About three years ago or so I heard that one of my favorite actors, Peter Riegert, was going around the country with a feature film he starred in and directed, King of the Corner. His appearance in Nebraska took on greater import for me when I learned that the film was adapted from a group of short stories by noted author Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at the University of Nebraska. Long story short, I obtained a screener of the film and I really responded to it, and then I did a phone interview with Riegert, who proved a delight. The resulting story appeared in the Jewish Press. I highly recommend King of the Corner. And if you don’t know his name or work, I recommend two essential Riegert films: Local Hero and Crossing Delancey, which also happen to be two of my favorite films. Two of Riegert’s best films, Crossing Delancey and Chilly Scenes of Winter, were directed by Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, the subject of an extensive profile on this blog under the title, “Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling.”
Actor Peter Riegert Makes Fine Feature Directorial Debut with ‘King of the Corner’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
For months now, noted stage and screen actor Peter Riegert has been taking his new film comedy about “crummy Jews,” King of the Corner, on the road. Best known for his work in front of the camera, he’s the director, co-writer and star of this engaging satire that critic Roger Ebert gives 3 1/2 stars. While this is the first feature he’s directed, Riegert won praise for helming the 2000 short By Courier, an Oscar-nominated adaptation of the O. Henry short story.
In March, he brought his new film to Lincoln, where he has a history showing his work and where his co-script writer, Gerald Shapiro, author of the short stories upon which the film is based, resides and teaches. Although they’d never met before their collaboration, Shapiro’s long admired Riegert’s work. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln creative writing professor, Shapiro utilizes one of the actor’s best known films, Crossing Delancey, along with an audio reading by Riegert of a famous Yiddish story by Sholem Aleichem, in his Jewish American fiction class.
“I was an admirer of his before I ever saw ‘Crossing Delancey’. I loved him in ‘Animal House’. I loved him in ‘Local Hero’,” Shapiro said.
Personally peddling his cinema wares to theater and video chains has Riegert appreciating the irony of schmoozing over a movie whose two main characters are Sol Spivak (Eli Wallach), an ex-door-to-door salesman with a Willy Loman death wish, and his son Leo (Riegert), a newfangled huckster beset by an Oedipal complex.
“I’m turning into Leo and Sol,” a joking Riegert said by phone.
The story revolves around Leo, the dutiful yet resentful son in the midst of an identity crisis that has him questioning everything, including his own religious heritage, and doubting advice given him, especially by his father.
From the very opening, Riegert portrays Leo as a man adrift. Sitting at his office desk, he’s the picture of apathy and narcissism as he sends a parade of wind-up toys marching over the edge into the abyss. This image instantly conveys he’s heading for a similar fall and one he’ll precipitate himself. It’s happens, too, but to Riegert and Shapiro’s credit, the crisis assumes richer, funnier, sadder dimensions than we could imagine.
Continually kvetching about his father wanting to die, his troubled marriage, his rotten job and his willful daughter, Leo acts the meshugina, but he’s really a guilelessmensch short on confidence and, therefore, judgment. More than once, he’s asked, “What do you want?” To his dismay, he doesn’t know.
Where family and colleagues see a protege angling for his job, Leo seems strangely unaware and unfazed by the threat. So depressed is Leo that even when their suspicions prove true, he can’t get angry.
He can’t feel anything, except lost. As men often do, his nonverbalized fears and frustrations drive him to act badly– impulsively pursuing a tryst in a kind of retro-adolescent daze. There’s no question he loves his wife (Isabella Rosselini) and family. But he gives into temptation and reaches for the nearest fix to feel something, anything, again.
In the surreal infidelity sequence Leo revels in his conquest in a most inappropriate way, only to have a moment of self-awareness–too late, as it happens–that’s delicious for how absurd and ashamed he feels.
Riegert has just the right ironic detachment, sardonic bemusement, pragmatic charm, cockeyed whimsy and simmering venom to make his character one we can both laugh at and empathize with. It turns out Leo is a lot like Shapiro.
