Ex-Friend David Schwimmer takes on Fat Boy

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      LOS ANGELES—It’s easy to forget after all these years that David Schwimmer was the first member of the Friends cast to break out. He costarred in the film The Pallbearer with the then–relatively unknown Gwyneth Paltrow in the hiatus between the second and third seasons of the show. It came out a year and a half after the show’s debut in the fall of 1994.

      He also won the first Emmy nomination accorded the cast. All of these things are easy to forget because every other member has since eclipsed him when it comes to acting visibility.

      However, none of the other cast members directed an episode of the series. Schwimmer, by his own count, helmed 12 shows. He went on to direct pilots and episodes of other television shows, including Joey, starring Friends alumnus Matt LeBlanc. He has moved on to films with Run Fat Boy Run, which was a hit in Great Britain and Ireland in the fall last year but is arriving in North America on Friday (March 28).

      In an L.A. hotel room, Schwimmer says that it made sense to him to eventually direct films because he had been doing that job for most of his adult life. “I was directing in high school and then in college at Northwestern University, and then I helped found a theatre company in Chicago, where I directed two or three plays a year. Then I did the Friends episodes and pilots and learned to direct for camera, so it wasn’t a foreign thing.

      "But having said that, the process of directing a film takes a lot longer. An episode of Friends is a week, a play is eight weeks, and this film took a year and a half from the time I first got hold of the material to the last days of editing.”

      The film stars Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg as Dennis, a man who left his pregnant girlfriend, Libby (Thandie Newton), at the altar five years earlier. He spends a lot of his time with his son, and dreams of the three of them eventually becoming a family. Those aspirations appear to be dashed when a wealthy American businessman (Hank Azaria) becomes involved with Libby. When he tells Dennis that he plans to marry Libby after he runs a marathon, Dennis decides that he, too, will train to run in order to win back his ex-girlfriend.

      Schwimmer admits that there were several challenges involved in the making of the movie that he had not encountered in his earlier directing assignments. “It looks like a big movie, but it is just $4.5 million [U.S.], so it is a big-budget script on a low budget. We had to shoot in London [as part of an agreement with the British producers] so we were shooting in one of the most expensive cities you can shoot in, and we were in 50 locations in 35 days.

      "There were so many things that you couldn’t prepare for. When I arrived to shoot the marathon I didn’t realize, for some reason, that we only had 200 extras on that day. We were shooting in this very large area of London. I thought I could make it work until I saw the space. A marathon has 10,000 runners and 300,000 spectators, so I looked at my first assistant director and said, ”˜Where are all the people?’ But the extras union in London is the strongest of its kind in the world in terms of how they are compensated. So she said, ”˜We can’t afford any more people.’ It took a lot of extensive camera work to take the same 200 extras and re-dress them and move them around so that you don’t see the same people behind Simon and Hank when they are running in separate areas. I think there were 100 challenges a day.”

      Schwimmer hasn’t given up acting for a full-time directing career just yet, but admits that it is a possibility. He says that he found directing Run Fat Boy Run tough enough that he won’t soon be joining the ranks of actors who direct themselves. The other challenge he has to overcome is a background that has led producers to think he can only direct comedies.

      “I am looking at doing both comedies and dramas, but 75 percent of what I am being sent now, because of Friends and Fat Boy, are comedies. I want to keep growing, and so that is a challenge. To be honest, I look at [actor turned director] Ron Howard’s career as a model. He was an actor who did comedies and then he directed comedies like Splash, and now he is doing all kinds of different things and he is doing them all well. That would work for me.”