Patton Oswalt And Robert Siegel: Serious Funny Men Writer-director Robert Siegel and comic actor Patton Oswalt discuss their film Big Fan, their strange encounters at comic-book conventions and the unavoidable influence of Martin Scorsese.
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Patton Oswalt And Robert Siegel: Serious Funny Men

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Patton Oswalt And Robert Siegel: Serious Funny Men

Patton Oswalt And Robert Siegel: Serious Funny Men

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

After editing the satirical news magazine The Onion and writing the screenplay for the film "The Wrestler," Robert Siegel wrote and directed the movie "Big Fan," which stars the comedian Patton Oswalt.

"Big Fan" was one of Entertainment Weekly's top 10 films of 2009 and will be released next week on DVD. Both Siegel and Oswalt spoke with Terry last year, when the film was originally released, and are our guests today.

Patton Oswalt co-starred in the TV sitcom "The King of Queens" and was the voice of Remy the Rat in the animated film "Ratatouille." "Big Fan" is Oswalt's first dramatic role. He plays Paul Aufiero, who's a regular caller to his favorite sports talk radio station, where he's known as Paul from Staten Island. Outside of his obsession with the New York Giants, his life is drab. He's 35 but still lives with and constantly quarrels with his mother. He has one friend, and he spends his day in a glass booth working as a parking garage attendant.

But Paul's insular world is disrupted when he spots on the street the player he most idolizes, Quantrell Bishop. Paul sees this as his big chance to show his hero how much he cares about the team, but as a result of a misunderstanding, Quantrell turns on him - brutally. Still, Paul remains a fan.

Here's a scene from the film. Paul is calling in to the sports show, occasionally reading from his carefully handwritten notes. It's late at night, and in the middle of the call he is interrupted by his mother in the next room, who thinks he's wasting his time and his life.

(Soundbite of film, "Big Fan")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Hey, Paul from Staten Island. What have we got tonight?

Mr. PATTON OSWALT (Actor): (As Paul Aufiero) Hey, what's up, dog? I've got to tell you, I am feeling good tonight because in a little less than 48 hours we are going to brutally shatter any flicker of hope the Cheesesteaks had going. We've been messing with them the last few weeks, letting them get back in it a little, making them think they had a chance of catching us, just so we can see the look on their faces when they come up short. Quantrell's back, baby, and he is�

Ms. MARCIA JEAN KURTZ (Actor): (As Paul's Mom) Paul.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Paul) Quantrell is back, baby, and he is ready to make up for some lost time against the Panthers. You better hope the scoreboard is broken down there in St. Louis because the Eagles are going to be so crushed when they look up at it and see the Giants-Panthers score, they're not even going to be able to play. It's not even going to come down to the head-to-head in Week 17. We're going to wrap up the East in a nice little bow this coming�

Ms. KURTZ: (As Paul's Mom) (Unintelligible)

Mr. OSWALT: (As Paul) Sorry, sorry. This coming weekend, after which we will follow our pre-destiny to the Super Bowl as we ride the victory bus to the championship. And why? Why are we riding in the victory bus to a championship we haven't played? Because, as I said earlier, it is pre-destiny that we will take the Super Bowl this year while at the same time waving goodbye to the Eagles.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Thanks, Paul. Now that's a G-Men fan.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Paul) Oh, thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Thanks, buddy.

Mr. OSWALT: (As Paul) Okay. Thanks, Sports Dog, thank you.


Robert Siegel, Patton Oswalt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Robert Siegel, have you listened to a lot of sports talk radio, and did you ever call a station yourself, even as research for this movie, just to see...

Mr. ROBERT SIEGEL (Writer-Director): Have I ever been a long-time listener, first-time caller? Or first-time caller, long-time listener?

GROSS: Yes, exactly, exactly.

Mr. SIEGEL: Or first-time caller, long-time listener? No, purely - my experience has purely been voyeuristic. I've never called in. I grew up listening to sports radio. I still listen to it, but as a kid I listened to it pretty obsessively. Every single night when I went to bed I would crawl under the covers and turn out the light and stay up way past my bedtime.