The actor’s career revolves around New York and L.A., but his many ties here extend to filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a native Omahan based in New York. He first worked with her as the wry friend to John Heard in her Chilly Scenes of Winter and next as stand-up Sam, the lovelorn pickle man (opposite Amy Irving), in her Crossing Delancey. For his new film, he’s teamed with transplanted Nebraskan Shapiro, whose book Bad Jews and Other Stories supplied the plot and characters adapted into King of the Corner.
The film falls into that cinema limbo where many good, small, character-driven movies, either owing to limited distribution or poor studio marketing, end up, which is anywhere but your local cineplex. As unusual as it may seem for someone to make the circuit with their picture, “it’s not an uncommon thing,” Riegert said, for moviemakers “to be out there hustling their film. (John) Cassavetes did it. I’m pretty sure Mel Brooks did it with ‘The Twelve Chairs’. I’ve met lots of indie directors who do it.”
Indeed, Joan Micklin Silver and her producer-husband Raphael Silver made the rounds with her Oscar-nominated feature debut Hester Street and again with Between the Lines. If you want your film shown in theaters, self-distribution is the only route left when your pic fails to win a traditional studio release, as was the case with King. It’s not something entered into lightly, but Riegert almost sounds fortunate when he says, “Basically, I’ve had to learn every part of making movies”–from producing to writing-directing to marketing.
“I didn’t want to distribute the movie myself, but I didn’t find the help I felt the movie needed. I didn’t want somebody to just release it. I needed somebody to nurture it, because it’s that kind of a movie, and nobody was stepping up in any particularly enthusiastic way. So, now I’m learning about every part of movies, and in a way that’s not only theoretical but practical.”
The experience should inform whatever project he directs next. His efforts to get his film more widely seen were bolstered when a national chain took it on.
“I booked the first three months of the tour and then Landmark Theaters, which specializes in independent films, picked me up for June, July, August and September,” he said. “So, that was a big help and a nice endorsement in terms of their confidence. In general, the reviews have been very good and people have been coming out to support the film. We’ve been held over in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco. What I believed, which is that there’s an audience for the movie, has proven true. So, I’m seeing there is some kind of word of mouth.”
Yes, there’s a nice little buzz about it, but to do any real business–the kind that gets Hollywood’s attention –a big fat exploitation campaign is called for, which is just what Riegert and Elevation Filmworks can’t afford.
“What I’ve learned is that as valuable as word of mouth is, you have to help it along and that’s where a marketing budget comes in. I essentially don’t have one. I don’t have the clout to buttress it with advertising support and I can’t get national press for it” without it being in theaters everywhere.
Minus a wide release and cushy press junket, he pushes King “one city at a time.” On the other hand, he gets to know its audience more intimately than he would otherwise. For example, he conducts Q & As after select screenings. He said he enjoys “my conversations with audiences,” adding the sessions have “reinforced my instinct” about the film resonating with people.
As much as he believes in his film, he knows its real worth will be measured by box office-rental-pay-per-view dollars and by how it stands up over time.
“Anybody who makes a film, or makes anything for that matter, has to have a certain kind of crazy courage or arrogance about it,” he said. “You have to believe in yourself. The audience eventually tells you whether you’re right or wrong. And then, of course, time really tells you whether you’re right or wrong.”
Last winter, Riegert’s road show took him to Lincoln, where King played the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (His picture has yet to be screened in Omaha.). The visit brought Riegert and his project full circle. His appearance there a few years before, for a screening of his own By Courier, proved fortuitous as it was then he was first introduced to Shapiro’s work. The author got someone to slip the actor a copy ofBad Jews. The stories struck a chord in Riegert.
“The title made me laugh out loud and I thought if the book is half as funny as the title then maybe I’ve found what I was looking for, which was material for a feature. I read the book on a plane back to L.A., where I was working, and just thought this guy is fantastic. I called him up the next day and began a process of collaborating.”
Directing is something Riegert’s longed to do since college, when he made a promising short film. When his acting career took off, years passed before he realized he hadn’t followed up on his passion. By Courier was his “if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it” project.
