Interview: Couples Retreat Director Peter Billingsley
Thu, 08 Oct 2009 09:36:31
Peter Billingsley Videos
Relationships can be funny as all hell—keyword "hell."
For director Peter Billingsley, the humor inherent in romance served as the perfect comic fodder for Couples Retreat. Four seemingly "normal" couples retreat to an island getaway for rest, relaxation and therapy, and they realize that there's a whole lot more wrong with their relationships than they ever imagined. However, massive laughs come courtesy of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau's impeccable timing and Billingsley's deft direction and care for the material.
Billingsley sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor Rick Florino for this exclusive interview about finding laughs in our everyday problems, a Guitar Hero stand off, the world's biggest metronome and so much more in this exclusive interview.
Is there something inherently funny about shaky relationships?
I think there's something funny about relationships in general. For a lot romantic comedies, and comedies in general, people feel the need for some sort of high concept hook—like, "Oh, I'll get the inheritance if I fall in love in twelve days." I don't think you need that. I think there are enough complexities in people that are so damn funny. Especially as I look back at my life—the choices I've made, the things I've said and what I've done—once the pain's gone, it's pretty damn funny. I think it's fun to be able to explore very real life people that seem grounded in their own way but are trying to find their way through life. They're relatable and like a lot of other people in this country.
Every couple faces these problems, and the four separate couples could actually represent just one marriage.
That's exactly right. We've always talked about it being four heads of the same person in a way. I feel that I can relate to aspects of everybody. We are complex as people and we have a lot of thoughts. We make a lot of choices for a whole host of different reasons. If you look at the characters and the issues they're going through, they're issues that we've all dealt with, and they're very relatable issues. It's always fun when you talk to audiences after seeing it. Some relate to some couples more than others, but everybody seems to find aspects of all of the couples within themselves—or at least have those feelings.
That's what makes the laughs so organic.
Yeah, because you realize where it's coming from. These are people trying to navigate their lives. We all have hopes and dreams. Sometimes we don't make the best decisions in our lives or pride gets in our way. We over plan things. You can't predict life. It just happens. Or, we don't make time for our partner because we get too overwhelmed. These are all very relatable things. We had the opportunity to look at them in a comedic way and they go to an extreme place. What's fun is we took the humor to these extreme situations the characters are put into, but these are very normal, grounded people in this place, which is sort of an Oz like world.
Each character is on the cusp of something. They're all going through transitions and they haven't taken the time to look at what's right in front of them.
As they say, sometimes it's easier to give advice than it is to take it. Sometimes, the things that are right in front of our noses are the things we look at the least. "Message" is a rough word, and I don't like to use it. But I think there is a positive outcome to this movie. This movie is PG-13 by design. It's accessible, and it's relatable. It does have a bit of a hopeful message that it's never to late to try. It's okay to try. It's a good thing. Relationships are positive, and it's better to go it with somebody than to go it alone.
Why did you choose Billy Squier's "Lonely Is the Night" for the Guitar Hero scene?
That was actually Vince's idea. He was like, "We should go with Billy Squier!" On the soundtrack for the movie, a lot of the needle drops. If you can appeal to the older generation without alienating the younger one, you can expose some songs to the younger audience that they haven't heard and you can also be nostalgic for those that know those songs. It's fun! Guitar Hero has been used a couple of times in films, but it's fun. We put it in the movie in an extreme way. Absurdly, it amounts to almost a rock concert on the island [Laughs]. We're all big fans of Rock Band and Guitar Hero too. Vince plays guitar in real life. We've all formed bands and had office rivalries [Laughs]. We set it up so they're really playing. It's very authentic.
Do you play music on set to get everyone into character?
We do. For scenes like the one in Eden East where there was a party going on, you traditionally blast music for like the first seven seconds before you yell, "Action." Then you let it settle and a "thump track" plays. It's this low rumble thing at a frequency that we can remove later, but it keeps everyone moving.
