Every so often, a new filmmaker enters the arena and commands our immediate attention and respect. Rob Greenberg is such a man, and his delightful romantic comedy, Saturday Morning, carries strong implications and a huge punch. The film concerns a discombobulated young office workernamed Wesley, who has serious problems maintaining personal relationships and moving up the corporate ladder. Lessons are learned from a mysterious stranger - an unlikely sex symbol portrayed by George Wendt. Meanwhile, Wesley meets the woman of his dreams.
Amy Handler: Is Saturday Morning your first feature film?
Rob Greenberg: Yes. I've been writing for years, but being a guy from New Jersey without any real industry connections, I found it difficult getting my stuff into the right hands. I used to joke I couldn't even get properly rejected in this business! Finally, I decided to take a cue from another New Jersey native I greatly admire, Kevin Smith, and shoot one of my scripts independently. After securing financing, I left my job as a software developer and assembled a cast and crew. It was a long road to completion, but hopefully it will open the door for many more projects in the future.
AH: Have you made any prior short films and if so, can you speak about these?
RG: When I was a kid, friends and I would shoot movies on super 8. Our scripts consisted of such specific stage directions as "they run around and do crazy things for five minutes." I also did several student projects when I was a communications major at Rutgers. But, as a filmmaker, I truly learned most of the "real-world" process directly on set. Luckily, I surrounded myself with good people I was able to learn from.
AH: Tell me about how and when you conceived Saturday Morning.
RG: A seed was actually planted years ago by an old "Night Court" episode where the staff showed up during the day, surprised to discover how different things were. Not quite utopia, just "better." I honestly don't remember much about the episode, but that concept came back to me one particular Saturday morning when I was awake unusually early and wondered, jokingly, if I'd find anything different as well. At that point I realized this idea could make for an interesting movie, yet it remained in the back of my mind for years. I was never quite sure as to the right approach, whether it be outrageous comedy, or even sci-fi. Then, one night, I was driving into New York City for a date, and suddenly it hit me: the "Groundhog Day" romantic comedy angle, using that magical element for love. The floodgates opened, and it was all I could concentrate on the rest of the night. Suffice to say, I never saw that girl again.
AH: How much of it is autobiographical?
RG: As much a fantasy film as Saturday Morning is, many aspects of the overall message are indeed autobiographical. I've definitely heard the phrase "no spark" more times over the years than I'd like to admit. I used to joke I was "sparkless." But, I eventually came to learn an overall sense of confidence is key to success in almost every aspect of life. And that lesson was the final element in developing the Saturday Morning concept.
AH: Do your friends and family recognize themselves in the film?
RG: There are traits of certain people I've known over the years that are amalgamated into the characters, but I've never heard any direct feedback as of yet. The fact that many of my friends and family actually appear on screen probably overshadows anything else.
AH: Are they pleased or displeased about any of the portrayals?
RG: I haven't lost any friends or been disowned yet. So-far-so-good.
AH: I love the feeling of earlier times interlaced throughout your story, even though there are obvious references to contemporary comedy, television and film Can you speak about this and why you chose to work like this?
RG: I shot most of the town scenes in Westfield, NJ, where they shot the TV series, "Ed," which also had that classic small-town look I was going for. And the vintage movie clips further incorporate that feeling as well. But I'm a pop-culture junkie at heart, old and new, and love to use those references wherever they fit. I'm a big fan of things like "Family Guy" which does this as well.
AH: The film reminds me of Chris Rock’s sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris. Are you the narrator in Saturday Morning?
RG: Joey Piscopo does the narration, and I've actually heard the "Everybody Hates Chris" comparison, and also that of "Dream On," a great sitcom that ran on HBO in the 90s. In that show, the clips were exclusively from old Universal television shows, and punctuated the characters' thoughts. I came up with the idea of incorporating similar clips as an extension of voice-over, and while I was still in post-production, "Everybody Hates Chris" premiered and brilliantly incorporated that style as well.
AH: Where else do you either appear or work behind the scenes?
RG: I'm proud to say I make my singing debut in the film! There's a scene where Lisa is out on a date with this very slick guy. He goes for his CD player, and suddenly playing is the children's song "The Little Pony Crosses the Road." My executive producer and music supervisor (and editor), Harris Demel, wrote the song, and I decided to sing it myself. I credited both of us as "songwriters," simply for the absurdity of something like this having needed two writers (I gave the film's composer, James Manno, a "reluctantly produced by" credit). James has actually received several requests for the song to be used for ring tones, which I was thrilled to learn. I do a quick Hitchcock during the surprise party scene, and am also the voice of telemarketer Frankie fittingly wakes up during Saturday Morning's "perfect world." As far as working behind the scenes, I wore almost every hat on this production. I even cast the film myself, and secured every location.
