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"In an industry full of curves, he keeps swinging."
"The upside of anger is a positive force that could be a force for change."
"The good that came out of this really stupid mistake...was that this guy came along."
"Actors like to work with Joan Allen. And actors like to work with good actors."
"I'll never watch 'The Upside of Anger' again."
Mike Binder  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
May 2005

Mike Binder is an industry veteran who knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of Hollywood. At an early age, he made a living as a stand up comedian, hoping for big laughs in his hometown of Detroit. And big laughs he got as his career took off after appearances on the original "Star Search," HBO's "One Night Stand," and "The Tonight Show." But while stand up had its share of rewards, offstage, Mike was busily writing. Not just jokes, but screenplays. And in 1990, after many years of rejection, his first screenplay, "Coupe de Ville," made it to the big screen.

As gratifying as this appeared, it was a huge disappointment to Mike. In fact, the final interpretation was so disappointing that he vowed never to let anyone direct a movie of his again. So, from that point forward, Mike began writing and directing films like "Crossing the Bridge" and "Indian Summer." Then in 1994, when his career was starting to take off, a friendly favor turned into the box office flop known as "Blankman." To anyone else, this would have been a career ending disaster. But for Mike, he returned stronger than ever with an award winning comedy, "The Sex Monster," a high profile role in "The Contender," and an HBO show of his own entitled, "The Mind of the Married Man."

Alas. Just when things got back on track, HBO cancelled his show and once again, Mike had to regroup. But fortunately, the show made him some powerful allies, among them Steven Spielberg, who subsequently cast him in "Minority Report." And with his own production studio, Sunlight Productions, his latest project, "The Upside of Anger," became his most auspicious film to date. Resilient, hard working, and true, Mike continues to improve. Because in an industry full of curves, he keeps swinging.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

In 2000, you starred opposite Joan Allen in Rod Lurie's political drama "The Contender." Was this when the two of you first met? How did "The Upside of Anger" come about?

Yes, it was when we first met. I played her Chief of Staff and we were in scenes together all the time. And there was a lot of waiting because of these big Senate Confirmation hearing scenes. So one day, she said to me: "Listen, I saw 'The Sex Monster' on HBO last night." And she liked it, which surprised me! And I was like, "You liked that? That's a little out there for you." But she said, "No, I would love it if you would write something like that for me, a comedy for me." And I said, "You know what Joan? Don't say that unless you really mean it because I will start writing!"

Then, when I was in New York, Joan came to the screening HBO had for my show ("The Mind of the Married Man"), which was September 10th of 2001. And I remember that night. It was that night Joan and I went to dinner. And I laid out the whole "Upside of Anger" to her, how it's not a comedy, but more of a dramedy (a drama with a lot of comedy in it). I told her the whole story and she said: "I'll do it!" And we kind of shook hands on it in the street in front of this place called the 21 Club in New York.

So I was actually in New York the morning of September 11th. I was on live with Diane Sawyer when the first plane hit, being interviewed for Good Morning America. And I was stuck there for a few days because you couldn't get a plane out. So I wandered the streets, thinking, because it was such an angry time. And by the time I left New York, I had written most of the movie.

In the film, Popeye puts together a project on the origins and psychology of anger. What is your own definition of the "upside" of anger?

Well, I think that the upside of anger is a positive force that could be a force for change, a driving force or a forward movement. Anger is no good if you stay in it too long. But if you use it as fuel to another chapter in your life, I think it's great.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the way you balance each of the character's vulnerabilities, emotions, and perspectives. It's not just about Terry Wolfmeyer. The film is about the impact of anger on a family or a collective of tightly knit people. What made you opt to focus on the group over the individual?

Well, it's a good question because to me, it's really about how one individual's anger can affect the entire group. The whole idea was to make a movie about somebody who was bone marrow angry about something that they were dead wrong about.

And it's a little funny to me when I read that people write about how the ending is tacked on or from a different movie because I had the ending first. I had the ending first, from a story I heard from someone about how their father was gone for a long time only to find out that their father had died.

Joan Allen is a wonderful actress, known for such serious and dramatic roles as "Nixon," "The Crucible," and "The Ice Storm." What do you think made her ripe for comedy?

Joan is a funny woman. And she's such a great actress, so much in control of her emotions, any emotion. I just knew that while Joan wouldn't bring a broad, physical comedy to the role, she would bring an unbelievable reality to it. Because sometimes, when you look at Joan, it just feels like a documentary or something.

So I don't write Joan comedy, I write Joan reality. And I let the circumstances and her character play the comedy. Not once did I think, "Can Joan do comedy?" I wasn't thinking like that because she's just too good, you know?

Tell me a little about Kevin Costner, i.e. how you met, how he became involved with the project, and what made his character different from the other ballplayer roles he's played?

