A fast-forward conversation with Rob Weiss

MOVIES

August 13, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Rob Weiss talks fast. The characters in his debut movie, "Amongst Friends," also talk fast, but not as fast as Weiss talks in the flesh. The words explode out in a crescendo, and he's three pages into an answer, a digression, a refinement and then a restatement of the central thesis while Joe Reporter is still trying to get the cap off his ballpoint.

Weiss, Long Island born and bred, has stepped into the big time with his first film "Amongst Friends," a suburban gangster melodrama that made him the toast of the Sundance Film Festival, the darling of the slick magazines and the beloved of the film critics. He's still trying to deal with it all. And he looks like he doesn't want to.

Though 26, he's still a yo-boy at heart, appearing at a Washington hotel to dish his movie in high tops, baggy shorts, a couple of T-shirts and a baseball cap.

How did he come to make a movie?

"Uh, I just did it."

That seems to be about right. Weiss was 24 and living at home. He'd had a few years in college where admittedly he failed to distinguish himself. So he's lying around home, and his mother and father are beginning to worry about this kid on the sofa and so . . .

"It was the first thing I ever wrote. The first thing I ever started to write, the first thing I ever finished writing."

That's his script. It took him two weeks.

The initial idea was to do "Amongst Friends" as a $70,000 16mm short, but the project, begun with friends and friends' parents' money, grew and grew, fought its way through a couple of bankruptcies, until finally it had become a full-fledged movie budgeted at, as he puts it in show biz argot, "a million three." So here he is, two years removed from the couch, handing out interviews in fancy hotels. "It was all our first thing. So much raw energy. I think our enthusiasm connected and somehow took over," says Weiss.

"The film isn't autobiographical but it is based on an amalgam of people I knew. I think I drew the subtext -- Andy yearning to be more than he is, to make something of himself -- from my own life. But I just tried to be truthful to what I felt and knew."

Part of that was truth to place: Weiss seems consumed in Long Island and the "five towns" of Long Island in particular. He manages to penetrate the region in a way that not even Hollywood has managed.

"It helped that we had so many people from the five towns. All the extras were locals. But you get a lot of that sense of reality by just being there. You're not on a back lot."

The same goes for his explosive dialogue, which is profane and dynamic and believable.

"I wanted to be truthful to the text as it was written. But if the actor has become the character, he can improvise within the character. If it works, it works. We got some really good stuff out of improvisation. We had the best of both worlds."

His own success has him a little embarrassed.

With a shy smile, as if he's not sure it's allowed, he admits his favorite filmmaker is Michael Mann. "I thought I was 'Miami Vice' " he says. He loved "Crime Story," Mann's follow-up TV show to "Vice"; he even loved the film that Mann produced (but didn't direct) that hardly made a dent in anyone else's memory, called "Band of the Hand."

His other favorite director is Scorsese (of course).

But . . . Kurosawa?

"Uh. Never saw him. Never saw any foreign films. I'm sort of backtracking to catch up on what I missed while I was lying on that couch."

And success isn't that great a deal either.

"It gets hard to adjust -- they're throwing so much at me. I'm only going to 2 percent of the meetings. There was a time when I didn't know if I was coming or going. But I'm starting to adjust. I'm a got-to-take-it-slow kind of guy."

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