In Shapiro, Riegert found an artist with a shared world view that sees “the sense of outsidedness many of us feel” and “how we’re the engineers of our own problems.” He also admires Shapiro’s appreciation for how “the drama and comedy in our respective lives co-exist at the same time, which is what I think makes his material so rich.” Shapiro said the two share “a dry sense of humor. I think both Peter and I tend to laugh at things that are not especially funny. There’s something so Jewish about that as well. But where he’s more optimistic, I’m gloomier.”
In the end, Shapiro feels King stands alone as more Riegert’s vision than his own. “I think it has its own voice and its own validity,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, what it captures is Peter’s voice, and that’s how it should be, because he is the author of that film. The thing I learned from watching this film get made is the director really is the author of the film, and in the case of ‘King of the Corner’, it’s Peter’s movie from top to bottom. His vision and his voice are everywhere.”
For Shapiro, the experience of writing the film entailed a series of firsts. It was his first screenplay, collaboration and adaptation.
“I’m not used to working with anyone. I’m not used to hearing someone else’s input or having someone listen to me. So, that was strange. Not having the tool of narrative to work with as a writer–having to have everything visual or come out of someone’s mouth–it’s a huge difference. My voice as a fiction writer is much more than my dialogue. Most useful to me with ‘King of the Corner’ were the staged readings Peter arranged in New York and Los Angeles that I attended. It’s wonderful to hear the screenplay read aloud by talented actors before a live audience, especially if you’re writing comedy. You get to hear if the jokes work. You get to hear the pacing. Because that’s really what a lot of it is hinging on.”
Many of the actors at those readings wound up in the film, including Eli Wallach, Beverly D’Angelo, Harris Yulin and Eric Bogosian.
As funny as it is, the film’s humor springs from heavy, Death of a Salesman themes. Sol’s bitter over a life spent lived out of cars and motels, schlepping a heavy case to support his family. He bears Leo’s disdain and rues his only child’s weakness. Leo shrinks at the notion he’s anything like his dad. Despite an office, a three-piece suit, a fancy title and his focus groups, he’s ultimately a peddler, too.
In his wallowing Leo recalls the bad times. It’s only much later, after his dad’s gone, he looks past the negative to see a more balanced truth.
Near the end, there’s a marvelous monologue, lifted nearly verbatim from Shapiro’s book, in which Leo delivers a raw, hilarious excoriation of his “crummy” Jewish roots. Riegert said the intent was to make Leo’s from-the-gut rant as unvarnished as possible.
Perhaps the most moving scene is the funeral service. Sol’s died a most unflattering death. Leo’s given the freelance rabbi with the silly name, Evelyn Fink, nothing but dirt to say about the old man. Fink runs Sol down so much even Leo’s offended. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and launches into an impromptu kaddish that’s equal parts confessional and atonement. In a sad-comic soliloquy, Leo properly memorializes his father, poignantly coming to terms with the man and his legacy, which is to say, himself.
At the end, Leo’s found himself again. Even though his fate’s unclear, he can dare to dance his troubles away.
The film’s charm is that it’s so real in adeptly showing the fine edge in comedy-pathos, levity-gravity, absurdity-profundity, and how we slip so easily from one to the other. It helps that all the actors underplay their roles in the naturalistic style Riegert prefers. “What I knew as an actor I’m now becoming more confident in as a director and writer,” he said, “which is to let go of whatever control I think I have and just let my imagination loose and figure out what it means later.”
While Riegert searches for his next directing project, Shapiro’s shopping around a new script, drawn from both his novella Suskind: the Impresario, and Bad Jews. The story focuses on a PR man in San Francisco (where Shapiro once lived) struggling with his job, his estranged family and the new woman in his life.
“It’s a comedy,” he said. Producers are reading it, but Shapiro, like Leo, isn’t one to boast. “I’m amazed anybody would ever want to do anything with anything I wrote. I’ve not had the kind of success that leads to the raging self-confidence I see in other people.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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