Interview: 'Nerdland' Writer Andrew Kevin Walker On His Labor Of Love, Working With David Fincher, And More

Tonight, for one night only, Nerdland is playing in theaters across the United States courtesy of Fathom Events. The wacky, wild, and bizarrely sweet animated film tells the story of two 30-year-old friends, John (Paul Rudd) and Elliot (Patton Oswalt), on the hunt for infamy. Sick of waiting around for fame to drop on their laps, the actor who doesn't act and the screenwriter who barely writes decide to do whatever necessary to grab headlines.

Director Chris Prynoski's (Metalocapylpse) buddy picture sprang from the mind of screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker many years ago. Walker, best known for Se7en, spent plenty of time and money trying to make Nerdland. It was originally planned as a live-action film that David Fincher was going to direct, but after years of hearing "no," Walker's story finally got told as an R-rated animated feature, thanks to the fine people at Titmouse Inc., the animation production company behind The Venture Bros., Superjail!, and Metalocalypse.

Walker recently spoke with us about his love letter to Los Angeles, the Jonah Hill draft of Nerdland, working with David Fincher, and far more. Below, read our Andrew Kevin Walker interview.

When you first wrote Nerdland, was there as big of a hunger for fame in Los Angeles as there seems to be now?

I think that there may be more people looking for some sort of renown or attention on different levels than a while ago. I wrote this script a while ago, I don't even care to say how long ago, but some of the stuff gets more intensely appropriate with each passing day. Some of the things that weren't nearly as offensive a while ago are more offensive today than ever.

I think that so much of that desperation to get into the film industry, especially as a writer or a director, actor — I think an actor has more face to face rejection than even screenwriters. I think that that desire to get in was just as strong years ago as it is now. I think there are more interesting ways to get yourself noticed, as far as making a student film, stuff like that.

This movie is more about if I really wanted to get noticed, I could streak naked through a movie premiere or down Hollywood Boulevard. How would I utilize that brief attention that I got? By writing an 800 number on my buttocks? Whatever. To what ends will you go to kind of utilize the unfortunate ways that you can get attention, it seems like nowadays, that you couldn't before? It is that question. It's the choice between talent-based desire to get "fame" versus infamy.

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The character in the movie, John, is based on a best friend of mine, Jon Silberg, and when we moved out to LA. A lot of it sprang from a day when we were in 7-Eleven around the corner from us in Los Feliz. We saw the two Columbine kids on the cover of some weekly huge news magazine. We're like, "Well, what would we have to do to get on the cover of a magazine?"

The other thing I'll say, just stepping back for one second, is when I wrote the script, and I don't think this has changed a whole lot either, I think going to New York and trying to break in has changed because New York has gotten so much more exponentially expensive. It seems like a harder place to go start out. I know kids still do it.

When I was right out of college, I went to Penn State, we moved to New York. There's a bunch of us and we were all trying to break in. That's where we started. It's so expensive there I'm not sure how people are doing it unless they're living out on like, 120th Street in Queens or whatever, whereas I started at Astoria. I was close to Manhattan.

When it comes to LA, when I wrote it I just thought, "Well, this is going to be the favorite script of every one of the people who moved to LA." Some of us are going and writing scripts, some of us are working in the mailroom, but we all live in these apartments that we have a tandem parking space downstairs that's between concrete pillars. One roommate has to go move the car so the other can get out. Has that same rickety, kind of creaky, rusty gate that opens to let you out onto the street from underneath the apartment. You've got kind of like, a good living space, but you're sharing it with two or three other people.

I think it's a real recognizable version of Los Angeles or Hollywood. All the more recognizable because of the beautiful work by Titmouse and the neighborhoods they created that are based on the neighborhoods where they live and work and where I live and work.

What made you move to New York over Los Angeles? And what did you think of Los Angeles when you first arrived?

