In the charming and sometimes bittersweet dramedy, Standing Up, Falling Down, Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal play men adrift in life who forge a fast friendship in suburban Long Island. For Schwartz, it’s a rare chance to play a more dramatic leading role and an opportunity to act alongside an idol and comedy legend in Crystal (who also gets a chance to play in a few serious scenes). For director Matt Ratner, the film marks his debut behind the lens and a chance to tell a story that, according to him, highlights the messiness of life.
Uproxx spoke with Schwartz and Ratner at the Tribeca Film Festival about their motivations for taking on the project. We also discussed the challenge of bringing a true indie film to market, the relatability of failure, the internet’s fixation with the idea of Schwartz as Plastic Man, and which candy makes you taller.
I watched the film early this morning. It was very good. It was at like six o’clock in the morning.
Matt Ratner: If you like it at 6 AM, then you actually like it.
Ben, the experience of your character is one that a lot of people can relate to, maybe not necessarily with comedy, but with failing and winding up living with their parents. Did you, at any point, think that was on the horizon for you?
Ben Schwartz: Failure?
Failure or your dreams not working out?
Schwartz: Yeah, I think especially at the beginning. But I think failure is always there. One of my big drives is like, “Okay, we’ve got this movie,” or like, “We’re doing this movie with Matt and Billy, or we’re doing Sonic. Okay, what’s next? Oh my God, what if there’s not a next?” And there’s that feeling. I think that, maybe it’s because I’m a Jewish guy from the Bronx, but I feel like it’s within a lot of artists that it’s like, “Oh no, what happens? I don’t know where my next job is.” That’s one of my big things: to keep working, writing, acting, or whatever. But at the beginning of my improv career, absolutely. I remember taking classes and not really pushing through yet. Nobody’s coming to our shows, nobody would really care to see us. And I remember watching Asscat [at UCB] and Jack McBrayer was part of Asscat. I thought he was one of the funniest people ever, and he didn’t have a job. And I literally was like, “if people like him and Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel aren’t making money off comedy, then how the hell in a million years can I?” So at the beginning of your career you’re just like, “I’m never going to be able to do this, this is just so hard, and there are so many talented people that haven’t broke through, how am I going to break through?” Absolutely that’s a part of it.
Is that a part of what made you to want to take this on?
Schwartz: Yeah that, and also Matt, the script, and Billy Crystal. I get to act in a movie with Billy Crystal. I mean really act with him. That is, for a comedian and someone who just loves movies, there’s no greater… That’s it for me.
Was that the dream team? Was there anybody else in consideration?
Schwartz: Oh yeah, tell him the other Captain America, the other Avengers.
Ratner: After thirty-five people passed we finally got to Ben.
Schwartz: Very smart.
Ratner: The relationship between the two of them was so fundamental that it was hard to consider individuals as opposed to pairings. One of the things that is challenging about independent film is that if this was a studio movie we would have screen-tested, like crazy, Ben and Billy. Instead, I met with Billy, Ben and I had a couple phone calls, and then once they got formally involved we spent a lot of time working on it. Ben and I actually never physically met until two days before we started shooting. Ben had gone to Billy’s office in Santa Monica to meet Billy, and the two of them called me, and just hearing their camaraderie right away, you sort of felt like we got lucky here, because if they hadn’t hit it off… In a lot of ways, their personal relationship sort of mirrored their relationship with their characters. They became incredibly close over a very short period of time. That’s definitely a case of you’d rather be lucky than good, because you can’t fake that if it’s not there.
Tell me about that initial meeting with Billy Crystal, because the chemistry between you two… honestly, the chemistry with the entire ensemble was really good.
Schwartz: Thanks man. I haven’t been able to talk to anyone who has watched the movie yet, so this is exciting for me! For real, we had our premiere yesterday at 5 PM, so you’re literally the first interview with someone that we actually talked to that’s seen the movie. So please don’t screw this up. It was great, we both were dressed in that Borat swimsuit. Isn’t that insane?
Totally coincidental too.
Schwartz: Isn’t is crazy? Both neon yellow.
That’s just your Thursday look.
Schwartz: That was my Thursday look, and for him it was his Wednesday look, but he hadn’t changed yet. So he called me, I was filming Night School with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, and I was in Atlanta, and I got a call from Billy Crystal and remembered, you know when he picks up the phone and you hear that voice for the first time. I’ve heard that voice my entire life. What a surreal moment when it’s like, “Hello!” I’m like, “Oh, hi!” I talked and he… Matt brings this up when we’re chatting with people. [Billy] takes it very seriously. He’s a comedian, but this role is very dramatic for him. We broke down the characters, we talked about the stuff in the script we really liked, stuff in the script we thought we would need to work on, we talked to Matt about it and with Matt and Peter Hoare, who is a great writer who wrote the script, we figured it out. But that first one was very surreal to me.
