[The following interview took place in 1985.]
Directed by Paul Aaron
After years of small theater productions and television Movies-of-the-Week, director Paul Aaron has finally made his step up to the big leagues. With Maxie – a light romantic romp about the ghost of a 1920s flapper who invades the body of a demure secretary – Aaron has in part fulfilled his lifelong dream of returning to the Golden Age of Hollywood moviemaking.
“We treated this as if we were doing two movies,” Aaron says, obviously excited. “One movie starring Maxie Malone (the flapper), and one starring Jan Cheyney (the secretary).” Glenn Close plays both Maxie and Jan in a dual role, which meant finding a believable way for her to switch from one character to another. Flashing lights and musical effects were definitely out, contends Aaron. “I didn’t want to go ‘bing!’ every time Maxie went in or out of Jan’s body. Fortunately, we found a way to do all that in rehearsals.”
Aaron felt that casting his leads right was the key to a successful movie. He needed actors who could be believable on screen, despite the comedic absurdities of the characters. Mandy Patinkin (who plays the bemused husband) and Glenn Close were eventually slated for the roles, in large part because of their similar dramatic backgrounds. “They both come from that New York theater family,” Aaron explains. “That was important. When you put all New York actors together, it’s like casting people from a home town. They all know the same people, have the same tradition, have worked through the same things.”
Aaron points out, however, that miscasting can destroy a film in unexpected ways. “Sometimes I see a movie and I know that there’s no way that’s going to work. Remember New York, New York with Liza (Minnelli) and Robert (DeNiro). That movie, for me, could never have worked, because what Liza Minnelli does as an actress has nothing to do with what Robert DeNiro does as an actor. So no matter how good they each might have been, you have no way going in.”
For Aaron, there are always two distinct processes to making movies: first, a stage rehearsal with the cast only, until he’s confident that the scene plays; second a more elaborate re-enactment, complete with a full technical armada. “It’s during this technical stage,” Aaron says, “that the difference between movies and television becomes obvious. Because when I’m walking around a scene – and I’m doing a television movie – I’m walking around in my underwear thinking that I’m really by myself on my couch with some pretzels. When I’m doing a movie, however, I’m in the theater with other people next to me – a date, probably. Somebody I want to go to the movies with. And that’s a big difference in the way you approach your story.”
Paul Aaron likes to approach his stories the way directors did in the early days of motion pictures. “If there is something I love about the thirties or forties in terms of style, it’s that they always had wonderful actors who came from the theater, and directors who could stage from the theater. And movies were not about moving cameras but about moving actors. The cameras did what they needed to do just to make you aware of the action. Scenes went on for three or four minutes long…and they were wonderful.”
Because of his extensive work in television as well as film, Aaron is uniquely qualified to weigh the merits of these competing media. In addition to film credits, Aaron has directed such popular and award-winning television movies as The Miracle Worker and the more recent Maid in America. By his reckoning, though, there is no competition when it comes to artistic pursuits.
“Television can never be as good as movies,” he emphasizes. “The best of television can never be as good as the best of movies. It just can’t. You can do very good television, but it’s a different medium. It does a different thing because you’re manipulating in a different way.”
Aaron chose Maxie as his latest project to both break away from television and to pay homage to the films he loved as a kid. But the road to premiere night proved to be a long and winding one for Aaron. After optioning Jack Finney’s original novel Marion’s Wall in 1979, he spent more than two years raising money to purchase the book, from which Maxie would eventually evolve. “The book is very different from the movie,” he admits. “Especially the last half of it. I bought the book because it was really a story about a relationship. It had the feel of a contemporary, timeless movie like the old movies I’m crazy about.”
He is quick to point out, however, that Maxie stands apart from older films of the genre and is not meant as a callous rip-off of the classics. “I didn’t want to do a remake of Ball of Fire, or My Man Godfrey, or Topper, or anything else. I wanted to see if a certain kind of sophisticated comedy can work in this age of immediate sensory gratification. There were many people, certainly, who told me it couldn’t.
“This kind of comedy is hard to sell because it’s called ‘soft.’ The idea is that people won’t sit there for something soft, that they need harder, faster action jokes.” Aaron sees this studio point-of-view as pervasive in Hollywood today. “If you come in with a very hard concept – two seventeen-year-olds who want to build a perfect woman – the studio execs will say ‘great, let’s make this’ because the audience is clearly perceived for what it is. The movie that I wanted to try to make was a soft movie in that sense because it’s a romance.”
Deciding exactly how to market a romantic comedy proved to be a real headache. Obviously, Aaron and company were prepared to take a chance. As Aaron himself explains it: “We have two people, Mandy and Glenn, who aren’t stars in the sense of ‘money stars,’ a director who is meaningless in terms of the marketplace, and a book that didn’t sell a million copies.”
That led to definite problems in terms of where to aim the advertising bucks. “If you’re doing Invasion U.S.A. you know just where to take the ads because you’re looking for the Chuck Norris audience and you know where the Chuck Norris audience lives. And you realize it’s not going to break out a lot.
“But when you test a film that your parents or your grandparents or your younger brother and sisters could like, Hollywood thinks that’s a problem.”
From the beginning, Maxie was tagged by insiders as a date movie. Aaron agrees. “If it works, it’s a feel-good movie. It’s a nice time. There aren’t that many comedies out there. They’re releasing many major movies with major stars – Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, and all the rest – but nothing that’s like Maxie. When people look in the paper, maybe this’ll sound like fun, it’ll be the only fun movie around for a little while. If Maxie has a shot, it’ll be a word-of-mouth shot. I never expected that this would be a critic’s favorite; I never expected that people would rush to see it on the first day.”
Aaron says he isn’t ready to start on another feature yet. Not until Maxie runs its course at the box office. “It’s like it doesn’t much matter who you meet when you haven’t gotten over an old lover. That part of you that has to open itself up to the potential of a new relationship just isn’t open yet. You can’t force that.”