FILM / The tracks of his tears: Marshall Herskovitz is past thirtysomething but is still making grown men cry. By Sheila Johnston
Friday 28 May 1993
thirtysomething had its detractors - those carping old cynics who thought it was narcissistic, vacuous, touchy- feely, soap-operettish. Among the production team it was known as 'Tears 'R' Us', according to Herskowitz, who has no illusions about its cultural status or weaknesses, although he is also fiercely defensive of it.
'We were trying to look at private life; that's what the show was about and inevitably when you do that you give the impression that these people are not concerned with what goes on in the world around them. It was a problem we were never able to overcome, but it certainly doesn't reflect out beliefs as artists.
'At the same time I felt that they were not particularly materialistic. They did not live in wealthy surroundings, they did not drive new cars or have fancy clothes. They were too physically attractive; that was a mistake in the casting and in retrospective I think it hurt the image of the show. And they did drink bottled water, which was based on our experience in Los Angeles - everybody does it there because they hate the taste of the water that comes out of the tap. But outside of LA it was considered to be frivolous.
'In fact, a lot of the characters were struggling with money and didn't have many options in their lives. I think the critics who said thirtysomething was an upscale show were upscale, baby-boomer people themselves who were in some sense embarrassed by it. People of lesser means were still perfectly able to enjoy it.'
Herskovitz takes another trip to Tears 'R' Us in his feature debut, Jack the Bear, where families are once again dysfunctional and grown men are known to cry. But the setting is down- at-heel early Seventies suburbia and the stars are the definitely un-Adonis- like, non-designer Danny De Vito (with sideburns) and 12-year-old Robert J Steinmiller, who gives a remarkable holding performance as his screen son struggling to hold the family together after his mother's death (he also turned out to have the useful ability to cry on cue).
'The original book is set in the Seventies and we kept it there because we wanted the sense that there was something enveloping and warm and safe about the neighbourhood, even though it was sort of funky and eccentric. It should look like a fun place to grow up; it's only in the course of the film that you realise it's a dangerous place. In the Nineties, as soon as you see weird people your assumption is that they probably have a gun and might shoot you.'
As if to dispel suspicions that he's still a box director, Herskovitz has shot Jack the Bear in wide screen. And, he says, 'In television you have longer scenes that are very much about dialogue because it's easiest to shoot quickly. Things are coagulated into a small number of scenes that you can cut in a simple way.
'In this movie we had little talk and the script was written in the form of very, very short scenes; there were almost 300, twice the number as a regular film. Most of them were an eighth or a quarter of a page long, yet had a lot of material in them. When you're shooting a film, you like to do one or two scenes a day; we'd be doing seven. And it was very difficult to edit, no question about that. It proved to be a real jigsaw puzzle.'
So much so that Herskovitz had to wait nearly a year to reshoot some scenes (the delay was caused by the fact that De Vito was busy with Hoffa and Batman Returns), and Jack's muted impact at the US box-office suggested that Middle American audiences were uncomfortable with it. 'European audiences are more willing to stay with a film that is impressionistic and not heavily plotted. Americans get impatient very quickly; to get millions of people to see a film, it has to have primary colours in it. And that's not exactly my interest as a film-maker.'
Herskovitz does declare an interest - a slightly unlikley one given the all-apple pie subjects of his own writing: 'the literature of medieval Northern Europe like the Icelandic sagas, Scandinavian folklore and Anglo-Saxon poetry' (his college thesis was a screenplay based on Beowulf). 'The guiding principle in those stories is very different from what I call Western classical drama, going back to the Greeks, in which character determines fate and you can predict what's going to happen to someone based on what he is like.
'In Icelandic sagas, the guy you love the most could be dead by the next page. A sense of fear and anxiety permeates them because you've got nothing to hold on to as a reader; the indifference of fate is so evident. My tendency as a story-teller has been influenced by that. In the first season of thirtysomething Michael and Elliot lost their business, which was almost unheard-of in the tradition of American television series. But perhaps it's harder to do that in a film, whereas on TV there's always the hope that something better will happen next week.'
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