Bob Balaban: How I Write
The prolific actor, who stars as Private Preston Savitz in this week’s Monuments Men, is also a successful children’s book author.
Where did you grow up?
Well, I was born in Chicago. My family moved there in about 1898 or so, escaped from some pogrom in Russia, got there, and eventually set up a chain of movie theaters. I got hooked on movies as a little kid and never really got over it. I love Chicago and I go back whenever I can.
Is there a film that you remember seeing, an earliest one that you really loved and made you want to be in the film industry?
One of my earliest memories is going to see, when I was 7 or 8, Guys and Dolls, which was playing at one of my dad’s theaters. When my dad went to check out the box office receipts, he left me at a little restaurant nearby called the Choo Choo, where a little train went by your counter seat and brought the food to you on a little set of Lionel trains, and when you were finished you put your plates on the train and it took it away. So one of my earliest film-going memories became a happy Proustian memory of food, film, and trains.
When I was 7 or 6, the national company of Peter Pan was rolling through town, starring Mary Martin, and that was one of the most incredibly powerful, vivid—I know it’s not supposed to be powerful, it’s just about a boy who can fly—but it really got me going about imaginative stuff, thinking I could fly. Flying is still one of my biggest things. I’ll wake up and think, Hey, I can fly—no wait a minute, I just dreamt that. It’s about 150 years later, and I’m still dreaming of it. Unfettering myself, flying symbolically, is the thing I’d most like to do, and probably the thing I least do.
Describe your morning routine on a day that you’re not acting, but writing.
My routine is always the same in that it’s never the same. Every morning I get up at 7 a.m., and I’ll try to spend a certain quiet part of the day writing my book, say from 7-11. It ebbs and flows, how well it’s going, but I do it every day. But it’s hard for me to carve out time, so my typical day begins with getting up, taking out my computer and heading up to the attic of my country house, which is where I like to write. So I sit down, and then I’ll realize that I forgot to cast someone in a part for a play I direct that’s running off-Broadway now. So before I do anything, I have to start writing emails, because it’s too early to call anyone. Then I’m about to start writing when I realize that I haven’t really learned my lines for the next movie I’m in, so I spend a little time going over the lines again, because I like to get really familiar with the script I’m about to do. Then I’ll write some. Then I realize I haven’t gone to the gym, so I go to the gym. I mean, I do end up writing, but in a twelve hour writing day, I have about four hours of actual writing. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it? But it (sort of) works.
That doesn’t sound sad to me. It sounds highly productive, in its own unique way.
I guess it’s my particular brand of ADD, which I was never diagnosed with, which is probably good because then I would have worked my way out of it, and then I wouldn’t be doing all the things I’m doing today.
I began a series of kids books a long time ago about a boy and his bionic dog, called McGrowl…by the way, get me back on track whenever you want to, and feel free to tell me to shut up…
No, this is great stuff, bring it on.
I had no intention of writing a series of books, which is really very different from just writing a book, which I’ve only done once before (Spielberg, Truffaut, and Me). I’m not actually a writer, but I became one out of necessity, because I got this job sort of by mistake. I had an idea for a movie and I had a meeting with Scholastic Publishing because they have a movie division. They said that they didn’t really want to do it as a movie, but they thought it’d make a terrific series of books for children. So not knowing what I was doing, which happens a fair amount to me, I thought, Oh, I probably could do that. So they said, Okay, you’ll do six books, every eight months you hand in a new one. So I ended up writing this series, which I both liked and kind of dreaded, because it’s like homework—it’s just due all the time. As soon as you finish one, there’s another due. But I began to really enjoy it. So I set up this other children’s book that I’m in the middle of now, The Creature from the Seventh Grade, and I’m a little more disciplined this time. it’s good for me, it makes me think more linearly and it’s good for my sense of story development.
You’ve done just about every role one can do, in the course of your television and film career. You’ve directed (Parents, for example, and episodes of Nurse Jackie), produced (Gosford Park), acted countless times (from Waiting for Guffman to special appearances on Friends and Seinfeld), as well as writing. Among the various occupations in film and television, is there one that you enjoy most?
