Abnormal Interviews: Actor James Marshall of “A Few Good Men”

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our week-long tribute to A Few Good Men with an interview with James Marshall, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Rob Green earlier this year. In the film, Marshall’s character, Pfc. Louden Downey, was one of the accused Marines defended by Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Marshall’s credits include roles in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Gladiator, and “China Beach.” Our interview with Marshall, which features his memories of the filming and set and observations on his acting career, is as follows:

ABNORMAL USE:  It’s kind of hard to believe it’s been 20 years since that movie came out.  It kind of seems like it was almost just yesterday.  How has it been for you, I mean, does it feel like it’s been 20 years?

JAMES MARSHALL:  No.  Not at all.  One of the funny things about it is A Few Good Men seems to be playing almost every night, it’s not like weekly, like every other day, it was on some channel. To me, it was such a unique part of my life.  That’s why when I look at some of the guys, everybody is starting to look a little older, and I think, wait a minute, that can’t be happening, we just did that.  It was such a great opportunity to be a part of something that cool and that big.

AU:  That was such a big name cast that you guys had in that movie.  How was it filming a movie with all those big names, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon?

JM:  It was literally – at first that kind of feeling like maybe skydiving feeling.  At first, I was really, really scared. Even going to the set for the first time for the first rehearsal.  I genuinely had a feeling of like, “Whoa.”  Every day, it was like very surrealistic, very dreamlike in a really good way.  It was just so cool.  There were so many people walking around, and you’ve got to understand, these people who are that big have friends.  So, they had their big movie star friends visiting the set.  There were some I didn’t get to know, but the ones that I dealt with mainly were Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak.  I only spoke to Jack a couple of times, but I just watched how he dealt with peopl,e and he was a very good person to look at for that kind of thing.  As big of a star as he is, from the extras to just anybody, if somebody asked him a question, he just was right there looking them in the eyes and answering.  It was very cool.

AU:  Your role in the movie, you played Pfc. Louden Downey, who was a young Marine wrongfully accused of murder, what sort of background research or what did you do to prepare for that particular role of playing a Marine?

JM:  Well, the Marine stuff, that initially I had worked on a military movie called Cadence that was directed by Martin Sheen that  starred Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen, and Larry Fishburne.  It was shot in Canada, and we actually had to shoot it twice.  So, I actually went through real two boot camps to prepare for that movie, which was pretty much the kind of thing that you don’t forget.  Yeah, I had had it pounded in for many months before the shoot of Cadence.   I was a little rusty by the time A Few Good Men came around, but it came back pretty quickly. Somebody on the set actually came up to me, I think it was the first day, and said, “You’ve got to get these guys, they’re marching’s horrible. ” And I go, “You guys need to do this and that to march properly.”

RG:  Anything else?

JM:  I also got to see A Few Good Men on Broadway when I was in New York doing promotions for “Twin Peaks.”  This was way before A Few Good Men was thought of as a movie, they were probably just talking about it.  And I got to see the Broadway show, they took me to the show and stuff.  So, seeing the other guys’ performance, what he did with Downey and stuff, really helped me to, because on stage it’s much bigger, broader, so it helped me to understand how his character was.  Because on film, you tend to downplay things.  And had I not seen what they did on stage, I may have downplayed it too much.  It gave me a good background emotionally where the characters were.

RG:  Now, you had so many big names in the film, but the actor you shot the majority of your scenes with, Wolfgang Bodison, that was his first role wasn’t it?

JM:  Yeah.  He’d never – he wasn’t an actor.  He was Rob Reiner’s assistant, actually, and I think Rob just started looking around because he was having trouble finding the right person for the part, and Rob thought Wolfgang just looked perfect for the part. So, I think Rob just read him and made sure he could do it, and yeah, that was that.  He was a good guy, too.

RG:  A Few Good Men is considered to be one of the best legal movies and, in fact, the American Bar Association named it number 14 on the list of 25 greatest legal movies of all time.  What do you think makes the movie resonate so well with so many people, whether lawyers or not, after all these years?

JM:  There’s all-star casts with many movies, and they just come and go sometimes. I mean, the script is phenomenal, and there was a certain something in that script that was very special. Even when I saw it on stage, that time in New York, there was something about it that vibrated.  . . . [S]omething about it had a life of its own.  I’ve gotta hand it to Rob Reiner. When you have Rob Reiner come on, who dealt with everything so responsibly, he had the emotion in everything he did.  He is also able to humanize all of the characters. He dimensionally showed you through his direction of each character, what they’re doing when they’re not in uniform, and what they’re doing off the job.  Then, he was willing to go to a place that was really, really almost emotionally invested in the character by giving a sense of vulnerability of each character.  Like Nicholson’s character’s vulnerability was his arrogance, you know what I mean?  I mean, the movie’s just so dynamic, and it moves so well, without being self-conscious and artificial, has this great old school Hollywood movie feel to it, which makes you feel good about.  There’s something so redeeming, and it’s the fact that they – it just feels good to be human for a minute, and that’s really what, that’s really to me what theater and Hollywood is about ultimately.  It makes you interested in life, inspired about life, and to feel good about being human.  And most movies don’t do that. It’s either a thrill ride, or whatever, or an attempt at something like A Few Good Men, and usually it falls short.  No, you know what it was, it was a compilation of incredibly talented people coming together with a really, really good story.

AU:  Do you have a particular scene or a particular moment from the movie that kinda stands out to you that you particularly look back on with and go “Wow, that was just amazing”?

JM:   There’s probably a couple of parts.  There’s the final scene with the classic build-up of Jack Nicholson’s character [“You can’t handle the truth!”] and the fireworks . . . between Cruise and Kevin Bacon with Demi Moore and Nicholson, and you just feel their – it’s like where it’s going to go, how is this going to happen and it’s happening so effortlessly and quickly, and then – that’s something that everybody remembers. But as far as other stuff, for me, when I see some of the scenes, some of the scenes make me remember what we were doing at the time, that kind of thing.  And it’s like when I look at scenes at the table in the courtroom, sometimes with Demi, Tom, and Wolfgang, we’d be sitting there for hours because of other thingsoff camera.  And then we’d also have Kevin Pollak there.  He’s a comedian.  Between takes, Kevin would be making jokes, and it was just tremendously funny stuff coming from him. Then, Demi would stick something in, and Kevin would crack up. And Rob Reiner would come over and hear it and start laughing.  It’s little moments like that stand out.  But yeah, I don’t remember a lot of things from most movie shoots, but A Few Good Men, I remember nearly every day.  It was so dynamic.  It was just . . .  it was overwhelming.

AU:  One of the interesting aspects of the movie that I found as a former JAG officer was the interplay or tension for most of the movie between Kaffee and Dawson and Downey with, you have Kaffee’s kind of laid back lawyerly personality and then you have the very militaristic Dawson and Downey – do you know how that aspect of the movie came to be?  Was it just something that Aaron Sorkin wrote in, was it something that Rob Reiner developed?  Do you know where that came from?

JM:  Actually I think those were the dynamics of the play, so I think a lot of that was Aaron’s stuff that was in there already.  I’m pretty sure, yeah.  It was, everybody was pretty well defined from the play and from the initial script.

AU:  Do you think you get recognized most for your role in “Twin Peaks” or A Few Good Men?

JM:  A Few Good Men.

RG:  Definitely?

JM:  Yeah, because “Twin Peaks,” although it had a bit of a cult following, I think everybody has seen A Few Good Men. And like I said, A Few Good Men is on television a lot.  I also tend to look more like the A Few Good Men character.  On “Twin Peaks,” I had dark black hair, blah, blah, blah.  And the role was an ensemble cast.  It was a whole different thing.  But yeah, I’d say definitely A Few Good Men.

Abnormal Interviews: Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners and makers of legal themed popular culture. For the latest installment, we turn to Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which bills itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of the First Amendment rights of the comics art form and its community of retailers, creators, publishers, librarians, and readers.” In so doing, it “provides legal referrals, representation, advice, assistance, and education in furtherance of these goals.”  Sounds like the perfect candidate for an interview by comic-loving legal bloggers, right? Brownstein was kind enough to submit to a brief interview about the Fund and, of course, legal comics. So, without further ado, the interview is as follows:

Nick Farr: Can you begin by telling our readers a little bit about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund?

Charles Brownstein: Sure. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was established in 1986 to protect the First Amendment rights of the comic book art forum.  Ever since then, we’ve participated in dozens of cases providing legal support and paying for legal bills pertaining to cases involving retailers, artists and increasingly readers who are being criminally prosecuted in connection with exercising their First Amendment rights.

NF:  How does the Fund decide what cases to take?

CB:  The way our case selection process works is that people come to us with an aid need, and we present that need to our Board of Directors, who then will vote on the case, whether we can take it or not. The guiding principle is always whether the material – whether the case at issue is a First Amendment-based case where the comic is either being prosecuted as a result of sale or prosecuted as a result of being read or created are protected and that this is a case where the First Amendment is being violated.

NF: What percentage of the cases are criminal versus civil?

CB:  I don’t have an exact percent breakdown, but the majority of our work is criminal oriented.  We have done some civil defense from time to time in incidents where an artist might be civilly prosecuted by an organization that is alleging that their parody work is infringement or dilution of their rights, but those cases are fairly rare.  The majority of the work that we get and the majority of the work that’s coming in frankly tends to be criminal in nature.

NF:  Can you tell us about some of the successes of the Fund?

CB:  Absolutely.  Most recently, the Fund was leading a coalition to defend an American citizen who was being unlawfully prosecuted in Canada. When I say unlawfully, there were excesses in the arrest, and he was being prosecuted under the allegation of possession of obscene child pornography for possession of constitutionally protected comics.  And thanks to our efforts in developing a very strong defense, Canada dropped the charges against this American citizen.  That case is R. v. Matheson.  The defendant, Mr. Ryan Matheson, is a comic reader from Minnesota. This is part of a growing generation of cases involving governments in Canada and the United States prosecuting individuals for the contents of the comics that they’re reading. As we speak, there’s a case that is pending here in the states that I can’t really speak in detail about involving an American citizen prosecuted by our law enforcement here.  So that is a very concerning area because we’re seeing these laws that are designed to protect real people being misapplied to the consumers of constitutionally protected art work.  Other successes of the Fund we’ve managed over our history are a variety of cases where we’ve successfully defended retailers who were being prosecuted by local law enforcement for selling constitutionally protected material and the most recent of those is Georgia v. Gordon Lee, which was a case in Rome, Georgia, where a retailer was wrongly prosecuted for allegedly distributing harmful materials to minors.  It took three years and several shenanigans on behalf of the prosecutor where they threw out the facts and then refilled the facts and changed their story several times, but at the end of it we were able to successfully defend Mr. Lee who had not performed the crime that they accused him of. Most importantly, we were able to make sure that constitutionally protected material didn’t suffer a setback in court.

NF:  What are some of the most egregious cases that you’ve seen through the years?

CB:  Probably the – the most disconcerting case is one that happened pretty early in the Fund’s development which was Florida v. Mike Diana.  This is a case involving a comic book artist in Florida who was ultimately prohibited from drawing in his own home.  Mike Diana was a cartoonist that was creating comics for distribution through local stores and through the mail back in the time when there were networks of underground trading going on. He was first pulled aside by local law enforcement that found his physical description matched a suspect they were looking for in a murder investigation. When they realized that he was not the person they were looking for but had looked through his comics and were disturbed by them, they created a sting operation where one of the police officers engaged in a correspondence with Mike and ultimately purchased his comics through the mail.  In doing so, that gave them the warrant to arrest him and he was prosecuted for creation and distribution of obscene material.  Now, Mike’s comics are from a tradition of underground comics that were speaking of – speaking satirically in a kind of outsider art visual idiom about some of the more egregious social issues of the day.  So his comics were black satire about religion and about sexual abuse and about many of the evils that were plaguing society, and he was applying an underground cartoonist editorial point of view to it. Unfortunately, in his case being brought before a jury in Florida, the jury just did not find that there was artistic merit and Mike was ultimately convicted. Despite the efforts of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the efforts of the ACLU on the appeal, that conviction was upheld.  And so, yes, most egregiously an American citizen was told that they were unable to draw in their own home.

NF:  Once you get word of a case, do you work with local counsel or does the Fund handle the representation?

CB:   The CBLDF has – our outside general counsel is Bob Corn Revere of Davis, Wright, Tremaine who’s an extremely experienced First Amendment litigator and who manages the case work that comes in.  By that we mean that Bob will identify the case, make recommendations for the Board and then if we take the case, we’ll locate local counsel that is best equipped to wage the case.  And then we work in a very hands-on capacity with that counsel, supervising how the work’s being done and providing them with access to our network of experts to manage the case.

NF:  At Abnormal Use, we write a good deal about the depictions of lawyers and the legal system in comics.  Do you have a personal favorite depiction of lawyers or the legal system in a comic?

CB:   It’ll take a minute to think about.  I hadn’t anticipated that. Batton Lash at Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre is always an amusing look at lawyers and an amusing look at a variety of classic comics genres. I think that’s supernaturallaw.com is his website.  And it’s hard to argue with Matt Murdock, right?

NF:   Do you have any opinions on the most egregious depiction of lawyers in comics?

CB:   You know, lawyers are kinda set dressing in comics.  There really has never been a good literary or thriller depiction of lawyers or law, really.  We’re really good at depicting fantasies about law enforcement, but we’re not so good about the other side of the law.

NF:  In closing, is there anything in particular that you’d want our readers to know about the Fund that they would not have known beforehand?

CB:  I think – right now we’re in the middle of an extremely disconcerting trend where readers are finding themselves vulnerable to prosecution for the contents of the art that they read. As we move into a more robust visual communications environment, this problem becomes much more serious. So the Fund is actively working to participate with folks in doing local CLE sorts of seminars where we talk about the history of our casework, and we talk about the current realm of cases.  Because we feel that it’s extremely important that more individuals know their rights and it’s extremely important that more folks in the legal system or in the legal community are connected with this area of casework that’s emerging.  So I strongly encourage the readers if they’re interested in helping us spread the word about these generations of cases and helping us spread the word about getting these rights into the readership community to please contact us at info@cbldf.org because that’s an increasingly important area. Ultimately, nobody should ever go to jail for reading comic books, making comic books, or selling comic books, and as the fight changes, so do we to stay on top of everything.

BIOGRAPHY: Charles Brownstein is the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Prior to working with the Fund, he served as Programming Director for Comic-Con International in 1998 and 1999, where he developed and managed the panels and special events for Comic-Con. Brownstein is also the publisher of the award-winning interview book Eisner/Miller, and the Eisner and Harvey nominated monograph The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen. You follow Brownstein on Twitter here.

Abnormal Interviews: Actress Myra Turley, the “Seinfeld” Finale Jury Foreperson

We here at Abnormal Use love “Seinfeld.” We have a bit of an obsession, in fact. You’ll recall that way back in 2010, we interviewed Phil Morris, the actor who played Jackie Chiles, the flamboyant Plaintiff’s attorney who represented Kramer on several occasions. Not too long ago, we interviewed veteran character actor James Rebhorn, who played the district attorney in the “Seinfeld” series finale who prosecuted Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George for violation of a Good Samaritan statute. (You’ll recall that Chiles defended the “Seinfeld” gang in that finale.). So, being the completists that we are, we sought ought actress Myra Turley, who played the jury foreperson in the series finale who read the verdict against our “Seinfeld” heroes. Not only did she appear on “Seinfeld,” she’s also been featured on some of our other favorite shows, including “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and even “The Misfits of Science.” You can see the “Seinfeld” verdict scene, and Turley’s role therein, here. She was kind enough to agree to an interview, which we present below.

JIM DEDMAN: You played the jury foreman who reached the verdict that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in the “Seinfeld” finale back in 1998, how did that come to be?

MYRA TURLEY: Well, Larry David, who is the creator of “Seinfeld.” I used to lease an apartment in New York City. I knew Larry, and before the big finale, I got a call from Larry, [he] said, “Myra, you want to be in the finale? I have a small but pivotal part!” So, it was a small, but pivotal, part.  I said, “Sure,” and that’s how that happened.

JD: Well, it certainly was pivotal. How does it feel to be the one who condemned the “Seinfeld” gang to jail?

MT: Well, they shot it both ways, because there was so much hype about the finale  . . . [P]eople [were] trying to find out what happened, [so] they shot it with both endings, them getting free, and them getting guilty . . . .

They didn’t shoot the [whole] scene twice . . .  [Just f]rom the point on where I announced guilty, and their reaction, and then the what happens afterwards, and [then] our not guilty, and their reaction, and then what happens afterwards.  So they shot from that part on twice.  Not anything up to that.

AU: One of the things we always ask is what efforts are made to realistically depict the courtroom process, and obviously, in a comedy like “Seinfeld,” that’s not the chief concern. But were there folks on the set that were explaining how the procedure works and that sought of thing?

MT: Yeah, they have legal advisers and military advisers or police advisers or hospital advisers usually on a set if they’re going to do something.  I do have one funny story, if I may tell it, about being the jury foreman .

AU: Certainly.

MT: I was called a couple of years after that to do jury duty in downtown L.A.; and it was a [criminal] case, and it was right before the . . . Christmas holidays, and it went on for a week, and it should never have gone on for a week. And we broke the day before Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve was on a Saturday. At 3:00 the judge said, “You have to go get a foreman and come in with a verdict on four counts. If you don’t do it, you will have to come back the day after Christmas . . . .”  . . . [S]omebody said, “[H]as anyone ever been a foreman before?”, and I said, “I was, on ‘Seinfeld'”, and they said, “You do it, then.”  We did it, and we came in with a verdict on the four counts, and we were out by 4:00, and we didn’t have to come back after Christmas.  It should have never gone to trial, and we gave the verdict, and the judge said, “I agree, and if any of you are willing to stay and talk to a very young district attorney about why you came to that verdict we would appreciate it.”  It was not guilty.

AU: You played Judge Carla DeCosta on “Family Law.”

MT: Yes.

AU:  How did you prepare to play the role of a judge?

MT: I talked to a friend who is a family lawyer to understand the difference between family court and civil and criminal; and basically, the difference I discovered, was there was no jury.

AU: Do you remember what type of direction you received as an actor playing a judge on that show?

MT: You don’t really receive direction.  . . . In television, they work so fast that you basically get blocking direction.  You come in with the audition, having done the work, and they like what you have done, and then they tweak it one way or another, but there is not a lot of direction, just like a tweak.

AU: You have appeared on a number of other legal dramas from “L.A. Law” and “Family Law” to “Judging Amy.”  What is it about the legal system do you think makes it such a popular subject matter for television shows?

MT: There are basically only five kinds of television shows.  You have your medical shows, your cop shows, your lawyer shows, your office shows, and your family shows, and maybe you can take a tweak on any one of them, but they all fall into those categories.  An office show might be your spaceship because it could have been “Star Trek,” but that’s your office, essentially, and then the style of the show could be science fiction, or it could be really nitty gritty like a procedural one like “CSI.” “Law & Order,” that’s a combination cop and lawyer.  So, that’s basically what television has been for the hour dramas.

AU: Do you think that actors and lawyers require a similar skill set on some level?

MT: If they are trial lawyers, yes.

AU: What types of skills do you think that actors and trial lawyers might share?

MT: Well, they have to play a strong intention or really clear intention of what they want, what they are going for.  . . . I would imagine for lawyers it is quite structured. You have to set this up, and then set this up, and then set this up, before you can make that deduction.  You have to lead the audience, the jury, into thinking this way, and an actor  . . . is a story teller, and the story is told and usually, on detective shows or law shows, we may not know exactly who the guilty person is in the beginning, and we may be led down this path, it’s a mystery, you don’t want to know in the beginning because then there is no suspense.  Also, with lawyers having the ability to speak and affect a jury’s emotions.

