Thursday, October 3, 2013

Jonathan Lynn on "My Cousin Vinny"


How did you get involved as a director on My Cousin Vinny?

JONATHAN LYNN: I had just finished Nuns on the Run, which was made by Handmade and distributed by Fox. Joe Roth [Chairman of Fox] had misgivings about the last three or four minutes of the film. When I discovered this I was delighted, because I didn't think the ending worked and had thought of a much better version. We hadn't been able to do it because we'd run out of money.

I told Joe what I had in mind and he immediately offered to put up the money for it to be changed. We shot three or four extra days, three months later, and the whole film worked.

Joe was pleased, and asked me to direct My Cousin Vinny. Danny de Vito was to have directed and starred in it, but he had recently dropped out.

What was it that drew you to the material?

JONATHAN LYNN: I was immediately drawn to it. I have a degree in law, and had always loved courtroom dramas. Among my favourite films were Anatomy of a Murder, The Verdict and To Kill A Mockingbird.

I also saw the film as a statement against capital punishment, something that I have always been totally against. When Tony Jay and I wrote Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, we always looked for a hideous dilemma as the basis for the comedy; I don't think comedies work unless they are about something desperately important for one or more of the main characters.

Also, I wanted to do a film about the real America, small town America, not set in New York or LA or a big urban centre. And finally, I thought it had two really original leading characters, Vinny and Lisa, who were truly funny.

Originality is rare. I had seen plenty of courtroom dramas, and plenty of funny scenes in courtrooms, but I'd never seen what could truly be described as a courtroom comedy, so this seemed to be a great opportunity.

How involved were you in the casting of My Cousin Vinny?

JONATHAN LYNN: Joe Pesci was already attached to the film. He and I met in New York and after a conversation over dinner we shook hands and agreed that we'd do it together.

Casting Lisa was difficult. Fox wanted a 'name'. Without checking with me they offered it to Gina Davis She had a deal with Fox so they were anxious to use her, but she was about a foot taller than Pesci and had nothing of Brooklyn about her. Fortunately, she passed. Fox then tried a few other well-known Italian-American actresses, none of whom wanted the part. I think they thought it was too small. We then auditioned dozens of actresses. None were suitable.

One day I was invited to lunch at Paramount by John Landis, who was making a film called Oscar. A young actress was plaing a scene; her character was a blonde 1920's flapper. She was nothing like Mona lLa Vito in Vinny but I could see that she could act and had excellent timing. Her name was Marisa Tomei. I looked at footage in Landis's cutting room.

Then I asked my casting director to get her in to read for me. He was reluctant. "William Morris has suggested everyone on their list who they think could possibly be right for it." he said "So she can't be." I don't have much faith in the aesthetic judgment of most agents so I insisted on getting her in to read. She was seemed perfect. Fox wanted to see screen tests of our three top choices. We tested them, and to me and the producer Paul Schiff it was obvious that Marisa should get the part.

I took the precaution of showing the tape of the screen tests to Joe Pesci. He too agreed that Marisa was the one. We sent the tape to Fox and they chose one of the other actresses. There followed a long and tense meeting. I was getting nowhere until I played my trump card - Pesci also wanted Marisa. That did it. They didn't want to irritate their leading man. So with an 'on-your-head-be-it' attitude, I was allowed to cast Marisa.

Casting Fred Gwynn as the Judge raised a few questions ("Herman Munster as the Judge?"), but I was confident and there wasn't much of an argument about that. Lane Smith as Jim Trotter III, the prosecutor, was the idea of Dale Launer, the writer. All the other casting came from auditions.

What qualities were you looking for in the actors?

JONATHAN LYNN: An ability to play the comedy, but with the utmost reality. Vinny is film about the class system (which does exist in America, whatever people might say) and about the death penalty. If Vinny screws up, the boys will be sent to the chair and fried. This is serious, and though the treatment is comedic the film depended on the truth of the acting.

I wanted the audience to believe that Lisa was a real blue-collar Italian-American girl from Brooklyn. I wanted the southerners to be southern - but not caricatured.

Are there any lessons you learned on My Cousin Vinny (or any of your features) that would be helpful to low-budget filmmakers working on a much smaller scale? That is to say, can a low-budget filmmaker learn anything from how Hollywood makes movies?

JONATHAN LYNN: I can't think of any. But then, my movies have seldom been made for big budgets, at least not by Hollywood standards. Essentially, the thing that costs the most is time: the number of days shooting is the biggest factor in determining the cost of a film, no matter how large or small. Therefore, low budget films need to be shot fast. The key to this is preparation. The more comprehensive the prep, the faster you can shoot.

Prep time for a low budget film should therefore include sufficient rehearsals. You don't want the actors showing up unprepared, not knowing their lines or wanting to discuss their motivation. That must all be taken care of in advance. If possible, scenes should be blocked with the actors in advance, like for the theatre. The Director of Photography should be present at rehearsal whenever possible, and after rehearsals the director and the DP should map out every shot so that no time is wasted when shooting. If the DP knows what the scene looks like he can plan the lighting much more efficiently.

Obviously some things cannot be prepared: weather can create real problems on the day. But there should always be a back-up plan ready. If an exterior scene can only be shot on one particular day, then you must prepare a way to shoot it whatever the weather. If it means re-thinking it so that you need umbrellas and wellies instead of bikinis, work this out in advance. Also, if you are shooting in changeable weather, shoot it tighter so that the audience won't notice the changes in the light or the sky.

If you look at my low(ish) budget film Nuns On The Run, you will see a chase and shoot out in the street after the two heroes steal the money. That scene was shot in a couple of days, during which we went repeatedly from sunshine to rain. You can see this if you look closely, but no audiences ever noticed because of my use of tight shots when it rained or because of the speed of the cutting. This sequence was storyboarded. Prep is everything.

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