Posted on Wednesday, May 11th, 2011 by Adam Quigley
Many of you have likely heard the perplexing tale of Brian Wells, a pizza delivery man who had a bomb strapped to his chest and was instructed to rob a bank. (For those who are unfamiliar, Wired wrote a fascinating and thorough recap of the event.) Such a tragic story would not seem to lend itself to a comedy, and yet, that very premise is serving as the basis for this summer’s 30 Minutes or Less. Some may find the approach tasteless, but if the film’s red band trailer is any indication, Zomebieland director Ruben Fleischer and his knockout cast (which includes Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Michael Peña, and Dilshad Vadsaria) may just pull it off. After the break, we have some new images, a video blog sharing what it was like on the film’s set, and an interview with the film’s director.
Back in August of last year, I was flown out (along with a number of other press members) to Grand Rapids, Michigan to spend a day on the film’s set and talk with some of the cast and crew. Our group interview with Ruben Fleischer is included below, but stay tuned during the next few days for interviews with Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride & Nick Swardson, and Aziz Ansari & Dilshad Vadsaria.
The scene we witnessed being filmed took place in a massive scrapyard, which was littered with demolished cars stacked atop one another and enough loose shards of debris to remind you of the importance of tetanus shots. After traveling through the towering junk piles, we arrived at the central shooting location, a sparse landscape featuring a dilapidated shack, two lawn chairs surrounded by old, dusty beer bottles, and a beat-up Ford with a Vito’s Pizza banner up top. Scattered in front of the shanty office were the remains of nuclear test dummy children, all of which had been carefully arranged in sexually suggestive positions.
The men responsible for the display in the movie are, presumably, Dwayne and Travis, the juvenile criminal duo who set the plot in motion. They’re played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, both of whom were on set filming alongside Jesse Eisenberg. They were shooting the establishing scene that’s shown in the trailer, with McBride and Swardson approaching Eisenberg in ape masks, knocking him out cold, and alerting him to the bomb they’ve just strapped to his chest. They then proceed to explain to him that he has 10 hours to rob a bank for them, or he dies.
Shooting of the scene was repeated for hours, as is expected on a film set, but what made the experience interesting was seeing how much improvisational material crept in during each new take. McBride would change up his delivery wildly to emphasize different lines or introduce some off-the-cuff interplay, while Swardson focused on his character’s physicality. At one point he concluded a scene by busting out a high kick toward Eisenberg, immediately following up the take by quipping to Fleischer, “Did you get my karate kick?” Fleischer took a liking to Swardson’s antics, and refined the beat by cleverly incorporating it into the scene, having McBride instruct Swardson to “Show him your kicks” as a dopey means of scaring the already terrified Eisenberg. What started as a silly bit of improv very organically evolved into one of the scene’s funnier moments. It was incredibly cool to see that process that place during the course of shooting.
Amusingly, you can even see a glimpse of Swardson’s jump kicks during the trailer.
Interview with Director Ruben Fleischer:
Q: I’m curious, today is a five page scene and you’re filming it in multiple ways with different cameras and different set-ups. How do you keep the energy on set going when you’re filming the same thing for hours upon hours?
Ruben Fleischer: That’s just the actor’s job. They’re really good at it. If you cast people that are super talented. I don’t think it requires so much from me and it’s really them. This scene especially is helped by the fact that they’re wearing masks. So if Danny and Nick are slacking, we would never know it. It really is fine, but I haven’t really had an issue with that. Yesterday. we did four and half pages with Jesse and Aziz in a big emotional scene and they’re just so good that they can get there every single time. It requires subtle reminders here and there, but it really is work with the right people, and they’ll deliver the performances.
Q: Do you think the masks have unleashed something in the actors?
Fleischer: Nick seems to be enjoying the physicality of it. That’s what he said. That it was really weird acting in a mask. He’s never done it before. I think that in both of them, you get the performances through their vocals. I don’t know if you guys can hear it at all, but it’s the same old guys. It’s awesome.