Well, I didn't write the role for Kevin. As I was writing it, it did come to mind that that Kevin would be good. I was actually trying to do a cross between Denny McLain and Kirk Gibson. Being a big Tiger fan and having grown up in Detroit. When I was a kid, when I just started as a nightclub comic, Denny McLain had a radio show. And I would go on his show to promote my nightclub appearances and I would want to ask him about the 1968 World Series or the '67 pennant race. And he wouldn't want to talk about it. He would say: "Hey, we're here to talk about your comedy. Don't interview me."

So I wasn't coming at it from his (Costner's) other roles, I was coming at it from real life. And I think the difference between this role and his others is that this is more about a guy who has used up one part of his life and is at a place that he has to re-invent himself. He's got to move on to another chapter in his life. And the question is - how does he do it?

Inadvertently, unsuspectingly, he wanders into a back yard one day. And he's going to fill a whole in their life and they're going to fill a hole in his life. That's how life is. Things just happen. And you don't think this is going to be the thing that's going to change everything. The last thing this guy ever thought was how he was going to be a part of a family, dealing with a woman and her four grown daughters. But the way I see the characters playing out, if it were a book and you just kept going, is that this guy would end up being an incredible father for this family.

When really negative things happen, there's usually a positive result too. I'm an opportunist, but I'm also a realist. So, I believe some good comes out of everything. And the good that came out of this really stupid mistake and really wrong headed thinking, really selfish thinking, was that this guy came along. The father wasn't there for years. And I felt like he had an affair and wasn't a part of the family. But this guy is going to be part of this family. He doesn't really have a job, but he's going to have a lot of energy for everybody.

The girls in the film are terrific. Each brings a warmth and individuality that sets the perfect tone. In writing the script, did you ever imagine having this kind of diversity and talent? What did they bring to the film that wasn't in the script?

No, the girls brought everything to the film. I really make my movies pretty cheap because I don't want to receive notes from executives. I want to hear from actors. So basically, I have a two-week rehearsal, but it's more of an opportunity to listen to the actors input. In fact, for a while, Lauren Ambrose was going to play the role that Keri Russell played. And I did two drafts just on her notes!

So I re-write with the actors and I almost co-wrote these roles with the girls. Because to me, the actor has to put the character on and wear it. Like spandex! They know more about these characters and can ask better questions and give you the feedback you need. Nobody could possibly give you better feedback on a character as to how they need to be written, or re-written, i.e. 'why would I say this? Either help me with this or understand that this is wrong.'

Every one of the girls brought as much as they wanted to. They were really involved. And I knew right away that I was going to get great actors for these roles because I'm an actor. When Rod Lurie called me to do "The Contender," I was so busy and had just come back from making a movie in London and I really wanted to take the summer off. I didn't want to go to Richmond, Virginia. But when he said Joan Allen's the star, I got on a plane and went, you know?

Actors like to work with Joan Allen. And actors like to work with good actors.

What was your favorite memory or moment from the making of "The Upside of Anger?"

I think the first day that Kevin showed up was a great day for us. We had already been shooting for two weeks and he came ready to play. His attitude was so great. And the first scene he did was the first scene in the movie when he knocks on the side door and has the door slam in his face. He was so into character, he was just there. And I remember Joan and I looked at each other and said, "This is going to be great."

But every scene he did was like that. It wasn't like molasses. Everything just came out good. Sure, we had to make some adjustments. And a couple of scenes Kevin and I would go back and forth on, re-writing in his trailer before we'd shoot long speeches of his. But it was that first day. It was so nice to see the ease that he was bringing to the character. And the soft flow that he gives to everything puts Joan in such great light. It puts the whole movie in a great light.

What was your worst or least favorite part? Or do you have one?

Yes, I have a lot of least favorite parts. I've been around a long time and I've had a lot of failure. And I've also had a lot of things that I'm proud of that other people didn't like. But everything I've ever done has been sub par to what I thought it should have been - to the point where I've never watched anything again.

And I'll never watch "The Upside of Anger" again. I've just never gone backwards. In fact, the only time I've ever had to it is with this DVD thing, where you have to look back and do a director's commentary. Before that, I've never gone back. Even at premieres, I'll walk out, let the audience watch it, and meet everyone in the lobby.

You just end up settling. There are so many scenes in this movie I wish I could have done better, ways that we cut it, had to cut it, ten different reasons this scene has to end here, and I just didn't like it.

I like the movie. I'm proud of the movie. But if I could, I'd like to do it again. Start over and do it again. I think I could do a lot better.

Do you see the DVD as an opportunity to tweak those things? Add a director's cut?

Oh, no. I don't have the time. On this one, I put some deleted scenes, scenes that weren't in and I know why, but none of which I wish were in. Honestly, I make a movie once a year. And I don't want to go back. Once I'm done, I don't want to fix it anymore.

Mike Binder Interview (CONTINUED)

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