LA Film Fest 2012 Interview: IT'S A DISASTER with Writer/Directer Todd Berger & Actor David Cross
Twitch had the pleasure of sitting down with Todd Berger, the writer/director of IT'S A DISASTER, and one of the principal cast members, David Cross. The interview, in one of the "Ultra Chiq" apartments of the Watermarke Tower was casual and jokey. To maintain that tone, we edited the interview very little, only removing any spoilers that came up.
I wanted to start things off with a bit of a joke question to see David Cross's impeccable comedic whit in action. It references a very funny scene in the film. The answer I got was certainly not what I was expecting. I'm still not sure if they were joking or not. You can be the judge.
Alex: David, if Todd were to set you down on a bed with him on one side of you and his lovely wife on the other...
David: I know where you're going but that's based on a real experience. We workshopped a lot of this and that was something-- we'd all met at his house, where we first met everybody to do the first read through and it didn't happen then, but it happened after that. I came over to get a haircut. And the later... uh... Todd cuts hair as well...
Alex: I'm glad you elaborated and didn't just leave that odd detail hanging out there with no explanation.
David: Well, otherwise it would seem weird. Why would you go to your director's house for a hair cut after the read through. Anyway, so they are polyamorous-- which is a polite way of saying they're fucking around. Swingers.
David: Yes, open. I mean, I hadn't even heard of that polyamorous phrase. Which is totally latin. Although, poly might be Greek. I think poly is greek and amour is latin.
Alex: That would be a good trick question for the SATs.
David: Yeah. So, that's based on a real thing and that is sort of how I reacted to fucking Todd.
Todd: But just me though, not with my wife.
David: She's a great lady, but the chemistry... we just didn't...
Alex: You can't force these things. Well--
David: You can, but then it's in a whole different category.
Alex: That would be a different movie entirely.
Alex: You [Todd] have a comedy troupe so you've worked with a lot of the cast before, including on your previous film. Can you talk a little bit about that ongoing collaboration and then about bringing David into the mix.
Todd: He's now in the troop, actually. [Joking] We're doing impov tonight at The UCB. Um, but no... Let's see, I've known Kevin Brennan for fifteen years since college and he went to the Second City program in Chicago where he met Jeff Grace and Blaise Miller. They all moved out here in about 2005 so we started doing shows together at Tangier in Los Feliz, which is now Korean BBQ. And we would make these shorts that we would show at our shows and then we shot a feature in 2008 called The Scenesters that was well received at the festivals. And then, when I wrote this script, we decided-- well, we were friends with Julia Stiles because we'd done a viral video (link) with her a few years ago and we sent her the script and she responded well to it and we basically had to wait six months for her to finish doing a play on Broadway. And so we were like, Julia, is there anyone else you wanted to work with that you think we should approach? And she said she's a big fan of America Ferrera and so we sent the script to her and she really liked it. She immediately suggested David and we were all like, "Yes!" And, he read it and enjoyed it and agreed-- Luckily we all had a sense-- we'd been working together for seven years-- so when you bring a young upstart like David into the mix, we were able to make him comfortable. I think he blended in pretty well.
David: You almost don't know I'm there.
Todd: We kind of have a short hand with each other [the comedy troupe] where I'd sometimes forget that we're good friends so when I'm directing, I'd be short. Or like, we'd say something insulting to each other as a joke and then I'd realize and be like, "does everybody else know we're just messing around?"
David: In the very beginning, definitely you and Jeff had those moments and it did take me the first couple of days where I was like, "eh... weird, shitty..." But then I was quick to realize that's how they communicate. They've known each other forever. It's like a married couple.
Todd: Like if someone pronounces a word wrong in the script, I would be like, "It's COM-UNE-IIIII-CATE!" [over annunciating] and I would get upset, but as a joke but no one else necessarily knew that.
David: But you didn't act that way with us.
Todd: Oh yeah. It's like this thing they say, whenever you are working with children-- not that you're children--
Todd: On the first day, you take someone in the crew and you yell at them in front of the child so that the child knows you can be mean. And then, you're always nice to the child. But on the first day you yell at one of the other actors. You tell the actor you are going to do it. Just so you can put the fear into the child.
David: That makes sense.
Todd: Not that, that happened, but maybe it turned out that way.
Alex: The film feels like it could be a stage play without much adaptation. It's very contained in one location, it has an ensemble cast. Had you thought about it that way? Did you ever stage it or workshop it or rehearse it like that?
