Abnormal Interviews: My Cousin Vinny Director Jonathan Lynn

Continuing with our week-long tribute to My Cousin Vinny, we here at Abnormal Use are very proud to present our interview with the film’s director, Jonathan Lynn, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Nick Farr late last year.  In addition to Vinny, Lynn has directed some of our favorite films, including Clue, the legal comedy Trial and Error, and The Whole Nine Yards.  Further, he created and wrote every episode of the hit BBC political comedy series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister.”  Last year, he published Comedy Rules!, a book in which he shares his own personal rules of comedy from his long and varied career. A fun fact: Lynn brought with him some legal experience to Vinny; he earned an M.A. in Law from Cambridge.  As you can read in the interview that follows, Lynn offered interesting insight into how the film transitioned from the page to the screen, some highlights from the sets, and his thoughts on the film’s popularity.

NICK FARR: In 2009, the ABA Journal ranked My Cousin Vinny third in its list of the top legal movies.  Why do you think the film continues to resonate with viewers 20 years later?

JONATHAN LYNN: That’s a good question.  One never knows the answer.  I think films that resonate over a very long period of time have some universal truth in them in the way the characters are portrayed.  I think that the characters of Vinny and Lisa are – were unique.  . . . [Y]ou see so many films where the main characters are more or less interchangeable from one film to another, and these characters have not been seen on the screen before and probably not since.  I think it’s partly great performances, and I think partly that the script tells an enthralling story.  A crime movie is always good if it’s done properly and works well because there’s a lot of tension and a lot of drama involved.  For me personally, what the film was about is how wrong capital punishment is and how people can so easily be executed when they’re not guilty if they’re not adequately represented or if there’s a lack of relevant evidence available.  And we’ve just seen that this week with Troy Davis.  I am profoundly opposed to capital punishment, and I think the film makes that statement.  Although it makes it entertaining and in a way that isn’t preaching to people.

NF: Why do you think the film resonates with lawyers specifically?

JL: I think it’s a bunch of reasons.  First of all, there aren’t any bad guys in the film.  Most films seem to have a corrupt judge or a corrupt prosecutor or there’s somebody who’s a bad guy.  There are no bad guys in Vinny.  . . . [W]e think that a film has to have, in film jargon, a protagonist and an antagonist – the antagonist being the bad guy.  It’s a fact that it would be possible for someone to be convicted of a capital crime when they’re not guilty.  But the judge is not corrupt.  He’s very correct and a little straight-laced, but he’s not a bad guy.  He’s fair.  The prosecutor is more than fair.  Nobody’s doing anything wrong.  I think that’s the way it is in most trials, and I think lawyers are probably happy to see a movie in which the system actually works and in which all the participants behave correctly.  So, I think that’s one aspect of it.  In other words, I think it sort of validates the legal system.  . . . [A]nother reason would be that I think we got it right legally, and I think most trial films don’t.  I was very particular about that being a recovering lawyer myself.  I thought it was very important, and I . . . made a lot of changes [to the] script to make sure that it was completely accurate.  I think the writer, Dale Launer, had also done quite a lot of research.

NF: What types of changes did you make to the script?

JL: I can’t remember, it’s 20 years ago.  There were a lot of little procedural changes.

NF: I understand that you received a MA in Law from Cambridge University.  How did your degree affect your direction of the film?

JL: I would say only in the way which I’ve just said.  It affected it because I wanted to make sure we told the – we got all the legal points correct.  I think that was really important.

NF: How difficult is it to depict the legal process in a film and make it correct [but] where it’s still entertaining and humorous?

JL: What’s difficult is to get studios and producers to agree.  They have a cavalier attitude towards the truth.  I made another legal film later called Trial and Error.  There are some legal errors in that film, and I could not persuade New Line Cinema and . . . my partner producer – I was one of the producers – I could not persuade them to allow me to make necessary changes which I thought would improve the accuracy of the film and would lead to other comic possibilities.

NF: What makes a courthouse an attractive setting for a film?

