Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener in Being There.
Craig Brewer is Memphis' most successful filmmaker. His 2005 film Hustle & Flow earned
Three 6 Mafia an Academy Award for Best Song for "Hard Out Here For a Pimp" and gave us the Bluff City anthem "Whoop That Trick." His critically acclaimed 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name gave Eddie Murphy the comeback vehicle he deserved and blackspoitation auteur Rudy Ray Moore the most inspiring biopic of the decade. He reunited with Murphy to direct Coming 2 America, the long-rumored sequel to the beloved 1988 comedy, which is scheduled to be released by Paramount this December.
For this edition of Never Seen It, we sat down to watch a classic movie he had somehow missed over the years: Hal Ashby's 1979 masterpiece Being There. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Chris McCoy: What do you know about Being There?
Craig Brewer: I know that it is a movie with Peter Sellers, and I know it's the movie that, when I say I haven't seen it, I get the most shocked looks and a little bit of consternation and judgment.
McCoy: What do people say? What's their judgment?
Brewer: Well, they assume that I've seen it. They assume that I love it, and that I will love it. They always bring up Hal Ashby. I like his movies, so why haven't you seen this one? And to be honest with you, I never associated it with Hal Ashby. I've owned it both in VHS and DVD and Blu-ray, and I have the Criterion release in L.A., but I don't know why I never popped it in. I see images from it constantly.
130 minutes later…
McCoy: Craig Brewer, you are now somebody who's seen Being There. What did you think?
Brewer: I really enjoyed it. It made me think about a lot of other movies. There's what I enjoy about watching it, and then there's what I'm kind of in awe of that has nothing to do with me just sitting down, being a normal viewer. That’s knowing how difficult one particular job was on this movie. If you watch the credits — and unfortunately, you don't get to really see her credit because there's this reel at the end of an outtake that you can’t help but enjoy. But it is very hard to get a single credit during a scroll in a movie. Not many people get that. I remember having to fight to get Sam Phillips, because I dedicated Hustle & Flow to Sam Phillips. Hustle & Flow has a scroll in its closing credits, but I wanted there to be a completely blank moment where it says this film is dedicated to the memory of Sam Phillips. I had to kind of jump through hoops to get that kind of credit. I don’t know if you’re aware, but there was one in the scroll.
McCoy: I was watching the blooper reel.
Brewer: Yeah. It’s Dianne Schroeder. I want to learn everything I can about her because she had the hardest job on this movie. She was in charge of collecting all of the television footage. I think that’s a third of what makes the movie what it is. I may be even short changing her contribution. That's the one thing about movie-making that I've really come to understand: There's so many people that you don't know who they are, but they made something great. I will never forget this moment when we were shooting Black Snake Moan, and I said, “Hey, let's do one of those Jaws vertigo shots. Do y'all know what I'm talking about?” And the crew starts giggling and they start pointing at the dolly operator. “Well, Craig, why don't you talk to him about this? Because he's the one who did it.”
So there's all these people that are responsible for a Steven Spielberg movie, a Hal Ashby movie. You know, not that I'm anywhere near that, but a Craig Brewer movie is all these other people contributing something. I've had to ask, what do you want on the television? I remember on Dolemite Is My Name, sitting down with the woman who's in charge of television research. I said, "Well, I know that in the movie Rudy Ray Moore is filming, he's going to be shooting at the feet of somebody like 'Dance, motherfucker, dance!' It’s an iconic Dolemite moment. I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before, and it'd be great if it was on the TV in the background, while Rudy Ray Moore is on the phone. Can you get me something like that?" And this woman — I’ve forgotten her name, much like Dianne Schroeder—this woman went through everything she could find in television and movie history of where someone's shooting at someone’s feet in the same “Dance motherfucker!” way. The closest we got was apparently a Bugs Bunny short that we could not procure the rights to. But she did find this old, black-and-white Western where a guy was shooting at somebody’s feet. And it is on in the background in that scene. But I mean, we're talking weeks of her scouring, trying to find that one moment. And then the rest of it is me getting a big ole reel of stuff and saying, “Do you want this commercial?”
But in Being There, sometimes what is happening on television — he likes to watch television — is actually enhancing the scene that we are seeing in the movie. Like if that wonderful scene with Big Bird singing wasn't that song, then I don't know if that scene would be as good. So I'm very curious about which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was the director saying, “You know what be good is if we had this Gatorade commercial be the button on this.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get ‘Basketball Jones?’”
McCoy: If I could come up with something as good as “Basketball Jones” in my life, I could die happy and fulfilled. That was amazing.
Brewer: Well, there's a whole movie to talk about, but I think that’s the thing that I’m left with the most — my fascination with Diane Schroeder. Whoever this woman is, she's responsible for me loving this movie. It would not be good without her. Here's this guy, Chance. It’s just him coming in and leaving, and no one knows who he is. And everyone he comes in contact with is either challenged or made better. You could look at so many movies, like Forrest Gump.
McCoy: It's a “Man from Mars” story. In science fiction, you drop the man from Mars into human society. And then everybody has to explain, like, why there's insurance. You know what I mean? It's a way to force everybody to look at everyday society, or just their everyday lives, differently. It's Stranger in a Strange Land without the, you know, space polygamy.
Brewer: Or to just think how odd an elevator is.
McCoy: You get to see The Beginner's Mind. I think that's what's so fascinating. He's kind of a mirror to everybody.
Brewer: I don't know if I would have been as brave as to direct Peter Sellers — if perhaps one can — to be as restrained as he was.
McCoy: That was one of my thoughts too — the sheer genius of just dialing Peter Sellers all the way down.
