The director of Reign Over Me talks about upcoming projects galore, and why The Search for John Gissing is finally available on DVD.
Writer/actor/director Mike Binder has always been the sort of man to inspire a cult following. Even as a stand-up comedian years ago, he says people always described him that way. Although typically humble, Binder claims he never realized it.
Well, count me in the Cult of Binder. I first noticed him playing the hapless and hopelessly flawed Micky Barnes in HBO’s Mind of the Married Man from 2001, but became a true devotee when I saw The Upside of Anger, his indie drama starring Joan Allen as bitter Michigan housewife whose life falls apart around her when her husband leaves, and Kevin Costner as her alcoholic washed-up baseball player neighbor.
Like this year’s Reign Over Me, Binder wrote and directed The Upside of Anger and gave himself a small, albeit juicy, role in the piece. And card-carrying Binder fans like myself will not be surprised to hear that the part is one of a somewhat...flawed...man. You see, Binder has a history of playing--how do we put this gently?--shmucks. The pathetic smuck, the philandering shmuck, the duped-smuck, you name it, if there's a part for a smuck in a movie he's written, Binder wil definitely nab it up for himself.
When asked the inevitable question about this peculiar penchant, he has a disarming answer."They're the characters I like, you know? They're the characters I like to play. They're the ones I think are gonna be funny," he says graciously. "I mean, to me the character in Upside of Anger was a really funny character. I thought I had the best role in the movie, myself."
Right now, Binder has several projects he is trying to get off the ground, most notably a script called The Emperor of Michigan, about four adult brothers. “It's a lot like The Upside of Anger, only funnier,” he explains. However, even though he already has Ryan Reynolds (Smokin’ Aces, Just Friends), Adam Brody (In the Land of Women, The O.C.), Keri Russell (Felicity, Waitress), Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard, Ed) and Jerry Ferrara (Entourage, Brooklyn Rules) attached, he’s still been having trouble getting it made.
Perhaps studios are gun-shy because Binder's movies aren't easily encapsulated in a neat, high-concept sentence. But his writing and the emotional richness with which he imbues his characters that get attact the biggest name actors to his projects. At least, Binder thinks, it's more likely that than his winning personality, which I suggest might also be the lure. "It has to be the script. It has to be the script. If I'm relying on either of those two, I’m always going to rely on the script," he laughs. "But I get along good with actors, I always do. I like 'em, and it seems like they like me. What I have been lucky recently especially is actors are really open to reading my stuff and to doing my movies. It's been great."
Still, The Emperor of Michigan is looking for a studio to call home. “I thought after Reign Over Me and Upside of Anger it would get a little easier to get these movies made and out there, but it hasn't been for me,” he says. “The industry is not really enamored by me or what I do. A lot of these guys, they just want to make their next movie because it's a very hip kind of thing or cool. It's a very cool thing to be doing the next Wes Anderson movie. Whereas I'm like, 'Yeah, he's good. Let's let someone else make his next movie.'”
In the meantime, Binder is figuring out a different way to skin the cat. In 2001, he wrote, directed and starred in a comedy called The Search for John Gissing, about an American couple (Janeane Garofalo stars opposite him) who go to London for the husband’s job transfer and everything goes wrong—mostly because his company contact, John Gissing (Alan Rickman) is trying to foil him every step of the way.
Binder’s character in it bears a striking similarity to the one he plays in The Mind of the Married Man—even to the extent that they share the same last name (Barnes). In fact, it was The Search for John Gissing that got him the gig with HBO in the first place. “I played Mariel Hemingway's husband [in The Sex Monster]. That won HBO's Comedy Festival's Best Picture and I won Best Actor, so they started talking to me about doing a series. And then when they saw The Search for John Gissing, they said, 'Look, we want you to do a show. We want it to be kind of like that guy and kind of like Sex Monster, and just do a show for us.'" Voila, Binder’s philandering shmuck character is born.
Although The Search for John Gissing made the film festival circuit rounds, it was never picked up by a distributor. “It's sort of been the soft spot in my career, which is sad because it's really my favorite of all my movies and I had the best time making it of all my movies,” he explains. But perhaps it doesn't have to stay that way. After years of clamoring from Rickman and Garofalo fans, he decided to distribute the movie himself. “I wanted to build a site anyway and kind of learn how to release my own movie,” says Binder. “So we went and found a company that used to do porn DVDs and they're trying to go legit. And they cut the DVD for us. We bought boxes and we figured out how to ship 'em. And we set up this site with Google Checkout.”
The site, theFreebird.com, is the only place The Search for John Gissing is available. And despite having no advertising, word of mouth in the fan community is doing the trick: Binder says about 30 orders come in daily. “That is my dream, that is really what I want to do is be able to make my own movies, finance my own movies, do my own thing.”
And there may be more in store for The Search for John Gissing still. “I want to do it again, bigger and better, called The Multinational, with, like, stars in my role and Janeane's role.” He’s already got the script written and even has actors in mind. “My dream cast would be John Cusack and Gwyneth Paltrow,” says Binder. And having seen The Search for John Gissing, I think they would be an excellent choice.
But most importantly, Binder wants to try to get Rickman back to reprise his role. “I think [it] would be a long shot, knowing Alan. He's really an artist. I think he'd say, 'I did it. I like it.'” Binder, however, has no plans of giving up without a fight. “I'm going to kind of give him the old, (sotto voce) 'You know Alan, we can do this.’”
So what’s Binder up to while these passion projects are brewing? He’s been hired by Universal to adapt The Friday Night Knitting Club for Julia Roberts to star in and produce. When I told him that I had hoped it was a men’s knitting club, Binder revealed that he has written one male club-member into his script. “Everyone thinks he's gay, but then you find out he's this really powerful divorce lawyer and it's just a way for him to calm down.”
He is also working on another movie called Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for Disney. In it, “the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield [Illinois] is hit by an electrical storm and Lincoln comes to life. There's a tour guide who basically takes Lincoln on a ride with him back to Washington for school.”
Even if he still has to fight for his projects, Binder knows how lucky he is to be in this business at all. “I'm not complaining,” he says. “ I've been doing this 30 years, and I get to do really what I want to do. It's hard sometimes, it's hard to get the money. But I have my own little world, my own office, my own editing room.
“I kind of came out here to be Woody Allen, you know?” he jokes. “I saw Woody Allen on TV when I was a kid, and saw a couple of his movies and said, 'That's what I want to do,' you know? Kind of what I did, only just a bad version of it.”
Well, that's your opinion Mr. Binder. This critic thinks you're doing a damn fine job.
Mike Binder's post-9/11 drama, Reign Over Me, starring Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle will be available on DVD this fall. And the comedy that in many ways started it all, The Search for John Gissing, is available exclusively through his website, thefreebird.com.