AU: I want to switch gears.  I mentioned in the beginning I wanted to ask you about some of your work in non-legal shows, and very recently you played Katherine Olson, the mother of Peggy Olson, on “Mad Men.”

MT: I’ve done that one for about five years.

AU: What is it like to be on the set of that show?

MT: It’s great.  I loved the show the first season, just loved it.  I love the idea of the question that he is asking, “How did we meet as society from Dwight Eisenhower to Woodstock in ten years?”, and I love, love the fact that the arc of the story is not completed in one hour which is really 44 minutes . . . that he arcs it over a whole season, over a whole five seasons, so I do like that.  I love the character that I play.

AU: From what I have read, they go to extreme efforts to make the props and the set design as accurate as possible. Is it like being back in that time period?

MT: Absolutely.  I remembered the first day I walked on the set in 2008, and I ran into Matt Weiner, who was the creator, walked me around the set and showed me that this is the kitchen, this is this, and this is this, and as he was walking by – that scene was set in 1962, he was walking by, and he noticed something, and he called his prop guy.  “That picture of John Kennedy wasn’t taken until 1963, it’s wrong.” He is so detailed oriented.  So detailed oriented, and you feel like you’re in a time warp when you go back there.  They wore under garments that are of that style, certainly not the one’s you would wear today.  The dresses are fit very differently.  Women’s body shapes were very different.  Hair, makeup.

AU: Well, that is not the only great AMC show that you have been on.  You were on the recent season finale of “Breaking Bad,” playing the nurse to Hector Salamanca, who was played by Mark Margolis.  What was it like working with him and with Vince Gilligan, who directed that episode?

MT: Vince Gilligan is a genius.  I loved “The X-Files,” and he creates such suspense, and he also goes into incredible detail, and the thing I had to do for most of this was work with Vince because Hector Salamanca doesn’t speak. He only has to communicate with a bell, and he works with kind of like a plexiglass see through, he can see, and I can see with letters, and pointing to letters that spell out what he is trying to communicate.  So most directors, creators, people, producers, would give you maybe one or two letters and then cut it to get the message, but Vince took every single one and discovered . . . and shot it a different way that it was such a way of building up the suspense knowing that something was going to happen.  . . . He is an incredible genius at building up dread, suspense, something keeping the audience on their tinker hooks.

AU: Well, that bell proves to be very important to one of the final scenes, as well in the undoing of the character played by Giancarlo Esposito.  What did you think of that final scene with Mark Margolis and him?

MT: Well I had sat next to Giancarlo in makeup, and then watching the prosthetics going on.  It was a prosthetics on half of his face, and he loved the fact that only half of his face received the blast.  So it was a combination . . . a lot of it was done with prosthetics, and then they did some in post production, they did some computer graphics post production, but very little.  That was quite a shot.  The first thing was you did all the work, and then the first scene was the explosion, and there was rubble all over the hallway and in the room, and having figured out how Giancarlo was going to fall, he wanted him to fall flat on his face, fall straight down, and come out see hm with a normal face, and then shoot it so you see the explosion of the face and then have him fall straight down and having him do that with all the rubble. It took a long time to shoot that, being he’s a perfectionist, he is a genius and a perfectionist, and I think it works brilliantly.

AU:  Any other fond memories you have from being a part of the “Seinfeld” finale, 14 years ago?

MT: Wow, wow.  How come I haven’t aged?  Next door to Stage One, Bill Maher was shooting his first show with . . . it wasn’t “Real Time with Bill Maher,” it wasn’t “Politically Incorrect,” it was kind of a pre-one, a pilot leading up to that, so he was always over on the set, and people would go over and check out his rehearsals and stuff like that, so that was a small world.  Huge crowds, huge, huge, huge, crowds.  It was almost like anyone who had ever been on the show was a guest star or was in the audience watching.  . . . [P]eople who had been friends with Larry or any of the cast, they were all there.  So it was a very festive party atmosphere, and yet it was so secretive.

AU: One more question for you. You mentioned that they shot it both ways, guilty and not guilty. You obviously were there on the set. Which one do you think was the right verdict for Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer?

MT:  Guilty.

Abnormal Interviews: Rodney Smolla, Lawyer and President of Furman University [Part 2 of 2]

Last week, in a series of posts, we analyzed the law school paradigm through a product liability lens.  Accordingly, we posed some questions to someone who has unique perspective on such issues.To that end, today, we continue our series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which we conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners and other commentators in the field.  For this installment, we turn once again to Rodney Smolla, President of Furman University right here in Greenville, South Carolina.  As we noted in the first part of our interview with him yesterday, President Smolla is a former practicing attorney and former Dean of Washington and Lee University School of Law, where he worked to overhaul the school’s third year curriculum.  Yesterday’s interview focused on ethics and general practice issues, while today, we focus directly on legal education.

ABNORMAL USE: What is the goal of a legal education in your opinion?  Is it “to think like a lawyer?” Or is it to be prepared from a practical standpoint to actually practice law in the real world?

RS: . . . [I]t is not either of those two things because the practice of law is not either of those two things primarily.  The practice of law is not the manipulation of legal doctrine and legal theory and thinking like a lawyer very much because we all do that and we all do that equally well.  We all largely master that after the first year of law school; so the basic tools of thinking like a lawyer, which is the famous mantra that is listed forever and is enormously important, but 90 percent of that work is accomplished in the first year of law school.  The mechanics of law practice are important but easily learned in practice and to some degree usually learned even within law school.  But most lawyers are not paid because they are good mechanics.  Eighty percent of law practice, I’d argue, and the thing that you get really paid to do, and the thing that distinguishes the best from the average lawyers, from the substandard lawyers, is judgment.  Judgment, problem solving, advising clients, counseling clients, advocating for clients is almost entirely judgment.  What law schools largely ignored was that middle band of practicing law, which is everything.  It’s taking the intellectual part, the understanding of res ipsa loquitur, the understanding of strict liability standards, the understanding of failure to warn doctrine, the understanding of inherently dangerous products theory, all of which are relatively easy to master in their basic intellectual component in a first-year torts course, and maybe a second or third-year products liability course, all those legal doctrines, the theories, the economics behind different approaches, are intellectually interesting.  But most good law students get it and understand what res ipsa loquitur is or they understand the difference between strict liability and negligence, they understand assumption of risk, they understand those doctrines.  We don’t get paid by our client to recite those doctrines, nor do we get paid because we understand the rules of the local court system on interrogatories or request for documents.

What we get paid for is translating that into the messy picture of a product that explodes and injures somebody, the multiple parties that were involved, the economic pros and cons of settling rather than pursuing the matter, the human factors that will influence what we think a jury would do, what we think an appellate court would do, or the trial judge would do, the business interests of the client, the full range of matters that are implicated if we recalled this product or don’t, if we add this warranty or don’t, if we settle this case or don’t, the creativity it may take to come up with different ways to resolve the case, different ways to defend the case, or if you are on the plaintiff’s side, different ways to bring the case to the plaintiff’s side – that’s all judgment, creativity, relationships with client, relationships with opposing counsel, that is the art of practicing law.  It’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s heavily dependent on facts, heavily dependent on the human equation, and law schools need to do better in exposing students to that, exposing students to problem-solving, to creativity, to how you interact with clients, how you interact with opposing counsel, how you interact with judges.  People who have criticized either law schools that are entirely theoretical or law schools that are pointed to as being pedestrian because they are too practical, I think missed the boat.  What you want is to work on that middle range.  I think that law schools for a long time ignored that range but they are starting to move and you’re starting to see a transformation.  What will evolve from that is a healthy blend of the kind of classical first-year instruction that we have, basic courses, some building on that in upper-class courses, but a richer mix of about a third to a half of the rest of law school being more problem-oriented, simulation of legal problems, less concerned with teaching a lot of doctrine, and more concerned with teaching students how to translate that into the kinds of judgment that you have to make as a lawyer.  That’s a long answer but I hope that builds for you in what you want to do.

AU: As dean of the law school at Washington & Lee University, you overhauled the third year curriculum, perhaps to address these issues of judgment as part of a legal education.  Tell us some of the specifics that you implemented for the new third year program.

RS: The Washington & Lee program was very dramatic, and I was very proud of the law faculty and very proud of the law school that it had the courage to take the steps it did.  The decision was to make a dramatic statement, turning the entire third year into a simulation of law practice, for actual practice experiences through the clinics that the law school ran, to reduce the number of subjects and just have a few subjects in which the student would be intensely engaged in the kinds of things I have described, with an eye towards teaching judgment, professionalism, writing, argument, conflict resolution, and what it really takes to practice law at a sophisticated level.  So the decision was made to do that, and after I left, the decision was made to continue to do it.  So it wasn’t just something that I personally was a champion of that the school embarked upon and is committed to for its future.  I am very proud of Washington & Lee for having the leadership in American legal education to do that and the law faculty continues to make adjustments.  They find things that work well, things that don’t work as well, and as you would expect, it continues to always try to tinker and improve it.  But the basic notion of making that third year a true transition to practice, is something they remain committed to.

AU: Were there any models at other law schools that you looked to when Washington & Lee was designing its own program?

RS: There were many models for individual courses; so we found examples at almost every law school in the country of a particular professor who taught a course that adopted new sorts of principles.  There was nobody that made the commitment to turn the entire third-year experience into that and to make it mandatory.  Of course, there were many law schools that had heavily emphasized clinical experience and may have made clinics the entire experience of a semester, for example.  Because we wanted this to be comprehensive and be available for every part of the curriculum, clinics were part of the mix of the Washington & Lee solution, but were only about a quarter of that mix.  The other 75 percent were simulations of law practice that covered many areas that traditionally weren’t the kinds of subjects where you’d have law clinics.  So that was very innovative and a real instructive change.

The other point worth making is we wanted to take the law school and put it out into the profession and also bring the profession into the law school.  We developed a lot of partnerships with law firms, lawyers, and judges in the area, and by the area, I mean not just Lexington, but reaching all the way to Washington and Charlotte and across Virginia and even relationships sometimes with lawyers who commuted from other major metropolitan areas to be part of this, which was a real commitment on their part.  We said we don’t want you to be an adjunct professor in the traditional sense; we don’t want you to come and teach a law school course in a traditional sense, we want you to treat this as if these are young lawyers in your law firm that you are bringing in on a matter in which you were the lead counsel and these were your associates and you’re walking them through their first grade products liability case or their first bankruptcy proceeding.  They are working side-by-side with you, through the first draft of materials to begin to interview clients and do the sorts of things that you would do; so we don’t want you to come be a law professor, or mentor, in the shelter of a law school environment, where your students get do-overs, and there’s no real client injured.  We found that practicing lawyers in law firms loved doing that and were very generous with their time and willing to be part of it; often we were able to pair a law firm with a member of the faculty, and as a team, they would create these experiences.  It was a marvelous growth experience for our law students.

AU: Do you see that sort of curriculum being the future of legal education or do you think it will remain entrenched in the Socratic method and case studies?

RS: I hope it’s the future and I am going to continue to be a champion for it being the future.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the Socratic method.  I love teaching first-year students.  I used to be a torts teacher.  I loved teaching first-year torts.  I loved teaching constitutional law, but I think after about a year of that, or a year and a half of that, it’s outlived its usefulness and the students have mastered that and they know how to think like lawyers.  Then we need to help them grow in other ways.

The other thing I believe is there was once a time, maybe 80 years ago in which the law school curriculum covered just about every subject matter that existed in American legal practice but the law has exploded.  You could never keep up with legal doctrine, you could never keep up with the expanse of subjects, and even within a field, if you’re just talking about the regulatory environment, the doctrinal environment, even within something like products liability law, you could never hope to master all the intricacies of all of the doctrines and the evolution of products law within a particular band of a particular industry in law school.  So you might as well give up that, because that’s not the point of being a lawyer.  The lawyer can keep up with their one area or their few areas and master what’s going on there and they go to conferences, subscribe to services, and so on – you want students to learn, master areas on your own, keep up with it, but there’s no way you’re going to get all of that in law school and that’s not the point of law school.  The point is that it’s to help you develop these competencies, not some pile of law that’s in your head.

AU: Today, there is an ongoing debate about the cost of a legal education, or for that matter any higher education, the debt load that creates for many students, and the value of that education, i.e. the salary the graduates of the institution can earn with their degrees.  Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

RS: I think it’s a very healthy and important debate to have.  There are probably some nuances and some differences between that debate at the bachelor’s degree level or that debate as it applies to public and private universities that are educating college students for their first college degree and how it applies within the professional school level, medical school and law school, for example.  It’s probably important to draw some distinctions between those two arenas.

Overall, it’s a very important debate and I don’t think as a society, we’ve figured it out yet.  There are a lot of complexities.  My own thinking is evolving to separate the debate into two different types of questions.  One is the strategic question and the other is a more moral public policy question.

Strategically, from the perspective of universities and from the perspective of law schools, the pricing question is simply like any business question, what will the market bear?  Are there enough students that will come to this law school, at this price, to allow us to run at this level of activity.  A law school or a university can make those judgments based on how many applicants it has, how successful it is in filling its class, how much financial aid its clients have to give out in order to attract qualified students.  Those strategic judgments are not unlike any business judgment that any of our clients in the law would routinely make.  The answers to those strategy questions will vary depending on the school; some schools are more competitive than others; some schools will have tremendous applicant pressure because everybody wants to go there if they can, and value that and understands that those schools are successful in getting students jobs, and so they have the luxury of charging what the market will bear.  Other schools are less competitive, worry about filling their classes, maybe do not have the same success rate, and have to be very concerned about their price and the sensitivity of the price, although a lot of that is strategy, your position in the market.

Setting that aside, there is a giant moral dimension to this and that moral dimension is tied to the role education plays in our democracy, to our belief in the American dream, and upward mobility, to our belief that highly qualified students who could contribute to society, should go to college and go to law school if they want to be law students, and money ought not keep them out.  I believe in that personally as a value; I believe in that as a citizen.  I believe in that as a member of the profession.  So figuring out how to guarantee access to students from poor backgrounds and families from middle-class backgrounds where the cost of attending universities is approaching what it costs to own a home, in many cases more expensive than what it costs to own a home, is a giant issue facing the country.  Some might argue, well that’s the role of the public education, that’s what state universities are supposed to do, make education universally acceptable, and that’s why in-state tuitions are lower and that’s why we support in-state institutions with tax dollars, and state law schools fulfill that role in our society.  But I’m a believer that it’s also a part of the obligation of private universities and that private universities also fulfill a public function and have a public obligation.  I certainly feel that way about Furman.

I feel that Furman must remain a place that is accessible to students who grew up in poverty and students from lower-middle class background, or we’ll be failing the country and we’ll be failing society, we will be a less vibrant environment and a less rich environment, no pun intended, for our students.  So that means we have to work very hard to figure out how to finance that and how to raise the money you need and the scholarship money you need or manage our economic resources so that we can provide the scholarship aid to remain accessible.  I know that’s a long answer.  Value is not strictly an accountant’s calculation.  The value to the country and the value to an individual of a liberal arts education or a superb law school education that is rounded, rigorous, and develops a young lawyer in a whole sense, goes beyond simply their earning power and their ability to pay back loans.  That’s a fair part of the mix but there are so many other intangibles that make for life being fulfilling and I think that’s true of college.  I think being a lawyer is a wonderful life and very fulfilling for many members of the profession and that law school is still worth it, even as the market changes and the economics and the profession changes.

AU:  Setting aside the movie based on your book, Deliberate Intent, what’s your favorite legal movie?

RS: If it’s a legal movie, it’s an easy answer, To Kill A Mockingbird.  Not just my favorite legal movie, probably my favorite movie, period.  I just think it’s a magnificent movie.  It’s one of those rare examples in which the movie and the book are equally magnificent.  I think it’s one of the great works of literature in American history and the movie stands alone, on its own, with magnificent performances by everyone.  Atticus Finch is the most romantic, ideal vision of a moral, ethical, righteous lawyer that one could have.  I still cry when I see the courtroom scene in that movie.  So that’s my favorite.

BIOGRAPHY: Rod Smolla is a 1975 graduate of Yale University, where he was a member of the football team.  He graduated first in his class from Duke University Law School in 1978.  He is currently President of Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina, a national liberal arts university founded in 1826.  President Smolla previously served as Dean and Professor of Law at Washington & Lee School of Law and at Richmond School of Law.  He also previously served as Director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at the College of William & Mary.  He is a nationally recognized scholar, teacher, advocate, and writer, and is one of America’s foremost experts on issues relating to freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of the press.  President Smolla’s latest book, The Constitution Goes to College (New York University Press, 2011), describes the constitutional principles and ideas that have shaped American higher education.

Abnormal Interviews: Rodney Smolla, Lawyer and President of Furman University [Part 1 of 2]

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which we conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field.  For this installment, we turn to Rodney Smolla, lawyer and current President of Furman University right here in Greenville, South Carolina.  President Smolla was Dean and Professor of Law at Washington & Lee School of Law before becoming President of Furman in July 2010.  We will be running this interview in two parts.  The first, published today, was conducted by Stuart Mauney, while the second, to be published tomorrow, was conducted by Frances Zacher. In today’s installment, Smolla talks about civility in the legal profession, tips for appellate lawyers, and his varied First Amendment scholarship and litigation.

ABNORMAL USE: Since you came to Furman University in July of 2010, you have emphasized civilized public discourse.  In fact, that was the theme of your speech to the South Carolina Bar Annual Meeting in January 2012.  How did that become a passion of yours?

ROD SMOLLA: I guess it’s the flip side of my interest in freedom of speech.  Even though I am a strong defender of freedom of speech, which often means defending highly offensive speech, I really don’t like it.  So I think part of it is that the notion that has become almost a cliché, but I think should not be a cliché, that the mere fact that we have freedom doesn’t mean we ought to exercise it irresponsibly.  There’s a fundamental difference between having freedom and being a responsible member of our society.  I think that’s one reason.

Another is what I absorbed as part of the value system of the legal profession.  Although we have lawyers that practice in an uncivilized manner and we have episodes of incivility within the profession, overall, there is a strong consensus I think, and commitment among the best lawyers, to the notion of civility in the way we practice law.  Many lawyers embrace that as a core value and is one of the principal meanings of professionalism.  I think great lawyers realize you can be a very passionate advocate for your client, and a zealous advocate for your client, and still stay within the bounds of courtesy, civility, respect for the other actors in the system, and drawing the distinction between attacking one’s opponent on the merits, on the substance of the facts and the legal principles and policies, and hitting below the belt and making the attacks personal.  I also think the very best lawyers don’t see it as their job to amplify the emotional intensity of their client but to filter and to absorb it and to seek conflict resolution that resolves controversy, if that’s not inconsistent with acting in the best interest of one’s client.

If that is true within the legal profession, it ought to also be true within the value system of most universities.  If you think about it, we are committed to freedom of speech and wide open discourse and examining ideas and having a combat of ideas but also are committed to an ethos of professionalism in the way that we conduct ourselves in the combat of those ideas.  Teaching students that it is possible to debate the issues of the day, to debate the fundamental issues of science, religion, politics, and the arts with intensity yet with respect to others, is a very important part of their education.

AU: How can Furman be a leader in the community on the issue of civility?

RS: I think Furman, or for that matter, any university, can play a constructive role within a community by convening discussion, hard issues that face the community, and in those discussions, using the prerogative of the convener, of the chair, to try to model and encourage and facilitate civility in those discussions.  I think that’s something that Furman can do and contribute in our immediate environment and across the State of South Carolina and that any university can do within the community in which it resides.

