Thursday, June 3, 2010

Never Been Thwarted

Back in 2005, I was lucky enough to catch the brief run of a ragged, energetic little indie comedy called NEVER BEEN THAWED, and to spend time chatting with its writer/directors, Sean Anders and John Morris. They were great fellas who were just happy to get their movie into a theatre in Los Angeles and play in the big league. Five years later, they are the big leaguers. Following their debut, they drew larger attention for their simultaneously vulgar and heartfelt teen comedy SEX DRIVE, and this year have writing credit on two of my favorite comedies from the last few months, SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. And the hits keep on coming - they have adapted the classic children's novel MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS for 20th Century Fox, and though Noah Baumbach recently stepped off as director, it is still considered a "go" project set for release next year. As such, seeing their names attached to a movie makes me attach an extra finger on my ten bucks so that I'll have it ready to buy a ticket when it comes out.

Despite facing multiple deadlines and other demands of hot writers, Sean Anders was generous enough to spend time talking to an old fan about his body of work. I consider this the first and biggest "get" since I started this blog, and it's a privilege to be able to present this conversation.

You and your collaborator John Morris were playing in bands and doing graphic design before you made NEVER BEEN THAWED. Which I think helped its authenticity - the songs were catchy with hooks, the logos for the fake businesses looked real and established. So those elements, in tandem with the frozen-dinner-collecting premise, really made me feel I was entering a whole other world. Was there a general feeling in the creative process of "Let's give them something they've never seen"?

Not really, because there was no "them" on that movie. We genuinely never expected much of an audience beyond our friends. Our music and design skills came into it naturally because we knew how to do that. Meanwhile we knew nothing about filmmaking. Still, we did want to make the world of the movie look as real as possible because the silly ideas were funnier to us if they were played in a grounded world. Looking back on it now, I would like to have grounded it all much further and not gone for the joke as often as we did.

What is also good is that you don't coast on novelty through the whole film, you put in solid characters whose stories we get involved in. And some of their foibles are familiar - lonely guy likes a girl who's drawn to someone flashier - but you also touch upon stuff we don't see as often, like the rich guy who is way more successful than the Christian musician, yet often feels cowed in talking to him in the confines of their frozen dinner group. Or even the fact that this musician can be a cocky dick to his friends yet can't stand up to his even cockier deaf brother. Were many of the relationship dynamics based in personal experience?

I guess so. Not really specific people or relationships but combos of people we knew and attitudes we found funny. A lot of it is amping up some of our own worst qualities. We really just kind of felt our way through that one, goofing around and trying all kinds of different ideas. In the end a lot of the character work was built in the edit as we had so much good and bad stuff to sift through.

NBT wasn't well attended when I went to see it. But I guess a comedy with no real stars with a tiny distributor and ad budget can only do so much in the marketplace. Five years later, now that you're established, are you content that "the right people" did get to see it, or do you kinda wish it had fared better in its first run and more regular folk got to see it?

I'm mixed on that. Part of me is mortified because I was trying to act in that movie, which is something I had not done before and have not done since. But when I think of everyone else's hard work and great stuff in the movie, I do wish it could have gotten out there a bit further. A movie like that has a pretty limited range of audience. The average person would likely hate it. But those who like it, tend to like it very much. I'm proud of it. A bunch of numbnuts with no experience making a movie without a clue - it got way further than we ever thought it could.

You were able to get SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE sold as a script before you were attached to adapt and direct SEX DRIVE. I noticed that a few gags, such as the "caught with wet pants" moment, feature in both films. Was there perhaps a worry during the making of DRIVE that LEAGUE might get stuck in development hell and not get made, and thus you really wanted to get the jokes performed? All the gags are funny in both movies, rest assured!

On that joke in particular, we never noticed the similarity until we saw LEAGUE for the first time. (We didn't direct LEAGUE so it was all new to us.) It happens sometimes - you're writing new characters in a whole new world so if some dialogue or gags are similar to things you've done before you sometimes don't see it because everything feels different. We've had people point things like that out to us while still in the script stage and we're always glad to be saved from ripping off our own shit.

What I was struck most by in SEX DRIVE was that within the familiar framework, you again stuck in such original items as the Amish detour, the dental even repeat some of your graphic design gags with the fake website stills. Were any of those hard to get past the studio? Did you have to deal with some suit asking, "What the hell is Rumspringa?"

