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    Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess in their art-imitates-life film Frankie and Johnny Are Married. in Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess
    Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess in their art-imitates-life film "Frankie and Johnny Are Married."

    Frankie, my dear

    Husband and wife Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess talk about taking their real-life theatrical disaster to the screen in "Frankie and Johnny Are Married."


    "Frankie and Johnny Are Married" is a genre-bending movie, part memoir, part screwball comedy — but most of all, a romance, a love letter from a man to his wife, to a wonderful play, and to the theater world.


    Related links: Official site
    It's in the vein of cable series like "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where satiric volleys at Hollywood are lobbed by a cast of performers who, to varying degrees, play versions of themselves. Veteran producer/director Michael Pressman (an Emmy winner for his work on "Picket Fences" and a DGA Award nominee for "Chicago Hope"), wrote, directed and stars in this romantic comedy opposite his wife, actress Lisa Chess ("Separate Lives"). It's based on a true-life incident in their marriage when he decided to realize a cherished dream to work together, by directing her in an Equity-waiver Los Angeles production of Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune," which Pressman underwrote. The leading man eventually walked off the set (for a film gig) and Pressman- — who hadn't acted for years — took over the role of Johnny.

    In the film, events have been somewhat fictionalized, and Alan Rosenberg plays an actor named Alan Rosenberg, standing in for a version of the real-life actor who quit. The humor escalates as everything that could go wrong on a theater set does, and there are plenty of inside jokes about L.A. industry honchos as well. The movie was shot on location in the Pressmans' own home, at a couple of local LA theaters, and on studio lots. Recently I caught up with the couple to relive behind the scenes on a behind-the-scenes comedy.

    MICHAEL PRESSMAN: I originally came from movies and theater; my first ten years was doing films, of which one of them was called "Those Lips, Those Eyes," which was about summer theater in 1980. Then I segued into television in the middle of my career; the last 15 years has been television.

    ANDREA GRONVALL: The kind of pressure-cooker pace you led in network TV, did this make it easier or harder for you on your own independent film production?

    Michael Pressman. in Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess  
    Michael Pressman.
    MP: Much easier. Much easier. Because having worked under all that pressure for so many years, you begin to really learn some very essential things to making a successful film, and one of them is a finished script. [There's also] the necessarily lengthy time of pre-production to make sure everything is in place, which allows you to go smoothly through the shooting of the movie.

    AG: What was your average production day like? Your shoot was 25 days?

    MP: Yeah, 25 to 27 days, and we really never shot more than ten hours a day — because of the energy problems for me, actually. Directing and acting, that was the hardest part. So, we went several days over our schedule, or we would add days to certain situations just because I couldn't keep on it completely. It's kind of hard to stay on schedule.

    AG: Did you give yourself weekend breaks?

    MP: Yes, more than that. There were weeks we shot three days, and one four days. We did one six-day week, which was just really hard.

    AG: Which portion of the film was shot during that six-day week?

    MP: It was the whole rehearsal process. When we finally got there we had to get out of that theater. The film was really shot backwards. Actually, it's interesting: we did the ending of the movie and the whole drama of putting on the production first. Then we went to the house to do all the stuff at home. Then we did the early rehearsal period. And then we did the whole blocking the play, the big blow-out, the fight, all that stuff was at the end, and that was the last. That was a six-day week. It was intense. It was great. We were ready to finish, and we knew we could get there.

    AG: Lisa, I loved the intensity of that scene with Alan Rosenberg where he attacks you in rehearsal and your react with hurt and disbelief when Michael doesn't defend you.

    LISA CHESS: I would say probably a combination of feelings, of feeling more like I needed to stand up for myself, but yet was in a situation where I couldn't stand up for myself, in which I had every right to, but for some reason did not professionally.

    MP: It's a great moment. Now I think about it, what's great about what you do also is that you see a hurt that goes back further than this moment, the hurt that you carry with the idea of, you know, "I've spent my life being mistreated and now I'm in a [nightmare] situation in which I'm getting mistreated again."

    LC: Right, and also you know actors who sort of pull rank because maybe they've done more than you have, except you know that you're every bit as good as they are, but for some reason they've done more so you feel that you can't speak up.

