A minor-key “Carnal Knowledge” redux, Dan Mirvish’s adaptation of Oscar- and Pulitzer-winning Jules Feiffer’s long-missing-in-action screenplay “Bernard and Huey,” set in late 1980s New York, is still all too topical in a time of taking stock of toxic masculinity. Huey (David Koechner) considers himself a rake; Bernard (Jim Rash) is more of a nebbish, but both bounteous boors find themselves in thrall to strong women. (Feiffer, now eighty-nine, says that he was twenty-seven when he thought up the character “Bernard” for his Village Voice cartoon, and twenty-eight when he met the prototype for “Huey” at a Village party.) I heard of the project a couple years ago from Mirvish, a veteran filmmaker and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, when it was just a beginning of a dark twinkle. I asked him to bring me up to date on the jangled journey.
How did you first hear of the script?
About six years ago when I was in post on my previous feature, “Between Us,” I wondered what happened to the guy who wrote “Carnal Knowledge,” which was a key influence on “Between Us.” I Googled Jules and read an interview with him that said he was still alive, writing graphic novels, still writing plays and teaching in the Hamptons! Then at the very end, it had a throwaway line that he had several unproduced screenplays. Huh, I thought. This is a guy who’s got a Pulitzer, an Oscar, a couple Obies and a Tony nomination—better than an EGOT, that’s a “POOTn”! Whatever these screenplays are, I’ll bet they’re pretty good.
But after you heard specifically about “Bernard And Huey,” then you couldn’t find a copy?
Right, so I mentioned this to my producing partner back in Omaha, Dana Altman, who happened to have worked on “Popeye” when he was fourteen. “Popeye” was directed by Robert Altman and adapted by Jules and Dana’s brother was Swee’Pea! So we got in touch with Jules, who said he’d been divorced a few times and everything was in storage. He’d look around and call me back in four months. Four months go by and he still hadn’t found them. “Try me back again in four months,” he said. So I did. This went on for a year-and-a-half. Finally, my buddy Kevin DiNovis said he’d remembered seeing a Feiffer script in Scenario magazine [which published complete produced and unproduced screenplays] back in the nineties. But Feiffer didn’t have his copies: he was divorced, his magazines were stuck in storage and he couldn’t find anything. So I tracked down the only library in America that had copies, the Academy Library in Beverly Hills. I read the script, and loved it! Plus the magazine also had an article explaining the genesis of the script: the characters originated in his Village Voice cartoons dating back to 1957, then he had a monthly full-page, six-panel strip in Playboy from 1982 to 1985 and then Showtime commissioned him to write the screenplay. But! The week he turned in his script, they changed ownership and their whole business model and, on top of all that, didn’t pay him. So he teamed with a producing partner and tried to sell it as a Hollywood feature and had no luck. I called Jules and he said his assistant may have sent an abridged version to the magazine. It might not have been the full script.
So I said, “Okay, let’s call your old assistant and see if she’s got an old floppy disk. “She’s dead.”
“Okay, what about your old agent?” “Dead.”
“And your lawyer?” “No longer among the counted. Dead.”
Finally we tracked down his old producer from the eighties, Michael Brandman, who is still alive, still married and still had his archives. He found the final typed version of the script! But we kept digging and a few months later, I figured out that Jules had donated some of his archives to the Library of Congress in D.C. So my buddy Mike Shubbock in D.C. went there and found the original handwritten copy of the script on yellow legal pads… complete with doodles of the characters and even the dead lawyer’s phone number in the margins! It still took another year and a half or so to clear all the legal rights and get the contract sorted out before we could actually start raising money and casting.
You were in some stage of happy confusion when you first unloaded all this on me, this narrative at Treasure Mountain Inn during Slamdance one year … but then you met Jules? Got even more notes and reflections from him?
I’m not sure exactly what stage of the hunt I was in when I talked to you, it’s a blur! But before we’d even found the script, I ran into Jules’ daughter Halley Feiffer, who coincidentally had a film playing at Slamdance, which I didn’t realize until I got there and met her, but she didn’t know where these scripts were, either.
Why is Jules’ microscope view of terrible men timeless, in the starrier “Carnal Knowledge” as well as here? How aware or concerned were you of the twenty-first century’s perspective of this kind of behavior when reviving the screenplay?
Well, the original script’s contemporary scenes were set in 1986 and the flashbacks were to 1960. As soon as I read it, I told Jules that on my budgets it’s hard enough to do one period movie, much less two, so I suggested we move everything up thirty years and he was cool with that. But we tried to preserve as much of the original dialogue and even the plot. Weirdly, I think if someone had tried to make it fifteen years ago, the temptation would have been to make Zelda a web designer or something digital and that would have changed the story a lot. But with thirty years change, all we did was change Zelda from an aspiring cartoonist who wanted to get into the back pages of the Village Voice, the apex of hip cartooning in the mid-eighties, exactly what Feiffer himself was, to wanting to be a graphic novelist… which is, of course, what Jules is now. Thematically, I knew that this pair of hapless misogynists working their way through the feminist landscape and the sharp women who put up with them could be both timeless and timely. Even when we were rehearsing and shooting the film, it was during the election and Trump’s toxic masculinity was front-and-center in the news. But something Feiffer told me always made sense: When he was doing the cartoon of these guys in Playboy, he was satirizing the very men who bought the magazine. But when Jules and Michael were shopping the script in the mid-eighties, I’ve heard that when they sent it to Spielberg’s company, his then-head of production, Kathleen Kennedy shot back that it was the most misogynistic script she’d ever read. [Kennedy is now the head of Lucasfilm.] So, I’m not always sure that everyone gets that it’s satire. But I think once we inhabited the cast with the amazing women in the film, Sasha Alexander, Mae Whitman, Bellamy Young and Nancy Travis, they all brought to life the female roles much more than was on the page, and it’s clear that their characters really are the ones controlling the narrative of these two little men.
“Bernard and Huey” is available on video-on-demand starting Friday, June 8.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.