There’s always that moment, like the first time I met [Don] Cheadle [Schwartz and Cheadle starred together on House Of Lies], the first time you meet these people that you’ve looked up to, that you’re like, “There they are! There they are!” And then you’re like, “Everybody’s a normal person.” So it was wonderful and it was an instant connection. We’re both New York Jewish guys, we both love sports, and you know, we had so much to talk about. And then in the movie, the way we wanted to play it, it was great. But the thing that blew my mind was that Matt and Billy came up with a list of people that Billy would want to act with and Matt would want to direct, and I happened to be on that list. The idea that Billy saw something of mine and said, “I want to act with him,” that gave me so much more confidence than just getting a dry call. Sorry, that was such a long answer, but yeah.
No, it’s fine, that’s what I prefer. 3,000 words or nothing.
Schwartz: That’s it, baby.
Matt, this is your first feature-length film as a director after producing previously. What was it about this script specifically?
Ratner: I’ve been looking for something to direct for a long time. My background is in theater, so storytelling has always been my motivating force. As a producer, I know that when you’re directing something, it’s your life for two years. It sounds like sort of a cliché answer, but I really wanted to find a story that I didn’t want to tell but I needed to tell. I read this script and it was the first time in a long time that I read a script that I didn’t want to wait until the next morning to pick up the phone and call the writer on it. I called that night, and I tried to play it cool. There was just something about it that really spoke to me. It felt like something that we all sort of confront, in terms of the nature of regret, the nature of second chances. Are there certain mistakes you make that you can’t come back from? I thought the fact that there was a friendship that transcended age was something that was really compelling to me. I’ve always been drawn to movies that are about something. Where you’re laughing, but there’s an emotional element and there’s something else going on, and I felt that even the early bones of the script had that.
I don’t want to give away anything…
Schwartz: Talk about Thanos. Talk about Thanos. We’re trying to put it in. Uproxx is the place to fucking drop this bomb. Act three of this movie, Thanos shows up out of nowhere.
Ratner: That was most of our budget.
You couldn’t get War Machine?
Schwartz: Nope. Don would not, isn’t that insane? Isn’t that crazy? Brolin said yes, Cheadle said no.
The end of the film is a bit bittersweet. Was that always the plan?
Ratner: I’ve always felt like life is messy. I think that there’s nothing wrong with movies being messy. What’s important is the distinction between messiness as a choice, and messiness as a way of lazy filmmaking. I think it was always a very active choice for all of us, given this movie is a comedy and this movie is a drama. Life is comedy and life is drama, and I think we were all tonally on the same page, and Billy and Ben, and Peter the writer, and myself… we all knew what movie we wanted to make, and we wanted to make the same movie. That’s so critical because if you start to get people pulling in different directions, it’s impossible to fix on set. So the fact that we all understood the tone of this film going in was hugely important.
I feel the ending brings it from like an 8.5 to a 9.5 for me.
Ratner: Hey, that’s great!
Schwartz: Did you just publicly give us 9.5 stars?
I just did.
Schwartz: Did you just publicly give us… did Uproxx just give us 9.5 stars? Can you fucking believe this?
Ratner: Would that be out of 10 stars?
If you actually had Thanos or had War Machine flying in.
Schwartz: So that would take it above 10.5?
Ratner: You’ll call Cheadle. We can open it back up, recut it.
Schwartz: I’ll call Cheadle. Gotta get that half star.
[Laughs] So, bringing this to market, what are some of the challenges, some of the concerns trying to get this in front of a bigger audience?
Schwartz: This is no joke, I’m not doing a bit, these are questions that I have for Matt as well. Because he’s been a producer for so long, and now he’s a director and a producer. When you go into independent movies, you know you’re not going to get paid. I even talked about it with Matt at the beginning, I was like, “And I’m getting no money?” And he’s like, “You’re getting no money.” I go, “Let’s do it!” You know what I mean? But that’s when you know.
Ratner: One of the things that’s lovely about independent film is that artistic and commercial concerns are aligned. Right? The bad version of Fruitvale Station doesn’t make any money. The bad version of Transformers still makes money. Maybe less than the studio wants, but that can be very freeing from the filmmaking side of things. You try and stand out from the noise. You believe that there still is a space for independent storytelling, you believe there’s still a market for independent storytelling (which there is), you believe that whether it’s sort of a traditional theatrical or whether it’s an SVOD, or another sort of streaming platform, that there’s a way to get this story in front of people because, yeah we’ve been very fortunate, when people have seen the film they’ve uniformly responded positively to it. I think that there is a love for Billy and a chance to see Billy do something he hasn’t done in a long time. There’s a love for Ben.
