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Taking stock

'Shopgirl,' Steve Martin's 5-year-old Novella On Relationships, Finds New Life On Screen.

September 11, 2005|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

STEVE MARTIN does triple duty on the film version of his 2000 novella, "Shopgirl": He's the screenwriter, a producer and a star. The movie revolves around Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a lonely Saks Fifth Avenue employee whose life is intertwined with a charming, commitment-wary bachelor (Martin) and a hapless, young font maker ("Rushmore's" Jason Schwartzman). A serio-comic tale about the difficulty of connecting in the modern-day world, it examines how miscommunication and protective behavior get in the way of love.

Speaking long distance from Toronto, where he's shooting "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," Martin fielded questions about "Shopgirl," which is directed by Anand Tucker ("Hilary and Jackie"). The R-rated Touchstone Pictures release, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night, will open on Oct. 21 in New York and Los Angeles.

It's hard not to draw parallels between you and the affluent, worldly bachelor on screen. Is the story, in part, autobiographical?

Anything you make is partly autobiographical, but the story is not based on me. It's based on anecdotes from others and a lifetime of observation. Men and women, I've found, come at reality in different ways. As maturity comes, you try to make sure you understand what the other is saying and avoid shorthanding your language. This movie is about people learning about life -- and themselves -- through love. Love is a test.

There's a May-September relationship at the core of the film. Is that something you've seen close up?

I've had those relationships. I have some experience [in that area] -- but this is a role, a performance. I already went through the implied parallels when the book came out and better get used to these questions, I guess.

You sent the script to Tom Hanks, hoping that he'd play Ray Porter.

That's true. I chose him because he's kind -- a crucial component of the character. When Tom wasn't available, I figured I'd play Ray myself since I was going to be on the set in any case.

Playing Ray is a challenge, it would seem. Fiscally generous but emotionally closed off, he's a bundle of contradictions.

Writing the book already places you inside the head of each character. I could have played Mirabelle, though that's probably too much of a stretch.

You initially thought "Shopgirl" too "interior" to make an effective movie.

I didn't think there was a screenplay there. But the more I mused on it, the more I started to see scenes -- Mirabelle at the Saks glove counter, for instance. I went through the book to see if there were enough "events" and found more than I remembered in terms of plot.

Did you ever consider directing?

No. I knew there were capable artists who could deliver the movie better than I. Anand brought a great visual sense and sensitivity to the actors. Just as important, he, as an Englishman, brought the eye of an outsider.

Is Los Angeles a character in the film, as it was in your "L.A. Story"? The movie presents the city warts and all, unlike Woody Allen's love letters to Manhattan.

The city is just a setting, an inert place in the movie and book. Mirabelle would have been lost and depressed in any location. The story was originally set in New York. It was called "Bergdorf Girl," but since the L.A. store had closed, I had to forgo that title. I opted for Los Angeles because I don't know what it's like to live in Chelsea or how to get from there to 57th and Madison -- and logistics are central to the film. Though Ray is hidden away in the hills, he looks out at Mirabelle's low-rent Silver Lake apartment and can get anywhere in 20 to 25 minutes.

The movie ends with a bittersweet comment by your character: "Well, that was life." What's the message?

Quirky, complicated situations arise out of thin air -- that's a part of learning about life. There's a sadness about a breakup, even if you want out. She emerges older and wiser. The guy, it's hard to say.

You turned 60 in August. Is this a time of personal soul-searching?

The reflection took place five years ago and I've exhausted myself preparing for the big day. It feels good to have made it to this point. You get to a place where you tell yourself: "I'm 60: I don't have to do the things I don't want to anymore."

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