The Bet Still Stands, Larry David: An Interview with Indie Filmmaker Sam Henry Kass

sam


Through the annals of film history, we generally look to the 70s as the epicenter of the independent film explosion.  And while filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, Spielberg, and Lucas were the respective patient zeros, this ‘golden era’ really only marks a midpoint in an evolution that began much earlier and has continued on into today.  There have always been independents and they come in all shapes and sizes.  I like to say the best independent film ever made is The Empire Strikes Back.  It’s ironic to think that the epitome of big budget, effects driven, Hollywood cinema could be considered independent, but it is—and Empire’s spirit, and Clerks‘s spirt, are one and the same.

Speaking of Clerks, it certainly is a touchstone. Along with Pulp Fiction, it solidified the early 90s as the true indie renaissance.  A generation of filmmakers, inspired by a litany that began with Howard Hawks, continued to Kubrick, and culminated with Scorsese.  Armed with 16mm cameras and the confidence that they could make something that would be seen, they made the iconic films that would reach wide audiences and alter our culture forever.  From Sex, Lies and Videotape to Reservoir Dogs, Chasing Amy to Do the Right Thing, El Mariachi to Slacker, indie film was moving steadily into the mainstream and it’s all outlined in John Pierson’s wonderful book, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes

However, like all historical accounts, Pierson’s recounting of this period is full of holes, and mainly told by the victors. Many great films and filmmakers are left forgotten and obscured.  I’m here to fill one of said holes.  Meet Sam Henry Kass, writer and director of the seminal cult indie film, The Search for One-Eye Jimmy.

I generally like to start at the beginning, so did you always want to be a filmmaker? What was the proverbial bug that bit you?  And what kinds of projects did you work on to find your directing chops?

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a filmmaker. I actually wanted to be Pete Maravich. That didn’t pan out, when it became evident that opposing teams played defense. School didn’t really work out for me, either. That became clear around the 2nd grade. My parents got called it for a conference with the teacher and principal, and the principal looked at my father and said, “I think your son is retarded.” And my father replied, “Yeah. No shit. Tell me something new.”

I eventually started writing plays. My first play was an Off-Broadway hit, and I immediately became very popular with actresses. A hit will make you much better looking. Eventually I started directing my own plays, and when One-Eye Jimmy came to be, it just seemed like a natural progression. I knew how to tell this story, and I wanted control of the storytelling process. I think that directing my early plays certainly prepared me for the transition to film. I found that actors responded to me. I knew how to get the performances that I needed. Some of my methods were perhaps a bit unorthodox, and I could be combative, but it worked for me. And I had the world’s greatest mentor—my father, Peter Kass, who was a legendary acting teacher and stage director.

In 1993, on a shoestring budget of $75,000, Sam Henry Kass, a young playwright, shot The Search For One-Eye Jimmy in his native Red Hook, a  neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.  ‘Jimmy’ is a veritable who’s who in 1990s independent acting talent, with hilarious and nuanced performances from one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time: Steve Buscemi, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Badalucco, Jennifer Beals, Anne Meara, John and Nick Turturro, Sam Rockwell, and Tony Sirico.  And what’s more impressive is the performances that Sam was able to get from them. Much of it is in the writing, and it’s amazing to think that a story of this type was written back in 1993, predating the gigantic influx of improv comedies that oversaturate the market today.  

The film was based partly on Sam’s experience with local characters, and partly on his out-there imagination.  To say that ‘Jimmy’ led to fortune and fame would be inaccurate, but it did foster one of the more interesting careers in modern history.  From Seinfeld to groundbreaking web series, Kass has done it all.

Search For One Eye Jimmy was shot a few years before it was finally released, is that correct?  Tell me about the project, how did it come about, is it based on personal experiences?

‘One-Eye Jimmy’ is a neighborhood story. It’s based on people I knew growing up in Brooklyn, and events that may or may not have actually happened. The film did actually take a few years to be released after completion. Part of this was due to some legal issues, and part of it was due to one particular actor who wouldn’t sign off on his SAG waiver contract. Apparently, as I recall, he was demanding an extra close-up or two. We rectified the situation by sending Tony Sirico to talk to him. (He didn’t end up playing Paulie Walnuts for nothing. As a matter of fact, 85% of my cast ended up in The Sopranos. You’re welcome, David Chase. Prick.)

Although $75,000 is extremely low for a film budget, it’s still a decent chunk of change. How did you raise the money to shoot it?

The $75,000 budget was raised the old fashion way. Cast members, family members, and my old neighborhood. We raffled off a few roles as extras. To this day, a guy in the party scene can’t convince his wife that he was in the film, and playing a scene with Steve Buscemi to boot! Hell, my daughter is in the opening scene—the little girl that waves off Buscemi’s attempt, for a “photo with the champ”. And by the way, ALL investors got their money back—including my neighborhood loan shark. Art imitating life imitating something else.

Jimmy has a pretty unbelievable cast, as many of the actors have gained icon status in the years since.  How did they come together?  And what was it like working with them?

Nick Turturro was in from day one. He was still working as a doorman at the St. Moritz Hotel. He had appeared in one of my plays, ‘SIDDOWN!!! Conversations with the Mob’. Holt McCallany & Boom Boom Mancini were in that show as well. Harvey Keitel wanted in badly, and I couldn’t give him a role. His initial request was ‘Joe Head’, but Michael Badalucco was already cast. He offered to play ‘Lefty’ as well. He went nuts when I told him that Boom Boom Mancini was cast instead. He told me “never call me again”. I reminded him that he had called me. I was loyal to my friends—a lesson I soon learned wasn’t always reciprocal.

