27 May 2011

A Man's Movie: The Big Kahuna

The Big Kahuna airs tomorrow night on the Sundance channel at 7:55PM and at 2:55 AM Sunday morning.

There are people in this world, Bob who look very official while they're doing what they're doing and do you know why?


Because they don't know what they're doing.
(a beat)
Because if you know what you're doing, you don't have to look like you know what you're doing. It comes naturally -- You follow me?


Ok. So now, do you know how you can tell the difference?


Alright. The way you tell is, a little voice pops up in the back of your mind to say that this guy sitting before me -- or she -- is lying through his teeth and telling me stories.
Now once you get that little piece of information...
(points at Bob)
Whad 'ya do?

Uh, I don't know.

Here's what I would do. I would say, buddy...
I've heard a lot of horse shit in my time because, God knows, I'm a salesman and we all have to wade through our share of snow to get to the cabin, but you...
(points at BOB)
take the cake.
I don't believe you have the first idea of what you're talking about.
Your children admire you, I'm sure, as we all hope they do, and maybe your wife doesn't know...but I know.
And my knowledge forces me to call you on the fact that you're a god damned, cock sucking liar from the word... GO! And then I would sit down and finish my soup.

I first met the writer of The Big Kahuna, Roger Rueff, in Chicago five years ago when I took his play writing class. Roger created a philosophy of story telling called G.R.O.K -- which stands for, Gain, Regain or Keep. Roger calls these the, "central vectors of intention for a main character." I call it, the hero is trying to get something, get something back or keep something.

I've always had a place in my heart for this film, which was based on Roger's play, Hospitality Suite. Three industrial lubricant salesmen (Larry, Phil & Bob) from Chicago host a hospitality suite in a Wichita hotel where they try to bag (gain ) a 'big kahuna prospect.'

The Trad: When did you write the play and how old were you?

Roger Rueff: I wrote the first draft in 1990, when I was 34. It’s an interesting question, because when the play was produced at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago in 1992, one of the older patrons (a man who looked to be in his 80’s) who happened to be following me out to the lobby after the play and recognized me as the playwright slapped me on the back and said, “You must be very old.”

TT: You were still working a day job. Where did you find the time?

RR: I was working as a research engineer for Amoco Oil Company. In fact, an experience I had on a business trip to Wichita, Kansas to hawk white mineral oil is what inspired me to use the little hotel room as the setting for the play.

I wrote at night, sometimes staying up until two or three in the morning… and getting up the next morning to go to work. Fortunately, years before I had learned the secret of reducing one’s need for sleep. It has to do with getting sleep in 1-1/2 hour increments. (Long story, but based on scientific research.)

TT: Did you outline it first, and if so, did you know how it would end?

RR: I did not outline the play, nor do I generally do that. I sort of watched it come together by itself. One day, the ending came to me, and once that happens, everything comes together, because I can see where it’s all been headed all along. But I did not impose the end. It just happened.

TT: Where did the characters Larry and Phil come from?

RR: I had been thinking about the issues of the play for a long time, working them out in my mind and thinking about possible settings and scenarios. Then (as I noted above), I found myself in Wichita, Kansas on a mission for Amoco in a small, dingy hospitality suite. With me in the room were a salesman and an account representative.

Nothing in the play actually happened in the room—and my beliefs about life differ strongly from those of Bob, the guy from the research center—but when I encountered the other characters, it all came together in my mind, and I knew it was time to write the play.

TT: The film is book ended with two amazing monologues by Spacy and Devito -- One hysterical while the other is heartbreaking. Where did they come from?

RR: They came from inside me. There’s a little bit of Larry in me and also a little bit of Phil. By the time I knew where everything was headed, I was just kind of watching as the characters spoke. That’s why the monologues work so well… they’re very honest. And thank you for calling them “amazing.”

TT: It's been 12 years. Where do you see Larry, Phil and Bob today?