Q: You’re making a movie out of somebody who has a bomb strapped to him. This could easily go into very dark places. How do you keep it from becoming too grim and at the same time how do you maintain the tension constantly of “Oh. He has a bomb strapped to him.”
Fleischer: Again, I think it’s just casting Jesse to keep it real and then casting Aziz to keep it light. As a duo, they really complement each other well. Jesse plays the realness and Aziz keeps it light. That’s a really good balance. Then everyone else in the movie have more lighter stories. Jesse is really the one with the cross to bear, but everyone else keeps the movie sort of up.
Q: Zombieland was terrific and had a lot of shifts in time and place. This is almost like a pure classic Greek theater unity of “It’s ten hours” Was that one of the pleasures? That you would just do this purely linear story mostly through the eyes of one character?
Fleischer: Yeah. Well, actually this has a lot more characters than Zombieland so it has been fun juggling all these different stories. It’s kind of like three pairs. There’s Jesse and Aziz, Danny and Nick, and then Michael Pena and Bianca are another one. Then there is Fred Ward, who plays Danny’s father, and he is a funny sort of hovering figure that Pena at one point interacts with. So, it has been fun juggling lots of different people as opposed to Zombieland where it was just four people in a car. But as far as the linearness, it’s essential to the story. It was fun playing with those jumps and the flashbacks in Zombieland, but I don’t think you need it to make a good movie. It’s fun to just do a more straightforward one.
Q: If it’s ten hours, why is it called 30 Minutes or Less?
Fleischer: He’s a pizza delivery guy and that’s the slogan of their Vito’s pizza. Their premise is that they will deliver 30 minutes or less anywhere. So, he constantly has to pay for pizzas out of his paycheck because if he doesn’t get in there in time it’s free. But there is a moment where it’s like “You have 30 minutes to do it, man! You got to go! This is your specialty!” and then he…the final says a slight double entendre…but, really, it’s about a pizza guy.
Q: Right now we are living in a time where there are action movies of all kinds of different tones. We have Pineapple Express and some of these guys were involved in one of the darkest action-comedies there has ever been I think.
Fleischer: Which is?
Q: Observe and Report.
Fleischer: Right. Right. Yeah.
Q: So when you are settling and thinking about the tone of your film, what was your thought process?
Fleischer: I really love those 70s kind of movies. For me, it’s really Dog Day Afternoon, and to a lesser degree, the Coen Bros. The other movie I didn’t mention before is Fargo. Like Fargo is probably the biggest reference point as far it’s a serious plot, they’re doing fucked up shit, but, yet, the characters are endearing and funny in their fucked up ways. You’re totally with them and it’s funny, real, and everything all at the same time. Fargo, to me, is probably the best reference point for this film as far as the groundedness, the tone, and what I hope it will be. I think it’s probably more actively comedic than Fargo is. The Coen Bros. have such an understated comedy and we have comedians, but I want that level reality of that film as well.
Q: Will you go as dark in terms of violence and blood?
Fleischer: We don’t really have much blood in this movie, but I think it has dark moments for sure.
Q: Zombieland has, arguably, one of the best cameos in cinema for the longest time. Are there any surprise cameos in store with this one?
Fleischer: I wish there was. It didn’t really lend itself. I think people will be really siked to see Fred Ward in a big role again. He’s so phenomenal. He wasn’t the name that instantly leapt to mind, but he so delivers. I think that a younger audience is going to be really siked to become familiar with him.
Q: Are there any Easter eggs in this that maybe go back to your first film?
Fleischer: No. Other than Jesse Eisenberg, I’m not really sure. I’m not as clever as J.J. Abrams and those guys who fill it with all of these things for people to find. For me, it’s pretty much A to B.
Q: You said that there were no script notes that anybody had given to you, but was there a discussion of making this into a real time movie? Just saying “You got two hours to do this” and then making it?
