There’s a bittersweet moment in the upcoming movie The Rewrite when Hugh Grant, playing a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who takes a teaching job at a certain far-off university in Binghamton, N.Y., is reminded by Marisa Tomei, the single mom he falls for, to “write what you know.”
“But what if you don’t know anything?” Grant asks.
Luckily, that’s never been a problem for Marc Lawrence ’81. The writer and director of films such as Music and Lyrics, Forces of Nature, Two Weeks Notice and the Sandra Bullock blockbuster Miss Congeniality (directed by Donald Petrie) actually knows quite a lot. From the time he was a kid, walking around his Long Island town with a pair of drumsticks in his back pocket, to the years he spent living across from the cemetery on Floral Avenue in Johnson City, Lawrence has been nothing but a collector of memory.
And now with The Rewrite, his self-professed love letter to Binghamton University, he finally gets to tie all the strands together.
In Hollywood, Lawrence is known as a master of the romantic comedy, a genre whose films tend to bask in the midnight glow of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, not the Glenn G. Bartle Library. So why Binghamton?
“I have nothing but love and affection for it,” says the 54-year-old director as he apologizes profusely for the mess in his Upper West Side home in Manhattan. “And it was easier to write about something I knew.”
“I’ve shot a bunch of movies in New York City and obviously I love New York. But it’s easy in a certain way to make New York romantic. I love movies that take you to places that don’t initially feel that way but then turn into that.”
Soft-spoken and unassuming, a tuft of gray hair poking out from under an ever-present New York Mets cap (“I can name every player from ’69 and ’73”), Lawrence wears his DNA proudly. A movie poster from the Beatles’ Help! hangs on the wall behind him, and a framed photograph of the Red Robin Diner in Johnson City hangs next to that. With drum pieces and keyboards scattered about the room, you might mistake the place for an off-campus house on Oak Street in Binghamton.
“I wanted the school to be slightly out of the way. Hugh’s character is coming from Los Angeles. I wanted it to seem like it was the absolute ends of the earth. At the beginning of the movie, he’s never heard of Binghamton, so he’s googling and trying to find it.”
While some filming did occur in Binghamton, it was more economical to use Long Island’s C.W. Post campus as a stunt double. “I wish we could have filmed the whole thing at Binghamton,” he says.
Lawrence’s team employed a bit of cinematic sleight of hand to achieve the look he wanted. “I told everyone from our director of photography to the production designer that we should start with that feeling of ‘Oh my god, I’m in the middle of nowhere, it’s cold, it’s gray, it’s raining.’ Then we slowly let the color seep in.”
“I tried to make the movie mirror my own experience there. When you first see it — at least for me — it looked like a Norman Rockwell painting with the color drained out. And at the end of those four years it was The Wizard of Oz. The color was completely there, and that’s how I felt about it, too.”
Still, Lawrence belly laughs as he recalls picking up his leading actor at Greater Binghamton Airport. “Hugh gets to Binghamton and he starts to drive. We shot him driving on Route 17, we shot him driving through town, driving past the Red Robin, and it’s just kinda great.”
“He didn’t have to do much acting,” he says, slipping into an effete British accent: “Oh, my lord!”
Of course, Binghamton’s appearance in the film isn’t simply a matter of its geographic distance from Los Angeles. “It felt like this little town that had been set up for us,” Lawrence says. “It isn’t Paris, but the fact that you could know every shortcut to every bar or every place to get spiedies was kind of great. It was like we owned it in the end.”
Lawrence credits almost the entire English Department for shaping him, particularly professors William Spanos and Bernard Levy. “There’s such a Dorian Gray thing about teaching. You get older and your students all stay the same age.”
“He changed my life,” he says of Spanos, with whom he trades e-mail. “He was teaching deconstruction and literary analysis, but more than that was this sort of anti-authoritarian spirit that he carried with him. Never accept some canonical take on literature, don’t accept any truth or common wisdom handed down, whether in literature or life. Moby Dick isn’t necessarily what everyone says it’s about.”
“The difference between Marc’s approach to the masterpieces we read and mine,” Spanos says, “was that he always addressed them from a playfully satiric, comic point of view, whereas I, following the likes of Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault and Edward Said, emphasized their dark, sociopolitical, negative consequences.
“Needless to say, I would love it if Marc would risk the darker vision that I, for one, see deeply buried in his psyche,” he says.
For Levy, Lawrence’s affection is so great that he partly modeled a character in the movie after him. “We did a semester in England. When we were approaching Canterbury Cathedral, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier guy anywhere. He couldn’t contain himself. He was literally shaking with happiness, and I’ll never forget that.”
No doubt he learned a thing or two about writing, too. Romantic comedies are a Hollywood staple, and for good reason. “I think it was John Ford who said, ‘One of the few things a viewer can watch endlessly is a man and a woman dancing onscreen,’” Lawrence says. And while they may seem light and frivolous, they require a special writing touch — after all, we pretty much know the ending before we begin.
The interesting part is that the secret hinges neither on romance nor on comedy. “I think there has to be some pain in at least one of the characters that gets fixed by the other to some extent,” Lawrence explains.
“I like writing about losers or people who perceive themselves as losers. Most people, I believe, think of themselves that way. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve done anything.” (He points to his son, Clyde, a junior at Brown, as having “real” talent. The 20-year-old musician wrote the entire score for The Rewrite.)
“I don’t know many completely balanced or happy comedy writers. They’re all overcoming some form of loneliness, isolation, neuroses, whatever. I remember the first time I ever went to Hawaii and thinking, ‘There can’t be any comedy writers from here.’”
He points to the affable Grant, with whom he’s done four films. “Hugh has a real affinity for the idea of characters who have wasted or not realized their potential. Hugh doesn’t take the job of acting seriously. He thinks it’s a ridiculous job for an adult to have. What he would prefer to do is write. There’s a version of himself that he sees as a novelist. Two Weeks Notice was about a guy who inherited a lot of money and was frittering his life away. It’s a theme that means something to him.”
If personal pain or inadequacy plays a critical role in the writing of a good romantic comedy, there’s one more ingredient that can’t be left out.
“We have an unending fascination with how people met,” Lawrence says. “So even if you know what the ending is, it’s all about the journey.”
“They’re watching and they’re thinking about their own version, or why it hasn’t happened to them. It’s just primal.” For a split second his eyes light up, a writer knowing he just got hit on the head with a good bit.
“Cavemen were probably asking, ‘Where’d ya meet her? Cave 73?’”
As he laughs, his wife, Linda ’83, enters the room, just in time to present her own romantic comedy pitch:
It’s a few minutes before midnight in the basement of the reserve reading room. The year is 1981. An announcement is made that the vending machine area will be closing shortly. If this were a movie, the camera would keep cutting back to the clock.
“It was Biblical,” she says laughing, “because I put in my quarter to buy an apple but I accidentally pressed the wrong button and ended up with nothing. And that was my last quarter. So I turned to the person standing next to me. ‘I can’t believe I lost my last quarter!’ I said, and there was Marc.”
And he swooped in and rescued you, just as the clock struck midnight?
She smiles. “No — he was contemplating buying a pack of Yodels.”
Write what you know, indeed.