The versatile writer/director talks about his new film, working with Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman and his next project, 17 Bullets
After the success of his first film Boiler Room in 2000, it would have been easy for Ben Younger to make another slick film examining American business practices. Afterall, that's what the studios wanted from him. So it should come as no surprise that someone as talented as Younger followed up that film in 2005 with the "romantic comedy", Prime.
This tale of relationships taking place in New York City stars Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep and Bryan Greenberg. It is a film that looks at the value of relationships regardless of where they end up. Now before you start wondering how this film relates to the high stakes stock world of Boiler Room in Younger's oeuvre, don't even try to make that connection.
Because, Ben Younger is currently writing his next film... and it's a western.
What made you want to tell the story of Prime?
Ben Younger: I wanted to tell this story because I feel like there is a conception... I think it actually goes beyond the US, in the world today, that relationships that don't culminate with a marriage and children are sort of seen as a failure. I just always felt like even relationships that didn't last, some relationships that lasted three or four months, I learned invaluable things from, and I took those lessons with me.
Do you think there's something about New York City that lends itself to the intellectual romantic comedy?
Ben Younger: I think there is... thankfully, I didn't have to go that far in deciding to do it there. I shot it there because I'm from there. I live there, so it's a shoe-in for me. Yeah, historically speaking, look at all of Woody's movies and they kind of define the city. I'm obviously a big fan of his.
What was it like working with Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman?
Ben Younger: You know, you kinda think you're gonna have to work for twenty years before you get to work with Meryl. So getting to work with her... I almost feel like I didn't pay enough dues, it was pretty incredible. I always thought I'd work with her, I just didn't think it would happen at this point in my career.
Now Prime is so much different than Boiler Room...
Ben Younger: I know, I've lost all my male, college student audience who thought, "Oh, this guy's gonna keep putting out movies like that...
Ben Younger: No, I did. It's hilarious, I totally did alienate that sort of fanbase of mine. It's amazing to hear people come to me and go, "Wait, you did Boiler Room?!? I don't understand this is a f**kin chick flick!"
Well based on what you said, was that a conscious effort for you? That your second feature would be something that was so different than Boiler Room? Or was this just the story you wanted to tell?
Ben Younger: Definitely, I had this idea before Boiler Room. People don't realize that. I had this idea long before Boiler Room. I just knew that I wasn't emotionally involved enough to write this movie eight years ago when I first came up with the concept. So, I put it aside and did Boiler Room, which frankly, was a much easier movie to write.
What is the toughest part for you about being a writer/director?
Ben Younger: I have to separate the two. For me, the hardest part is getting up and writing, that's the hard part. I always felt like I could teach someone to direct if I really had to. I feel like it's a skill that's passable, but writing... writing is the worst. That's what I'm doing right now, it's just the hardest thing that you'll ever do.
Why do you say that?
Ben Younger: Because it is. You're working with nothing, as a director you already have a script, you have actors... you have collaborators when you're a director. When you're writing there's no one to collaborate with, there's no material to look at. I haven't adapted something yet, so, I'm sure that would be helpful. When you're writing an original piece you have nothing.
Since you write the scripts that you direct, are you ever editing as you write? Might you take out a scene in the writing stage because you know as a director you may not need it?
Ben Younger: No, no, I'm sure that'd be a helpful skill to have, I don't have it right now. I end up fighting a little bit, once we're in preproduction, what scenes are really important. I feel like I literally just switch hats from writer to director. It's not a seamless transition for me.
When you are shooting, how closely will you stick to what you write? Do you let the actors improv at all?
Ben Younger: Yeah, it's so funny to me, it's a question so many people ask and it's something that actors always talk about, I feel like there's so much importance put on this. "Is it all yours?", "Did they improv it?" You know, it's pretty simple. If the scene works then yeah, we stick to the script. If it doesn't work, or somebody has a way to make it better, than I'm open to it.
The idea that a good director, when you hear actors talk about it, "A good director is one that lets you improv," that's ridiculous. There's some actors who should not be improving and there are some scripts that should not be touched. I think it's just a case by case basis.
Like in Boiler Room for example, I let Jamie Kennedy run wild, because it worked, you know? His character was just off the cuff and kinda crazy and it wasn't central to the film. In this movie, did Bryan Greenberg improv at all? No. His scenes were pretty much all pivotal and a lot of thought went into the writing and stuff.
You mentioned you're currently writing now, what do you have coming up next?
Ben Younger: I have a Mexican western I'm doing that's fully financed. We're out to actors right now, it's called 17 Bullets.
Movie PictureYou really seem to jump around in the genres...
Ben Younger: Yeah, that's why I got into this business, because I just get bored very easily. This business allows me to keep it interesting. The movie I'm writing right now is a motorcycle racing movie about the Isle of Man. Which most Americans don't even know where that is.
After you did Boiler Room did people come to you and want you to make movies in that vein?
Ben Younger: Yes, of course. The studios try to put you in a niche. I mean, I would do the same thing. It must be really difficult to keep track of all these directors. To do it the right way you'd sort of sit down, interview one of them and really get to know them, because you'd know more about what their capabilities are if you got to know them a little more intimately. If you understood their personality and their interests... you'd know, sitting down with someone what they're capable of doing.
Since that's not an option, yeah, everybody gets thrown into whatever box they're in. Yeah, I got thrown a ton of male ensemble based movies, and now I'm getting thrown tons of romantic comedies. It's like they would have never thought of you for a romantic comedy beforehand, but now they'll only think of you for a romantic comedy. You won't even get offered the male ensemble stuff now.
Well, based on what you said it sounds like after your next movie, you're gonna get offered a lot of westerns and action movies?
Ben Younger: Yeah, we'll see.
Prime comes out on DVD March 7th, 2006 through Universal Home Entertainment.
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