A stolen afternoon with Michael Cera to discuss 'Scott Pilgrim'
How my time as a Universal tour guide finally paid off
The first time I met Michael Cera was on the set of "Superbad." Before that, I was a fan of his work from "Arrested Development," and I thought it was particularly appropriate that he was cast as Jason Bateman's son on the show. Bateman is one of those guys who was gifted at birth with amazing comic timing, and Cera appears to be cut from the same cloth, cast from the same mold, able to take a line and find the music in it.
Over the years, as Cera's film career has progressed, it's been disheartening to watch people dismiss him because they feel like he's not playing a character, like he's just coasting on his own persona from role to role. When someone says that, though, I'm not sure what they're watching. Yes, there are things about George Michael or Paulie Bleeker or Nick Twisp or Evan that are similar, but that's because the same actor played each part. The characters are very different, though, and Cera has managed to play variations on a type with real wit and with subtle skill.
Until "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," though, I don't think he's ever been pushed this far out of his comfort zone, and one of the many things that amazes me about the film is that I can't imagine any other Scott Pilgrim after seeing the way Cera played him. When I went to the press day for "Scott Pilgrim" on Monday, one of two junkets I had to juggle that day, I knew that my final interview of the day would be with him, but I had no idea it would turn into the sort of day where I'm having a conversation about the influence of Nagisa Oshima's "Violence At Noon" on the editing style of Edgar Wright.
Universal held the "Pilgrim" junket on the backlot, something that is unusual for any of the studios. It was one of the best staged press days I've been to in a while, though, designed to get both the cast and the filmmakers and the press who were participating all in the right frame of mind. One soundstage had been turned into a sort of slacker's apartment, complete with a big comfy couch where you could sit to play the PS3 version of "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game," an old-school side-scrolling throwback that is pure fun. They also had the same t-shirt making station set up that they had in San Diego for fans.
They had the next soundstage over set up for the actual TV interviews, and you'll see those next week. I had some great conversations with the cast, and then wrapped things up with a really nice but short talk with Edgar Wright. I knew I'd be sitting down with him for a full 45 minutes a few days later, so I wasn't worried about it. When I finished, I figured I'd just grab my tapes and drive out to Northridge so I could set up my recorder for my follow-up longer interview with Michael Cera.
I didn't even look at my watch. I was still worn out from Comic-Con, and I had no sense of how long I'd been there waiting. As a result, I wasn't sure what was going on when some of the Universal publicity team came running in and called my name. "Drew McWeeny? Are you in here?"
I stood up and responded, raising my hand, thinking they had my tapes for me so I could go.
"Come on. You need to come with us right now."
They led me out of the first soundstage where I was waiting, and instead of taking back into the stage where the interviews were being conducted, we walked around back to where trailers were parked for the cast to use to relax.
"Wait... what's going on?"
"It's time for your one-on-one with Michael."
"It is?!" I checked the time on my phone and realized it was actually after the start time for the interview. They knocked on one of the trailer doors and Michael stepped out.
"Would you guys like to sit in there and chat?" the publicist asked. I could see from Michael's face that the answer was no even before he said it. I understand, too. As nice as the set-up was in both of the soundstages, there's still something slightly maddening about being inside all day, under lights, one formal interview after another.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe we could go somewhere... walk somewhere near here..."
"I know some places we could sit," I said. "I used to be a tour guide here."
"No, you didn't," Michael answered.
"Yeah, I really did. Did it for a year and a half or so. Fun gig, too."
Michael thought for a moment. "Do you know how to get to the Bates Motel from here?"
That was it. No more discussion. No more thought about what to do. Michael made a decision, and before anyone knew what was going on, he commandeered the nearest random golf cart, told me to climb in, and then quickly drove away from the competely-not-sure-what-was-going-on publicity team standing there between the stages. I didn't have a recorder on me, since I was expecting to do my interview from home, so I turned on the memo function on my phone.
Michael told me that one of his very first jobs was on the Universal lot on a show called "The Grubbs" with Randy Quaid. "I'm sure you don't remember that," he said.
"Actually, I remember the title," I answered. "I'm a big Randy Quaid fan."
"Really?" We talked about the new column I've been doing here on the site, Saturday Night At The Movies, and Michael's recent full-on love affair with movies. He's suddenly gone from a person who liked movies and worked in them professionally to a person who is hungry to watch pretty much everything ever. And he's watching filmmakers in big blocks of movies right now. He quizzed me about what I've seen that is worthwhile lately, and I mentioned some bigger films, some smaller ones.
I also pointed out some spots where I had very specific stories from my tram days. We drove past a spot where I had a tram encounter with John Landis one afternoon, then past another spot where Jan Michael-Vincent had a memorable meltdown, past the new "King Kong" exhibit (which we totally should have done in a golf cart), and then over a hill to Amity, where Jaws was set and waiting for some tourists to go by.
"Are we going to drive into a flash flood?" Michael asked as he sped down a hill. "I think that might be a bad idea."
I assured him we were on the right path to where the Bates Motel stands, and directed him up another hill. We caught a glimpse of one of the most familiar standing sets in the world, the neighborhood street that has been used as the home of 1313 Mockingbird Lane and the "Beaver" Cleavers and Joe Dante's awesome-I-don't-care-what-you-think-awesome "The Burbs." Currently, it's doing duty as Wisteria Lane on "Desperate Housewives," and as we rounded a corner, Michael slowed down so we could get past all the trucks and trailers parked for the "Housewives" cast and crew.