It's like a drummer's "click track."
Exactly right! It's like a metronome on another level, so the whole room is moving. Even if you don't use that song, you choose the beat that you want—the tempo and the rhythm. Between takes, we'll play music and if there's a wide show with no dialogue we'll jam music to get energy. I think music certainly helps.
The film has a real rhythm. You're almost like a conductor bringing all of these different comedic styles together. Vince, Jon and Faizon are all funny in different ways. All of these styles swirl together.
That's interesting. I never thought about it that way. We have a really talented editor named Dan Leventhal who we've worked with on pretty much all of the films that we've done. He's got a music video and documentary background. You're exactly right. There are different rhythms to scenes and different rhythms to people. You cut people and you paste things differently. When Jean Reno comes on screen, it all slows down because it's geared to him and now he's taking over. So he's in charge of the rhythm. When it's Vince and Jon, there's a quicker rhythm to it. When the story works, you're able to do it. One of my favorite scenes in the movie has no dialogue—just music. It's when Favreau wants to "satisfy himself" [Laughs]. The camera slowly moves. There's a little rack focus. The music is sort of sad. There are these sleepy little edits, and it's slowly happening. You're able to mix styles that fundamentally fit what those couples are going through. Aesthetically, that matches him trying to find something in his life that's pleasing and he just can't.
Rhythm's so important to comedy.
I think so too. I had done enough stuff leading up to this and been around the process on a producer level and had worked with Vince to know that comedy is momentum and it's energy. The last thing you want to do is be lighting for three hours because you're just going to kill the scene. You want to set up multiple cameras, light it as quickly as you can and make it beautiful. Thank God for Eric Edwards, who's our DP. He also shot The Break-up. He can move at a great place and at a click. You have to step back and let the actors work because ultimately it's comedy. It's going to be editorial paced. It's about getting that. The actors are the special effects in this movie. In other movies, you've got suits and flying things and explosions. Here, you've got Vince Vaughn and a host of other great comedic actors, and they're the special effects. In Iron Man, you spend nine hours setting up for the suit flying by. Here, you spend the time for the actors, and that's where you take the time do it. I had to learn not to yell, "Cut" early. That was the first couple of days. If something comes, you let it. You see their wheels turning, they'd be done with the scene and then something starts to brew and they push reset or go on another tangent, you wait and you get some pretty great stuff from that.
The little details in this movie are fantastic—like the kid peeing in the store toilet…
I've never seen that, but it's so real when you think about it. Like, how does that not happen? [Laughs] The kid's all proud that he did good. How do you not say he did good?! He's so proud he peed in the toilet. I felt a little pressure directing child actors, based on my history. I knew I had to get it right. I got very lucky with those two kids. We auditioned a lot of kids, and those two really stood out. They just did a tremendous job. It's very important, because they're grounding the movie. I think the kids really play an important aspect in this film, and they make everything relatable. For most couples, that's how it happens—they've got kids and jobs pulling at them and suddenly they realize they haven't gone to dinner in a year. We do keep the movie moving. There are no pauses for laughing. There are some other laughs in the punchlines for jokes but that's kind of the fun part of it. When you're doing something grounded, relatable and real, it's such fertile ground and you don't have to stretch it to have some weird concept or leap of faith to take. It's somewhere in the story a kid's peeing in the toilet. You can think of funny ideas from that point of view.
Like the shark attack where Vince has just the little scrape…
We've all been there—when you have something that happened to you that you think was so much worse, but really it wasn't that horrible but now you're committed and you have to make it even worse than it was. All of those things are signs of life and they're relatable. In today's times with as much bad news is on the news and is cynical as society is, it's fun to make a movie that's entertaining for people and makes them laugh that makes them relate and is a chance to go to the movies and actually escape from what I think can be difficult and tough out there. At the end of the day if they can take something positive from it and say, "I'll work a little harder," I think that's a nice thing.