The reason we went to New York first was there was four of us and I couldn't afford a car. You could live in New York without a car, take the subway. That made sense. We all PA'd on New York real low-budget stuff. I mean, I was there in New York in the late '80s, very early '90s. It was a very different city, obviously. There was a very vibrant, kind of low budget, low, low budget film community because of video cassettes. If you created a video cassette you could pretty much sell one copy to every video store from coast to coast. There were so many video stores coast to coast and so many racks of videos for rental, even in like, 7-Elevens.

Then when we moved, and I did move with my friend Jon, when we moved out to Los Angeles, I was terrified, first of all, because I didn't want to have to learn a whole new city. It was the sprawling nature of Los Angeles that was so different from living five years in New York City where you could take the subway but once you were in the city you could walk pretty much anywhere. I could go on and on about why I think that is because of the fact that you can go from 55th Street to 80th, and it doesn't seem that far when you get this feedback, which is 60th, 61st, and 62nd [Street]. I only have x amount [of blocks] more.

Here, you may think, "Oh, well, it's an address on Wilshire Boulevard and it's not that far away," but then you get in the car and you spend an hour going seven miles. LA was a very different city. For anyone who's come and seen the stars on the Walk of Fame, it's not Hollywood as it might be sometimes imagined from a distance. It's not necessarily as glamorous as sometimes advertised.

I really do love LA. I'm much more suited to a city, which is a pseudo-suburban city where you have to kind of remind yourself, "Oh, wait, I live in a city. I don't live in suburban Pennsylvania anymore." I do love LA. It's definitely the lack of zoning that's really apparent in all the mini strip malls, etc.

I read you call the film a love letter to LA. As someone who likes Los Angeles, it's always nice to hear someone say that. 

Oh, absolutely, especially now. We'll never in LA approach New York when it comes to theater, as far as scale goes. There's actually a really cool theater here at the Geffen Playhouse and at the Mark Taper Forum, especially. That stuff's amazing, and the Ahmanson Theater, etc.

It used to be kind of humiliating comparing Los Angeles' art and museum scene to New York's. It's not anymore. I mean, they've really stepped up in the time that I've been here. Now I've been here more than 20 years. Yeah, I do love LA. I've said it a million times, Se7en was my love letter to New York City. Nerdland, in a way, is my love letter to Los Angeles. They're obviously very different things, but there are certain thematic similarities in some of the preoccupations of each.

I mean, just to talk specifically about one story point in Nerdland, I look up at the Hollywood sign and I wonder how long it'll be before they sex it up in some way. In fact, there was a point where someone was going to try and buy it and build a hotel that incorporated the Hollywood sign into it.

If you look at the concept, like paintings and drawings of that, it's just insane. I think they're probably somewhere on the internet that you could see them. It's just insane. I love it. It's just crazy, but I would really hate to see it. If someone comes to town to visit, in my opinion, it's a pretty short list of must-see tourist sites. I always take people to Griffith Park and at least they can see the Hollywood Sign from a distance. The zoo's in my neighborhood. Obviously Disneyland and everything south of us. Drive around Beverly Hills and stuff. The Hollywood sign is one of our real identifying landmarks to be, I think, proud of.

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You mentioned earlier how long ago you wrote Nerdland. How did the script evolve over the years? 

When I wrote it, it was written to be live-action. For a while, David Fincher was attached to direct it, which I would've obviously loved to have happened. He went off on a bunch of different amazing projects and I just realized it likely wasn't going to come together. He was super great. I mean, it would've been incredible for it to be him.

Then, a little bit further down the line, once it was just kind of back in my hands and I was rewriting it, trying to tighten the script up, we, my producing partner, Gavin Polone, and I, we went around with it as an animated concept for a TV show, like a half-hour show. You've seen it. It's pretty episodic. It could've lent itself very well to a television show.

We went to the usual places that you would think something like that would be cool, like MTV and a couple of other places. Nobody was interested. It was a completely different animation company at the time, WildBrain, that was attached. They were great and it was cool to go around and try and do it as a TV show. It didn't happen.

Then I made it into little, tiny, bite-size segments, like five minutes long. We were about to try and do it with someone for the Internet. I asked, "Okay, I know we're not going to make money on this and it's just a labor of love, but can I get some of the ancillary rights, like a piece of bumper stickers or t-shirts or whatever if it ever becomes super popular?" They said, "No."

