FFF 2015 Day 3 An Evening With Bob Balaban

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Mrs. LanceAround Chats with Bob Balaban

Mrs. LanceAround Chats with Bob Balaban

Hollywood is filled with too much vanity and too many big egos. That’s why it’s such a treat to discover someone who is as down-to-earth and sincerely likeable as Bob Balaban.

If the name does not ring a bell, rest assured you would most likely recognize him. Standing only five foot, five inches tall with a receeding hairline, large glasses and an even larger smile, you might know him as the head of NBC in Seinfeld episodes, the American producer in Gosford Park, the rich Hollywood producer in The West Wing or one of the featured actors in most of the Christopher Guest’s “mockumentaries” just to highlight a few of his prolific roles.

More than just an actor, Bob has produced, written and directed during his long theatre career; on both Broadway and in the movies. In fact, he comes from a family of theatre moguls as his parents used to run several theatres in the Chicago area.

After the sellout audience at the Enzian got to enjoy the Academy Award nominated Best Film from 2001, Gosford Park, Bob took the stage at the Enzian to a standing ovation. Graciously unruffled by technical microphone issues, he then told the story of how he was in his office in New York reading an Agatha Christie novel when he got the idea to do a movie about a murder in a posh English home where the downstairs butlers, maids and other wait staff were so depersonalized visiting staff would be referred to by the name of the person they waited on while the upstairs elite would wine and dine in ultimate luxury. Then, of course, a murder would happen and everyone had a motive.

He got Julian Fellowes to develop the script (which won an Academy Award) and then secured Robert Altman for the directing. He tells the audience tales of how the ensemble cast worked together; how talented they all were; how they improvised scenes and were forced to stay in character because they were all miked all the time and each mike was on a separate track so Altman could choose dialogue at random and make it louder or softer depending on what he wanted to highlight in the scene.

If the movie plot sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps it’s because the idea is very similar to a later TV show, Downton Abbey. However, Bob readily admits it could also be familiar because it bears some resemblance to a very old TV show called Upstairs Downstairs.

Henry Loves to Film the Guests

Henry Loves to Film the Guests

During the Q & A I asked Bob to describe the difference between working with movies that are highly scripted compared to Robert Altman’s films which uses a lot of improvisation or something as very loosely scripted such as Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries.

Bob talks at length about the mockumentaries. In place of a script, the ensemble is given a 25 page summary of the plot. There are occasional directives or lines that must occur. But by and large the entire movie is one constant improvisation. I ask him which method of movie making he prefers and he’s quick to respond, “The one that pays me.” The audience howls in laughter.

After his talk, Mrs. LanceAround and I had a private interview with Bob. I know some actors can get annoyed when fans gush over a favorite work. But Bob did a role so perfectly, I couldn’t help but begin my conversation with him by telling him which role he played that was my favorite:

LanceAround:  By the way, Bob, I have to tell you what my absolute favorite role of yours is. And it may surprise you. But it’s when you did, 20 Hours in L.A. Do you remember that?

Bob: [unpretiously] No! [The group of admirers around us giggle at his honesty.] Was it a documentary?

LanceAround: No, it was a West Wing episode.

Bob: [immediately brightens with recognition] Oh, yea, I didn’t know the title of it.

LanceAround: I thought it was phenomenal…

Bob: Thank you.

LanceAround: You were just brilliant in that!

Bob: [Sincerely and with much more emphasis] Thank you!

LanceAround: I really thought you just nailed that character.

Bob: Well it was a really good character and I was working with my friend Marty Sheen, which was fun. And I had a really good time. So thank you. I had a great time.”

While we’re talking with Bob, Henry Maldonado, the president of the FFF has a camera and is taking video of Bob interacting with the audience. I see the opportunity for a wonderful picture of Henry with the camera on his shoulder and Bob in the viewfinder as we also see him in the distance gesturing to one of the fans. I snap a quick photo and show it the Henry. “Well, it’s a great shot of the back of my head,” he laments.

But I liked the photo, in part because it captures the essence of the FFF. Here, everyone is a fan and everyone can be a star. Here, the president can film while the fans are shaking hands with filmmakers. Henry likes to tell everyone the thing that makes the FFF so unique is how friendly and welcoming it is.

He’s absolutely right about that. And if you haven’t been to the FFF be certain to go sometime this week.

Maybe Henry will film you.

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