    AG: That scene really goes to the core of the film, which has a serious underpinning, in that it's based on a pivotal time in your marriage. But the scene is couched within some very funny stuff, which kind of makes the pill a little easier to swallow. You two have been together for how long?

    LC: We've know each other for 14 years, and we've been married for almost ten — it'll be ten in September. So, a long time.

    AG: So, humor is a good thing?

    MP: Yes, definitely!

    LC: Humor is one of the things that got us together in the first place, I think.

    AG: How'd you meet?

    MP: At a theater company, actually.

    LC: A benefit for a theater company that I was involved in 14 years ago. I had taken a little bit of a hiatus from acting and I was producing a play for this theater. And I remember on our first date Michael said, "Why did you stop acting?" And I hadn't — I hadn't STOPPED stopped — I'd just taken a break. But he said, you know, you should get back to it. So I sometimes think about that; we've come really full circle now to doing this together, making this dream thing come true.

      "I just sat back and watched the movie, and I just wanted to have an audience experience, because I wanted to know where the audience's head might be. And I had this feeling of 'Oh, my God! We're watching a guy who's going to steal a man's wife!'"
      — Michael Pressman
    AG: If you can both act and juggle chores behind the scenes, it just simply expands you professionally.

    MP: Yeah, and Lisa teaches as well.

    AG: Where do you teach?

    LC: I teach at UCLA, the extension program. I teach privately in LA — or have been — but now we're relocating to New York, so, we'll see what happens there.

    AG: What's the caliber of your students like there?

    LC: I've taught a range of people, from people who want to pursue this and are very good and who have started to work professionally, to people who have always wanted to try acting and actually try to do it for other things, to improve skills for other careers that they have. And I'll tell you what: I enjoy teaching all of them. There's nothing like the acting process to reveal parts of people, and I love being part of that process.. It's very exciting.

    AG: You strike me as two people whose approach to work is to be supportive of other people. In fact, the weakness of Michael the character, as you, Michael the filmmaker, have written him — I don't know how this parallels what happened to your life, but —

    MP: Very much so as a universal problem of mine, which may be others' as well. But I tend to sometimes be the caretaker and be the peacemaker, as opposed to one who sort of asserts my own needs.

    AG: You can see that in Mandy Patinkin's cameo, which is very funny, inside, and foreshadows Rosenberg's entrance. The way Alan plays his character might seem like he's a loose cannon, but it's really all about control; his character just wants control from the get-go. Like in that scene where he constantly harangues you about how hot he is for Lisa, as Ravel's "Bolero" builds on the soundtrack- — a nice touch. I wasn't sure if he was really hot for her, or whether he was just messing with your [the production director's] head.

    MP: Well, that's a great note; that's a great observation. I think it is both. I think I wrote it in such a way, I got so into the character while writing it, I couldn't tell you which. I really think that the unconscious need that this character had to draw attention to himself, was manifest in every step of the way.

    LC: And also the divide-and-conquer aspect —

    AG: Divide and conquer! That is just how this guy is — an operator!

    MP: Yeah, you sit there, and I must tell you — and this is really interesting, because I've sort of never really talked about this, but when I looked at the first cut of the movie, I had a terrific editor, and I was acting, and he was looking at dailies, but then you let the editor go make the assembly of the material. And then you sit down as a director, and generally I do it alone with the editor, and I watch the film, like an audience, for the first time — even though it's an hour or 45 minutes longer than it should be. In fact, it was two and a half hours — everything but the kitchen sink. But I just sat back and I watched the movie, and I just wanted to have an audience experience, because I wanted to know where the audience's head might be. And I had this feeling of, "Oh, my God! We're watching a guy who's going to steal a man's wife!" And you think for a while, "Is there something that's going to go on here between these two? Is there going to be some classic triangle there?" And almost feeling like, "Oh, no, I don't want it to go there." And then it like turns, and begins to turn, and you begin to realize, "Wait a minute, this guy is really trying to just destroy everything in sight, even this couple." You know what I'm saying?

    AG: You have to wonder why someone would do that; what is gained if he brings everything down around his ears? Have you ever had the misfortune to work with anyone like this?

