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'Stand Up Guys' Director Takes Cues From Hollywood Greats

Stand Up Guys is a new film starring legendary actors Christopher Walken, Al Pacino and Alan Arkin. Host Rachel speaks with the film's Oscar-winning director Fisher Stevens about the demands of directing these Hollywood luminaries.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Fisher Stevens is a name you may not know but you've probably seen his face. He was in the 1986 film "Short Circuit" with Steve Guttenberg. Fisher also had a role in the 1995 movie "Hackers."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HACKERS")

FISHER STEVENS: (as the Plague) Last chance to get out of this developed prison sentence. You're not good enough to beat me.

MARTIN: Stevens kept getting roles, but after years as a character actor, he decided that his real passion was behind the camera. He has since directed several films, including "The Cove," which won him an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010. Fisher's newest film is called "Stand Up Guys," and it's about three aging con men. One of them just got out of prison after 28 years. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAND UP GUYS")

ALAN ARKIN: (as Richard) You did your time like a man, Val. You were stand-up all the way.

AL PACINO: (as Val) You, you and Doc would have done the same.

ARKIN: (as Richard) Well, I would like to think so.

PACINO: (as Val) It's possible, you know...

MARTIN: You may recognize the voices in that clip. They are two of the most well-known Hollywood stars - Al Pacino and Alan Arkin. Along with Christopher Walken, they fill up the screen in more ways than one. I spoke with Fisher Stevens recently about "Stand Up Guys" and I asked him what it was like to direct these Hollywood icons.

STEVENS: They all of the sudden didn't really like the lines that were written. It was kind of a nightmare. I kept saying, oh, that was good. And they're like, Fisher, it's not working. Fisher, this is terrible. It's not working. I know it can't, you know. And...

MARTIN: And what do you say? It's like all these big guys telling you it's not working for me.

STEVENS: Exactly. And Al is like, Fisher, get over here right now, get over here. So, I said, guys, it was working well in rehearsal. And they go, well, it's not rehearsal, Fisher. We're in the car now. So, that was a moment of terror. And I have these three guys - and literally, I remember that moment where they're all three just looking at me like I have the answer. And I had to have an answer. And I said, OK, guys, so, what are we going to do about it? And they said, well, what if I try this. And then Chris is like, yeah, Alan, I like that. That's good. And I looked to them. I said you guys have been doing this longer than me. Come on, we can do it. And we did it.

MARTIN: So, you had to know in that moment, actually, I'm going to put it back on them. I'm going to ask them to solve this problem, and they were OK with that.

STEVENS: Yeah, and I was going to help. But they had the answers. They know what they're doing. That was the only time I wish - well, one of the only times - I wish I wasn't directing them. But mostly it was amazing.

MARTIN: Had you worked with any of them before?

STEVENS: I acted in a film 20 years ago with Alan Arkin called "Four Days in September." I was his assistant. He was the ambassador that gets kidnapped in 1969, based on that story. Pacino and I have been friends and I'd almost worked with him a lot as an actor. I never actually got cast in anything but I worked on a lot of stuff with him. Chris Walken and I have known each other on the periphery for years. And it was the first time that Chris Walken and Al Pacino have ever worked together. And it was like magic, though, because they're not really good friends but they've known each other peripherally. And the first read-through I'll never forget. It was like magic listening to them read together because they were like old friends. They were these guys. They have been warriors in the trenches together, just different trenches than Val and Doc, the characters they play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAND UP GUYS")

PACINO: (as Val) This is the worst apartment I've ever seen.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (as Doc) Hey, it's not much but it's mine. There's cable TV, everything.

PACINO: (as Val) This is for me?

WALKEN: (as Doc) No. It's for my other friend who just got out of prison.

MARTIN: So, let's talk a little bit about the kind of gist of the film. "Stand Up Guys" is the name of the film. It really centers around Pacino and Walken's characters. And they're in this dilemma. Can you describe what they're facing?

STEVENS: Christopher Walken and Al Pacino and Alan Arkin were kind of a crew, it's called. They were like hoods. They knocked off banks. They stole art. They weren't hit men but they were like a crew and they worked for a guy named Claphands. It's played by Mark Margolis, who's on "Breaking Bad." He's fabulous. And they get a job. And Claphands says you bring my son. I want him to learn the trade. And the kid goes with them. And the kid ends up screwing up the job and Pacino, by mistake, kills the kid. And Pacino ends up taking a hit, going to jail. And Claphands has put a hit on Pacino and Walken has to deal with that. So, it's the day that Pacino's getting out of jail and Walken's picking him up. And it's really a story about friendship. It's kind of a love story of friends.

MARTIN: So, besides learning how to talk like Arkin, Walken and Pacino, what did you learn about directing? Did you learn anything about your own craft?

STEVENS: Yeah, I learned a lot. I mean, I've studied acting for 25 years. And watching the effort that they put in was one thing, but the other amazing quality that all three of them have is they know how to listen. And part of acting is listening. And I've never realized how crucial that is to being a great artist, great actor. And watching Chris and Al, like, especially that diner scene where they have that - it's an eight-page scene. And I like to shoot the scenes in their entirety first, like a play, since I had theater actors. And they're in the moment more than almost any actor I've ever seen or worked with. Meaning, they aren't ahead of themselves, they're not thinking about their next line. They're watching each other. They're listening to each other. That was inspirational to me. And that's why they're so real and authentic.

MARTIN: So, for you, what is the big directing mountain to climb. What is that directing challenge out there that's a little intimidating but something that you really feel like you need to do?

STEVENS: Well, I'm trying to do it right now. The next film I want to make is a mountain to climb, but it's a book that's an American classic. Philip Roth wrote a book called "American Pastoral," and there's a beautiful adaptation. So, that's the mountain I'm trying to climb next.

MARTIN: Fisher Stevens. His latest film is called "Stand Up Guys." He joined us from NPR West. Fisher, thanks so much.

STEVENS: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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