Interview: The Team Behind 'Hamlet 2'
Thu, 21 Aug 2008 11:56:29
Steve Coogan Videos
Everybody had a teacher like Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). A teacher who thinks he’s the star of his own personal Dead Poets Society, but really he’s just a bit part in a bad episode of 90210. That’s what makes Hamlet 2 so hilarious and more importantly, so relatable.
Maybe it’s Olympic fever, but I can’t look at the creators of this film without thinking, “Dream Team.” Director Andrew Fleming did monster comedies like the edgy Threesome and the insanely creative Dick. Writer Pam Brady redefines the heights you can reach with dick and fart jokes every time she puts ink to paper on juggernauts like South Park and Team America. And Steve Coogan’s British comedy résumé runs longer than my…leg. Night at the Museum gave Americans a taste of Coogan, and Hamlet 2 will cement him as the next big thing.
I had the chance to sit down with these irreverent filmmakers and talk about their irreverent movie at the Beverly Hilton in what was rumored to be the room in which John Edwards so irreverently cheated on his wife. Too bad I left the black light at home.
“Drama school is a sanctuary for people who are terminally bewildered.”
How did you guys know my senior English teacher?
Andrew Fleming: We’ve been following your life.
Pam Brady: That’s what we felt, that everyone always has this teacher. My English teacher was just like Dana, too, and in my high school, we even had a Latin teacher who lived in his classroom. It was pretty depressing, and we always wondered, "What goes on when these teachers go home?" Well, except with the Latin teacher because we basically had class in his home.
Steve Coogan: I went to drama school for three years instead of studying it properly, so I met lots of people like Dana Marschz. Drama school is a sanctuary for people who are terminally bewildered.
AF: There are teachers who actually teach you things and are very efficient at getting facts across—models of behavior. And then there are those teachers who are just messes and you can see that their life is crumbling around them, and they end up teaching more because they teach you about how hard life is and how disappointing it can be.
Was there ever a thought about giving Dana Marschz’s character an English accent since Steve Coogan is British?
AF: We originally wrote Dana as American, but then we got involved with Steve and started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if he was British?”
PB: Everything sounds funnier with a British accent. It’s just so elegant and makes the words sound better, which is all I’m concerned with. But Steve had a great creative point, which is that he never believed a British person would be in Tucson going through this; it was a uniquely American experience and making him British would seem too shoehorned in.
SC: When I read the script, what was coming off the page to me was quite clearly someone who was American. You hear an accent when you read something, and I definitely didn’t hear someone who was English. Also, the fact that he was so emotionally open and demonstrative is not really a British thing. People on the West Coast of America, those people explore themselves emotionally. I go to bookstores and look at all the self help books, and as a British person I think, “How many books do you need on how to make yourself a better human being?” But Dana is the kind of person who would consume all those books. Also I thought if you made him British, it would become a defining thing, he would have to start talking about English stuff, and it’s not about that, it’s about someone who’s creative and loves the arts.
AF: We kept talking about it, but then finally Steve said that there’s one thing you have to understand: a character like Dana Marschz who has this kind of enthusiasm but with no intelligence to back it up doesn’t exist in Britain.
PB: Blind optimism is a uniquely American trait.
SC: Plus, I thought I’d quite like to do something that’s not English especially in America so that I don’t end up playing bad guys and butlers.
It seems that comedies these days aren’t rated R anymore. Is the big boy rating something you had to fight for?
PB: No, luckily since it was an independently financed movie, we got to do whatever we wanted from the get-go.
AF: We wanted to keep the testic-ularity.
SC: I do like to see what you can get away with. Not in terms of trying to shock people, but to see what will stick. Like when I knocked the phallic pink balloon against Skylar’s face, that was something that Skylar and I came up with and we showed Andy, and he started laughing. But it made sense because the action is funny and sad and complicated all at the same time since Skylar’s character is clearly in love with me, and that’s the closest he’s going to get to intimacy. So there’s a sort of emotional truth to it even though it’s just stupid.
Was that gag prompted by the contest from Whose Line Is It Anyway? where they take a prop and see how many jokes they can do with it?
SC: No, but happy to be associated with such a funny show.
How often did you contribute with improvisations like this?
SC: Not a lot. There was a lot of collaboration between me and Andy and Pam because we became very friendly, like a creative threesome. A lot of what I suggested to them they took on board, but it’s their script and the film remains pretty faithful to what they wrote. Sometimes the curse of writing a well-crafted script is that it flows so comfortably people think it must be improvised when actually in fact it wasn’t. Having said that, about 10 percent of the time we would do stuff that wasn’t in the script. But that wasn’t improvised in front of the camera. Before we’d do a take, I’d ask Andy, why don’t we try this, should I do this, why don’t we try such and such.
