DW Brown: Getting to the Point
In an iconic film like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" every character is memorable, each important in their own way. "Ron Johnson", audio consultant, is one cool cat fans won't soon forget. His input (so to speak) leaves a lasting impression on the audience and especially the main character "Stacy Hamilton" (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh).
D.W. Brown has appeared in a wide variety of films and television shows, is a writer, director, producer, and runs an acting school with his wife, Joanne Baron.
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH
Most "players" in movies are fake and insincere, almost like caricatures, but "Ron Johnson", at least on the outside, seems pretty genuine… Did you play him as a shallow guy who acted nice to get the girl, or do you think he was a nice guy who got freaked out by her young age?
While I wanted to play Ron Johnson as genuine, given that it's a light comedy I thought it might be better if he was someone you might call "shallow" so there wouldn't be a deep feeling of loss for Stacy that they didn't end up having a relationship. On the other hand, I don't really think there is such a thing as a "shallow" person, really -- just someone who cares too much or too little about things we consider to be more or less evolved. So, Ron cared a lot about the sensual experience they could both have in that moment, but had no connection to the deeper challenge of a real relationship. Also, his jacket was very important to him, so that might be thought of as materialistic.
The awesomely smooth line when "Ron" asks "Stacy" for her phone number… How many takes to get this just right?
We knocked that scene out at Perry's Pizza very fast there at The Sherman Oaks Galleria. The pick-up line originally written was that Stacy would ask me what I wanted and I would then just say: "your phone number," but Amy Heckerling is such an open artist as a director I felt comfortable asking her if I could give my legitimate order first, what I actually used to order in those days before I stopped eating meat and switched to Diet Coke, so when she asks me what I want, I responded: "A meatball sandwich, a medium coke... and your phone number."
When you pick "Stacy" up in the car… During which you utter the classic line: "The Point it is"… How long did all the interior scenes take to shoot?
That scene was shot fairly fast, too, no problems, and, as I recall, the fun of acting in the movie meshed with this guy being in his element and this adventure just getting under way. I loved that car. I'd always fantasized about getting that kind of car because a used one was almost cheap enough to be within my grasp.
Where was "The Point" located? How long did it take to film that scene with you and "Stacy" and was there any tension?
The Point was shot at some baseball field in a park in The Valley and it took the rest of the night, and there wasn't tension, but it was very strange doing "the love scene." Jennifer and I were pals, she is a lovely, lovely person and a serious actress, so there wasn't any discomfort at all in the physicality with her, but I do have a very vivid memory of one particular moment. It actually was raining that night and the crew wasn't ready for rain, so they didn't have real rain gear and they improvised by using large Hefty bags as ponchos, with head and arm holes cut out. It was shot MOS (without sound being recorded on the set) and Amy told the DP to instruct me what to do so that he could get the best-looking shots. So, here's this guy saying to me in this cold, clinical way: "Kiss her neck. Slide your hand two inches down her arm. Work your way around to the other side of her neck." And then when Amy finally says: "Cut", I look up, and there in the drizzle are all these men wearing black, plastic bags staring at me, digging it.
Do you think the film's popularity has grown even larger throughout the years?
Making it I didn't know it would become such an iconic movie, but I loved the movie right way, and it really has held in there with the test of time. Judd Apatow last year held a screening of the film and a tribute to Amy Heckerling as one of the important films of his life. My wife, Joanne Baron, and I have an acting school in Santa Monica and Robert DeNiro came and spoke at the school and afterward, the brother of one of my students came up to me and as he shook my hand he said: "I just shook hands with Robert DeNiro… but he wasn't in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High."
Do you get nostalgic when you hear the Jackson Browne song "She Must be Somebody's Baby"? Yes,
I get nostalgic whenever I hear that Jackson Brown song. When I first saw the movie and that song came on it was the first time I, or just about anyone, had heard it and right away you could feel it was something.
What "Ron Johnson" line is quoted to you the most?
The line people have quoted back to me the most from the Fast Times, perhaps because it's been highly charged for them in their own lives, was: "Are you really eighteen?"
WEEKEND PASS, MISCHIEF (& OTHERS)
In the 1984 low-budget comedy "Weekend Pass"… How was it working with Phil Hartman?
Weekend Pass... ah, yes, ahead of its time it was... or after its time... or maybe out of time, I don't know. But rare in American cinema, certainly. Rare. And I do fondly remember spending an afternoon in a trailer with Phil Hartman... not the way it sounds (please) but it was just him and me and he was a sweetheart of a guy. Not "on," but funny and would laugh at the other guy's jokes.
In "Weekend Pass" your character "Fricker" is a wannabe standup comic with stage fright… How did you prepare for this role?
I had some experience because I'd previously tried doing stand up comedy a few times at the Improvisation on Melrose at an "open mic night," not because I ever wanted to be a stand up comic, but because, as an actor, I wanted to experience breaking down the fourth wall and dealing with the issue of performing for an audience head on. I don't think the fear of performing, or being "on," is far from any of us. Whether it's getting called out on something by a boss or a cop or a new babysitter. In front of a group of people, on a deep level in the brain, we especially know, "If I don't watch my ass, this mob could start throwing stones."
The beach scene… How long were you buried in the sand?
You know, I don't remember how long it was, but it was a long time. Crew guys dug the hole with shovels and I sat with my head stuck through cardbaord covered with sand, sweating like crazy in there. After the shoot that night I went home and fell asleep and had terrible dreams of being on the set like that and trying in vain to get someone to bring me water. I woke up with a burning thirst.
Any memories of the exterior driving shots?
