Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits a comedy/mystery gem that deserved a bigger fanbase and an ongoing franchise, Zero Effect.
Twitter may be a cesspool for numerous reasons, but it has its highlights — one being good people talking about great movies. Someone mentioned Jake Kasdan’s brilliant and shamefully underseen Zero Effect (1997), and as you’d expect that forced me into a rewatch. The film remains a witty, surprising, and charismatic riff on the private eye genre with terrific performances from all involved. It’s silly, but Kasdan manages to shape the tone in some serious and seriously entertaining directions.
That rewatch, of course, led me to rewatch it again with Kasdan’s commentary track on, so keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Zero Effect.
Zero Effect (1997)
Commentator: Jake Kasdan (writer, director)
1. Kasdan has “always suspected” that he might be the only person who actually listens to commentary tracks, so let me state unequivocally right now… Jake? You are not alone. That said, I am obviously a few years late to participate in the sweepstakes he’s devised to test if anyone actually listened to this particular commentary. Throughout the track he says a series of single words that when combined will form a complete sentence. “If you ever see me in the world and approach me on the street and utter this sentence, I will personally donate $5 to your favorite charity in your name.”
2. They went through a few ideas for the Zero Effect opening credits sequence with some people suggesting variations on “zero” logos and illustrations, but he eventually settled on one that plays around with Daryl Zero’s (Bill Pullman) multiple identities.
3. He wishes in retrospect that the film had “gotten into the plot” a bit earlier, but at the same time he can’t complain about the opening sequence thanks in part to Ben Stiller’s performance as Zero’s assistant, Steve Arlo.
4. Arlo drinking in the bar and complaining about Zero was not only the first thing they filmed but also “the very first moment of my directorial career.” He adds that “i was violently ill.”
5. He credits cinematographer Bill Pope (Baby Driver, 2017; The World’s End, 2013; The Matrix, 1999) with making Zero Effect “look like one coherent movie.”
6. The song that Zero is singing upon his introduction was written in the script, but Pullman and Kasdan devised the melody together.
7. When he first started thinking about who would play his two leads he looked specifically at a few key moments in the script. “Who’s the actor who’s gonna make all of these moments real?” You’d be a fool to think he didn’t nail both.
8. There’s a boom mic shadow briefly visible in the scene where Arlo and Zero talk in the kitchen.
9. They shot two days in Los Angeles, but 95% of the film was shot in Portland, Oregon where most of it is set.
10. He asked The Greyboy Allstars to score Zero Effect and loves the results. “They had never scored a movie, I had never directed a movie. A lot of people would have counted that as a bad idea.” Kasdan credits the folks at Castle Rock for trusting him on this matter (and others).
11. The big pink — “I dare say sort of ugly” — building seen at 29:42 is The US Bancorp Tower in Portland, and they refused to grant the filmmakers permission to film it. “We stole that first shot. Outright theft. Come and get me.” It’s seen again later as Kasdan rubs it in Bancorp’s face.
12. He wrote the script specifically to be set in Portland, and his appreciation of the city is clear in the montage sequence of Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) driving through its streets. The St. Johns Bridge is captured well which, no big deal, but I lived right next to it for a few years.
13. An audio clip from Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) can be heard playing at 36:00 during the motel scene. Reiner, of course, co-founded this film’s production company, Castle Rock Entertainment.
14. The Chinese restaurant glimpsed at 37:21 caused a four-hour delay in filming because they refused to keep their front door open during the camera’s dolly turn. The closed door caught the camera’s reflection, but they were finally given permission to open it for a few minutes.
15. “I always felt like, in a lot of ways, this is when the movie really starts,” says Kasdan at 51:15.
16. The scene where Zero does Gloria Sullivan’s (Kim Dickens) taxes came together through rehearsals where they all figured out how this love story would work. Her face, the smallest bit of exposed midriff, and “eyes that threaten to see everything” leave Zero uncomfortable in the best way creating “an usual kind of sexual tension.”
17. The shot through the car windshield from outside while it’s rainy is Pope’s favorite piece of photography in the film. It is not Kasdan’s.
18. Zero’s epic deduction regarding the origin of full-size mattresses is fictional. “None of this is true.” The film’s art department did research to try and blend some truth into the mix, but nope, it’s all a lie.
19. The restaurant conversation between Arlo and Stark was filmed in Portland’s Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The grates separating the booths leave the pair looking like they’re in a confessional booth which fits Stark’s admission.
20. “My father shot the rodent-cam shot,” he says, referring to Lawrence Kasdan filming the floor-level tracking shot through the restaurant. “Some people, it’s their favorite shot in the movie. Some people hate it.”
21. A big part of the film’s origin comes down to Kasdan’s desire to “do a detective story about a hero who’s not simply a hero.” He thinks that people are far more than merely good or evil and are instead a complicated blend of it all. It’s an omnipresent argument that’s currently in pop culture news again thanks to shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
22. He refers to audience test screenings as “the nauseating process of showing it to a recruited test marketing audience to get their opinions, which is the last thing you want.” The viewers are picked for demographic reasons, but since no one goes to a film randomly — ie they tend to seek out films that suit their actual interests — it doesn’t come close to simulating a true audience for a particular film. Test audiences on Zero Effect were “really confused” by the diner scene between Zero and Sullivan.
23. The building at 1:37:21 is the Vista House at the Crown Point State Scenic Corridor in Oregon, and they use it for the exterior of a planetarium. “It is not a planetarium.” They filmed the interiors at Portland’s OMSI Planetarium, and it took some finagling to make it happen. “They didn’t want to let us in, especially this guy named Mark. Mark, if you’re listening [pause], uh, thanks.” He goes on to say this whole sequence is sloppy and he didn’t shoot it right, but I’m going to hold Mark responsible for any issues.
24. O’Neal faked that heart attack roughly twenty different times so they could film it at different speeds.
25. Kasdan’s voice cameos as the bank teller talking about the safety deposit box. “My voice is too nasal,” he says, adding that hearing that snippet reminds him he will never be able to listen to his own commentary track.
26. The little logo on the “Case closed” card at 1:49:34 was actually their working logo during production. It’s only used one other place in the film, and if you can spot it — and then find Kasdan on the street some day and tell him along with the mystery sentence — he will donate another $5 to your favorite charity.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“He’s the best with his face.”
“May be the weirdest sequence in the movie.”
“He has the most finely honed comic instincts I’ve ever seen.”
“We are the only film crew in history to go to the Pacific Northwest and not be able to get enough rain.”
“Every time you walk away with material that really works and everything matches and you covered it the right way and the actors are great, it’s a miracle.”
“I like to think this might be the most dynamic shot ever of a Scrabble board.”
“My father makes movies.”
“Here’s a big mother of a scene.”
“That spooky rumbling is a distant timpani.”
Zero Effect remains an absolutely brilliant film that lands every beat of its mystery, comedy, and heart. Double feature it with last year’s The Kid Detective for something truly special. Kasdan’s commentary is a very good one as it delivers anecdotes from filming, thoughts on the filmmaking process, and explanations/motivations behind various story/character choices. It’s an entertaining listen and a reminder that a better world would have gotten a whole Daryl Zero franchise by now. That said, it’s not too late for a sequel…
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.