Todd: No, not at all. It was really written to be one location because it would be cheap to shoot. Looking back on it now I can see that it could be a one act. Maybe I'll go off broadway with it. Maybe it'll happen.
David: For the record, you're the first person to bring that up. So kudos.
Alex: Cool. So do I get in on the backend? You know, if it blows up on Broadway or something?
David starts making a wincing sound that he continues for an impressively long time.
Alex: Is that a no?
David is still wincing through his teeth.
Alex: Because you guys know I'm recording this, right?
David takes a big breath.
David: That's a tough one.
He begins a drawn-out wince again. After about 10 seconds he finally pauses.
Todd: But no.
David. Yeah, no.
Alex. So no.
They shake their heads.
Alex: Okay, I won't get my hopes up.
David: Yeah, you shouldn't.
Alex: We've seen you play all manor of wacky, eccentric, and extreme characters, from MR. SHOW to ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT-- what made you, Todd, decide to cast him as the straight man? Not that we haven't seen range from him, but I appreciated seeing him cast against type. And David, was it an interesting challenge for you to play the comedy as the straight man?
Todd: I didn't have a doubt for a second that he could do it. We all know that the being the straight man is actually the hardest job. You know, Abbot got paid more than Costello. And Zeppo... I don't know if Zeppo was paid the most but it was the hardest job and I was one hundred percent confident that he could pull it off.
David: I was very happy and flattered to be given the chance to do that, because, as you said, I'm often the wackier, more arch character. Either the angry, yelly guy or the obnoxious guy or the nerd. I just don't get to do this kind of thing. Especially the nature of this movie which is very talky and you have distinct personalities. I had scenes playing against Rachel who plays Lexi, who is arguably the most in denial, kind of chirpy-- certainly the one who would annoy my character more than anybody else. And, that scene where we're looking for the radio, and we did these longer takes where she was really annoying me, and I'm saying this in character, like she was absolutely infuriating. Because, I suppose, my character has the quicker sense of gravitas in the situation. But yeah, it was great. It was really fun to do. I had a great time playing it really down, but it still informed the character.
Alex: How collaborative was the process from writing to staging. Was there much improvisation?
Todd: Well, I met with the individual actors and we talked and then I went back and did one more rewrite before we shot, taking a lot of what we talked about. And, there were a lot of things with David's character-- even like his wardrobe. He's wearing a Livestrong bracelet the entire movie and that was completely his idea. And very subtle things that he threw in or any of the other actors. And then, there was a lot of improv in the larger scenes with a lot of characters. I wanted it to seem like they were really actual friends, and friends talk over each other. They interrupt each other. They don't wait their turn to speak, especially at a dinner party. That was very important for me.
David: Is it my turn to speak now? Should I...? Okay. Uhhhh, but yeah. It should be understood that there was improvisation when we had to. There were certain scenes that it was planned for-- but the script was really sharp and it was a testament to the writing that a lot of it feels improvised. There was some, especially when you're on take eight and you start goofing around and doing other stuff, But, you know, there were places that the characters had to go. There was information that had to come out and we couldn't abandon that stuff so it's a really good mix. The script was actually really tight.
One of the things that was so appealing, was that the jokes, the things that people say that are funny, that make you laugh, are true to that character. It's not a writer going, "I have this funny joke that would be a really funny response to a comment about babysitters. How do I get that in there?" There is none of that. It all just flows and makes sense. I think it's one of the underlying reasons people enjoy that movie. They walk out of there almost with a sense of surprise. "That was really good, you know."
Alex: It transcends the premise.
David: It feels real. The things that they say that are funny-- they feel like they would say them.
Tood: And no one is making jokes. It's not like sarcastic, witty comments. No one has that. They are busy. To me, that's very important. The humor comes from what they say, not how they say it. They are not trying to be funny.
David: I just thought of a really good example of that. Treated differently, and it would be treated differently by so many other people, but the thing that happens at a really dramatic and crazy moment. And, please rewrite this to remove any spoilers: [One of the characters] does [something really extreme] and [another] says, "What the fuck, [other character]. You're a guest in this house!" That would be treated so differently by so many directors. It would be teed up. It would be a different frame. It would feel differently. It would be spotlighted. But here, it really comes out as a thing that that-asshole would say and it would really piss him off. It's a joke that would still be funny but it would feel like the writer's joke. It's a good example of the humor in the movie because it's just done like how he would really say it. You don't labor on it. He says it and you just move on. It's just such a dumb response with all this awful shit going on and then this guy, whose gotten shit from everywhere, is able to have this righteous moment.
