Years ago I ran into Ken Marino in the East Village. I was very drunk, and I yelled, ‘I want to dip my balls in it!’ at him. I actually wish I had remembered to ask him about drunken idiots yelling his catchphrase from The State back at him, but we ended up having a fairly serious talk about his excellent new movie, Diggers. And about his ribs, which he broke doing a fall on an upcoming episode of Reno 911 (look for him as a WWII vet).
Marino may be best known as a funnyman, but his script for this film, set in the fading world of independent clam diggers on Long Island in 1976, proves that he’s more than a one-trick pony*. Diggers, which stars Marino, Paul Rudd and the great and underemployed Josh Hamilton, is a beautifully observant little film about men and their relationships. The publicity materials (and Marino) like to compare the film to Diner and Breaking Away, and I think that’s fairly accurate.
Diggers is out on DVD right now – it’s one of those day and date movies, and those of you not in the major cities should feel pretty lucky, because you can click right here and order this wonderful little movie right now.
By the way, Marino and I also talked about a possible reunion of The State, and the status of the DVDs of The State – click here to read that.
*For the record, Marino is also good with plumbing, as he fixed a noisy toilet in the hotel room where we did this interview. He may be a renaissance man at this rate.
Clam digging is less raunchy than it sounds.
It is less raunchy than it sounds. But it’s just as sexy.
Your dad was a clam digger.
My dad was a clam digger in the 70s. My grandfather, my uncle – a lot of people were doing it on Long Island. Then that profession started dying out because of overpopulation and pollution and then these corporate companies with dredge boats leasing a lot of land. The little guys couldn’t go in there, so basically it wasn’t profitable.
How much of this movie is based on reality?
The time and the place and what’s going on are based on reality, although I don’t think it started to drop out until the later part of the 70s. I placed it in 76, and that’s kind of when it was peaking, actually. In 76 they said you could walk across the bay going from clam boat to clam boat, that’s how many diggers there were out there. Now there are less than a hundred licenses a year because there’s just nothing out there.
Is your character based on your dad?
It’s mostly fictional. The mustache is based on my dad. We didn’t have six kids running around, and my dad wasn’t this belligerent baby that I play, but it makes for a good character in a movie. There are guys like that, there are dysfunctional families like that. The trick with that guy was to make sure he wasn’t just an asshole; there was a reason he was behaving the way he was behaving, his upbringing as well as the pressures from the outside world. Hopefully I was able to show his heart as well.
One of the things I liked about the film is exemplified by your character – in most movies, he would have to have some kind of comeuppance in the third act, where maybe his wife would leave him and force him to change his ways. But that change comes across him gradually through the picture, and the whole film is like that – the movie isn’t hinging on plot moments but on little character moments.
It’s my first script, so I made a lot of mistakes, but right from the beginning I wanted to write archetypal characters but then hopefully give them another layer or put them out there in a way that’s different. For me Jack, the womanizer, the lady’s man, a lot of times that guy is just that guy. He’s not necessarily bright, he’s just a walking hard-on. But in this movie I wanted to show that he’s just as aware, or smarter, than the other characters and that his point of view comes out later in the movie and you get a sense of who this guy is. I tried to do that with all the characters – Loso, I didn’t want to write a movie where he gets his comeuppance. I don’t think he was a bad guy, it’s just that it’s a dysfunctional family but there’s an enormous amount of love there. For me his big change is an external thing, he has to change what he’s doing, but his internal character, his essence, never really changes. He softens up a little bit and he learns a little bit about how to deal with his wife, but that isn’t what he’s about. And by the way, they’re the most functional couple in the movie. I guess my point is that I wanted to play with these archetypes.
There’s comedy in the film, but I wouldn’t say it’s a comedy film. As your first film it’s hard to do the dramatic stuff and be confident that you’re not going over the line to things that are corny or maudlin?