All of the various things I do I love doing, and occasionally I find them tortuous. Having a lot of things on my plate, using both sides of my brain, it sort of prevents me—well, I’m never bored. It keeps me from obsessing too much on any one thing. So if the play I’ve been working on for five years, if that has a setback—like, we were planning to do a reading with a wonderful actor, but now he can’t do it for a year and a half—if that was all I was doing I’d have a heart attack. But as is, I can turn to focus on the play I’m doing at the Public Theater. The scary thing is that I’m in a period now when a few too many things are working out at the same time, if you know what I mean? It doesn’t really happen. Usually you say to yourself, Well, one of those will fall apart. I’m finding myself a little more crowded than is comfortable, but I’m happy to put up with that to offset the times when it’s not crowded enough.
Acting on stage in live theater versus in a film or on television are three very different forms of roughly the same profession. Do you have a preference among the three, and how does your preparation differ, depending on the medium?
I don’t end up on stage very often. I can’t multi-task and act in a play every night, and I’m not often offered giant fabulous parts that I feel I must do anyway. Live theater is very, very fulfilling and exciting and scary in a way that the other things aren’t, and it gets you to exercise muscles that you don’t otherwise get to flex. The curtain goes up and, for two hours, you’re out there flying on your own—when it’s going well, it’s really, really fun. It’s yours to own and it’s a real growth experience, it’s a great discipline. But television and movie acting is different every day. It’s usually done in three minute increments, and then you sit and wait. It’s a different discipline. Everything is just a take. You mess it up, they say, Oh, that’s fine, we’ll just do it again. You have to get used to the fact that you’re exercising a different part of your brain. You plan everything, you do it, and then you forget it.
I was on The Good Wife a few times, and that for me was tremendously fun. You don’t usually get such wonderful things to say. On The Good Wife the writers were writing something that you’d be saying, and in the middle of saying it, you go “That’s what that means,” because before when you read it you didn’t quite get the irony or the initial connection that was happening. The writers on that show are really special. If I could find a television show that’s as good as The Good Wife and I could stay there for a few years, I think I’d be insanely happy. I’d get more relaxed and tuned into my character the longer I was there. It’s what seems to happen to Juliana Margulies. She’s been doing that series for about seventeen years now, and she just seems to get better and more relaxed and more focused.
So I pretty much like acting in all arenas, and going back and forth helps improve them all.
Authors often wonder how production companies choose which books to option. What do you look for when considering a book that you might enjoy turning into a film?
It’s pretty simple. Did it strike me as something compelling enough, because of its characters or story, is it original enough to bear possibly spending ten years of your life on? A lot of the things I develop either don’t happen or haven’t happened yet—you never know if and when one of these things will break through. I met Julian Fellowes about 15 or 16 years ago, because I got wrapped up in an old, 19th century book by Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds. I started reading the book, thinking, Hm, this has a lot of characters, it’s kind of complicated, what can I do with this? And 1,100 pages later, I thought, My god, this would be an exciting movie. It’s got this great central character who’s really modern, even though the book was written in, what, 1879—she’s a modern hero, a bad girl who wants too much. She’s ambiguous—you love her, you hate her—and she’s got a real Byzantine story that’s interesting and involves tons of fascinating side characters. So I asked Julian to write the screenplay and he did a great job. What I’m really looking for in a book is anything that immediately attracts me, that has enough depth for me to spend many years of my life thinking about.
Your book, Spielberg, Truffaut, and Me, is a rare behind-the-scenes look at how a film is made, that one regarding the classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Did you keep a diary with the intention of publishing it? How did that book come to be?
I wrote letters to my wife during the filming—she was in New York and I was sometimes in Wyoming, sometimes flying around the world, and sometimes in Mobile, Alabama. I didn’t really keep a diary. I had a great time being in this movie, for lots of reasons. How about sitting around with [French director Francois] Truffaut for eight months and really getting to know him? Being the only person around who spoke French, and he didn’t really like to speak English, so I was his happily captive audience. Not to mention, I got to watch Spielberg making classic Spielberg. A lot of the technology he used had never been used before in a movie. It’s pretty engrossing to watch a master work.
