The Search for Mike Binder

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Who is John Gissing and who wants to find him? 
Those are the questions that The Search for John Gissing poses in its title.  The cover of the new DVD further reveals the context for this man and where he might be lost – and found. 
It’s an image of Alan Rickman amidst a sea-slice of people trudging to work on a typical weekday morning in Any Western City. 

Not one person is smiling, and we hone in on Rickman because he’s the one in sharpest focus. It’s The Lonely Crowd.  And just like David Riesman’s classic 1950 study of modern mass culture’s effects on the individual, The Search for John Gissing is a look at individuals navigating corporate culture.  It is postmodern in its dissection of the silliness amidst the nastiness, using out-of-control characters, jump cuts, tight plotting, and dynamic mise-en-scene to keep things interesting.   

Mike Binder directs The Search for John Gissing.

Mike Binder and Janeane Garofalo in The Search for John Gissing

Besides Rickman, two other names appear above the title, Janeane Garofalo and Mike Binder.  You know Mike Binder as an actor from Minority Report, The Mind of the Married Man, The Upside of Anger and, most recently, Reign Over Me.  But did you know that other than Spielberg’s Minority Report, these films and others come from the mind of Mike Binder, writer-director?  He does his triple play once again with The Search for John Gissing.  So he’s the man I want to find.  And I did.

Mike Binder started as a stand-up comic, where he first developed his writing skills.  But he considers writing, directing, and acting parts of the whole, aspects of his overall self-image and the means to pursue his professional goal.  He said, “I consider myself a comedian.  I feel like filmmaking is an extension of my stand-up act, another way I’ve chosen to do it.  I’m an entertainer.  I really don’t see it as one thing, like writing… That’s why I don’t take it too seriously when a movie comes out and does well or not well.  I try to just go on to the next movie.  I’m really thinking more about a body of work and a style and figuring out how to get better each time.”

Binder’s efforts are evident with The Search for John Gissing, for it’s a fun, visually interesting film.  It’s about an American Out-of-Towner couple, Matthew and Linda Barnes, bushwhacked with corporate-culture capers the instant their tired toes hit British soil.  Binder and Garofalo are the married couple, and Rickman is the conniving caperer John Gissing, trying to keep Matthew Barnes from arriving and, as we find out later, replacing him. 

London is one of Binder’s favorite filming locations – he’s a self-proclaimed Anglophile – and this movie was shot and is set in London.  It was actually filmed seven years ago on, according to Binder, “a really low budget, at a time when I was working really independently.”  He had made “a little bit of money” on his two previous films, The Sex Monster and Londinium (a.k.a. Four Play, also shot and set in London), so he was ready “to do this movie in London that I had in my head.  I put my own money and my family and friends’ money into it.  It came out and played great at festivals, but nobody wanted to buy it.”
It turned out that it didn’t fit easily into major distributors’ pre-conceived categories.  “The studios all said, ‘It’s a tweener.  It looks like a studio film with no stars.  It doesn’t look like an independent – it looks too good.  You shouldn’t have put yourself in the lead role.’” 
Binder decided a few days of re-shoots might “make it a little better, fix some of the holes.”  But then HBO approached him about doing a series after The Sex Monster won Best Feature and Binder won Best Actor at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.  That was the genesis of The Mind of the Married Man.

Alan Rickman as John Gissing

Although Gissing was his “pet passion,” he is constantly writing new things.  “I am always writing, always thinking,” Binder said.  “Number one, I love it.  That’s most important.  But second, it’s a tough business.”  So in addition to the series’ second season, he wrote and then made The Upside of Anger (2005).  He was “on a roll.”
And his thinking on the Gissing project shifted.  “I decided I was going to start over and I renamed it The Multinationals.  I’m going to re-shoot the whole movie from start to finish with a new cast.”  He’s hoping to do this in the next couple of years. 
So why is the original film coming out on DVD now?  In a word (well, two):  Alan Rickman.  More precisely, it is, as Binder put it, Rickman’s “voracious” fans.  Their barrage of emails, letters, and phone calls to Binder were ultimately persuasive, and the Gissing film is no longer some “lost” film in Binder’s or Rickman’s oeuvre of work.      
Binder decided the time had come to begin building technologically for the future, to take concrete steps toward realizing one of his dreams.  Thus, he opted to “put it out on my own website.  I always wanted to learn how to distribute my own movies anyway on my site.  Because I believe that one day when the TV is connected to the computer, a filmmaker will be able to make his own movies and get the word out to his fans like a musician can do now.  That would be my dream come true:  enough people buy from me and I can make… the movies I want to make – not what the studios think is commercial.” 
His vision is a one-stop, comedy film site that would promote “the craft of comedy.”    He envisions, for example, being able to “download Diner, all the Woody Allen movies and all the Neil Simon movies.”  And of course, Binder’s own comedies.  But there would also be interactivity with “a lot of talk and blogs about comedy.”
Right now, The Freebird, as the site is called, features the Gissing DVD and links to Binder’s two other sites, one for his Sunlight Productions and his official site for himself as an entertainer.  It also announces his forthcoming book series, Crafting the Comedy