Listening to WFAN, the air would fill with these voices of, you know, Murray from Flushing and Vinnie from Rego Park, and you know, Doris from Yonkers and whatnot. And I was this, you know, Jewish Long Island kid in my sort of middle-class suburb, and I would hear these voices from sort of far off, exotic corners of the New York City area that I'd never really been to, and you couldn't help but wonder what their lives were like.

GROSS: Why did you think of Patton Oswalt for the role of the fan?

Mr. SIEGEL: Why did I think of him?

GROSS: Yeah, I mean, he's best known as a comic and as an actor in comedies. This is not a comic film. It's not a comic performance.

Mr. SIEGEL: No, no. I didn't do it - you know, sometimes comedians are cast in dramatic roles in kind of - in ways that feel like stunt casting - you know, look at the, you know, look at the funny clown, he's really sad inside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: I just thought he was right. I just thought he really felt right for the role. He looked right. He was the right age.

GROSS: What does looking right mean?

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, what does looking right mean, Robert?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Can I let Patton take�

Mr. OSWALT: No, you can't.

Mr. SIEGEL: You know, I thought if he - we discussed it, and he said he was willing to bulk up for the role.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: And stay out of the sun. He had a pretty healthy, glowing tan at the time, and he promised that he would go method and stay in his basement for a few months to kind of get rid of that.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, I laid off the mixed martial arts for about nine months. I really got doughy.

Mr. SIEGEL: I thought if he would go through, you know, a very advanced, aggressive anti-tanning process, and then, you know, then hit some Lucky Charms, we could get him in shape. No, I just thought - Patton, may I insult you?

Mr. OSWALT: Go right ahead.

Mr. SIEGEL: Okay. I just thought he looked like he could be an obsessive, you know, nerdy sports fan. Is that fair?

Mr. OSWALT: That's fair.

Mr. SIEGEL: Okay. Yeah, you know, and I also thought, honestly, on a practical level, you know, it was a very low-budget movie, and I didn't think that Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti would be willing to - I'd be getting reamed out by their managers every night when they found out that I didn't supply them with a chair to sit in, things like that. So I knew I couldn't get, you know, those two guys.

GROSS: Patton Oswalt, now that we know you come cheap...

Mr. OSWALT: I come cheap.

Mr. SIEGEL: Not anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Thanks for jumping in, Robert.

Mr. SIEGEL: That will change now.

GROSS: Your performance is really terrific in the film.

Mr. OSWALT: Thank you.

GROSS: I mean, you really capture the kind of, the loneliness and frustration and disconnection and kind of anger and niceness of this character. What did you think about the role when you were offered it? Did you say, yeah, that's perfect for me? Was that your first reaction, or was it something else?

Mr. OSWALT: Well, when I read the script itself, I just, I loved how it was written, that style of writing which, because I'm such a film buff and love all those movies from the early '70s, those sort of difficult character studies. You know what I mean? Stuff like "Fat City" and "King of Marvin Gardens," and I really miss that kind of writing and filmmaking.

So there was this - I had mixed feelings because on the one hand this is a very dark, very, very messed up character, but as a guy who loves watching movies, this was the kind of movie that I'd always dreamed of being in at one point in my career. After a very short consideration, I had to say yes.

GROSS: Are you a sports fan?

Mr. OSWALT: No. I absolutely have - not only am I a sports fan - I'm not a sports fan to the detriment of the movie - a couple of the scenes in the movie, when me and Kevin Corrigan, who plays my best friend, were supposed to riff about sports, and Robert found out very early on that we don't have any sports knowledge, so we would start improvising, and I mean, I'm not exaggerating -five seconds into it, we would both just stop because we had nothing. Well, that's the extent of our sports knowledge.

Mr. SIEGEL: You would run out of sports terminology very quickly.

Mr. OSWALT: And then I would start - I would get scared and I would make stuff up that literally made no sense, like you think Bronco's going to go 500 on the blue level? And - cut. What? What did you say? It just, it made no sense.