AU: You have written several books, one of which is Deliberate Intent, which describes your involvement in the Hit Man case.  You represented the families of murder victims in a lawsuit against the publisher of a murder instruction manual.  At the time you were involved in that, you had already become a noted First Amendment scholar.  How were you treated by your colleagues in the law after your involvement in that case?

RS: Well, it depends on which side they were on.  (Laughter.)  I think that that was a case that people were passionate about on both sides, and as any lawyer knows from your involvement in a case in which people have strong feelings, you will get passionate praise and passionate criticism depending on the side that the critique is coming from.  I did maintain and I continue to maintain very good friendships and very good collegial relationships with the lawyers that were on the opposite side of me in that case, both as parties and friends of the court.  I count them among my professional friends, and in some instances, personal friends notwithstanding the fact that we were on opposite sides.  In some instances, I would later work with lawyers that were on the opposite side of that case as friends of the court, for example, but were on the same side as me in a different manner. So I think it was an exemplar of civility of discourse, and that best part of our legal tradition, which is we don’t take personally the fact that one is on the opposite side of an issue or represent clients that are on the opposite side of an issue.

AU: Deliberate Intent was made into a movie.

RS: It was made into it a movie and was the first FX television movie, I’m proud to say.

AU: And Timothy Hutton played Rod Smolla.  How did he do?

RS: I wish I had his hair, I’ll tell you that.  (Laughter.)  I thought he did a great job, and the script writers did a great job.  It’s not easy to take a complicated legal matter and reduce it to a movie and particularly a legal matter such as this, which has very complicated issues of legal doctrine.  I thought that they did a great job of weaving in the murder mystery and the murder story, which was a good old fashion “Law & Order” style thriller, and the intellectual issues that were posed by the case.  So I was pleased by the movie.

AU: You have argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the Virginia v. Black case, which involved the Virginia statute that banned cross-burning.  One Supreme Court reporter described the advocacy in that case in this way: “When you have a good oral advocate doing a good job on a good issue, the place always arcs up like a tinfoil in a microwave.”  I think she was describing you.  What was it like to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court?

RS: It was what I imagined it’s like to be the quarterback in the Super Bowl.  I would do it again tomorrow morning.  I have a recurring fantasy that somebody scheduled to argue in the Supreme Court unfortunately gets sick and can’t do it and is looking for someone to come in as a substitute at the last second and calls me and I show up the next morning and take the case.  And, of course, the person always turns out to be all right the next day, but I would argue a case in Supreme Court again in a heartbeat.  If you are an appellate lawyer, it’s going to the Super Bowl.  I savored every second of it as a personal experience.  It was, in fact, a very fascinating, interesting case on its legal merit and in its emotional intensity and it was a dramatic oral argument.  So I loved the experience and hope that I get to do it again some day.

AU: What advice would you give to lawyers who are preparing for an appellate argument at any level?

RS: I guess it’s the usual – I like to encourage appellate advocates to not bring anything to the podium.  I am in that school of thought that you should have no papers with you at all, the entire case should be in your head, and that you should imagine the entire case as a grilling from the bench and so canned speeches – the idea that you have a set piece that you have to get through is the antipathy of effective oral argument.  Rather, what you want to do is anticipate the questions you will be asked, according to ones you are most likely to be asked but also all the strange questions that might come out of what appears to be left field.  What I liked to say to other appellate lawyers and to law students is you need to ask yourself if I lose this case, why would I lose it?  If the most brilliant person in the world who is my worst enemy wanted to go for the weakness in my case, the jugular in my case, wants to write an opinion that’s going to cause me to lose, what will that do to my case, what’s my biggest vulnerability, what’s my biggest weakness?  Think of all of the ways you can be pounded on that, all the clever ways that they can ask you questions on that.  Then figure out what your answer is.  Don’t have a mushy version of what your answer is.  Figure out what your position actually is.  Nothing frustrates an appellate court more than a fuzzy answer.  Even if the answer you know will alienate a judge or two, or a justice or two, its better to at least know what you stand for and what your arguments are going to be, and have thought through your answers to all of those questions and welcome them.  So that’s my first admonition.

The second is sort of the flip.  If I’m going to win this case, how am I going to win it?  What answers to questions will help me when it will give me a chance to win it?

Then the final thing I’ll say is be totally zoned on the judges and justices.  Be looking at them, be feeling them, their body language, their eyes, their lips, the tone of their voice; be totally delved in on them and try to understand where they’re coming from, what their problem is, because if you sense somebody’s against you, if you sense somebody is not persuaded, you’re not helping your client if you don’t engage.  You’ve got to try to figure out what’s bothering that judge and be almost conversational in not trying to avoid the judge’s question but coming back at it and looking for ways to get inside what’s bothering them so that you can start to say, oh now I see what your worry is about, as to “let me tell you judge why you should be worried.”  I think you’ve got to do that, and I think if you do that, if you just treat it as the judge is a colleague, that they are not above you, they have a different role but they are trying to do justice, you’re trying to advance your client’s interests.  This is your chance to get inside that judge’s heart or mind and let them know your reason for why they should rule your way and don’t be afraid of that, welcome that; it’s your chance to persuade, and if you approach it that way, which could be frightening to lawyers because that’s spontaneous, that’s not canned, that makes for a great appellate advocate.  If you watch the masters, they get a chemistry going with the judges.  Even the judges that are opposed to them, and there’s a feeling of honesty in the exchange, not trying to pull one over.  You’re never going to persuade a person if they think you’re trying to pull one over on them.

AU: You have a busy schedule as a college president.  Are you going to have time to practice law?

RS: Not very much.  But, I have the permission as most college presidents do, to occasionally consult or take on a matter.  If I had the opportunity to be engaged in a case and there was no conflict of interest with Furman in the strict sense, and no conflict in the larger sense, drawing too much of my time or putting me in the vortex of an issue that is just too controversial for one to be in, then I think I would probably be given permission.  It’s in my contract that I could be and I’d ask for permission and would get it.  My guess is that when that comes along, it will probably be some higher education case in which the advocacy I would be engaged in was in alignment with Furman’s position.  So if there were a big battle over a Title IX principle or over a financial aid issue, or over diversity in education issue, or an academic freedom issue, and the University’s position was in alignment with the client, whoever that might be, then I think that would make logical sense.

AU: What do you tell high school students who are thinking about coming to Furman, like my daughter who is 17 and a senior?  Why Furman?

RS: I think the first question is why get a liberal arts education.  So the first answer applies not just to Furman but to any liberal arts university.  And I always say that a student should look for the best fit so it may or may not be that it’s the best fit for any particular student.  The beauty of a liberal arts education is the blend of the broad exposure to a number of different disciplines.  The strong emphasis on discovery, creativity, the ability to see problems or multiple perspectives, the ability to solve problems, the learning to construct arguments, the learning of how to research a matter on your own, the learning of how to write well and articulate your position – that’s magical.  It sets you up to succeed at many, many different callings and it also enriches you as a person, it makes your life more fulfilling, makes you a more interesting person, a more soulful person, a more engaged human being, and all of the things that make for a good life.  Whether you’re interested in science and math and technology, engineering, or in art and music, or social sciences or politics, that blend is effective.

One of the most interesting things in the recent new Steve Jobs biography – he was a very complex and in some ways negative figure and in other ways positive figure – his drumbeat at Apple and at Pixar, the two companies that he was responsible for, constantly emphasized that the progress of the human race comes from the intersection of science and technology and the liberal arts.  He saw that intersection as where human progress comes – where success and life comes – he saw that as Apple’s ethos.  He wanted employees who were technically proficient but who also had a broad liberal education and understood the world; those are the kinds of folks he thought to hire because he believed they were the creative ones, the innovative ones.  It is fascinating that a technology guru, who didn’t even go to college, would see the liberal arts as so critical.  Whenever Apple would roll out a product, they’d put on the screen a street sign logo and the sign had science and technology on one street and liberal arts on the other street – a very fascinating story.

Furman’s unique case is wrapped up in the things that are wonderful about this particular university.  Part of it is the commitment to the education of the whole student; we think your intellectual development is important, but also your development as a human being is important – your character, your sense of service, your sense of engagement, your sense of commitment to the community.  We’re very open about that even though we are not a religiously affiliated university and we welcome students of all faith or no faith; we do want you to examine the important questions of life and the spirit and why you’re here and what you have to contribute to the world.  This is part of what you should do when you come.  So I think that for students that are looking for that, Furman’s a great place; a beautiful campus, 100 percent residential, on the make in many areas, a fantastic community.  Greenville is one of the gems in the United States.  You won’t find many medium-sized cities in this country that are more vibrant and exciting and interesting to live in, so you put that combination together, it’s a fantastic place to go to college.

BIOGRAPHY: Rod Smolla is a 1975 graduate of Yale University, where he was a member of the football team.  He graduated first in his class from Duke University Law School in 1978.  He is currently President of Furman University, in Greenville, South Carolina, a national liberal arts university founded in 1826.  President Smolla previously served as Dean and Professor of Law at Washington & Lee School of Law and at Richmond School of Law.  He also previously served as Director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at the College of William & Mary.  He is a nationally recognized scholar, teacher, advocate, and writer, and is one of America’s foremost experts on issues relating to freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of the press.  President Smolla’s latest book, The Constitution Goes to College (New York University Press, 2011), describes the constitutional principles and ideas that have shaped American higher education.

Abnormal Interviews: My Cousin Vinny Actor James Rebhorn

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our week-long tribute to My Cousin Vinny with a look at a couple of the film’s actors.  Today, we are proud to feature an interview with veteran character actor James Rebhorn, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Jim Dedman late last year. You’ve seen Rebhorn in dozens of movies; often, he plays a lawyer, a judge, or sometimes even, a juror. In My Cousin Vinny, Rebhorn plays George Wilbur, the prosecution’s FBI expert automotive witness who ties the vehicle in question to the criminal defendants played by Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield. Fun Fact: In 1992, Rebhorn appeared in Vinny with Marisa Tomei, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, in Scent of A Woman with Al Pacino, who won the Oscar for Best Actor, and in Lorenzo’s Oil with Susan Sarandon, who was nominated for Best Actress for that role. Our interview with Rebhorn, which features his memories of the Vinny filming, his thoughts on playing lawyers on screen, and his memories of prosecuting the “Seinfeld” gang in that show’s series finale, is as follows:

JIM DEDMAN:  In 2008, the American Bar Association named My Cousin Vinny third on the list of the 25 greatest legal movies of all time.  Why is it do you think that this film has resonated so well with viewers and lawyer viewers in particular over the past 20 years.

JAMES REBHORN: I really think it’s because it’s funny, and I think all of us need to look at our careers regardless of what we’re doing and find joy in them and be able to laugh at them and laugh at ourselves by doing that.  And I think My Cousin Vinny does that pretty well.  And also I think the legal points that it makes are pretty clear and I think that clarity probably is also one of the reasons why it resonates so much with the lawyer population.  But mostly, I think, is because it’s funny and it gives people a good hook into the understanding of the legal system.

JD: Now, you played George Wilbur who is an FBI expert witness on automobiles and tire tread identification.

JR: Right.

JD: How did you become a part of the film and get that role?

JR: Well, it was a situation with the casting director had sent out a casting call to various agents around the country, both on the East and West Coast, and my agent submitted my name, and the casting director asked me to come in, and I auditioned for the casting director and the director, Jonathan Lynn, and the producer, as well, although I can’t remember who was in the room when I auditioned.  And it was based upon that audition that they offered me the job.

JD: How did you go about preparing to play an expert witness like Mr. Wilbur?

JR: Well, I just figured I had to know what I was talking about was my preparation.  I had assumed that the dialogue in the script was accurate, and so I just embraced that and went ahead and delivered it with authority and confidence.

JD: Fair enough.  Now, Mr. Wilbur’s testimony, which is initially offered to convict the two criminal defendants, ultimately turns out to be incorrect or at the very least out of context. What do you think that says about the use of expert witnesses in criminal trials like the one in the movie?

JR: Well, I think it was interesting because – it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, and it certainly has been a long time since I’ve done it, but in a way, it was his testimony.  It wasn’t that he lied, or even that he covered up the testimony, or even that he softened the edges of what he had to say.  It was what he said, in fact, that made it feel compelling, so I think that’s what’s interesting to me, is that if you tell the truth, and if a good lawyer can pick out the most truthful kernel, then that’s what works in a court of law.  It’s interesting because I’ve been on a couple of juries in my life.  I found it very interesting how lawyers – and I don’t feel like lawyers twist the truth, they just highlight the truth.  And that’s what Vinny did in that situation: he highlighted the truth of what I said and put it into the context – a statistical context – that brought into question to veracity or the strength of my testimony.  So I think that’s how it worked.

JD: Your scenes were shot in the courtroom.

JR: They were.

JD: What efforts were made to accurately depict the criminal process on set?

JR: Well, there was a lawyer – there was an adviser on set, and I do not recall who that was or how involved he was or she was with everything that was going on.  But I know they certainly had somebody on set.  And I don’t know in terms of the art direction who the art director or what actual courtroom the art director used as a model for that set.  But again, I’m assuming that they pursued it pretty rigorously and found a courtroom that was pretty accurate to that location.

JD: Do you have a favorite moment or memory that sticks out in your mind from shooting those scenes?

JR: Well, it was just great fun.  . . . [E]verybody was very relaxed, and everybody really enjoyed it.  I don’t have anything real strong stand out – memories of it – but I do remember having a great time.

JD: In your career both on stage and on screen, you’ve played a number of attorneys and judges, and even jurors.  Do you prepare for those types of roles any differently than non-legal roles?

JR: . . . [M]ost of what you’re doing [as an actor] is reacting so that dialogue between actors – they feed each other.  They kind of build in a scene.  But in the case of legal dramas, especially the lawyers, they’re the ones who kind of carry the ball.  You know what I mean?  So that they have to kind of start the conversation rolling, and they’re the ones that have to tie together the story, so that they’re less playing off of the other characters than sort of generating the scene out of their own minds.  In fact, you mentioned Phil Morris in the “Seinfeld,” I was the opposing lawyer in that episode.

JD: That was literally my next question.

JR: That was a particularly challenging job because they didn’t give us a script until the day before we were taping it.  In that particular episode, I was really the one who was generating the ball for the whole show.  I had to keep tossing it around, and nobody was tossing me anything back.  They were just answering my questions.  So, when you play a lawyer, I find you really have to depend upon your powers of memorization and retention when you’re a lawyer.

JD: What is it like to be the guy who sent Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer to jail?

JR: I found it very satisfying.

JD: And you got to square off against Jackie Chiles as well.

JR: That’s right.

JD: Now, you also played juror number 4 in the great play “Twelve Angry Men.”

JR: Yeah.

JD: What can you tell us about your role in that production and what it says about the jury system in America?

JR: Well, I’m not sure what it says about the jury system.  It says a lot about where television and movies have gone since then.  That was sort of the first major legal drama in the American theater.  There have been others, as well, but this was the one – Reginald Rose who wrote it – he then went on to become the producer and head writer for “The Defenders,” and it was sort of the precursor, sort of the template, for all other kind of courtroom legal dramas that followed.  Reginald Rose, the playwright, really honed his craft very well with that play.  . . . [I]t was for me much more interesting as an actor than it was sort of as a mirror of the legal system . . . [It was] so interesting for all of us because it was really a one scene play.  And I don’t think any of us have ever been in a one scene play, where we all come on at the beginning of the play, and we don’t leave until the play is over.  That made for an interesting challenge for all of us.  And memorable – we still get together for reunions, and we still talk about the seven months we worked together, and it was particularly relevant and meaningful to me in my life as an actor.  It also certainly tells and interesting story about the jury system, which I’m sure has been replicated in other jury rooms.  . . . I refer back again to the time when I was on a jury, and I ended up being the foreman which, you know, is just a matter of chance.  And we certainly went through stages of discernment and of discussion that were not dissimilar to what happened in “Twelve Angry Men,” yet the stakes were not as high with a tenant-landlord case, so the stakes are certainly not as high.  But there certainly was – going back and forth and trying to lay out the facts in a way that enabled us to come up with what we thought was a just verdict.

JD: You have served on a jury, and obviously, you’ve been in many, many films and programs. Do the acting and legal professions require similar skill sets, do you think?

JR: I think certainly a litigator and an actor – I think they have to have – they certainly have to feel comfortable with words and pitching them in front of a live audience.  So I think to that extent, there is a lot of similarity.  I also think actors, when they’re given a script, a lot of what they do in developing their work, and in developing and creating their characters is dissecting the cause and effect of that piece.  Why do people act that way?  Why do people say those things?  So to that extent, I think the analytical process is probably also very similar to what lawyers go through.

JD: Of all the legal roles that you’ve played in your career, do you have one that is your favorite?

JR: Well, I supposed in terms of the overall experience, playing the lawyer, the prosecutor Alvin Hooks, in Snow Falling on Cedars would probably be at the top of the list, although all of them have been great fun and great challenges.

JD: Are there any memories that you have from shooting the “Seinfeld” finale that stick out in your mind in those courtroom scenes?

JR: Well, only that as an actor, it was kind of a brutal experience.  As I’ve said before, we didn’t get the script until the day before, and I was on the East Coast, and we were filming on the West Coast, so I was dealing with jet lag and all that kind of experience.  It was a tough job, because they had never done an hour show before, and it was their last show, and of course, they all wanted to make it TV history.  You tape these things in front of a live audience, and we would start in the early evening, and everybody in Hollywood was there, so there was a tremendous amount of pressure to do the job right.  But by the end of the evening, and by the end of the evening, I’m talking like 4:00 in the morning, there’s nobody out there, so it was a challenge to sustain that energy and focus throughout the whole thing.  Those are the memories I have of the show, but they were all very gracious folks, and they were certainly a lot of fun to work with.

JD: You’ve also played attorneys on two David E. Kelley shows, “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.”  What can you tell us about those experiences in playing a lawyer on those shows?

JR: They were terrific.  And I would compare them favorable with “Law & Order.” . . . [B]y the time I was playing a lawyer in them, in the history of those shows, they were well oiled machines.  You know what I mean?  So that everything fit together very nicely, and there was very little waste of time, and everybody knew what had to happen, and that’s always a pleasure for an actor coming into a show as a guest star.  When things move smoothly so that you can go ahead and explore and do what you have to do to get your job done.

JD:  Getting back to My Cousin Vinny, the director, Jonathan Lynn, studied law at one point during his life.  Did he rely on that at all while shooting the film?

JR: I’m certain that he did, although I don’t recall anything specifically that related to his experience and training in the legal field. . . . [I]t’s true of everybody who works in the theater or film or in television – you always bring to the set, to the location, to the stage, who you are.  And certainly in his case, he brought to the set who he was.  And it certainly, I’M sure, and formed everything he did as a director on that movie.

JD: Have you gotten any response over the years from anyone that’s an expert witness or with the FBI about your scenes in My Cousin Vinny?

JR: I don’t think specifically about my scenes, about my credibility as an expert witness.  But I have a lot of lawyers that stop me and say . . .  they’ve seen it in law school and they show it at their firm meetings and. . .  it apparently has great relevance to the legal world and understanding the judicial system that we have in this country.

JD: As you may know, lawyers are required to do continuing legal education every year and you cannot go to a continuing legal education seminar without seeing at least one clip from the movie.

JR: Now, what do you think?  Do you think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the legal system?

JD: It really is, quite frankly.  And you’re right.  There’s some humor there – that’s what it’s designed for – but many, many, many films go the humor route and then abandon realism.  But, really, what’s funny about the film, is that so much of it is so real and funny.  He probably would have been thrown in jail a little bit earlier.

JR: I would bet.  Those kinds of things – the fact that he really hadn’t passed the bar and all this other kind of stuff.  That’s a stretch of reality, but I agree with you – it seems to me, what I still like about the movie and what makes it so funny, is that he doesn’t twist anybody’s testimony.  He just pursues the flaws in it.  And he does it with great skill.

