The Challenges of Baywatch and Its R-Rated Comedy

Director Seth Gordon tells us about how Baywatch went from "serious" action movie to a comedy that earns its R-rating.

Having successfully made the transition from documentary filmmaker to comedy director and producer, Seth Gordon has never been afraid of a challenge. But even the great comedic talent in his previous movies Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief might not have prepared him for the challenge of making an R-rated comedy out of the ‘80s TV show Baywatch.

Baywatch stars Dwayne Johnson as Mitch Buchannon, the role formerly played by David Hasselhoff, who is the leader of the elite Baywatch lifeguard team that includes Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach). It’s time to find new recruits, the candidates including a cocky Olympic gold medalist Matt Brody, played by Zac Efron, the gorgeous Summer (Alexandra Daddario), and the awkward Ronnie (Jon Bass). Meanwhile, a local politician (Priyanka Chopra) has been helping drug smugglers bringing product into the Bay, so Mitch and his team must help police solve the crime… whether they want Baywatch’s help or not.

There probably isn’t a more perfect movie to kick-off the official start of summer over Memorial Day, but anyone expecting some light humor for the whole family, might want to be forewarned that Baywatch definitely earns its R-rating, similar to 21 Jump Street and the recent CHiPS comedy.

Den of Geek got on the phone with Gordon from the film’s junket in Miami, where much of the film takes place. He also told us that his early documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, was being turned into a stage musical!

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Den of Geek: We’ve spoken a few times over the years, and up until this point, you’ve mainly done original comedies. What got you interested in jumping on something based on, in this case, a TV show.

Seth Gordon: Yeah, it’s the first film I’ve done anything with any pre-existing intellectual property. I actually thought it was a cool opportunity to take the existing ideas and the sort of equity that it has, and spin it, you know? Give it a fresh facelift. It’s something that I thought was an especially interesting challenge because the show and the property has a uniquely loaded baggage, in terms of people thinking it is cheesy. They think they know what it is, so there’s a big opportunity to refresh it.

I was thinking about that while watching this, because a lot of the movies made from old TV shows are automatically comedic whether it’s CHiPS or Starsky and Hutch, with the comedy mostly being based on the fact that the ’70s and ’80s were so cheesy. So did this project originate with you or had they been developing it with other writers and directors for a while.

Yeah, I think they took a much more serious approach for the first decade that they developed it, and I read this version, which was about 18 or 24 months ago now, and it was the first time they allowed the movie to make fun of itself and to make fun of the show a little bit. I think that was the right approach. If you do anything but that, then you kind of become the show, and that’s scary.

It was always a funny concept, and you make fun of that by having lifeguards trying to be detectives and fighting crime, which when you see it in the context of the movie, it is kind of strange. Why are lifeguards doing all this stuff? They’re not paid to do that.

Right, and we couldn’t have foreseen in the time that passed since we started thinking about the movie is the way the world would change. Frankly, that the police would be less trusted than ever, at least in this country, and that the country would now be so hungry for something fun to laugh at. We couldn’t have known that two years ago.

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Sure, absolutely, so were either Dwayne or Zac attached when you came on board?

Zac was not. Dwayne was, I’d say, loosely attached, but it was after we met that it all sort of became real and that there was a unified vision for what it could be, and we all were on the same page. It was really important to me to make sure that we all wanted to make the same movie, and I tried to make it really clear how I would dig in and make it.

Mitch was written pretty much for Dwayne. I can’t imagine another actor, either comic or not, playing Mitch the same way Dwayne does, so I was curious how much was written specifically for him.

It was definitely developed for him and with him in mind, but nobody else was officially involved at all and back, and the script changed quite a bit after I got involved. There was a stock bad guy originally, and I switched it for Priyanka (Chopra) once I met her, because she was so amazing. Anyway, it was a really cool journey.

Having a female bad guy is not something we see very often. Maybe more now, but that was definitely a different take than what might be expected.

That’s just relevant with Dwayne, because if you put him up against essentially any man, you know that brawn over brawn, who is going to win, but I think there’s a little more suspense to her approach as a bad guy, because it seems for a minute, like she’s going to win through a totally different strategy, psychologically.

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What about casting some of the other women, since the original show had some iconic women who came out of it, Pamela Anderson, Yasmin Bleeth. So many actresses got their big breakout from Baywatch.

It was really important for me to have diversity in approach, point of view, to have the female characters distinct from each other in as many ways as possible. Frankly, the script that I originally read wasn’t quite that way, and that was just a real priority for me.

I wanted to have diversity in the main cast, but also with everyone around them, too, as much as possible. To be able to cast some fresh faces. There’s several of these actors, its their first movie, and I felt like if we had it cast like the show had been, that’s just not the America we’re living in anymore or the world.

Where did you find Jon Bass? His comedic role as Ronnie, there are obviously a lot of bigger name actors that could have played him, but as far as I know, he’s a guy I’ve never seen before who steals a lot of scenes.

He’s been doing some work here and there. He’s done a show called Big Time in Hollywood, FL that was on Comedy Central, but I actually knew him because he was in Book of Mormon, the musical, the second run of that, and he came in and did an audition that was just incredible. It wasn’t even debatable who should be the part. That was similar for Kelly Rohrbach—it’s her first movie, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who plays the cop. I don’t think he’d been in a film before, so it was just trying to dig deep and find some great actors.

