Tune in Tomorrow

Part 3: In Which Fiction Bleeds into Real Life…or Real Life Bleeds into Fiction

Mark Tarlov: In terms of my favorite movie? I really loved Tune in Tomorrow, which was based on a South American book I had read called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. It was by Mario Vargas Llosa, who’s a Peruvian Nobel Prize winning author (and also was a candidate to be President of Peru). It was a strange, wonderful, crazy story about a guy who writes soap operas by, basically, appropriating people’s real lives. And I optioned it from Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus and Giroux for $1,500 and spoke at length with Mario and learned it was based on the true story of his life. He had a romance with his aunt (aunt by marriage), but nonetheless his aunt after she was divorced from his uncle. That book is just so rich. I tried for a couple of years to get it made. Couldn’t get it made. Let the option expire. Then I got a call one day, after David Putnam took over at Columbia. I was at the Palm on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles and the maître d’ gives me a message saying, “Please call John Fiedler immediately. It’s an emergency.” You wonder how John Fiedler knows you’re at this restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard, but people have a way of knowing these things in Hollywood. So I went to a pay phone, called him and he asked if I still owned the rights. I said, “No, they expired two weeks ago.” He said, “Get them back, Putnam wants to make the movie.”

Blake J. Harris: Ha.

Mark Tarlov: So I said, “I don’t think it’ll be a problem.” It was not exactly a hot property. So I re-optioned them and was introduced by David Putnam to Jon Amiel, who had done the Dennis Potter “The Singing Detective” series for the BBC. I saw that and said, “This guy is the real deal.” We developed a script with Will Boyd, who’s an English novelist of great note and a fantastic writer. We had this very rich, kind of bizarre, English-language version of this Peruvian novel. Which was cast with Peter Falk playing the scriptwriter, Barbara Hershey as Aunt Julia and Keanu Reaves as the male lead, the one who had the romance with his aunt. And the soap operas, which were conjured up by the screenwriter, were then visualized with Elizabeth McGovern, John Larroquette, Hope Lange and Peter Gallagher. And kind of this really wacky two worlds where fiction starts to bleed into real life…or real life starts to bleed into fiction. It was very unclear which.

Blake J. Harris: That does tend to happen…

Mark Tarlov: Anyhow, we made this incredibly bizarre, delightful movie. We had an amazing time making it. Wynton Marsalis did the score and actually brought down his band to the set. To experience the filmmaking and played live in a little of it. But basically gathered the intelligence that they needed to write the score. And Peter Falk, I’ll never forget. He said, “You know, you’re really tall and Larroquette’s really tall, we should challenge them [Marsalis and his band] to a game of basketball.” And I said, “You know, Peter, here’s the deal: John and I are in fact tall, but not coordinated. And you’re basically at 60-year-old, one-eyed Jew, I don’t think that’s a really good idea. And here’s a bunch of twentysomething healthy, coordinated men who you want to challenge?” He said [in a thick voice], “Oh yeah, it’ll be fun.” It was a little like Columbo. He said, “Just remember to only pass it to my good side.”

Blake J. Harris: [cracking up]

Mark Tarlov: So it was a disastrous basketball game, but that was just an amazing experience.

Blake J. Harris: That’s great.

Copycat movie 1995

Mark Tarlov: I did a couple more movies with John [Fiedler], including Copycat, which I think was my most successful movie at the box office. Which led to my interest in wine, because we were shooting in San Francisco and I met Larry Stone, who had a restaurant there. He taught me all there is to know about wine. I learned about the joys and how sexy wine can be and how it’s this sort of…it’s a wonderful thing to tell stories to people who are drinking wine and it’s a wonderful thing to tell people stories about the wine they are drinking. Wine has this amazing ability to illuminate a table…

Blake J. Harris: In terms of telling stories, at what point along the way did you get that itch to want to direct? And why Simply Irresistible?