JD:  I think, as you pointed out, your character isn’t misrepresenting the truth, he’s come to an analysis and it’s only after new information is given to him that he changes his opinions.

JR: Yeah.  It’s really – it’s a wonderful movie, very entertaining movie.

JD: It’s been 20 years since the film was released this March.  Looking back, do you have any other thoughts on the film or its place in film or legal history?

JR: It’s certain, I think, in terms of film history, it’s gotta rank as one of the funniest movies ever made.  I don’t know where you’d put it in the top 100, but it certainly is well up there.  It continues to have resonance.  Clearly, we’re talking about a 20 year difference – it clearly has had some impact.  I’m glad about that.  I’m very proud and happy to have been a part of it.

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

Abnormal Interviews: My Cousin Vinny Actor Mitchell Whitfield

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our week-long tribute to My Cousin Vinny with a look at a couple of the film’s actors. Today, we are proud to feature an interview with Mitchell Whitfield, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Steven Buckingham late last year. Whitfield played Stan Rothenstein, one of the capital murder defendants represented by Vinny. You might know Whitfield from his role as Barry, the orthodontist and ex-fiance of Rachel, on “Friends.” He’s also done an immense amount of voice acting. Our interview with Whitfield, which features his memories of the film production, his thoughts on the film’s legacy, and his recollections of being offered the role of Ross on “Friends” and kissing Jennifer Aniston, is as follows:

STEVEN BUCKINGHAM: Here we are, it’s 20 years after My Cousin Vinny, coming up in March it will be 20 years.


SB: . . . [W]here did the time go?  Does it seem like it was 20 years ago?

MW: It seems like it was yesterday, but then I look and wonder what happened to my hair, and then I know that it was 20 years ago.  But if I don’t look at my hairline, it’s really hard to tell that it was that long ago.  The thing is, it’s one of those movies – that’s why I feel so lucky to be a part of it – it’s truly one of those iconic movies that everyone knows about, everyone knows a line from it . . . everyone remembers the movie so well, and it’s on TV all the time.  It’s almost like it’s constantly being revisited and relived, and I think the fact that it was popular – Oh, my God – now I’m thinking about what you said 20 years and it’s unbelievable.  But I think the fact that it’s still part of pop culture, and it still has a presence on cable, on DVD, on regular television, it sort of keeps it alive, and it’s one of those movies where I think the concept is still much fun.  And I think if you look at great movies, although I’m not saying this is one of the classics, but I’m saying if you do look at the classic movies from the forties and fifties, the one thing they all have in common is they’re still relevant today, whether it’s because of their sense of humor, or whatever the theme was in the movie, that still has relevance today.  And I think it’s one of those movies with that sense of humor, that fish out of water story, still has relevance and people still latch onto it.  So, . . . that was my long-winded answer for “Oh, my God, no, I can’t believe 20 years later,” it passed that fast.  It feels like I just made it.  I still remember auditioning for the movie.

SB: What was that experience like?

MW: Oh, my gosh.  Here’s the irony, okay?  I’m a New York kid.  Born and raised in New York.  New York City.  So, when they were casting this, I had just moved out to Los Angeles when I auditioned for that movie.  Maybe I’d been living in LA for a year.  So, I’d been in LA for a year, the audition came through, and at first, the reaction was, “Well, they’re really looking for a New York guy. ” I’m like, “Wait a minute, I am a New York guy.”  . . . They finally did see me, and they liked me, and they said “Well, we’re going to be screen testing in New York.”  I was like, “Oh, my God, you’ve got to be kidding me.”  I didn’t have to move at all.  I could have stayed in New York.  So, of course, I ended up flying back to New York.  I was there for some other stuff anyway, and I screen tested, and at the time, believe it or not, Will Smith was also up for the role.  For my role.  So, clearly, they didn’t know exactly which way they were going to go with the part.  I don’t think anyone would mistake Will Smith and myself from others.  You’d be looking and go, “Well, these are two distinctly different ways to go,” and I think it could have been funny either way.  So I read with a couple of guys, and then I finally read a little bit with Ralph Macchio, and we clicked and had a great time.  . . . [I]t wasn’t my first big studio movie, but it was my first big screen test where you go in there, and they audition you, and you’re there for hours – mixing and matching with different actors, and I remember when you do a screen test, you basically sign a contract, and then they have legally, and you’ll be familiar with this, they legally have a certain amount of time, usually a two-week period, for them to sign off and say “Okay, we’re going to put the contract in, we’re going to make the contract legal and binding.”  Now we’re moving forward.  Okay, you got the part.  They have two weeks.  It never takes two weeks to decide – ever.  Usually, it’s a few days, they let you know.  This one – the last hour of the last day at the end of the second week is when I got the phone call.

SB: Wow.

MW: Yeah.  I remember going out to see a movie . . . I think it was The Rookie, a Charlie Sheen movie.  That’s when Charlie Sheen was known for actually being an actor.  That’s when he was famous for being an actor.  I remember I walked to Mann’s Chinese Theater to kill time because I didn’t want to think about it, because it was the last day, and I was going to find out either way.  I walked to Mann’s Chinese Theater, I saw The Rookie, I came out, it was almost 6:00.  I was like, “Man, I’m not going to hear about it.  I guess I didn’t get the movie.”  And like one minute before six, my manager called me and said, “You got the movie.”

SB: What was the hold-up in the contract signing?  Did they have someone else they were looking at?

MW: More times than not they’re looking – I’m sure they were looking to get a name person.  And listen, at the end of the day, as much as we like to think it’s about us, it’s business.  And unfortunately, when it comes to business, actors, like any other business, are the commodity.  Except in this case, it’s people that are the commodities, not a product.  So, you have to put on sort of your business hat and say, “Okay, they’re probably looking to cover themselves and see if they can get a star name for the role.”  Because they had a lot of other names in the movie already, and they wanted to have the best shot of having a big opening weekend and getting people in the seats based on not just the quality of the movie but the names of the people that were in it.  So, I’m sure they were trying their best to put together the best cast possible.  But at the end of the day, I got the phone call, and it was going to be me.  So, ha!  So, I was very fortunate, and it was really, really exciting, but of course – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this – if you heard about this or read about this – basically when I went in, I had just come off a movie called Dogfight, and in that movie, I’d put on about 10 pounds, and I was playing a Marine, so we were exercising all the time and eating all the time, so I’d put on 10 pounds for this role.  When it came time for My Cousin Vinny, I had already lost some of that weight and I was – I played sports for a while, I played hocked for a while, so I naturally probably weighed about 180.  When I found out I was going to screen test, they told me to drop 10 pounds the week before the screen test.  Now, I was playing sports so I could do it.  If you’re an athlete, if you played sports, you’re used to your weight fluctuating based on how much you’re playing and all that stuff.  So I lost the 10 pounds for the screen test.  They called me and said, “Hey, you got the movie, congratulations!  We start shooting in six weeks.  Lose 25 more pounds.”

SB: Oh, wow!

MW: Now, we’re not talking 25 pounds of spare tire.  We’re talking just 25 pounds of regular weight.  So I went from basically, 180 and by the time we started shooting, I guess I had lost about 41 pounds.  So, I was about 139 when we started shooting.  And everyone was saying, “Are you’re sick? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”  They thought I was lying to them.  They thought I was sick and I wasn’t telling anyone.  I was like, “No, they just wanted me to get really scrawny for the movie so when I was in the prison cell with Joe Pesci there would be a real contrast.”  [I was the] scrawny guy, and Joe Pesci was intimidating me.  So I had to drop all that weight.  By the time I showed up I was like,”Oh my God, I’m not going to lose any more weight.”  So Ralph and I were always teasing each other about it. But yeah, I ended up losing over 40 pounds to do that movie.

SB: That’s incredible.

MW: Crazy!  I couldn’t do it again.

SB: How did you do it?  Were you just working out all the time, or were you just not eating?

MW: No, I was eating.  I was just being really careful.  You know what, I was so much younger then.  I was so much younger then!  And playing sports, your metabolism is pretty good.  As long as I was eating carefully and exercising, it came off.  At a certain point it was enough.  I wasn’t going to go any lower than that.  And now I think when we watch the movie back, I look and think, oh, look at poor little skinny me.  Poor little skinny Mitchell.  Somebody give him a sandwich.  My wife goes, “Oh, my God, you look so scrawny!”  I’m like, “Yeah, I know.  I know I do.”

SB: How often do you watch the movie with your family?

MW: Not that often.  Not really that often.  First of all, you know, I have two little ones.  My daughter is 6 and my son is 8 and a half.  With all the BS bombs daddy is dropping in that movie, either that, or try and turn the sound down.  I pretty much still remember the script, which is really sick.  I must have a certain Rain Man quality that I could probably still do all the lines from the movie.  And whenever I know that there’s one of daddy’s S bombs coming, I just sort of pause, just mute it very quickly and they go “What happened?”  I’m like, “I don’t know, what happened to the movie?  The sound suddenly dropped out.”  My wife and I also watch pieces of it every once in a while.  Usually, I see myself in something and go, “Oooh.”  It’s hard to watch when it’s you.  You have to get past reliving or I should have taken a different – oh, I hate that shot – I wish they’d done a different take.  And once you get past that, after seeing yourself a while, you can sit down and enjoy it.  Some movies, I just sit there and watch and I go, “Oh, that’s me, so weird.”  There I am on the screen, but here I am sitting right here.  I still get a kick out of that, that I do these things.  I can’t really sit down from beginning to end with my kids and watch it because, obviously.  When they’re older, I’m sure they’ll get a big kick out of it.  Now, we watch little scenes here and there then have to turn it off.

SB: Sure.  Since you put this out there about remembering the script, I’ve got to ask you.  Can you give me some of your lines from the movie right now off the top of your head?

MW: Oh, God.  I’m trying to think.  In the prison cell scene, because I think people remember that scene pretty well, where I’m in the prison cell with Ralph, and Joe comes in for the first time, and I’m not sure if he’s there to have me as a boyfriend or who he is.  So when they bring him in, I’m telling Ralph, “You know what happens in these places.  They bring some big guy in like Bubba and then you have to become his girlfriend.”  I remember when we were doing it, Jonathan Lynn, who ended up becoming a friend after we shot the movie, really nice guy, wonderful director, real gentleman.  He’s British.  So when you start working and rehearsing a script, sometimes you ad lib a little bit, depending on the writer and the director and how much freedom they give you, they’ll let you ad lib and see what you come up with, which is great, because it makes for a more natural sort of spontaneous scene.  So I remember in a couple of those scenes, I started ad libbing.  We actually shot that in a real prison, and when we were walking down – you know when Ralph and I were walking through the prison the first time like holding our blankets and walking to our cell and you hear the prisoners screaming at us.  Those are real prisoners, and they really were yelling at us.  . . . They had to tone it down with what they put in the movie because they were saying some horrible stuff.  Ralph and I were petrified.  So once we’re in the prison cell, and I was like, “You know what happens in these places, there’s some big guy,” and of course, I threw in the name Bubba, because I just pictured a big guy named Bubba trying to make me his girlfriend in prison.  So Jonathan then stopped and said Bubba, Bubba.  And her turns to the producer, Paul Schiff, another nice guy.  He said, “Paul, is Bubba funny?”  Because he didn’t get the reference.  So Paul looked at him and goes, “Yep, Bubba’s good.”  So we leave it in.  So there are those things that you ad lib, and they actually end up staying in the movie.  But Jonathan – if it was something that wasn’t familiar to him, if it was a colloquial term here, he acted sort of like, “Umm, I’m not familiar with that one.  Is that funny?”  We’re like, “Yeah, it’s funny, trust me.”  There are a couple of ad libs in the movie where they were generous enough to leave them in.  But Jonathan wanted to make sure – I want to make sure that’s funny.

SB: You were talking at the beginning about the classic nature of the move.  There’s no question about that.  In fact, two weeks ago, it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I was watching this movie on TNT before I even set this interview up with you.  So it’s just kind of fortuitous about this and for you to bring that up.  In terms of the relevance, the thing that struck me about the movie as I was watching it is that, especially over the past few weeks and months, things have been happening in the news that have made this seem more relevant.  Obviously, your character Stan Rothenstein is innocent of a crime of murder that he’s been accused of and just recently we’ve had the West Memphis 3 that have been released.

MW: Released after years.  Absolutely.

SB: Then we have Troy Davis in Georgia who was just recently executed under suspicious circumstances.  I’m wondering does this role, or do your roles generally, affect your political beliefs and form the way you look at the world?

MW: You know what they do more than anything – I think what happens with anyone in their line of work, when they’re presented with something, when sort of life imitates art or vice versa, I don’t know so much it affects, what it does is make you more aware.  Once you become more aware, for example, we’re an incredibly – I use the word credit but I think a lot of the time it’s not to our credit – an incredibly litigious society.  These days, something happens, I’ll sue – so that sort of stuff gets me crazy.  In general, I think the movie – especially something like this – definitely makes me more aware of the legal system and how it works, and more importantly, how it’s supposed to work.  Because, and especially after doing this movie, what you realize having friends that are lawyers and being involved – my aunt is a judge in Florida – so you hear about a lot of these things and the law, the law is a very interesting thing because it doesn’t really exist in a vacuum and it’s open to interpretation.  And as soon as you have something that becomes subjective that is meant to be objective, that’s when things get a little scary for me.  . . . [A] lot of these laws involve a lot of techniques that lawyers can use to get people off of cases because they’re really using the law in their favor . . . .  I realized after this because I was prelaw originally when I went into college.  And then I thought, “You know what, I think it would get me crazy.”  I think the minutia of it and using and twisting words, it would get me crazy, and I think doing the movie made me even more hypersensitive and hyper-aware to the legal system, how it’s supposed to work and when I see things that aren’t right, and you realize how sort of helpless you are in those situations, not only if you’re accused of something, but just as an outsider looking in, and you see something that maybe necessarily isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, it can be very frustrating from the outsider’s point of view – feeling that you don’t have that control.  And even worse if you’re being accused of something.  God forbid accused of something you didn’t do.  So if anything, these things make me more aware and it’s really hard because I think I have an overdeveloped sense of justice and when I see things that aren’t right, it gets me a little crazier than the average person.  So yeah, more than anything, I don’t know so much that it affects my views of the justice system, but it definitely makes me more aware and start to ask myself more questions.  I think its really good for anybody.  And I think that’s what movies do, and at their best, especially when it’s, obviously My Cousin Vinny’s a comedy with some undertones, like you said, have relevance in certain cases, then and now, but at their best, movies that are more serious, they make you think, and they make you examine, and they’re some great movies that you’ll see and say, you know what, people ask, “Did you like that movie?  I said I loved it.  And they say, “Would you see it again?”  I say, “Not in a million years.”  They say, “Well, how can that be if you loved it, how could you not see it again?”  I said, “It’s too hard.  It’s too hard to sit through.”  . . . [T]hat examination, whether it’s self-examination, or asking those hard questions, I think that’s really good.  It’s good for society, it’s good for the industry so, hey, sometimes I’m up for just a fluffy action flick, sometimes I like to think.  I depends on the mood like everybody else.  I think it’s good sometimes that these things that have practical application in the real world, that they do make you think about it, because that’s how people grow and learn.

SB: Do you recall if there was ever a time on the set when you and the other folks that were in the movie or involved in the production would talk about this issue?  You have folks who are here on trial, and we know that they’re not guilty, but here they are on trial anyway, and for the longest time, it looked like you were going to go to jail.

MW: Absolutely.  I think probably when we were shooting it was light.  We kept it light on the set.  Ralph and I got pretty close on that, and close on the movie, and stay in touch still.  And he’s a great guy.  . . . I’d love to be able to say we sat there and we got into in-depth conversations about the law and the legal system and how would this work if this were really happening, but I think we did really keep it light, and I think part of that was because when you’re shooting on location you sort of try and keep things as comfortable as you can and yeah, we looked more at the humor of it as opposed to the hard core aspects of the law and the ramifications of what was actually happening in the movie.  No, we didn’t get too deep about it, but we did have conversations, and I think we kept it on the lighter side.

SB: Sure, sure.  What would you guys talk about when you were on the set?

MW: Oh, God, everything.  For me, it was mostly when are we going to eat.

SB: I’m sure it was.

MW: It’s like “Come on, I need to eat something.  I can’t live like this.  I’m going to fly away on the set.  Put some rope on my feet.  I’m going to blow away.”  We talked about everything.  . . . [T]his is what drives me crazy when you hear about actors that don’t behave or that they behave badly or that they treat people – you hear a lot about this, you know, the spoiled Hollywood syndrome, and the bottom line is we’re being paid handsomely for me to play for a living and that’s the bottom line.  And even if it’s, like we were saying earlier, more serious themes or deeper, darker kind of movie, we’re getting paid to do things that most people dream about.  . . . [A] lot of the time we were sitting there talking about how appreciative we were to be where we were at the time, talking about life, family, getting home.  Because once again, when you’re on the road shooting something, even when you’re shooting a movie, I think at the time we were shooting six days a week.  I think we were shooting six days a week.  I’m pretty sure.  Hey, this was 20 some years ago.  So we talked a lot about home.  I got to travel a little bit, because when you’re on location also like for me, I wasn’t in every single scene so I got to head – we were shooting in Georgia, so I’d go visit family in New York.  I’d come back to LA for the odd week or so to be with my family and my friends out here, my dog.  And then I’d fly back.  But like every other job, you’re sitting there, shooting it by the water cooler except for us, it was by the Kraft service truck.  Over bottled water and an apple for me.  Everyone else, I’m sure they had a nice breakfast.

SB: Well, I’m sure between you and Ralph, and then in having Marisa Tomei in a tight dress out there, I’m sure that must have come up on the set once or twice.

MW: You know what, yeah, I think she caught a lot of attention.  She really did. But I’ve got to be honest with you, and this is going to sound silly and people have asked me because I was on “Friends” for a while and they said, “Oh, what’s it like to kiss Jennifer Aniston?”  Or “Marisa Tomei is so hot” – it was like, yes, clinically, yes, both beautiful women, but at the time, because of our relationship, I wasn’t even thinking along those lines.  But I could see the guys around me, kind of looking.  Someone once asked me, “What was it like kissing Jennifer Aniston?”  I said, “Okay, imagine kissing someone that you really have no romantic feelings for in front of 200 people in 120 degree lights with no top on in a dentist chair.  How do you think that went down?  Not too good.  Yeah, that’s about it.  Not too good.  It was kind of awkward and sweaty.”  But no, Marisa definitely turned a lot of heads, but getting to watch her on a daily basis in that particular role, which obviously she one the Oscar for.  I remember sitting in the editing because Jonathan let me sit in and watch him edit, because you learn so much about how a movie is made or broken in the editing room.  Because you can piece 20, 30 different movies with the same footage that you have depending on how and when you cut.  So I learned a lot about editing and how movies are put together by being in that editing room with them.  And when I watched Marisa’s performance from that perspective of sitting back in a chair and watching the footage, I was like, “Holy crap, she is good!”  And I remember saying to Jonathan Lynn, I said, “You know what, if they’re cool enough to nominate her, she could win an Oscar for this!”  And he looked at me and said, “Really?”  I said, “Absolutely.”  I remembered when it happened I was like, I made that call.  Everyone was so surprised.  She’s a wonderful, wonderful actress.  Yes, she’s pretty.  Yes, all that stuff.  She looks good.  But at the core, I think she works as much as she does.  First of all, she has interesting tastes.  She takes on different roles.  But she’s really talented.  And she deserved it.  So, yeah, she did turn some heads, but for me it was just my co-worker.

SB: It was surprising for me to learn just a moment ago that you were prelaw before you pursued acting.

