KEN KWAPIS (Director) Q&A
QUESTION: What was it like working with a force of nature like Robin Williams?
KEN KWAPIS: That’s a great question because I think that one of the challenges for Robin was he needed to portray a reverend who is irreverent and, of course, Robin does have remarkable skills, which is no-surprise to anyone. And what was really a wonderful challenge for him was trying to respect the parameters of the role. This is, obviously, different than the role like Aladdin, in which all bets are off. Aladdin is a character who can transform himself into anyone and Robin did, and it’s a fantastic role. This is absolutely a different kind of thing where we wanted him to be irreverent, perverse at times, a prankster, a mischief-maker and at the same time, that you would never, never cross that line where you didn’t think that he was doing it with some noble purpose or on behalf of something that he really believed in or on behalf of something that is undeniably good – trying to keep people together, trying to prevent marriages from falling apart. So, again, it was kind of great for him to of work within those parameters and I also felt like he has done a lot of roles where they’ve been kind of platforms for him to do great improvisational stuff. And he absolutely wanted this to be a character who is as much a facilitator of the other people’s story as it was an opportunity for him. And, by the way, among other things, he completely fell in love with Krasinski and Mandy. And so, he was so generous as an actor with them. And he is such a force of nature that it was great to also see him be incredibly respectful of these young actors.
QUESTION: Did you know from the beginning that Krasinski had what it takes to be successful?
KEN KWAPIS: Yes. I directed the pilot of The Office, so I was in on the casting of the show and I was there when we laid out the photos, we said, ‘John Krasinski is the guy.’ It was very clear from the get-go. I directed his auditions for The Office and he was this great combination of a funny guy, a comic actor and a leading man. But not an obvious leading man. I mean, a lot of women I know who find him really attractive say they didn’t get there immediately. It wasn’t like right away, drop dead. It was kind of like you get to know him and then you fall in love with him. But, to me, I sensed that immediately. I have just directed about 10 episodes of the series. I’ve had the privilege of directing some of the more important story episode like the finales, so I feel like I’ve really had a guiding hand in how John has evolved on the show. I think he’s so winning. He’s so alive on the screen. He is so able to do a lot with a little. No one knows their way around an awkward boss like John Krasinski. And so much of what’s important in a television show for all the characters is how they react to the absurdity of their situation. And John, more than anyone, he just has the ability to give the most deliciously deadpan reaction to something.
QUESTION: This story is set in Chicago. How important was it for you to get that sense of place?
KEN KWAPIS: Well, for me, personally, it was important. I’m from Illinois. I’m from downstate, southern Illinois. I grew up in a small town called Belleville about 275 miles south of Chicago. I went to Northwestern. So, Chicago has just been important in my life. And, for the film, I wanted to make sure that Robin’s character and his eccentricities couldn’t be written off as acquired. It’s not like I wanted him to play as any city or every city but I just wanted to make sure that if, for instance, my mother saw the film, she wouldn’t say, ‘Well, ministers aren’t like that. Maybe they’re like that in California,’ or something like that. So, that’s all. I’m very much a Midwesterner at heart.
QUESTION: Where did you get the idea for Reverent Frank?
KEN KWAPIS: Kim Barker, a Vancouver native, came up with the idea, and it’s based on a real-life minister that she heard about in Vancouver who puts couples through a very eccentric wedding prep course. I don’t know his name or I don’t know any more details than that, it was her idea. She brought it to a young producer named Nick Osborne. Nick, in turn, brought it to Mike Medavoy’s company. Mike Medavoy brought it to Warner Bros. Warner Bros. invited Bob Simonds, who obviously has a lot of comedy background, to come aboard. And then somewhere after that long parade of people, I came on. But, yeah, that’s how it evolved.
QUESTION: Do you bring to movies the same sensibility that you do to the half-hour comedy?