No. Summit was pretty great. They loved the script from the first draft so they were on board with everything story-wise. We had our fights with them along the way of course but overall they were very supportive. I think that's a big reason why the movie turned out as well as it did. Unfortunately, a bigger studio might have had better luck opening the movie but a bigger studio never would have let us make that movie. So we're very grateful.

Clark Duke is the secret weapon of SEX DRIVE. When he shows up in one scene dressed like Charles Nelson Reilly from a "MATCH GAME" episode, I was sold. Once you had decided to cast against type, how much of his character was already in your writing, and how much did Clark explore and heighten it?

Clark brings a lot to everything he does. We could let him off the leash and he would always find us some gold. Lance was always written to be confident and assertive and cool but casting Clark made Lance a much better character and we began rewriting him right away. Clark is very talented with the improv work so he deserves a lot of credit for his characters.

You had an unsold pilot, "PLAYING CHICKEN," which dealt with people divided by politics having to co-exist with each other. Did you have a grand plan for how the show's characters would evolve over the course of a season, or was this just a one-shot where you had the premise and would decide the through-lines later? What could viewers have expected had the show sold?

We wanted to show how futile most political discussion is between average people who talk without ever doing anything about their gripes. I'm that way. I love to bitch about things but I don't really get involved because, at the end of the day, I'm too lazy and disenchanted to make much of an effort. We wanted to keep these guys at each other's throats but always bring it back to family being more important than politics. We had a lot of ideas for future episodes but the show never made it so I don't even remember what they were.

I liked how the main characters of LEAGUE work for the TSA, making the audience find sympathy with a body of people that they normally tend to curse under their breath. (It also allows the old romantic trope of the reunion-before-takeoff ending to happen within our onerous security restrictions) In keeping with the fresh notions of NBT, what other sorts of people or occupations do you think are underrepresented on film that you would like to portray with empathy in your scripts?

We grew up in blue collar settings. It turns out that Hollywood mostly likes white collar characters because most people would rather see a story about a lawyer than a mail man. I'm sick to death of lawyers and cops and doctors. I'm always drawn to average working stiffs because I grew up around them and I always thought I would be one. I never imagined I could get away with this kind of work. I understand why someone who works hard all day wants to escape into the world of the wealthy but I really feel like we need to get away from so many movies and shows about rich people. So, any job will do. There's an interesting subculture in almost any job.

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE was originally written by someone else. How many changes did you bring to the original story, and which (if any) occurred with the casting of the film?

We wrote a somewhat different story based on an already funny script that Josh Heald wrote. We took the characters to some deeper, darker places and we introduced the idea they they were reliving a particular weekend from their youth.

Was it the original draft or your rewrite that attracted Steve Pink and John Cusack to the project?

Cusack came on while we were writing. I honestly don't know which draft he read initially.

Since Cusack seems to have a love/hate relationship with his teen films, were you exited or intimidated when he signed on? Were you encouraged or discouraged to directly reference those films?

We didn't write with him in mind so it didn't affect us much. Most of the direct references were added after we were finished.

Since Clark Duke appeared in SEX DRIVE, were you instrumental in getting him cast?

Yes. We brought up Clark's name in our first meeting with the studio.

What comes easier when you write a comedy: unusual sight gags (the wet pants in DRIVE and LEAGUE, the catheter in HOT TUB), or the relationships and conflicts of the characters?

They are both equally difficult. Writing a gag is like writing a catchy hook in a song. It seems simple but is very hard to get right. Writing characters is like writing a good song. They are different skill sets and you fail more often than not each time you try. It's all in the rewriting and the sticking to it. If you hang in there long enough you find the ideas and moments that you love. Then you find out real soon if anyone else loves them too.

Do you ever find yourself writing a normal scene, and then suddenly come up with a great gag in the situation?

All the time. It's easier to find humor in a real situation than to just sit around thinking, "what would be funny?" The hardest thing to do is to write and not try to be funny. Just write and let it find you. But it's hard not to push when you're being paid to write something funny.

You've touched upon some writers and directors you like - you took meetings with the Apatow and Farrelly camps, and even got to talk to John Hughes - so who are some of your other influences?

I'm not a film school guy and not a big director fan. I kind of take each movie individually as a lot of people beyond the director are responsible for how a film turns out. The same guy who did CITY SLICKERS - a near perfect comedy in my opinion, also did PLUTO NASH. So a lot of people who aren't on lists of greats have made great movies that are worth learning from. So when I think of influences I think more of films like AIRPLANE, THE JERK, GROUNDHOG DAY, KINGPIN, SIDEWAYS, SLAP SHOT, BOTTLE ROCKET, OFFICE SPACE, and on and on. The ones you mentioned are guys I find consistently great. I also love the Coen Brothers and Monty Python but who doesn't?

