At their heart, the movies of Onion editor-turned-filmmaker Robert Siegel are feature-length "area man" stories.
"Area man" stories, as fans of the Madison-born weekly humor publication know, take some tiny foible or quirk of human nature and elevate it to news story status. A search of the story archive at theonion.com lists some 660 "area man" stories, including "Area Man Thinking Up Funny Things to Say At Next Football Game," "Area Man Hoping Cell Phone Breaks So He Can Get a New One," and, simply, "Area Man Makes It Through Day."
Siegel's two movies, "The Wrestler" and "Big Fan," are both character studies of people who might be "area men." "The Wrestler," for which Siegel wrote the screenplay, starred Mickey Rourke as an aging pro wrestler who couldn't give up the ring (one scene could have been titled "Area Man Plays His Own Character in Nintendo Wrestling Video Game").
"Big Fan," which Siegel wrote and directed and which opened Friday at Sundance Cinemas, could have used the headline "Area Sports Fan Rehearses Monologue For Sports Talk Radio Show."
Comedian Patton Oswalt makes a darker turn playing Paul, a Staten Island parking lot attendant who lives with his mom, and whose life revolves around the New York Giants. One night, Paul runs into his favorite Giants player at a strip club, and, to put it mildly, it does not go well.
"The types of movies I'm doing now are essentially character studies, which is all an 'area man' story is," Siegel said in an interview from his home in New York City. "At the Onion, you're just observing things that other people have noticed but haven't necessarily put into words."
What Siegel noticed was the culture of the uber-sports fan, and how little represented fandom is in sports movies. When they are, fans are usually portrayed as either comic buffoons ("Celtic Pride") or deranged psychos (Robert DeNiro in "The Fan").
"There are lots of sports movies, but very few about fans," he said. "It's just this massive part of American culture that I felt was just mine for the taking. The movie that I would like to see as a sports fan had yet to be made - sort of like with 'The Wrestler,' where nobody had made a movie that took wrestling seriously."
He grew up on Long Island in the late '70s and remembers listening to the callers on sports talk radio who would defend or lambaste the local teams, and wondering what sort of guys those disembodied voices belonged to.
"I would find myself thinking about those things when I would listen to these real colorful characters," Siegel said. "When I was a kid, I would be listening from the safety of my suburban Long Island bedroom, and they were calling from blue-collar working-class parts of New York where I wouldn't go. There was something kind of exotic about that to me."
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1994, Siegel moved to Madison and, after coming across issues of the Onion stacked in the foyer of Espresso Royale on State Street, immediately called and started contributing to the paper. He moved along with the rest of the humor writing staff to New York in 2001.
Siegel got interested in screenwriting when he was involved in the writing of "The Onion Movie," which never saw a theatrical release and was shelved for years before being released on DVD in 2008. While editing the Onion, Siegel would work on screenplays on weekends and on breaks, and during a two-week Christmas break in 2002, he locked himself away to write "Big Fan."
Several directors expressed some interest in the screenplay, but nobody committed to it. In the meantime, Siegel worked on other screenplays and hit the jackpot when "The Wrestler" was made into a movie that got Rourke an Oscar nomination.
Siegel said he had spent so much time writing and rewriting that screenplay that the idea of starting from scratch on a new one wasn't very appealing, so he thought of reviving "Big Fan." The movie, a character study set in the working-class neighborhoods of Staten Island, was modest enough that he figured he could direct it as well.
Oswalt, whose only other starring role was providing the voice for the foodie rat Remy in Pixar's "Ratatouille," might seem an odd choice to play such a dark character. But Siegel said that Oswalt, who talks about his love of comic books and "Star Wars" in his stand-up routines, was ideal to capture the manic enthusiasm of a lonely guy who bleeds Giants blue.
"He has a real feel for nerdy obsessions," Siegel said. "He's not a sports guy, but he really understands the psychology of caring way, way too much about something that most people don't really think much of."
Siegel has written several other unpublished screenplays besides "Big Fan" and "The Wrestler," and it's largely a coincidence that the only two made into movies were the ones he wrote about sports. "Maybe that should tell me something about where my strength lies."
He expects his next movie won't have anything to do with sports, just so he won't get pigeonholed. But when most sports movies are gauzy feel-good dramas about underdogs beating the system, he's more interested in movies about the "underbelly" of the sports world.
"Most people are not Tom Brady or Brett Favre," he said. "Most people are either watching from the sidelines or the guy on the bench. Those guys are just kind of more interesting to me than the hero."