Every so often, a new filmmaker enters the arena and commands our immediate attention. Rob Greenberg is such a man and his delightful romantic comedy, “Saturday Morning,” carries strong implications and a huge punch. The film concerns a discombobulated young office worker named Wesley, who has serious problems maintaining personal relationships and moving up the corporate ladder. Lessons are learned from a mysterious stranger – an unlikely sex symbol portrayed by George Wendt. Meanwhile, Wesley meets the woman of his dreams, and this time, manages to keep her.
Filmmaker Rob Greenberg discusses his film with Film Threat’s Amy R. Handler…
Is Saturday Morning your first feature film?
Yes. I’ve been writing for years, but being a guy from New Jersey without any real industry connections, I found it difficult getting my stuff into the right hands. I used to joke I couldn’t even get properly rejected in this business! Finally, I decided to take a cue from another New Jersey native I greatly admire, Kevin Smith, and shoot one of my scripts independently. After securing financing, I left my job as a software developer and assembled a cast and crew. It was a long road to completion, but hopefully it will open the door for many more projects in the future.
Have you made any prior short films and if so, can you speak about these?
When I was a kid, friends and I would shoot movies on super 8. Our scripts consisted of such specific stage directions as “they run around and do crazy things for five minutes.” I also did several student projects when I was a communications major at Rutgers. But, as a filmmaker, I truly learned most of the “real-world” process directly on set. Luckily, I surrounded myself with good people I was able to learn from.
Tell me about how and when you conceived “Saturday Morning.”
A seed was actually planted years ago by an old “Night Court” episode where the staff showed up during the day, surprised to discover how different things were. Not quite utopia, just “better.” I honestly don’t remember much about the episode, but that concept came back to me one particular Saturday morning when I was awake unusually early and wondered, jokingly, if I’d find anything different as well. At that point I realized this idea could make for an interesting movie, yet it remained in the back of my mind for years. I was never quite sure as to the right approach, whether it be outrageous comedy, or even sci-fi. Then, one night, I was driving into New York City for a date, and suddenly it hit me: the “Groundhog Day” romantic comedy angle, using that magical element for love. The floodgates opened, and it was all I could concentrate on the rest of the night. Suffice to say, I never saw that girl again.
How much of it is autobiographical?
As much a fantasy film as “Saturday Morning” is, many aspects of the overall message are indeed autobiographical. I’ve definitely heard the phrase “no spark” more times over the years than I’d like to admit. I used to joke I was “sparkless.” But, I eventually came to learn an overall sense of confidence is key to success in almost every aspect of life. And that lesson was the final element in developing the “Saturday Morning” concept.
Do your friends and family recognize themselves in the film?
There are traits of certain people I’ve known over the years that are amalgamated into the characters, but I’ve never heard any direct feedback as of yet. The fact that many of my friends and family actually appear on screen probably overshadows anything else.
Are they pleased or displeased about any of the portrayals?
I haven’t lost any friends or been disowned yet. So-far-so-good.
I love the feeling of earlier times interlaced throughout your story, even though there are obvious references to contemporary comedy, television and film Can you speak about this and why you chose to work like this?
I shot most of the town scenes in Westfield, NJ, where they shot the TV series, “Ed,” which also had that classic small-town look I was going for. And the vintage movie clips further incorporate that feeling as well. But I’m a pop-culture junkie at heart, old and new, and love to use those references wherever they fit. I’m a big fan of things like “Family Guy” which does this as well.
The film reminds me of Chris Rock’s sitcom, “Everybody Hates Chris.” Are you the narrator in “Saturday Morning”?
Joey Piscopo does the narration, and I’ve actually heard the “Everybody Hates Chris” comparison, and also that of “Dream On,” a great sitcom that ran on HBO in the 90s. In that show, the clips were exclusively from old Universal television shows, and punctuated the characters’ thoughts. I came up with the idea of incorporating similar clips as an extension of voice-over, and while I was still in post-production, “Everybody Hates Chris” premiered and brilliantly incorporated that style as well.