Schwartz: Thank you
Ratner: I was going to say more words about you because you’re here! But you know, Ben is currently picking green M&Ms out of a bowl because he eats only green M&Ms.
Schwartz: They make me taller!
Ratner: But for Ben too, he’s so known for and so brilliant for his comedic work, this was a chance for Ben to flex his dramatic muscles in a way that will hopefully be compelling.
Schwartz: It’s also the opportunity for me to get a role that I work – how many days was the shoot? It’s like, I’m on every day. I’d done one other movie where I was one of the leads, but it’s like, this one was, “Hey man, you’re gonna be there, you can’t get sick.” And I did get sick! I got bronchitis immediately. It was one of those things, I really liked the idea of chatting with Matt and figuring out the arc on my character, and coming into scenes and being like, you’re not emotionally here yet you’re here. Oftentimes when you’re a supporting character you get to play your scenes and you don’t have to worry about that. But it was so fun and lovely, and I had dramatic scenes, talk about a bittersweet ending, these big scenes. It was one of the reasons I said yes because I love trying to get better at that and flexing that muscle. One of the reasons I said yes to House of Lies was that I got to learn from Cheadle. I get to do these dramatic scenes. So it really helped and it’s definitely a point in my career that I want to keep hitting and getting better at.
Ratner: Part of it was, I was actually going to say something nice about other people. But part of it with Ben that we didn’t talk about before you took that part was, I know that working with Billy was a dream for you, but this is a 104-page script and you’re in 100 pages of it.
Schwartz: Yeah, that’s right.
Ratner: It was important to me that, as talented as Ben is, that he’d really be doing the movie because he believed in the character, he believed in the role for him. Not just because of the allure of playing opposite Billy.
Schwartz: Matt was great with that. Because the idea of being in a scene with Billy Crystal for the whole movie is enough for anybody to say yes, but he’s like, “Hey man, there’s going to be many scenes you’re in that others aren’t in,” and it was great.
When you talk about wanting to work with Don Cheadle, learn from him. And getting to work with Billy Crystal; how big a factor is that, just you being kind of strategic with your career?
Schwartz: Very much so. Because… it always comes down to words. Words always win. When I read a script that I like, I’m going to be interested in doing it, it doesn’t matter who’s attached. But for me, it is because after doing Jean-Ralphio, which is a character that turns kind of cartoonish as the show [Parks and Rec] goes on (which I love and I adore), a lot of people wanted to cast me as that exact character. And I was like, there could be a career where I just do that. But how fun would it be if I get to break and show people that I really want to try doing this and this? So that’s why a movie like this, you know. But if there’s a role that’s like Jean-Ralphio in a big movie, and I was like, “Oh my God that’d be so fun!” I’m not against that.
In regards to that strategic thinking, with the stuff about Plastic Man, these online-driven campaigns sometimes work and sometimes they go away. Do you worry that you’re going to blow too much air on a little spark [by acknowledging it]?
Schwartz: Every now and then it’s like, “This! Ben looks like this person or this person!” Plastic Man was the first one that, in my head, I was like, “Oh my goodness, I would love this!” It’s funny, at the beginning I was like, “Yeah, look at that.” Then I’ll see it online and I’m very fortunate that people care and it trends. I was like, I hope I don’t do this and then the people who make decisions are going to see it and be like, “Alright, this guy’s got to calm down.” So I’m like, “Oh no!” So I never really had to think about it before, because there’s never really been a push. Plastic Man has been the biggest push online for me to do anything. It coincides with my exact wants anyway, and what I’ve been doing is I’ll never bring it up, but if someone asks me a question about it, I’ll always be like, “Oh, I would love the character and this is why.” But it’s interesting, I never really had to think about that because it’s never really happened before until this.
I’m glad I could inject that angst into your life.
Schwartz: Oh yeah, I’m going to be very nervous now.
Ratner: Ben does not need any more angst injected into his life.
Schwartz: Yeah, come on.
Happy to help. Eat more green M&Ms.
Schwartz: Bananas. Is there anything else you want to end with? I will say that this movie, Standing Up, Falling Down, hopefully people can see it. Matt and I are very proud of it. I think it came out well. I mean, Uproxx has already given it the biggest rating they’ve ever given any movie, let it be known. It’s really special, and Matt did an incredible job, and he’s produced many movies, and he jumped into directing this one and it’s not easy to direct Billy Crystal in your first movie.
Plastic Man team-up.
Schwartz: Heard it here first. Don’t talk about it now.
Get the team back together, get Billy to play the villain or sidekick. What’s the name of the sidekick — Rubberboy?
It’s not called Rubberboy, but there is a friend that helped Plastic Man out.