Upcoming release Gigantic, a romance and a comedy about a young mattress salesman (Paul Dano) who wants to adopt a baby from China, and the equally unusual young woman (Zooey Deschanel) he falls in love with, releases in New York City this Friday. I had an opportunity to speak with director Matt Aselton about his debut film, including why he felt the need to have a random homeless man attack his male lead, and the stroke of genius that helped John Goodman cough up a realistic-looking tumor.
One of the most striking things about Gigantic is its stellar cast (all of whom turn in spot-on performances). Besides Paul Dano, best known for his role as the preacher in There Will Be Blood, the cast includes Zooey Deschanel, John Goodman, Edward Asner and Jane Alexander.
To assemble the cast, Aselton first talked to Paul: "I had seen L.I.E. years ago and liked him since then, even though he was really young at the time. He understood the script and the way that I wanted it to go. It's sort of a quiet role...it's Paul's movie in a large way, everyone's orbiting around him. I wanted to make sure that his character was setting the tone and pace, that everyone's reacting to him" Once Dano was on board, "Zooey came on next. From an intellectual standpoint, it made sense."
As for John Goodman, who owns each scene he's in? "I begged him. For six months." One casting decision that didn't come to fruition was Gene Wilder as the homeless man/Paul's demon. "He sent us a note saying, "I'm a lot older than you think I am," a nod to the physical fights required in the role.
The homeless man, who attacks Paul Dano throughout the film without explanation, was in the script from the beginning. Aselton always thought the meaning was obvious: "a manifestation of Paul's subconscious, a demon." He also plays with the surreal in a tumor-coughing scene narrated by John Goodman. The sequence ends with him using traditional chinese medicine to visualize moving a brain tumor to a place where he could cough it up, and, of course, expectorating. After attempts to make a realistic-looking tumor failed, a makeup artist (with a background in horror) stepped in, taking some unripe banana and ketchup to make a suitably bloody, solid mass.
Set in New York City, Aselton aimed for a more "local" look of the five boroughs. "I'm always kind of wary of those movies where the 28 year-olds live in huge lofts, so I wanted Paul's place to look kind of outer borough (in fact filmed by Orchard Street in Chinatown). We didn't want to shoot big landmarks. We wanted it to look like what a pedestrian would see: stacks of air conditioners, not the Brooklyn Bridge."
While not many romantic comedies can claim to have tumor-coughing scenes or angst expressed by fights with a homeless man, Aselton makes us believe these are just part of this world, mainly through Paul's nonchalant reactions. It's a welcome departure from hyper-conscious hipster films, intent on deconstructing the irony of their world. Aselton agrees: "I really wanted it to be about observing these people as opposed to trying to put them in a position where it's audience/stage, a proscenium. I wanted it to be, let's just sit back and watch."
Opening this friday at the Village East, Gigantic will roll out nationally later this year. As for Aselton, his next project involves an art thief who steals fine art from homes.