Hal Linden and Ryan Ochoa Interview — The Samuel Project
At the San Diego International Film Festival, I was given the opportunity to interview actors Hal Linden and Ryan Ochoa. Their movie is The Samuel Project, and if you missed seeing it at the Festival, it’s opening this weekend at the Mission Valley AMC. One of the producers thanked me for my review of the film (you can read that here: (https://fox5sandiego.com/2018/10/12/the-samuel-project/ ). He said “I’m going to give you a hug!” If only more producers felt that way after my reviews. Usually they want to give me a slug, right on the jaw.
I spoke briefly with director Marc Fusco, who has an interesting story. He worked with Steven Spielberg for years, and he told me about during the shooting of one movie, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, were all filming in England at the same time. He said, “It was awesome, because we just went from one shoot to another, set hopping.”
We talked for awhile about our favorite movies and directors. When it came to his movie The Samuel Project, I said it reminded me in a way, of St. Vincent (Melissa McCarthy). I said, “The thing I liked more about your film is…Linden’s character is more likable. Bill Murray is such a jerk to everyone, that even when we realize he does these wonderful things, and was a great husband to his wife…I still didn’t particularly like him.”
Then I was called over to talk to the stars of The Samuel Project. As I pulled out my cell phone I said to them, “I’m going to record this interview…in much the same way Eli records Samuel in the movie.”
They laughed, and as I looked at Hal Linden, I was surprised at how great he looked. I had Googled some information about him before this interview, and saw he was 87-years-old. It was a thrill to see him walking around the Film Festival, laughing and talking to fans, doing interviews, and as sharp as ever.
Before I could get my first question out, my wife said to Linden, “I just want you to know, you made my husband cry with this movie.”
He smiled and said, “I’m trying to make you laugh and…you go and cry on me?”
JOSH BOARD: You made me laugh, too. There were some good chuckles with your chess buddy (Ken Davitian).
HAL LINDEN: In drama, that’s the exercise, ya know. Trying to make you look for the comedy. In the comedy, you try to find the drama.
RYAN OCHOA: That’s good. I’m gonna write that down. After this interview, I’m writing that down.
HAL LINDEN: It’s true!
JOSH BOARD: Does it worry you if you delve into comedy…in a Holocaust movie? Is there a worry there about having humorous elements? I know a critic that’s Jewish that doesn’t think Hollywood should make any movie about the Holocaust. He doesn’t even like Schindler’s List.
HAL LINDEN: No. You always look for the humor in a situation to make it palatable. If it’s a drama and is really painful, you’re just gonna make an audience uncomfortable. You always look for that moment of levity that the audience can relax with. Do you know West Side Story?
JOSH BOARD: Yes.
HAL LINDEN: Well, in the second act, that’s where they do ‘Officer Krupke,’ the big comedy number. Just when it gets tense enough for everyone to get nervous, that’s when they do ‘Officer Krupke.’ That’s why you do levity in the dramatic situation. In comedy, you can play it legitimately, when it’s well written. Depending on the style of the comedy, that’s the way it works best.
RYAN OCHOA: Even comedy has conflict.
HAL LINDEN: Yes, if it’s good.
JOSH BOARD: Ryan, you went from things like iCarly and Pair of Kings, was this….
RYAN OCHOA: (sarcastically)…and that’s what we’re talking about, those two dramatic shows (laughter). You don’t find the drama in iCarly. Well…sometimes you did, with relationships.
HAL LINDEN: Sure you do, in some situations.
JOSH BOARD: What did you think when you saw this script? It’s some heavy-duty stuff when compared to iCarly.
RYAN OCHOA: I was like…finally.
JOSH BOARD: You didn’t want to be labeled or pigeonholed as always doing the same thing.
RYAN OCHOA: Yeah, exactly. No offense to anybody else, but….they’re still saying ‘Ryan Ochoa from Pair of Kings and iCarly’ and I want to sort of get away from that. Not that I don’t enjoy that, but it was years ago.
HAL LINDEN: You should be proud of that. And rightly proud of it, excuse me. For the style of work, you should be rightly proud of doing it.
RYAN OCHOA: Yeah, I get it.
JOSH BOARD: Think about what they’ve been doing to this guy since this mid-70s. They see him somewhere and yell out ‘Hey, Barney Miller!’
RYAN OCHOA: Right. And, if people can still recognize me from that long ago… they know me from iCarly, which was shot 10 years ago…that was half of my life.
JOSH BOARD: As a movie critic, one of the reasons I write the previous things actors did is because I don’t know who’s reading, and might like you or know you from those shows. Like when I mentioned your chess partner [Ken Davitian], the butcher…he did so many movies, like the crazy scene in Borat; people might know that, and if it brings a few more people in to see a movie. One of my pet peeves is, the big blockbusters everyone knows about. They have big ad campaigns, but these smaller pictures…just fall by the wayside and people never hear about them.