Brewer: So much so that when you get to the second old man dying, you actually get a true emotional reaction from him that you did not have in the first one, even though it’s just red around his eyes. With the tears going down his face, you feel that there has perhaps been movement in his soul. But you didn't think there could be any movement for him, because he played everything pretty much … Usually, when you say someone played something in one note, it's kind of a bad thing. But that's what I thought was rather refreshing. You're almost waiting for that one moment for him to break out of it. And perhaps he can find some epiphany on his own. But in every single scene, he does not do that. It's not written that way. He doesn't play it that way. I feel like the only scene that I see that, the only moment I see it in is when that guy passes in front of him. And he says, “Yes, this happens to people. I've seen this before.” I think he was truly moved in that moment.
McCoy: Chance has got to be on the autistic spectrum somewhere.
Brewer: I would imagine so. But what's great about having not known anything about the movie is that you think to yourself, is there some issue he's dealing with? Or is he truly a person who has been raised inside that house? The way we feel in the beginning of that movie, where you do not know that you were in that neighborhood, you might be in some gorgeous, New York estate with a nice little garden. Then you walk outside and you realize, “Oh, wait a minute. I had a completely different idea of where I was.”
McCoy: You don't know you're in D.C., right? But it's kind of believable in that, it’s an old house. The owner has been there forever. And it’s the 1970s, so the neighborhood’s falling apart around him. So the very first thing Chance is confronted with when he leaves the house is poverty and racism. Once again, it’s the Man from Mars thing. You drop a man from Mars in the middle of an American city, and the first thing they would ask is, “How come this guy didn't have anything? And why is this Black guy being treated so bad?”
Brewer: There is startling commentary, both spray painted on the wall and what the date [1976, the American bicentennial] is saying.
McCoy: Then there's that moment where the maid sees him on TV, and she just lays it down: They only listen to him because he's a white man.
Brewer: I think when you're watching a movie, there's this natural feeling to want to figure it out. So it's like, well, obviously he's the son of the old man, and the old man kept him from civilization, or something like that. Perhaps he's not dealing with some social awkwardness or a mental issue. He's just truly a naive person that has been raised in a place where he's never been in a car. These are his true feelings and thoughts. But then you get to him walking on water at the end. You're in a different place of like, “Wait a minute, did this already happen with him? I just saw the death of this old man. Was he someone that came into that life of where he was at the beginning of the movie and was there a whole other movie comparable to what we just saw? Is he existing in a plane that truly, he doesn't have a beginning or end? Or he doesn't abide by the laws of gravity or art or science? Really?”
McCoy: Is he like the cat in the old folks home in Doctor Sleep that goes in and hangs out with you while you die?
The final shot of Being There.
McCoy: Peter Sellers, is, like you said, completely restrained and so subtle through the whole thing. It just shows you what control he had. I think a lot of people associated him with the Pink Panther stuff where he's so wacky. But that’s control, too. It looks goofy to people, and you don't think about it on that level, how much control it takes.
Brewer: I was young and watching Dr. Strangelove. I did not know much about Peter Sellers other than I grew up watching all of the Pink Panthers. They were a big deal between me and my dad when I was young. We'd love watching him fight Cato … So I finished watching Dr. Strangelove. I'm in high school, and I'm walking out to my car with my friends, and I go “I don't quite understand why they gave Peter Sellers top billing on this thing. He was kind of funny as that British guy and everything, but I mean, George C. Scott!” And they're like, “Craig, he was Dr. Strangelove and he’s the president, too.”
Sellers and MacLaine
Brewer: Shirley MacLaine. She's a national treasure. She's so good in this. I think that being funny and sexy at the same time, just to watch it in motion, is one of the best things ever. To see her rolling around on that bear rug, and she's laughing and she's discovering she's sexy, but you're not like lusting after her. You're just watching. And it’s alive, and it’s real, and entertaining at the same time.
McCoy: And it's not shot all male gaze-y like porn, either. It's zoomed out, and there's comedy. Half of the frame is Sellers doing comedy, and half the frame is her doing her thing. I love that scene because there’s such contrast. Like you said, the sexy and funny thing, like Goldie Hawn or Madeline Khan. And it shows you that everybody's talking to themselves when they talk to him.
Brewer: The walking on water, can we get back to that?
McCoy: I've never really known what to make of it. I accept it as just beautiful, you know? Maybe it doesn't have to be anything but that.
Brewer: I know, it's magical realism, which is just a bullshit term for, I don't know what he's trying to do. I'm not meaning to grab at some certainty. I'm just saying, the authors made a choice to do that. Why did they do that? And the more I think about it, the more it calls into question what I was feeling and thinking about everything that went on. I love it. I'm glad it's in there. I don't think that something like that could happen today in a studio situation. “Uh, we had a pretty well-testing movie, and then you guys did that at the end, and there's a lot of questions about it.” Would you say though that walking on water, other than it being kind of like the, “Oh, he thinks he's so awesome. He walks on water or something like that.” Don't you think that is specifically both narratively and spiritually related to Jesus?
McCoy: It's gratuitous Christ imagery.
Brewer: I’m just thinking, okay, walking on water, where does that come from?
McCoy: How many people does he save, spiritually? He saves the president, and Shirley MacLaine, and the doctor …
Brewer: I go even further back. I'm going to the maid saying, “I raised that baby.” So it's not like he's been that age forever. He was a baby. We don't know anything about his parentage. There's nothing about him. He shows up as a baby in this world and causes all this spiritual introspection from people around him, by just basically saying things that almost sound like an error. And you have a bunch of disciples saying, “Jesus, give the answer to our political situation. What do we do? What are we doing?” He goes, “Well, there's some seed …”