Director Jon Poll talks "Charlie Bartlett"

Wed, January 16th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Jami Philbrick, Staff Writer

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"Charlie Bartlett" opens February 22

For over twenty years, film editor and producer Jon Poll has cut some of the most popular comedies around. From editing movies such as "Meet the Parents" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" to executive producing "The 40 Year Old Virgin," Poll's done it all, and can now add director to that list. Poll's debut film, the high school comedy "Charlie Bartlett" starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Anton Yelchin (Chekov in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"), opens February 22.

In "Charlie Bartlett," Yelchin plays the titular Charlie, a private school student who gets expelled and is forced to deal with the harsh realities of public school. Downey plays an alcoholic public school principal who is at odds with his new student.

CBR News spoke with Poll about his new film, casting his young star and, and about Mike Myers' first new original character since "Austin Powers."

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Thanks for joining us today, Jon. To start off with, what was it about the script that attracted you to "Charlie Bartlett" and why did you choose it for your directorial debut?

It was interesting. I read a hundred scripts before I found "Charlie." I guess I realized as I was going, what I was always looking for was something that had humor, was real and hopefully had something on it's mind. There aren't many of those. I read a script Gustin Nash had written called "Youth in Revolt," based on the '80s cult book. I thought it was great. I called ["Austin Powers" director] Jay Roach up and said, "Do you know about this writer Gustin Nash?" He said, "Yeah, didn't I ever tell you about 'Charlie Bartlett,' I had to back out of it today." So Jay was going to direct it, potentially. He sent it to me and then I went and met the other producers and pitched and that started the whole process. But [the script] was funny and serious and real and just had a lot of opportunity to make something original and different then what we usually see.

What was it like working with and directing Robert Downey, Jr.?

I used to wake up in the mornings and say, "Robert Downey, Jr. is in my movie. Is this really real? Is this happening"? It was kind of astounding. Robert was amazing to work with. He was incredibly generous. He liked to be able to "play" as he put it. As long as he had room to "play" he was a happy guy and he would give everything. He was just a pleasure to work with. He always gave you something different and there's nothing that I ever asked him to do that he didn't do with enthusiasm. He was just there to go for it all the time. He was dealing with some stuff in the movie that relates to his real life and he was very brave about that too.

How do you think he will do as Tony Stark in "Iron-Man"?

Robert is incredibly excited about being Iron-Man. Robert is a comic book fiend and he relishes the opportunity to bring what he does to that world.

You're no stranger to comic book films yourself. You were the editor on "Captain America" (1990). What do you think went wrong with that film? Why didn't it work?

I don't know if anything went wrong. It was kind of a low budget movie. Albert Pyun was trying to make a movie about a sensitive Captain America and actually these days all comic book movies have that side but I don't know if it was that successful. It was tough. I was the editor and it was a great experience. Albert was a really nice guy and I got to go all over what was then Yugoslavia before it was broken apart. It was shot in real castles. That was a great experience.

Back to "Charlie Bartlett," it seems that casting the right actor for the title role was important to making the film work. How did you discover your young actor?

Well, it was huge. I really didn't have any idea who I wanted and I used to joke about [wanting] Bud Cort, four years before he did "Harold & Maude." Which clearly was a joke at this point because I really didn't know who could play Charlie.

Then Jake Kasdan, who had just done a movie with David Duchovny [called "The TV Set"] said, "Have you seen 'House of D?' There is this kid Anton Yelchin, he's also in 'Hearts In Atlantis,' Scott Hicks' film." And I watched those two movies one night and thought, Oh my god this is Charlie Bartlett. This guy's perfect. Smart, kind of an old soul with a really good sense of humor. The next day I bugged Jay and I drove down to his office. Jay ended up producing the movie. I said, "Jay, Jay, Jay you got to look at this." It was a scene from "House Of D" and it was just a serious and funny scene. And that's what Charlie had to be.

I had to see every kid in Hollywood and everybody wanted this part. We saw eighty-two kids. And truly Anton was the only one who could have pulled it off. There were three people [whose audition footage] I showed to everyone, but Anton was amazing. I don't know that I could have made this movie without Anton. He was great. I mean Anton is funny, touching, warm, he run's around in his underwear, does musical comedy, he sings, he dances, I mean there is nothing you ask that kid to do that he doesn't do.

I met with Anton. We sat for two hours. I said, "So, why do you want to do 'Charlie Bartlett?'" He said, "I like how honest and optimistic the character is." That's it, me too. That's what I like about it. So I said, "This is great. You're going to be Charlie Bartlett."

Charlie's relationship with his mother, who is played by Hope Davis, is very complex. Was that something you had to work on with them or did it come naturally?

Well, they had been in "Hearts In Atlantis" together. She played his mother before. Hope was my first choice from day one. She's so good in it. There's not a moment of her character that is cut out of the movie. Every line of hers stayed in and I've never had that on any movie that I've ever done. There are not many people who can take a part that looks this small on paper and make it as large as it needs to be. She helped give an arc to the character that I don't really believe was fully there, there is so little screen time and she was perfect. And she walked on the set and she and Anton had been mother and son before.

You were an executive producer on "The 40 Year Old Virgin." How did that come to be and what was that experience like for you?

I was an executive producer and I was basically there to hang out on the set, make any suggestions and field phone calls from executives. Then I hung out in post-production. I was there to help [director] Judd [Apatow] make his movie in any way I could. I knew Judd a little bit because he was one of the many writers who contributed to "Meet the Fockers." The studio had a lot of experience with me on "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers." On "Meet the Fockers," I was second unit director and co-producer. Even though Judd was very experienced, he was a first-time feature director. I also was a good friend with Shauna Robertson who is his producer, who used to work for Jay. They were looking for someone who could be there with some experience in the background to help in any way, shape or form. And look, it was Judd's movie completely top to bottom and I was there for support and to laugh at the video monitors when he made his magic. And you know, occasionally throw in a suggestion.

What are you working on now?

I did a week of second unit directing, very small stuff, on "The Love Guru," which is Mike Meyers' new movie. He plays a love guru, sort of in the mold of Deepak Chopra. It's his first new live action film character since Austin Powers and he's hysterical. It's a whole new character, a whole new thing and it's very clever. You wouldn't even recognize him because he's got a big long beard. 

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Jon.

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