Happy accidents in ‘Bernard and Huey’: An interview with director Dan Mirvish

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The lucky breaks that ultimately resulted in Dan Mirvish’s “Bernard and Huey” could almost be a film in themselves — there were setbacks and red tape to wade through during the film’s pre-production. But most of the intrigue surrounding the production is tied to the long-lost script written by the prolific Jules Feiffer.

Known primarily for his tenure as a cartoonist for The Village Voice, Feiffer also is an accomplished screenwriter with titles such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Munro” adding to his impressive resume. Knowing that there were unproduced scripts by Feiffer, Mirvish was certainly interested in tracking down one of them.

However, as Mirvish recounts, securing the script for “Bernard and Huey” certainly wasn’t an easy task.

The script was originally thought to be forever lost. The rights were a struggle to obtain. However, once the script was finally in Mirvish’s grasp, it remained faithful to its source material. “People have asked me how much have you changed the script from the original other than the timing we really didn’t change much at all,” Mirvish said.

Just as in the original, the narrative centers on two college friends reuniting after years of silence. Through flashbacks to the ‘80s, the audience sees how the contemporary Bernard (Jim Rash) and Huey (David Koechner) pick up where their counterparts left off, with the film ultimately seeming to argue that they revert back to their old ways.

The original script was written and set in 1986 with flashbacks reverting back to the 1960s. While the film’s budget certainly influenced the decision to contemporize the script, Mirvish also jumped at the opportunity to showcase a decade that he had more of a personal attachment to. “I think anytime a director adapts or works on someone else’s material you kinda need to find your own way in. Especially not on like a Hollywood movie but on an independent film where no one is doing it for the money,” Mirvish said. “If you’re the director and you don’t have an intrinsic connection to the material, you’ll just give up.”

While the decades may have shifted slightly, the relationship between Bernard and Huey remains closely adapted from Feiffer’s original script, with a few updated cultural references. Yet despite the strength of the screenplay itself, some of the film’s funniest moments originate from Rash and Koechner’s improvisational talents.

In one such scene, Koechner and Rash veer off script in an argument about their current living situation, with Koechner improvising names of women — including Leigh, the name of Koechner’s wife in real life. “The scene, as written, is supposed to end about halfway into that scene. And they just kept going.”

The scene escalates in absurdity and finally culminates with Rash’s humorous accusation about Koechner leaving a half-eaten pizza upstairs. “That’s a Jim Rash line,” Mirvish notes. This improvised scene is one of the funniest exchanges of dialogue between the two characters.

Entire scenes take place where Bernard and Huey will be pushed together in the same shot and carry completely disjointed monologues simultaneously. In these moments, the physical closeness between Bernard and Huey contrasts with each character’s self-centered monologue. The intimate staging between the actors playfully mocks the disconnect that exists between the characters. Because of the dialogue-heavy nature of the script itself, the film could have easily felt stale, but Mirvish constantly engages with his dynamic cinematography — although some of these shots weren’t always planned.

Indeed, one of the most impressive moments of cinematography in “Bernard and Huey” results from pure accident. After ordering 100 magnifying glasses by mistake, Mirvish wasn’t deterred. “We will use them in the movie. I don’t know how, but we won’t waste them. It’s an indie film; you don’t throw away a hundred dollars,” he said. Indeed, the extra lens found an inventive new use as eclectic door decorations for Zelda’s (Mae Whitman) bedroom. Rash and Whitman begin the scene out of focus, as two blurred forms slip behind a magnifying glass. A quick rack focus shifts the stars into definition, while the hanging lenses transition deftly into fuzziness.

It was a subtle camera move, but one that required immense coordination between Mirvish and cinematographer Todd Antonio Somodevilla. “I only told Todd, the DP, about two hours before we shot that scene that this is what we’re going to do,” Mirvish said. Despite the lack of preparation, it’s unbelievable how effective the shot ends up being, with this being one example of Mirvish’s ability to adapt and create beauty out of what was originally a mistake.

As Mirvish admits, “My career is studded with loopholes” — yet “Bernard and Huey” remains cohesive. With more of Feiffer’s work remaining unproduced, if another collaboration between the two of them is to come, only audiences would benefit.

Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].