"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

An Interview with Charlie Matthau

2012 Tribeca Film Festival - Tribeca Talks: Freaky Deaky
Charlie Matthau has directed successful feature films in various genres and has also directed several network television projects. In addition to the critically acclaimed The Grass Harp, he has also directed Doin’ Time on Planet, Her Minor ThingBaby-OFreaky Deaky, and is in post-production on The Book of Leah which stars Armand Assante. A graduate of USC Film School, he has also produced and written several films. He has won several awards for directing including Best Director of the Year from The Academy of Family Films, and the AFI Platinum Circle award. He is currently developing Bodyguard of Lies, a World War Two thriller, and several other film and television projects including the limited series 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents based on the book by top historian David Pietrusza.
What are some of your earliest and most fond memories growing up with encouraging parents in such a creative atmosphere?
I was blessed to be raised by older and more mature parents. My father was 42 when I was born and he did not become really famous until I was about 4 years old. I think I benefited greatly from being raised by folks who were not overly consumed with their careers, or their success. My father enjoyed being a film star, but he also could see through the baloney of Hollywood.
What was it like to have Charlie Chaplin as your godfather? What was he like?
Charlie was very quiet and sensitive, and modest considering he was the greatest movie star in the world for many years, and practically invented motion pictures.
As a shy child what was the most difficult thing about being in front of the camera? How exactly did your father make acting more fun for you?
I never really enjoyed acting as I don’t enjoy being vulnerable and open emotionally. But when I acted with my father, he taught me that acting is listening. That helped me not be focused upon myself but instead be in the moment, and hopefully be more natural.
You have said he taught you that acting is about listening. Can you elaborate a little more on that? Do you think in today’s world people tend to listen less than they should in most circumstances?
What?…I absolutely do. When you are talking you are not learning.
How has being shy changed for you now as an adult vs as a child? Do you still sometimes struggle with that shyness?
I am still naturally shy, but as one gets older and gets life experience, you realize that engaging with others is not so scary and very little of what we do or say will matter in 100 years or even 100 minutes.
How did it feel to have the chance to work with your father and Carol Burnett on The Marriage Fool?
It was a joy. I am in awe of their talent, their chemistry and of what beautiful human beings they are, or in the case of my father, were.
How was it to work with Crispin Glover on Freaky Deaky? What is he like as an individual?
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Crispin since we both attended The Mirman School for Gifted Children in Bel Air California. We were both there for many years and even acted in the school play together. He is extremely smart, uncynical, collaborative and funny. I wish I could work with him on every project.
Who have been some of your favorite actors to have worked with so far? Have any been more challenging than the others?
There have been so many. Getting to work with my father and Jack Lemmon, Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Joe Don Baker, Charlie Durning and all those wonderful actors on Grass Harp was a priceless experience I will always treasure. I’m glad the film turned out so well so that I did not embarrass them or waste their time. I recently worked with Armand Assante, and he is a world class talent and gentleman.
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What do you think it takes create a piece of work that everyone involved in can be proud of?
It takes a good script, creating a safe, collaborative and fun environment, and a lot of luck.
Are you still planning to bring about The 1920 Electiontelevision series? Can you tell us a little more about that?
The election of 1920, the first modern election, is surprisingly similar to 2020. The main issues were isolationism, anti-intellectualism, terrorism, immigration, a presidential sex scandal, women’s rights, and the manipulation of new media to sway voters. In 1920, it was radio and in 2020 it is social media like Facebook. It was also the year we had our first woman president, Mrs Woodrow Wilson who ran the country for a year and a half when her husband had a stroke.
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I understand The Book of Leah is almost finished as well. Why did you decide to work on that particular film at this time?
I was blessed to be hired to direct the film by its Producer and Writer Leslie Neilan. She wrote a beautiful story about a young woman’s coming of age that is extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent. Usually, the assignments that I get offered as a director are not of a high standard, but this was truly a gift and I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I got to work with amazing actors like Armand, Brianna Chomer, Kate Linder, Melanie Neilan, Morgan Lindholm, Gigi Freedman,  Ornella Thelmudottir, Ty Olowin, Jimmy Van Patten and Freddie Cole, who is a jazz legend. I could listen to that man sing all day.
I also got to work with many nice crew people including the producers Ken Achity, Alan Gibson, Ellison Miller, Mark and Arlene Fromer and, for the 5th time, with my favorite DP and mentor John Connor.
Do you still work with the Maria Gruber Foundation? Can you tell us more about what it is they do there?
The Maria Gruber Foundation was started by my friend Simona Fusco. I was Simona’s first boyfriend and I’ve been bragging about it ever since. She named it after her beautiful mother who passed away from cancer but whose beautiful spirit lives on in Simona and her daughter Amber. Our government really needs to spend more on cancer research, because it kills a lot of its citizens.
Do you think it is important that those in a position to help others who are in need do so whatever way they can?
I sure do. Otherwise, really, what is the point of it all? I know certain people have really helped me through the years, and I’d be a disaster without them.
What projects do you hope to bring into existence in the years ahead?
My favorite project is Bodyguard of Lies which is the most amazing true story you have never heard of. It is about Juan Pujol, a failed chicken farmer who saved at least 14 million lives in the Second World War. You know, a good chicken farmer will do that for you.
Is there anything you’d like to say before you go?
Just that it is a pleasure to re-connect with you after several years. Thank you for remembering me and for your kindness and graciousness.

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