Mr. SIEGEL: He knows the terms touchdown and ball.

Mr. OSWALT: Which I'm pretty sure are golfing terms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, in the movie "Big Fan," you know, Paul, the main character, Patton Oswalt's character, he works in a garage, but he defines himself by his love of football and of the Giants, but also he's Paul from Staten Island. He's the guy who calls into the station, and this is who he is.

He's Paul from Staten Island, the guy who calls into the sports talk show. And when he calls in, he writes down on a yellow pad what he wants to say, and he either reads it, or at least he refers to it during the call. And I thought that that was so perfect, that this caller, like he pretends like it's all being improvised, but this so defines who he is that he has to get it exactly right. I mean, it's his work. It's his - like, it's his thing.

Mr. SIEGEL: He does it partially as a crutch, I think, because he's afraid he'll forget what he wants to say, or he'll think of - you know, he's locked in this parking booth all day with nothing but his thoughts, and he thinks of all these great things to say, and I think he just has to write them down because he's afraid he's going to forget it. And then it's even more than that, it's his art, you know. It's - this is what he was kind of meant to do, you know.

Mr. OSWALT: I almost see it, in his own twisted way, he's a guy that his calling in at night is, he's a musician with a day job, where yeah, I have to work at a Denny's during the day, but at night I go out and rip it up, I'm an amazing guitarist. So in his mind, these calls are his performances that he has to prepare for, if you will.

GROSS: Yeah, and you know, a lot of people think that it's pathetic that he's so obsessive about sports. But the thing is, if he were at the level where he could turn that into being a sportswriter or a sportscaster or set up a really successful sports blog, it would be a passion that he could actually make a living at.

You know, people always draw the lines. You know what I mean? They draw the line between the passion where you can't make a living and the passion where you can.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, but you know, I've met a lot of - because I'm very into comic books and a huge bookworm and film buff. So I've gone down to, like, the San Diego Comic-Con, and I have met versions of Paul Aufiero, you know, a guy - I met a guy in this - he made his own Klingon costume, and he actually got every single detail perfect, and it was - and I was talking to him, and I said, wow, what do you do? Are you a costume designer? And he said, no, I do, you know, risk assessment for an insurance company or something during the day. And I said, well, you could, like, you could clearly be the costume designer on a show. And he looked at me, had this look like if I worked on the show, I wouldn't have time to watch the show that I like.

It's almost like they don't want to follow their passion that far because then I wouldn't have time to worship this thing, and also, I might not want to see that much behind the scenes. I want it to be this from-on-high almost supernatural thing that I worship.

So he gave me that look like that's ridiculous. I work during the day, and then this is what I do, and I never miss my show. That's as far as he takes it.

GROSS: That's a really interesting way of looking at it, that what's required here is the ability to worship something at somewhat of a distance.

Mr. OSWALT: That's why I think that Paul is always sitting out in the parking lot watching on that little TV. He is the kind of�

GROSS: Yeah, well, let's describe what you mean.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, that's right. Yeah.

GROSS: He goes to the stadium, but rather than buying a ticket, and I don't know if it's he can't afford it, or it's sold out, but he�

Mr. SIEGEL: It's just hard to get Giants' tickets.

GROSS: Yeah, so he watches it in the parking lot with a little TV plugged into the car.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, but�

GROSS: Yeah. Giving advice to the team about what they should be doing, of course.

Mr. SIEGEL: Exactly.

Mr. OSWALT: Yelling at a TV while he's inhaling fumes from his car.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: But I almost feel like he's one of those acolytes, if you will, that he would - it would be insulting to his team if he was part of the mass in the stadium, just mindlessly yelling. He almost sees the people in the stadium as, like, these are the Pharisees that just want to worship in public.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: And I want to go to the quiet place and commune with my god. It's almost like I'm better than all the riff-raff in there. They're not true fans like me.

Mr. SIEGEL: Like when you go to a Super Bowl party, you know, sometimes you can get vaguely annoyed that everybody - you know, all these, you know - women...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL:, you know, just people who don't normally watch football every weekend.