MW: Yeah, that didn’t last too long but yeah, go ahead.

SB: Have you ever thought, you know, I’m just going to hang up this whole acting thing, and I’m just going to go to law school? Did that ever cross your mind?

MW: As much as I think I could probably do a good job, because I can talk and argue with the best, and I have an excellent memory for detail, although as I’m getting older, that memory is starting to go away.  As I said to you earlier, I tell you, Steve, I think it would literally drive me nuts.  Because I have that overdeveloped sense of fair play.  And as a lawyer, I think, you have these tools at your disposal, and you can use these tools, you can manipulate, you can gauge people, you can read people – all those things I probably have the skill set for, but I think the limitations would drive me nuts.  What I could, what I could not do.  Even knowing the way something went down and still having to defend someone, even though your instincts tell you they probably did it.  But that’s not my job.  My job is to tell them why he couldn’t and establish doubt.  Okay, let’s establish the doubt.  It would get me crazy.  I don’t think I could do it.  I don’t think it’s so much a moral thing, a moral compass, although I’d like to think I have a pretty strong moral compass, I think it would just make my head want to explode if I saw something that wasn’t right and I couldn’t fix it.  So, you’re like, “I’m faced with that every day, what’s your point?”

SB: Absolutely.

MW: Know what I mean?  I know myself, and I think, as much as I’d like to think, “Wow, that would be great!”, I think it would destroy me.  I think it would kill me on the inside.

SB: Right.  It sounds like you have some friends who have gone to law school, obviously.  I think you mentioned friends that are lawyers before.

MW: Yes.

SB: Would it surprise you to learn that it is not uncommon in law schools for My Cousin Vinny, snippets of it, to be shown…

MW: In the classroom?

SB: That’s right.

MW: I heard about this.  Somebody told me.  In fact, a friend of mine who’s a lawyer out here, he says, “I gotta tell you, that’s like our favorite movie.”  Lawyers seem to love the movie.  And I know they reference it.  I know they reference the Fred Gwynne scene where Joe’s in there to see if he’s going to allow them to try the case in Alabama, so I know people who are lawyers – maybe you can tell me – what is it about the movie, because obviously from a comedic standpoint, I get it. And I like the smarts of the movie, too bu,t what is it that draws the lawyers or the law school to want to show the clips?  What is it about it that people have latched to in law?

SB: I think what it is, it’s pretty much the same premise that explains why we like to sit around and tell war stories.  At the point in your life when you get to tell war stories, it’s like it happened to someone else.  So, it’s fun to sit around and watch someone else doing this forensic exercise where you don’t know how it comes out and sometimes, you get burned, and sometimes you succeed.  But the good news about it is, it’s not you.  And you can talk about someone else doing it.  The great thing about My Cousin Vinny for lawyers, I think, this is what’s true for myself, is you get to see someone who is just starting out their career as a lawyer, and that’s when you learn so much, and it turns out great for them, but it’s fun to watch along the way.

MW: Obviously, it’s trial by fire, no pun intended.  When you see him walking into certain things, and once again, it’s using common sense when common sense isn’t always the best way out of something.  And that’s what’s so interesting to me.  And you touched on something, I’ll just bring up really quickly because I also want to answer whatever you have.  I knew some of the people over at Fox.  We’ve heard rumors of a My Cousin Vinny 2, although now it’s going to be like My Cousin Vinny: The Geriatric Years.  That being said, one of the executives was saying, “They’re talking about doing a My Cousin Vinny 2,” and I jokingly said to them, I said, “Tell me they’re not going to make the classic mistake and like send Vinny to Europe.”  And everyone just sort of got really quiet and looked at me.  And I said, “What, seriously?”  And they said, “Well, what’s wrong with that? ” I said, “It’s not so much what’s wrong with it, but the thing to me that was trying that My Cousin Vinny is, it was a fish out of water with a guy that was a fish out of water in his own country.  That’s why it was funny.  He was out of place in his own country.  I mean, if Vinny was to go to Europe and there’d be that language barrier, lack of communication, we’d all be out of place in a country where they didn’t speak our language. But the funny thing about this was, they didn’t speak his language, and he was in America, and they were speaking English.  It was just two different worlds within the same world.  To me, that’s what made it special.  You send him to Europe, he’s going to be out of water just like any of us would be if we didn’t speak German, French, Spanish, whatever it was.  And they said, “Oh.”  And they were looking at me like I had just burst everybody’s bubble.  I said, “Now, if you send Vinny to California, then you keep it in that same theme where he’s a fish out of water.”  It’s New York and LA as opposed to New York versus the South in terms of different – then at least you’re keeping the same sort of them with the original where, okay, now Vinny’s somewhere else in his own country, and he’s out of place.

SB: That’s interesting that you bring that up because one of the things that always struck me about the movie is this idea of a fish out of water or the strange juxtapositions that are going on, you have this North versus South idea, have versus have-nots.  You have Ivy League versus Bush League.  There’s just so much that’s going on.  Was that just a comedic device, or was that something larger that the director was trying get across?

MW: . . . [F]or me, I can’t speak as to what exactly [director Jonathan Lynn] was doing with that.  I don’t want to say that he was if he wasn’t, and vice versa. But you can’t help but see that and take these themes and apply them to bigger things.  Like we were talking about earlier.  Taking these comedic themes and making them into something a little bit more serious or a little bigger than.  So I think in all comedy, obviously all comedy, as funny as it is, is based on something very real and sometimes very base.  Whether it’s human fears, human emotion.  That’s where most comedy comes from.  That being said, I know that it made me think a little bit bigger picture, but was that Jonathan’s intent?  I don’t know.  But I think if it’s a good movie that speaks on the comedic level about certain things, you can’t help but laugh and then look at them.  So, I don’t know if that was the intention but yes, I agree with you.  It was definitely there.  The bigger than what you’re seeing feeling was definitely there for me too.

SB: I have to ask you, too.  Being in the role of the criminal defendant, what was it like being tried by the late Herman Munster?

MW: Oh, my God.  Let me tell you something.  Fred Gwynne was such a great guy.  Such a great guy.  Such a good soul and a good heart.  He was a pro.  He was huge.  He must have been like 6’5”.  It’s a very intimidating presence and of course, growing up – a lot of people remember him, obviously, as Herman Munster, but he’s a great actor.  I remember seeing, I don’t know if you’ve seen him in The Cotton Club.

SB: No, I haven’t.

MW: First of all, if you’ve never seen The Cotton Club, you should go rent it.  A really cool movie.  Took place in Harlem, the music scene, Richard Gere.  It’s a really, really cool movie.  He’s done great performances in so many different movies and so many different TV shows.  Very understated, very self effacing, doesn’t buy into the whole Hollywood thing.  I don’t even think he flew when he traveled.  I think he took either his motor home and drove.  He’s very old school.  I remember one day on the set he saw me playing, I brought my Game Boy with me.  You’re sitting on the set a lot so I had my Game Boy.  I’m playing with my Game Boy, and I think I was playing Tetris.  And all of a sudden – I’m sitting in one of those director’s chairs, just minding my own business, and I see this giant shadow being cast upon me, and I sorta look up and of course it was Fred blocking out half of the sun.  He says, “What’s that?”  “That’s’ a Game Boy.”  “Let me see it.”  So, I gave it to him, and he starts, I like that.  So he gave it back and said, “Okay, I’ll see you on set.”  He gave it back to me and walked away.  A day later, he has one and he’s playing.  And his wife just walks by me and looks at me and glares and then walks away.  So, I introduced him to the world of Tetris on the Game Boy, and I don’t think his wife ever forgave me.  He was just a sweet, sweet man, really professional, loved working with him.  . . . When you work with professionals, things are so much easier and so much more fun.  It makes a huge difference.  When you’re working with pros, and I think you’ll attest to this as well, Steve, when you’re working with great people, you don’t mind putting in extra effort and working longer hours.  When you’re working with people that you don’t like, that aren’t nice and uncool, five minutes too long is too long.

SB: Absolutely.

MW: So people don’t realize, it doesn’t take much effort to just be decent and to be nice.  You have to go out of your way to go the other way, you really do.  But what do you get out of people when that happens?  The yellers, the screamers.  Professionals – you want to do more for them.  So I think because we had that kind of a set, people wanted to go the extra mile and put in the extra time and do the best they could.  You always do your job, but there’s definitely a difference when you have a sort of camaraderie and people just being decent and being professional.  So he was great.

SB: The casting seems to be one of the classic aspects of this movie.  Of course, there’s the subject matter, but the casting seems to be spot on.  In talking about Fred Gwynne, here you have this imposing figure that, as I’m talking about it, he seems to project the idea, the embodiment of judge, jury and executioner.

MW: Exactly.

SB: And it seems that every significant role in that movie was cast perfectly to a tee.  Maybe you have a different thought about that but it just seems – I can’t imagine the movie any other way with any other cast.

MW: Neither can I.  And I would never presume to do that.  I think they did an excellent job.  You look at the movie – everything just fit.  I have wondered because at the time Will Smith I think was doing “Fresh Prince” at the time. . . . Will Smith is brilliant.  He’s a great actor, comedic, dramatic – he does everything.  So every once in a while I wonder – that could work too.  I wonder how that would have been. I mean I’m glad it didn’t, because then I wouldn’t have had the job, and many more jobs after that because of it.  But, yeah, I look at that movie and I wish more television studios and film studios would have the faith to sometimes leave well enough alone.  I think there’s this skewed concept in Hollywood, and I’ve said this before, more so in television than the movies, but it sort of transcends both.  In Hollywood, there’s this idea that a star will make a TV show or movie.  And I think it’s the opposite.  I think a great movie or a great TV show will make a star.  So there’s this idea if you put this person – how many TV shows have you seen where they just wanted a celebrity name or this person from the movie is now doing a TV show.  How successful are those shows?  You see them a lot – they have this idea, if we put enough names together – animation which I also do a lot of, I do a lot of animated television and movies and stuff too – and you’ll see that classically in animated films.  They have this star-studded cast and I’m thinking – you know, the script is the star.  The animation is the star.  If you had really great voice actors that did a great job, do you think most people would really notice or care?  No, they wouldn’t.  There are very few iconic roles, especially in like animated ones – you can look at Shrek and say Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, they did make that movie, they did.  They were brilliant.  But there’s this idea that the more celebrities you put in the better it’s going to be, and it doesn’t have to be that way.  Just put the right pieces in place, people that can do a great job, and you’ll end up making those people famous, rather than having to have famous people in roles and risk the movie.

SB: You know, that sounds like a very refreshing observation from someone that does live in the TMZ [era].

MW: I know.  People don’t bother me.  It’s good.  I wouldn’t mind being bothered a lot more.  Obviously, I could work more.  But you know what, I couldn’t imagine living under that kind of microscope.  And it happens.  But that’s something – I don’t want to say that’s what people sign on for, because they sign on for the job and fulfilling themselves creatively and working and making money, all that stuff.  But unfortunately, in this kind of business, that does go along with it.  Hopefully, it’s sort of balanced out by the money that people make.  . . .  And now that we’re in the digital age, you’re a bad decision away from being captured on someone’s iPhone and having it going viral in two minutes.  It’s kind of a scary situation out there.

SB: Coming back to the movie, I suppose, is there a particular scene or a moment from the set that you remember watching and thinking, “My God, I can’t believe I’m a part of this.  This is just incredible”?

MW: I think I had that from the first day on.  I think I literally had that from the first day on.  I was so excited.  Like I said, it wasn’t my first studio movie, but it was my first studio movie where I was on location and everyone was living in houses next to each other, and they would have the driver take you to the set, so it was really a great Hollywood experience.  But as far as being on the set, I think everyday I had that little bit of awe.  I remember we were shooting on Covington stages in Covington, Georgia, which is about 45 minutes outside of Atlanta.  And I think that’s about right.  There was no air conditioning on these stages.  Appropriately enough, they shot “In the Heat of the Night” there. . . that series with Carroll O’Connor.  So I remember hearing, “Oh, you’re going to sweat off some weight.”  I shouldn’t have lost the weight.  I would have lost during shooting anyway.  While we were shooting there, I remember we did a lot of our first shots there, and I just sat there in the courtroom like, “We’re really doing this.”  Because I’m always amazed when I read a script, when I read a television script or a movie script, and I actually go onto the set, I’m always in awe of the people, the production, the brilliant designers and people that build the set, and I’m looking at this piece of paper in front of me and saying, someone took these words and built this movie.  Look, this is the courtroom.  This is that set.  Here we are in that location.  I’m always amazed at the movie magic that goes into taking something on paper and then months and months later, there you are on set, saying those words in those places that someone had to go scout, create, build, clear.  It amazes me.  I think every day I was on the set I had that bit of awe.  But I will never forget how Austin Pendleton, who played my lawyer, how he tortured me.  Because while I was watching – when you’re shooting a movie, you’re doing it multiple times and shooting it from multiple angles.  Even if you have two or three cameras going at the same time, you’re still going to have your master shot, you’re going to have the single, which is the single shot of each actor.  You’re going to have the over-the-shoulder shots.  You’re going to turn the camera around, and then film the other people in the scene from someone else’s point of view.  So, in the movie, when you see them cutting back and forth between reactions of different people or to the master shot of the whole room – they have something to work with.  So they shoot something from multiple angles and you’re doing the same scene over and over again.  I don’t know how much you know about that.  That’s why I’m sorta explaining it.  So you’ll do this one scene, but you’ll do it over and over, because you have to take different shots, different angles.  So I remember when Austin Pendleton was walking around, “Ladies and gentlemen of the j-j-j-jury.”  He’s slapping a juror on the shoulder, and the guy’s cringing, and I was laughing my ass off.  I couldn’t help it.  In fact, if you watch the movie and you see us at the table when he’s stuttering, and my shoulders are going up and down like I’m crying, I was laughing.  I couldn’t help it.  It was funny.  But I remember the director, Jonathan Lynn, came over and said, “Mitchell, we see you laughing in the scene, so could you try not to laugh?”  I said, “Jonathan, I’m trying.  It isn’t like I’m trying to ruin anything.” And then he’d say, “Action!”  And he would turn his back to me so I would see him laughing.  I said to myself, “Look, you’re asking me not to laugh while I’m on camera so I know you don’t want me to laugh.  But you’re not helping by turning around, and I see your shoulders going up and down.” . . .  Austin Pendleton who is another brilliant actor, writer, director, great, he does everything.  I took Austin aside, I was like, “Sude, you’re killing me.”  I said, “Do me a favor.”  “When they turn the camera around for my shot, could you” – because they want the person, even though the camera isn’t on Austin at that time when they had the cameras turned around on me – he still has to walk and do the same walking that he did so my eyes follow him properly.  Again, so when the cut it together it looks right.  So I said, “Look, when you’re just doing the blocking and walking from place to place, don’t act.  Just say the words because I’ll laugh.”  Okay, so he said, “No problem, Mitchell.  No problem.  I’ll be there for you.”  So the cameras turn around on me.  We start the scene, “Action!”  And Austin was doing his thing, “Ladies and gentlemen of the j-j-j- ury!.”  The loudest – just stuttering – over the top – jury!  I just – I was like, “You son of a bitch.  You did that to me.”  And he was like smiling and he gave me a thumbs up, like “Good?” And I was like, “Yeah, great.”  Those of the things I think of – being in awe at the same time and having a blast.  So those are the things that I remember.

SB: That sounds like it was just a great experience on the set.  You mentioned a couple of times it’s not your first feature film that you were in.  And I notice that you were in Reversal of Fortune a couple of years before that, and of course, that’s another legal thriller.  What was that experience like compared to My Cousin Vinny?

MW: You know what, it was a very, very different vibe.  First of all, that was a much darker movie based on, obviously, the Claus von Bulow trial so that was – I think there was a much more serious tone.  Although, once again, obviously, when you’re working, you do have fun and joke and have fun with what you’re doing.  But the tone of that film was very different, and my part in the film was very different, although I’m still to this day not sure why they called me Curly, but I’m sure they had a good reason for it.  I think I was part of the black bag team.  There were different lawyers that were broken up the way that Dershowitz worked.  . . . He uses his own legal students from wherever he’s teaching at the time.  So, he took his students and broke them up under different parts of the case, so my part of the case was in breaking down the black bag, the evidence therein, and all that stuff.  So I was part of a smaller team on that, didn’t really have  a lot to do in the movie.  So it was a very different feeling, and I think because of that, the subject matter, it was darker, it was more serious, but I must tell you I had a blast with Jeremy Irons, who people didn’t realize what a great dry British sense of humor he has.  I think people were afraid of him.  And when he’d say something naughty, and I started to laugh, people would look at me like, “Why are you laughing?”  I’m like, “Because he’s funny.”  He’s nothing serious.  He’s just pulling your chain to get a reaction, and Jeremy Irons sort of looked at me and winked.  So I knew when he was being bad just to get a reaction from people.  So I had a great time on that film although even though it’s like anything else.  Even though it’s a legal thriller, this is a legal thriller as opposed to a legal comedy.  So a very different vibe but still a great experience.

SB: Right.  Did you have the chance to meet Alan Dershowitz from working on that film?

MW: He was there on set, but I did not meet him.  He would stop by.  I’d see the hair every once in a while.  I go, “I see the hair, there he is.”  I knew he was there, but I did not actually get to meet him, no.

SB: In terms of what you’ve got going on these days, you said you’re doing a lot of voice acting right now.

MW: Yeah.  Film and TV have been kinda slow for me out here, but the voice stuff I’ve been doing for the last thirty, over thirty years, I’ve been doing voice-over work for film and TV whether it’s for TV  commercials or animated stuff so I was actually the voice of Donatello in TMNT, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature.  So that was me there.  The nice part of that for me, first of all, voice work – I love doing it, and I’ve been doing it for so long, and the thing I really love about it is the anonymity of it.  If they’re just hearing your voice, they can’t think to themselves, you know, he looks too old, too young, too short, too thin, too fat, too ethnic.  It is just what the voice is.  And if you can sound like you’re young, or sound like “Cowabunga, dude,” it doesn’t matter what you look like.  They’re just knowing what they hear.  So the beauty about doing the voice work is I’m still playing a lot of teenagers in the stuff that I do.  I mean, I play a lot of adults, too, and depending on the stuff that I’m doing, obviously I could do the different voice work for it, but I just like the fact that you’re no longer limited in the voice world by the physical.  And Hollywood judges you by the physical all the time for better or for worse.  You’re too old for this part.  You’re not right.  You’re judged physically all the time based on the idea they have in their head of what you’re supposed to look like.  In the voice world, as long as you can work your voice and have the right sound, you can be that older, younger, thinner, it doesn’t matter as long as you can sound that way.  So I like the fact that you’re not as held back by the physical when it comes to the voice work.

SB: The thing is, Donatello seems to be a perennial favorite among folks.  I remember back when I was growing up people kind of fought about who was going to be Donatello, and it seems like he’s still popular today.  But there’s always like one Ninja Turtle and people are like, man the smelly kid is going to play Leonardo, or he’s going to play Raphael or something like that.

MW: I was really excited to be Donatello, and I don’t know what it is – if I had to guess, I’d say Donatello was one of the earlier animated characters that made it cool to be smart.  It was okay to be smart.  And not only was it okay, he ended up helping them out but his scientific knowledge, he ended up solving a lot of the stuff just from his brain alone.

SB: And then, you have the Green Lantern project going on right now.

