Jeff Daniels: 'Writing is Hard. Writing Well is Very, Very Hard'

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If writers historically are counseled to write what they know, then it might not seem so surprising that Jeff Daniels acts what he knows while playing frustrated novelist Richard Dunn in his new film Paper Man. Or maybe only partly knows: There might not be a distant wife (played by Lisa Kudrow) who leaves him in a cold Sag Harbor cabin to finish his second, not-so-highly anticipated second book. There isn't likely the 17-year-old stranger Abby (Emma Stone), roped into the mix as a sort of accidental emotional stabilizer. And there definitely isn't a cape-and-tights-clad imaginary friend named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) coaxing Richard's conscience along since childhood. But writer-directors Michele and Kieran Mulroney's curious indie does feature such influences orbiting the solitary, unglamorous head space that Daniels has plenty of familiarity with as the author of 14 plays -- and a 15th in the works.

Movieline recently spoke with the 55-year-old actor-playwright-songwriter about the quirky dynamics of Paper Man, when it's OK to have a voice in your head, and the writing methods that help him pen an entire play in a month or less.

This one took years to get going, and--

They all do nowadays! They all do.

How long had you stuck with it?

I think I read it a year before we did. When did we do it? November 2008? So I probably read it at the end of 2007 and wanted to do it. And was going to do it, but then they had trouble getting the money, and then I did this Tommy Tune thing. And I waited. And it was great, because I'm glad Lisa and Ryan and Emma were able to do it. Part of it was me just taking some other things while they tried to get the money.

I was just looking at the poster for this film -- and its tagline, "It's grow-up time." Does it have to be so all-or-nothing? Must Richard make such a clean break from his imaginary friend? The voice in his head?

Well, a voice in his head is one thing. Having Ryan Reynolds as your imaginary friend dressed in a cape who seems to control your life in a way where you can;t even move to the first sentence of your next novel -- or into Wednesday? You're stuck. I think there's moderation in having a "voice in your head." I think it's not just being stuck with writer's block; he's stuck in his life. He needs to get rid of that imaginary friend who he probably should have gotten rid of years ago, but he doesn't know how to do that. I think what he finds in Emma Stone's character -- the 17-year-old girl -- I think they know instinctively that whatever it is they're missing, or whatever they need to move on, is in that other person. Early on, they know it's beyond sexual; that isn't it. It's bigger than that, and they realize it's bigger than that. But they don't know what it is. I think that's what I found interesting about the story: that search.

I asked Emma this question as well, but what is Richard and Abby's relationship? I mean, there is some sexual tension there.

Yeah, and I get drunk, and I say... Yeah, that isn't it. Dead end. It's beyond that. What is it? I don't think he knows. For me, it's that person who understands you better than you do. It's supposed to be wife. In Richard's case, he doesn't think it is; in the end, he hopes it can be again. He doesn't understand himself, and he needs someone to understand him. Strangely, without even knowing her, she does. Or she doesn't find his struggles crazy or nuts or abnormal or outrageous as others in his life do. So there's that kind of "It's OK, I know what you're going through" thing that this young girl is for him. It's a search. It's a quest.

As a writer yourself, from where do you draw inspiration?

I learned from observing some of the best I've gotten to work with. Woody, Jim Brooks, Gary Ross and Pleasantville, Lanford Wilson. They all have radar. They all are listening and taking mental notes all the time. If you've got the radar working, then you're open to anything, whether it's a comment -- Lanford is really good at this -- or just something that somebody says in a diner that he happens to overhear. Off it goes, and this becomes that, or this becomes the reason he said that. The argument that they're having in the corner, you start to imagine as a scene -- as two lives that you want to write about.

Another thing that triggers it is when you have a question about something. Or you're angry about something, pissed off about something, and you want to resolve that somehow. Or not.

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