Michael Showalter has worked onstage and off, shot films as a director and a performer. He’s even been half of a comedy music duo, The Doilies.
So it makes sense that he loves musicals, which combine so many arts he himself has practiced.
“I have always been someone who can be transported by a song in a musical,” says Showalter. “Some people don’t get musicals at all; I’m the opposite. I’m weeping if it’s the right song, (because of) the way in which a song in a musical can cut to the core of the emotion that’s underneath it.”
For his Tribeca Shortlist trio, Showalter chose just one musical, “Hair,” but his other two choices have a musical feel: “The Big Chill” uses its pop music score for storytelling (the Rolling Stones on the organ at a funeral is an indelible moment) and the larger-than-life “Escape From New York” not only has a memorable score but features “Bandstand Boogie” at its climax.
For Showalter, “Hair” stands apart because of the quality of its music, but also its message, which remains timely. “Letting your freak flag fly. Celebrating difference, celebrating that difference is actually a good thing, and in today’s society that is very important,” he said. “That the things that make us different from each other is not something to be afraid of or something to fight against, it’s something to celebrate and embrace.” But he observes that it also explores how utopian ideals can clash with the realities of the world. So it’s a tempered celebration.
John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” — set in a very different vision of New York — is as stylized in its own way as any musical. Showalter calls it “a perfect movie.”
But it’s about very imperfect characters, starting with its hero. “Snake Plissken is the least good ‘good guy’; he’s a good guy who’s a hardened criminal. And at the end of the movie, he chooses not to save the planet because the planet isn’t worth saving, which makes him very heroic.” The President, played by Donald Pleasence, is tortured and humiliated. “He’s not humbled by the experience at all, which is sort of the dark message. The social comment is that these politicians are not good people.”
His third film, “The Big Chill,” he observes, also features characters who have “big, big, big flaws,” and yet somehow, they form a compelling and attractive group. As a director himself, he knows how hard it is to make even such an accomplished bunch of actors play naturally together.
“Directing a big ensemble like ‘The Big Chill,’ it’s important to me to make it feel real. To have the audience feel like you’re a fly on the wall in a sense. And that requires a lot of work,” he said. “When I’ve worked in scenes with a lot of different people talking or overlapping dialogue and stuff, you need to do the scene over and over and over again even before you shoot to get it to that place where it feels like a real conversation.”
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