    Lisa Chess. in Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess  
    Lisa Chess.
    MP: I'd have to say, unequivocally, unfortunately, yes. This is the part that is — let's step out of it for a second. I'm not going to make a political statement, but couldn't Bill Clinton have kept it together for four years if these guys were out to get him? Couldn't Richard Nixon not have the polls, you know, fixed, and try to rig an election that he's clearly going to win? I mean, people do insane things.

    AG: It's a combination of compulsive-obsessive, micro-management, and I think — although I don't know — but paranoia seems to go with the industry. I think after a while you get your defenses so worked up that there's this tendency — particularly for sensitive performers, whose stock in trade is being intuitive, and being able to observe and absorb — but then they just overthink things.

    MP: It gets very hard. It gets very hard. And then you see it — I'm thinking of business situations where you see people's hubris get in the way, and they bring themselves down. The examples are endless.

    AG: You sank 80,000 bucks of your own money into the real-life production of this play —

    MP: 75.

    AG: — and it went south. Okay. You turn around, and you take lemons and make lemonade out of it by making a movie about the experience. Did you sink your own money this time around, or did you get partners?

    MP: Partners. And some of my money. I didn't go alone on this one.

    AG: How did you go through the seeking distribution process? Who helped you? Did you get a producer's agent?

    MP: Yeah, a producer's rep, Tim Swain. And he was very helpful, and it's a very tough field, and we're thrilled to have IFC behind the movie, and it's helped immeasurably.

    AG: I like the company; they've got great taste. Lisa, how much of the writing were you instrumental with in the movie? I would imagine there's a fair amount of improvisation.

    MP: Much less than you would think!

    LC: Not very much.

    MP: Just a couple of days of the rehearsal. Everything was very carefully crafted and worked out, and the illusion of improvisation was part of the ability to make it seem all accidental and natural. All scripted. All rehearsed. It took me six months to write, and rewrite, and rewrite. If we'd change things, we would work it out, and not just improvise.

    LC: Although the working process felt improvisational, with text. And if the text didn't work, Michael certainly gave us the leeway to change things a little bit. But we worked from the text, in a kind of improvisational fashion.

    AG: I can see you doing a one-woman show.

    LC: To me, it is the scariest thing. I've been on the stage a lot, but when people do that, I am in awe of that. When somebody does that and pulls it off, and is very good at it — I don't know. Maybe someday, but that really scares me.

    AG: That's why you'd be so good — to go after what scares you.

    MP: I'm actually thinking of a one-man show.

    AG: That would be fun! In the movie you did a good job of playing you.

    MP: I'm not an actor, but — yeah, I am, sort of.

    AG: I was a big fan of "Picket Fences." There's isn't enough these days on TV where humor is explored in a situational drama format. Most situational comedies don't do it for me, but that's just me. Do you have any plans of going back into comedy on television?

    MP: Yes, I'm actually toying with an idea about taking the film and using it as a kind of example of the kind of comedy we could do in a whole other story.

      "We did, ultimately at the end of the day, become characters. We look at this now and realize, 'Gee, that's not us, those are characters who are playing us.'"
      — Michael Pressman
    AG: David Kelley is not known primarily as an actor, but one of the funniest scenes in the movie is his cameo, where you're on the studio lot looking to him for advice for your marriage by asking him how he handles life with Michelle Pfeiffer. He just stares at you as his car window slowly rolls up in your face.

    MP: The idea is really simple. David Kelley is a very private person. I've never asked anything about his private life; it stays very private. So I thought, for the audience, that the idea of seeing somebody famous, to be able to have me ask somebody about his private life — and the dying of curiosity that the audience must have to want to know, "What's it like being with Michelle Pfeiffer?" — to be able to see what it's really like, and that is, "It's none of your business." It was all scripted, and he did it so well.

    AG: Well, I wish you well with your film; you have taken your private life and put some of it on the screen. I had a good time watching.

    MP: We did, ultimately at the end of the day, become characters. We look at this now and realize, "Gee, that's not us, those are characters who are playing us."

    JUNE 17, 2004

    Reader comments on Michael Pressman and Lisa Chess:

  • Central Park West   from Karen Asnin, Sep 20, 2004
  • hi lisa   from irene, Nov 8, 2010
  • great movie   from julie, Feb 12, 2012
  • Wonderful Movie   from Ronnie Rybeck, Jul 26, 2013

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