Tag Director Interview

The story behind the new film Tag is so simple and ridiculous, there’s no way it could be real, which of course it is. Based on a Wall Street Journal article about 10 men who have been friends since they were kids, the film concerns a game of tag that has been going on for decades among these folks (streamlined to five players for the movie, played by Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress and Jake Johnson), who dedicate a single month per year to actively playing. Naturally, the game has also kept these lifelong pals close for a lot longer than most friendships survive, and it’s that emotional core that makes Tag something more than just a silly action comedy.

With a cast this strong (also including Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb and Annabelle Wallis), it’s surprising that the film comes from a first-time feature director, Jeff Tomsic, who comes to the project with many years’ experience producing and directing an array of stand-up specials and comedy series, such as Broad City, This Is Not Happening, and Idiotsitter.

/Film spoke recently with Tomsic about Tag (which is in theaters now) in Chicago, covering how he pulled together such an impressive cast, Renner’s well-reported accident that left him with two broken arms, which insane tagging scenarios in the film were based on real incidents, and how he kept the very silly story rooted in the friendship.

After watching the film, the thing that is most surprising is how many of the outrageous ways you show these guys tagging each other—with costumes or elaborately set-up pranks—turns out to be true. We spend most of the movie thinking much of what we see is made up, but the real-life home movies you use during the credits reveal that you basically re-created their game. Did you always intend to drop that bomb at the end?

Jeff: It’s funny because there’s so much about this that is hard to believe anyway. The concept alone is so, on the surface, idiotic that it’s hard to believe. One of the things we didn’t include is that one of the real guys is a Catholic priest, and he still plays the game every year for a month. It was hard to be selective because we had to fictionalize so much to make story out of a game of tag. At a certain point, it’s hard to tell what’s real, but the funeral moment really happened. Actually, there were some things we decided not to include—a lot of them running in during intimate moments with their wives.

In the home movies, you show a guy getting tagged while he’s taking a shower.

Jeff: Yeah, that guy is notorious for not minding being interrupted while fully naked. I can’t believe they sent that footage to us in the first place. So much of the movie is so cartoonish, so we wanted to project the idea of how committed they are and how they see themselves when they’re playing tag, and we had to take it to pretty absurd lengths. But it’s actually true that they do dress up as nuns or other women or construction workers, or they’ll run into people’s houses while in intimate moments. But now knowing the real guys pretty well, it does add up with this connectivity among them that’s hard to quantify and hard to criticize, even after the hours of stupidity about the game.

I love that you fully embrace that this is the ultimate act of stupidity on their part. And you don’t try to prop it up with false seriousness, but there is a lot of heart here, and the friendship is the heart and soul of the film. Was that a tough balancing act?

Jeff: Very much so. The tone of the movie is very strange. It has these grounded moments, big cartoonish moments, and its gets sentimental in the end, and I wanted to include all of those things very intentionally. Some people love it and are on board for that kind of strange tone, and other people find it very off-putting. There’s something very real about that to me. I walked into it thinking that the overarching lesson of this friendship is that being stupid as an adult doesn’t mean you’re a man-child. I just wanted to show adults still connected to a childlike wonder that you get when you’re this silly. I went into this thinking “What if we’re dogmatic about being stupid?” The lesson we’re selling isn’t to be self-important or too serious; it’s just to remind adults that being stupid is okay. That’s the whole thing to me.

Spoiler alert: at the end of the movie, Helms’ character has cancer. The real guys went through a lot of struggles in real life. Actually, the priest I was talking about got a terminal diagnosis last year, and he made it through thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and strength of character, but he also attributes a lot of that to having these guys behind him and loving the people in his life. My mother was diagnosed with cancer while we were shooting the movie, so a lot of this became important to me in that, we’re showing how being idiotic can help get you through some of the bigger obstacles of being in your 40s. I just hit 40 before making this movie. People’s parents start getting sick, people are getting divorced, people are having kids, and it becomes more and more difficult to prioritize your childhood friends when you have all of those other responsibilities. These are my grandiose attempts at addressing these things [laughs].

There does seem to be a certain amount of pushback on movies featuring a type of man-child. Perhaps people feel like there are enough of them in real life.

Jeff: I feel like we made a movie and got stuck in white male guilt a little bit. I knew that going in. I came from a background of female-led TV shows and went into the very sausage-heavy movie. It was important to me that we stuck to the facet that this is a story about guys who made this artifice for sharing their feelings, maybe more so than women. But I don’t think it’s exclusive to gender. I spoke a lot with the female cast about how to make them part of this and really engaging and different, even thought a lot of the screen time was going to be eaten up by men.

Tag - Jeremy Renner's Broken Arms

You came out of directing comedy television and a few stand-up specials for comedians, but this is your first feature. How did you get this script and what was the path you took to get this made? Were you looking to get into features at the time?

Jeff: I made a short film [I’m Having a Difficult Time Killing My Parents] in 2010 that went to Sundance in 2011, and coming out of that, I got attached to a couple movies and for years I was in this development hell, which was frustrating. Then I gravitated to television and loved it. With TV, it’s much more writer based and much less pressure on each individual piece, because you’re making a wider swath of content, which is really fun and edgier things were happening. Even with the show I did for Comedy Central “This Is Not Happening,” every episode—something like 60-70 episodes—we made these very Bruckheimer, bombastic stuff mixed with physical comedy.