Mr. OSWALT: They're just there for the Super Bowl.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah, and they're jumping on the bandwagon one night a year.

Mr. OSWALT: How dare you?

Mr. SIEGEL: And they're excited about the commercials. It's sort of vaguely insulting, and you kind of want to just get away and watch alone in your room, where you can really focus on, you know, the things that matter.

BIANCULLI: Robert Siegel and Patten Oswalt, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's conversation from last with Patton Oswalt, who stars in the movie "Big Fan"; and Robert Siegel, its writer-director. "Big Fan" will be released next week on DVD.

GROSS: There's a couple of things in "Big Fan" that remind me of Scorsese films, actually "Taxi Driver." In "Taxi Driver" the De Niro character is kind of in the world but cut off from it because he's always in a cab. He's always in this, like, little coffin-like cab, driving through the streets, disconnected from everything and looking at it through the taxi.

And Paul, the character in "Big Fan" is in a booth, and he sees all these people driving by, but he's enclosed in this glass booth. But it's also a lot like "King of Comedy," where the De Niro character is sitting alone in his basement, living with his mother. And in his basement he has, like, cardboard cut-out characters of the people he idolizes like Liza Minnelli.

Mr. SIEGEL: Right, he's got the wall of the laughing audience.

GROSS: And he imagines he's talking to them on the set of "The Tonight Show," and he has this really elaborate fantasy world with the people he idolizes, which is not unlike, you know, Paul's life, idolizing his sports fans. Were you thinking of these movies?

Mr. SIEGEL: I love both those movies, and I tried my hardest not to overtly rip them off, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: But definitely, I'm very excited and happy that you're reminded of both of those.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: They certainly are two - Scorsese is my favorite director.

Mr. OSWALT: Mine, too.

Mr. SIEGEL: And those two are - is he?

Mr. OSWALT: He really is.

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, I didn't know. For me, pretty much from "Mean Streets" to "King of Comedy" is the greatest run any director's ever had.

Mr. OSWALT: Well, you know, you mentioned "Taxi Driver," and you know, "Taxi Driver," that movie can almost be watched in a loop because the very last image is of the empty rear-view mirror, which is also the very first image. We've just come full-circle, that this guy is going to ride around in this cab until the rage builds up, and he's going to explode again. And it's just going to happen in this endless cycle.

And not to give anything away about "Big Fan," but it struck me. There's an image, there's a very specific image at the end, when you talk about this guy's in a booth, and then he communicates with the world by calling in on a telephone, and there's an image at the end that now he's actually gone even further into that world.

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh my God, I didn't even realize that. Yeah, I figured that wasn't intentional, but...

Mr. SIEGEL: That's great.

Mr. OSWALT: His one - you'll see what I mean when you see the movie, the image at the end...

GROSS: That is good.

Mr. SIEGEL: I didn't even realize I did that.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, where even now his one friend has been relegated to the other world. Do you know what I mean?

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. I hope somebody writes that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Someone better - I'll write it under a pseudonym somewhere.

Mr. SIEGEL: Okay.

Mr. OSWALT: But I just, I loved that aspect of - and the one thing about Paul, comparing him again to Travis Bickle, Travis Bickle in his voiceovers does long to connect with the world. He says very specifically: I don't think you should, you know, spend your life in - what is it?

GROSS: Morbid self-attention.

Mr. SIEGEL: Morbid self-attention.

Mr. OSWALT: Morbid self-attention. You should try to be a - what is it?

GROSS: A person like other people.

Mr. OSWALT: Other people. And Paul, for all of his faults, and he has a lot of faults, he does not desire to reach out to anyone. He is actually non-judgmental in his isolation. Mr. SIEGEL: I don't think of him as being as complex and conflicted as Bickle.

Mr. OSWALT: No. He's not a yearning God's lonely man. If anything, his battle is to keep the world away from him. That's his heroic battle, is when the world sends its tendrils in to try to pull him out into the wider world, he's fighting them off.

