Screenplay by Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini (Directors)
Studio: Fine Line (released Aug. 15)
Source material: Comic series “American Splendor” by Harvey Pekar and “My Cancer Year,” by Pekar and Joyce Brabner
Storyline: Cleveland file clerk Harvey Pekar discovers his art, finds love and survives cancer in this unconventional biopic.
About the script: Combining nonfiction, dramatic and animated scenes, Berman and Pulcini’s “American Splendor” is one of the most innovative scripts of the year; with its tender story of the travails of everyman Pekar, it’s also one of the most touching.
Adapting roughly 20 years of Pekar’s “American Splendor” comics initially proved daunting for the pair. “But then we started to look at ‘American Splendor’ not as individual stories, but on a grander level to find the common themes,” Berman says. “We needed to find a general umbrella under which to place the entire story to give it structure. We decided it was an unlikely love story between a man and his medium, and through his comic books, he found a life, a wife, a family, and he beat a disease.”
Biggest challenge: “How to retain the integrity of ‘American Splendor,’ which is based on the idea that life doesn’t fit into tidy narratives,” says Pulcini, “and yet make a satisfying movie that interests people from beginning to end.”
Breakthrough idea: “Reading through the comics, we noticed there’s many different-looking Pekars, because he collaborated with so many artists,” says Berman. “We felt that gave us license to have many Harvey Pekars in the movie.”
Favorite scene: The “Who is Harvey Pekar?” sequence. While suffering from cancer, Pekar becomes delusional and starts his soliloquy about the other Harvey Pekars in the Cleveland phone book. Berman says the scene speaks to issues central to Pekar’s entire work, such as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit into this world?”
Lines we love: “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”– Harvey Pekar; “I have a lot of borderline health disorders that limit me politically when it comes to eating” — Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner; “Sometimes I feel a body next to me like an amputee feels a phantom limb” — Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar
Recognition to date: Grand Jury Prize, 2003 Sundance Film Festival; Fipresci, Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2003; Nominated for screenplay and feature, Independent Spirit Awards.
Writer’s bio: “American Splendor” is the husband-and-wife team’s first produced screenplay. Known primarily for their in-depth and witty documentaries “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and “The Young and the Dead,” Berman and Pulcini have also written two screenplays about unusual real-life individuals — the Mexican composer and bandleader Esquivel, and flamboyant Hollywood restaurateur Prince Michael Romanoff. They are also developing the Sam Kinison story and a comedy called “Family Planning.”