Thomas Moffett Shrinks Hollywood Down to Size

Thomas Moffett is a new face in the game, with only Steve Clark’s recent directorial debut, The Last International Playboy, under his screenwriting belt. His second script, Shrink , is a star-studded take on individuals facing depression and emotional ruin in Los Angeles and the broken people the film industry attracts. Pretty good for a guy who’s just broken into Hollywood. The film stars big-screen heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, with Saffron Burrows, Mark Webber, and famed novelist Gore Vidal; it releases this Friday, July 31.

When did you start writing? I’ve always written … it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do or been semi-good at. I grew up in Indiana, and I always wanted to live in New York ever since I read Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey and all those Salinger stories. I went to NYU and then worked as an assistant for George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review. During that time, I started writing screenplays, and then a few of my scripts got close to being made. I started thinking, “Maybe I can do this.”

Have you spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, where the film takes place? No. When I knew I was going to write the script, I spent about two months house-sitting for the producer of the film in the Hollywood Hills. It was this amazing place to just soak everything in. I spent two months trying to get a feel for things, which helped a lot in terms of the characters the movie.

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What’s the premise of the film? The movie’s about a therapist who practices in LA and has a lot of clients who are in the movie industry. I wanted it to be about these people who happen to live and work in Hollywood, but their problems are the kind of problems that you could have anywhere. They’re just magnified because of the narcissistic nature of Hollywood. I really wanted to avoid making it like Entourage, so I think the fact that I live in New York and not in LA helped me look at things from a more objective view and not get caught up with making it about LA. I wouldn’t have been able to do that very well.

How’d the concept come about? One of my best and oldest friends is an actress named Pell James, who’s in the film. She’s married to a guy named Michael Burns, who’s the producer of the film. He approached me and said, “I have this idea and it involves these types of characters and this setting. Maybe you could find something to do with it?” So, I stared at it for three months and I couldn’t figure out how to write something that didn’t seem Entourage-y. I had a breakthrough when I started thinking about the therapist character, played by Kevin Spacey. I started thinking, what if he’s going through a breakdown that’s worse than his patients? It started organically that way, and then all the LA stuff came later. Once we got Kevin on board, the whole movie started coming to life, and the other actors started signing on. He just threw himself into the character, and the film and worked for a fraction of what he usually works for. He really lead us all by example.

Do you have a personal relationship with psychiatric help? I went to therapy for the first time five years ago. I was really depressed and just felt overwhelmed and had a lot of anxiety and panic and all these different things. I have a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, which one of the characters also has, so it was fun to take elements of things that I’ve gone through and write about them in a way that was kind of cathartic. I think the saddest things can be really funny and the funniest things can be really sad.

How was Robin Williams involved? He came and did three days of work with us, and that was the highlight for me. The director and I were just standing there and watching Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams do a scene on the second or third day of filming. It felt like a dream come true. I was lucky as a writer to be on the set every day which was unusual. Jonas [Pate] was really generous as a director and very collaborative.

What’s Robin’s character like? Robin got involved and said he was interested in one character. I rewrote the character with him in mind. It was really cool that he was game for that because the character is dealing with some problems and going through a divorce and some things that were going on in Robin’s life. In one of the scenes between him and Kevin, Kevin got to a very vulnerable spot. It’s a very intense scene and Robin Williams has this smile, this very sad smile that breaks your heart when you see it.

How many times did you have to shoot that one? A couple of times but not because anything went wrong. Only because Robin and Kevin would play around, and Robin would improv these amazing lines. There’s this scene where he’s at a press junket. Robin plays an actor in the film, and we just let him go in terms of improv-ing. He’d make these great riffs about the fake movie. In it, he plays a Viking, and there’s a really funny poster in the background of him in a Viking beard. Robin went off making all these jokes about long axes and how he couldn’t have guns because it would have been a short film, and the women had hairy armpits. We were all in awe of him.

Did you have actors in mind while you were writing the script? I definitely had Kevin in mind, but it was very much wishful thinking. When you’re writing a script and sitting alone in a room, you have no idea if anyone will ever see it. But you get these fantasies of different actors playing the characters, and Kevin was someone who early on we all talked about.