AH: I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to create successful comedy either in T.V. or cinema. You manage to do so quite beautifully. Why do you think this is so?
RG: Thank you very much. Many people have told me comedy is the hardest thing to write. My approach is to simply avoid the mistakes I see others make. To me, comedy falters when the jokes don't flow naturally from the characters or the situations at hand. Unless they're absolute killer, it all feels forced. And I've seen way too many instances where crudeness is mistaken for comedy. Crudeness is fine, but there needs to be a deeper context. I love the line in 'Idiocracy' where, in the future, the most popular movie in the country is a farting ass on screen for two hours, and Luke Wilson comments, in his day, 'we always knew who's ass it was, and why it was farting.'
AH: Saturday Morning is very character driven. Again, it is difficult to create a successful film using this approach. What is your secret to success?
RG: Because Saturday Morning is what you may refer to as "high-concept," there was an obvious urge to go further with the magical element. And I'm sure I would have done so had this been a bigger budget studio film. But the heart to any great film is character. Unless we are watching the character's story, from their perspective, overcoming their own obstacles, there's really nothing for the audience to connect with. And it's also where the real comedy comes from. So, that's what I was trying to go for, creating characters with substance.
AH: Did you handpick any of your cast? I ask because they are all exceptional and so ideally suited to their roles that they almost don’t seem to be acting.
RG: I agree they are quite exceptional. Yes, I handpicked the entire cast, even down to the extras. Obviously, I sought out the veterans such as George Wendt and Louis Mandylor because I was a fan of their work and they were perfect for their roles. For the others, I put out a casting call and received almost 1000 responses. I was very lucky to find Joey Piscopo, who has incredible comic timing and brought a lot of heart to his role.
And I was similarly impressed by Valerie R. Feingold, and Ashley Carin - both immensely talented actresses. I could go further and mention the friend I cast as "crazy whistling guy on park bench," but I probably shouldn't!
AH: I notice you use a pair of twins in the film and also another woman who looks like the twins. Also, the heavyset woman in the bookstore looks much like George Wendt. Are you purposely messing with identity in the film?
RG: I never quite noticed the similarity between the heavyset woman and George Wendt. Though I did once on a bad blind date. As far as other similarities between minor cast members, it was probably due to my casting of several family members. The two children in the bookstore are my niece and nephew.
AH: Alfred Hitchcock used to say that there are no minor characters and that each small role is as strong as the lead. Do you agree with this assessment?
RG: Absolutely. A minor character doesn't necessarily require the same transformational character arcs as the leads, but they certainly need distinction and coloring. Especially for this film, where many of the quirky types I use for the various store clerk roles help contribute to the small-town.
AH: Do you relate to any specific character or characters in the film?
RG: I'd say they're all in some ways aspects of my personality. Frankie the guy I'd like to be, Wes the guy I most likely am.
AH: I recognize many of your actors such as George Wendt and Lillo Brancato. Also, the actor who plays Wesley, Frankie and Wesley’s father seem familiar. What was it like working with these celebrities?
RG: It was amazing, working with people I've watched for years on television and in film, especially for a software developer from New Jersey. I even got to buy George Wendt a beer! And they were all friendly, down-to-earth people - and incredibly supportive.
AH: I love all the layering in the film. Can you speak about your insertions of early film footage and how these accompany your tale but also tell a sub-story in their own right?
RG: Thank you again. Originally, this was something I felt would simply act as a unique enhancement to the voice-over. Until "Everybody Hates Chris" came along! And while used mostly for comedy purposes, I was conscious in making sure it added to the mood of the characters, and the overall feel of the film as well.
AH: Saturday Morning is not just some silly romantic comedy but makes some very profound comments about time, existence and one’s place in the universe. Can you comment on this?
RG: The silly romantic comedy market is already well cornered, and there's certainly no need for one in the Indie scene as well. I wanted to incorporate lessons I've learned in life, and the premise certainly lent itself to that. And I decided to go further by leaving some open-ended questions, allowing the viewer to come up with their own, personal interpretation.
AH: Which filmmakers, philosophers and literary figures influence your work?