Mr. SIEGEL: If he could just be left alone, I think he would be happy. I think he's a happy guy.

GROSS: My guests are Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt. Robert Siegel wrote the movie "The Wrestler," and he wrote and directed the new movie "Big Fan," which is about a really obsessive sports fan whose main interest in life is calling into this sports talk radio station, and the role is played by Patton Oswalt.

Mr. SIEGEL: And if I may give the logline of the movie - is that what they call it?

Mr. OSWALT: Logline, yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: One sentence, the way it will eventually be described in TV Guide Magazine, with any luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Obsessive sports fan gets beaten up by his favorite player is the hook of the movie.

GROSS: You know, I wasn't sure how much to give away.

Mr. SIEGEL: You can give that away.

GROSS: So let's go there.

Mr. SIEGEL: That's the premise.

GROSS: So he gets beaten up by his favorite player. You know, you were talking about how worshipful he is and how he wants to keep this all at a distance so he can worship it until he actually runs into his main object of worship, and then he follows him to a bar, a strip club basically.

Mr. SIEGEL: A gentlemen's bar.

GROSS: Gentlemen's bar, yes, and then has to figure out, well, what does he do. So he offers to, like - he sends a drink over, like the guy's going to be really impressed with that, like he needs a fan to buy him a drink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Right.

GROSS: It's so kind of all wrong, his expectations, like, he's so removed. But to not give too much away, the football player ends up beating up the fan.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

GROSS: And then the fan has to decide - Patton, what does the fan have to decide?

Mr. SIEGEL: The bulk of the movie is how does he deal with the emotional fallout of the fact that the thing that he's built his whole life around has literally and figuratively punched him in the face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, that's a good way of - I mean, look, if you're a tormented Christian who's frustrated with the God who will not answer, be happy that he doesn't answer you because this is what happens when the God you worship answers you sometimes.

Mr. SIEGEL: There was that Onion story years ago.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Which you edited. Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. SIEGEL: God finally - yes. I'm going to misquote it, but it was: God finally answers prayers of - what was it? - answers prayers of little boy?

Mr. OSWALT: Something like that.

Mr. SIEGEL: And then the subhead is: No, says God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: The other one I loved was God diagnosed as bipolar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Bipolar disorder.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, bipolar disorder. Wow, this guy's crazy.

GROSS: Robert Siegel, you got your start professionally writing for and then editing the satirical news magazine The Onion.


GROSS: You're not writing film comedies. Neither "The Wrestler" nor your new movie "Big Fan" is a comedy. Are you surprised that you've headed in a darker direction instead of comedy?

Mr. SIEGEL: Not really. I see it as consistent. The Onion and "The Wrestler" and now "Big Fan" are all kind of on a same continuum. They're just on opposite ends of it. They're all blends of comedy and tragedy. It's just a matter of the ratio.

The Onion, I would say, is maybe 90 percent comedy, 10 percent tragedy. And "The Wrestler" maybe is the reverse: 90 percent tragedy, 10 percent comedy. But everything I've done is kind of a mix of the two. I think The Onion has this - it's funny, but it's got the strong undercurrent of sadness. And I think "Big Fan" and "The Wrestler" are both sad with strong undercurrents of humor.

BIANCULLI: Robert Siegel wrote and directed the movie "Big Fan," and Patton Oswalt stars in it. We'll hear more of their conversation with Terry in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's conversation with screenwriter and director Robert Siegel and comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. Siegel is the former executive editor of The Onion and he wrote the screenplay for "The Wrestler." He wrote and directed "Big Fan," which stars Patton Oswalt as an obsessed football fan who was a regular caller on the local sports talk-radio station - that's where he shines. The rest of his life is drab. He's 35, lives with his mother, and works as a garage attendant.

"Big Fan" will be released next week on DVD. Terry spoke with Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt last year when the movie had just come out in theaters.


