Rob Thomas interview: Veronica Mars, directing, Statham

Interview Simon Brew 14 Mar 2014 - 06:31

The creator of Veronica Mars takes us through the new movie, directing, Jason Statham and Richard Linklater...

This Friday, a quest that began over five years ago concludes, as Veronica Mars escapes TV cancellation hell and arrives in her own film. With Kristen Bell reprising the role, the film has come about as a result of a high profile Kickstarter campaign, and also thanks to the sheer persistence of showrunner Rob Thomas.

That'd be the same Rob Thomas too who was kind enough to spare us 20 minute for a natter on the phone. Which began with a grovel on our part...

I should start with an apology. One of the perils of Kickstarter campaigns is those irritating people who pledge money, and then whose credit card bounces at the point of payment. Er, that might have happened to me....

[Laughs]

You know that bit on the set when you couldn't find the spare cash for a prop that would have cost you around $20?

That was you.

Look, I feel a bit guilty about it.

[Laughs] Ah! Okay. I will forgive you. We muddled through somehow without that prop.

You're very brave, in such testing circumstances. Still, what you managed to do with this project feels crucial. A lot has been discussed already about the funding, and how you managed to ultimately raise the money in the end. But I do wonder if the key thing here that people need to take away is the sheer persistence. However, in the four or five years when you were battling to get this made, was there a point when you actually felt, finally, that you'd lost?

Yeah. There were a couple of points, a couple of big points where I thought we had lost, and where I gave up most hope.

One was probably three years after the series ended, and Joel Silver, who was my producing partner on the series, gave me a call. He said 'hey Rob, I think I've got Warner Bros interested, and ready to sign off on a movie'. He had a certain budget price at which he could get movies made, and they asked me to come in and pitch one, so I did, and Joel was excited about it.

But then Warner Bros decided to do a marketing survey to see how much name recognition Veronica Mars had, and it came back, and they didn't give us a green light.

They said that the title didn't give them enough 'buzz', and at that point, I thought we were dead. It was as close as Warner Bros had ever come [to the movie]. They were willing to hear a pitch, they put the money into a marketing survey, and we had essentially failed that test.

Then flash forward three or four years, and I had taken the idea into Warner Bros to 'Kickstarter' the project. I was surprised they were interested in it. There was an executive called Eva Davis at Warner Premiere, a division of Warner Bros. She was very interested in it. We talked for six months. We shot our Kickstarter video. All signs points towards moving forward. And then literally days before we were going to launch our Kickstarter campaign, we got a call that the lawyers at Warner Bros had put the kibosh on it. There was too much that made them nervous.

And then almost immediately after that, Warner Bros folded the entire division. Even the place where I had my supporter, my fan, suddenly didn't exist any more. At that point I thought we were dead. That one was especially painful. We were four days from launching our Kickstarter campaign, a year before we did.

I was so low at that point. That was when I could taste it. I'd shot the video, I'd told the cast it was happening. We were working to it at that point. And I thought it was dead. For six months it was dormant.
I'll tell you a story, though. We shot that video for our Kickstarter page, and suddenly we had nowhere to release it. We were dead.

I came so close just to launching that video on my own, just to see if it could force Warner Bros' hand, to see if they could feel the pressure. I thought we were dead, so what did I have to lose? And I finally decided not to, which was a good thing, because the one place where that video went viral was within Warner Bros. And suddenly, all the executives at Warner Bros were watching our video. Thomas Gewecke, at Warner Digital, said 'why aren't we doing this?' and suddenly it got back on track. New executives starting championing it. So it was a good thing that I didn't burn all my bridges!

It could have been spectacular, though. On the day you get told it's not happening, you get hideously drunk and just press the button anyway...!

[Laughs] I know. I came so close to doing that!

It always seemed that the problem with Veronica Mars was that Warner Bros was almost too friendly towards it. That it felt like it was letting a good friend down, so it's never done in a brutal enough way to allow you to cut it and go somewhere else.

[Laughs] Yeah, I can see that.

It is strange. It's very rare that you see a show go off the air for so long, and still be loved - in certain quarters at least - by the people who made the decision to can it.

A lot of people have asked me if I felt vindicated by the Kickstarter response. I feel a lot of things. I feel overjoyed certainly, and I felt relieved, but I never felt vindication. Because the people who I worked with, at the CW network and at Warner Bros, were always fans of the show. They always treated me very well, and really respected the show. So I wasn't trying to rub their noses in anything, I just wanted them to make the movie.

I interviewed Jerry Bruckheimer last year, and he was basically saying that if he wants to get a movie made now, it has to cost over $100m. Nobody will take a chance on a $40m movie. It strikes me that was the other trap you fell into. For want of a better way of putting it, you were a little too cheap if anything? Did you sense that, that you needed to be bigger and more expensive to get the attention you needed?

Oh absolutely, absolutely. That was always going to be a problem. And when they're doing a marketing survey, I know that the smallest Warner Bros movie would be $30m to make and more to distribute and promote. I knew that was a test we were always going to fail. Warner Bros owns the title Veronica Mars, so I never had the option of just going out on my own and arrange independent funding...

You could have done Meronica Vars?

[Laughs] Yeah!