Where else do you either appear or work behind the scenes?
I’m proud to say I make my singing debut in the film! There’s a scene where Lisa is out on a date with this very slick guy. He goes for his CD player, and suddenly playing is the children’s song “The Little Pony Crosses the Road.” My executive producer and music supervisor (and editor), Harris Demel, wrote the song, and I decided to sing it myself. I credited both of us as “songwriters,” simply for the absurdity of something like this having needed two writers (I gave the film’s composer, James Manno, a “reluctantly produced by” credit). James has actually received several requests for the song to be used for ring tones, which I was thrilled to learn. I do a quick Hitchcock during the surprise party scene, and am also the voice of telemarketer Frankie fittingly wakes up during “Saturday Morning’s” “perfect world.” As far as working behind the scenes, I wore almost every hat on this production. I even cast the film myself, and secured every location.
I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to create successful comedy either in T.V. or cinema. You manage to do so quite beautifully. Why do you think this is so?
Thank you very much. Many people have told me comedy is the hardest thing to write. My approach is to simply avoid the mistakes I see others make. To me, comedy falters when the jokes don’t flow naturally from the characters or the situations at hand. Unless they’re absolute killer, it all feels forced. And I’ve seen way too many instances where crudeness is mistaken for comedy. Crudeness is fine, but there needs to be a deeper context. I love the line in ‘Idiocracy’ where, in the future, the most popular movie in the country is a farting a*s on screen for two hours, and Luke Wilson comments, in his day, ‘we always knew who’s a*s it was, and why it was farting.’
“Saturday Morning” is very character driven. Again, it is difficult to create a successful film using this approach. What is your secret to success?
Because “Saturday Morning” is what you may refer to as “high-concept,” there was an obvious urge to go further with the magical element. And I’m sure I would have done so had this been a bigger budget studio film. But the heart to any great film is character. Unless we are watching the character’s story, from their perspective, overcoming their own obstacles, there’s really nothing for the audience to connect with. And it’s also where the real comedy comes from. So, that’s what I was trying to go for, creating characters with substance.
Did you handpick any of your cast? I ask because they are all exceptional and so ideally suited to their roles that they almost don’t seem to be acting.
I agree they are quite exceptional. Yes, I handpicked the entire cast, even down to the extras. Obviously, I sought out the veterans such as George Wendt and Louis Mandylor because I was a fan of their work and they were perfect for their roles. For the others, I put out a casting call and received almost 1000 responses. I was very lucky to find Joey Piscopo, who has incredible comic timing and brought a lot of heart to his role.
And I was similarly impressed by Valerie R. Feingold, and Ashley Carin – both immensely talented actresses. I could go further and mention the friend I cast as “crazy whistling guy on park bench,” but I probably shouldn’t!
I notice you use a pair of twins in the film and also another woman who looks like the twins. Also, the heavyset woman in the bookstore looks much like George Wendt. Are you purposely messing with identity in the film?
I never quite noticed the similarity between the heavyset woman and George Wendt. Though I did once on a bad blind date. As far as other similarities between minor cast members, it was probably due to my casting of several family members. The two children in the bookstore are my niece and nephew.
Alfred Hitchcock used to say that there are no minor characters and that each small role is as strong as the lead. Do you agree with this assessment?
Absolutely. A minor character doesn’t necessarily require the same transformational character arcs as the leads, but they certainly need distinction and coloring. Especially for this film, where many of the quirky types I use for the various store clerk roles help contribute to the small-town.
Do you relate to any specific character or characters in the film?
I’d say they’re all in some ways aspects of my personality. Frankie the guy I’d like to be, Wes the guy I most likely am.
I recognize many of your actors such as George Wendt and Lillo Brancato. Also, the actor who plays Wesley, Frankie and Wesley’s father seem familiar. What was it like working with these celebrities?
