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Fisher Stevens on 'Stand Up Guys' and directing Al Pacino

The film

The film "Stand Up Guys" stars Al Pacino (right), and was directed by Fisher Stevens. Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani

The new comedy "Stand Up Guys," opening nationwide Friday, marks the first time that Oscar winners Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin have appeared together on the big screen. The film chronicles an eventful night in the lives of three former gangsters that begins after Val (Pacino) is released from prison and reunites with his lifelong friends Doc (Walken) and Hirsch (Arkin).

The film has a number of Hudson Valley connections: Al Pacino lives in Palisades; Julianna Margulies, who has a supporting role, is a Spring Valley native; and director Fisher Stevens once called Rhinebeck home.

Stevens, 49, has had a wide-ranging career as an actor, director and producer, but "Stand Up Guys" is only the second feature film he has directed. He spoke with Newsday Westchester earlier this week about directing a trio of heavyweight actors, including his friend Pacino, as well as his favorite places in Rhinebeck.

You have had quite an extensive career as an actor, director and producer. But I can only imagine that the chance to work with Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin is a personal career highlight.

It was a definite thrill, especially since they're three of my all-time favorites. There were times it was a bit scary being on the set and having to be their so-called director, you know, telling them "OK, we're going to do a scene, at this time." It was intimidating at times, but also totally exhilarating.

It's amazing to realize that before "Stand Up Guys," Pacino, Arkin and Walken have never been in a film together. What do you think it was about this movie that finally brought them together on screen?

It's a very beautiful script. It's a story about friendship; it's a story about mortality. And I think it was just the right time for them to all work together.

Arkin and Pacino had done "Glengarry Glen Ross" together, but Pacino and Walken had never worked together, and the three of them had certainly never worked together. So it was just the right time, and timing is everything in life.

You've directed quite a few documentaries and TV shows, but this is only your second feature film.

About 10 or 11 years ago I made a film called "Just a Kiss" with Marisa Tomei and Kyra Sedgwick, and it took me a long time to get the next one going. And I got a little sidetracked with documentaries. (Stevens' documentary projects include co-directing the critically acclaimed 2007 documentary "Crazy Love" and producing 2009's "The Cove," for which he won an Oscar.)

I have to say I really love directing films, and I'm very much into all I'm doing right now. I like straddling the worlds of documentary, theater and film. And I hope to continue to stay on that path.

How did your experience as an actor inform you as a director when it came to directing these legendary actors?

I think being an actor ... I kind of could put myself in their heads and in their roles, better than if I wasn't an actor. I walked through the entire script with each one of their characters in my mind, and approached it like what if I was playing their role.

You and Al Pacino were good friends before making this film. What was it like to direct him for the first time, considering you guys already had an established relationship?

He had kind of a group of actors he liked to work with, and I was lucky to be a part of that. We've also played poker quite a bit over the years. So I knew him and I think that helped him trust me.

I think he was much easier to direct. I would imagine if I didn't have a relationship with him, he would have been more intimidating, because he is who he is. I felt very comfortable with Al from the get-go, and that was because of my relationship with him.

I can only imagine that these guys must have been trading stories and joking around throughout filming. Any fun stuff happen behind the scenes that you'd like to divulge?

We would rehearse every weekend, and to listen to them talk about working on "The Godfather" or working on "The Deer Hunter" -- they all had their Marlon Brando stories; they all had their Mike Nichols stories. ... But the best thing I can remember is one moment when we were doing a scene of them together in the car. We had a setup change, and the three of them were hanging out on their chairs waiting. And it was cold, and it was night, and everyone was tired. We were ready to start shooting, and I look over at Al and Chris and Alan, and Al and Chris are crying. There's tears coming down their faces. I'm like, "What's going on?" And they're laughing at a story that Alan Arkin is telling about working on a movie with one certain director. And they're laughing so hard that they're crying. And that just made me so happy. Here are these guys who are able to love what they do, and enjoy each other's company. The only drag was that it took them another 10-15 minutes to stop crying and get ready to do the scene. But that was a great moment.

You once owned a home in Rhinebeck. How long did you live there?

I used to own a home in Rhinebeck; I just sold it. But I go up there a lot; I stay with my friends now.

I had the house for about seven to eight years, and I love it up there. The problem is that I've been traveling so much doing movies and documentaries that it didn't make sense to own a house.

Did you enjoy living in the area? Do you have any favorite local places that you liked to frequent?

I eat at Gigi's a lot in Rhinebeck. That's kind of where I spend a lot of money and time. And I love the Poet's Walk [in Red Hook], which is where I go to clear my head and think about what I'm doing. It's gorgeous, right on the Hudson. It's beautiful.

You co-directed the documentary "Crazy Love," and Linda Puglach, the subject of the film, recently passed away. Had you been in touch with her in the years after the film came out?

I was in touch with her a little bit. Bert, her husband, who I have spoken to since Linda's passing, told me she had been in the hospital since November. And I was kind of upset that he didn't tell me, and he said that he didn't tell anybody because he thought she was going to come out, but she never did.

I feel really sad. I really loved Linda. I got to know her well, obviously. I spent, on and off, a couple years with her, and she was quite a character and I have amazing pictures of her. There's incredible B-roll, that isn't in the film, that we shot of her and Burt, and it's just so funny. They're so funny together. I feel like I should release it on YouTube or something in her memory.

Getting back to "Stand Up Guys," what do you hope audiences will take away from the movie?

Friendship is universal; it doesn't matter how old you are. That's one of the things that attracted me to making the film: their love story as friends. I have dear, deep friendships that I've had for years and years, and I cherish and value them. And it was beautiful to watch these guys as actors and as characters go through this journey.

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