“Hi, I’m calling for the interview. Am I through to car Ramrod?”
That’s not how I started my interview with Jay Chandrasekhar. But as a member of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, and as the team’s default director (Slammin’ Salmon is the only Broken Lizard film not directed by Chandrasekhar), he must be used to having his jokes repeated back to him by now. You can’t make comedy films as quotable as Super Troopers or Beerfest and not hear about it every single minute of every single day. That’s not a realistic expectation.
Broken Lizard have a reputation for creating stoner comedies, but I’m barely even a drinker and have always found their brand of silly entertainment exactly on my wavelength. Their balance of concept, action and character kill on first watch, but once you’ve formed a bond with their films they take the form of cinematic comfort food. On tough days their movies have provided respite, relief and well needed chuckles. I don’t believe I’m alone in having had a bad mood lifted by a syrup chugging contest.
As Super Troopers 2, the sequel to Broken Lizards breakthrough 2002 cult comedy, hits UK cinemas, we had a chance to catch up with the Jay Chandrasekhar to talk about crowdfunding, action cinematography and getting Rob Lowe to do something unexpected.
So, I guess Rob Lowe just did whatever you asked him to.
I always joke with Rob that he’s a comedian trapped in a leading man’s body because he understands the rhythm, he understands that it has to be fast and quick, you want the audience trying to catch up to you. He did that incredibly well on West Wing too.
The dialogue is fast and crass and the audience is trying to lean in, you know, versus leaning back. And Rob gets it.
In terms of jokes, that joke where he punches the dick was not in the original script. We came up with the idea and I said “I dunno, we could do this thing…” and he’s like “Absolutely! Let’s do that thing.” He just sort of gave.
He understands that, when we show it to an audience, if a joke doesn’t work, the audience won’t laugh and we’ll cut the joke. If it’s funny and it works it’ll be in the movie and if it doesn’t, ok, we tried.
When you’re casting roles for outsiders, you central guys being a comedy troupe, is it important to meet them to get an understanding of their gameness, to whether they’re going to be happy to join in when they get on set?
Well, you never really know, right? Because you can’t just cast a movie with people who are a fan of you because you don’t know who are fans of yours. We put Donald Sutherland into Beerfest and we didn’t know if he had ever seen our movies. I still don’t know. But I do know that he was in the movie Animal House and I know that at one point in his life he totally understood that kind of humour, and he was great in that movie.
So you kind of look for performances they’ve done in the past. Like, Brian Cox was in Rushmore, and I was like, you know, that’s a comedy and Brian was in it, so he understands the notions. You know, comedic acting requires pace and rhythm in a way that, dramatic acting has a different pace and rhythm. It’s slower. It’s more contemplative. And comedic acting requires pace, pace, pace, pace.
So you look to see if they’ve done it before, or something like it, and then you hope for the best.
I wanted to ask you about Brian Cox. He was in the first Super Troopers. Was he aware of the cult following that it’s gained over the years?
He kind of jokes that of all the great roles he’s had, he’s been King Lear and all sorts of stuff, the thing he’s most recognised for is Super Troopers. He laughs, he’s like ‘It’s just this little movie’, he figured he’d do it and nobody would ever see it, and it’s turned into this massive thing for him.
He loves it. He thought his career would go in the way Jerry Lewis’ did. He wanted to be Jerry Lewis and have that kind of career. That’s why he said yes to us, because he said ‘Nobody ever lets me do that’.
After he saw the second film he came up to me at the hotel and said ‘Let’s do 3! Let’s do 3 right away.’
I don’t know what the expectations were at the box office, but it looked like Super Troopers 2 did pretty well to me. Is 3 is on the cards potentially?
Yeah, I think it’s really possible. We’re talking to Fox about what that story would be. We’re in kind of the flirting stages of it. We very much want to make it and I think they do too. So, we’ll see.
From what I’ve read online, is Winter Soldiers still the thing?
I really want to make it in winter. I think it’s a good idea in the third iteration of the movie to break the visuals and give the audience something visually different. Snow, icicles in the moustaches and all that, I think that’s fun.
On the subject of the visuals, I wanted to talk to you about shooting action a little bit, because on this one you have some really fun action sequences. Especially in the first ten minutes, there’s some really good stuff. As the director of a film like this that’s a comedy, and the focus is going to be on getting laughs, are you able to get the time you want to break down and shoot the action, or to give it the focus that you want to?
Well, if you look at action scenes, you really have to think about them as their own special thing. Because the scenes can’t be just actiony, they need to also be funny. I directed the film Dukes Of Hazzard and it’s an action comedy, and the action needed to be good because in the original television show the action was sort of the star of the show. But the comedy can’t take a backseat.