Mike Binder (left) and Kevin Costner on the set of The Upside of Anger

He has been sitting down with filmmakers like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Judd Apatow, and others to interview them about comedy on film.  He is dividing the series into books on directors, producers, and actors.  Binder has become a real student of comedy, and this book series clearly demonstrates that.  His mindset as a professional comedian has “gone from being about outside rewards to more of a quest for craft.” 
Yet just because Mike Binder is a comedian doesn’t mean he isn’t an insightful filmmaker who is very much interested in the flaws, foibles, and tenacity of his characters.  He’s willing to expose weakness, pain, and uncertainty.  Perhaps it’s because he is a comedian that Binder is able to do this in ways that aren’t overly grim and that don’t judge and condemn his characters.  By the final credits, characters have found a way out of some mess. 
The messiness is exactly why Binder enjoys creating, exploring, and acting characters where anxiety and discontent surface as complications upset their normal lives.  He finds that “a lot of people don’t like a lot of the characters I write, but the fact is I think they’re very interesting characters.  They’re funny to watch.  As an actor, there’s a lot of pain.” 
With regard to his Upside of Anger supporting character, Shep, a 40-something man who dates 20-something women, he said, “A lot of people were mad.  Women didn’t like him.  I thought he was interesting.  Shep is obviously a guy with a lot of problems, and who has to live with a lot of weight on his shoulders.  I’d like to know that guy’s take on the world.  Joan Allen’s character comes over and slaps him on the face, just slaps him down.  Twice.  Really hard.  And he tells her off.  He says, ‘You know what I like about younger women?  They’re nice.’  So many women got mad about that speech.  But nobody got mad that she walked over and slapped somebody in the face.  Twice.  And her daughter’s 21 years old – she’s an adult.  That tells me there’s a legitimate reason to have that point of view, because it’s uneasy to watch but there’s a truth to it.  It’s so painful to only be able to relate to these young women and know they’re going to dump you all the time.” 

Of course Binder is an actor, playing characters other than himself, but he understands how personification on the screen slides into public image for the actor.  So he specifies, “I’ve been with the same woman my whole adult life.  I have kids.  I’m very into being married.  But it’s interesting to play what I could have become.  I would like to play a criminal.  I would like to play a drug addict.  I’m curious.  Shep is who Mike Binder could have become.  I could have been single and using being a director with all the young girls.  It’d be a horrible life.”
So he always includes a part for himself in his own scripts because he enjoys acting.  But his frustration with critics was clear when he said, “At this point, I think I’d do it just because I don’t want any reviewers to be able to say ‘Thank god.  At least he’s not in the damn thing.  I finally like one because he’s not there.’  I don’t want to give them that satisfaction.”  Yes, Mike Binder does know about pain. 
(Photo left) Adam Sandler starred in Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me

Finally, what’s up next?  He has a completed script called The Emperor of Michigan, with his cast already lined up.  He’s adapting the book The Friday Night Knitting Club for Universal, to star Julia Roberts.  And he’s writing a film for Disney.  He said, “I’m busy, but what I really want to do is make The Emperor of Michigan.  It’s a comedy about four adult brothers, but I haven’t been able to secure financing.  It’s the first time I’ve had that happen in a while.  It’s a little frustrating.”
On the non-frustrating end of the spectrum, Binder is pleased that The Search for John Gissing DVD is being found at his Freebird site.  People are buying it and giving him positive feedback.  And that feels really good.  Striving to make quality, meaningful, amusing films is what Mike Binder does:  “It’s been an elusive goal for me, but it’s kept me going.”   

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