Jeff Daniels ('Supersucker')
Jeff Daniels made his screen debut playing PC O'Donnell in Milos Forman's ’Ragtime’ (‘81), but his real breakthrough role came when he was cast as Debra Winger's inconstant husband in ’Terms of Endearment’ (‘83). Daniels has since gone on to undertake the dual portrayal of a gallant movie hero/self-absorbed star in Woody Allen's ’Purple Rose of Cairo’ (‘84), a man terrified of spiders in the horror-comedy ’Arachnophobia’ and take on the role of Union Officer Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who led his troops into doom in ’Gettysburg’ (‘93).
In 1994, Daniels took a radical turn away from drama to star as one of the world's stupidest men opposite comic sensation Jim Carrey in the Farrelly brothers' hyperactive ’Dumb and Dumber.’ This lowest-common-denominator comedy proved one of the year's surprise hits and brought Daniels to a new level of recognition and popularity. Since then, Daniels has alternated more frequently between drama and comedy. His television credits include a moving portrayal of a troubled Vietnam vet in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, ’Redwood Curtain.’ Daniels still maintains his connection to the stage and manages his own theatrical company, Purple Rose Films of out Farmington, MI. Before launching his acting career, he earned a degree in English from Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, MI.
The later '90s found Daniels turning homeward and venturing into new territories through his labor of love, the aforementioned Purple Rose Theater. Located in the small town of Chelsea, MI, the bus garage turned playhouse was designed to give Midwestern audiences the opportunity to enjoy entertainment generally reserved for big-city dwellers. Though he continued to appear in such films as ’Fly Away Home’ (‘96) and ’Pleasantville’ (‘98), Daniels made his feature directorial debut with the celluloid translation of his successful Yooper stage comedy, ’Escanaba in Da Moonlight’ (‘00).
Set in the Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P., hence Yooper), the tale of redemption by means of bagging a buck mixed the regionally accented humor of ’Fargo’ with the eccentricities inherent to northerners and served as an ideal directorial debut for the Michigan native.
2000 has so far seen Daniels hard at work as usual, having already had starring roles alongside such notables as Clint Eastwood (’Blood Work’ - ’02), Nicole Kidman (’The Hours’ - ’02) and the great Robert Duvall in the prequel to ’Gettsyberg’, the aptly-named ’Gods & Generals.’
And it doesn’t end there as right now Jeff’s very own beloved company (Purple Rose Films) has just put the finishing touches on a brand new film, ’Super Sucker.’ ’Super Sucker’ is the story of rival door-to-door vacuum cleaner distributors Fred Barlow (Jeff Daniels) and Winslow Schnaebelt (Harve Presnell) as they battle for territory and survival in a "winner takes all" contest. When perennial underdog, Fred Barlow re-discovers a long lost cleaning attachment, the contest turns as he and his team of misfits determine "non-traditional" uses for this attachment. The result not only changes their lives, it changes the home cleaning industry forever.
Sitting down recently with Jeff Daniels, I first made the comment that he seemed rather busy these days: “Yeah, I’ve got ‘The Hours,’ this one (‘Super Sucker’) and ‘Gods & Generals’ … so there’s gonna be a lot of me; too much of me, on your screens soon,” he laughs.
Why choose this subject matter for ‘Super Sucker’ ? ”My main thought was that I was looking for a funny idea and a new friend of mine said that he used to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door and if you ever want to talk about comedy, it’s all in there. So, I sat down with someone who’s selling door-to-door now and I even kinda, CIA’d my way into a convention in Toledo of thousands of Mid-Western sales reps for vacuum cleaners. Basically, they announce the Salesman of the Year and run contests, before bringing on (and it’s right now that Jeff raises his voice and takes on the mantel of a hyper-active sportscaster) ‘Barry from Toledo … $450,000 last year. How about a big round of applause for Barry …. He won the Minivan …. See what Barry has that you don’t have … You don’t have a Minivan because Barry’s got it … That’s because he out-sold you !’ So, I admitted that the sub-culture was very funny, but how could I take it and make it outrageous and a really funny film ?”
So where did the outrageous thought of having the vacuums become sexual objects come from ? ”What if ?,” Jeff instantly replies. Writers say ‘What if’ all the time. What if I was getting my ass kicked four-to-one by rivals ? What is a desperate way to sell these vacuums ? So, you think and you think and you come up with the fact that she’s having sex with her vacuum. Then, make all the men oblivious. Then, take all the ‘F-Bombs’ out and don’t make it about language or nudity, and try and make it more of an innocent film where sex is the one thing that is never talked about. Everything’s normalcy downstairs, but up in the bedrooms they’re having sex with vacuum cleaners !”
Not to give too much away, but why couldn’t it have been you that handed over the paperwork at the end of the film ? ”Initially, I got killed ! In an early draft I got hit and killed by the car and they were going to take it in for him; for me. But, then we thought that it was too maybe dark and so we wondered if there was anyway else we could tell the end of the story.”
Do you have a favorite scene from the movie ? ”I really liked the ‘Ginger/Mary-Ann’ scene. That was fun to do and film and I really enjoyed working with Matt (Letscher). When I take that long walk up to him, knowing that I’ve got one more line to add to the whole scene. I like to do stuff where I can stop the movies and you tell me what I’m gonna say next or do next and I will always do something or say something that no one expects !”
Distributing this film with your own small company, how is that financially possible ? ”We’re breaking rules, we really are. We’re supposed to releasing this on one screen in New York and one screen in LA. That’s what you’re supposed to do, we’ve been told that and we’ve been told we cannot do what we’re about to do. We’re not going to just sit and wait for the reviews we'll try it first in the Midwest and then see where it goes from there.”
Why didn’t you sell off the film to a larger distributor ? ”We had a couple of people that were interested, but nobody was gonna give us any serious kind of money to pay of the investors and it would have been basically taking a little bit of money and then watching all the residual money go to somebody in LA. So we decided to do it ourselves which is what we did.”
‘Super Sucker’ won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the US Comedy Arts Festival, but I’m wondering if that had any real impact at all on the success of this film ? ”It turned into a thank you and we thought it would be more, but we were still very heartened by that. But, for every ‘Big Fat Greek Wedding’ there’s thousands of small films like us … and I mean ‘thousands’,” he again emphasizes.
What kind of a Director were you on this film ? ”Here’s your props, here’s you forty-foot chord, here’s your box, here’s the outlet you’re gonna use in the scene. So, now how are you gonna get them all working at the right time ? I’ve no idea, … ‘Rolling’ !,” he knowingly smirks. ”But, each person makes it happen from moment to moment and we get it all on film. That’s what film acting is. I don’t know where you’re gonna be, … ‘Rolling’ ! So now he’s got to react honestly while we’re moving the camera around him and stuff like that. We try and make it happen right in front of the camera, but we have a lot of theatre actors there that were used to six weeks of rehearsal and so this was pretty eye-opening for them. You just don’t to let them think so much. You just let them kinda react, then grab it, look at what you got and if that’s better than what you planned then you know you’re on the right track. I did a lot of more of that and it was pretty satisfying.”
Finally, what’s the most interesting thing to know about Jeff Daniels ? ”That I’m probably certifiably schizophrenic and that I’ve successfully turned it into a career,” he laughs deadpan.
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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