The other part of the Kickstarter funding is that you raised $5.7m, less my 20, which raised lots of headlines, and seems a huge amount of money. But when you come to make a film, that's still really low budget. People can cut their fees, but there are still fixed costs that you can't cheat. When you got that amount of money, that people had pledged over your original target meaning you could expand your film, what changed at that point? And how contained had you conceived the film to match your original funding target?

One key was that I didn't start writing until about day five of the Kickstarter campaign, when I began to get a sense of where we were going to land. But in my head if we had landed around the $2m mark, it would have been like an Agatha Christie murder mystery in a house. We would had rented one location, I would have figured out a way to get ten of our cast members into a house for a weekend. It would have been a puzzlebox mystery murder in a house.

When it started looking like we were going to get to $5m, then I could start expanding it and had a little more freedom. I wasn't going to put a car chase sequence in it, but I did get to put a fight in. It wasn't going to be choreographed like The Matrix, but at least I got to put in a brawl! So all those were little things that opened up the movie.

I wanted to think big. My fear was, at the lower dollar amounts, that it would feel as small as one of our TV episodes, and I wanted the movie to at least be bigger than a standard episode of ours.

Assuming everyone else is going to ask you about a Veronica Mars 2, I figured I'd go for the longer term question. Appreciating your background is as a novelist, and you have a core between you and Kristen Bell working together on this, do you think Veronica Mars is the one show that almost could take a Richard Linklater-style approach? That you find yourself checking in with this character every four, five years. And we see the progress of someone from a teen underdog, through to their 50s, 60s.

Does that appeal to the writer in you, that now it's been removed from the demand to have a season every year, you can space out her story over decades?

I love those Linklater movies! He's a fellow Austin-ite. I'm a huge fan. But I will confess... first of all, that would be really fun, but that's not how I've been thinking about it when I've been thinking about the possibility of more. I think of it more as, y'know, a poor man's Bond franchise. That we could make one of these for a smaller budget - $10m - and have a new adventure every two or three years, where it is some great case. And we do, like those Linklater movies, track Veronica's journey. We play her at 30, at 33. I would have a blast doing that.

My end goal, and I haven't been shy about saying this, is that I think Nancy Drew got a good 60 year run as being the young girl detective! I want to make Veronica Mars like a Nancy Drew/Sherlock Holmes detective. Someone who could live on a bit.

Broadcast platforms have certainly adapted to make that possible now. The thought of seeing Veronica Mars in a Murder She Wrote/Angela Lansbury kind of show in 40 or 50 years time is really enticing.

Yeah.

I'll pay for that now if you want? I promise my card won't bounce again.

[Laughs]

Look, I know it sounds like I was being cheap. Someone had defrauded my card!

[Rob continues laughing at me. My guilt doubles].

In the midst of all of this, of course, it seems to have been overlooked that this is your feature directorial debut too. Can we talk about that? I read an interview with Tom Hanks about directing once, and he said that when he's not directing, he can keep his thoughts to himself, but when directing, he has to tell everybody everything. You'd had that experience as showrunner in the first place. But how did the directing role change things? Has it scratched a movie directing itch that you had? And was it always going to be you directing the Veronica Mars movie?

It was always me that was going to direct this. I don't know that I have a big movie director itch. I imagine that I will primarily think of myself as a writer, and the things I think I will want to direct are more personal stories to me. I've written things that I would not want to direct, that spill over into technical film making, that I know enough to know I don't know!

I wrote something this year about time shifting, that would have been very visual effects orientated, and I would happily hand that off to someone else. At the same time I wrote a spec movie this year about 20-year old guys travelling across country in a band. And that was straight out of my youth. That would be a movie I would want to direct. Those things would be played by ear.

I don't know whether I will have a feature directing career, and it's not even the thing most on my mind. What I want to get are projects that I love off the ground, whether I've created them as a writer or writer-director. I'm directing my first television pilot now - I'm taking a week off from prep on that now - and that's a big movie for me. I'd love to get to direct my own pilots from here on out, so I need to be successful for the first one!

Then to get back to the crazy thing I've found in directing. When I've been sitting on sets as the writer, the showrunners, and I sit behind the camera and see what's going on, all I care about is performance, and hearing the words. And I'm so single-minded about that, I can focus entirely on that. It drives me crazy when a director isn't reacting to the same things I'm reacting to.

And then once I sat in the director's chair, I understand why they aren't all the time. The camera isn't moving right or the actor missed their mark or there isn't enough light. Suddenly there's a list of ten things in my head that I'm trying to sort out in every take. That's the biggest difference. Happily I have a couple of producing partners working with me who keep me on track on that front.

So, when you called the wrap on the final shot of the film, is that the breathe out, pinch yourself, we actually did this moment?

Y'know, there was a bit of feeling like that the moment that I got to call action on the first take of the movie. At that point it felt like they can't stop this now. Nobody's going to take this away, we're here on set, we made it! And then I think the other feeling will be when I get to show the movie to fans. When I see it with fans it's going to feel very real to me.

One last question then: it's a Den Of Geek tradition to find out what people's favourite Jason Statham movie is. So I have to ask: what's yours?

[Laughs] I'm going to say Snatch. I love that movie. Brad Pitt is hilarious in that. There's a sequence in that that I always reference, which is Dennis Farina flying in from New York. Snatch and Lock Stock had a lot of style!

I shall now buy a copy of your film.

Yeah! I think you owe us! [Laughs]

Rob Thomas, thank you very much.

Veronica Mars is in cinemas now.

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