Trial and Error: About The Production

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Ever since the Marx Brothers posed as bearded Russian aviators in A Night At The Opera, the chaos and confusion that arise from identity deception have been a mainstay of film comedy. Often times, the charade leads to a true transformation of the leading character, as seen in films like Tootsie and dating as far back in cinema history as The Pilgrim, where Charlie Chaplin portrayed an escaped convict who turns honest after masquerading as a minister.

Ultimately, it is the deception in Trial and Error that leads to the truth, both in the courtroom and in the evolution of Richard and Charles. "Truth comes out of a situation where nothing is as it seems," says Trial and Error producer Gary Ross. "Richard is an actor playing a lawyer. Charles is a lawyer playing a clerk. Even the women they meet are not who they appear to be."

But just as Trial and Error turns truth on its ear, the movie also turns the courtroom film genre upside down. "What usually makes trial movies work," explains the film's director Jonathan Lynn, who directed the last great courtroom comedy My Cousin Vinny, "is that someone has been wrongly accused. This isn't a trial movie in that sense. The defendant, Benny Gibbs, is clearly a con man, and everyone knows he's guilty of this crime. We're not rooting for him to be acquitted. We're rooting for Richard to finally become somebody."

Ross was approached by his childhood friend Gregory Bernstein with the first draft of a script that Bernstein had written with his wife Sara. Ross loved its premise and immediately put it into development. Together Ross and the Bernsteins fine-tuned the script, which became Trial and Error.

Bernstein, a "recovering lawyer" adds, "most people believe lawyers are essentially actors anyway, putting on the ultimate show. We thought it would be funny to take that to its natural extension and have a complete fraud enter a courtroom and go through the shenanigans of being a lawyer."

"Trial and Error is about two best friends who envy things about each other, even though they both don't fully admit it," Bernstein explains. "There is a Prince and the Pauper feel to the story, where each character tries on the other's clothes, and they have to wrestle with their new identities for the truth to win out."

An accomplished director, best-selling author and actor, Lynn is also a "reformed lawyer." When Lynn received his law degree, he chose to become an actor instead. However, he has not abandoned his interest in law, and through films like My Cousin Vinny and Trial and Error, he very well may go down in history as the modern day conductor of the courtroom comedy. "Martin Scorcese makes films about wise guys. John Ford made films about cowboys. I like lawyers. I think they're funny," says Lynn.

Vincent Canby, film critic of The New York Times called My Cousin Vinny, Lynn's first foray into the genre, "easily the most inventive and enjoyable American film farce in a long time." And California Lawyer, the preeminent trade magazine for California attorneys, awarded Vinny "four gavels" on the basis of the quality, dramatic power and authenticity of its trial scenes, calling it one of the 10 best courtroom movies of all time.

The naturally theatrical stage of the courtroom has long been a popular setting and subject for film. Trial and Error doesn't exactly follow in the footsteps of films like Witness for the Prosecution and To Kill a Mockingbird, but it acts out its own drama, finding truth through fraud.

Says Ross, "The legal system is a high and mighty process we've concocted for dealing with our problems. There's something underneath it all that's intrinsically ridiculous. We create these rooms with pomp and circumstance, adornments, robes and flags all for our own purpose -- to get at what should be simple solutions to simple problems. It's fun to deconstruct that."

Adds Lynn, "The courtroom is a fertile place for comedy. You can find the worst of human behavior all in one room: dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed, conceit, pride, pomposity ...."

When Trial and Error was purchased by New Line, Ross set out to put together the perfect team to bring the story off the page and onto the screen. Michael Richards, best known as Kramer on the hit television series "Seinfeld," was the first cast member to sign on. "Michael is an amazingly talented and funny man," says Ross. "He's a true original, and he makes me laugh harder than anyone on television."

Richards, who shared Ross and Lynn's attraction to the script, immediately saw the opportunity for good comedy. "You see two human beings struggling with their individual choices and coming to a greater sense of themselves by acting out different roles. That's good stuff to me," comments Richards.

But will we see manifestations of Kosmo Kramer in Trial and Error? "Richard is not Kramer any more than Robin Williams' professor in Dead Poets Society was Mork -- however, if you look for him, you're gonna see him."

Jeff Daniels plays Charles Tuttle, an attorney who is gripping the final rungs on the ladder of success with confidence. Charles has spent his whole life dedicated to achievement. He graduated top of his class. He's just been made a partner in a big firm, and he's going to marry the daughter of the senior partner. "He's never deviated, and though he is stuck in a very successful track, he's still stuck," says Daniels.

Hollywood agrees that, with roles ranging from Dumb and Dumber and 101 Dalmatians to Gettysburg, Daniels is the consummate actor. "He's got such an incredible range," praises Lynn. "He gives you so many choices. He can make a scene work 20 different ways because he has such command and authority over what he's doing."

"It's a clich_," Daniels says, "but comedy is hard. It's really difficult to do. But with comedy pros like Michael, Gary and Jonathan, every day on the set became kind of like a graduate class in comedy."

Lynn agrees with Daniels' evaluation of the art of comedy: "Good comedy should look effortess. But if it looks effortless, some people think that it is."

Rip Torn is another consummate actor who makes his craft look easy. Most recently known for his role as Garry Shandling's fictional producer on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," Torn looked forward to playing con man and defendant Benny Gibbs. Says Torn, "I wouldn't mind having a beer with him, but I wouldn't want to go into business with him, that's for sure."

"Rip is perfect for the part," says Ross. "He's an American institution. I thought it was important that there be familiarity when you meet the con man for the first time, and Rip certainly has that. He also happens to be a phenomenally good actor."

Three distinct women help Charles and Richard make sense of right, wrong and which way they need to move to go on with their lives: a waitress named Billie who aspires to be an astronomer (Charlize Theron), an assistant district attorney named Elizabeth Gardner (Jessica Steen) and a Bel Air "princess" named Tiffany (Alexandra Wentworth).

Former model and ballerina Charlize Theron, who has only been in Hollywood for a little over a year, has already appeared in two successful films (2 Days in the Valley, That Thing You Do) and was recently cast to star in Mighty Joe Young.

Says Theron, "I read the Trial and Error script, and I just fell in love with Billie immediately. It's given me the chance to play a normal girl in a small town, who really knows what she wants in life. You so badly want everything to work out for her."

How did actress Jessica Steen prepare to play tough-as-nails District Attorney Elizabeth Gardner, who prosecutes one of the slimiest characters in the eleven western states? "A friend of mine was going through law school, and we went down to the courts together. She took me through the whole scene down there, and then she gave me a tape of Marcia Clark's closing arguments in the O.J. Simpson case," says Steen .

Wentworth, who plays the superficial, materialistic Tiffany, would have prepared for her role with similar gusto, but in real life she couldn't afford it. "Tiffany's day looks like this: a quick trip to Elizabeth Arden, pick up the Shih Tzu at the groomer's, get a manicure, buy Charlie a tie, run through Barney's and say 'hi' to all the girls at the perfume counters, then hop into the Jaguar and zip home for dinner."

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