JL: It’s built-in drama.  That’s why a third of the programs on television are drama series on television are legal series.  It’s built-in drama.  Somebody has to win, somebody has to lose, there are high stakes.  Sometimes, as in the case of Vinny, life or death stakes.  There is nothing more dramatic.  Obviously, you have to cut out all the dull bits.  Alfred Hitchcock said that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”  And obviously that’s true.  . . . [O]ne of the tricky things about the film, making Vinny, was to make sure it all absolutely seemed to be following the trial detail of the whole course.  We hardly ever saw anybody being sworn in as a witness or all the legal paraphernalia that goes with identifying witnesses and identifying evidence, all that kind of thing.  None of that’s actually in the film, and yet it remains completely truthful.  . . . [W]e knew that the audience could assume all that and would know all the things that went on in a courtroom that we didn’t show in the film.

NF: The courthouse scenes were filmed in a courthouse located in Monticello, Georgia, is that correct?

JL: No.  The courthouse is a set.  It was based on the courthouse in Monticello, Georgia, which is where I went to do some research. . . . I watched a murder trial there.  I learned a lot of interesting things on that particular trip.  First of all, it was an African American defendant and a largely white jury.  And the largely white jury found him not guilty, which I thought was an interesting development from how things might have been in the past.  I watched, for instance, the counsel for the prosecution – the prosecutor and the public defender were both quite severe with each other in the courtroom and the judge was meticulous.  But when the jury was out and lunchtime came around, the judge, the prosecutor, and the defender all sat down at one of the tables and had sandwiches and beer together.  I thought that is, of course, an aspect of the whole process that you hardly ever see.  And of course, there wasn’t a place for that in Vinny, although the relationship between the prosecutor and Vinny is actually quite cordial.  Anyway, I watched a murder trial there, and it was very interesting.  I picked up some nice phrases there that got into the script.  When we came to shoot, I said to the production designer this is how I would like it to look.  Well, we couldn’t shoot in there partly because it was a working courthouse.  . . . [W]e couldn’t shoot the courtroom in there.  Because we had a month of shooting, and when you’ve got nearly half a film taking place in one set, you’ve got to keep finding interesting new angles.  I mean, photographic angles.  So, the camera moved behind the judge and behind the witnesses.  Well, that can’t happen in a real courthouse.  There’s a wall behind the judge.  So, we had walls that flew in and out.  We needed to be able to reproduce weather, sometimes sunshine outside the courthouse, sometimes rain.  There are all kinds of reasons why you need to build a set.  Mainly to do with the room to maneuver all the cameras and to get enough different angles. The other rooms in the courthouse are, in fact, shot on location there.  The judge’s office is the real office.  The prosecutor’s office.  Those are all actually authentic location scenes.

NF: Throughout the course of the trial, Vinny refutes the testimony of each of the state’s eyewitnesses.  What does the film say about the reliability of eyewitness testimony?

JL: It says it’s not very reliable, which is what absolutely all independent research shows.  It also shows that people place a great deal too much reliance on eyewitness testimony.

NF: After Vinny casts doubt on the testimony of each of the eyewitnesses, the testimony of the state’s expert witness, played by James Rebhorn, became critical to its case.  However, his testimony was also later refuted.  So what does the film say about the use of expert testimony?

JL: Well, it says firstly that experts can be wrong, which will not come as a shock to any lawyer.  And secondly, it says – it doesn’t say, but it could have said, that experts will say whatever you want them to say if you pay them.  Now, that’s not strictly speaking true, because a lot of expert witnesses are ethical people.  But you can always find somebody to pay to come along who will argue what you want them to argue.  Or nearly always.  And I think what it says is that you have to proceed very carefully, that trials . . . are delicate business and it is very easy for the wrong person to be convicted.  . . . [W]hat should be inferred is that prosecutors should stop announcing to the world that . . . they’ve found the villain, they’ve found the criminal before a trial has taken place.  I came from England where that’s forbidden.  They say a man has been arrested or a woman has been arrested and is helping the police with their inquiries, and then they say “So and So” has been charged.  Not a word after that until the trial is reported.  Because anything said between charging the person and the trial would be construed by the British court as contempt of court.

NF: So there’s not a Court TV or a Nancy Grace commenting on every stage of the trial?

JL: No, because nobody would know.  . . . Yes, there is commenting on the stage of the trial once the trial is happening.  But there aren’t two trials.  There isn’t another trial taking place on the courtroom steps.  There isn’t a media trial in advance of the real trial.