I want to play a scene from the film and I think this is a really good scene in showing the main character's relationship with his mother. He's 35 years old but, you know, he lives with his mother. In his bedroom, his bed, it has a bedspread that has the names of all the sports teams on it. I mean that's the emotional level that he's still at.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's kind of like having a "Star Wars"...

Mr. SIEGEL: There's a lot of those on eBay, actually.

GROSS: know bedspread or something.

Mr. OSWALT: Oh yeah.

GROSS: But anyway, so his mother, he still have to respect a lot of his like his mother's rules about what to do in the house and he feels very much under her thumb but he doesn't know how to get out and be an independent person yet. So here they are the mother and the son, driving home from Paul's nephew's birthday party.

And at the party, his brother-in-law has offered him a job at Price Club. But he doesn't want to do that. He just wants to stay working in his garage and he's really offended by the pressure of him to take another job.

So here he is with his mother in the car driving home. And his mother is played by Marsha Jean Kurtz and, of course, Paul is played by my guest, Patton Oswalt.

(Soundbite of movie, "Big Fan")

Ms. MARSHA JEAN KURTZ (Actress): (as Paul's Mom) What do you have against the Price Club?

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) I'd rather not discuss my career.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) You have a career? News to me. You could actually go somewhere at Price Club.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Yeah, like Dennis? Please.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) He's doing extremely well for himself.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Okay.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) Who knows, you could probably meet somebody.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) And what does that mean?

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) Your brother and sister both found people at work.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Yeah. Gina was Jeff's secretary. He cheated on his wife with her.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) She's a lot better for him than that louse Roberta.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) He's a cheat. He (bleep) while he was still married.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) Don't say that word in my car.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Which one, (bleep) or cheat?

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) You know. I don't want that language in my car.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Oh, so it's worse for me to say it than for him to do it.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) Cut it out, Paul. You should only meet somebody as good Gina has.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Oh boy. That'll be tough to top.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) Yeah, for you?

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) Yeah. Give me about an hour.

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) You have to actually date someone to top it.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) I date.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) Oh, sure. You're dating lots of girls.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) You don't think I date?

Ms. KURTZ: (as Paul's Mom) I know exactly who you date, your hand.

Mr. OSWALT: (as Paul Aufiero) What did you just say?

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So that was my guest, Patton Oswalt with Marsha Jean Kurtz in a scene from "Big Fan" which was written and directed by my guest, Robert Siegel.

Patton Oswalt, what did you tap into to get into this character's loneliness and frustration and sense of isolation?

Mr. OSWALT: As far as those were concerned, I kind of tapped into a lot of the, you know, Robert talked about listening to a lot of sports radio. I, you know I listen to stuff like Art Bell and The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling where they just, they are these sort of fringe magnets where these people call in and they're so odd and weird but clearly happy in their oddness that you realize that it only looks like loneliness from the outside.

So I didn't play Paul as this yearning, you know lonely guy. I played him as a guy who in his mind he thinks I've, it's all settled. It's perfect and it's up to people that are watching him. I didn't, I judged him. I didn't judge him at all because the script didn't judge him.

So I - as far as tapping into the loneliness, what I tried to tap into was in his mind his satisfaction with the circumstances of his life and his frustration with pointless, pointless exotic trivia and game - the facts and things like that. Which, I think, is that's what kind of brings out the sadness in, you know if you look at him.

And also, the scenes, the scene that you just played and the other ones that I have with that actress who plays my mom, Marsha Jean Kurtz, she was so amazing. There's another scene where we really have a, you know knock down drag out screaming match and she was so amazing in those scenes that she...

(Soundbite of cough)

Mr. OSWALT: ...she was just so good at bringing out the frustration and that, there's almost an edge of fear in my voice in those scenes, because this is the one person that can get to me and maybe try to pull me out into the world and I don't want it happening.

So, and she was in stuff like "Panic in Needle Park," and "Dog Day Afternoon," so she was there for a lot of that early '70s new Hollywood and is just so good at working with other actors that - you know, those are the scenes I improvised the most.

GROSS: Oh really?