HAL LINDEN: And this is as small as it gets! So we really need word of mouth.
RYAN OCHOA: And for my generation, people now, people my age…they all watched Nickelodeon and Disney five years ago and know the shows I came from. It was almost my encouragement to use that, to promote it. I know kids going to the movies would recognize those names. I was watching those shows back then too.
JOSH BOARD: Was it nice being back in your hometown of San Diego? I saw one scene in the movie that I could tell was in Balboa Park, where you were sketching.
RYAN OCHOA: We were all over, and I’m happy to be here right now. The fact that we’re here for the San Diego International Film Festival. I love this city. This is where I was born, and we shot it right down the street from where I grew up and where my uncle lives. These were my stomping grounds. There are no words to describe it. The movie theatres, where my friends hung out, the dry cleaner…that’s where my uncle went all the time. The same one in the movie. My uncle was at that place all the time. It was a functional place when we were filming.
HAL LINDEN: A functioning dry cleaner! You talk about an independent production. When a customer came through the door we stopped filming. The woman that ran the dry cleaner would come out, she took the clothes or gave them their clothes. When the door would close, it was…okay, let’s wrap it up! Take two.
JOSH BOARD: I’d much rather hear a story like that. It’s so much nicer than some pretentious actor saying, “I’m a method actor, so I went to a dry cleaner for a few weeks to study them.”
RYAN OCHOA…[laughs] Oh yes, I know!
HAL LINDEN: Well…I’ve done that, too. I’ve done that, excuse me. I’ve spent time driving actually, when I had to do a picture driving a police car. When you have to do something and you don’t have any attachment to the situation you have to feel it, experience it. That’s all I have are my past experiences and I’m trying to adapt to the moment of the picture or the play and bringing those things out in the picture.
JOSH BOARD: When you first got this script, how moved were you by it? And how did you get involved in this picture?
HAL LINDEN: What grabbed me first, was the importance of art. Using the boys sketches to go from scene to scene
JOSH BOARD: I liked that it was an interesting way to go to the next scene but wasn’t overdone.
HAL LINDEN: No, It wasn’t overdone and it carries the point. In the picture you have three generations of a family brought together not by words, but by art. That’s what first grabbed me about it We spent a lot of time honing it, making sure it told the right story. We took out a lot of very interesting scenes of animus between the generations, but that wasn’t the point. It’s not the animus, but the distance between the generations.
JOSH BOARD: That’s got to be hard to take out scenes in a movie.
RYAN OCHOA: I don’t think any were cut out, but scenes were added.
HAL LINDEN: Well, they were cut from the script before we got involved
JOSH BOARD: Hal, I liked that your character wasn’t just grumpy and mean. So often in movies these types of characters are so angry, that I never really warm up to them. I’m glad Samuel wasn’t that way.
HAL LINDEN: Again, that’s not the point!! The point is the boys dedication to getting the story, and recording it, and executing the project. That was the story! We didn’t want to layer it so heavy on the negative side of the man’s experiences. It’s just his inability to communicate it and unwillingness to communicate it; and that’s fairly normal for somebody that’s lived with these experiences and traumatic times. You don’t want to relive pain. Marc always talks about his experience with the Shoah Foundation [an organization that furthers the remembrance of the Holocaust] and hearing stories from people…
RYAN OCHOA: Their wives.
HAL LINDEN: Their wives and husbands have never heard these stories before. It’s just something you don’t want to talk about.
JOSH BOARD: I would think talking about it could be cathartic.
HAL LINDEN: Yes, but catharsis is sometimes painful, and people don’t always want to deal with that.
RYAN OCHOA: We talked about it. The finally script…it wasn’t finished for months after, so..the relationships in the movie were all that we could really focus on while filming. The relationships between all the characters, the family, the grandfather the friend of the friend, those are what we could focus on right then while we were shooting, not the things that we couldn’t.
JOSH BOARD: It’s enjoyable as a critic, that there are so many subtle moments. When you show up at your grandfather’s house, and you’re not being rude. You just don’t want to be there. That’s so much better than if you’re a snotty teenager.
RYAN OCHOA: I sat there watching him read the newspaper. My character thought…I could be home drawing
HAL LINDEN: Again, it’s not animus, just lack of communication. The point was not to make it about hate. That’s the prevalent dynamic between generations. We don’t have to be angry at anybody not to communicate with them. And more to the point, I suspect it’s more common than we hate to admit, but there’s a communication gap between generations; and, as Ryan says…you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. So it’s important for these moments to be shared among generations
RYAN OCHOA: Not to give any spoilers but..when Samuel and Eli go to the house, he sees something that intrigues him. And that’s what a teeanger nowdays would do. See something that intrigues him and wants to know more. And when he starts to do the project, he wants to learn more.
