Writer-director-actor Mike Binder has had the opportunity to wear many hats in his Hollywood career, but when pressed to choose his favorite, he answered without hesitation. “Writing,” he said. “No question.” Especially in a collaborative medium like film – “everything else is a compromise.”
Binder, who wrote, directed and starred in “The Upside of Anger,” spoke Wednesday night to an auditorium of screenwriting students at the MLB, offering several insights from his own career. He touched specifically on the special difficulties screenwriters face. “If you’re looking for respect,” he said wearily, “don’t become a screenwriter.” Shaking his head, Binder mentioned one middle-aged screenwriter who was forced to take notes from a studio head’s eight-year-old son. Even the most admired scripts get the Hollywood treatment: “It’s a great writer, it’s a great script – Who else can we bring on?”
It was, in part, an unwillingness to make such concessions that led to Binder becoming a director – he wanted to protect what he wrote. His ability to make movies on a low budget allowed him the rare chance of getting behind the camera, and Binder has kept at it ever since.
His talk followed a screening of his latest film, “Man About Town,” which is slated for a February release. With a dapper yellow hat and relaxed style, Binder informally took the stage to accept questions and critiques, acknowledging that, although he was already at work on another project and the film was largely complete, “I’ve never met a director who’s done.”
One of the first issues addressed was the movie’s style – someone pointed out, justly, that “Man About Town” swung rather wildly from family drama to almost slapstick comedy, freely mixing a wide assortment of genres. Binder nodded as if anticipating the critique. “Man About Town,” he explained, was his opportunity to try a bunch of different things, to really play with film form and create a collage sort of movie. Binder was unapologetic about taking those risks. “In film,” he said, “you have to swing for the fences.”
A question about casting moved the discussion’s focus to “Man About Town” ‘s main star, the unfortunate Ben Affleck, still weathering a notoriously dead stretch of his career. Binder briefly addressed the problem of reputation, noting America’s particular eagerness to brand an actor hot or cold – but spoke more authoritatively on his own approach to actors. Having acted himself, Binder compared casting to a painter selecting a color palette, as each actor brings their own shade to a project.
As a writer particularly, Binder has great respect for the idiosyncrasies an actor can catch in a script – whether a character would say or do a certain thing. “Actors put that character on like a coat, and they’ll tell me where it doesn’t fit,” Binder said.
At the end of the day, Binder considers himself first and foremost a writer, comparing a good morning of writing to the satisfaction after a good workout. Though he writes four or more hours a day, Binder confessed that writing is basically a full-time job – in the shower, out on a run, or in the car, somehow he is always writing. It’s a craft of design. “The harder you work,” he said, “the better you get.”
Binder’s attitude about Hollywood is similarly upbeat. Despite “Man About Town” ‘s Hollywood-shark plot, Binder claims to have no negative statement to make about the industry. An admitted movie-making optimist, Binder preached patience and perseverance for Hollywood hopefuls, as well as a little bit of pushiness – especially for screenwriters. Even after he sold his first script, Binder still had to beg to get to be allowed on set. How’d he finally get on? He recalled it with a laugh: “I promised to be good.”