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Steven Wright on Life, Death and Lint
By Jody Seaborn
Austin American Statesman March 15, 2000

"The way I see it, you can't talk about being alive without talking about being dead," Steven Wright's character says in "One Soldier."

The 30-minute short, playing at 1 p.m. today at the Dobie Theatre as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival, marks comedian Wright's directorial debut. "One Soldier" - sort of a haiku version of Woody Allen's "Love and Death" - is set during the Civil War. More or less. Slightly experimental in structure, it's a profoundly funny, minimalist meditation on life's big questions, and an excellent translation of Wright's laconic sense of humor to the screen. It will be shown on The Independent Film Channel in April.

Steven Wright"One Soldier" is Wright's second produced screenplay. The other, 1988's "The Appointments of Dennis Jennings," won him an Academy Award for best live action short. Winning an Oscar your first time out is either going to boost your confidence or leave you wondering how the heck you're going to beat that. It left Wright wondering. For a while. Then he began moving again at his won pace, which is never in a hurry.

I spoke with Wright last week by phone. He was in his Santa Monica, Calif., apartment preparing for a series of stand-up gigs in Las Vegas, on the East Coast and in England and Ireland.

Q: What made you decide to do another film after 11 years?

A: (Laughs) I got nervous, like how am I going to top winning an Oscar, and it kind of froze me. Then it wore off. But then I never really had an idea. My thing is, I don't think of things on purpose. Whatever comes into my head.

Q: Do you have any plans to write and direct a feature some day?

A: Yeah. That is my main thing that I haven't done that I want to do.

Q: Do you have a screenplay you're working on?

A: Um…no. (Laughs) No, I don't. But I loved directing "One Soldier." It was one of the best things I've ever done in my life. And the editing was an unbelievable experience. Because we didn't even have a straight story, we could move it all around. It was like painting, but with elements rather than color.

Q: There's a philosophical bent to your comedy, and especially to "One Soldier." I don't think most people associate you with subjects like politics or war, but even though you might be talking about, oh, I don't know, erasers, you address really big issues…

A: I just realized something as you were saying that, that people say, "You don't talk about politics and stuff," and I say, "Yes, I don't because I like talking about little things, like lint and hinges." But then I also talk about things like the speed of light, which isn't a little thing. So while you were saying that I realized that it's things in the middle that I skip. I talk about tiny, tiny things, and then I skip things like politics and sports and television, and then I go to giant issues like space and time and why are we here.

Q: And you find the giant issues in the smaller stuff, too.

A: None of it is on purpose. It's a built-in perspective. It's like a coffee machine. The coffee machine's going to make coffee; you can't use it as a snow blower.

Q: You enjoy life in the slow lane, don't you?

A: Yes, I do. I think all these things that are supposedly making life better - and they are in a sense - but they're also speeding it up so fast that they're just causing more commotion. People call me up and they leave a message, and they say this is my home number, this is my work number, this is my fax number, this is my cell number. All of the sudden I'm a guy who writes phone numbers down. And if I'm in my car I don't want to be talking on the phone. I want to be looking out the window.

Q: Has a story ever been written about you that doesn't use the words "deadpan" or "monotone"?

A: (Laughs) No. But I don't even see it anymore, it's been done so many times. The one that used to irritate me was when they would say "the Wright Stuff." Like in the headline. The thing is, whoever's writing it thinks they're thinking of it. They don't know that I've read 10 years of that.