Time Out meets David Schwimmer
David Schwimmer puts an era of coffee shops and Geller gaffes behind him, as he takes to the director’s chair to deal with the dark world of online grooming and child abuse
If it’s cultural curve balls you’re after, then have a swing at this: Ross from ‘Friends’ has made a film about online paedophilia. Yes, David Schwimmer, that loveable lunk from the small screen who bid adieu to the astronomical ratings, the exorbitant pay cheques and the throngs of screaming fans he accrued over ten years of playing Ross Geller, has indulged his passion for directing to make a film about child abuse.
Although Schwimmer has always dabbled behind the camera – making TV movie ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ in 1998 and working on episodes of ‘Friends’ and ‘Joey’ – it wasn’t until 2007 that he had his first feature-film hit with the London-set comedy ‘Run Fatboy Run’, which starred Simon Pegg. ‘Trust’ is his latest directorial effort, and it casts Schwimmer in a very different light. It’s a chilling, small-scale ensemble drama that charts how a 14-year-old girl (Liana Liberato) is groomed by a child abuser over the internet, and the course taken by her parents (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener) to come to terms with what’s happened. From talking to Schwimmer, it becomes clear that he’s very proud of this film, even though he’s aware the subject matter is a little heavier than might be expected from him…
Before we talk about ‘Trust’, I want to ask you about a US TV show called ‘To Catch a Predator’ in which potential child abusers are exposed. They think they’re grooming a child via an internet chatroom, then they’re caught on camera. Although different, ‘Trust’ does touch on similar issues. What are your thoughts on the show?
‘I have mixed feelings about that programme. It’s a little sensational and unsavoury. It feels dirty to me that you’re setting up these guys on camera. Having said that, the fact is that it brought this issue – in my view, an epidemic – into the light. Nothing else was really working. The other thing about it was that you couldn’t believe the range of men who showed up on camera: from college students of every race, of every class, to rabbis, to priests, to coaches, to fathers with their own family at home. Showing the sheer range of people, I thought, was valuable to the public.’
What were the reactions from friends and colleagues when you told them that you’d set your sights on making ‘Trust’?
‘Well, the first person I told was my wife, Zoe. I started developing it about seven years ago, then I put it aside. And then, about three years ago, I said to Zoe: “I just can’t get this out of my mind. I want to tackle it again.” We talked about it and she knew it was important to me. She was very supportive of it. I find those early days weird: you mention to friends that you’ve got this idea and whatever you say they’re like, “Awesome! Go for it!” To actually decide you’re going to make it… Most of my friends knew how important this subject was to me and they knew all the work I do for a charity called the Rape Foundation. So, friends were supportive.’
What about your representation?
‘The line I heard the most [from my people] was, “Are you sure you wanna do this? Because the chances are that no one’s going to see it.” They were very… realistic.’
I imagine the funding process was a nightmare.
‘It was very difficult. One studio came aboard and said that we could do it, as long as we bring them a name, and that name was Clive Owen. Once you get Clive, you get your money. No one else in the cast mattered. Even though we had Catherine Keener and Viola Davis – both Academy Award nominees – it didn’t matter. Clive drives your foreign money, your video, everything.’
So you couldn’t get the film made based on the idea alone?
‘Do you remember the film “The Insider” by Michael Mann? That film was not a huge money-maker. I loved it, because it was about something. Personally speaking, I felt that it marked a big shift in the industry. If a movie of that quality, with that filmmaker, with those stars [Al Pacino and Russell Crowe] didn’t do well, it meant that the studios kind of gave up. That aside, I was given this tremendous gift of doing “that show” for ten years. I made my money. I put it in the bank. I’m in a very lucky position that I’m okay if this film doesn’t make money.’
Could you have personally funded it?
‘I could’ve done, but everyone in the world advised me against that. I actually kind of get the philosophy. If someone doesn’t believe enough in your product to put money in to it, then you should rethink how good the product is. “Friends” has given me the opportunity to take these kinds of risks.’
How did you pitch this project to Clive Owen?
‘He read the script and it really hit home with him. He recognised that it’s not a commercial Hollywood film and that the ending is very different from a revenge movie like, say, “Taken”. He also quickly realised that this was a personal project for me. I think that’s what pushed Clive into it, because he felt that I was being responsible with the material. It wasn’t just a script I chanced across and thought would be a cool, interesting career move.’
Liana Liberato, the girl who plays the young abuse victim, is also strong.
‘She’s completely inexperienced. This girl has never kissed a boy. I introduced her to girls who were victims. She took it on like a real research project. When it came down to it, her instincts about who this girl was were spot on.’