Fleischer: No, because there’s a lot of back-story that’s really important for the character stuff. I mean, I definitely considered it. The movie really finds its dramatic engine once this scene happens. The movie then really just motors. But I think if you didn’t knew who Danny and Nick’s characters were, their dynamic, why they are doing it, or what Jesse’s situation in life is that this event really is a catalyst for him to get his life together, for him to get his ass off the couch, and start doing all the things he never did. Then, I don’t think all of the payoffs would be as satisfying if it just started at this scene. This scene is ultimately where that would begin. I think that having the relationship to the characters really makes it all the more enjoyable for the process. Otherwise, it would be like Crank or something. Where it’s just a guy running, which is not the ambition.
Q: I wanted to know about filming on film and video.
Fleischer: Oh, yeah. That’s been huge. The first movie was on video. This film is on film. I’ve had a really hard time dealing with 35mm. I greatly prefer HD. This will probably be my first and last time film-film. I really loved shooting video. Maybe when this is done and I see the finished product and it looks as good as I know it will I’ll appreciate it. It’s just really frustrating not being able to see the image on a monitor that’s at all good. You end up watching these really crumby SD, staticy, terrible images and you barely know what you see and what you’re getting. Whereas when you’re watching HD, you know exactly what you’re going to have when the movie is finished.
Q: You had huge success with Zombieland, did you feel any kind of pressure about what project you wanted to do for the next one?
Ruben Fleischer: Yeah, a lot. I was super aware of choosing something I thought– I felt like I wanted to show my taste as a filmmaker in a way and since I’m not a writer and in full control of coming up with those stories I want to tell, it’s really selecting material. And so I wanted something that was tonally in the vibe of what I really love, and the movies that this reminds me of are Dog Day Afternoon and Out of Sight, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski. A little bit of Reservoir Dogs- those types of really original films. This script is definitely original, and that was important to me. But also in terms of scale of the movie, I had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of big movies, and I was a little nervous about doing something that I would call “biting off more than you can chew” and taking a big movie just because you can, but maybe not being ready for it, not being able to deliver and screwing up my career by laying an egg or something like that. I really wanted to do something that was on a scale I felt comfortable with, but at the same time was an original story that I could craft, that was funny, had a great cast, and was a story I haven’t seen told before.
Q: You said before, “sorry we’re not shooting a lot of action today”, but in all the movies you mentioned, the dialogue is the action. Is that the case here where it’s more volleys of dialogue as opposed to barrages of bullets?
Fleischer: It’s a little bit of both. I just remember on the set visits for Zombieland we were smashing zombie or shooting things at a bigger relative scale. So this to me isn’t as exciting if I were visiting a set, as seeing a bunch of zombies getting their heads blown off. But I think the direction is in the relationship and the comedy, and this movie’s got a lot of all of those things. It’s got seven really incredibly original characters and the comedy is amazing. You have this type of talent in there –to me, the funniest people there are– and they’ve been killing it the whole film.
Q: There’s a whole line in Chekov about “if you bring a bomb on stage in the third act, it better go off in the third.” I’m not asking if a bomb goes off in the third act, but are there discussions about fulfilling the promise of a bomb going off?
Fleischer: Well, I agree with the notion that you can’t have it not go off.
Q: Do you think you would like to use these action comedies as a stepping stone to do a huge action movie?
Fleischer: Perhaps! I just want to make sure whatever I take on, I can deliver. I’ve only made one movies, so to do a huge hundred-million-dollar movie and have to bear the pressures of something of that scale, it’s very intimidating. Also our this movie, because we’re not doing it directly through the studio but through MRC and working with really cool producers, we’ve had pretty much complete creative freedom, we didn’t have a single note on the script from anyone and we didn’t have any casting requirements. So we were pretty much left to our own devices to make this movie, and to me that’s the most important thing, having that creative control. On those bigger movies you have so much more politics and it’s not your movie as much. If you’re involved with a huge star or a huge franchise you’re just a pawn in that whole situation. I just wanted to have something where I felt like it’s mine and can my hands on it and craft it.
Q: Are you referring to Mission: Impossible 4 right now?
Fleischer: Well anything like that, or there were a couple of superhero type things and… whatever, just bigger movies there are bigger people than you, than me. If it’s a huge director I can see that being one thing but with me, I’m on my second film with a small, twenty-million-dollar movie under my belt. I’m not the final say on a lot of things.