MW: We finished that.  The animated one.  That was so much fun.  I think I was Avra, who’s like the original, literally one of the first Lanterns or the first group of Lanterns.  So, even though he wasn’t Hal, I still get to tell, I wasn’t Hal Jordan, but I still get to tell my kids, “Hey, daddy was the original Lantern.”  . . . Yeah, that was really cool.  Once again, when you get to play in these films or even television shows, especially animated world, these iconic characters, it really is kind of cool.  And I love that.  I love being a part of it because I do, I still love comics.  I always loved comics.  I loved them.  I still do.  I love animation.  In fact, I think some of the most original shows and the best writing that we have and have had in the last ten years has been in animated shows.  I think, once again, it’s the lack of limitation, the fact that, do you think a live action version of “Family Guy” could ever be on the air?  Never in a million years.  But they get leeway.  They have a little more room the play when it’s animated, and I think that’s the general thing. You do have room to play and to push boundaries and to talk about things and talk about things that make you think.  Half the comedy of that is looking at how absurd we are and how horrible we are as people.  . . .  A lot of the animated projects like that today are some of the smartest and the most fun things out there because they have the room to be creative and if they slip a message in once in a while, all the better.

SB: Now, you also did some voice work on “Duckman,” right?

MW: Yeah.  Oh, my God, you’re really digging through the archives.  Yeah.  That was a long time ago.

SB: You know, I was looking through IMDB, and I saw that, and I hadn’t thought about “Duckman” in the longest time.  But I loved that show.  And I can’t find any “Duckman” reruns anywhere, but I thought that was just a brilliantly written show.  Of course, I probably wasn’t even old enough to appreciate it the way I would now.

MW: It was definitely smart and edgy at the time.  Now, was Jason Alexander Duck Man, he was, wasn’t he?

SB: He was, that’s right.

MW: Yeah, because I think it’s one of those things where I’ve been fortunate in certain cases when I didn’t get the part, because I was originally up for the role of Duckman.

SB: Oh, wow, how about that?

MW: But I didn’t get it.  Then he gave me something else, sorta, “Hey, we like you,” and that’s what happened with “Friends.”  I was actually, they called me at home to congratulate me on getting the part of Ross.

SB: Oh, wow.

MW: Then the next day, they were like, “Well, there’s one more guy we’re seeing, so let’s hold off on the contract,” and the rest is history.  And they ended up giving me Barry the orthodontist as the consolation prize, which was okay.  And to this day I don’t look at it – I think it gets to other people – they go, “Oh, my God, doesn’t that kill you?”  I’m like, “Not really.”  I’ve had  a lot of cool things that I’m really, really happy about.  I wouldn’t have turned down the millions, but I never look back, and like “Oh, my God, my life would have been different.”  Who knows?  Maybe I wouldn’t have met my wife, which would have sucked, because I love my family so.  I don’t know.  I’m very happy the way things turned out.  But yeah, I’ve had that kind of second prize thing where if I didn’t get the role, at least they were generous enough and liked me enough to give me another part in the project.  So that’s kinda what happened with “Duckman.”

SB: Huh, how about that?  Like I said, I had not heard about that story, but when I saw that on IMDB, I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to ask him about this.  This is fantastic.”  It’s a very underrated show.  I thought it was just exceptional.  Okay, I know I’ve kept you a long time.  I’ve got two final questions though here for you.  The first one is, hypothetically, let’s say that you were still on trial with Macchio, and things weren’t looking good for you.  Would you turn state’s evidence and testify against Macchio in exchange for a deal from the government?

MW: I will answer that with a very quotable answer.  I might have been neurotic but I was no pigeon.  I’m no narc.  I would not have turned state’s evidence.  Well, the funny part is, there’s no evidence to turn.  That’s why they ended up winning.  There was no incriminating evidence to turn.  It’s mostly circumstantial, but such strong circumstantial evidence that it would have been enough just because of the car, the time line.  . . . [B]ut let’s say it was different, and there was something that I had that I could have used to sort of say, “Oh, look, he’ll get five years and they’ll try him.” No.  Never.  I’m neurotic, but I’m not a narc.

SB: I like that.  That is quotable.  And then the final question.  Here we are looking at the twentieth anniversary.  Thirty years from now, when we’re looking at the fiftieth anniversary, what do you hope the staying power, the legacy, the continuing relevance is of My Cousin Vinny?

MW: First of all, I hope that I’m here for that.  That would be great.  And God willing that I am.  You know, it just goes to show you that the relevance for me for that – and hopefully that film is still being relevant, which I’m sure it will be – it’s funny.  Good writing is good writing.  Good comedy is timeless.  Look at “The Honeymooners.”  Look at “The Mary Tyler Moore show.”  Look at “The Odd Couple.”  I mean, these are all shows that were from the 70s, “The Honeymooners,” like in the 50s, the late 50s.  I mean, funny is funny.  They still rerun “Lucy.”  And I defy anyone when she’s doing the conveyor belt of chocolates and stuffing her face or stopping the line, people still laugh and get a kick out of it.  Funny is funny.  And I think it’s a message for everyone that – I think unfortunately, we are in a very quick fix time right now.  We’re people – we need that quick fix, in and out.  Everything is disposable.  We change our cell phones and televisions every two years.  We cancel TV shows after one episode because it didn’t get the numbers in one week.  They cancel something.  We’re really a “What have you done for me lately?” society right now, which is sad.  And I think everyone is looking for the new edgy this, that, and I think sometimes, the best stuff is right there in front of your face, and people don’t realize that.  We’re still obsessed with the newest and the best and the most technologically advanced, and we forget it’s the basic concept – are these characters funny?  Is it something I could watch either on a weekly basis for half an hour, actually 22 minutes, or someone I could sit through a movie and watch and root for or root against, because I either agree with them or really disagree with them.  And those sort of concepts are timeless.  I think while everyone is busy trying to reinvent the wheel, people forget the very basic nature of comedy and drama and what makes something good.  It’s down to writing, character and execution.  It doesn’t have to be cutting edge.  It doesn’t have to be the pretty – as long as it has some legs and good comedy does, it should be around forever.

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

Abnormal Interviews: My Cousin Vinny Actor Raynor Scheine

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our week-long tribute to My Cousin Vinny with a look at a couple of the film’s actors.  Today, we turn to our interview with Raynor Scheine, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Nick Farr last year. In the film, Scheine’s character, Ernie Crane, was a part of one of the film’s most memorable courtroom scenes (and our personal favorite).  He is the eyewitness for the prosecution whose ability to see through a dirty window, trees, vegetation, and foliage is fodder for Vinny during cross examination. You can watch the clip of the scene here.  Scheine’s extensive credits include roles in Fried Green Tomatoes, Ace Ventura:  Pet Detective, and HBO’s “Deadwood.”  Our interview with Scheine, which features his memories of the filming and set and observations on his acting career, is as follows:

NICK FARR: Looking back, 20 years now, what are your thoughts on the film and how it was received as a courtroom or legal drama?

RAYNOR SCHEINE: Well, I thought it was just a perfect comedy in so many ways.  The script was just perfect.  When it would drag, then it would pop back up with something incredibly funny.  And Joe Pesci, and of course, Marisa Tomei won the Academy award.  She was wonderful.  Fred Gwynne was wonderful.  I had just done a play with him where he played a judge in New York.

NF: I believe “My Cousin Vinny” was Fred Gwynne’s last film appearance before he passed away.  How was it like to work with Fred?

RS: Oh, it was great.  He was very nice and a very smart man.  I think he graduated from Harvard, and he was a great guy.  I ran into him shortly after that in Greenwich Village where he lived, and he was a very nice man.

NF: How were you cast for the role of Ernie Crane?

RS: I auditioned like everybody else, and I had three scenes – two short scenes and then one longer scene. Each one was filmed in a different week, so I was in Atlanta, Georgia for three weeks, which was nice.  We filmed all around outside Atlanta, and I think we filmed on the same courtroom set that they used for “In the Heat of the Night.”

NF: How did you prepare for the role?

RS: Well, most of my background has been in comedy, so I just was funny.  It wasn’t too hard to prepare.  I just had to be funny.  I’ve been funny all my life. . . .  The two of us [Joe Pesci and Raynor Scheine] together.  Joe Pesci’s a great comedian, and the two of us together.  When they would ask me questions, he’d say, “Just go ahead, shout it out.”

NF: [Your courtroom scene] was such a memorable moment in the film.

RS: And the guy who testified how long it took to cook his grits.  Then Bruce McGill and Maury Chaykin, the three of us hung out together in the evening.  I think he [Chaykin] passed away, I’m afraid.  That broke my heart because I had done three movies with Maury, and I think I’ve done another one with Bruce. I knew Bruce around, so we hung out and had a great time while we were in Atlanta.

NF: What do you remember about shooting the scene in the courtroom?

RS: I remember it was hot down there in Georgia.  We just shot it.  It didn’t take that long.  It was just a lot of fun.

NF: What does that courtroom scene say about the accuracy of eyewitness testimony?

RS: I’m not sure.  I’m not an expert on eyewitness testimony, not being a lawyer and all.

NF: Do you have any fond memories of shooting the movie?

RS: Oh, absolutely.  Just hanging out in Atlanta for three weeks.  We had a lot of fun.  The director did just a magnificent job.  He got great performances out of everybody.

NF: How is shooting on a courtroom set different than any other set?  Is the direction any different?

RS: I don’t think so, no.  I had, like I said, just recently before that, I had done a play with Fred Gwynne.  It was a courtroom play, and the whole thing took place in a courtroom.  Fred Gwynne was the judge, and John Lithgow was the star of the play.  That was a good experience.  It was called “Salt Lake City Skyline” by Thomas Babe.  So I felt very comfortable having just been in the courtroom with Fred Gwynne as the judge.  It was a wonderful experience.  It’s done so well in the video cassette rental and people buying it.  It’s done so well for so many years.

NF: You recently did “Inherit the Wind.”  How was that?

RS: It was a wonderful experience.  The cast was very tight, and we partied every weekend at this place where they played bluegrass music, and that was a wonderful experience.  And when that closed, I said I’m going to leave New York on a good experience, and I called the movers and said, “Take me home to Virginia,” where I had a girlfriend.  We were doing the long distance thing for about three years and I said, “The heck with that!”  So now I live in Richmond, Virginia.  I lived in Washington, DC, for four years, and now I’ve been in Richmond for four years now.  I got a degree in drama from Virginia Commonwealth University here.  I always wanted to move back to Richmond.  After “Inherit the Wind” closed, I said, well I want to leave on a happy note, so I moved down here.  I’ve been thrilled to be here.

NF: How difficult is it as an actor to bring your own sense of humor to the screen?

RS: Well, if it’s funny and people laugh, it’s not that difficult.  You just do it, and it’s just funny, I don’t know.

NF: Why do you think that “My Cousin Vinny” has resonated so well with attorneys even 20 years later?

RS: I think because it’s so funny. I’ve had bigger parts in other movies, but that one is the one that people seem to like the most.  People love My Cousin Vinny.  I’ve never met anybody that didn’t like it.

NF: You’ve had roles in a number of projects over the years involving the law in some way.  “L.A. Law,” “JAG,” Fried Green Tomatoes, and most recently “Inherit the Wind.”  What is it about a legal script that draws you to the role.  Or is there anything specifically about it?

RS: My agent sends me, and I audition, and if I get it, I’m there.   I never thought about wanting to get involved with a lot of dramas, but I have been in quite a few courtrooms.  I remember being in the courtroom on “L.A. Law” for a while.  That was fun because I had known some of the people involved earlier.  Jill Eikenberry from Arena Stage in Washington, DC, many years ago.

NF: How is it like working in a stage courtroom on Broadway versus working in an actual courtroom in My Cousin Vinny?  Is there any difference there?

RS: Yeah, well nobody yells cut, and once you get up there, you’ve got to stay in character for the whole time you’re up there.  It’s just the difference between stage and film.

NF: Do you prefer live acting over film?

RS: I prefer live acting, but there are no residuals connected with live acting, so it’s a big money difference.  I prefer doing stage.  I’ve retired here to Virginia now, so I’m not working much anymore, getting my pension.  In fact, I’ve just had a call back audition for Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln he’s doing here in Virginia.  I’d love to book something with that. Just a few years ago I did The New World with Christopher Plummer here in Virginia with a story of John Smith and Pocahontas. I had a scene with Christopher Plummer in that.  My part was cut down quite a bit, but I’m still in it.

NF:  Finally, you were born Raynor Johnson but later adopted the name Raynor Scheine.  How did that name come about?

RS: Well, it had been in the back of my mind for a long time.  I was in a ninth grade science class, and we had to get up and give a report, and the teacher called on my and said, Raynor.  And my cousin Peggy, she said Raynor, Raynor Scheine.  She’s the first person I ever heard say that, and it just stuck in my mind.  And that was from ninth grade science class.  When I got to college in a few programs, different plays I was in, I experimented with the spelling of it and finally settled on what I had before I left college. My mother’s maiden name was Raynor.  Her name was Margaret Raynor.  So she named me Raynor, and I did a movie years ago with Rip Torn, and the first day on the set the director introduced.  He said, “Rip Torn – Raynor Scheine.”  Nobody cracked a smile or anything.  Everybody was very serious.  I thought it was hilarious.

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

Abnormal Interviews: My Cousin Vinny Screenwriter/Co-Producer Dale Launer

For our next installment in our week-long My Cousin Vinny tribute, we here at Abnormal Use are once again proud to present to our interview with the film’s co-producer and screenwriter, Dale Launer, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Nick Farr late last year.  No stranger to Hollywood, Launer is the the son of actor John Launer (Hitchcock’s Marnie, and TV’s “Dragnet” and “Perry Mason“).  Along with Vinny, Launer has written and produced several hit movies, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Love Potion No. 9. As you can see from the interview that follows, Launer offered plenty of insight (and more) behind one of our favorite films, including the genesis of the Vinny character, inspirations for the screenplay, his thoughts on the production of the film, and news to us, the proposed My Cousin Vinny sequel that was never to be.

NICK FARR: Looking back twenty years, what are your thoughts on My Cousin Vinny and how it has been received as a courtroom or a legal drama?

DALE LAUNER: You know, it’s interesting how the story was conceived.  It was actually one of the first stories I ever had.  It was conceived back in the early seventies.  I had a vague idea of what the story was.  . . . In the very early seventies, I met a guy who had taken the bar and was waiting the bar exam results.  So I asked him, “What happens if you don’t pass?”  He says, “Well, I can take it again.”  I said, “Well, what happens if you don’t pass then?”  “You take it again.”  “Well, how many times can you take it?”  He said, “You can take it as many times as you want.”  “What’s the most someone has taken it?”  You can see this is a little like a third degree, like a cross examination.  So I said, “How many times can you take it, fail and then eventually – no what’s the most times somebody has taken and failed and finally passed?”  He said, “Thirteen times.”  I was surprised at how many law students seem to know that number, you know. That, by the way, since has been superseded in California, it was doubled.  It took some guy twenty-six attempts to pass.  And I believe there is now a limit, interestingly enough.  But I always thought that guy who took thirteen times to pass the bar, or girl, is probably out there practicing law in some capacity.  Now, how would you feel if suddenly you learned that guy is your lawyer?  And then I stepped it up and made it a little funnier.  What if you have been accused of a crime and clearly, you have what appears to be the worst lawyer in the country?  And then even funnier yet, then I set it up, what if you’re driving through the deep south [and] you’re arrested in a small town for a murder you did not commit?  And that was back then when I would say generally if you’re from the north or a big city, you had a certain prejudice against the south, and that was largely because it was portrayed in movies like Easy Rider.  So, I took that straight out of Easy Rider.  I mean, that was basically where that idea came from. And that idea was back in 1972.  And so it was an idea I sort of sat on, and when I actually had a career and a couple of movies made, I remember pitching it.  . . . I still wasn’t sure exactly what the story was, I just knew the kids were going to be innocent.  And then I actually flew down to New Orleans, picked up a car, drove up to Mississippi, I went through Jackson, I stopped in, I think, Yazoo or Wazoo, I think I made up the names of one of them, I can’t remember.  And then went over to Alabama and drove through there, and I stopped in a little town called Butler and knocked on the door of a local lawyer, I think the district attorney, and sat down and chatted with him.  So a lot of ideas came from that trip.  . . . [P]eople seemed to be excited about the fact that somebody from the movie business would be down there actually doing research.  . . . [T]hey let me know that they hoped I wouldn’t portray the south unfairly.  A lot of times in movies it made them look like a bunch of rednecks.  And so that is actually part and parcel of the movie.  So when he goes in to meet the judge, because see the judge is a little like, a little tough on him, a little extra tough to let you know.  We’re very sophisticated up here.  Don’t get any ideas.  As a matter of fact, I’ll show you how sophisticated we are.  I intend to hold you to the letter of the law.

So, that was great.  That all works for the story.  Then what happened and while I was writing it, I had a friend of mine, he was a lawyer who was a litigator and he’s an old friend from high school and we had a number of brunches.  And I would ask him a lot of questions about exactly what the procedure is.  Then I asked, “Where do you learn this stuff?”  He says, “Well, you learn it from either going in the court and finding out and watching or you learn it from the firm that hires you.”  I was taken aback.  They don’t teach you this in law school?  He laughed and said, “No.”  “Are you kidding me?  That’s fantastic, okay.”  So that’s what the movie’s about.  And I thought what’s great about it is, especially from the audience point of view, is how many courtroom movies we see and how many times we don’t understand what they’re saying, I get to explain it.  So the movie explains things to the layman.  Now, . . . [the movie is] mentioned in a lot of law exams.  It’s mentioned in an evidence exam in Harvard.  And anytime I run into a law professor, often they’ll mention Vinny.  . . . [O]ne guy said that you’re going to learn everything in this class that you didn’t learn in My Cousin Vinny, which is great.  So, it has taken on a certain life.  You know, what’s odd is I thought the movie would be embraced by the car guys because that movie gets in some real automotive details.  It wasn’t picked up by any of the car magazines.  But the legal community absolutely seemed to have picked up and embraced the movie, so it’s very exciting to me.  For me, one of the most exciting things in my career was when the American Bar Association’s monthly journal came out a couple of years ago with an issue that said the twenty-five greatest legal movies – then they had twenty-five runner ups.  And Vinny came in number three which was like getting the Oscar.  In some ways, better.

NF: And Vinny, Vincent Gambini, was also ranked number twelve on the list of greatest fictional lawyers as well.

DL: Number twelve?  I thought it was higher than that.

NF: I was surprised that they could come up with eleven people who would outrank him.

DL: Well, he used to be number one.  I think they allowed the public to get in there because it was number one for a while.  There was number one, Atticus Finch was, I think.  Another one, the other number one – Oh, no, no, no, the article was “The Greatest Fictional Lawyer Who Wasn’t Atticus Finch.”  And Vinny – he was number one for a while there so –

NF: Now they have Frank Galvin from The Verdict.

DL: Well, they’ve been stuffing the ballot.

NF: Did you foresee these types of accolades when you were writing the script?

DL: No.  I perceived different accolades.  I’m writing my Oscar speech and things.  On a certain day, write one scene, and “Oh, this is great.”  But no, not for what the movie has become.  And with a certain amount of distance, the movie seems to have gone and snowballed a little bit in terms of attention and respect.

NF: Just a minute ago, you spoke about the lawyer in California that had failed the bar exam thirteen times before passing. Vinny failed the bar exam five times before finally getting it right on his sixth attempt.  What does does the film say about the difficulty of the bar exam?

DL: Actually, I’m going to have to tell you.  This is a little interesting inside information on the movie.  And I’m going to say things that may be a little critical of the director and you are welcome to print this.  What happened was, I did not want to make Vinny a dumb guy.  . . . Vinny was supposed to be originally a bag man for the mob.  He was supposed to be a big tough guy who seemed a little dopey, but he’s not dopey.  He seems to have an intrinsic intelligence.  Occasionally in my life, I’ve met people like this who acted a little dopey, but they were smart people.  They seemed to go out of their way to act a little dopey, but they’re actually fairly bright people.  Off the record, I think our last president was like this, George W.  I think he liked to act a little dopey, but he wasn’t that dopey.  Does that make sense?