Mr. OSWALT: Oh yeah, because she just constantly kept me off guard because she was so, you know her readings were, she just chose to be so blunt and totally straightforward in those scenes. She wasn't, she's not...

GROSS: In a way that mothers often feel privileged to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Oh, totally. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: There's no easing up to the hard revelation she's giving me. It's just boom, you need a girlfriend. You need a better job. Your life is - and I'm just, I'm under attack all of a sudden.

GROSS: Robert Siegel, you wrote in some details for the mother that I think are so perfect, like she saves all the duck sauce and soy sauce packets from Chinese takeout....

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah, my...

GROSS: zip-lock bags. And she has like bags and bags and bags of them. I've seen that so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: I had no idea how many people would relate to that. Apparently a lot of people....

GROSS: Oh, I've saved so much of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: those duck sauce packets.

GROSS: Yeah. And then you have her, there's a phone answering tape that she has like for her answering machine.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's so perfect. It's the kind of message left by someone who believes that no one has ever heard a voice message before so they have to be...

Mr. SIEGEL: People of a certain age will still when they're...

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. SIEGEL: ...they'll follow the rules of the instructions for what to do when you...

GROSS: They have to lay out the rules in really enunciated voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Please your name, number, and the time you called.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, you're trying to bring out that there's some people who leave messages as if no one's ever heard one before and they don't know what to do.

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, I just thought that's the kind I, you know, that scene required an answering machine outgoing message and that's the way I imagined she would leave it.

GROSS: The person who plays the sister-in-law in the movie, Serafina Fiore.

Mr. SIEGEL: Sera - the great Serafina Fiore making her acting debut. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. She apparently worked at a gentlemen's club when you were making "The Wrestler" and she reprised it?

Mr. SIEGEL: She continues to.

GROSS: She still does.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. She's the manager of HeadQuarters, if I may slip in a plug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: The finest gentlemen's club in all of New York City, located on Manhattan's West Side, that's HeadQuarters.

Mr. OSWALT: Bring your NPR card for discounts and for drinks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Yes. You can...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: ...redeem your NPR funny money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Complimentary drinks and lap dances (unintelligible).

Mr. OSWALT: NPR listeners, make sure to drop by HeadQuarters for...

Mr. SIEGEL: Just name, just mention Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Gross, and an extended two-song dance for the price of one.

GROSS: Did you get...

Mr. OSWALT: And if you can name your favorite...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. I got to stop you here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Have you guys had lap dances?

Mr. SIEGEL: She...

GROSS: Come on.

Mr. SIEGEL: In our lives?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: In our lives or during the shoot?

GROSS: In your life.

Mr. OSWALT: I have had a lap dance in my life. Yes.

Mr. SIEGEL: Singular?

Mr. OSWALT: Singular.

Mr. SIEGEL: I have too.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yearly year was...

GROSS: Was it for research or because you wanted it?

Mr. OSWALT: It was for a - it was for several - there was this period where all my friends were getting married and we were - it was like a spate-o-bachelor parties and we would - and people think that like the one thing they really got in the - he got in right in the movie about strip clubs is usually in movies they'll show a strip clubs as you got to approach the girl and the guys are -the strippers tend to be kind of aggressive about giving you a lap dance because that's how they make money.

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: So they are very insistent of hey, let's get a lap dance now. Oh sorry. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Like, you know, it's just, it's really so that aggressiveness was very accurate.

Mr. SIEGEL: Was there something you wanted to ask me about Serafina?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: I love her. I want to give her air time.

GROSS: Yeah. Well the reason why I asked about the lap dance is that it figures very prominently in "The Wrestler" and in "Big Fan," so and...

Mr. SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So I was just really, really curious about it.

Mr. SIEGEL: Both of which are part of my strip club trilogy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Third volume of which will - no, that should probably be it.

GROSS: I guess it won't surprise listeners to know I've never been to one of those clubs, but I always see them like in movies and, of course, on "The Sopranos" and other TV shows.

Mr. SIEGEL: You've never been to a strip club, Terry Gross?

GROSS: Yeah. Big surprise, right?