Mark Tarlov: You know, after 15-16 years of dealing with directors…I mean, it was a mistake. But that movie is a very personal story for me and I didn’t think anyone else could do it as well. It took all of my personal capital, along with Arnon Milchan, to get it made. So I really didn’t want it to go to anybody else.

Simply Irresistible

Part 4: Relativity and Magical Realism

Blake J. Harris: Tell me about how Simply Irresistible came about. What was the original inspiration and the evolution of that idea?

Mark Tarlov: Well, it’s all about the intersection of eating and drinking and romance. And that is a theme of mine, if you haven’t gathered yet.

Blake J. Harris: Yes…

Mark Tarlov: So I have several obsessions—eating and drinking, films, politics—those you now know about, but there’s also one more: physics. So part of my interest with the movie was this idea of being able to bend reality. How food and wine actually bends time and space is interesting to me. I mean, as is generally the whole Einsteinian view of bending time and space based on your position relative to the events that are happening. This whole idea of relativity.

Blake J. Harris: In what sense?

Mark Tarlov: The best explanation of relativity I ever heard is from Einstein who said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

Blake J. Harris: Great quote (and great way to think about relativity).

Mark Tarlov: Yeah, it’s a very good point, but nowhere is it more palpable than a movie theater, right? The whole fact that we ask people to suspend their objective belief system and then on a big screen (or a small screen) you change their version of reality. At least for the two hours they’re sitting there, and then likely as they walk out the door. This is a fact that occurred to me very early on in my career in film. And it was related to Einstein and relativity. And the way that wine and food can slow down and speed up time and actually send you on a different trajectory in very, very real ways was interesting to me.

Blake J. Harris: If I’m not mistaken, your wife [Judith Roberts] wrote the script for Simply Irresistible, right?

Mark Tarlov: Yeah, my wife wrote it. So I cooked up this story with Judy and it was strange, to be sure. And it was written for Holly Hunter, who I had done Copycat with and was certainly—in my estimation—the best actress of our time, at that point. I pitched it to Holly, and Holly was in her forties at that time and the movie was about a woman that age being able to alter the trajectory of her life by finding this sort of passion of being able to cook food. Not simply in the South American sense of putting her emotions into the food, but in fact the food changing the actual physical rules of reality. Which we know from Einstein is entirely possible.

Blake J. Harris: How come Holly ended up not doing the movie?

Mark Tarlov: That is the sad tale of how did this get made. [long pause] So that’s really…the studio did not want to do a Holly Hunter movie.

Blake J. Harris: Ah, I see. And what was it like collaborating with your wife?

Mark Tarlov: [playful but sincere] It was awful!

Blake J. Harris: Hahaha.

Simply Irresistible

Mark Tarlov: It was just as wrongheaded as you can imagine. Especially when the studio wanted to rewrite her. That was not an easy conversation. And going from Holly to Sarah Jessica Parker to Sarah Michelle Gellar was not fun to talk about. And then when it came out and it was so poorly reviewed, that was terrible. But in retrospect it was kind of amazing. I think at the time it was just an awful idea—I don’t recommend it to anybody—but it was basically our life. So I don’t know that anybody else could have done it. But we should probably have just done the script and given it to someone else and tried to divorce ourselves from it.

Blake J. Harris: Well, to that point, tell me more about the initial vision. How did that original script different from the final movie?

Mark Tarlov: Well, the script was about a middle-aged woman. It was not about a 20-year-old! It was about a woman who had never found romance before because she never found her passion. And when she found her passion—which was cooking—romance followed. And that’s a very different story than the one that ultimately happened with Sarah. I mean, Sarah Gellar, say what you will about her ability to act, but she was at that time a force. And I understood why the studio wanted her because “Buffy [the Vampire Slayer]” was a Warner Bros show. So, you know, it was just one of those things. But very different from how we imagined it. The poignancy of the first script was just amazing. It was a story about somebody who needed to find this passion in order to complete who she was. And, you know, it’s very hard to bring pathos out of a 20-year-old.

