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Interview: Jim Piddock

Interview by Clint Morris

Interview with Jim Piddock
Scripted/wrote the movie The Man.

Jim Piddock

Jim Piddock at the dog show

Jim Piddock is already an accomplished actor, having starred in such films as A Mighty Wind, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Independence Day.

Now, he's out to display his writing skills, as writer of the hot new action comedy The Man starring Samuel L.Jackson and Eugene Levy.

Clint: Tell me where the idea for "The Man" came from?

Jim: This particular script has quite a history. Believe it or not, I got the original idea more than 15 years ago. I've always been fascinated by undercover work of any kind and after reading a few books by cops and Federal agents, I was very aware of what an edgy, dangerous world it is that they inhabit.

I then got thinking of the comic possibilities of a "regular" civilian getting caught up in this world by accident and being forced to go undercover to front for the real undercover agent to help nail some bad guys.

Then, taking it a step further, it seemed funnier if the guy was very sheltered and rather nebbishy...an innocent salesman who thinks of life as one, big, happy place to conduct honest business and raise a family. In other words, the antithesis of most of these undercover guys.

I started developing the idea with my wife at the time, Margaret Oberman, and together the characters soon emerged as two opposite ends of the male genus...which meant it was going to be a buddy action-comedy picture of sorts. I had a story in mind and so, once we'd figured out the comic heart and soul of the script, I went off and did a quick first draft.

Rough first drafts usually take me no more than a month if I have no other major work conflicts. After that was done, Margaret took it and did a rewrite, which is how we usually worked. If it was something that was initially her idea, she'd do the first draft, and if it was mine, I'd do it. Then we'd do a polish, or third draft, together and send it to one or other of our agents. At that time we had the same agent and the script went out right away.

I'm talking 1990 now. It was optioned right away by a well-known company and was soon headed into pre-production, with an established director and two "name" stars. Then, about four weeks into pre-production, the company went under financially, which was a surprise and big news at the time, as they'd had a very good track record.

What was lesser known news was that the film (which had a different title at that time incidentally) was not going to see the light of day in the immediate future. We finally got it back when the option expired, but at that stage Margaret and I were working on other things, together and separately. However, in the back of my mind, I always felt it was something that would get made one day. In the mid '90s, I finally had some free time and decided to "re-invent" the script. So I talked with Margaret about making the cop character a tough woman in an extreme man's world, so we'd have the added element of an unlikely romance between two opposites, who were also atypical within their own gender. It would also introduce the issue of what defines being a man or a woman.

So we did that rewrite and it was optioned by a Canadian-based producer. We got all excited again as it looked like the film had a legitimate second shot at being made. Then the option check (which was very late anyway) bounced and we were back to square one. I don't want to cast any aspersions here because I love Canadians, but I've been stiffed financially twice in my writing career and both times it was by producers North of the border.

Fortunately for this particular guy, I've forgotten his name. But the other one, who currently owes me a sizeable chunk of change, is called Richard LaLonde, operating in Montreal, and I feel no compunction about "outing" him. Anyway, I digress.

Jim Piddock

Samuel L.Jackson (left)
and Eugene Levy (right)
in the new movie The Man

The script went back on the shelf again, until about 4 or 5 years ago, when I found myself with another quiet spell. This time I decided to revert back to the buddy movie, with two male leads, and Margaret gave me the go-ahead to change the ending, giving it much more of a surprise twist. I did that rewrite in a couple of weeks. Margaret did a polish on it and out the script went again.

Nothing happened immediately this time, and we went on merrily with our lives. Then about a year or two later we had an enquiry about its availability from a young executive at New Line, who'd loved the script when he'd read it back then and finally thought it could be put together. And it did get put together, with Rob Fried coming on board as producer, and it is finally -- nearly 16 years since it was first conceived -- seeing the light of day. Talk about a long answer to a short question, huh? You probably wish you'd never asked!

Clint: The film was re-written by someone else, is that right? So who gets the credit?

Jim: Yeah, the director Les Mayfield always uses his own re-write guy, Steve Carpenter, and I guess they rewrite stuff together. It wasn't ever an issue because the director never wanted to meet us to even discuss the script. To this day, neither Margaret or I have seen him or talked to him. It was a bit weird for me because every other film I've had made, I've been involved in through production as the sole writer. So I'd been totally spoiled.