What was the inspiration for the musical numbers in Hamlet 2? Since Pam has written on South Park and Team America, did you seek any help from Trey Parker or Matt Stone?
AF: We were without guidance in the music department. We always talked about there being a “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” number, but originally in the script you didn’t see that much of the show. You mostly just saw the audience reaction. But there was always this idea of a sexy Jesus, and it just kind of sprang up, this little diddy.
PB: Jesus inspired us.
AF: Neither of us has ever really written songs. Did you on South Park?
PB: No, the writers would throw out lyrics, but not writing songs.
AF: Written a lot of poetry. A lot of bad poetry.
PB: Spoken word.
AF: But it was really the kind of thing where as we were prepping the movie, I said we should have more of the musical there. Because it was kind of a cheat, you didn’t see that much of it in the script. People kept asking, “What’s the show?” and we said, “We don’t know.” And then we panicked and wrote as many crazy songs as possible, and the show just grew and grew and grew. It was kind of like actually putting on a show. And the kids, except for Phoebe Strole and Skylar Astin who were on Broadway in Spring Awakening, had never done musical theatre. So it really was an amateurish effort.
Life imitates art and art imitates life. Did Skylar and Phoebe’s background on Broadway help the musical numbers gel?
SC: Skylar and Phoebe, they were both very smart, likeable, and loveable people. I think Skylar is going to do very well; he played naïve and vulnerable very, very convincingly. He made suggestions to me, and at first I was a bit shocked. I thought, “Why is this 20-year-old kid trying to tell me how to do my job?” But his suggestions were smart and funny which shocked me and after the first few times I told him, "If you’ve got any ideas, throw them my way." You can learn something from everyone, and he’s probably young enough to be my son which taught me to listen to people who you think might not have something useful to tell you because sometimes they do.
How did Jesus end up in Hamlet 2?
AF: Well there’s a time machine, and Hamlet didn’t know how to work it properly, so…
Wiseacre. What I mean is how did Dana Marschz get to the point where he’s not just writing Hamlet 2, but he’s also writing Jesus into the play?
AF: We’d been working on this script for about six years, and we had this placeholder that was just a series of crazy images with the cast of Friends and Monica Lewinsky and…
PB: …Hilary Clinton, Dick Cheney…
AF: …having sex with the devil. They were just random images used as a placeholder. And then right before shooting, we started from scratch and rewrote this section with something much more coherent.
Steve, considering many states in America are of the red variety, does it make you nervous to be the poster child for “Rock Me Sexy Jesus”?
SC: I’ve been told by the studio that there are rumblings from certain quarters about it. It doesn’t worry me personally, not because I don’t care but because the script justifies it. I’m not into the idea of being shocking for the sake of being shocking or being tasteless in a teenage contrary way. What concerns me is what the intention is behind the joke, what the spirit is behind the context, and this movie has a generosity of spirit. It’s not mean-spirited. Within that context, I think people will find it acceptable. But also part of the joke is the inappropriateness of the song, so by its very nature it has to be credibly offensive because there are protesters in the film. Besides, the notion of portraying Jesus as attractive was done in Jesus Christ Superstar, it was done in Godspell, and if you look at the Sistine Chapel, you’ll find that Jesus Christ was reasonably attractive.
Was High School Musical big when you thought of doing this movie?
AF: It was our inspiration. No. Someone asked me if Hamlet 2 was the antidote for High School Musical, and I answered, “There is no antidote.”
PB: It’s taken hold. There is no cure. Actually, we were more inspired by Madonna’s last tour, the one where she crucified herself.
AF: It was so distasteful, we were like, “Yes—this is what we’re going for.”
PB: She just threw everything at the audience. She’s riding a horse on a stripper pole, behind her there’s images of Condoleeza Rice and Hitler.
Besides Madonna, what other vulgar displays of tastelessness gave inspiration?
AF: But they were very nice and let us shoot in front of their theater.
PB: I guess we shouldn’t say Rent then.
AF: A friend of ours made this movie about rape. She was raped and she made a movie about it called Open Window. It’s actually very good, but parts of it are funny because it’s about the anxiety around the subject of rape.
AF: See? It got very quiet when we started talking about this. People around you get very anxious if you talk about rape. Something odd happens if someone says in a general conversation, “Well, I was raped.” So that was an inspiration, too.
