It’s impossible to talk about David Schwimmer and not mention “Friends“, the long-running 1990s sitcom that helped to define the decade’s comedic expectations and much of its sensibility. But it has been four years since Ross Geller stopped paying weekly visits to audiences around the world and Schwimmer is on to bigger things.
For years now he has toiled away in theater (co-founding Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company) and television, both in positions seen and unseen. Over the course of the 10 years “Friends” was on the air, Schwimmer directed 10 episodes of the hit series, but in ways similar to his theater directing credits, it was always a “controlled environment. You never have to worry about sound, for instance, or changes in the weather—it suddenly raining for two hours after you start filming.” Yet, on the set of his feature directorial debut, Run, Fatboy, Run, Schwimmer encountered all that and more.
“I was in London, so every other day there was something,” he says. “Also, the quality of light is really hard to control when you’re outside on location, especially in a country like England where the light can be one way one hour and then completely dark the next. So you have to have a really great cinematographer who can constantly adjust—or at least try to adjust for those factors.”
For his first time out directing a big screen feature (he’d previously directed episodes of “Joey” and the television movie Since You’ve Been Gone), a British comedy wasn’t exactly what Schwimmer had in mind. But with a little help from lead Simon Pegg, the comedy, originally set in the Big Apple, moved across the Atlantic and brought with it all of the “great scenes, the comic scenes” that drew the director to the screenplay from the start.
Written by actor/comedian Michael Ian Black (“Ed”), Run, Fatboy, Run follows Pegg as Dennis, a man so scared to wed, he ditches his pregnant fiancée at the altar. Five years later they’re still connected through the son they both care for and Dennis finally realizes the family he missed out on and feels he deserves. Now, however, there’s another man in the picture: Whit (played by Hank Azaria), a charming, successful, physically fit man gearing up for the London Marathon. Desperate to win his family back and prove he is just as worthy to have them, Dennis too decides to run the race. In the process, he helps to define a comedy for the new millennium. Once again, Schwimmer is in on the action.
Just before the movie’s March 28 release date, Schwimmer took some time to speak with MM about his process, his inspirations, his multiple roles in the film world and of course, Run, Fatboy, Run.
Mallory Potosky (MM): You’ve directed episodic television and theater for a while now. What made you turn to feature films?
David Schwimmer (DS): Well, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing. It wasn’t really practical though when I was doing the show because, as you know, it takes a year and a half of your life—or more. So I was just trying to gain as much experience behind the camera directing television, just kind of growing confidence to get to the point where I thought I could probably handle a movie. But nothing really prepares you for being in London on 50 locations in 35 days. So it was interesting.
MM: All of your directing credits for the screen so far have been comedies. Do you feel particularly drawn to the genre as a director?
DS: Actually, I really hope that I’ll kind of segue into directing drama as well. In fact, I’m co-writing a script right now that’s a drama. I would love to do that. I kind of look at Ron Howard’s career as a template, as a dream career—where he started as an actor and then moved into directing. He started in comedy and then, of course, now is directing both dramas and thrillers. And working with terrific, terrific actors.
MM: So how did you become involved with Run, Fatboy, Run?
DS: I was reading a lot of scripts for several months leading up to the end of “Friends” and I knew I wanted to direct right away once the show was over. Or, I hoped to. So I was reading a lot and this was just the best script that I came across. I felt like it had this great combination—it was like three movies in one. It had this great physical comedy and this character-driven comedy, and then it had a lot of drama to it with the romance and also with the relationship with his son. Then it kind of turned into a big sports movie and I thought, ‘Well this is a hell of a challenge, not only for any film, but for a first-time director.’ I thought, ‘This would be terrific if I can somehow manage to get the balance of the film just right—juggling those three movies in one—then that would be a real challenge as the director.’
MM: It’s set in London, but I heard that wasn’t originally the case.
DS: Right, it was originally set in New York around the New York City Marathon and then a British company bought the script and I was already attached as director. So suddenly I found myself directing a British comedy. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s my first film, a British comedy!’ (laughs). We had to do a big rewrite. Simon did the rewrite—with my suggestions, of course.
DS: Yeah, absolutely.
MM: Why did you think he would fit the role so well?
DS: Because he’s this great, sympathetic kind of underdog. He’s like this great Everyman. I think the script needed someone who’s not necessarily as good-looking or as successful as Hank’s character Whit. He’s just a regular guy with a beer belly and kind of a schlub in a way. But there was something really redeeming about the character because of how good a father he was. And he was really funny—he had a great sense of humor. More than that, he’s like this little scrappy dog. There’s real tenacity about him. There’s a real fighter in this guy, and I think Simon has that quality. I always thought of Simon and Hank as these two different breeds of dog, with Hank being this beautiful Great Dane or greyhound—this beautiful, sleek greyhound, this terrific runner, an athlete, a graceful animal—while I thought of Simon as a scrappy little terrier. (laughs)
MM: Do you think that the experiences you’ve had in front of the camera have helped you when you get behind the camera to direct something?
DS: Oh for sure. I think that it has helped me relate to the actors much better. I felt like any time I was working as an actor in film or in television, I always thought I was in school, like I was training or studying for being behind the camera one day. So I paid really close attention; I would ask a lot of questions; I would just sit back and observe other directors; and learn from what I thought were some amazing directors; and then I learned from the mistakes of not-so-great directors.
MM: You’ve also taken on a few producing credits. What makes you try out these different roles in film production?
DS: The producing stuff is really because I want to support other artists I believe in and help get stuff made for them and give people a break at their first time writing for film or acting for film or directing for film. So that’s really what it is: Trying to support other artists that I believe in.
MM: Is there one role in film production that you’re more partial to than the others?
DS: Not really. I mean, I love directing and acting kind of equally, but for very different reasons. I really love both.