GROSS: But they always look so creepy to me.

Mr. OSWALT: That was the hardest part of the movie for me was during the beating scene, there's a shot where I had to have my face on the floor, so my face was pressed against the carpeting of a strip club.

Mr. SIEGEL: Strip club carpeting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: So, yeah, so you tell, you know they'd show these outtakes of Jackie Chan getting his head popped open, I give him no sympathy. I had my face pressed to the carpeting of a strip club. I mean, I don't want to hear about these Werner Herzog actors...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: ...who go through hell in the jungle. You know, put your face against the carpeting at HeadQuarters and get back to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Fitzcarraldo's got nothing on him.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah. I'll haul a ship up a mountain any day...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: long as I don't got to put my face on the carpeting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you shot it in a real strip club, I take it?

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah, that was shot at HeadQuarters which is...

Mr. OSWALT: Which, by the way.

Mr. SIEGEL: Which is the club where Serafina Fiore, who plays the sister-in-law where she is the manager.

Mr. OSWALT: And what is it also known for?

Mr. SIEGEL: It's also the club where, coincidentally, Plaxico Burress of the New York Giants was the night when he shot himself in the leg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh. Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah because there's nothing more, nothing less dangerous than a gun in a pair of sweatpants. That's super secure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah. Put it in your sweatpants. You're good. Brilliant. (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Excuse me for using; I'm just going to go back to the lap dance thing. I just have one...

Mr. SIEGEL: Go ahead.

GROSS: I just have one more lap dance question for you. It...

Mr. OSWALT: What is it with you, Terry with the lap dance questions?

GROSS: I see...

Mr. SIEGEL: Why don't you just go to a club and find out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, I see this all the time in movies and on TV and it just seems...

Mr. SIEGEL: They've got them in Philly.

GROSS: it would be the most weird and, in a way, self-conscious experience - to be a man having a lap dance. I mean it just seems so, I don't know.

Mr. OSWALT: I think it depends on the man because a lot of guys I think they get, it's that whole thing of look I'm, everyone's looking at me and this hot girl is on my lap. For me, for the lap dances I've had...

GROSS: Who you're paying for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Whom I'm also yeah, openly paying for. For me it has always been very, very creepy because it's very aggressive. I can't stress to you how aggressive the getting of the lap dance is. You don't have to do anything. They are because that's how they make their money and they're kind of insistent and almost, my I say rude about it. So it's always given me the willies, the whole lap dance thing.

Mr. SIEGEL: There are guys who find it creepy and awkward and depressing and then there are guys, who find it; there's a naked girl in my lap.

Mr. OSWALT: Right. I just feel because it's so public, I feel like an inbred Roman emperor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Like look what they brought back from Gaul for me. Now dance woman. You know it's just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: Dance, Brazilian.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah exact...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, it's just so creepy.

Mr. SIEGEL: Dance, Croatian.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah, exactly. So...

GROSS: And Patton Oswalt, your character in the film declines.

Mr. OSWALT: Well yeah, because my true love is in the room.

Mr. SIEGEL: He's just annoyed and distracted by...

GROSS: So your true love is the football player. Yeah.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: ...a woman comes to sit on his lap and he's just vaguely annoyed that she's kind of blocking his view of the football player at first.

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah. Yeah with her, please get your gorgeous naked body out of my way so I can...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSWALT: I can look at the giant guy that's about to pummel me into a coma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEGEL: He's kind of peering, there's a great shot of him kind of peering around the woman to try to...

Mr. OSWALT: Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: ...see the football player.

Mr. OSWALT: I'm peering around a tanned and perfect flank so that I can look at Quantrell Bishop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, it's been really fun talking with you both about the new movie "Big Fan." I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEGEL: Thank you very much, Terry.

Mr. OSWALT: Thanks.


Robert Siegel and Patton Oswalt speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. Their film, "Big Fan," comes out next week on DVD.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead on some recently issued jazz DVDs, including ones featuring Art Farmer and Anita O'Day.

This is FRESH AIR.

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