But, to be perfectly honest, it wasn't like giving your baby away -- which is how writers usually describe handing over a script to be rewritten by somebody else -- it [was] more more like letting your almost-an-adult offspring go off and do their own thing in the world. We definitely had a hand in steering Eugene Levy (who I obviously know from the Chris Guest films) into one of the main roles, but other than that, we really had nothing to do with the making of the film.

In terms of screenplay credit, it ended up being shared, with Margaret and I retaining sole story credit. The premise and essential story are mostly the same, but the plot has been hugely stripped down and condensed (with the "new" surprise twist ending taken out and reverting back to its original ending).

Our script was more of a broad-canvas comedy, with big set pieces, in the vein of 48 Hours, Midnight Run , or Rush Hour. But I think the director wanted to scale it down and make it a more compact, singular, short-time frame piece. A comic version of Collateral or Training Day as you were.

In terms of dialogue, the script has definitely changed. It's a quite a bit harder, ruder, and cruder. In other words, what I'm trying to say, anything you like in the film was written by myself or Margaret, and anything you don't like was written by the other guy and the director!

Clint: How close are Eugene Levy and Samuel L.Jackson to the characters you wrote?

Jim: Actually, very close. That's the one constant. They are almost completely unchanged from the very first draft.

Clint: So what kind of post-writing input did you have into the film - if any?

Jim: None at all. We were invited to view a cut of the film in the editing room, shortly before the picture was locked, but nobody else was there.

Clint: You're best known as an actor, but you're starting to make a name as a writer too - has it always been an interest?

Jim Piddock

Jim Piddock in black in white

Jim: Definitely. After leaving New York in 1985, I started doing a lot less theatre between film and TV acting jobs and started writing. Since the early '90s it's been at least 50% of my focus and provided me with more than 50% of my income.

Clint: 'A Different Loyalty', one of yours, disappeared pretty quickly - was that a bit of a disappointment for you?

Jim: Man, that was a huge disappointment. That was a real labour of love from day one, a script that was always going to be difficult to get made, but if done right could have been a really wonderful, high-end film. And people loved that script. Very few money people had any desire to make it, but almost everyone admired it.

Tonally and subject-wise, it was the opposite end of the spectrum from The Man. An epic romance, set against the back-drop of the Cold War. And it was all a true story, about Kim Philby, the British intelligence agent who was a Russian spy, and his wife, Eleanor. But, you know, the best laid plans, etc. It's not a terrible film by any means and some people really loved it, but it's a million miles from what I wanted (and wrote). I think the budget restraints, the casting, and the inexperience of the producers all made it an uphill battle for the director from day one.

Clint: You've done a lot of TV work - a favourite stint?

Jim: I loved all those guys over at "Drew Carey". The show was probably past its sell-by date the season I did it, but the whole cast, crew, writers, and producers were real fun to be around.

Other things that were great fun to do were "From The Earth To The Moon" (Tom Hanks, who directed the segment I did, is one of the nicest, most genuine guys you could ever meet) and playing Prince Charles in a CBS mini-series. That was definitely the goofiest thing I've ever done.

Clint: Tell me about working with Christopher Guest?

Jim: Love it, love it. I think everyone whose part of that troupe feels blessed to be involved. I could go on about it ad nauseam, but that's at least a whole interview in itself, or even a book.

Clint: Has Guest got anything in the works? (That you might be involved in?)

Jim: We start shooting a new one in October. Which will be released sometime in 2006, I imagine.

Clint: Anything else you want to plug?

Jim: Well, Chris's new film, for a start, which is called For Your Consideration. I've got an independent film called See This Movie, which I believe is coming out in January. It was written by Joe Smith and David Rosenthal (who also directed it) and produced by Chris and Paul Weitz. It's a very funny movie and I'm one of the five main characters.

My character is perpetually drunk or hung over, chain smoking, and ends up sleeping with all the other main characters (2 female, 2 male) at some point in the story. It's already won a couple of festival awards and I'm delighted it's finally got a limited release in the U.S.

Otherwise, I'm currently developing a couple of things...again at opposite ends of the spectrum. A big, high-concept comedy and a true-story drama, connected to the Kennedy assassination. It won't reveal who killed the President, but it will reveal who didn't (Oliver Stone fans beware) so if there's any heavy-hitting producers or directors interested in making a film in that arena, give me a call!

The Man commences on October the 20th, 2005.

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