KEN KWAPIS: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s a great question. Let me actually answer it kind of backwards because one of the things I feel is that as a director, I’ve been very fortunate in the past decade or so to have helped launch or worked on so called single-camera half-hour comedies, which are not done in front of an audience, which are not done with a laughter track, which rely, obviously, on film technique. And I’ve worked on ones that are particularly innovative in both camera style but also in tone. Some things – like Freaks And Geeks, Malcolm In The Middle, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office, The Bernie Mac Show – are some of the things that I helped launch. A few of them I worked on as a director and producer. And one of the things that was great about those shows – I’ll just mention one in particular, Malcolm In The Middle, which I did not launch, but I was a long time producer and director on it – to me, that was the closest I think I will ever get to having the experience of what it would have been like to shoot silent two-reelers. Every week, we were given a script that had immensely complicated physical comedy and visual gags, and you had to get it done and move on. And so, now, how did that influence my future work? I would say the single camera, half-hour shows that have had a really good impact on my future work have been things like Larry Sanders, which I did direct the pilot for, and helped do most of the first season, The Bernie Mac Show, and The Office, all of which I help launch. And how were they impactful? Primarily because of the improvisational quality of those shows. None of them were improvised. They’re all very tightly scripted. The Office is shockingly scripted, considering that no one seems to think that. But, but what I felt I was able to do is create an atmosphere in which things felt conversational, in which we weren’t playing for a joke.
With The Office, I think the writing staff prides itself on trying not to write jokes. In fact, it’s much more behavioral and attitudinal in terms of where the comedy is coming from. And so, now License To Wed is a different kind of comedy material. It has jokes. It has physical comedy. It has set pieces. And yet, what I think that those shows helped me do is to infuse that kind of material with a performance style, kind of focus on behavior, focus on performance – again, not just aiming for a joke, but trying to make sure that the people are alive on the screen first. So, I think in that sense, there’s been a great positive back and forth for me between the two.
QUESTION: Is this film tightly scripted or did you get a chance to use more improv?
KEN KWAPIS: Well, there’s not one scene in this where Robin didn’t add something significant. And the good news is that John in particular can step up and hold his own against someone like Robin. I was very pleased to be able to cast a lot of people with very great improvisational skills, like Rachelle Harris and Brian Baumgartner, who play the couple, and the marriage counseling cast. Rachelle, who like a graduate of a lot of great improvisational comedies like Chris Guest’s films, Bob Balaban as well, and Angela Kinsey, from The Office. In fact, that whole jewelry store scene, I think, was about a quarter a page long on paper, but we just decided to see how far we could take it. And again, I love the goofiness of it, the sound of it. I love the fact that people are just stepping all over each other. I mean, there’s a shagginess to it that I think is really kind of wonderful. And that was something I certainly aimed for with a lot of the guys.
QUESTION: The outtakes at the end of the film were fun to watch and it seemed like the actors were having fun on set. Have you ever worked on projects that are not like that?
KEN KWAPIS: No. I mean, regardless of whether it’s a drama or a comedy, I tend to create an atmosphere that’s loose. Even with Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which had really intense emotional content at times, I think there’s never a moment where there wasn’t levity on the set. The Office is a show that’s shot digitally and therefore we often will not cut and keep shooting. And so, there is a sense at a certain point where the actors are not sure when we’re shooting or not. So, it’s not simply that people are breaking up. But the line between action and not has sort of disappeared. So, to me, atmosphere is a critical thing in terms of just making people feel like they can make fools of themselves in a productive way. Actually, some of this came from Garry Shandling. When I did the pilot for The Larry Sanders Show, Garry and I talked about how to create an atmosphere in which actors, at a certain point, were not aware whether we are filming or not. And sometimes we shot that show on 16 millimeter film. So, there was film you had to load in to a camera. But there was a lot of emphasis in my work with Garry about how I wouldn’t say action. I just nod. Garry would tell a joke and then go in to his first line. So, there was a kind of a nice and not forced, not self-conscious, loose atmosphere. And I’ve managed to maintain that.
QUESTION: Do you like to bring some subversiveness to the romantic comedy genre?
KEN KWAPIS: Sometimes, the boldest thing you can do in terms of a romantic comedy is to try and put something on the screen that people will be surprised how much it reminds them of them. That’s all I think about. When I’m working with a scene with John and Mandy, I’d sit there and think, ‘Okay, how much am I that guy, how much am I that gal, how much am I looking at myself in this scene?’ To me, that’s a great place to be if you have a piece material that can make you feel like you’re doing that.
QUESTION: It’s funny that in a film like this, the one time you hear a profanity spoken is during the outtakes sequence.
KEN KWAPIS: That one line of Mandy’s was, in part, designed to surprise you because unlike other kinds of films, there’s not a lot of that kind of language. So, when that one comes out, and especially, by the way, because it’s Mandy who certainly has a persona – not that she’s Doris Day, but it should have a little bit of a shock.