Greg Kinnear brings us this fascinating story about an ordinary man fighting a large corporation over windscreen-wipers!
There aren’t many movies about Windscreen-Wipers, in fact FLASH OF GENIUS might just be the only movie we’ve ever encountered on the subject. The film is based on the true story of Robert Kearns, a man who took on the Detroit Automakers claiming they stole his idea for a windshield-wiper. The film stars Greg Kinnear and is directed by Marc Abraham, a man who learned his trade in Ireland making ‘The Commitments’. Brogen Hayes spoke to the two men about all things windscreen-wiper…
What attracted you to the story of Dr Kearns and his fight over the windscreen-wiper? MA: I had read an article in The New Yorker and I liked that Dr Kearns was a very unlikely everyman who obviously had some skills and he came up with this very clever invention. What I was challenged by was the willingness that he exhibited to go to such lengths to fight an organisation who he felt was taking advantage of him and that he was being discredited and humiliated, his dignity was being stripped from him. I loved the idea, not just the David and Goliath idea, but the idea of what does it take to fight this hard? What kind of person does this and mostly, what’s the cost? I think that’s what the film, as much as anything, is about. It’s really about the cost of the battle. Like I have often said, I don’t know if I could have done this, but I am glad that historically there are men and women that are willing to have these battles.
GK: I thought that Bob’s tenacity was a little uncomfortable to read in the script, but also his persevering was pretty remarkable. I didn’t know if I was rooting for him or against him. Those kind of mixed messages are very real to me. Nothing ever really seems to be in black or white and I am sure that he had some real anguish, he had some real tough decisions to make because he was causing real damage to himself and his family and we tried to show that. As Marc said, you might not agree with the choices we made but… we made them!
How much of this story did you know from the media before you got the script? GK: I think I heard of it, briefly, before. There were a lot of obituaries when he died so the idea of his fight against Ford because of this little invention that he came up with… Which was pretty remarkable, it’s still used today on hundreds of millions of cars… I had loosely heard of it but I didn’t know the scope of the story by any means and it was really the script that locked me in. It opened my eyes to how much of a story was really there.
Marc, you have written, acted and produced, but this is the first film that you have directed, what made you want to direct it? MA: I have been looking for a long time for a film to direct and I have been producing movies for a lot longer than I would like to think about. The day I read this article, and this is 100% true… The day I read the article I decided to buy it from the producers, to option the material and I told them I was going to direct the film. I love stories about the common man, it’s the literature that I have always been drawn to, even when I studied and when I was a writer. I love Arthur Miller’s plays and John Updike, who had just passed away, was my idol as writer and their work was a lot about the average person. I love those kind of stories and I just felt that this was a very (Frank) Capra-esque story with a very dark side to it as well. It was a complicated story and I look at the movies that I have seen and I am more drawn to Raging Bull, which is horrible! Or The Insider which is about a very conflicted man. So it fit right into the zone of the kind of pictures that I like and I thought “I am going to plant my flag and I am going to develop it with a writer”. The more you get into it, the more you care and I just got captured by it so I never let go of it and pretty soon it was something that I told everybody I was going to do and I couldn’t back off of it.
Did you always want to get into directing? MA: I originally was a writer and I did want to direct. Many times in interviews I have been asked how I became a producer and I say “It was an accident!”. The first film I was ever involved with as a producer was The Commitments which is obviously a movie which resonates in Ireland, but it wasn’t by design, it just kind of happened. I came across the book, some friends of mine gave me the Roddy Doyle book and I read it and somehow ended up being the producer on the movie. I always had in the back of my mind that I would ultimately direct films and hopefully I’ll be doing it more. This was a great experience. I’d like to tell people how painful it was and it was, but I loved the experience.
How involved were you with Dr Kearns’ family in making the film? MA: A lot! I talked to Bob several times on the phone but he passed away before we even started production. The kids never had control over the material because, I knew enough as a producer, that would be death! No one who is that close can be that objective. Ultimately they gave me a lot of good information and it was valuable, and Greg can speak for this, to have people available, as an actor, that he can talk to about the nuances…
GK: I was lucky. Obviously Bob had passed away a few years before I got involved, but I got to speak with the kids and there was some footage available… A few bits and pieces. It’s not like I was playing Gandhi or someone like that or some hugely famous where everybody comes in with a preconceived idea of who they’re supposed to be. He was a pretty blank slate, I could have done anything but obviously I tried to keep it as honest as I could.
Dr Kearn’s fought the case, in many different forms, for 12 years. At what point would you have given up? GK: I would have had a very hard time going as far as he did. I have two young children. The idea that he could have taken the struggle and just compromised his family in the way that he did is a little unsettling to watch. I am not sure I necessarily feel like I wish I was Bob Kearns but I certainly applaud a guy like that. The fight that he took on was something that he and others like him, have helped benefit all of us in a way. It takes a very special kind of person to go that distance.
MA: I fell pretty much the same as Greg does. It’s really hard to know. It’s like any fight, someone starts pushing their finger in your chest and you don’t want to fight, but then once you do its very hard to back down, sometimes for all the wrong reasons, like ego and you think “What am I doing? Why am I having a fight in the street with some guy who is drunk?”. I have four kids and I think that if I had six kids and they were suffering… I don’t think I could have gone that far, I just don’t! I think I would have rationalised at some point that there were other battles to fight, there were other things more important in life, but I don’t think, for some of these people, that it’s really a choice! I think of generals in war or certain political figures, or even think of people like Martin Luther King, and I am not suggesting Bob Kearns is any of these people because of what he did, but somebody must have said to Martin Luther King at some point “Look, we can ride buses in Alabama, how much further are you going to go?” Every person who has fought with some giant force has probably been faced with the question; how much further are you going to take this? And they can’t stop. This is who they are and this is actually is their life. And I think for most of us we have other aspects and they sometimes weigh more importantly than that one battle. I don’t think Bob thought to himself “I have a choice”.
Do you think this win over Ford was Dr Kearns’ American Dream being realised? MA: I don’t believe in that stuff! I think life is much more grey. I don’t think it’s an American story to be honest, in the sense that right now, I am sure there are situations going on in Ireland where somebody is fighting for something against a force that seems to be unassailable. I sort of feel the same way about these kind of battles as I do about the Oscars! It’s subjective. I don’t believe that there is a Best Actor. I believe that there are great performances and they deserve to be recognised but it’s too subjective for me. It’s like… Obama did get more votes than John McCain, that’s a fact, but after that is he winning or losing right now? Hopefully he’s winning I am too much of a “grey” person to believe in black and white.