JOSH BOARD: I like that when you guys show up at that house, as a viewer, we’re wondering why you don’t have a relationship with these people. We’re wondering why we don’t know what’s going on. It like that. It’s unveiled slowly to us, as it is with Eli. Then you start crying, it’s just so powerful. You want to see another movie done with their relationship from the grandfathers childhood.
HAL LINDEN: (laughing) And how they ended it.
JOSH BOARD: There are probably a handful of people that will be wondering why they didn’t show who won the prize at the end. I’m glad they didn’t show that, because it wasn’t necessary. HAL LINDEN: There you go! Exactly! Excuse me, in an early version, there was a prize. And he won the prize! And that’s not the point. The prize was that he did it. The prize was that he wanted to know about his family. The prize was that he did the research about DPs and that was the prize. And let’s face it…that’s the truth about life. Sometimes there isn’t a prize, but the prize is the doing.
RYAN OCHOA: That’s what the audience is going to get out of it, not that he won first place.
JOSH BOARD: Going back to characters that weren’t mean…even with your dad in the movie [Michael B. Silver of NYPD Blue]…
RYAN OCHOA: Who was awesome!
JOSH BOARD: Some screenwriters would’ve made him a horrible character; mean, or abusive. He’s just always working.
HAL LINDEN: No, he wasn’t mean. He was busting his butt, selling houses.
RYAN OCHOA: Just like real life, in my house. My father is always working. He’s so busy with work that he sometimes loses focus, on going to a soccer game or something like that.
HAL LINDEN: Excuse me, excuse me, we all do. You want to hear stories of my kids and the events I missed?
JOSH BOARD: And it’s probably because of this business. You probably didn’t want your kids to go into this business because of things like that.
HAL LINDEN: No, my kids….[he has three daughters with his late wife of 52 years]…they all had the opportunity to do what they wanted. I didn’t stop them. They were old enough to see the bad old days. Going through a supermarket and opening up a package of cheese to feed the kids and hiding the wrapper before we got to the checkout. They probably remembered that.
JOSH BOARD: I wanted to ask you a question about doing music, since that interests me.
HAL LINDEN (laughs)
RYAN OCHOA: He’s gonna collaborate with me and my brothers.
JOSH BOARD: Oh yeah, I heard that you had a band.
RYAN OCHOA: Yep. And we’re in talks.
HAL LINDEN: I don’t play the sax any more, just the clarinet, which I started on. I do play jazz occasionally, when I get the chance. I do actually play still in my concert act.
JOSH BOARD: You have to tell me one story about Abe Vigoda
HAL LINDEN: (laughs) Abe? Let me think.
RYAN OCHOA: Oh good, here we go. Story time. I haven’t heard one.
HAL LINDEN: Abe was Abe. I’ll tell you this. When he auditioned for the role, he wasn’t auditioning for that part. He just got off Godfather, and there was a part for a detective. An Italian detective before Jack Soo joined. And that was the part he auditioned for.
RYAN OCHOA: Have you told that story before?
HAL LINDEN: I don’t know. I may have. But…when he came in and talked to Danny Arnold, the creator of Barney Miller, he said, ‘I got another idea’ and right there, he created Fish.
RYAN OCHOA: That’s show business right there!
JOSH BOARD: Ryan, since you’re so young [he’s 22], did you have to go back and watch the show? Your parents probably said ‘You know, you’re working with Hal Linden. This is a big deal. Barney Miller.’ Did you Google him?
RYAN OCHOA: (smiling) My parents were excited. My grandparents. Aunts, uncles. Everybody was blown away that I’d be working with him. I was like…what? They all told me about the show, but I didn’t want to watch it or learn too much about him, because of our roles in this movie.
HAL LINDEN: To keep that distance, and stay unattached.
RYAN OCHOA: The first time he met me I was on my cell phone.
JOSH BOARD: Did he smack you on the head with a rolled newspaper?
RYAN OCHOA: No, not to that extent.
HAL LINDEN: I did roll my eyes at the director and said, ‘This is the kid that’s going to play my grandson?’
RYAN OCHOA: Now it’s different. Now I’ve seen the shows. At the time, I didn’t want to know too much. I wanted to keep that distance; the generation gap and play the characters as they are in that movie, and we grew as the movie was going on.
JOSH BOARD: How are we doing on time?
RYAN OCHOA: I don’t know, but we’re having fun with you.
And as the PR people started to whisk these two away so they could go do a Q&A after the showing of the movie, I walked with them to the theatre. I asked Ryan if his parents had seen the movie. He got a huge smile on his face and said, “It was my aunts birthday, and she was over at my parents house. Somebody had asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said ‘All I want for my birthday, is to see Ryan’s movie. Do you have a copy of it here?’ I told her I did, but I wanted them to see it on the big screen. They insisted, so we all ended up watching it.”
I’m guessing it was a very memorable birthday for a proud aunt.