And for the other characters? I wrote this character named Daisy for my friend Pell. In the first draft of the script, Daisy’s in her late 20s and starts dating another character in the film, but then Pell became pregnant partway through the process of pre-production. I really wanted her to be in the movie, so I rewrote the character as pregnant, which was definitely a challenge because I had to then tell the love story of her and this struggling writer. We also knew that we wanted Keke Palmer to play the young girl. She was 15 when we were shooting. She’s in Akeelah and the Bee. She has her own show on Nickelodeon, and she’s got a rap album. She makes you feel like such an underachiever.

Was it a constant comedy on and off set? Well, Kevin can do fantastic impressions of different actors. He can do an amazing Jack Lemmon, Johnny Carson, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino. He’s constantly slipping into a Marlon Brando voice to keep the crew entertained. We did one scene with the writer Gore Vidal and Kevin. Later, Gore had all of us over to his beautiful house for drinks. Gore was great friends with Johnny Carson and would go on The Tonight Show all the time back in the 70s. There was this wonderful moment in Gore’s living room where Spacey starts being Johnny Carson and pretending to interview Gore, who started doing a routine on present-day topics like Sarah Palin and talking about the election.

What was it like having this at Sundance? That was incredible. We were in the Eccles Theater, which holds 1,300 people, and we were oversold both the first night and the next morning. It was cool to see it with an audience because we were in such a hurry editing that none of us — myself, the director, Kevin — had seen it on anything other than our computers.

What’s next for you? I did an adaptation of a play that Liev Schreiber proposed to me. He and a friend had a one-act that they put on at Yale and had been trying figure out a way to expand into a film for years. It’s an amazing play, and I just fell in love with it. Liev gave me open reign to expand it from a one-act that takes place in a single kitchen to something that takes place all over New York.

What are your spots in New York? I love this vegetarian restaurant called Counter in the East Village. And I love The Mermaid Inn. I also like this cupcake place called Babycakes. It’s like the Magnolia Bakery for vegans.
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Rioja Restaurant Week: Spanish Sauce on the Cheap

imageFrom April 26 to May 2, New York’s getting an obscure holiday — Rioja Restaurant Week. It’s like Normal Restaurant Week, but instead of being inspired merely by New Yorkers’ inherent desire to eat fine foods on the cheap, it throws oenophilia into the mix. La Rioja, an autonomous region in northern Spain, produces a full range of wines … rosés, reds, whites. Riojans claim their wine pairs better than any other in the world, and to prove it, they’ve set up a bunch of deals with a few participating restaurants all over Manhattan to get the word out.

For example:

● A 25% discounted bottle of Rioja at Stanton Social, Veritas, and The Mermaid Inn.

● A $50 prix-fixe at Chinatown Brasserie, Tailor, and Flex Mussels.

● Call for changing Rioja specials at Lure (where you can also use your BlackBook iPhone app to get a sweet happy hour deal), Smith’s, Las Ramblas.

Industry Insiders: Doug Psaltis, Comfort Chef

Doug Psaltis, the newly installed executive chef and partner at Smith’s — Cindy Smith and restaurateur Danny Abrams’ (The Mermaid Inn) Greenwich Village American bistro — explains what “comfort food” is to him, why he left high-end French cuisine for chicken and grits, and whether or not he’d rewrite his (fairly controversial) book, given a chance.

How’d you end up at Smith’s? I come from a background of formal French training in a lot of high-end restaurants in Midtown Manhattan. The last restaurant I was at: executive chef at Geoffrey Zakarian’s Country here in New York. It had a café downstairs, fine dining upstairs. I was overseeing that project from the beginning through the first two and a half years, and it was great. It was a fantastic run and a great challenge for me, and really one I enjoyed. The upstairs dining room was something that followed in a lot of the training I had of working with the Atlantic House before, for five years, working for a period of time with Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.

What happened when you left Country? That really was something, the dining room at Country, a great opportunity for learning, and it was a great place for me to really express some very classical, very formal dining technique and experience with the team that I had there for me. But leaving there, my first thoughts were, “Wow, I want to open up something bigger and grander.” And then, as time wore on, and I began to travel and see things, and think, you know, I reflected back that I’m a pretty young guy still, I’m 34, I love hanging out in casual places, I love going to Paris for the finest of meals, but I also would like to broaden my audience and who I cook for.