So I brought in some of the guys that did the action cinematography on Dukes Of Hazzard and said ‘Look, I’ve got way less money and way less time, but this is the general length of what we want to do and these are the jokes that I need to tell in between these action pieces.’
And so together the stunt coordinator and I designed what the action would look like. We basically take Matchbox cars and we ride them around and say ‘…and then we’ll slide off the road and hit a fence and these guys will throw a speaker out…’ and you go through it all. And then I approve it, and I say ‘Ok, you guys go take three days and I’ll give you four cars and the bus, go shoot all of the exterior stuff you can and I’ll give you two doubles for the cops, and you guys shoot all these shots to tell the story’. And they go and do it, they shoot all of that stuff.
Then I’ll look at what they did, I’ll cut it together, and I’ll say ‘Ok, I need to shoot the real actors reacting to these crashes and making jokes at this exact moment’ and the car needs to be in the same spot and the same lighting and all that stuff.
So it’s a real structured, organised thing. The more homework and pre-advance work you do the better it comes out.
Because it’s still a little movie. The first movie we made in 28 days, the second movie we made in 28 days. It was way more complicated from a stunt perspective, but we’re better filmmakers now. We’ll say ‘These are the only shots that we actually need, so let’s just shoot these shots’.
So on a sequence where, I guess you’d call it a prank montage, is that made up of just the slithers that you need, or do you shoot full sequences and then cut them together after?
In that case we shot full sequences and then when I played them back to back it came out to be about maybe 12 minutes. It was too long. The thing about these kind of films is they’re very specifically structured. You can’t necessarily take 12 minutes in the middle of the movie and have nothing drive the story further along.
So you need to do ‘Ok, this is 12 minutes, it’s about four minutes or five minutes too long. What are we gonna do? Are we gonna cut full scenes?’ And I just thought why don’t we try this montage idea and we’ll set up each gag and then we’ll do the best parts of each gag and then we’ll leave the last one as a whole piece because it really needs the time to breathe. You know the last bit with the two French guys?
That needed more time. The other ones could be a little more visual and a little more cut, cut, cut. But that one I felt needed a little more time.
So as far as the other guys in the troupe, you’re trying to service five characters there. Are they present or do they get a voice in the edit on that, or is that you making those decisions?
Kevin Heffernan, he sits in the edit room with me the whole time. So it’s basically the editor (Spencer Houck), Kevin and I, and the three of us will cut the film and basically come up with ideas to how to fix our problems and really put the rhythm of it together. The other guys will watch each cut and send us notes, ‘I did this take, and this might be a funnier read on this’, or ‘I think you guys are spending too much time on this scene’. They’ll sort of be the outside eyes before we show it to a real audience. So we’ll save them for later.
But at the end of the day, I decide. The director has to be the one who says ‘this is what the film’s going to be’ and that’s the final final.
So on the writing side, I guess you’re trying to balance five voices there as well. Does that ever get complicated?
Well, it’s complicated because most movies have a lead character and that character, they find out what their issue in the first 15, 20 minutes of the movie, and then they go around solving the issue and then eventually they solve it. This movie has to have five lead characters. It’s almost like one organism, we have to treat the whole five as one creature. So it’s a little funky, it’s hard to do. It’s hard to make it work for five different characters. But, we’ve done it a number of times.
Python certainly did it well. But it’s not your normal type of movie. It’s like a different kind of movie.
One of my favourite moments in the film, there are references to the first movie, but with the meow joke you guys found a really good way of using that without just repeating the joke. Did that come easily or did you have to really grind at that?
Well, that particular joke is our most famous joke. That joke has found its way onto children’s t-shirts and posters and newswomen and baseball players. For whatever reason, that joke really landed and there’s no way to say why, right? It’s just, that’s the joke that people probably think of most when they think of us and they think of our movies, they love that joke.
We figured if we’re gonna do a call back we should call that joke back, but how do we do that without doing the same joke? Because the first time we did it, I was very happy with how it was cut and the rhythm of it. If you don’t know that joke’s coming, when you first see that joke you’re like ‘Oh my god, are they saying meow?’ and then you experience it the same way that the driver did. So we couldn’t really do that joke again because everybody would see it coming.
We couldn’t figure out how to do it, but we knew we needed to call it back.
We thought, we’ll bring Jim Gaffigan back. He became a massive comedy star in the intervening years, so we wanted him back. Then we thought, wouldn’t it be hilarious if these guys had played so many hundreds and thousands of games that they don’t even remember it?