I was like, "Okay. I could pretty much pay for the five-minute version of this," so I regrouped. I took a deep breath. I let some time pass. I took a deep breath. I rewrote it again and I put the pieces back together from all the different fractionalized version of it. I tightened it up.

It kind of began with me going, "I'm just going to somehow get this to Jonah Hill. I love Jonah Hill. That's how it's going to happen." I think I just wrote on it "Jonah Hill draft." Obviously, that didn't happen, but I was an obsessive fan of Metalocalypse and some of the other Adult Swim shows, like Superjail! I would always see the little blue titmouse at the end of Metalocalypse. I'd just be like, "Who are these lunatics that do this?"

I felt so removed from any worthiness to kind of approach them about anything, but I got over that enough for Gavin and I to say, "Let's take the Jonah Hill draft of Nerdland and take it to ... Let's forget about doing it live-action, let's forget about doing it as a TV show, animated. Let's just try and do it as an animated feature." We went to Titmouse and that's where I met Chris Prynoski, the director, and his wife, Shannon [Prynoski], who were the founders of Titmouse. They created Titmouse, Inc.

The fact that they said "yes" after years and years and years of so many different variations of "no," was just like, the clouds parting and a shaft of sunlight shining down on my head for the first time in a long time. Their involvement, in my opinion, just elevated the material beyond the pale. This is a very low budget movie that we did entirely independently. This really, truly was a labor of love.

Gavin and I actually paid for it. Titmouse put in a ton of sweat equity. The actors all were kind of ... Especially Patton and Paul, were partners. I forget what the question was, but that's how it ended up being that we did it with Titmouse and how it went from at first being conceived as live-action, which would've been interesting and a whole different thing. The other thing I was just going to say was, for the budget that we had we wouldn't have been able to do it live-action. It's not something that we likely would be able to do. The Herculean effort that was put in by Titmouse isn't something we could turn right around and do again in another movie. There was so much of their love, sweat, blood, tears poured into this. It's just so much more beautiful and artistically wonderful in my opinion because of Titmouse and all the incredibly insane creativity that they funneled into this project.

I mean, you've seen the movie. The character designs, I think, are incredible. All the characters are so amazingly rendered. All the backgrounds and everything, I think, are so cool. You definitely know you're not watching like, $100 million, $200 million animated movie. It just is beautiful in a different way.

When you first wrote Nerdland and started showing it to people, what sort of feedback did you receive? 

I think that when Fincher was involved ... He was really the first one I showed it to and he was involved from the very beginning. When Fincher was involved, we probably were thinking of doing independent. There were a lot of actors who came in and read for parts. They were all great. Some of whom hadn't been in that many things but were incredible. I remember Zach Galifianakis came in and read. I think the only thing that I had seen that he had done was this ski kind of comedy movie. I forget what it was called [Out Cold].

Then, like I say, then Fincher went on to do other things. Then one other thing that I will say is that we did do a read through where Bob Odenkirk and John Ennis and some other great people came in and did this reading with us for Fincher. Look, I adore Bob Odenkirk. That was a real pinnacle in my life to be sitting there and having Bob Odenkirk participating. I just think he's the greatest. It's amazing that John Ennis was in doing that read through. He ended up being in the movie. All the guys from Mr. Show and W/ Bob & David are heroes.

I do want to say, because I really can't sing the praises of Titmouse enough, but that said, I'm just going to say one of the most embarrassing things for me was how much I would sit there listening to the actors performing it and recording their voices for it, how I'd be just laughing at all this.

It's embarrassing to be laughing at your own material, but from top to bottom, the cast was insanely great. They were just delivering it and bringing so much more to it than was on the page that it was just a joy to see. Patton was really the first one who committed to it. That's what made it. That really helped to legitimize it when it came to going to other actors, obviously.

The beauty of animation is you're not asking for the actor to give you 3 months, or even a month of their time. They can come and do their part with script in hand and do it in a really, really timely fashion.

