The “favorite project” question

Many moons ago, when I first started doing interviews with folks from the world of pop culture, it struck me that it might be cool if I had a signature question, one which would be apropos to ask during any conversation while also being memorable enough that, if I ever met the person with whom I’d chatted (both then and now, the majority of my interviews tend to be on the phone rather than in person), they’d instantly say, “Oh, sure, I remember you!” Unfortunately, like so many of my early journalistic efforts, my first instinct was to simply borrow someone else’s signature question and adopt it as a staple of my own interviews…and, even worse, it was the worst of all possible questions: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be, and why?”

Now, in my highly limited defense, I should note that, even in my foolish youth, I absolutely knew it was a horrible question, but I rationalized that it was, in fact, so ridiculous that my interview subject would never forget it, and this never failed to be true. With that said, however, when I met Gillian Gilbert in 1993 after New Order’s performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the way she witheringly delivered the words “oh, it’s you” after I introduced myself served as instant inspiration to retire the question permanently.

Thankfully, I have since developed a much better signature question, one which as often as not inspires people to say, “Wow, that’s a really good question,” then drift into thought so that they can come up with an equally good answer.

This is the question:

“Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?”

Not bad, right? I’ve collected a ton of great answers to this question over the course of the last half-decade or so, and I’m seriously thinking about tweaking it just a bit and using it as the premise of the podcast I’ve been threatening to start for the past six months. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d offer up a few of my favorite responses over the years, so you can see how inspired some people get when I ask the question. In some cases, you can really tell that it’s been sticking in their craw that some pilot, series, or movie wasn’t appreciated by audiences as much as they thought it ought to have been.

J.J. Abrams: “There was a pilot that we did called Anatomy of Hope that was at HBO that was a series about cancer – cancer doctors, cancer patients –that demystified to some degree the process of being diagnosed and treated for cancer. It was complicated, depressing, funny, strange, and…it really deserved an audience. I directed the pilot, so it may have deserved a better director. But it definitely deserved an audience, and I wish it had gotten to air. It had an amazing, wonderful cast, and it’ll never cease to depress me that it didn’t get on the air.”

Yvette Nicole Brown: “I did a show on ABC called The Big House, and we only got to do six episodes. It was kind of a precursor to…well, actually, to what Tyler (Perry’s) doing now, but in an ABC way, and it had Faizon Love, Kevin Hart, Arnetia Walker, and Keith David. I don’t think we really had a chance to show what that show can be. Nobody cared about The Big House. You just have to hope that, when (critics see a show), maybe they’ll love it. In the case of The Big House, however, they did not. So you just kind of laugh about it and start on your next time around. But that was the first time I was a series regular, and I kind of learned not to get attached to things. Everything ends, either by our choice or by the network’s choice, and you just have to be ready for that. You’ve got to travel light. So that’s what I always try to do.”

Ty Burrell: “I made a movie called Fur in…2004, I think. I thought that was a really beautiful film. But for whatever reason, it never really caught on. It’s about Diane Arbus, the photographer, and about her life, basically. Nicole Kidman played her, and I played her husband, and Robert Downey, Jr. played one of her photography subjects, who she falls in love with. I thought it was a really interesting, cool movie.”

Bryan Cranston: “I really enjoyed the experience of Last Chance. It was my first directorial job and, quite frankly, was just done on a shoestring budget. People say, ‘How did you know when you were done editing?’ I said, ‘That was easy: when I ran out of money, I was done.’ And that was true! You know, there are things about that simple tale that I wish I could’ve done differently, but that’s what art is all about. You look at paintings, and…how does an artist know when that painting is done? And, believe me, the agonizing part of being an artist is that you really don’t know. And sometimes it’s outside forces that say it’s done. Or you just get sick of it and can’t look at it anymore because you don’t know what else to do, and you get frustrated. But I think Last Chance was an interesting tale. It’s the story of someone who doesn’t believe that they have any hope left in their life, and when an opportunity presents itself, will you even recognize it? Do you take advantage of it? Do you ignore it? So it was all about that, and about hope, and taking your last chance if it’s offered.”

