For Weisman, making comedy became no laughing matter

March 20, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Maybe you were expecting sunglasses, a Gianni Versace suit, a beautiful "companion," a slew of assistants and publicity types, but no, sitting there in the Linwood Cafe, it's just Sam.

Movie directors somehow shouldn't be such regular guys. It upsets things when they stay married, do their jobs, advance steadily in their craft and have abiding interests like sports. Sam Weisman, who directed the just-opened "Bye Bye, Love," came to Baltimore for two reasons: One was to see the opening day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament (Wake Forest over North Carolina A.&T. in a yawner) and the other to stand before an audience from the Baltimore Producer's Club after a screening of his movie and do a Q-and-A.

Between the game and the screening, he found time for a bottle of mineral water with a reporter to talk about his second film.

"It was hard to sell reality-based drama to a studio," he confesses, and the film is indeed that. It chronicles the messy lives of three divorced fathers who must contend not only with alimony but with guilt, anguish and loneliness, to say nothing of car pools. The central icon in the film is a McDonald's, a kind of neutral zone where they meet their exes to pick up their kids for an unsatisfying weekend's worth of duty as a parent.

"There's so much clutter in popular entertainment," he continues, "and the last thing any studio wants is a non-high-concept picture without a star."

Maybe that's why Castle Rock put "Bye Bye, Love" in turnaround; maybe that's why Twentieth-Century Fox worried so in production that it wasn't funny enough and that Matthew Modine couldn't do funny.

But Weisman persisted. Along with his mentor, Gary David Goldberg (who co-wrote with Brad Hall and who, with Weisman, created the revered "Brooklyn Bridge" series on TV, and before that "Family Ties"), even fought for their casting choices on the basis of people they thought could act, rather than merely be funny.

"It all began," said Weisman, "with a divorced neighbor of Gary's at a home he had in Vermont. This guy told Gary about a McDonald's that had become the area-wide site of child exchange between divorced spouses, a Mecca. It was so dedicated that it even had a divorcee's bulletin board, where baby-sitting services and car pool arrangements were advertised."

What appealed to Goldberg, Weisman said, was a connection to George Lucas' great movie, "American Graffiti." In that one, the drive-in was the locus of teen culture; now, those kids have grown old and become parents and the drive-in has become the locus of divorce culture.

One problem that Weisman, Goldberg, co-writer Hall and several other key figures had: None of them was divorced. In fact, all were either married to first wives or with long-time companions.

"We actually went out and did research," Weisman says. "We talked to a lot of divorced fathers and we learned something very interesting, which we tried to get into the film. That's that the men, in many cases, become the nurturing half in a lot of families.

"The other value we wanted in the film was something we learned from talking to therapists and counselors. They warned us: Don't let anyone get back together again. 'Mrs. Doubtfire' was big then, and the professionals felt it did a lot of damage, because it excited the hopes of the children of divorce that the parents might get together again. But it almost never happens."

Funny was always a problem.

"Right now, nobody agrees on what's funny," Weisman says. "The studios want comedies that are driven by a very apparent concept of humor. They didn't think our cast could be funny (Modine, Randy Quaid, Paul Reiser). Our point was that the actors would do what they have to do. The studio wanted 'SNL' types, sketch artists; we wanted actors. We had to convince the studio that words could be funny."

Weisman, a Yale graduate with an MFA from Brandeis, began as an actor. He worked his way up as a director through the theater and television; he was an Emmy-nominated director for "Brooklyn Bridge." His first film was "D2: The Mighty Ducks," which, no critic pleaser, nevertheless was an ample box- office success.

Whether his new film will succeed is open to question: It opened to mixed reviews and seems to split audiences equally. TV critics love it, print critics aren't so hot on it; women like it a lot better than men.

But to its director, it's already a success.

"My wife and kids love it," he says.

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