“So, which table has the best mise-en-scène?” Filmmaker Jim Pasternak and I are staring up at the menu of the French Press, and the phrasing of the question shakes me out of my “mocha or cappuccino” reverie. I reply that we passed a two-seater on the patio that seemed suitable. “Perfect,” he replies, “that’s what I was thinking.”
Half an hour earlier, I was sitting in the control room of Santa Barbara Channels Studio, watching Pasternak’s interview with Lorrie Hull and Bill Smithers on Channel 17’s Just Between Us! and waiting my turn to ask him a few questions about Certifiably Jonathan, his unconventional “dadamentary” about comedian Jonathan Winters.
Certifiably Jonathan ostensibly follows Winters in his quest to have his artwork shown at MOMA, as he attempts to get his sense of humor back from the witch doctor that stole it. Throughout the film, he enlists the help of Robin Williams, Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, Howie Mandel, Jeffrey Tambor, Jim Carrey (briefly), and a man who may or may not be a Mossad agent (more on that later). The film, which has received responses both enthusiastic from audiences and tepid from critics, hit DVD and video-on-demand services June 1.
The film comes as the culmination of a years-long effort from director Jim Pasternak and producer Richard Marshall, born of a chance meeting between Pasternak and Winters at a café in Montecito. “It was pure Zen,” Pasternak said of the meeting, “I had to film him.”
The episodes in the film, Pasternak elaborated, would arise out of the interaction between himself, Marshall, Winters, and whoever else happened to be there that day. “My instincts have always been to control,” he said, “so my lesson was to let go, and not be in control.” For Pasternak, who teaches directing at the Los Angeles Film School and in his own seminars, and Winters, whose off-the-wall humor and bipolar disorder make him a sometimes-erratic subject, the situations that arose were often beyond control.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned perhaps-Mossad agent. Pasternak couldn’t comment on the authenticity of the Mossad agent, but explained that his part in the film, shot surveillance-style through a telephoto lens, was subject to the same barely contained calamity that Winters seemed to perpetually invite.
“The best thing to do was to leave him alone and give him an idea,” Pasternak said of Winters. Bored by biographies of Winters — Pasternak was able to identify three that have already been made — he instead resolved to create a narrative “death mask,” in the film-theoretical sense of the phrase, for Winters.
From our table at the French Press, as our twin iPhones sit between us and Pasternak gazes across Figueroa Street, he comments that he’s looking at the world through the “Mind app” loaded in his brain. Bizarrely, I’m not all that surprised. From arranging the mise-en-scène of our real-life conversation to crafting Winters’s cinematic death mask, it’s clear that Pasternak is running on different software from the rest of us.
“This is just lovely,” he says, still taking in the scenery.