Simply Irresistible

Part 5: The Reflective Self vs. the Actual Self

Blake J. Harris: In the actual film, Amanda [Sarah Michelle Gellar] doesn’t seem to find her passion—cooking—on her own. It’s almost as if it were bestowed onto her. Was that also the approach in the original script?

Mark Tarlov: No. No, no. There are things that I love about that final version I absolutely love—some of the shots are amazing; the use of mirrors in the movies is kind of wonderful—but as soon as you put “Buffy” in a movie, nobody’s going to be talking about the reflective self vs. the actual self. That’s not a concept suited for a 20-year-old.

Blake J. Harris: I agree. Though I will say that despite its flaws, the movie is pretty charming.

Mark Tarlov: There’s a lot of charming stuff in it. But I think the emotional resonance got lost.

Blake J. Harris: I agree with that as well. And to your point, one could see how a lot of that is a byproduct of this movie starring a 20-year-old. Regardless of that 20-year-old’s abilities, it just changes the movie in many significant ways. So I was curious how you changed your approach as director working with someone much younger?

Mark Tarlov: Well, I mean you’re presuming that I knew enough about directing to have an approach to change…but it was hard. I had learned from both Jon [Amiel] and [Sidney] Lumet about the value of rehearsal and long takes. Had worked with people really skilled at getting performances out of really, really great actors. But mainly through a long rigorous practice of rehearsal, and that’s not the TV way. Everybody else on the cast had theater experience—it was all New York actors except for Sarah—so it was tough. It was very, very difficult because Sarah and Sean [Patrick Flanery] came out of the world of TV and everybody else came out of theater and features…I kept looking for—I love “wistful”—but at 20, wistful is not really a thing.

Blake J. Harris: True.

Mark Tarlov: It’s really interesting. We had a read-through to ultimately get Arnon to make the movie and it was Sarah Jessica Parker and Greg Kinnear playing the two leads. And it was amazing. The place was lit up. Illumination. And Arnon said to me, “Okay, I’ll make it.” And I said, “Great, I’ll tell Sarah.” And she was in “Sex in the City” at the time, it wasn’t like she was a no one. But he said, “No, I don’t want her. I want Buffy.” And I go, “Really?” These are the people that convinced you to do it. Look, I don’t mean to say anything negative about Sarah Michelle Gellar. In the right role, I think she’d be amazing. She did Cruel Intentions right before [this movie] and she was great…But Sarah Parker—right before our eyes!—just did this amazing job. We read through the entire thing like it was a play. It was incredible. I mean just fantastic. Why would you not want to make it? You just saw it? You saw it and it caused you to spend $10 million, why would you now question what you saw? That was weird.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, I mean that’s what convinced him! Before we leave Simply Irresistible, I just had a few questions specific to aspects from the movie. One of which was about the crab? Where did the crab idea come from? And was there more to that idea that didn’t end up in the final cut?

Mark Tarlov: Yes! A lot more. The crab idea was very much this notion of “guys, this is not possible.” It’s not real magic. It was supposed to really be the conduit for this notion of an American kind of magical realism, right? This is not really happening what we’re showing you. Like people floating on the ceiling, they’re not literally floating on the ceiling.  And I thought, well, we’ll just take an element of this. And nobody, by the way, ever said to me, “Don’t crabs live in water?” Like can a crab live on a shelf? Because I would have said to them: Well, no. That is the point. So we shot a whole bunch of stuff about the crab—the life of the crab—it was the way that we were going to get to the intellectual conceit of American magical realism…the crab was really a conduit for that piece of storytelling. It was intellectually, maybe, as my partner has said, “a little bit too ambitious.” But, you know, when it comes to things like that I believe in the opposite of P.T. Barnum. I think people are a lot smarter than they let on…

Blake J. Harris: As a viewer, I appreciate that.