I read an interview with you where you were talking about the film ‘An Education’, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir. I understand you take umbrage with the casting of Carey Mulligan in the lead role...
‘I think she’s a brilliant actress, but I think it’s irresponsible casting. If you’re telling a story about a minor, a 15- or 16-year-old girl who has a relationship with a 40-year-old man, I think to cast a young woman who is considerably older than that is… dangerous. The audience, unconsciously, becomes completely accepting. It’s not weird or strange or uncomfortable or immoral. There’s no grey area. Carey was in her early twenties when making that film, and even if she’s playing young or made to look young, she’s not 16. In my mind, there’s a huge difference between a 16-year-old actress and a 20-, 21-year-old actress. And if your story hinges on that age difference, then cast a young actress.’
But the film was about how this young woman was more mature than the adults surrounding her. Would that not be a suitable justification?
‘I guess I just feel that it doesn’t hold up in court. In my court, anyway. Even if a 15-year-old girl is mature beyond her years, then cast a 15-year-old girl who’s mature beyond her years. What you’re missing is a kind of discomfort, something that the audience would feel.’
Do you think it’s down to directors wanting to cast actors with greater skill and experience?
‘Yes, people want the talent. Older actors can still play young, but it’s harder for young actors to be able to play that age range. I get that, and I think Carey Mulligan is a wonderful actress. I just think you need to be more responsible.’
While you were working on ‘Friends’, did you always have your eye on what was going on behind the camera?
‘I would talk to a lot of the camera operators and the technical crew. I would just try to learn what each person on the set did. Jim Burrows was one of the main guys I would follow. He was the guy responsible for directing “Cheers”, “Taxi”, “Frasier” and lots of others. He really coined the look of that classic American sitcom style.’
Do you have fond memories of your directorial debut, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, which finally screened in 1998?
‘On the second year of “Friends” I did this for Miramax. It was an ensemble comedy and I cast my entire Lookingglass Theatre Company – all unknowns. Even Jon Stewart when he was an actor. With every film I think I get a little better. But my memories of making it were… generally positive [Laughs]. I loved working with my company. The collaboration with all these different departments – something I’d never really done before – was also thrilling. But it was very tough dealing with Miramax.’
Really? This must have been when they were still riding the Tarantino wave.
‘That was the most confusing part about it. I was a young filmmaker, my first film, low budget. And, man, it was difficult. Every day was a new battle.’
I take it you found out how Harvey Weinstein got the nickname ‘Harvey Scissorhands’?
‘Oh yes, well that’s what eventually happened. They own the movie. So, I sent them my cut which I worked very hard on, and they said, “Well, we don’t want to release it because you don’t have any big stars in it.” So they sold it to ABC television, they recut it, took out the language and that was it, I had no say in the matter. So I was like… “Well, that’s a bummer.” ’
How did that experience not put you off directing for life?
‘I guess you can take it that way. It was devastating to spend so much time and energy on a project and have it tossed in the garbage. I still had the show to go back to. I’m too competitive to let that stop me. I’m happy to move on. My thought then was that I’ll direct another one some day and maybe that won’t happen. I’ll show them that I can be a director. I still don’t really know who “them” is… ’
What is your favourite film that stars one of the main ‘Friends’ cast?
‘That’s a very good question… I would probably have to say “Analyze This” [with Lisa Kudrow].’
Nice. No love for ‘Lost in Space’?
‘[Laughs] No, you asked what’s my favourite, so we’re not doing any special mentions! Actually, can I name any of my own? Just kidding!’
When ‘Friends’ finished its run and Matt LeBlanc got his own spin-off, ‘Joey’, was there ever any talk of you getting a ‘Ross’?
‘I could easily have done that. Easily. [But] I felt like ten years was enough time to do one character. I wanted to play other guys and do other things. And the thing is, every time you start a new show or do a new series, you’re committing to another six years. I wanted the freedom to do a play, or come to London to do a film. I enjoy my freedom.’
Do you still get offers to star in sitcoms now?
‘Yes, I do. But I think it would have to be a great, original idea and a great, challenging character. Most likely I would do it if was a cable show for someone like HBO, Showtime or AMC, because it’s a shorter time commitment. They only do 12 shows rather than 24. You guys have it great over here. I look at series like “Sherlock” or “Luther” – both great shows – and I think: Wow, I like that schedule. Three episodes in the entire run? Yep, bam, I’ll do three! In fact, if you ever see them, tell those “Sherlock” guys I’m ready and waiting… ’
Read our review of 'Trust'
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