One of the interesting recurring themes in your scripts is how often times, bullying is more mental than physical. Sure, [in SEX DRIVE] James Marsden physically beats on Josh Zuckerman, but more often, it's about mind games, such as the dynamic between collectors in NBT, or how Lindsay Sloane dominates Jay Baruchel in LEAGUE, making him think he'll never be able to do better than her type. In a way, I think it's the better form of conflict, because it's less unpleasant to watch (I had a little trouble seeing Marsden constantly hitting Zuckerman, though I understand why it's necessary to the story) and makes the stand-up-for-yourself moment more believable - a physical bully can still beat you up no matter how brave you are, but if you have the self-esteem to not play into another's mind games, that's a battle we all face every day. Even in HOT TUB, where the bully is fate itself - the characters decide that no, the world will not go apocalyptic if they decide to improve their lot in life and take what they want. Would you say this is one of your most important messages people should take from your films?

I think that the worst thing anyone can be is a bully. And we all do it to one another in different ways. I was bullied as a kid. I think most of us were. It hurts but it can also push you to do great things. So, although nobody should be a bully, we kind of need them to give us something to rise up against. Bullies are always great tests for the average person's courage. I love stories about bullies going down and getting theirs but I also love stories about a good person forgiving a bully and conquering him that way as well. You can tell by my answer that I have some issues here.

You are currently attached to the proposed remake of MEATBALLS. What kind of pressures, if any, are you feeling in updating such a beloved comedy?

That was actually a script job we did a few years ago that was really never intended to be called MEATBALLS. It was a whole different camp comedy. Never got made so no pressure there.

I'm really excited about your next directorial project, especially since it has such a dangerous premise (a college student is left to father the child of a one-night stand after the mother's death). It reminds me of an Italian film from 1982, SWEET PEA, where a 13 year old is deflowered by an older model, and a couple years later she leaves the boy with him to raise as she pursues her career. While your film has a considerably "safer" premise, it's still going to raise a lot of fuss. Are you worried at all about studio interference or bad press or theatres refusing to play the film?

Sorry, that one went south. But our next movie will also make you think of the great Italian films. It's called WALTER THE FARTING DOG. It's a family comedy based on a popular children's book that we are writing and directing with the Farrelly Brothers producing. It's actually a very sweet story about a misfit dog in search of a family to love him and the misfit (and, yes, bullied) kid who needs him. It's silly and warm and we're very excited about it. We found ourselves kind of loving writing family comedies after we adapted MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS for Fox last year. That one looks like it's getting made this year as well although we will not be directing.

Since you started out with a consumer-grade camera, a few friends, and some wild ideas, what do you have to say to the next bunch of scrappy dreamers who are in the same circumstances you started out with?

We made our movie for the pure fun of it and we worked our asses off but it never felt like work because we were having a great time. I'm certain that if we had greater plans, it would have affected the outcome in all negative ways. So by not trying to impress Hollywood or festivals, we captured something that was real and fun. Far better movies have been made but nobody else but us could have made that one. Now I get paid and I love the work we do but it's different as there are now a lot more cooks in the kitchen. So if you have no money, you also have ultimate freedom. Enjoy it and you can't lose. Even if it leads to nothing, you will have made a movie and that's pretty damn cool already.

NEVER BEEN THAWED was released on DVD by the defunct Hart Sharp Video. While it would appear to be out of print - the inheritor company Virgil Films does not list it in their catalog or at their website - new and used copies are still available at Amazon and most other online DVD retailers. SEX DRIVE is readily available most everywhere DVDs are sold. SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE will arrive on DVD this month on June 22nd, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE will follow a week later on June 29th.

My enormous thanks once again to Sean Anders for talking shop with me, and enormous confidence in him and John Morris to continue entertaining me for years to come.


  1. Um...okay?

    Clark Duke was, indeed, the saving point of Sex Drive.

  2. I apologize if it seems like I'm overpraising SEX DRIVE, because indeed, I don't like it as much as the more recent Anders/Morris scripts, and as pointed out in our talk, I had problems with Marsden's character. But I respect the fact that it has a lot of fans, and there's a better-than-average sensibility behind it, so I give credit where it's due.

    I think Anders/Morris are a great team, and they'll become even bigger names over the next couple years.