We wrote a scene, actually, where they approach the car and they’re mooing, like a cow. They were doing a moo joke, then they realise it’s the same guy and he goes ‘You guys did a meow joke’ and they’re like ‘No, that doesn’t ring a bell’.
So we went down that road, eventually we landed on that. I was very happy about how this turned out.
This film was crowdfunded, to a degree. My wife actually backed it, so I can tell you that from a backer perspective she was pleased with how it went. When did that become part of the conversation, and how do you feel it went?
Well we went to Fox and said ‘Can we make the sequel?’ and they said ‘Sure, but you guys have got to raise the money.’ Well ok, we can do that.
So we went to the investor class, the people who invest in these sort of films and most of them were like ‘I don’t know, hasn’t it been too long, maybe?’ And we didn’t know the answer to that. People were not sure if the fans were still out there.
So we just decided to do a crowdfunding campaign and really roll the dice. If the crowd responded, great, we’d make the movie. If they didn’t, that really was gonna be a signal that nobody wanted to see the movie and we wouldn’t be able to make it. So we went out there and shot these videos and we tried it and within 24 hours we had two million dollars. When the campaign was done we had $4.6m. You know, 54,000 people gave us money.
It’s like, what we thought was true… when we walk around people will approach us and say ‘Hey, Super Troopers!’ and you’re like ‘Well, if that’s true, then maybe this crowdfunding thing will work.’ But you’ve also got to remember that they just recognise you, and they’re gonna mention the one thing that they know us from. So it’s no sure thing. George Clooney walks around they go ‘Hey, Ocean’s Eleven!’
So, you never know.
In our case it worked out. I think it worked out once, I don’t think we can do it again. But I think it worked out well.
Does it increase the pressure on you, because it’s the hardcore fans, to appease them or to include everything they liked from the first one?
Well, I think that the reality is that the pressure is high no matter what. You’re really saying ‘Hey, here’s a sequel to a film you loved’ and if we make a bad film we not only ruined the sequel but we’ve ruined two films, because now you’re gonna feel bad about the first film.
The pressure when you say ‘Hey, I have a funny joke’ is high. People say ‘I’ll be the judge of that’, right?
But this is a high pressure business. You succeed massively, publicly, and you fail massively, publicly. And people write nasty things about you and your crowd decides whether you’re good or not. There’s a lot of vulnerability and exposure out there and the pressure is high. But what are you gonna do? That’s show business. That’s the excitement of it.
I think I’m just coming to the end of my time and wanted to ask you if there’s any chance of a sequel to Beerfest now that you’re in the sequel business?
We’re discussing that. We’re trying to get the rights to make that deal. Warner Brothers holds the rights to the sequel. So if they will let us do it we’re gonna make it. We have a good story for it, so we’d love to do it.
What is your favourite Jason Statham film?
I liked that one he did with Melissa McCarthy. I think it was called Spy. You know that one?
I thought he was hilarious in that movie. I thought that was a great one.
So, my editor interviewed Paul Feig about how he wrote Spy, and he said that when he wrote Spy, he wrote out a spy movie and then turned it into a comedy from there. Do you have a similar process for something like Super Troopers?
No, we don’t. We break a story into an outline, and then we revise the outline three or four times. So that takes six weeks. Once we have an outline of a story, which is really the three act structure of what’s gonna happen from the beginning to the end, then we’ll go and write a draft. But we’ll each only write 20 pages so we can generate it quickly. And then we’ll have a hundred pages of really disjointed, weird script. But it’s something, it’s something to start working off of, and then we’ll just revise it. We’ll revise it 37 times.
After the third draft one person will take over the whole script writing process and that person will be responsible for putting all the new jokes in and writing the dialogue and whatever.
We wrote 37 drafts of this script and finally we got it to where we were like ‘ok, let’s shoot it’. We basically write up until the moment we start shooting. Once we start shooting we keep writing little jokes for every new day we’re shooting. The more you write the better chance you’re gonna have of something terrific. And then we improvised a little bit on set. But we don’t work the way that Paul or Judd Apatow work.
So, over the course of that long drafting process, do you finish with a story that’s roughly in line with the original three acts?
Yeah, we do. If you look at the outline, it’s pretty close. There will be, in the middle of draft seven someone said ‘Well, what if we went completely in the opposite direction with this character and tried this instead?’ Like [removed for spoilers].
Those kind of things come up. Like, us dressing as Mounties was not part of the original script. We eventually came up with the idea, we thought it would be a great way to do those pranks. Otherwise we were American cops doing pranks on Canadians and, I don’t know, there was something kind of mean about it.
Jay Chandrasekhar, thank you very much!
Super Troopers 2 is in UK cinemas from Friday.