Saccharine. I didn’t think about going too far in the dramatics, but what I always think about, and maybe I’m not even conscious about it at times, but I always want to cut it – I always want to cut the saccharine with something. Maybe that’s because of my sketch comedy background or the type of writing I’ve done before, which is mostly sketch, but I always want to put a ‘But’ in, or cut the sweetness. I think that only makes the drama of your storytelling more powerful. If it gets to heavy-handed or too saccharine or sweet, I know that for me as a viewer I get [grumbles]. I know there are melodramatic moments in this movie, but my hope was to find that balance.
Sketch comedy is such a different kind of writing – it’s all about getting in and getting out of a joke, usually a single concept. This is obviously very different; was that a challenge for you?
I like writing this stuff. I like writing character driven pieces. Sketch comedy wasn’t what I always wanted to do, it’s what I ended up doing because I met this awesome group of people in college and we wrote together. I enjoy writing character. I enjoy writing what would happen if you threw these two people in together and not worrying about some big prop or some big fart joke. Don’t get me wrong – I love that shit too! Actually, David Wain and I just wrote a movie called The Ten, which is coming out this year, and that’s big and absurd, with big props and farts. But this is another side of me [laughs] that is important for me to keep me sane. Movies like Diner and Breaking Away and The Ice Storm are some of my favorite movies, along with The Jerk and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Those movies affected me, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched those movies, so I’ve always wanted to write something like that.
Is this the next phase in your career? You’ve done a lot of work for hire in the last few years, a lot of TV work, but is writing your own movies what you want to focus on now?
I hope that it’s part of it. I never want to stop acting; acting is what I love to do, but it’s nice work when you can get it. I’m not a big star who gets cast all the time, and I’m constantly auditioning. Writing for me is therapeutic and something I enjoy doing. What’s nice is that now David I wrote The Ten together and we committed to continue writing together. We banged out another script a couple of months ago, and we’re working on three other projects. I’m writing something by myself, and I’m writing something with Joe Lo Truglio, another member of The State. We’re writing a hardcore, old school horror movie that we’re trying to sell. It’s a horror comedy, because we’re both horror guys. I never want to stop acting but writing is a great creative outlet when you’re not acting.
David was going to direct this but couldn’t because of Stella. How different is it when you have someone like [director] Katherine [Dieckmann] come in, someone who isn’t part of the group.
It’s very different. David and I have a short hand – we could go over a whole day’s worth of shooting in five minutes. Katherine came in and had her own vision, and when we first got together and talked about it we were on the same page about a lot of stuff, but it was also a new personality. As you get to know that person you’re learning your dynamic with that person and how you have to communicate.
What’s the thing you and David are doing after The Ten?
We just finished a first draft and to say what it is is a little premature. But we’re writing some TV stuff and we’re also pitching a bigger comedy. We did another version of what we did with The Ten, which is that we locked ourselves in a room and said we’re going to come out with a first draft in a very short amount of time. We locked ourselves in a room for twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with no breaks except peeing and ordering food. We came out with a first draft, which is a mess, but we have it now. I love finishing a first draft, no matter what shape it’s in because now you have your skeleton, you have a base to work from. You know the land you’re in, whereas a week prior we didn’t have anything.
Working on Wet Hot American Summer I had an epiphany. I was living out in LA and doing a lot of acting, and I forgot what was fun about this business because a lot of that stuff is you’re hired and you just shoot and I do a lot of The Nice Guy Boyfriend. I forgot where the joy of it was, I was just doing a job. But working on Wet Hot I remembered, ‘Oh this is what it’s about – working with creative friends and creating something.’ It’s not just about the product, it’s about the whole process. So that’s ultimately what I want to do, so I guess to answer a question from a while ago, yeah, this is what I want to keep doing. I want to create with my friends who are extremely talented. If something great comes out of it, awesome. If something good comes out of it, fine. If something not great comes out of it, I still have the experience of working with great, creative people.