I don't really remember much about the driving around in particular, just that it was a kick hanging out with those guys. They were all very cool.
In the 1985 teen comedy (set in the fifties) "Mischief", your character "Kenny" has few redeeming qualities… How did you go about humanizing the character?
Like I said about playing Ron Johnson as a shallow person, it's just a matter of perspective. Somebody thinks that you're shallow because you don't keep the Sabbath holy, or that you're evil because you shame yourself and your family by letting your sister leave the house with her face uncovered. Kenny did what he did for his reasons, just like I do what I do for my reasons. As an actor you construct this tunnel that you think will lead you where, in interpretation, you think the character should go, then you go crazy, with your full freedom, just as you are, in the tunnel.
"Kenny" gets in a lot of fights… How were these to film?
I loved doing the [main] fight scene and I did all of it myself except for when I throw him off my shoulders, and the tight shots of the stomach punches to him which I let the pro do because I didn't want them to look fake... and, still they look fake!
Who do you play in "National Lampoon's The Joy of Sex"?
I played "Dinko" the lead character's wise older brother in "The Joy Of Sex," an extremely forgettable film except for the fact that I met my wife of twenty-three years [Joanne Baron] making it.
Which films that you acted in gave you the most experience on being a director? Also, do you think that actors have an edge on directing, being that they can relate to actors, over non-acting directors?
No one film or acting experience particularly prepared me for directing, it's just given me an overall empathy for what it's like to be that actor on the front line, and, yes, I think it is a tremendous advantage and that every director should know what it feels like to be under the gun in that way. I've learned the most about directing from being an acting teacher and having directed hundreds of scenes. I'm also a huge movie fan.
Which film that you directed was the most challenging?
"In Northwood," the film I just completed in post -- that we shot in Pittsburgh last summer -- was by far the most rigorous thing I've ever undertaken as a director. It stars Nick Stahl, Olivia Wilde, Dash Mihok, Pruit Taylor Vince, Shoreh Ahgdashloo, and Tariq Trotter (who goes by "Black Thought" as lead singer of the band "The Roots") and it takes place in an institution for the criminally insane. I won't go into here the many, many challenges of working in low budget filmmaking, but I do know, given everything, I was blessed to get the cast I got and that it came off at all. A lot of the time you're tip-toeing on the boundary of disaster. You'll have to tell me if you think it was worthwhile when you see the film.
As an acting teacher, what would you say are the most important elements of someone "getting into character" for a role?
The most important thing an actor can do to "get into character" is to realize the truth of the ancient expression: "I am a human being, and nothing related to human beings is alien to me." An actor is a person and so they must let the character speak fully through them in all their own fullness. They can't "comment on the character" by showing some idea they have about how they think people who are like this act. Ideas are small and wrong. An actor has to always be themselves, and if they have to get into character, beyond just relating to the circumstances, because they're playing someone different than themselves, they just have to adjust things so that perhaps the meaning of a leather jacket to a materialistic person takes on the importance they would invest in a gift given to them by an honored person in their life.
You mentioned you were a huge movie fan… What are your favorite all-time films?
My favorite movies, that I don't suppose say anything very special about my taste (as well as date me) might be: "Godfather 1 & 2," "Chinatown," "Dr. Strangelove," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Goodfellas" and "Glory." Some a more esoteric might be: "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Scarecrow," and "Welcome To The Dollhouse." And of more recent vintage: "Children Of Men" and "Revolutionary Road."
My all time favorite actors, again, mainstream and without surprise would be: Brando, young Pacino, young to middle age DeNiro, his whole life: Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn and Meryl Streep. More recently Cate Blanchette, Tony Collete, Kate Winslet and, yes, Leonardo DiCaprio. I still don't think DiCaprio gets the proper respect for what a monster talent he is (as well as remaining sane enough to keep choosing parts for their artistic value); and, by the way, can we now say forever how out of whack awards are in that Brad Pitt was nominated this year for an academy award and DiCaprio wasn't? Less well known actors who I think are major are Said Taghmaoui, Mark Ruffalo and Samantha Morton, and I actually think the four leads in my movie are really inspired (and that ain't just promotion), as well as my wife, Joanne, who can really kick butt when she gets serious.
What are you up to now?
I play the doctor of Virginia Madsen's son in "A Haunting In Connecticut," coming out in April. In the film he isn't sure whether he's seeing ghosts for real or as a side effect of the experimental cancer treatments I'm giving him… Although I've finished post on "In Northwood," I'm now working on the trailer and doing all the things that have to be done when you're the director of a movie that was made for two million dollars. Also, I have an acting book coming out in May that I've written over the course of the last fifteen years entitled "You Can Act," Michael Wiese Productions, so there's a lot of work to be done putting the finishing touches on that.
What technique do you teach at your acting school?
I have my regular classes I teach at our acting studio at Third and Wilshire in Santa Monica, The Joanne Baron/ D.W. Brown Studio (firstname.lastname@example.org)… We teach what's call The Meisner Technique, a program of study that's come to be generally agreed to be the most effective way to train actors, and we teach it the old school way, hardcore, like nobody does in L.A., because my wife is a genius and a maniac. We take people who have had no experience with acting and in short order they blow your mind with what they're capable of doing. They just needed the tools. We also have people who've acted for years professionally come to us and we've given them access to a whole new range of their talents. It's very exciting stuff and, as long as I've been doing it, I still look forward to going to teach.
Interview by James M. Tate
D.W. Brown's acting school info… www.baronbrown.com
JMT's Facebook Fan Page for… Fast Times at Ridgemont High
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