That's what also made it possible for Titmouse to get Hannibal Buress and Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome. Those two, Kate and Riki, took stuff that was so thankless, the female parts, and made it so wonderful and imbued it with so much kind of energy and life. Made it much more interesting than I ever thought their two parts could be because they're kind of in service a lot of times to the story and to the two imbeciles who are at the center of it.

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You and David Fincher have worked together a few times. What makes that collaboration work?

I've worked with him on obviously Se7en – which it's interesting to think how different my life would be if I hadn't crossed paths with him — The Game and Fight Club; I've done rewrites on The Girl Who Played With Fire and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; and I did a version of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, which was a movie from the 70s that we wanted to remake, that I wrote for him.

Just an amazing, inclusive collaboration. He's just incredibly inclusive. He's incredibly specific. He's incredibly smart obviously, but he'll listen to you and make you part of the process rather than just be using you kind of as a device to reach a goal. You actually get to participate. That happens in other instances for other people, but it's been somewhat rare for me. It's just the way it is with Fincher. He's incredibly smart and he thinks about everything from all different facets of it.

That is I feel like my job as a screenwriter to be presenting people with something that's whatever, 90, 100 pages, 120 pages long, that I've really, really invested a great deal of thought and effort into making it function structurally, making it function tonally, etc. etc. I think that even when you fail at that, he's appreciative of that. He uses the building blocks that may still exist, even flawed though they may be when it comes to scripts.

It was nice when Se7en turned 20 years old recently and seeing all these pieces online celebrating the film. When it turned 20, did any fond memories come to mind? 

Not necessarily. Like I said, it certainly doesn't seem that long ago. I'm incredibly appreciative that people even remember the movie. I really do attribute that to Fincher. I really feel like that's material that likewise was incredibly elevated by his involvement, by the involvement of all those amazing actors, and the producers who kind of fought for the ending as opposed to the people who were fighting against it.

I think that that's partly why it's remembered, and I think well-regarded, to this day. No, I mean, that was just a time when you couldn't really ruin my day for like, two years, because this movie was getting made. It was getting made by this incredibly amazing filmmaker, and then when we'd done shooting I was watching because Fincher let me be there. I was watching. It wasn't like I was standing there looking over their shoulder, but I would see cuts of the movie. I'd say, "Oh my god. Look at the posters they're doing."

Then you're waiting for the movie to get released and you're thinking, "What if it's a huge flop?" Then it did come out and it did incredibly well financially. It was just there was a two year period of it's coming to fruition and then being released to the public and doing well that was just ... I was just kind of walking on air. It was all just kind of a dream come true.

It's just it's very rare to get a movie made but it's also really rare to get a movie made that you're incredibly proud of. That's actually why I'm so grateful for the experience on Nerdland because it's very different thing. It's definitely a straight-ahead, R-rated, goofy comedy, but I'm proud of it. I think it is because of Titmouse's involvement. Beautifully artistically rendered in my opinion, and also because of the actors.

My clichéd thing is ... Clichéd in that I say this many times, and it's true, there are plenty of screenwriters who will have incredibly successful careers where they make a fine living and never get anything produced. There are plenty of other screenwriters who will make a fine living getting a lot of stuff produced and never have a single one of them that ends up ... That they were proud of the final result.

It just so frequently happens that you get rewritten as part of the process or reinterpreted by whomever, etc. So often you have a big list of credits that almost bear no resemblance to your first or second or third drafts of things.

Se7en will always be the one that can never be taken away from me. There have been plenty [of dissapointments] throughout the years, and I've talked openly about that. I've never seen 8MM. I never saw Wolfman. There are varying degrees of disappointment at times that keep you away from a movie that may have your name on it that you just don't necessarily want to "own."

That's what nice about Nerdland, that I really am proud of it. I really hope people will discover it. I think that it hopefully will find its audience. There's that cool thing, the Fathom event, is very cool and I'm hoping that people show up for it.

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You can purchase tickets to see Nerdland here at Fathom Events.