It was amazing, working with people I’ve watched for years on television and in film, especially for a software developer from New Jersey. I even got to buy George Wendt a beer! And they were all friendly, down-to-earth people – and incredibly supportive.
I love all the layering in the film. Can you speak about your insertions of early film footage and how these accompany your tale but also tell a sub-story in their own right?
Thank you again. Originally, this was something I felt would simply act as a unique enhancement to the voice-over. Until “Everybody Hates Chris” came along! And while used mostly for comedy purposes, I was conscious in making sure it added to the mood of the characters, and the overall feel of the film as well.
“Saturday Morning” is not just some silly romantic comedy but makes some very profound comments about time, existence and one’s place in the universe. Can you comment on this?
The silly romantic comedy market is already well cornered, and there’s certainly no need for one in the Indie scene as well. I wanted to incorporate lessons I’ve learned in life, and the premise certainly lent itself to that. And I decided to go further by leaving some open-ended questions, allowing the viewer to come up with their own, personal interpretation.
Which filmmakers, philosophers and literary figures influence your work?
Since the closest comparison of my film is “Groundhog Day,” I’d certainly have to say Harold Ramis, who has created some of the best comedies of all-time. And I’d love to move onto big-budget studio comedies as well. From an indie comedy aspect, I was also heavily influenced by Mike Judge’s “Office Space” in it’s mix of both subtle and occasionally absurdist humor. And though known more for television, I’m certainly inspired as a comedy writer by both Larry David and Ricky Gervais. As far as philosopher/literary figure, Thomas More, who coined the concept of “Utopia” to begin with, is the film’s biggest inspiration.
When you’re not thinking about a project what types of activities prepare you to make a film? For example, do you watch specific types of movies, go to a comedy club or watch people?
Yes, many times it’s watching movie and TV shows. Like an unrelated episode of “Night Court” inspiring an entirely different concept. I’ve done stand-up comedy as part of my preparation as well, trying out jokes to see what works. And, for some reason, my creative juices tend to flow at the gym, so my writing has kept me healthy at the same time!
How much if any of the film was improvised?
We stuck pretty very close to the script, though my actors did come up with several things on the spot, which greatly enhanced the film. Joey Piscopo was especially good at this, and in fact, even made suggestions early on during rehearsals, which made their way into the final shooting script. Louis Mandylor had a great ad-lib in the scene where Wes is left alone in the conference room, a meeting canceled out from under him after significant preparation. Louis looked down at one of the pie charts and asked “is it me, or does this look like a pair of tits”? We laughed hysterically, and I knew immediately this would make the final cut. Ashley Carin had another great line, after her character, Tiffany, had sex with Wes in a motel room, referring to their session as “four and a half times.” Despite the fact Wes later refers it to his buddy as five. And I also have to give enormous credit to the film’s editor, Harris Demel. He threw his blood, sweat, and tears into this process, lifting the film, both technically and creatively, miles beyond my wildest expectations. Most significantly, it was his idea to experiment with the colors, making the Saturday Morning world more vibrant, which I believe brought the film to a whole new level.
Were there any portions of the film that displeased you – anything you would want to correct or explore further in a new project?
Any film is the culmination of the efforts of many people, and I’m proud of the work that was done by the cast and crew of “Saturday Morning.” That said, this was my first feature-length project, and the learning curve was enormous. So, I wouldn’t say I’m displeased with any parts, but there are many aspects I’d approach differently in the future. For instance, there are some areas of the script I’d tighten up. I’d have a better handle on the budget, and things would be less hectic in terms of the production schedule. In future projects, I’d like to apply all I’ve learned and reach a broader audience.
Do you have a new project underway and if so, can you speak a bit about this – without giving anything away, of course!
I’m making the big move to LA at the beginning of the year to pursue my career full-time, and I’ve already received interest from several sources on my latest script, “For Richer,” which is a screwball, wedding-themed romantic comedy with a twist. I have others ready to go as well, so hopefully, I’ll have a new project in the very near future.