Q: I’ve already heard two F-bombs out there, obviously this is R-rated?
Fleischer: Oh yeah.
Q: How far across the line are you going with this thing?
Fleischer: The F-bomb is not a stranger to this set, there’s a lot of profanity. There’s not much else… There’s some nudity, that’s the first time I’ve shot nudity. But there’s a lot of swearing.
Q: It doesn’t seem like you really mind people taking liberty with the script and there’s obviously a lot of improv already, is that something you encourage on set?
Fleischer: Yeah, a hundred percent. Especially when you have people like Danny or Nick or Jessie or Aziz, Pena too. They’re all just so good at it. We have a great script and I always try and get something resembling the script to begin with, but when you have people at that level of talent it would be, to me, just a waste not to access it. Some of the funniest things we’ve shot already have been things they came up with in the moment. I feel like as long as it’s not completely self-indulgent and that you exercise restraint in the editing room and don’t put in a ton of improvs just for the sake of it, what it allows you is more than just doing the scene the same way every time and then you just have a lot of versions of that scene. When they’re constantly coming up with stuff, you have so many more options. When you play it for an audience, if that joke doesn’t work you have three more to go to as opposed to just the scripted joke or whatever.
Q: They let us look at the pages you guys are shooting today, and I could already hear Danny saying the words. Were these the guys that were always in mind?
Fleischer: I’m sure you’ll talk to the writers about this, but I think they wrote it with Danny in mind. There’s no way it could have been written for anyone else. When I read the script, specifically Danny, he was my first thought. I said when I was making it that the only person I want to have playing that role was Danny. We really did everything we could to make it work with this schedule, and it was the only way I was going to make the film was if Danny played Dwayne.
Q: They’re wearing those masks out there- logistically were you thinking that you could not do it the way that you were, that you could loop it later…
Fleischer: The reality of those masks is we can use any line from any take, or anything that we come up with later down the road. But they don’t have the masks on for much of the movie. This is actually the first time we see the masks in the movie, and the longest. There are only two other scenes where they’re wearing them, and they’re much more reduced.
Q: Was there a point at which you thought you could just get the lines of the script and loop it later?
Fleischer: Well I won’t do as many takes, that’s for sure, because you’re not seeing facial expressions, and we have all the different lines from all the different sizes to chose from, and we know we can ADR it. So I know I’m not going to hammer the performance on a bunch of masks.
Q: Have you heard from the Dominoes corporation about the film’s title?
Q: I already noticed between rehearsals and them putting the masks on, their physical performances instantly amped up. How much have you guided them towards that?
Fleischer: A lot of that’s just Nick’s instincts, knowing on the wider shots that they’re so small in the frame that being bigger is better –they’ll probably tone it down on the close ups– but they don’t have much other acting to do other than with their bodies, so I think it’s smart to try and access that. I think Dwayne should be a little more serious, and then Nick’s character is a little bit more of the sidekick so he can be doing more of the comedy stuff I think.
Q: What’s key for you in terms of making sure there are actual stakes when there’s that action/comedy balance you have to maintain?
Fleischer: It’s something that’s really important to me actually, and this movie has real life-or-death stakes, and I think that’s pretty important and keeps it grounded. That’s why I cast Jessie- he’s such a talented actor. He’s funny, but he’ll play the reality really well. Sometimes with these action comedies where there’s life-or-death stuff, because it’s all comedians who don’t make too much of acting, they don’t play it real and it just goes into this farcical world, and that was definitely not my intent with this movie. I want the reality of this movie to be as real as Dog Day Afternoon or any of those great 70s movies, Straight Time and movies like that. But for the comedy, I want it to be as funny as a Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Aziz Ansari comedy.
Q: How tough was it to get Jesse Eisenberg, did you have to sort of plead with him, or-
Fleischer: No, we love working together so I don’t think it was too much of an issue. Honestly, he was the only person I wanted and I think he really wanted to do it, and it’s great that it all worked out.
Q: Are you going to work with him again in the future?
Fleischer: Yeah, hopefully Zombieland 2.
30 Minutes or Less releases in theaters on August 12, 2011.