NF: Throughout the film, there is a culture clash between the north and the south, and there are some stereotypes portrayed on both sides.  What was it like to portray this dynamic from a British point of view?

JL: I would say they’re not stereotypes, first of all.  You could argue that they’re archetypes, which is quite different.  I would say that they’re not stereotypes because in most American movies southerners are portrayed as rednecks or as stupid or as ill-educated or some other critical way.  This judge went to Yale.  He’s highly educated, and he’s highly intelligent.  The prosecutor is Jim Trotter, III, which suggests there was a first and a second, and that he’s from a wealthy and successful family.  I think the culture clash, because I’m British, I think it’s a class clash.  I think Vinny and Lisa are blue collar, or as we would say, working class.  He was a garage mechanic, and he’s become a lawyer by attending adult education.  She’s a hairdresser from a family of mechanics.  I mean, these are clearly working class people.  They’re up against, in the south, upper class people.  They’re up against people with old money and lots of class and courteous, well behaved – more or less the opposite of the southern stereotype, as seen in the films.  For me, it’s a clash between two different classes.

NF: What about this clash between two classes makes for a good backdrop for a film?

JL: Well, all conflict makes for a good backdrop for a film.  And that’s a very good source of conflict.  Frank Capra’s films were almost all about class differences.  Usually between the romantic characters, a man and a woman.  There’s a long tradition for this in American and British films.  But I think that essentially the important point is to see it from everybody’s point of view.  I think we understand Vinny and Lisa, and we also understand the judge and the prosecutor and the sheriff.  I think one of the reasons why the film resonates, to get back to your first question, is because the audience can have a warm and friendly feeling towards all of these people.

NF: Can you recall any funny moments from the set?

JL: No.  There were lots of things that were in the script that were funny when they were played.  I suppose the one time that I was utterly convulsed was when Austin Pendleton, playing the public defender, stood up to make his opening speech to the jury and couldn’t get a word out.  Austin is a very old friend of mine, and I knew he would be really funny in that part.  But I really didn’t quite imagine just how funny.  And I had to literally hide behind the camera.  I normally sit by the camera.  But I had to hide because I was laughing so hard.  I had to somehow stop myself from making a sound, and I couldn’t let Austin be put off by seeing me.  So, to me that was undoubtedly – that’s the funniest moment I’ve had on any film I’ve ever made.

NF: What was it like to work with Joe Pesci?

JL: He’s a brilliant actor.  He’s an absolutely brilliant actor.  It was an interesting issue that had to be solved because his whole persona at that time was of a bad guy, a dangerous guy.  He’d just made Goodfellas.  In fact, while we were shooting Vinny, he won the Oscar for that.  But the perception of Joe was of a mean guy and Vinny had to be – he’s belligerent and argumentative, but you had to love him.  I think Joe worked very hard on that and made it a great success.

NF: Can you tell our readers anything about your new book, Comedy Rules!?

JL: Yes.  I wrote a play that was – and still is – called, “Yes, Prime Minister.”  And directed it.  The publisher of the play said to me, “Could you write a book about the rules of comedy?”  And I said, “No, there aren’t any.  That’s an impossible task.”  A couple of months later, I was teaching at the AFI, the American Film Institute, and I was talking about comedy and realized all the things that I was saying were, in fact, rules of comedy.  So I got back in touch with the publisher and said, “I can’t do a book on the rules of comedy, but I could do a book on my rules of comedy.”  And she said, “Great.”  So, I did.  She said, “It’s got to have a lot of you in it.”  So, it’s basically sort of part memoir and part rules of comedy.  Basically, what it is, I give all my rules of comedy, and it’s a memoir in that I explain how I discovered them or was taught them.  And people seem to find it funny, and it had unanimously good reviews.  So, I’m very happy about it.

NF: My editor would be very angry with me if I did not ask this last question.  Is it true that there was a fourth ending film for the movie Clue that was not included in the film?

JL: Yes.  It is true.

NF: What became of that ending?

JL: I have no idea.  I cut it out because it really wasn’t very good.  I looked at it, and I thought, “No, no, no, we’ve got to get rid of that.”

You can learn more about Lynn’s films and career by visiting his official website here.

(To see a full index of our My Cousin Vinny twentieth anniversary coverage, please see here.).