Mark Tarlov: So the crab was the embodiment of this whole idea of Einsteinian theory of relativity. And the fact that pheromones can change time and space, you know? This whole idea of, you know, in popular song about time standing still when you see the right person. Or floating. Or whatever. It was all embodied in that crab. But very, obviously, artfully done. Done better in the director’s cut…

Blake J. Harris: I love all those connections to relativity. It goes back so much to storytelling. Long moments and short moments and how those moments are infinite as long as they’re told well and told again. In terms of the magical aspect, what about the man who Sarah Michelle Gellar meets earlier on? Did he ever appear in your “director’s cut” of the film?

Mark Tarlov: Oh yeah. He was all through the film. He was sort of the Greek chorus, and he had a lot of great lines. But it all got cut out. You know, but again it was about that there was this current to life—a current like a river current—but the current can be altered by, you know, chaos theory. The wings of the butterfly create a tornado eventually. He was again the embodiment of this idea that you don’t know what it is that’s going to get in the current of the river. It can be something as crazy as buying a bushel of crabs. And a crab bites a person and sets of a chain reaction. And that too was our wings of the butterfly in Brazil can actually create a tornado—given the right conditions—in Oklahoma.

Blake J. Harris: In terms of your own butterfly effect—though, I suppose, it’s a lot more obvious that the flapping of butterfly wings—when did you decide that you wanted wine to be your primary form of storytelling?

Mark Tarlov: I think after my third John Waters movie. And I just had had enough. I didn’t know…I mean, Simply Irresistible was sort of devastating in how personal the reviews were. And just one more point about the film. You’ve seen the film, right?

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Mark Tarlov: You know the dance on the funny dance floor?

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Mark Tarlov: That, to me, is the embodiment of the thing. Because that falls flat. There was no slope to it, it’s just an optical illusion. But when you have a camera and change angles, you actually are changing what appears. I mean, physical reality is just what we see. And that, to me, is the whole embodiment of that film. Or every film. And people say to me to this day, “How did they dance on that curvy floor?” And I go: It was flat. You know, this is magic to people. I mean that’s what’s amazing. That is magic—in the mind’s eye—and it’s incredible. And now with wine, what it looks like and what it smells like and what it tastes like. And then there is that added little bit that you don’t get in a movie, which is that there’s a psychotropic drug in it. So it’s sort of a natural sequence for me. It allows me to tell stories to people who are basically drugged up.

Blake J. Harris: It does. Just one more question if you don’t mind. A good movie—at least in theory—starts with a good script. So what does a good wine start with? What do you look for when you’re assessing the quality of potential wines, or looking to acquire a vineyard?

Mark Tarlov: Well, I think there’s a script in every vintage. Which is weather. And the position on the hill. I mean, wine is kind of an amazing thing. It is as elemental a story as you can get. Because it is one ingredient and I don’t know any product that is just one thing. You know, bread is flour and water and sometimes salt. And I don’t know…maybe olive oil, I guess. But wine is grapes, which are changed: not by man, but by little microbes that eat sugar. Who will show up whether you want them to or not. And they convert the sugar into wine and what is simple and pretty commonplace becomes complex and more rarified simply through the operation of single-cell bacteria and organisms like yeast. And it’s kind of amazing. It’s like if you had a great script and you just left it out in the air and somehow yeast turned it into a great movie.

Blake J. Harris: Good analogy.

Mark Tarlov: I mean, that’s really what happens for me. And each vintage is different depending on the wild yeast and the bacteria and the stories…and each barrel is different because of things like oxygen, the microbial population, the interaction with that particular piece of wood. It’s kind of an amazing thing. And it is very much alchemy, just like a great movie is alchemy out of a script. Just like a great script is alchemy out of someone’s brain. But this one, I don’t need someone to give me $5 million or $10 million or $50 million or $100 million, right? You can do it. And you really express it as your vision. You don’t need to collaborate. It’s a bunch of grapes and it’s me. So the science of it is very rudimentary, but the magic of it is kind of stunning. How it turns out is not up to you. You really deed over your rights to the world of microbes. Which is bizarre and wonderful and strange. But poetic…

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