Todd: My favorite line in the whole movie, which I don't think gets a big enough laugh, which we thought of on set was when Shane, Jeff's character is giving a speech. He's talking about how they should all leave and he grabs the backpack and puts it on and Blaise leans over and says, "Is that my backpack?" And, he says, "Yeah." Because that's what they would do. It makes no sense in that scene but it's what those characters would say. "You're kinda bummin' my backpack, bro."
Alex: Since you are primarily known for being an actor, at least according to IMDB, I wonder if you are able to pull out more of those character moments as a directer.
Todd: Well, I have the most IMDB credits as an actor but what I've been paying the bills with for ten years is as a writer. Assignment work and adaptations. Like a Kung Fu Panda short thing.
David: A connection!
Todd: Yeah, we worked together before even though we were never in the same room. But, normally when I write a script, I'm very plot heavy. Like Billy Wilder said, "The three most important things in a movie are plot, plot and plot." My first feature, The Scenesters was plot heavy, almost to a fault. A lot of people really liked the movie but a lot of people don't because they don't know what's going on. So, when I started writing this I focused on characters and the actors and there is almost no plot in this movie. It's very simple, what happens. I really wanted to try something as a directer that was completely different for me. All one location. All just people talking with each other. Knowing actors and knowing that we were going to have good people allows you to just breath. And, the way I wanted to shoot it with these long takes, letting people just do their thing-- we shot on two cameras which was amazing because you can just actually have people reacting off camera, off of what they are saying, in the moment. You don't have to fake it all the time.
Alex: Speaking of which, what were some of the technical details of the production? What kind of cameras? How long was the shoot? What was the budget like if you can talk about that?
Todd: We shot with the Arri Alexa which David really likes. He shot the second season of Todd Margaret on it. He was actually the biggest proponent of it.
David: Huge fan of the Alexa.
Todd: It was between the Red and the Alexa and I mentioned that to him and he said, "you gotta shoot Alexa."
David: It just allows you to save so much time and money in post. You can punch in. You can make a dirty shot a clean shot and not lose any resolution. You spend way less time in telecine and doing all the color correction stuff. It just looks so good. And lighting, you don't have to worry about lighting so much. We used it on another project that was also pretty low budget and it allowed us to put more attention into what was going on while you're doing it.
Todd: And we shot the whole movie in fourteen days. That was it. We had weekends off but it was a four day week and two five day weeks. Ninety percent of the movie was shot with both cameras running. It was all shot in that one, real house except for the garage which was the house across the street. And the last shot of the movie was also in that garage. We had to recreate the dining room in a different location because the ceilings were too low for our crane.
Alex: And speaking of last shots, we have time for one last question. It's the most unique and original of last questions. What's next for you guys?
Todd: Right now, I'm just doing a bunch of writing. I have a project with The Jim Henson Company that Brian Henson is going to direct. It's an R rated puppet movie, THE HAPPY TIME MURDERS. And, I'm writing the WHERE'S WALDO movie. Which is a story that writes itself.
David: Is the Where's Waldo movie subtitled, "Fifteen Years Too Late?"
Todd: You'd be surprised.
David: I'd be very surprised.
Todd: The international appeal of Waldo... and he's still beloved!
David: Ahhhhhhh. I would like to recommend casting. If you could reanimate Bob Denver... Right? Gilligan's Island, Bob Denver.
Todd: Okay! I'll bring that up.
Alex: It could be like that Tupac hologram at Coachella.
Todd: Yeah. But yeah, I have a whole stack of scripts that I've written but we've just been so busy with this. But once the dust settles I'll start thinking about which to do next.
Alex: Are they all written with this same group in mind?
Todd: No. Not necessarily.
David: And I'm starting to dabble in standup comedy. Stick my toes in the water. Doing that in a bit. I've got a wedding coming up... in a couple of months. That's taking up a lot of time.
Alex: A wedding? That being your wedding or...?
David: Yes. No, it's my side job.
Alex: To Todd and his wife?
David: Yes, they renew their vows once a week and we're joining in. But yeah, so that's taking up a lot of time and then I have no real projects that I'm jumping into.
Alex: Cool cool. Well, I'll hold my tongue on asking about Arrested Development. I'm sure you get asked about that way too much and have nothing to add to what's already out there.
David: Yeah. I wish there was something to tell you, man but there is nothing to tell.
IT'S A DISASTER does not yet have distribution but we'll be sure to let you know when it's going to be coming to a theater near you. In the meantime, you can read our review of the film here.