FLASH OF GENIUS Press Day – Greg Kinnear Interview

     October 3, 2008

Written by Charlie Mihelich

In “Flash of Genius”, Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) invents the intermittent windshield wiper and is lead to believe by Ford that they will introduce it into their product line and allow him to manufacture the wipers. Not only is the rug pulled out from under him when Ford decides to pass on the device, his problems are further compounded when his same blades show up in the next year’s production line. Outraged and violated, Kearns does what any American would: he goes to court.

The movie shows Bob facing off against one of the largest and most prolific corporations in the world, sacrificing everything near and dear to him in order to receive credit for his work. Money is not enough; Bob wants Ford to publicly state that they “stole” his idea, and without that stipulation an out-of-court settlement is out of the question. Against the desperate wishes of his wife (Lauren Graham), his attorney (Alan Alda), and his best friend (Dermot Mulroney), his obsession takes over his life.

I took part in the LA press day for “Flash of Genius”, which featured a press conference with Greg Kinnear. Kinnear talked about the mindset of Bob Kearns, a man who the audience can’t always root for, even though we’re on his side. He talked about being a father and being faced with the decisions Bob made, and how people are always shocked when they learn the invention in question is the intermittent windshield wiper.

Q:Were you as surprised as I was that the invention was the intermittent windshield wiper?

A: Yeah, yeah, I mean it’s something you take for granted. It’s a little like you tell someone about the intermittent windshield wiper and then you kind of get a brief moment and then it’s like, “Oh, yeah…” I call it the Seinfeld moment. The, “Oh, yeah,” they get that kind of thing. And it is true, it is something that everybody universally knows and it’s kind of like unless you mention it to them, they are like, “What?” Unless it’s pointed out to them that it exists, it’s just part of the world that you live in. And I don’t know – it’s weird. From the movie, I just think that everything has a design. Everything has an idea behind it. Somebody had to design this piece of whatever this is that holds that poster up. “And we are going to put these little things, these knobs and a little chain on it.” That was a person, that wasn’t a company that came up with that. And in a world where more and more of us work for fewer and fewer people…I mean we all work for the same five guys, don’t we? I just feel like here is a chance to do a story about somebody who having been marginalized by that system, actually decides to go the full distance and stand up to them. I thought that was pretty amazing.

Q: Did you have a chance to meet Bob Kearns before shooting the movie?

A: Well, he passed away before the movie got made, so I never got to meet him. I have kids and, obviously, the part of him as a father who ended up setting his children aside to make something right was troubling to watch, troubling to read when I first read the script and is still kind of a difficult aspect of the story to swallow. But how do you ever put yourself in this guy’s shoes? It was an idea that was manifested out of a personal handicap. I think, obviously, this was something deeply personally to him and the way that he had been marginalized in all of this created some kind of behavior in him. I wouldn’t call it obsessive, but it was obviously something that he couldn’t let go of. It’s akin to saying to someone, “I have a drinking problem.” And they’re response is, “You know what you really need to do? Stop drinking! If you don’t drink anymore you’ll be fine.” And I think his family, and certainly the Ford Motor Company and a lot of people around him, are unsettled by the idea that he just can’t work his way through this. It’s a tough thing. They offer him money. I think it’s funny that the audience, in a way, their sense as they are watching it kind of mirrors the Ford Motor Company. It’s, “C’mon, take the money! Just bend, it will be okay.” We live in a world where there are game shows about taking the money now, so I think people really feel like there is a way out of this. “Why don’t you take it, Mr. Kearns?” And what I was intrigued with all along with the story is that ability to do that and why. And the idea that ultimately it’s grounded in principle, not money, real principle, which I thought was pretty incredible and he’s not a perfect character. He’s not a guy who doesn’t have his own shortcomings. He’s a grump and prickly and self-destructive in a way, but in spite of all of those qualities, I really felt myself championing his journey. I wanted him to find some satisfaction in all of this.

Q: Do you know what Mr. Kearns did with his settlement?

A: Most of it went to lawyers or other law firms. Assistants, people who helped him. He had some money, the family got some money, but they didn’t – it’s not like they ended up with this windfall of money and ran off. And as Phyllis says in the movie, “I don’t think it’s ever over with you,” and I don’t think it was with him. He still felt he had been grossly underpaid and what they had done to settle wasn’t a settlement at all, and he was involved in other cases as well.

Q: Do you know if Ford ever took out that ad in the newspaper, admitting they stole his idea?

A: No, they never did. He never got the thing that he wanted most, and I didn’t really fault him on this. I kind of feel like if this was a guy who needed his ego stroked or needed to be on the front of the cover of Reader’s Digest or Inventor Magazine or whatever the Entertainment Tonight of the day was, I would have felt less strongly about the character. I don’t think that’s what he was looking for. There is no indication of that. He really needed just the smallest identification of this idea having been his. That’s really what he was chasing. They wouldn’t give it to him. And I still don’t understand why not. Maybe, I’m sure, talking about corporations, there are so big there is not a person at a corporation. It’s rules and ideas and I’m sure that part of it was just the idea that because of policy, they wouldn’t do that.

“Flash of Genius” opens today.

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