Does that mean Hamlet 2 holds no ground sacred?
SC: You have to look at things in context and see if someone is making a point about something. If something is just done for the sake of being controversial, then it’s invalid. There is such a thing as bad taste. I produce TV shows, and I go through scripts with other writers and I’ve found myself saying, “I find that joke morally unacceptable.” I’ve actually said, “I find that joke tasteless.” So I’m not someone who thinks you can do whatever you like whenever you want.
Andy, since you’ve never done musicals before, how was it for you directing these massive musical sequences?
AF: I’ve done musicals at home for myself.
PB: Mostly starring corgi puppies that he dresses up.
AF: And hand puppets.
PB: It’s something to be seen.
AF: I’m a fan of musicals. I saw Chorus Line four times in high school, so clearly I have a problem.
There’s a screwball angle to this movie, but Hamlet 2 doesn’t qualify as a screwball comedy at all. In fact, it’s got a lot of heart, but the trailer always shows the girl getting hit in the head with the bucket. Are you guys a little upset that the marketing makes the film look so slapstick?
PB: No, because everybody likes a good bucket to the head.
AF: No matter what the movie is, there’s a bit of a shell game with the trailer and the commercials and the poster. I think people will go see this because it’s funny and it’s strange and that comes across. As to the emotion, we were never really going for emotion at all, and I think it came out like reverse osmosis, like suddenly there is an emotional level to the film. And I think that is because it wasn’t calculated. We weren’t trying to make people cry or anything, we were just trying to be honest.
PB: I think originally when we started out we wanted a delusional character who will never give up and we just kept throwing everything at him. So during the first act, you constantly think, “This poor guy.” And I think as a function of that, when Dana finally succeeds at something, you feel like, “Thank God!” Plus, Steve’s such a great actor that you really feel sorry for Dana.
SC: Dana’s very, very, very in touch with what he feels, and that’s an attitude I see a lot in Los Angeles, so it’s very familiar to me. And it amuses me, but that doesn’t mean I judge it. You can mock, but you have to love the things that you mock because that’s what gives your character a real humanity. I think that was the hardest thing about doing this part, not the comedy which is mechanical—and hard, but once you nail it, you’ve nailed it—but it’s doing the stuff that makes the audience connect with you emotionally.
How did you think of Steve Coogan in the first place to play Dana Marschz?
AF: Someone suggested him to us, and we wanted to meet him because we were fans.
PB: We said, “He’ll never do this, but we could actually meet him!”
AF: We just wanted to have drinks with him. But he was very motivated to play this role.
SC: I like to do things that are different and interesting, and I’m very lucky that I have a comfortable career in Britain that pays my bills. So every creative choice I make can be exactly that. I try not to make any decisions other than gut-based creative decisions. I never do a job because I’ve been advised it will be “good for my career.” Although sometimes it does end up being good for my career, but you have to believe what you are doing is authentic.
AF: And it wasn’t necessarily the most practical move at the time because now at the studios, everyone’s like, “Oh, Steve Coogan!” but when we first suggested him, everyone said, “We don’t know who that is.”
Was Catherine Keener a first choice?
AF: I don’t think we’ve ever done that before when we wrote something and thought, “It has to be Catherine Keener.” We would not budge and threatened violence… to her.
SC: I love Catherine Keener.
How did you get Elisabeth Shue? Did you specifically write her into the script?
AF: No, we just wrote her as FAMOUS ACTRESS. It was really weird in the read through because we hadn’t cast her yet. “Oh, I loved you in FAMOUS MOVIE and I loved you in OTHER FAMOUS MOVIE.” But she read it and saw the potential there, and she was completely down with being humiliated, and I just loved her for it. It was her idea that when she comes to speak to Dana’s class, the kids don’t know who she is. I would never have thought of her, we originally intended the character to be more of a cheesy early 90s sitcom actress that hasn’t done anything since, but Elisabeth still does stuff. She’s just got a life, and her break from the business was self-imposed; she has kids. But I think it was time for her to come back. And don’t forget that the movies that we all—well, people my age—love her for are comedies. She’s very, very funny.
Is Tucson as awful as Hamlet 2 makes it seem?
AF: Oh no. It’s much worse.
It ends up being a good musical despite being ridiculous. I don’t even like musicals and I walked out of the theater wanting to actually see Dana Marschz’s production of Hamlet 2.
AF: We can neither confirm nor deny if Hamlet 2 will be premiering on Broadway.
—Jacob J. Mauldin