- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

Judging from its fleeting, under-the-radar engagement in the Washington area, a week hidden in small auditoriums at a pair of spacious multiplexes, the admirable independent feature "The Guys" will need to find its audience the roundabout, nontheatrical way. It's one to watch for on the DVD rebound.
Prior to a modest "platform" debut in a handful of Eastern cities, two of the principal collaborators, director Jim Simpson and leading lady Sigourney Weaver, talked about the movie during a promotional tour. The couple, married 16 years, were present at the creation of "The Guys," a faithful adaptation of a play that was staged at Mr. Simpson's theater in Lower Manhattan, the Flea, about three months after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001.
A new production had been scheduled for that very night. It was a month before the theater, located in the Tribeca neighborhood a few blocks from Ground Zero, could reopen.
During that period, the Simpsons met frequently with other New Yorkers to organize philanthropic responses to the calamity. They also found time to mount a prompt artistic response, a two-character play about a journalist who jumps at the chance to help a fire captain write a quartet of eulogies for dead comrades, "guys" from his precinct house.
Miss Weaver and Bill Murray, reunited for the first time since the "Ghostbusters" comedies, played the roles in the original production, which debuted at the 80-seat Flea on Dec. 4, 2001. Miss Weaver re-creates her role opposite Anthony LaPaglia in the somewhat expanded film version directed by her husband.
"It had a really organic growth," recalls Mr. Simpson, born and raised in Hawaii but a transplant to the East since being educated at Boston University and the Yale University School of Drama. "It's a story that needed to be told, and to a great extent, it grew out of chance meetings between strangers."
Part of the incentive came from a young colleague who was not a stranger. "A member of our theater reminded me of how often I had talked about theater being relevant and responsive to current events," Mr. Simpson says. "He's a native New Yorker, and he was very angry. He saw it as a very, very personal attack. He wanted to express that. I asked him where he'd begin, and his idea was to interview everyone on the block. With all due respect, I told him that he was probably incapable of organizing the subject in a compact way, and he had to agree. What we needed was a journalist."
About 10 days later, Mr. Simpson met one, actually, a journalist and academic named Anne Nelson, director of the International School of Journalism at Columbia University. "We were at a meeting of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights," he explains.
"I mentioned this young man's challenge to me and suggested that maybe we could arrange for some of her students and some of my actors to get together. A few days later, she called and suggested that maybe there was a play in a recent experience of hers: helping a fire captain write eulogies. She e-mailed them, and it convinced me we could put an intimate human face on the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe. I asked her to do a two-hander, because that's the simplest thing for the stage. I said to stick with the number of eulogies she had done that day, four, but I also wanted some monologue material in between which could clarify the writer's perspective."
Miss Weaver recalls, "We were trying to do something and hadn't figured out what would be appropriate. Everyone had to squash down their feelings in order to get on with their lives. At the same time, they were raising money and spending money as a way of resuming and reinforcing normal activities. But that left a lot of feelings still unresolved."
She had made several calls offering her services to various efforts, including a cycle of "I Love New York" ads being filmed by director Barry Levinson.
In November, she made contact with Bill Murray. "Bill had been doing a lot of theater," she says. "We were thinking of people who might be good to play the captain. Bill's name came to mind right away, and I thought he might be receptive."
"Luckily, through Sigourney, we got to him quickly," Mr. Simpson says. "I said we were reading a play about a 9/11 fire captain the next day. He asked me to e-mail him the script, which I did. Then, boom. He called me back an hour and a half later and said he'd be at the reading. We started rehearsing. Two and a half weeks later, we were up in front of an audience."
The production was sustained in the Flea repertory, with other performers taking over the roles, through December of last year. Several film producers made overtures.
"Sigourney and Bill are A-List movie people," Mr. Simpson comments. "I certainly wasn't the source of the interest. I'd done a lot of creditable work at the theater with unknowns, and no one had come knocking from the movies. So I thought, let's see what they have in mind."
A number of concepts were out of the question. "It was interesting to navigate around a variety of enhancement ideas," Mr. Simpson says. "For example, there was some sentiment for contriving a love affair between the writer and the fire captain. It was suggested that famous actors in cameos could play the dead firemen, showing them in action on the day of the attacks. There was an authenticity faction that would have liked to open up the story with a lot of documentary footage.
"It was lovely to meet all these people, but I had to cross them off the list. They missed the boat on what it was about. I finally found producers who were interested in the sort of spartan idea I had in mind. They were also New Yorkers. So we got to do an adult movie with two people talking, enhanced by snapshots of what it was like to be in the city 10 days after the attack."
Recalling that aftermath, Miss Weaver says,"Many people felt as if they had suffered personal losses even if they hadn't. I think the play and now the movie articulate that feeling. They allow people to get over the awkwardness of thinking that they have no right to share the sorrow of those who suffered directly. I was in that category. There didn't seem to be adequate ways to reach out. You couldn't go to memorial services intended for the family and friends of people who had died. So when this idea began to take shape, I felt very grateful."
Both Mr. Simpson and the couple's adolescent daughter, Charlotte, can be seen briefly in the movie, playing the husband and daughter of Miss Weaver's character. "It's a budgetary thing," the director quips. "I laughingly told the producers they had backed one of the most expensive home movies ever made."
Miss Weaver points out that she and her husband rarely collaborate professionally. "It's hard on our family life if we both work at the same time," she explains. "Usually we try to take turns. This is obviously a special case. It's also the first time we've worked on the same thing since the birth of our daughter."
The Simpsons met about 20 years ago at a theater festival in New England. "We didn't work together at that time," recalls Miss Weaver, who was still a fresh discovery for the movies in the summer of 1983. Still loyal to the theater, she had barely started to capitalize on her breakthrough role as the valiant Ripley in "Alien" four years earlier. William Hurt had been smitten with her in "Eyewitness." Mel Gibson was about to be swept off his feet in "The Year of Living Dangerously."
Her future husband was tending bar, often a livelihood for struggling actors, when they met. "I went down there on a Saturday night with a lot of people," Miss Weaver says. "I kicked my shoes off to dance. When I was about to go, I found they were missing. Jim had hung them up on one of the pipes over the bar."
"It works every time," Mr. Simpson explains. "Take their shoes. Hang them somewhere. It's a variation on the Cinderella thing."

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