What’s important to you as a chef? The level of performance is something that is really important for me. I love expressing myself through food, and I love the medium of having a place that’s small enough to be able to control, but large enough in volume that we’re all happy with the pay. So, a restaurant like Smith’s is something that really excited me, because it’s downtown and has its own class and sophistication. But it’s small enough that I can really wrap my hands around it, and have fun with it, and kind of steer it in different directions as the week goes, as the days go. The most important thing is to comfort people. It isn’t to do a double-cooked pork chop, and do all the trimmings of an American comfort restaurant, but it’s to lower somebody’s … or to get rid of some … predetermination for somebody, and to really make them feel confident when they see a menu and they say, “Oh, chicken and grits, I know what that is,” as opposed to, you know, “French chicken with Anson Mills grits,” and things of that nature. So the whole intention of the menu, and I don’t know if “dumbed-down” is the correct phrase, but to really get rid of the intimidation factor, and things like that, and really allow them to look at something, be able to understand it, and order it.

Speaking of which: There’s a huge Southern influence on the menu. You cooked high-end food for a majority of your professional career. Where does that come from? I’m a big fan of Americana, a big fan of Southern food and barbecue, and things like that, and from growing up in New York, and working in my grandfather’s diner, there’s a lot of food like that that I really enjoy. My brother, who is a literary agent, eats my food as often as anybody, if not a lot more than anybody. And he had a chance to eat my food at (Alain Ducasse’s) Mix in New York, and at Country, and he was like, “Just cook what you cooked at Mix.” At Mix we had a dish on the menu that was called “Fresh Chicken with a Spiced Gravy” — it pretty much was a gumbo. So, I was like, you know, that’s a dish that I haven’t done in a while, but the flavors were great, and I had it from there. So, the down-home stuff, and the Southern stuff, you know, it comes from that.

With the economy trending downward, and the (literal) appetite for fine dining going with it, do you think the appreciation for these kind of less-intimidating, comfort-food dishes is going to be wider? I really do. I think good cooking is one thing people are really looking for. And I think right now is a point where everybody reaches for honesty; honesty in things you come to love, whether it’s your old sweatshirt and your coach on a Saturday as opposed to hitting the town hard, etc. People are definitely looking for that, and I think that honesty and integrity, and straight-forwardness in cooking, I think, is where people are at right now.

What’s your ideal meal? What are your favorite things you’re cooking at Smith’s right now, for you to eat yourself? My ideal meal is with my family, you know, to be eating the grilled squid that’s on the menu here. I’d definitely be having the beef tartare as well. I think I would love to have the chicken and grits. That would be my ideal meal. Yeah, I’d need the smell of the grill, the bread rubbed with garlic for the tartare that’s hot, you know, the fried cornichons with the tartare, that might inflect some humor, for me. And the chicken and grits served on a cast iron plate, and the gumbo sausage on there, and the gravy, and it’s moist and it’s delicious, and it’s spicy and it’s sweet. Those are things that really would comfort me, and they do tend to be comforting food here.

Who else is cooking in New York right now that you’re excited about? What Michael Anthony does at the Gramercy Tavern. I think he has a great connection to its food and what he does with it. You know, I love what they’re doing at Robuchon, which I know is a big thing, but I just love the execution of what they do there, I think it’s fantastic. And also I think what Michael Psilakis has done at Kefi is really incredible. I have a lot of respect for that as a restaurateur, and I think he’s phenomenal how he presents Greek flavors and reintroduces them to people.

You’re coming on as the second chef at Smith’s. What are you going to bring to the table there that is going to make the restaurant survive? Well, I’m not too familiar with the first chef. From what I understand, his food was great, and the way he did his business was great. I think what I do a little bit different is … good enough experience, and knowledge, and a strong drive. I think what’ll make this restaurant survive and will make it really great is the time I put in. And it’s not just on the food, it’s the whole service, to make it a complete restaurant, and to make it a place where you’re going to get great, great food cooked by people who care. I’m fortunate that the staff has been with me, especially in the kitchen, for at least, you know, six years — less for others, maybe four for my dishwasher and my sous chef — and we have a lot of joy and a lot of excitement in what we do. That’s going to be passed along to our guests to make it a very special place. You know, one of the things that I was interested in doing, that might have been done different here in the past, was lower the price point, and make it a place that’s really a neighborhood place, and be as friendly as possible, which is really something that Danny Abrams strives for.

Final question: it’s been four years since The Seasoning of a Chef came out. It was pretty controversial. Would you do the book again? If you had the chance to do it over, would you do it differently? I would do it again, for sure. Would I do it differently? There’s probably a lot of things I would change. It was the first time I went through the process of working with editors, and things of that nature. I thought the advanced reader copy that came out jumped the gun, and I didn’t really get a chance to see before it was printed. So, yeah: I’d do it differently.