Friday, March 26, 2010

Behind the Scenes: Johnny Depp in "Benny & Joon"

[post 090]

As you've probably noticed, the special features that come with DVDs these days are not necessarily all that special. Even when they get into performance issues, editing technique, or visual effects, the information is usually pretty basic. There are, however, some juicy enough tidbits out there for the nibbling, which I was reminded of when I recently chanced to give Benny & Joon (1993) a second look.

If you've seen the movie, and I suspect most of you have, you can skip this paragraph... Benny is a sweet guy, an auto mechanic who spends most of his spare time taking care of his sister Joon, who is bright and paints but has some real mental health issues, never specified but probably schizophrenia. A young eccentric comes into their lives in the person of Sam, a barely literate outsider with a heart of gold, a movie buff who reveals considerable hidden talent whenever he's channeling Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Sam turns out to be good for Joon and vice-versa and, after a crisis, all ends happily, or at least with hope for all the major characters. A sentimental tale, what the director labeled a fairy tale, but it's quite well done and worth checking out.

The movie makes a strong, positive argument for the role of clown wisdom in everyday life. One reviewer described Sam as a "clown savant." Not surprisingly, the screenplay is by a former clown, Barry Berman, who used to perform for Ringling. As played by the great Johnny Depp, Sam is childlike, timid, insightful, generous, imaginative, and creative — the fool who turns out to be the wise man. Nice job, all.

The movie is also noteworthy for its physical comedy sequences — rare in Hollywood movies — choreographed by Dan Kamin and performed quite adeptly by Depp. Dan is a mime and movement performer, teacher, author, and coach. He has written extensively on Chaplin's movement technique and was Robert Downey's coach for the movie Chaplin (1992). Click here to check out Dan's web site and all his many offerings; there are also some videos of Dan's own work on YouTube. Maybe someday we can get him to tell our blog readers about his experiences working on these movies!

So here are the specially featured morsels I have for you.; nothing earth-shattering, but interesting enough. In this first one, cinematographer John Schwartzman has some interesting things to say about experiments with camera speed. You might want to skip the second part because he's rambling on about other stuff while we watch Depp practice with his dinner rolls.

The next four are from the commentary track by the director, Jeremiah S. Chechik

1. The diner scene, with those dancing rolls in action:

In case you missed it, Chechik points out that Dan Kamin is the customer sitting to our right in the three-plate sequence. BTW, I love Depp's slide to catch the tray at the end of the counter. I am, however, a stickler for physical truth in performance, so I can't help noticing that there's no way he would have gotten there on time. Still, close and clever enough to sell it.

2. A very short rolling chair bit that Chechik likens to Tati.

3. Hat technique used to sneak into the high-security wing of the psychiatric hospital. Too bad it wasn't done in a single shot!

4. Depps's climb up the side of the hospital building à la Harold Lloyd, which also turns out to be the movie's climactic scene:


The Go To Guy said...

I've heard that the Benny role was written specifically for or based on fellow Clown College grad Peter Pitofsky

But that's a bunch of here-say and I can not confirm this.


jt said...

Interesting; thanks for the tip! I don't know Barry or Peter personally, but maybe someone who does could ask them.

jt said...

BTW, that Peter Pitofsky video has been removed from YouTube.

Matt Mitler said...

I know both Peter and Barry and the role of Benny (in the original screenplay original spelled, "Bennny") was definitely based on Peter Pitofsky.

Matt Mitler