I ran through some of my nearly-twenty-year-old tour guide speech, still memorized in there somewhere if I think about it. He pressed me to offer up more names of worthwhile films I've seen recently, and I mentioned the Nagisa Oshima box set to him. And he just lit up. "Oh, my god, yes. That's 'Oshima's Outlaw Sixties,' right?"
"Exactly. I still haven't seen all of them..."
"Have you seen 'Empire of Passion'? That was the first one of his movies that I saw, and it just blew me away."
"That's a great one."
"The shaving scene... man...."
I asked if he'd seen 'Violence At Noon", an Oshima film that is cut at a whiplash speed, way crazier than most people were trying in the pre-Avid '60s. I have no idea if Edgar Wright's ever even heard of this film, but Oshima certainly helped push the boundaries of film vocabulary in his day.
This was right around the time this was posted:
@devincf: Michael Cera and @DrewAtHitFix are lost on the Universal lot. Cera is driving them around in a golf cart.
5:36 PM Jul 26th via Twitter for iPhone
We'd already gone way over my ten minute interview time just trying to get to the Bates Motel, and we still had to get past the corner of the lot where they store the Dr. Seuss sets. They're on the tram path, of course. If you're going to store sets that look like a Dr. Seuss village, you store them in plain sight. They use the sets in the strangest way, though. They dress them up for the Halloween Horror nights, for example, which is just a bizarre combination of things. Still, that's the point, I guess, of picking which sets you keep and which you don't.
Certainly, no one would ever question the merits of preserving and utilizing the Bates Motel and the Bates House. I've stood inside the Bates House. The one you see on the tour. I know other guides who did the same during their time on the lot, and other employees who weren't guides who managed to find their way out there. It's a magnet. It's one of those things that hits you right smack dab in the movie nerd when you see it. Michael said he's been on a Hitchcock kick lately, so we parked across the street from the motel.
Norman Bates stepped out and looked across at us.
He held his knife down by his side, making sure we got a good look at, glowering at us.
Finally, he turned and disappeared into the office of the motel to wait, Michael laughing during the guy's entire super-serious presentation. "So, how much of the film had you seen finished before Comic-Con?"
"Very little," said Michael. "I tried to wait."
I told him I'd done the same thing. There were a few opportunities for me to see the film early, and there were times I wanted to do it, but I also knew that the film was going to be technically complex and very dependent on the way the score worked with the film. I wanted to wait and see everything done, every single bit of polish applied. "Yeah, exactly," said Michael.
"You're a musician in real life, or at least I know your music is something you enjoy, that you've played for a while now. At the end of this process, do you feel like a part of a real band with your co-members of Sex Bob-omb?"
"Oh, absolutely. We rehearsed together. We learned the songs together. And I like that we're the only people who play those songs. They really do belong to us as Sex Bob-omb."
Suddenly, a tram rounded the corner, filling the road behind us, cutting us off from Norman Bates, who suddenly came marching out to squeals from the people on the tram. No one glanced twice at us, at Michael Cera, the star of the film that is being advertised every six feet inside the Universal park. Once the tram was gone, Norman glowered at us again, then went back inside.
"Which training made you feel closer to the cast? Fight training or band rehearsal?" It didn't matter what he said, because his reaction to the question said it all. He couldn't choose, because he obviously got so much out of each one of those experiences. Talking about the fights, I told him what my favorite shot in the final fight is, and he laughed at which one I picked. "Oh, yeah, that's my 'Matrix' move," he laughed.
As we talked, I checked to see how long the inerview was and realized what time it was. I was supposed to do the interview from home originally, remember.
So then the rest of our interview is us racing back to the stages. I asked Michael about learning his fights from Brad Allen, the Jackie Chan Stunt Team-trained second-unit fight guy on this movie, and how strong the Jackie Chan influence is in the film's fights. "Jackie's fights are always him defending himself, and he's always surprised, sort of reacting, and then eventually, he gets the hang of it and then suddenly the balance shifts." The fights in 'Pilgrim' aren't the only reason to see the film by any measure, but they are certainly one of the main reasons to go, and Michael talked about how much of the film was shot in a way that guaranteed you'd see his face, one of the benefits of Edgar's approach to blocking and staging and filming.
Then we rounded a corner, and sure enough, there was Devin Faraci and there was the Universal publicity team, and everyone was smiling, but they were those smiles that say, "Where the hell were you?"
The answer, to my great pleasure, was "just plain talking," and it seemed like a great way for Michael to press the reset button moving from a day of on-camera press to an evening of one-on-one interviews. We mainly spent that time talking about old movies, and yet it feels to me like I got a sense of how Cera's persona matches that of Scott Pilgrim, how each time I see Michael, he's more and more in-focus as this really interesting and accomplished adult, a smart actor who would much rather shoot the shit about movies than start dissecting technique. The added pleasure of seeing an all-or-nothing film nerd in the first rush of "Holy crap, I want to watch every move ever made right" was just the thing that made the whole afternoon perfect..
"Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" opens Aug.13 in theaters everywhere, and it will rock your face off.
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