Patton Oswalt Can't Do a New York Accent?

Friday, September 25, 2009 |

I posted about a month ago about the release of Robert D. Siegel's Big Fan, a thoroughly engrossing film about the obsessive and illogical nature of sports fandom. Starring Patton Oswalt in his first dramatic lead role, Kevin Corrigan, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Michael Rapaport as "Philadelphia Phil," Big Fan is a film with which I both identified and which cut a bit too close to my Giants-obsessed bones. Shining a spotlight on the bewildering, oft-unreciprocated devotion fans like Siegel's protagonist, Paul Aufiero, and I show to our beloved New York Giants, the film begs the question, why do we care so much? 

It's not a question that's easily answered, and fortunately for viewers of Big Fan, Siegel doesn't attempt to answer it. Jerry Seinfeld once aptly pointed out that sports fans are ultimately just rooting for laundry. Kissing Suzy Kolber's Drew Magary took the observation a step further when, after learning that his favorite team was on the verge of signing Brett Favre, he opined that loving a sports team is "a thoughtless, irrational, singularly idiotic pursuit." Both Seinfeld and Magary have a point, of course, but that doesn't stop either of them from rooting for their Mets and Vikings, respectively. Both are able to acknowledge their own lunacy (or, in my case, bluenacy) while remaining simultaneously enraptured by it, and they're able to do so because they understand that the idiocy of investing oneself emotionally in the outcomes of sporting events is part of the bargain. In fact, it's part of the appeal. Love was not designed to be reasonable.

Still, Siegel's Aufiero (Oswalt) takes his unwavering allegiance to Big Blue to an unnerving extreme. His actions reveal a man who, in his detachment from reality, loves the New York Giants more than he loves himself. This caused some literary-leaning reviewers to draw comparisons between Big Fan and Frederick Exley's cult masterwork, A Fan's Notes. But while there are some similarities between the film and the 1968 William Faulkner Award recipient, they are only superficial. Acutely aware of and tormented by his failure, Exley fantasized about admonishing his hero, Frank Gifford, by shouting at him that "life isn't all a goddam football game! You won't always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss." Aufiero, on the other hand, uses football to shield himself from the pain of rejection, loss, and failure. To him, life truly is all a football game.

What isn’t clear, though, is why. And while this is a question that's left unanswered (intentionally) in the film, Rob Siegel was kind enough to answer it (and a few others as well) for the readers of this humble blog. What follows below is my recent interview with Big Fan's writer/director, unedited and in its entirety.

*     *     *

MW: To begin, I've read that you hail from Long Island and attended the University of Michigan. Me, too. I graduated from U of M in 1997. Did you ever meet anybody while growing up on L.I. or when going to U of M that had a Paul Aufiero-like dedication to a team? Is Paul based on anyone? 

RS: I can't say I've ever met anybody exactly like Paul. He's kind of a composite of guys I heard listening to sports radio. As a kid, I used to listen to WFAN a lot, especially Steve Somers. He was my favorite. And the conversations you used to hear on there tended to be fairly intelligent, reasoned back-and-forth discourse. As sports radio goes, WFAN is pretty high quality. But then, when I went away to college, I couldn't get WFAN, so I'd listen to other radio shows, like the nationally syndicated ESPN-type stuff. The vibe was different, more chest-thumping in tone. Those shows were more like what I have in the movie, where people are calling up and just basically ranting, delivering these testosterone-driven monologues that sound like some pro wrestler talking about how they're gonna kick their opponent's ass. So even though the movie was inspired by FAN, it's modeled more after the Jim Rome-ish type stuff. 

MW: To me, more than anything, Big Fan felt like a film about the people who inhabit the strange world of sports radio. Like you, I grew up listening to WFAN all the time (Steve Somers was always my favorite, too), so in a way Paul Aufiero as a character was familiar to me. He's a type, cut from a similar cloth as regular callers like "Jerome from Manhattan," "Doris from RegoPark," "John from Sandy Hook," "Bruce from Bayside," "Short Al from Brooklyn," and "Miriam from Forest Hills." Like Paul, these people all use WFAN's airwaves to help compensate for some sort of personal shortcoming. The difference between these callers and Paul lies in the severity of that shortcoming. Miriam is blind. Doris (R.I.P.) suffered from the same disease that afflicted the Elephant Man. Jerome suffers from epilepsy and various other illnesses. But Paul? Paul's just a guy who, for some reason, is unable to cope with adult life. He's insulated himself in a childlike state of being, under NFL bedsheets, but it is not clear why. The film's climactic scene suggests that perhaps Paul had been the target of bullies in his youth ("You didn't have to be so mean", he says to Philadelphia Phil) but it's not overtly stated. So I guess what I'm wondering is why Paul is in the state that he's in. Why does he refuse to accept the norms of adulthood? And how do the Giants and/or sports radio fit into that? 

RS: You're right--I never make it clear what the hole is in Paul's life that he's trying to fill. I didn't think it was necessary to. Viewers can fill in the blank with whatever they imagine. As for the "You didn't have to be so mean" line, I think of that as referring to the sports radio culture he's a part of. Sports radio can, at its worst, be a really angry, hostile place. And it's one Paul enthusiastically takes part in; he's one of these mean people he's complaining about. Sports radio is a lot like the blogosphere--the anonymity of the Internet frees people up to be really nasty to each other and let loose with their most vicious impulses. The tone of discourse on the web tends to be really angry, even more than on sports radio. It's just men taking on these angry personas and saying things they'd never say to somebody's face in their real lives. I guess it's cathartic. 

MW: On a related note, I found it curious that nobody else in Paul's family is a Giants fan. In fact, it doesn't appear that any of them cares about football at all. Fandom, especially extreme fandom, is often the result of breeding (so to speak). It's generational. Fathers and sons. Brothers. Family bonding over a shared experience. But Paul's brother is not a Giants fan.  And there is never any mention in the film of Paul's father.  So where does his loyalty to the Giants come from? What is the origin of his fandom? Was there a defining moment in his life, perhaps in his youth, that made him this way? That made him so psychotically loyal to a bunch of strangers dressed in blue? 

RS: It's never explained in the movie, but I always imagined that his father, now deceased, was the one who got him into the Giants. This was something they bonded over. But I don't even think his dad necessarily needed to be into football for him to catch the bug. I'm a huge football fan, and I definitely didn't get it from my dad or anybody else in my family. I'm the only Siegel who's into football. I really don't know where it came from. I just remember watching the 1979 Super Bowl between the Steelers and Rams and falling in love. That was it. I was a Steelers fan for life. 

MW: One of the things I like best about the film was that it rings of authenticity, right down to using the actual names of players (except for Bishop). The scenes in which Paul and his buddy watch games are spot on. That's the way fans watch games. They fidget nervously. They pace. They yell. They carry on. It's very visceral. And it was a nice touch to use a real sports jock like Scott Farrell (though I would have preferred a local voice).  The sports bar scene is 100% realistic (but was that close-up shot of the Flyers scoring on the Islanders really necessary?) That said, there was one little nit-picky thing about the film that  bothered me. And that, quite simply, is that Paul doesn't talk like an Italian dude from Staten Island. His brother does. His best friend does. His mother does. Why doesn’t Paul? 

RS: I'll give you a very simple answer: Patton couldn't do a New York accent. He tried during the first few days of the shoot, but it kept coming out like a Boston accent. Like "Jacobs runs up the middle for 19 yahds!" I made the decision to scrap the accent and just have Patton use his own voice. No accent is better than a bad accent. A bad accent can ruin an entire movie.


Will B said...

Cool interview...the movie looks great. Definitely on the "to see" list...