NF: Yes, sir.  I totally understand.

DL: I don’t think that’s so bad.  I think it’s sort of a backhanded compliment.  It also goes in the vein of Will Rogers.  I think Will Rogers acted dopey per se, but he acted like just kind of a “Gee, shucks” common folk who had a very sharp way of looking at things.  So, rather than make Vinny dumb, what I did is [make] Vinny dyslexic.  So, . . [w]hat I had in the script is, the kid said, “Why did it take you five times to pass the bar or six years to get through law school and six times to pass the bar?”  And Vinny says, “Well, I’m a little dyslexic.”  It’s just one line.  I didn’t want to focus [on it] too much in the movie, but that actually says a lot about his character.  People with dyslexia tend to have a little chip on their shoulder that they think in some ways people perceive them as being either backwards or retarded.  When in fact, that little chip on their shoulder means they’re a little sometimes overly independent.  And it should reflect something in their personality, which it does with Vinny.  He’s a little dyslexic.  Next scene, or a scene or two later, he meets with the judge.  The judge gives him this big thick book on Alabama criminal court procedure.  “Read this over the weekend.”  It’s really kind of funny if you think about it.  Dyslexic guy?  Reading a book like that over the weekend?  Yeah.  Not going to happen.  So, then, later, we see him looking at the book.  Then we see what he sees, and we cut to a very close shot of a word, and the word’s jumbled up.  Then the word would dissolve, do you know what dissolve is?

NF: Yes, sir.

DL: Okay, then the word would dissolve to the word less jumbled up, and then, finally, it would dissolve to the word not jumbled at all.  Then we would pan over to the next word, and that one is jumbled up.  He sees it’s going to take him a year to get through this book.  It’s going to take him a while.  Then there was one additional moment where this was mentioned where his girlfriend says, “Is there anything I can do to help?”  He says, “No.”  She says, “Do you want me to read to you?”  She said this kind of delicately.  He says, “No, I don’t want you to read to me.  I’m not a fucking child.”  That’s it.  That’s all that’s mentioned in the movie.  I’m sorry, in the script.  That got cut out of the movie because the director said he did not know how to portray dyslexia.  So I said, “Why don’t you know how to do it?  Why don’t you just do it the way I wrote it?”  He says, “You know, like where the other words are darkened out, and you see that one thing, it’s too deliberate.  I don’t like that.”  “Well, you don’t have to darken them out.  Just go close shot on the one word.”  “I don’t know.  I don’t like that. I don’t like dissolve.”  So guess what?  Since he doesn’t like dissolve, since he could not figure out a way to do that, which is what a director should be able to do if you had a little talent, that gets cut out of the movie.  So when they asked Vinny, “Why did it take you so long?” – I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even remember what he says – it doesn’t make any sense to me.  So Vinny’s not dyslexic in the movie.  However, in the electronic news kit – which is the press kit that goes out that’s made by the studio that goes to all the magazines and the newspapers and all the news shows and the entertainment shows and there’s clips from the movie, there’s also interviews from the director and the actors.  I don’t know if there’s an interview with me in there, I don’t remember.  And the head of publicity, or someone who works for publicity for Twentieth Century Fox interviews the director.  This is not like somebody who’s trying to trip you up.  This is not “60 Minutes.”  So this is someone on your side, and the trick question was, “So, what’s this movie about?”  The director stumbles a little bit and says – he’s English – “Well, it’s um, um, it’s about a dyslexic man.”  That’s the first line out of his mouth.  And he’s the one that cut that out of the movie.  You wouldn’t know that.  There’s a long involved answer so one thing that I’m not happy about in the movie is Vinny comes off not so bright.  You don’t know why it took him so long to get through the bar.  And then suddenly he starts acting smart.  What you have to do is make assumptions that he is actually a smart guy, and the law is just complicated and boring.  And for some reason, he didn’t pay attention.  . . . I don’t know if there is any other conclusion than that.  There’s also one other line in there – one other thing that the director changed which doesn’t make as much sense.  When Vinny’s cousin, played by Ralph Macchio, is . . . describing how Vinny has a kind of innate intelligence, he describes a wedding that Vinny was at for a mutual relative and that they hired some sort of famous magician there as some entertainment.  And that Vinny could figure out all the tricks.  Now to me that takes a certain kind of intelligence. So that way of observing something that looks a certain way, but the reality of it is something else.  So, I would think that would be a kind of intelligence a good litigator would have.  Then Vinny is explaining something to the kids and he’s explaining this with a deck of cards.  And he says that the prosecutor has to build a case, and he takes pieces of evidence which looks solid from one angle, and he assembles it and it looks like it’s a solid case.  In a sense, a three dimensional thing, and there’s a little bit of a metaphor for that.  Then he knocks it over and says, “When in fact it’s really a house of cards.”  That all makes sense to me.  But the director rewrote that a little bit and turned it into a magic trick which doesn’t make sense at all.  . . . It doesn’t make any sense to me.  It sounds like Vinny is trying to make the case that’s completely opposite of what I just said.  It looks like he’s suggesting that either the case is magic or the deck is stacked, it doesn’t make any sense to me.  I’m rambling here.

NF: How were you able to create realistic courtroom scenes and still make them funny?

DL: Doing research and trying to find some good juicy courtroom ideas.  Especially, there’s a book out there which I think it’s called – I don’t know what it’s called – but it’s like “Comedy in the Law.”  That’s not the term, but sort of, I don’t know, it’s a book of humor and there’s some great little moments in there.  They’re all real so they’re basically public domain so I could take them and use them.  One of them I lifted up and put directly into the movie.   [That one] is where someone was doing a voir dire of a potential juror and they . . . ask them their opinion on capital punishment, and they said something like, “I think it should be left up to the victim’s families.”  Then they then described exactly what the murderer did, and then that the juror actually said, “Fry them.” So I put that right in the movie.  There was another thing which I would liked to have worked in. Some police, I think it was police, were questioning somebody.  There was a fax machine in there – no, no, a copy machine.  A Xerox machine.  They put some wires in the back of it and then attached the wires to an aluminum salad colander.  They put the colander on the guy’s head.  They told him, in fact, this is a lie detector.  They asked him a question.  He would answer it.  They would press copy.  Apparently, they had a [piece of paper] underneath there that said “He’s lying.”  They showed it to him, and it said, “He’s lying.”  It actually unnerved the guy so much that he broke down and told them the truth.  This apparently was thrown out of the court.  But it was just hilarious.  I always wished I could have worked that in. I studied some court cases including one which is a very interesting, one which I had remembered in a movie as a kid.  I didn’t know what it was, and I went online, I think I went online, but I found it somewhere. But it actually was a court case that was tried and won by Abraham Lincoln.  . . . [I]t was a murder case.  He was defending somebody, and somebody said, “Are you sure it was him?”  He says, “Yes.” “How can you be so sure because, it was nighttime?”  He says, “Because I saw him in the moonlight.  There was a full moon.”  Well, what happens, he picks up a Farmer’s Almanac, [and] points out [that] on that date there was no moon.  Certainly, no moon at that time.  Bang.  Wins the case.  Which I thought that’s great, that’s great lawyering.  That’s a great reversal.  That’s a great turn in a case.  How can I take that conceptually and then turn that around and make it funny?  And a lot of the humor just would come out of a certain character.  There was one guy who was not too bright, played by the actor Raynor Scheine, which was great.  He was living in a trailer, and he was looking through a dirty window, through leaves, and through all that stuff.  So that’s generally what you do in a regular court case.  I’m not sure how to answer that question.  I didn’t make it funny.

NF: How did Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei become involved in the project?

DL: When I was writing the movie, I liked that sort of Italian American lower class or working class, whatever you want to say, that patter that you would hear in certain movies.  It’s also sort of a Mediterranean thing, the way they talk back and forth and seem like they’re arguing when in fact it’s just a discussion.  A real good example of that is Raging Bull.  The guy says, “What are you doing?” ” What am I doing?”  “What’s it look like I’m doing?”  “I don’t know, if I knew what you’re doing, I wouldn’t ask what you’re doing.”  So it goes on and on like that, and it’s fun to write, it’s easy to write, and it just sounds funny to me.  So I kind of took that out of that movie.  That kind of sensibility.  A lot of that was a certain amount of improv in there.  In those movies.  Not my movie.  Adapt that to the character.  So the characters – somewhere along the way – I didn’t know where Vinny was from when I first conceived of the idea.  Then somewhere in the mid-eighties I wanted Vinny to be like Sam Kinison.  Remember the stand-up comic?

NF: Yes, I do.

DL: He was the screamer.  I saw Kinison a number of times in concert at the comedy clubs.  You just prayed, you prayed there would be a heckler there because this guy had a way of just eviscerating a heckler.  I started to think that the hecklers were planted because he was so funny with them, and he would just rip into somebody so well.  . . . [A]lso, in college, I was on debate team, and I remember going to a couple of debates before I debated and seeing some really good debaters.  A really good college debater wouldn’t just win an argument, they would devastate you.  Not just devastate you, ideally, they would humiliate you.  It just worked better that way.  And it was much more interesting to the debate judges.  I wanted to put that in the movie.  I wanted that kind of character.  So it was going to be Sam Kinison, at least his personality.  And at one point in the story, . . .  the original idea was probably to have him do that with every witness, and then I changed that.  I wanted it to be a little different with every witness.  So there was one woman who came in with very thick glasses.  She was very sweet, and he was very sweet with her.  Very candid with her.  I can’t remember the name of the character, but the one Raynor Scheine played, the one who was looking through the dirty window, through the trees and the leaves.  And this guy was a little dim.  But he didn’t really humiliate him.  He did, but in a very subtle way, you know what I mean?  You really had to take some guy who being a little belligerent, and then the payoff is better.  So there was that one character who was talking about the grits.  And that was the one where I got to use that idea and that was probably the only time I ever used that idea.  And he would humiliate the guy with the grits.  Because the guy with the grits had a little bit of an attitude. So the whole idea that it takes X amount of time to cook grits, and it took you such and such amount of time that this happened, or something like that.  The line there that was one of my favorite in the movie was, “Do the laws of physics cease to exist on your stove?”  Which is great.  That’s really ripping somebody in court.

NF: What I was getting towards was Joe Pesci or Marisa Tomei. Did you have them in mind?

DL: How did Joe and Marisa get involved?  . . . [T]his is kind of an interesting story.  If I can name the names, yeah, sure, why not?  Being the writer and producer of the movie, I met with the president of the studio, Roger Birnbaum and the chairman, which was Joe Roth.  We were going to talk about casting.  And Roger said, “Who do you think would be good for this?”  So I said my first choice for Vinny would be Robert De Niro.  Then Roger had a kind of pained, almost embarrassed look for me.  Then he said, “Robert De Niro?”  Then he shook his head slightly pained.  “For one, he’s just not funny.”  I said, “Robert De Niro?  You know, he started as a comic actor.”  He said, “Really? I don’t know, he’s just not funny.  And his movies don’t make money.”  I said, “Well, Midnight Run did make money, and he was in it, and it was a comedy, and he was funny.  I like how he plays it straight and knows where the jokes are.”  So he said, “No, no, no.”  Now, cut to now.  I don’t know if any drama or thriller that De Niro’s ever done that has really made much money.  But the comedies all make money, and everybody thinks De Niro’s funny now.  Isn’t that interesting?

NF: That is interesting because you think of De Niro now and you’re thinking Meet the Parents and Analyze This.

DL: And notice he plays it straight, and it’s still funny.  It’s great.  And that’s what I wanted for Vinny.  That’s the tone I like.  That’s the tone I write for.  So the bane of my existence is when the director tries to come in and changes it.  You could play it straight, and it would be, if anything, to me, even funnier.  Otherwise you, by trying to be funny, by trying too hard, you tend to step on the joke.  Especially if the joke is somewhat situational.  So most of the humor in that movie can be played very straight, and it generally works that way.  . . . Joe was not the first attached.  He was certainly discussed.  And I say he’s not my first choice because Vinny was supposed to have been, like I say, a bad man for the mob.  A big guy.  A tough guy who’s supposed to come in and be imposing in the room.  De Niro is not that big but he comes off big.  Especially if you make all the other actors short.  . . . The first name that comes up from them is Danny DeVito.  I’m thinking, Danny DeVito?  Bad man for the mob?  I mean, Danny’s less than five feet tall.  That doesn’t make any sense to me.  He doesn’t come off as any threat.  There’s no irony that this tough guy could come in and be kind of smart.  So all that was very frustrating.  I said no to that.  They went after Danny anyway.  They basically completely ignored me.  Danny reads the script.  He’s now interested.  I’m not told how Danny is interested.  Do you want to direct?  Do you want to star in it?  Or both?  And he’s like, “I don’t know.”  Danny wasn’t sure what he wanted.  I had a meeting with Danny.  It was a creative meeting.  I sat down with Danny.  Here’s how it goes.  Danny says, “You know, the script, it just doesn’t, it just doesn’t go.  It doesn’t go.”  “So you want more go?”  And he laughed.  That’s kind of an absurd statement.  I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?  It’s one of those things that when you’re a screenwriter and somebody comes up to you, you’re in a meeting, and they have a problem with the script, it’s very important they be precise and convince you there’s actually something wrong and they convince you something’s wrong by telling you what’s wrong.  Then you can fix it.  If you’re a writer, and someone says, “The script just doesn’t go,” you can’t do anything with that.  All you can do is leave the meeting feeling bad about the script.  Or, hopefully, finding somebody somewhere who says, “The script’s got a lot of go to it.”  I had no idea what he meant.  As a result, the meetings were slightly strained in that way because he didn’t really know what to say.  So somewhere along the way he dropped out.  Then the script was offered to Jim Belushi.  Jim Belushi was to star in a movie called A League of Their Own, which is about a female baseball team.  And he was the coach.  I know Tea Leoni who was not a star then but was a friend of mine’s girlfriend, she was to be in it.  And then that movie fell apart and . . . they [had] made a pay or play deal to Belushi. Do you know what that means – pay or play?  A pay or play deal means we’re going to offer you this movie.  Here’s the offer, here’s, let’s say $2,000,000 or $5,000,000 or $10,000,000, it’s a pay or play deal.  We’re going to offer you this.  If the movie falls apart, we still pay you the money.  Great deal.  Especially if it falls apart.  You can get rich and never do anything. . . . . So they had to pay or play Belushi, and what they were hoping was that instead of paying you off nothing to not make this movie, we’ll offer you this instead.  Will you do My Cousin Vinny?  He passed on My Cousin Vinny.  So, I actually think he would have been good in it.  And then, after that, it then went to Joe Pesci.  Now, what had happened in the meantime, Joe was in a movie called Goodfellas, and in Goodfellas, he played a scary guy.  Before that, Joe didn’t come off threatening to me.  But in that movie, he comes off threatening – a little bit of a psychopath.  And then he won the Oscar.  And he actually was nominated for the Oscar while he was shooting Vinny.  So I said, “You’re a shoo-in.  You’re going to win.”  He says, “Well, I don’t know.”  I said, “I’ll bet you.  I’ll bet you money.  I’ll give you odds.”  He goes, “I’ll take that bet.  I don’t want to lose that bet.”

Marisa was on a list I had given the casting director. . . . I usually say there’s a list of ten actresses, I think there was more like six or seven.  And I put them in order of desirability.  I said, “Any of them will work, including the last one, which is Marisa Tomei.”  And I had seen Marisa in a play in New York.  She was part of an ensemble, a repertoire group called Naked Angels. I saw her in a play called “Aven’u Boys,” which was written by her boyfriend at the time.  The only reason she wasn’t at the top of the list is the top two or three actresses actually inspired the character in the movie.  So I think top of the list was Carol Davis.  Carol Davis was a girl I actually went out with a couple of times.  She was a hip hop singer.  She was an actress with real credits.  She was fluent in French and Italian, spoke a little Thai, mother was French, father was CIA.  She was a big brassy personality.  She showed up.  She was  a Penthouse Pet.  I think she showed up in Playboy, so she was sexy and foxy and brassy and funny and smart.  She was an interesting character.  When I was in Butler, Alabama doing research for the movie, I remember calling her up and describing the small town, which is like so many small towns in the south.  I remember she said, “I’ll bet the Chinese food is terrible.”  So, I wrote that down, that’s a good line.  I put it right into the movie.  I don’t know if she knows that line is hers.  If my friends say something that’s funny, I’ll write it down, and it goes into a script.  It’s mine.  They’re not writers, so.  . . . [S]he was on the list.  There was an actress named Lisa Gaye, I used to know.  I haven’t spoken to her in forever.  I remember she was a New York actress.  She showed up in the Troma movies – these Toxic Avenger low budget horror comedies.  I don’t remember what she played in them.  She played some wild character, I think, like some sort of a dominatrix-y kind of character.  But I remember going out with her to play pool in New York.  She shows up, and she’s got her own pool cue.  She’s sitting there screwing up.  That’s a great little thing.  I don’t know any woman who have their own pool cue.  There was another character named Nancy Boykiss who has since passed away.  Nancy was pursuing an acting career.  Nancy lived with this singer-songwriter named Staples Burkhart – not his real name by the way.  Staples and Nancy had this weird combative relationship.  You’d go to their house, and they would have these unbelievably vicious knock-down arguments, but they’d be performing.  It’s like they’re performing in front of people.  It’s like “The Honeymooners” or something.  . . . [O]ne of them would come up with something so unbelievably below the belt horrible.  The other would respond, and go, “Ho-ho, that was good.”  So the idea of them arguing was interesting to me as a component of the story and also a reason why Vinny might be considered to be smart.  He’s got a girlfriend, he’s been with her for ten years, and they argue all the time.  It’s all about argumentation.  It’s all about trying to like what’d you just say.  And then we establish that in the movie with a scene that was not played quite right, which both Marisa and Joe admit.  It was a little of my fault in there because I wrote something as a metaphor, but the director took it not as a metaphor which, as I say, is almost a form of seduction for them.  It was a form in the sense that one of them says something smart and the other is kind of like impressed with it.  Impressed with their intelligence.  Impressed with their comeback, their snappy comeback and it’s kind of cool. . . . .

NF: Are you referring to the leaky faucet scene?

DL: The leaky faucet scene.  Which is a very good example of, I guess, of cross examination.  Anyway, so in the movie, it plays a little different.  He actually plays it, and as they’re saying it, the other one is actually getting turned on, and they end up kissing at the end, which was just a little bizarre.  I should have worded it a little different, so the director understood.  But in that scene was a little like the arguments that Nancy and Staples would have, except it was about something rather specific, rather than being vicious and personal.  Again, it wasn’t exactly like the arguments they would have, but that’s where I got the idea from.

NF: What do you think lawyers could learn from Vinny?

DL: . . . [J]uries are common folk, and if you present a case to them in a way that makes perfect sense, that, of course, is what you want.  You want to do that because you want to get them on your side.  . . . I have always found that if you make an argument succinct, but with humor, you point out . . . the absurdity of the other guy’s case. If you can make them laugh, you’ve taken it to another level.  If you can make them laugh, you’ve got an emotional charge to your case or against their case.  I don’t know how often that happens, but clearly, and sometimes in a case, I can see if someone made a point and then the court laughs and the jury laughs, wow, they’re on your side.

NF: The testimony of the state’s expert witness, George Wilbur, played by James Rebhorn, is vital to the state’s case.  In fact, had Vinny not been able to look at these photographs and put all the pieces together, those boys could have been locked up for murder.  Ultimately, Lisa came was a good rebuttal witness.  So what does the film say about the use of expert witnesses?

