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Ingrained deep into the DNA of The Giant Mechanical Man is a story of inspiration, patience and love. That’s also a pretty good description of the film’s plot.
Making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Monday night, the film marks the first full length feature collaboration of writer/director Lee Kirk and his wife, The Office star Jenna Fischer. The story features Fischer as Janice, a woman in her early 30s who has lost her way, sleepwalks through temp jobs and is forced to move in with her well-meaning but pushy sister and brother-in-law (Malin Akerman and Rich Sommer) when money dries up; through a seemingly dead-end job at a local zoo, she meets Tim (Chris Messina), a dedicated street performer who recently got dumped and is suffering a crisis of faith as he begins his own low-wage sojourn through the lowest ranks of zoo employment.
Fischer sat down with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the premiere on Monday to discuss the movie’s long development, her character and its bigger place in an economically-depressed nation.
THR: This movie has been a long time coming, right?
Fischer: Yep. It’s been four years since — something I think like four years, gosh it might even be longer but I think it’s something like four years — and the movie is written and directed by my husband, but he wasn’t my husband at the beginning. He was a writer that I took a meeting with and he pitched me the idea for The Giant Mechanical Man, and I attached myself to it. And in the four years it took for us to make it, we fell in love, got married and had a baby.
THR: So this movie marks the timeline of your courting, marriage and beyond.
Fischer: Yeah, I don’t know what we’re going to talk about anymore because for the last four years we’ve been talking about The Giant Mechanical Man.
THR: What about the film initially when he pitched it to you attracted you to it?
Fischer: In the pitch meeting he said he’d always been curious what drives the street performers who paint themselves silver to stand on the street every day rain or shine. And he said he knew a lot of artistic people who would have some kind of off-beat talent and I said, well I’d be really curious what kind of woman falls in love with that guy. And he said, well I think that’s our movie, it’ll be a love story about those two people. And then from there he started developing the story.
THR: Obviously you’re not getting on stilts and acting like a robot, but a lot of the film was about being an artist and being passionate but not being successful with your craft — did you relate to any of that at all?
Fischer: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that any artist, if you’re a musician, a painter, whatever you’re doing, any job that isn’t in the mainstream, it’s very hard for people to wrap their heads around it, so it’s hard for people to know how to support you. It’s hard to have a relationship with a person who doesn’t have a 9-to-5 job, because life is sort of organized that 9-to-5 schedule, and when you don’t live it, it puts you on the fringe. So I think I was able to relate to that part of it for sure.
THR: And your character has an arrested development of sorts.
Fischer: Yeah, I think she didn’t follow that path of like, you know, go to college, meet a husband, get a job, have a family. Somewhere along the line she got a little off-track and I don’t think she has a real big, huge driving passion for any one thing, she hasn’t found her way. But in the end, she finally does, she locks into what she’s very good at, which is being an observer. Life has to have some observers, too. We just don’t make a lot of movies about the observers, we make a lot of movies about the doers.
THR: So what exactly took so long to make the film? Writing? Financing?
Fischer: It took about a year just to developed the script and get it to a really great place, and then everything crashed financially. The way you get an independent movie made is you find a person who has so much extra money that they’re willing to make a high-risk investment. When you have tons of money, you make low-risk investments and then high risk investments and then you make ridiculously high risk investments like opening a restaurant and making a movie. There just weren’t a lot of those people around. So, everyone who wanted to make a movie was going to like the same seven guys, with the same seven bank accounts. So yeah, it took a long time.
And initially, we were trying to make a $15 million movie, and then we were like, let’s make a $7 million version, how about the $3 million version, and finally, it was Chris Messina actually, he got a hold of the script and he said, I want to play this guy, let’s make this for $5. Let’s just make it for as little money as possible, Lee’s gonna direct it and we can just do it. I’ll hold the boom if I have to. And he got us really pumped up and we said yeah, we’re gonna make this movie for under $1 million, let’s just do it. And it was a lot easier to find that amount of money than it was find $7 million.
And then Michael Nardelli, one of our producers, he came on and he helped us get all the financing, he was amazing, and Molly Hassell, the other producer, the two of them were rockstars. And so yeah, once we had Chris, Molly and Michael, the whole movie came together.
THR: And you were on a prime time TV show — I can’t imagine trying to make an indie movie after the market crashed in 2008 without a big star attached.
Fischer: That was the other problem: timing. It had to be made at a certain time, when I was on hiatus too, so that was difficult. But I have to say, really, as soon as Chris attached himself to the film, somehow that was the magic piece that we needed to get it started. And then it was like we spent three years pushing this boulder up a mountain and then having to stop along the way to rest, and then all of a sudden it was like the boulder moved itself. It was incredible. You just can’t give up, you just have to just wait until it’s your time.
THR: I think especially now, in this economy, there are a lot of people with an arrested development, often because of the bad financial times. It’s harder to get a day job that you don’t really care about at this point.
Fischer: Exactly. When I was coming up in acting, I was a temp and it was great because if I got an audition, I would just leave my job, and it’d be like there would be another one tomorrow. And you can’t do that today with a job. If you get a job, you’re going to miss your audition. And it is so, so much harder for that reason.
THR: I know that the film was supposed to be in an unspecific city, but the fact that it was shot in Detroit seemed to add to that feeling.
Fischer: Yeah, and the fact that it’s winter, too, really helped us out because listen, the zoo, the Detroit zoo is open in the winter, so there’s people working there, and I think it’s a really great symbol of how much these people need a job, that they’re the people that take the cold, outdoor jobs in the winter.
THR: It was a quick, 19 day shoot. Between that and the tight money, did you feel a lot of pressure?
Fischer: You know, it was really well planned. Lee and the DP, they worked together really well, they had everything planned out, the actors were great. Chris came over to our house and rehearsed with me before we went to Detroit, Malin and Rich even came over. I have a video of Chris walking on stilts in my garage, practicing, so that was amazing, but yeah, everyone showed up really prepared to work, and we got it done. We had 19 days and we had enough money for three of those days to run overtime. So we had 19 12-hour days, plus three days of overtime.
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