When I got back to New York, we were having our first child, and I decided to finish my college degree. I was only two courses shy and what am I going to tell my child when she or he says that she wants to quit school? So I went back to NYU, where I had been, and took a Sociology class. I had to write a term paper. I had just finished Close Encounters so I decided to write about social stratification on a film set. It was easy; I didn’t have to do any research. So I was talking about my paper at a party, and a gossip columnist overheard me and wrote in her column the next day that I had written the “fabulous, behind-the-scenes, tell-all diary of the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” So I got a call from a bunch of publishers the next day, made a deal, and had to sit down and turn in a book eight days later.
Which was, you know, daunting. But for my purposes, having to drop everything and just focus for a week was probably easier than if I had to focus for a year, but do it every once in awhile. So I said, Okay, rent me an apartment, find me someone who types really fast, and so every morning I went to work—it’s probably the only time I went to what felt like a real grown-up job. You go, you sit there, you write, you have a secretary, you do the same thing every day. Every morning when I went on the subway to go to my office, I’d take notes. I’d think, So, what was it like being cast in this film? These are the seven anecdotes I remember. Because I had just finished the movie, it was pretty easy to recall a massive amount of detail. I knew I wanted to focus a lot on Truffaut, what we talked about, our funny little stories, and there were a lot of anecdotes that did have beginnings, middles, and ends, and that I still remember fondly now. So I wrote down everything in the morning, I’d type it up or dictate it when I got to the apartment, and then I’d correct it on the subway ride home. Eight days later I had a manuscript and I gave it to my wife and she edited it and the book came out soon after. The movie by now had been out for a little bit, and it was more successful than we thought it would be, and we sold a relatively massive amount of copies of my little book. That was my first book. And it started with a mistake, just like my McGrowl series.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I over-commit, that’s a habit. And affectation? Hmm. I probably try to be nice too much.
Do you have any superstitions?
My superstition is that if I lay dormant for too long, I’ll disappear. I’m not sure that’s really a superstition—it might be a fact.
What is your favorite snack while writing up in your attic?
Something boring like…hang on, Noah, I’ll open up my cupboard and see … I’m really boring with food. It’s a cereal that Kashi makes called Strawberry Fields, and I put it in a cup and drink it dry.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I’m incredibly good at playing the game Labyrinth [where you navigate a steel ball around a wooden maze, avoiding holes as you go]. You know that game? I’m just brilliantly good at it. I can get from level 1 to 64 in no time, once I get rolling. There’s no stopping me.
Can I tell you another thing that few people know about me? I’m one of the world’s best parallel parkers. May I tell you a quick anecdote? It comes from playing Labyrinth, of course, because that game is about getting a ball into these odd corners, and that’s what parallel parking is. About 15 years ago I was parking my car along Madison Avenue, and I noticed that this man had pulled up in his car and was staring at me. I thought he was a policeman, and I was doing something wrong, so I was a bit nervous. When I finished parking he got out of his car and came over to me and knocked on the window, and I thought, Oh no, what am I going to get a ticket for? He’s going to take my license, I’m going to have to go to driving school! And he said, “Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you, I’m a driving instructor, and you just parked more beautifully than anybody I’ve ever seen parking. You did three fluid movements, you never touched the car in front of you or behind you, and there’s about four inches separating you from the car behind you and in front of you … I just wanted to let you know that, with my many years of experience being a driving instructor, I’ve never seen anybody park better.” I’m still so excited about that, that I talk about it all the time.
What phrase do you over-use?
I can tell you a syntactical, horrible thing that I do all the time that you’ve probably noticed. I begin to tell one story and then feel it’s so important to qualify the story that I have paragraph upon paragraph before I get to the point. It’s pretty hard to follow me. I’m trying to do it less, but I’m not succeeding.
Not to worry, Bob, those wayward thoughts are portals of discovery for an interviewer.
That’s nice of you to say, but it can occasionally get me into terrible trouble.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“He said yes a lot.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.