RR: It’s actually been 19 years since the play premiered at South Coast Repertory Theatre in 1992. But to your point, 12 years out, Phil is retired and doing something he’s always wanted to do, enjoying a good relationship with his daughters (not so much with his ex-wife).

Larry has moved on from selling industrial lubricants to selling other things and probably heads up a department somewhere, which he would consider a bureaucratic headache but accept as long as he got to go out in the field.

Bob has risen in the ranks of the company, where he remains. He might well have divorced his wife before they had children, realizing that what Larry said at one point was true: Sometimes, two principled people find out that it was their principles that got married… and they just kind of came along for the ride.

If he hasn’t completely abandoned his religion, he has certainly tempered his expression of it. At his core, Bob is an existentialist, and his main arguments in the story have to with being “human,” not being Christian, which is why Phil is able to say what he says at the end.

Bob is concerned with “what is the best way to be human,” and at that point in his life, it means following Jesus. But Bob is a smart guy and capable of self-awareness, and it would not surprise me at all to see him abandon the formal faith in Jesus and go searching for deeper and broader meanings in life.

The question is, do you have any character at all? And if you want my honest opinion, Bob. You do not. For the simple reason...you don't regret anything yet.

You're saying I won't have any character unless I do something I regret?

No, Bob.
I'm saying you've already done plenty of things to regret.
You just don't know what they are.
(a beat)
It's when you discover them.
When you see the folly of something you've done, and you wish
you had it to do over but you know you can't 'cause it's too late.
So, you pick that thing up and carry it with you to remind you that
life goes on... The world will spin without you...
You really don't matter in the end.
Then...you will attain character because honesty will reach out from inside
and tattoo itself all across your face.
Until that day -- however -- you can not expect -- to go beyond a certain point.


Memphis88 said...

Yup, us Christians sure is stupid.

Charles said...

Nice interview and intro.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic... as an actor and sometimes playwright and more often director I was really into this post...did you ever write any scenes or plays- i suppose you musty have in the class... I've adapted things, but never could find much of a playwright in me... you?

tintin said...

Memphis88- That was far from the intent.

Charles- Nice Tumbler.

Zambo- 5 screenplays, 1 play and 1 teleplay. And they have all gone nowhere.

Oyster Guy said...

Amazing stuff, and a good post before a weekend. It took a little while to sink in properly.
I am startled at times when I wish real life was a little more like the movies. That is a ridiculous idea but our culture does not promote or venerate maturity and insight. The power of a meaningful film or play is in the fact that it compels an audience to focus and chew on ideas, other people and events at the same time and place. Look at a film like Michael Clayton and it did maybe only 60 million domestically. How rare it seems these days that others genuinely prepared to listen and learn with and from each other. The ego is out of control and I choose to blame facebook. C'est la guerre.

Brohammas said...

I recall saying once "If I can sell Mormonism in the Bible belt, everything else is child's play."
I got the job...
Then I found myself in a large convention center room, filled with reps awaiting clients, and as I looked around the room I saw everything I never wanted to be, and realized I was in the room too.

tintin said...

Oyster Guy- I have a theory that accountants and CFOs are behind the downward spiral. In everything.

Brohammas - Very self aware of you. Same thing happened to me except it lasted for 22 years.

JKG said...

This movie caught me by surprise when I caught it by accident on late-night TV (when it was, in fact, TV and not cable). It played a lot like "Glengarry Glen Ross" in its intensity and intimacy. I thought it was fantastic.

It affected me powerfully. I think two more things about it: when I saw it, I wanted character -- both "aspired to" and "lacked," at least in the sense Phil expresses. Now, I only hope I have it while regretting the need.

tintin said...

JKG- I often hear people say they have no regrets. Either they're lying or they haven't lived long enough or they're just phonies.

Roan said...

Memphis 88 - I'm glad it was you who said it.

The Big Kahuna. I am not a guy. When I saw this movie, I thought it was the best movie ever. The Big Lebowski, The Big Kahuna, and Pulp Fiction. The order changes pursuant to mood swings.