen Camp and Joanna Lumley. His friend Michael Shannon and director Quentin Tarantino also do the honors with short appearances. “The cameos in the film are wonderful,” enthuses producer Wiersma. “We were shooting in New York and we often cast our stars with no dialogue at all. We started with Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, who acts as Owen Wilson’s driver. At the hotel, Owen then meets Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman, who is a friend of mine. Other guests in the lobby include artist and designer Scott Campbell and Victoria Secret supermodel Erin Heatherton. Starring as Arnold’s exes are Anna O’Reilly and Jennifer Esposito. Among the audience in the theater, one discovers Susan Miller from the famous astrology website astrologyzone.com, the mother of Will Forte, and the critic Roger Friedman. It was great fun to put all the idea cameos together in the film.”

Small digression: The screwball comedy

Sassy mouths, whimsical eccentricities, and ambiguous entanglements — the blueprint for spot-on comedy seems simple, but requires actors and directors to have a keen sense of timing and pacing. Screwball comedy, the fast-paced phenomenon that turned Hollywood upside down in the 1930s and 1940s, is definitely the leader in terms of speed, wit and ludicrous twists: Howard Hawks and Frank Capra were the first filmmakers to let bickering and flirting couples bounce off each other, who didn’t want to be together at all yet ended up hugging each other {I and Google Translate obviously had trouble with this sentence]. In Bringing Up Baby, a milestone in screwball comedy, Katherine Hepburn as the eccentric millionaire Susan plays her game with the unworldly paleontologist David, involves him in a leopard hunt, tears his suit in a luxury restaurant and otherwise puts him in absurd situations, which he can only hide from his staid fiancée Alice with great effort.

Hepburn and Grant are considered one of the funniest couples in film history and inspired Peter Bogdanovich to create the 1972 blockbuster What’s Up, Doc? in which Barbra Streisand as the overexcited student Judy Maxwell is hot on the heels of the shy Howard Bannister aka Ryan O’Neal. Judy not only frees the shy musicologist from his beastly fiancée, but also draws him into a lunatic game of confusion in which high-quality contraband and sensitive government documents change hands several times. And as if the twisting story wasn’t fast-paced enough, Bogdanovich fills What’s Up, Doc? with cross-references and quotes from film history: With torn suits and pajamas, O’Neal is reminiscent of the screwball role model Cary Grant and takes aim at his tragic role in Love Story from 1970. Judy’s cheesy “Love is never having to say I’m sorry” — the most famous quote from O’Neal’s tearjerker, mind you — leads the grumpy Bannister to respond with an uncharming “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Broadway Therapy does not shy away from reminiscences of the past gems of New Hollywood: Bogdanovich shares with the grandmaster of screwball comedy, Frank Capra, the fondness for the eternal battle of the sexes, which Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable fought out in the first film of this new genre. It Happened One Night is still one of the most romantic road movie comedies, which filled cinemas in 1934 and filled Capra’s trophy cabinet with five Oscars.

Entanglements that are clearly ambiguous…

While Bogdanovich borrowed the theme from the screwball founder Capra, the narrative style of Broadway Therapy is clearly a homage to the comedy king of the 30s: Bogdanovich exuberantly uses the legendary “Lubitsch touch,” looking through keyholes and door gaps, causes embarrassing coincidences, misunderstandings and entanglements that are clearly ambiguous.

Especially Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film Cluny Brown is the inspiration for this frivolous social comedy about strong women, weak men and charming suits [translation issue, don’t ask me!], with which the film pokes fun at the social quirks of (Broadway) society. Bogdanovich adds the wit and seductiveness of Billy Wilder’s Marilyn Monroe to Lubitsch’s clever, stubborn female characters. Wilder, who was a close friend and screenwriter of Ernst Lubitsch, perfected his screwball humor under Lubitsch’s direction on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, and for the characters of Broadway Therapy Wilder’s 1950s works Some Like It Hot and The Seven-Year Itch are greatly influential.

-30-

 

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