Giancarlo Esposito: “Gospel Hill has gotten a lot of love on the film festival circuit, from Zanzibar to Kenya to Sedona to Santa Fe. I’ve had it at some many different film festivals, and we’ve won 11 different awards, and people have been really moved by it. It stars Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson, Julia Stiles…it’s a great, great piece. I had a hard time finishing the financing to get the larger platform release. We did release it in New York, and it’s been all over the place, it’s on Netflix and Showtime, but I don’t think it quite got the love it deserved. It’s a great performance by Danny Glover, and an equally beautiful performance by Angela Bassett, but one of the greatest performances in the film was by an actor whose praises haven’t been sung…or they’ve been sung, and people just have not yet discovered how great he is, but I think he’s going to have his Richard Jenkins moment…and that’s Tom Bower. Tom Bower is a very, very deep and special actor, and I think that because of his performance and Danny’s, this movie really lives and breathes.”

Carla Gugino: “I did a movie called Judas Kiss quite a number of years back, with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hal Holbrook, and Simon Baker. That movie did really well around the world, but it just didn’t really get a lot of play in this country. Miami Rhapsody, which was David Frankel’s first movie, that’s another one. It was with Sarah Jessica Parker and Antonio Banderas – that’s where Antonio and I met – and Mia Farrow, Paul Mazursky, and Jeremy Piven. That’s also where Jeremy and I first met. That movie could’ve been a huge runaway comedy hit, and it has a real cult following. People who have seen it love that movie, but not that many people have seen it, relatively speaking. So throughout time there’s a lot of that. I think that as an actor you just kind of get used to it. You kind of give your gift, you give whatever you give, and you move forward, because the rest of it’s out of your control.”

David Hasselhoff: “It’s gotta be Nick Fury. I loved hanging out with Stan Lee, and, you know, the best line I’ve ever delivered in my life was in Nick Fury: ‘You know, guys like you tend to cling to the bowl no matter how many times you flush.’”

Robert Klein: “I did a pilot called Klein Time for CBS in 1976, where Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn were my guest stars, and my son laughed out loud looking at this goddamned thing and all the people. He thought it was ahead of its time. It was kind of Monty Python-ish. This was ’76. I kept saying, ‘Yeah, but look at Saturday Night Live!’ They were, like, ‘Ah, that’s nothing, that’s late night, that’ll never last.’ Now they’re open to so many more imaginative projects, crazy ones…which may not be that good, but they allow them latitude. It’s more dynamic now…although, in a sense, it’s turned on its head, because people are looking at computers, young people are not watching television as much as they did, and stuff that makes people stop and think is definitely not at a premium at the moment. That’s not a good sign. It’s probably the lead-based painted toys that the Chinese are sending us. That’s how they’re going to get us silently: as our children grow up, sucking on these toys, as they’re intellectually retarded, they’ll take over in every technical field. There’s a novel there…”

John Landis: “My only children’s film was called The Stupids, and I’m quite proud of that movie, but it was unfortunate: I made it for a company called Savoy, and they went bankrupt while I was in post-production, so my film, along with a number of movies, went on a shelf. And Mike Eisner and Disney tried to buy it, and that would’ve been great, because it was PG. Maybe it was even G-rated. Captain Kangaroo’s in it, for God’s sake! It has puppets! It’s a children’s film! But it sat there for about three years because Victor Kaufman wouldn’t sell it without the other movies. You had to buy the whole slate of Savoy movies. It would’ve been great if Disney had bought it, because it would’ve said, ‘Walt Disney presents The Stupids.’ But it was eventually bought by New Line, and that’s when they were doing the Freddy’s Nightmare movie. I’ll never forget it: I went to a screening and…they had never seen the movie. They bought it for a lot of money, but they’d never seen it! [Laughs.] These schmucks, they thought it was a teenage tits-and-ass movie because a girl named Jenny McCarthy, who was a model in Toronto, she had a small part, but in the years that it sat on the shelf, she became Playmate of the Year and a celebrity. So they thought, ‘Tom Arnold? Jenny McCarthy?!?’ They thought it was gonna be a tits-on-the-beach movie! So when they saw it, they went, ‘This is a children’s film!’ I went, ‘Yeah…?’ And they were really upset about it and kind of dumped it. And it always bothered me, because if you show that to the people who it’s aimed for, which is ages 7 to 10, it plays great. I’m very happy with that picture. So that’s the one I wish had gotten more love.”

Spike Lee: “I think that sometimes there are films you make that for whatever reason…I mean, everything is timing. Raging Bull is now considered one of the greatest films ever, but that didn’t make a dime when it came out. You know? So I think that Miracle at St. Anna is going to be discovered. It did not do well at all at the box office, and the reviews…? But I think that’s one of my best films. So you just have to keep on keepin’ on, keep moving, and let those films keep adding to your body of work. You just keep going.”