Once Steve Buscemi signed on, the floodgates opened—Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Jennifer Beals. I thought we had Annabella Sciora for that role, but it didn’t work out. Sam Rockwell came in and gave a brilliant audition. My only regret is that Michael Imperioli couldn’t do the film, because of a schedule conflict. I don’t wanna mention the role, but it would’ve made a difference.

One thing I love about Jimmy is how real it feels, and in every way, from the performances to the staging, locations, and compositions.  Nowadays, that style is very commonplace on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, etc.  What inspired that style back in the early 90s, and what was your process for achieving it?

The 90’s were the golden years of Indie filmmaking—especially in NYC. We shot in Red Hook, Brooklyn. This was all way before gentrification, Ikea, hipsters, and shitty overpriced restaurants. I lived on sandwiches. Didn’t eat in a legit restaurant till I was 25. Walked 5 miles in the snow to school. (And then got labeled a “retard.” Okay, you get it.) We shot there because it looked like the end of the world. And it basically was. No one was there. I thought we’d be able to hide from teamsters and avoid a shakedown. No public transportation went down there. We were shooting in the shadows of The Statue of Liberty. But they found us, and we cut a deal. I used someone’s nephew as a key grip, and in return my car wasn’t blown up.

Was Seinfeld your first studio gig?  Tell me a bit about what it was like working on the show.

My first studio gig was the pilot that Laurie David signed me to. It was for FOX, and was a watered down version “inspired” by One-Eye Jimmy. It sucked. I brought Badalucco with me, as well as my casting director, Marcia Schulman. FOX didn’t want her, but I insisted. She went on to become head of casting for FOX, became rich, and never returned one of my calls. Badalucco was cast in The Practice off of my pilot. He won the Emmy, and didn’t thank me. I still love him. Marcia Schulman can rot in hell.

The pilot wasn’t a total loss. Larry David gave me some awful suggestions during the shooting of the pilot—he must’ve felt so guilty that he hired me for Seinfeld.

Q.  You wrote one of the most legendary episodes of Seinfeld, ‘The Switch’. How did that come to be, and what was it like working with Jerry and Larry David in their prime?

That was the episode where Kramer’s first name was revealed as Cosmo. I remember they had security guards from NBC making sure the script wasn’t leaked. They should’ve guarded me. I told my entire Brooklyn neighborhood.

I found Jerry to be a very personable guy. His stand up is boring as shit, but his show made history Larry was… how can I put this delicately? Paranoid? He knew that he had something special in me, but he was also consumed with making sure that no one’s individual talent out-shined him. I remember saying to him (and yeah, I was a little insane myself) “Let’s each take five things we’ve written and don’t put our names on it. Let’s set up a stand on Sunset Boulevard and have strangers read our material. And I bet my year’s salary that they say my work is better.” He didn’t take the bet. And by the way, Larry—the bet still stands. You know where to find me.

You’ll have to excuse the obnoxiousness of this question, but as an artist, I think we all strive to be a part of the cultural lexicon of our time.  There’s no denying that you achieved that with Seinfeld, having written some of the most iconic moments on the show.  Did it feel that way at the time?  And looking back, how does it feel to be a part of history? Do you ever flip through the channels and think, wow, I wrote that?

I ain’t gonna lie—it’s a good feeling to know that you’ve been part of t.v. history.. I never watch the show, but I know that millions still do. This is going to sound a wee bit ego-driven, but whatever: I feel that I was part of the greatest show in TV history. Hard to argue that. And I feel that “One-Eye Jimmy” is the greatest NY ‘street comedy’ of all time. Some people would agree. And I think that my web series, ‘Star-ving’ is the funniest web series of all time, and that it started the process for comedy on the web. That show will never be matched. Take a look at the webisode “Gilbert’s Kid” and tell me if I’m wrong. And lastly, I believe that I’m one of America’s great playwrights. Go read “Lusting After Pipino’s Wife” or “SIDDOWN!!! Conversations with the Mob” or my latest, “Welcome Back, 29ers.” It’s like a Brooklyn version of Shakespeare, with a touch of Tourette’s.

Tell me about Body and Soul, how did that project come about?

Body & Soul was another story entirely. Boom Boom Mancini was convinced that he could be the reincarnation of John Garfield. He acquired the rights to the property and hired me to write and direct a new version. It featured him along side the late great Rod Steiger, Michael Chiklis, Joe Mantegna, and Jennifer Beals. It was an MGM/Showtime film. I wrote a great script, and then spent months in editing trying to make Mancini equal to the task. It was my most difficult job to date, but one I’m proud of nonetheless.

In 2002 you did Naked Movie. The movie takes shots at Hollywood and your own career.  Was this project born out of the frustrations of working in such a goofy business?

Naked Movie was an improv film that I starred in and directed that was born out of my frustrations with Hollywood in general. It had a fascinatingly bizarre cast—David Carradine, Tori Spelling, Carmen Electra, Andy Dick, and myself. Some of the scenes are brilliant, some are unwatchable. I never list the film on my credits. I stick with the basics: “One-Eye Jimmy,” “Star-ving,” “Seinfeld” and my plays. That’s my legacy. I’m a playwright at heart, and when I die, that’s what it will say in my obit: “Brooklyn-born playwright. He was damn good, too.”

Sam is currently writing a sequel to One-Eye Jimmy, to be shot in Brooklyn next year.  The production will be covered here at Smug Film, so stay tuned!

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