Kelly was great, too, and it must have been tough to follow in the footsteps of Pamela Anderson to play CJ and be as memorable, and she’s great with Jon, too. So you found these two new actors who were great on-screen together.

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Yeah, their chemistry was instantly excellent, and you never know how it’s going to go, and it worked out really well.

I’m not sure I watched any trailers before seeing the movie, which is rare for me, and I was surprised to find out it was Rated R, because I just assumed it was PG-13, just by the nature of the way the world works but 10-15 minutes in, it was really obvious it was Rated R and I was shocked. We’ve talked about that for some of your other movies, as well, so was that the deal going into this? It’s not a hard-R.

From Dwayne’s original meeting with the head of the studio was five years ago, he wanted it to be Rated R, and I just wanted it to be… if we’re going to be Rated R, we have to get there in an original way, so I didn’t want it to be Rated R in the way the show was racy, but Rated R, because of original stuff, so that’s where the morgue came from and some of the other bits.

There are lot of penises in this movie…

Indeed. We definitely earn our rated R (chuckles).

I don’t remember Dwayne doing a lot of R-rated comedy. Obviously, he has a show on HBO, but as far as movie work.

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I think that one with him and Mark Wahlberg, Pain and Gain, but that wasn’t a comedy, really.

You knew going in how far you could push this one, though, and there wasn’t any pushback to do it PG-13?

No, I think from a financial perspective, there were probably conversations that were had (chuckles) but there was never any real pressure. After we showed the movie for the first time to an audience and we saw the response that it got, there was no pressure. It was just obviously working, and they just let me refine it from there.

I know you come from an improv background, so how much of that can you use in a movie like this? I guess Dwayne must have some ability at improv, and I guess Zac does, too…

Yeah, they’re all pretty strong with improv, especially in staying on story and not just making up crazy stuff. That was something I encourage and love. I’m a big fan of keeping things lose and finding new ways to say stuff on top of different intentions. I just think you get to gold that way.

Your last movie was with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman who are so in tuned to work that way from their own background, so was it harder getting that out of this cast?

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Not at all. I don’t know an actor that doesn’t enjoy the opportunity to go off book a bit.  I think most of the time they have to stick to book, so when they off book, it’s fun.

I think it’s becoming more common where actors know that they have to know their characters well enough that they can do stuff like that.

It’s also the fact that we’re not shooting on film anymore. It’s just a lot more flexible in production. You don’t roll out. (translation: run out of film)

Well, Judd Apatow still shoots on film apparently, so I guess he has a bigger budget to afford that.

I think it’s not that. I think in their case, they need it so they have breaks. They do so much improv, they need to be forced to take a break.

Do you have anything else lined up or have you just been finishing this off?

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No, I just finished a pilot that picked up by ABC, it’s called The Good Doctor, it’s a drama, and then we have a series we just finished for Netflix, that will start airing (or whatever you call it), go on the service in August, it starts streaming then, so there’s been a lot going on.

Looking at your list of movies on IMDB, as most directors, that list is growing and growing but it’s a strange list that includes an “untitled maple syrup heist” movie. Are these things you’re actively developing or are these things you’ll just get back to when you can?

Oh, yeah, that one’s good. Oh, no, I’m actively developing that. It’s awesome. It’s the biggest heist in Canada’s history, and these guys stole $20 million of maple syrup. I mean, maple syrup is like 60 times more valuable per ounce than oil. It’s a saga that’s a great story.

I didn’t realize you executive produced Pixels, the Adam Sandler movie directed by Chris Columbus, but when I saw Peter Dinklage playing Billy Mitchell, is that the closest we might get to a King of Kong movie, do you think?

I guess, man. They still want to do it. Right now, we’re developing a King of Kong musical, which I think is going to be really cool.

Casting those two lead roles for the stage should be a lot of fun.

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Do you have a musical background as well, or some experience writing music?

No, just high school. (laughs) But for me, it’s more we just found a really talented group to do the book and the lyrics and the music, and they’re in the middle of writing it all.

Oh, I wanted to ask about the music in Baywatch, too, because it is very different from Horrible Bosses. Between the comedies, you’ve done, do you feel there’s some thing that distinguishes one as a “Seth Gordon comedy” at this point?

I think I love stories in which people are trapped in a situation, you know, against their will. That I think definitely fits here where the screw is turned, and they have to find a way out and clear Mitch’s name. That kind of theme is something I keep returning to.

Do you deliberately try to go in different directions with the music of each movie or is there something that’s consistent between the movies in that regard?

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I think it’s very important to me, and I think a big part of the movie is tone and flavor, and I worked really hard on the music for this one. I think it shows. I think it’s got a real personality. I don’t think there’s necessarily thematically the same ideas as in Bosses or Identity Thief. I do think this is uniquely its own, but I think it’s got a good blend of different genres, and I think we go to fun older stuff with Lionel Ritchie and the Bee Gees, but we got a lot of newer sounds, too, and the composed music I think is really strong, and adds a lot to the movie.

Baywatch is in theaters now.