Malcolm McDowell: “O Lucky Man is one of my favorite films, and when it came out, it didn’t really get a huge release. I’ve done a couple of movies in Russia… I did a movie called Assassin of the Tsar for a Russian director called Karen Shakhnazarov, which is brilliant. I love that film. They asked me, and I think…in fact, I know I’m the first foreign actor ever to be asked to play a Russian in a Russian film. It was quite an honor. I was familiar with the Western version of events, but never what really happened, which is what they knew because they had access to the KGB files about what actually took place. People say, ‘Oh, Anastasia survived,” but there’s no way. And every detail that was given – buried in a pit, poured acid on her – all that comes out in the KGB files. It’s a tremendous film. But being a Russian film, it’s not a biopic about them. It actually starts out in modern day Russia in a mental institution, with one of the inmates claiming to be the Tsar killer. And then this new doctor who arrives takes on the case, and it becomes a chess match between the lunatic and the doctor. And then you cut back, and the doctor becomes the Tsar and the inmate becomes the Tsar killer, Yurovsky, who was appointed by Lenin to assassinate him. I mean, it was considered a death by state. It wasn’t considered a murder. It was considered an execution by the state. It never Stateside release, but it was the official Russian entry at Cannes, and it’s a fantastic film and I’m extremely proud of it. And nobody will ever see it. Not even my mother.”

Henry Rollins: “I was really proud of the benefit record that we did in 2003, Rise Above: 24 Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three. It was Black Flag songs, which is old material, and it raised money, but…it should’ve sold a million, ‘cause, I mean, look at the cause it’s going to! And it sounded really good. It came out way better than I thought it would, and everybody sang so well and played so well. When you listen to it, it’s one of those tribute records that doesn’t suck. You go, ‘Wow, this is really good!’ I just did it because I wanted to help these guys, but it came out as this rip-roaring, whup-ass record, and I always wished more people…I wanted more atta-boys from that. Every once in awhile, someone goes, ‘Dude, that Rise Above record…’ I’m, like, ‘Thank you!’ ‘Cause that cost me $70,000 to make, and a lot of…it was two summers of my life, and I’d happily do it again. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that we really…I called in so many markers, I tapped so many people. Like…I don’t know the guys in the Queens of the Stone Age. I just called them and said, ‘Hi, I met you. You know me? Cool, here’s what we’re doing…’ And I called, like, Mike Patton, my friend from Faith No More, or Ice-T, or Iggy Pop. These are people I know, I’ve seen them around and done shows with them, and I said, ‘Look, do you want to do this thing?’ Iggy didn’t know the case. He doesn’t know Black Flag music, really. I said, ‘Look, Jim, for me, here’s what.’ Chuck D is a longtime buddy of mine, I go, ‘Chuck, here’s the case.’ And he was on it. Some of the phone calls were easier. Like, Corey (Taylor) from Slipknot was, like, ‘Dude, I’m on my way!’ He was, like, into it. Loves the music, knows the lyrics already. The guys from Queens of the Stone Age knew the lyrics already, they were fans.

I wish that had gotten a bigger hurrah, but everything else that I do, I have a very utilitarian thing with it, in that I take it all very seriously. I don’t take myself seriously, but you take the work seriously. And whether it’s Bon Jovi or Britney Spears…no matter who you are, that record you made, you really do like it, and you really did work hard on it. It could be Cher or someone you want to make fun of or whatever, but they worked really hard on it, and they really did expend calories, lose sleep over it, obsessed over it. That’s not unique. And when someone pans it, you’re, like, ‘Damn, man, I had a nervous breakdown over that record, and you give it two stars? You’re dissing me? Fuck you, man! You’re hurting me! If you don’t like it, fine, but don’t rip me a new one on that!’ And, so, I sometimes can take it personal, but on the other hand, I’m very prolific, in that I’m always doing something. I have a little company. Lou Reed said it best: ‘When you’re as small as me, you can do whatever you want, because no one really cares.’ And I’m kind of like that. I’ll do, like, two books a year, but I just throw them out into the void, and eighty people go, ‘Yay!’ And everyone else, goes, like, ‘Huh?’ And, so, I just do stuff. I’m not all that precious about it anymore. I write, record, do these things, and I care about it until it hits the medium it goes out on, and then I’m onto the next thing. If you want to be mean about it, I’m, like, ‘Yeah, but I’ve got eight other new things.’ And, also, I’m 50. I don’t have time to bask. I’ve only got time to do stuff. ‘Cause you never know when you’re just going to keel over.”

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