With this film, the sad thing is that most scripts you read are not that enticing. It’s really hard to make a movie in general; it’s even harder to make a good movie; it’s really, really hard to make a comedy. No one really wants to do it. Most of the comedies these days are Marvel movies. So to make something that’s original, not based on IP, you’d think that would be interesting to people. It’s such a hard needle to thread.

When I read this, I was on my ritual trip with my friends who are all in Chicago. I was born in Elk Grove Village but mostly grew up in Iowa, but it was easy for everyone to fly to Chicago, including my sister and her husband. But I would usually come here, we’d drive north to go fishing every summer. But in 2016, when I got the script, it was the first year we went on that trip and none of the guys could come. My best friend from kindergarten, his brother had a heart attack so he was with him; my other friend just had twins; my other friend had just moved to New York because his wife got a big job, so they were in the middle of moving. It was all very representative of the problems of how do you keep these old friendships going.

So I’m sitting at our lake house with my feelings, thinking “What has happened to all of my friends?” I read this script, which I had refused to read for a long time. Even the title, Tag, sounded idiotic. But it hit me that these guys had figured out this silly, magical workaround for staying together that was more effective than my fishing trip. So I made it as a love letter to those friends, and I didn’t meet the real guys until after we started shooting because I was worried that the movie would fall apart and I didn’t want to break their hearts. But then they came to set the same day my friends from Chicago were there, and they all got along. And they keep emailing me “When can we get your friends from Chicago to Iowa to hang out with us?” I had remembered the original Wall Street Journal story, but until I read the script again, it hadn’t occurred to me how functional the whole thing was.

People heard of this movie maybe a little sooner than you wanted them two because Jeremy Renner broke both of his arms early in production. What happened to him exactly? What was he doing when the accident happened? And how much actual CG is there on his arms? I didn’t notice anything strange about his arms.

Jeff: Well that’s good. That’s a testament to my visual effects artists [laughs]. The sequence in question is the one in the church basement where he’s throwing donuts. There’s a moment when he’s on top of a stack of chairs and he starts surfing down them. That’s where he fractured his left wrist and broke his right elbow. We rehearsed it on stage, like 100 time that day, with him and the stunt guys; he was on a wire; and then by some fluke the timing was off for split second and went over. The wire stopped him but he slapped his hands on the ground. He didn’t even know that anything had happened; it didn’t look like much. He just said, “I can do that better,” and he jumped up and did it again. So the shot we used in the movie was after he had just broken his arms.

That was on Day 3 of the shoot, and I had 40 more days to do the movie, so it wasn’t the greatest moment of my life. It was really hard to get the movie made. At that point, we had already had seven hours of delays for weather on the first two day from lightning—in Atlanta, where we were shooting, if there’s a lightning strike within five miles, you have to shut everything down and wait a half an hour until it’s clear. We we’d already lost a half day of our first week. And then Renner’s accident happens, so it was a little bit stressful. I had a thousand-yard stare early on. I basically just told myself to keep going until somebody told me to stop. I talked to Jeremy on the phone, explained to him what we were doing for the rest of the day, which mostly involved him using his arms—“You’re throwing donuts, coffee, basically everything you’re doing involves your two broken arms.” Thankfully, he’s such a sweetheart and he loved the movie, and we became really close, so he came back and kept shooting. So 10 shots of that scene where he’s at the pulpit, we put a CG arm in because he was wearing a brace.

You mentioned earlier about not wanting to shortchange the women in this male-driven film. You changed the gender of the reporter; you made Isla the most fiercely competitive person of them all; Leslie outsmarts everybody to save her wedding; and Rashida Jones is just a badass in general. Talk about what you did to make sure they weren’t just background players.

Jeff: Not all of those characters’ stories existed in the script when I came on, at least not to that extent. And it’s a testament to having such incredible women on board. I mean, Leslie Bibb, Rashida, and Isla Fisher are a dream factor for anybody. To have them all in this film was already a huge dream. I came onto the movie being very sensitive to not wanting it to feel exclusive to men, and knowing that there are so many characters in the movie that it’s so hard to service them all in 90 minutes and we have five male leads, which leaves very little screen time. So we asked ourselves, “How do we maximize every second that they’re on screen?”

And all of them are so good; Isla came to work everyday with more joke ideas. She just kept improvising. There are very few moments where they get to be the central character, but they all pop, particularly Isla and Leslie. They are two of the best female comedic actors. And you’re right, Isla is terrifyingly competitive, but also a sweet, loving, sexual wife. Their marriage is so good and interesting. That whole scene where she’s the French exchange student in bed, she came in and improvised that, and we came back from lunch and I said, “We’re going back to that and changing the coverage. Let’s turn that into the scene because it’s so funny.” It gives us a different element to her character and that marriage.

And Leslie just fully committed to being the villain, and at so many screenings I go to, you can audibly hear “Ooooo”when she slaps Ed with the line about playing a children’s game as a grown man.

Thanks for chatting and best of luck. If for no other reason, I wanted to meet you to thank you for realizing that Jon Hamm is one of the funniest guys around. If you’ve been paying any attention since “Mad Men” went away, he’s been killing it in smaller comedic roles and on “SNL.” But it was nice to see him in a leading comedic role.

Jeff: He’s so funny and so fearlessly willing to do anything dumb, which is great. So nice to meet you, man. Thanks.

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