DL: They can be manipulated.  Absolutely.  In my research, that happens all the time.  I know people who have been expert witnesses, and they know that they are sort of slanting things in a certain way, that you can absolutely jumble up statistics in a way to build a case and make it your case.  To give you a good example, and now that the guy’s dead, I don’t think he’s going to come back and sue now.  I wrote a movie called Blind Date. The movie was taken away and given to – I was told and it was later denied – to a female writer to soften it up.  It was too edgy.  That draft was then given to Blake Edwards who rewrote it.  I read it, and I thought it was horrible.  I actually argued two things which were somewhat opposed to each other.  One, I argued to have my name taken off the screenplay and put an anonymous name or a pseudo-anonymous name which I had registered with the Writer’s Guild which was Nigel Grosswinker.  Turns out the studio has the right of whether or not a pseudo-anonymous credit can be granted if you make a certain amount of money, and I had that amount of money.  In other words, if you make a lot of money, they want to kind of exploit your name by attaching it to the movie.  If they don’t pay you much, if it’s underneath a certain precedence, then you, the writer, can elect to use the pseudo-anonymous credit without permission of the studio.  I wanted to argue to have my name taken off.  On the other hand, I was arguing for sole screenplay credit.  If I were to share credit with any of the rewriters, I then have to share my production bonus.  I didn’t have a huge production bonus – I know this is very Hollywood, it was only $100,000 – but I didn’t want to split that.  So I had to argue the case that despite the fact the script had been rewritten massively, I deserve complete and total screenplay credit.  Now, part of that is rather strategic and creative interpretation of what they call the “Writer’s Credit Determination Manual.”  It was actually about five or six pages, if that.  It would tell you what you had to do to deserve a shared credit on a movie if you rewrite a script.  The most important thing is the structure.  Second most important thing are the characters.  So if you’ve added new characters or taken characters out or changed characters substantially, you then will deserve credit.  You can change all the dialogue, and you will not get any credit at all because that’s more of a dialog punch-up guide.  So they put the emphasis and they slanted it towards the original writer, as well they should, but they also slant it toward structure.  And I have to tell you, I’d say 99 percent of the people working in Hollywood, including a huge majority of the writers, have no idea what structure means.  To give you a little example, structure is a setup and a payoff.  It’s a joke setup and then the punch line.  That’s structure.  That’s a very simplistic version of it, but that’s essentially how it happens in a movie.  When you start writing scripts, it all starts making more sense, and then it becomes a more complicated structure, yes, but it’s still the same thing.  There’s something that comes first, and then the structure evolves, and then eventually, it turns into something else.  But all that has to work together and flow together and support each other.  When it’s weak, it doesn’t support, it doesn’t work.  So I ended up making it as a metaphor of the structure of a house.  So I said Blind Date is about a guy who’s set up with this girl, he gets her drunk, she ruins his life.  I said that’s the premise of the movie.  That is the structure of the movie.  Blake Edwards came in.  He did not change much, and he certainly didn’t change that structure.  Therefore, I deserve total screenplay credit.  Now, I was a little more elaborate than that, and then, I got the full credit for it.  I’m not sure why I’m getting into this whole story.  There’s a reason for it.  Where did this start?

NF: We were talking about expert witnesses.

DL: Expert witnesses, there you go.  What I had done is I had taken the Credits Determination Manual and had juggled it in a way where it seemed to say exactly what the Credits Determination Manual said.  Certainly in the spirit of it when, in fact, if you were to ask me now, “Do I deserve full screenplay credit for that movie?”  Good God, no.  The last third of it had nothing to do with my script.  But they’re all my characters and it was still my “structure”.  So I went in – since no one knows how to define structure – I went in with my own definition of what structure is.  This is what structure is.  It’s like the foundation of a house.  Here’s the footprint.  Here’s the foundation of this screenplay.  Here’s the footprint.  It is unchanged.  You have to grow up.  You have to build up from that.  And what you’re building is on the foundation that I gave and this foundation provides the structure of the story.  I could go back and rip that apart but when, in fact, it was a very good argument.  No one else gets to read my argument.  The only ones that read it are the judges.  So no one actually gets to listen to your case and take it apart.  So that’s what’s kind of interesting, so I actually won full screenplay credit.  Blake Edwards was livid.  He wanted to sue the Guild.  But because the guy refused to ever talk to me or return my calls, . . . knowing he was livid was especially satisfying.  You know what I find is interesting right now, I’m working on an essay on economics, which is something I’m fascinated by.  I did write one essay which is, I described what the recession is, what caused the recession, which most people don’t seem to understand but economists are comfortable with it.  But the pundits go off, and they have these crazy ideas.  And I said the left and the right, the Democrats and Republicans, really have solutions which amount up to nothing less than dumb and dumber.  It’s amazing that both can take statistics, point to them, and come up with all this support of why it works.  And what I did is not unlike what Vinny did.  And one advantage I have as a screenwriter is you have to take an idea and then you have to game it out – three or four or ten or twenty or fifty steps ahead.  A lot of these people come up with these ideas for a solution to the recession and they’re not two or three steps ahead.  They can easily be condemned.  They’re easily disproven.  One of which – I don’t know where you lie on the political spectrum, but I had a girlfriend who is a libertarian.  She’s head of the – I know this sounds oxymoronic – Malibu Tea Party.  She was absolutely livid and passionate about Obama raising the federal income tax 2 percent.  . . . [S]he’s too upset over that 2 percent.  If it was ten or twenty or thirty percent, I would be upset.  Then she talks about the corporate tax.  And that the corporate tax – the lower corporate tax and you would increase more jobs.  I’m sorry – this is off on a tangent which I doubt is going into this thing –

NF: That’s okay, keep talking.

DL: This is just an example of taking statistics and twisting them around.  I have some friends in the political community, and I go to this cocktail party, which I’m now hosting once a month and we – a lot of writers, some screenwriters, a lot of journalists and a lot of pundits and a lot of political bloggers, and we have got anybody from a political strategist that will show up and campaign people, people who have run campaigns, presidential campaigns, Ann Coulter to Arianna Huffington could show up to these things.  I do remember at a dinner party with a bunch of fairly prominent conservatives and they all sort of toed the line – cut corporate tax and that will create jobs.  And I said, “Hold on a second.  That doesn’t make sense.”  They’re all: – “No, no, no, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  They really didn’t game it out.  It just makes sense to them.  There’s extra money.  They’ll use that money and go hire more people.  I said, “Why don’t you talk to someone who actually runs a business?”  You hire as few people as you can because you want to protect your bottom line.  That doesn’t make any sense at all.  And guess what, if you hired more people, and you made more money, you would hire them anyway because, guess what, labor is deductible.  They don’t argue that.  They never really thought it out that far.  And I actually came up with a plan for my libertarian ex-girlfriend where I said, “I can come up with a way where you can increase corporate taxes to 100 percent and still create jobs.”  And she was like, “How could you do that? They’d take all your money.”  I said, “No, no, again.  None of you guys actually run businesses.  Why don’t you run a business, have a corporation?  Trust me, you don’t really have to pay taxes.  Two-thirds of all corporations pay no tax.”  You can do, for instance, I asked, “Do you know what a loan-out corporation is?”  No, she didn’t know that.  I have a loan-out corporation.  I’ve never paid a dime of corporate tax.  Wouldn’t make sense, because at the end of the year I then bonus myself all of my money.  So they never see a profit.  A corporation can do that, too.  You’re using statistics, but they’re not always accurate.  I’m sorry, the statistics are accurate, it’s the conclusions people draw from them.  So it’s a little like looking at the evidence of a case and putting together and making your case.  It’s fascinating to me – especially like in a criminal case or any case – there is sometimes one side is telling 100 percent truth, usually not always the case.  But it’s usually one side that’s telling the truth in general and the other side is just making up any kind of bullshit they can you cannot prove wrong.

NF: Getting back to Vinny, Judge Chamberlain Haller, played by Fred Gwynne, was a very dynamic character, which is atypical of how judges are traditionally portrayed on film. How did you write for a judge?

DL: A lot of it had to do with again talking to my friend Doug, who is a litigator, is now an assistant attorney general, deputy or assistant, deputy attorney general in California.  In asking him questions about what would happen here, he says, “Well, it depends on the judge.  A judge can do this, and a judge can do that.  So knowing what a judge can do could allows me to kind of manipulate the case to go in a certain direction.”  Now, there is one scene in there which infuriated me.  It was the scene the director put in there, and to his shame, as far as I’m concerned, I think he was either a solicitor or a barrister at one time.  So it was something where Vinny has an objection, he speaks in a way in a wording that Vinny would not use – “the veracity of this witness,” blah, blah, blah or something like that.  But the judge said that’s a lucid well thought out argument – denied.  Or overruled.  And I’m thinking like, “Whoa.”  I would not put that in there because for something very, very important to me, I did not want to make the judge into an asshole.  It was very important to me that this movie had no clear delineated antagonist, and if you look at it, it doesn’t.  Except perhaps that one scene.  The judge seems as though he’s the bad guy.  The judge shouldn’t have been the bad guy.  In that scene, he’s the bad guy, and that throws the movie off for me just a little bit.  There was no reason for that.  It’s not necessary for the judge to be a jerk.  The reality of it is information is stacked up in a way where it looks to the prosecutor that these guys did it.  And that happens.  There are cases where the prosecutor somewhere along the way realizes, “Wait a second, this is wrong.”  And that to me – I liked that part of the movie.  I liked the fact that Vinny is battling something.  If there’s an antagonist in the movie, it’s the truth.  And Vinny doesn’t know exactly what it is.  And it doesn’t reveal itself until towards the end of the movie.  . . . [W]hat I really like about the character . . .  is that Vinny is clearly from the north, clearly from New York, and he has a little chip on his shoulder about how the south is portrayed.  So that came out through the research.

NF: So what is Vinny doing now?

DL: Well, in the sequel which I wrote – you know who Gerry Spence is? . . . Gerry Spence is a litigator, very smooth talking, kind of handsome guy who wears these leather fringed jackets, and he shows up on CNN.  He would show up on Larry King a lot.  . . . And he was a very good lawyer.  I’m good friends with Elon Dershowitz, who is the son of Alan Dershowitz.  Alan likes Gerry Spence a lot.  He likes the kind of portrayal of this country lawyer.  And he shows up on CNN wearing a leather fringed jacket.  He’s kind of a character.  So what I did is that Vinny is clearly pretty good and pretty sharp.  That he’s actually a good lawyer.  But that he’s a bit of an urban lawyer.  So I wanted to make him kind of the urban version of Gerry Spence.  So, he’s a guy, he goes into a courtroom, he still talks like this.  But he’s still sharp, and this and that.  It’s a character, and it’s also very entertaining.  I figured that could be viable in the courtroom.  In the sequel, Vinny, in the screenplay, because there’s an actual play version, but in the screenplay . . . Vinny is representing a John Gotti-like character who apparently has . . . like thirty-one charges against him.  Basically, in the title sequence, Vinny’s there, he’s checking off each one of – not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty – until we go to thirty one counts.  He’s gotten Gotti off.  So in the sense, Vinny’s a little like Bruce Cutler.  But Bruce Cutler is very urban, very New York.  He’s got a real New York accent.  So Vinny is a little more Long Islandish, a little more Queens than New Jersey.  So I kind of like that as a character.  Then we see Vinny go over to CNN and get an interview.  I think we might even have him on with Gerry Spence.  Then he goes off to a victory party, and then he’s in the car with her, and he decides, “Let’s get married.”  [He] doesn’t portray it in a very romantic way, which pisses her off, and . . . he doesn’t understand why she’s pissed off. He said, “Maybe we ought to just go ahead and do it.”  “Do what?”  “Get married.”  “That’s it?”  “Yeah.”  “Yeah.”  “That’s it, huh?”  “Yeah, just go off and get married?”  “Yeah.”  So he can see she’s pissed off, and he doesn’t get it.  He’s got an issue with romance anyhow.  Then she gets pissed off.  She gets angry at him.  She says, “Well, maybe I’ll think about it.”  “What do you mean think about it?”  He’s been with her for like twenty years or something. “Come on, what’s to think about?”  “I’ll think about it.”  “Well, what are you going to do?  Say no?”  “Yeah, I could say no.”  Anyway, they live together.  She’s pissed off at him.  And this becomes part of the plot and part of the structure without revealing too much – I’ll tell you exactly what happens in the play because here’s how the play starts out.  The play actually starts out in the Old Bailey, which is the court in London.  She is the defendant.  She has a solicitor.  Her solicitor informs the judge that her barrister at Queen’s counsel which tend to be older died that morning.  She is without counsel.  They . . . inform her that according to English law, if you are not represented by somebody, you’re allowed to choose any barrister in the room, and they have to defend you.  Before he can finish that sentence, all the other barristers had left because they don’t want to work – it’s what they do.  She looks back at the barrister’s bench and there’s this one guy, and it’s Vinny.  And Vinny’s wearing a barrister’s robe and wig.  And she chooses him.  Of course, he comes up.  He has no idea what he’s doing so we can sort of do the whole procedure thing because procedure in England is different than procedure in America.  You can’t approach the bench.  You don’t refer to him as Your Honor.  You refer to him as My Lord.  You have to be a member of an Inn of Court otherwise you’re not a real attorney, none of which Vinny is.   . . . It’s kind of funny because he makes every mistake you can imagine.  If you say something incorrectly, when Vinny says, “Your Honor,” the judge looks off and says, “Excuse me, I can’t hear you.” Which is a polite British way of saying, “I didn’t hear that, why don’t you correct yourself?”  So Vinny just speaks louder.  And he says, “Excuse me, don’t yell at me.”  “You said you couldn’t hear me.  Can I approach the bench?”  “No, you can’t do that. You don’t do that here.”  He freezes in his tracks.  At one point, he objects.  You don’t do that in an inquiry in England.  You can’t do that.  The judge explains you cannot do that.  “You don’t object here.  That’s an American aberration.”  . . . [I]n this version, the judge is unbelievably frustrated and annoyed with Vinny.  But you’re sympathetic with it.  . . . When I was flying over to England, I was reading the in-flight magazine, which was describing a certain judge in England who corrects everybody’s grammar, and in the middle of the case, might discuss the etymology of a word. Where that word came from, the Latin this for that.  And this all goes into the transcript, which I thought was great. So I figured for a guy that talks like this and uses sometimes double negatives and triple negatives to be in a courtroom with a guy who’s correcting your grammar,  it’s funny.  So, sure enough, in the case, there’s actually a character named Julie Warner.  She says, “I’m not Julie Warner.”  “Well, then you have an a/k/a.”  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I’ve got nothing to do with no Julie Warner” – which is a triple negative.  It’s driving the judge crazy.  He says, “That’s a triple negative.  That then lands you in the affirmative.”  She’s looks at him like, “What the fuck you talking about?”  She says, “You’re going to correct my grammar?  You’re counting grammar here?”

NF: So, what’s the status of the sequel?  Is it going to be made?

DL: Probably not.

NF: Probably not?

DL: Yeah, what happened is when I was writing it, Marisa was nominated for an Oscar, which she won.  And she dropped out of the sequel.  And then the studio wouldn’t replace her, they wanted to rewrite her character.  They can’t rewrite her character.  It’s easier to replace her.  . . .  I said, “Why don’t you just replace her?”  “Oh, you can’t do that.”  “You can’t replace an actor? ” “Yeah.”  “No.  “It’s the character that’s supports it.”  “No.”  “It’s done all the time.”  “Where’s it done?”  “In plays.  They have different actors playing characters all the time.”  “Well, this is a movie.”  “This is what they do in the movies.”  “Where do they do this?”  “How about the biggest franchise ever made?”  “What’s that?”  “James Bond.”  “Can you think of another case?”  “Tarzan.”  “Oh, well, that’s Tarzan.”  You win, you lose.  You cannot win.  What’s the point of even arguing?  There is no point.  You can’t argue.  I think it’s Mark Twain said, “You never argue with an idiot.  They’ll bring you down to their level and they’ll beat you with years of experience.”  And that’s kind of what it’s like to deal with the studio heads.  So, they wouldn’t replace her.  So then they had another writer come in and write another draft because I wouldn’t do it.  And they gave that . . .  page one rewrite . . . to Joe Pesci who stopped talking to the studio.  They let me read it.  I said, “This is terrible.  It’s not funny.  Not one funny moment in here.”  The studio executive said, “Oh, I think it’s great.”  “You think it’s great?”  “Yeah.”  “Great?”  “Yeah.”  “Great as good, very good, excellent, and then great?”  “Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s great.”  I needed to define what great is.  I don’t think it’s even good.  Not funny.  They gave it to Joe.  As I say, Joe stopped talking to the studio.  He thought it was so bad.  So, then there was a time when Marisa came around, she wanted to do it.  She and Joe were willing, but it did not happen – the studio said no because it’s taking too much time.  Do you think people have forgotten the movie?  Yeah.  I don’t know.  Again, it’s one of those things where you make your arguments.  I said, “Go ask your guys in video because this movie still shows on TV and it still sells DVDs.  It’s a very popular movie.”  You can’t convince them of anything.  I finally went to them and said the most convincing argument of all.  I said, “Okay, tell you what.  I’ve got financing for the movie and prints and advertising.  You don’t have to put any money out at all.  Not a dime.  All you do is collect money.  The thing is, you have to give the investors the lion’s share, which is not uncommon for the general distribution, for the theatrical distribution.”  . . . I just threw this at them because I wouldn’t normally do this.  You get the DVD.  That’s why going to a studio saying you have nothing to do, I’m going to give you $20,000,000.  You’re going to get $20,000,000. But here’s how studios work.  Wait a second, we get $20,000,000 and not do anything?  What do you get?  I said, “I get $20,000,000 if you get the $20,000,000.”  “We don’t pay the $20,000,000?”  “No, I get the $20,000,000 from someone else.”  “Really?  Well, we want your $20,000,000.”  It’s not enough they make money.  They have to fuck you.  That’s it.  If they don’t fuck you, sorry, excuse my language, but you absolutely print it, they don’t feel like they’ve done a good job.  So, that’s part of the problem too.

NF: I know you said that she dropped out.  Do you know why she dropped out?

DL: I don’t know exactly why.  She was nominated, and what happened, she was being offered lots of different parts.  I think the idea of doing a sequel would be – maybe she was afraid she’d get locked into that character.  That might have been it.  But it was, I think from a career strategic point of view, I think it’s a mistake for her, because what actors fail to understand, is the audiences really don’t know they’re acting.  They just don’t think, “Wow, you’re a brilliant actor, you should be great in this, oh, you’ll be great in this.”  They don’t know you’re great in it until they see you.  They also loved her in My Cousin Vinny.  You’ve got to give your audience something like that now and then.  There are certain actors [who] are very smart with their careers.  Jack Nicholson, who’s been a star throughout all his career. There are a lot of actors who have not.  There are certain actors who have been the number one actor in the world, bang, and they go away.  Either they stop making those movies or they don’t make a smart movie that sells them.  Sean Penn, although he’s made some smart movies, he hasn’t made a truly satisfying commercial movie.  As a result, he’s not a big star.  He’s a star, but he’s not a big star.  He can get a movie of a certain budget made but not a big budget.  Certainly not one that’s going to rely on him.  What Nicholson is good at, he’ll do something that’ll be a big idea for the audience, a big people pleaser and then he’ll do something that’s more of an art film.  So he’ll stagger them out.  And he shows up as the Joker in Batman, as the Devil in the The Witches of Eastwick.  Smart actors like that.  That’s a smart career move.  But you take someone like Mickey Rooney, who was the biggest star in the world.  Not anymore.  He could barely get hired.  Burt Reynolds was the biggest star in the world at one time.  Not anymore.  There are certain actors that do that and then screw up their careers.

You can learn more about Launer”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.).

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.).