Jay Chandrasekhar talks ‘The Babymakers,’ ‘Super Troopers 2′ and Directing [INTERVIEW]
Jay Chandrasekhar isn’t just Thorny from ‘Super Troopers’ or Barry from ‘Beerfest.’ He is also a writer and a director. Ever since joining the Broken Lizard comedy troupe—consisting of himself, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske—at Colgate University, Jay has gone on to become a well-established and respected Hollywood director.
His credits aren’t restricted to just Broken Lizard films (Super Troopers, Beerfest, Club Dread, The Slammin’ Salmon, etc.)—which in themselves are fantastic. However, look him up today and you’ll see directing credits on anything from NBC’s ‘Community’ to USA’s ‘Royal Pains’ to ‘Up All Night’, ‘Chuck’ and many more.
This August, Jay has a new film—which he both directed and stared in—starring Olivia Munn and Paul Schneider.
He talked to us last week about ‘The Babymakers’, ‘Super Troopers 2’ and directing.
How would you describe ‘The Babymakers’?
It’s about a couple trying to have a kid. The guy finds out his sperm is no longer good. His sperm used to be good because he donated some in the past to get money for his wife’s engagement ring. So when he tries to get his sample they only have one left and promised it to another couple. Essentially, he puts together a team to try and stage a sperm bank heist.
What was it like working with the cast?
Well, Olivia Munn and I have been friends for a while. I did her show ‘Attack of the Show!’ on G4. She and her brother, I guess they weren’t getting along; they bonded over both loving Super Troopers and sort of became close again over it.
Because of Super Troopers?
Because of Supers Troopers! When we came on she was extremely excited and we became friends. Then I was on a couple of more times and when her co-host – Kevin – took a vacation I cohosted with her a couple of times, which was fun. She’d always been trying to make the jump into acting. We [Broken Lizard] put her in a film that we produced. She had one scene in it. It’s called ‘Freeloaders.’ It’s coming out next year but she was great in it. And this [The Babymakers], to me, was kind of the perfect movie for her because I wanted to hire someone who was funny, smart and also attractive. She sure fits the bill in all three ways.
And with Paul Schneider, I saw him first in ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ and then, of course, in ‘Parks and Rec’. He’s just such a great actor. He knows his way around a joke too. When you make a movie like this, to me, you can make the choice to hire pure comics and hope they can act or hire actors that know their way around a joke, and here we kind of tried that. That’s why we used Brian Cox in ‘Super Troopers’ too. Wood Harris from ‘The Wire’ is in also in the film. Then, of course, Kevin Heffernan who is from Broken Lizard. It was fun. We had a great time.
How did you come to direct it?
JC: Well, my friend Jason Blum, who produced ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘Insidious’, he basically took these horror films and made them for fairly small amounts of money, and they did fairly well. So he called me up and said, “Do you think we can do this with a comedy?” And I said yeah. We talked about how we needed sort of a studio-style concept – like a sperm bank heist [laughs] – but we needed to use our experience in the independent world to try to really execute it on a studio-size but with a cheaper budget. So we had a deal at Warner Bros. a while back and I asked if I could have the script back. Originally we were going to make it there. They wanted to make it with any of the top biggest stars in Hollywood but they were all booked. We couldn’t get any of the top four guys so we couldn’t make it. And I asked Warner Bros. if I could have it back and they said sure. So then from that point to the green light, it was about a week.
Did you have a feeling it would have been a different movie with Warner Bros.?
It would have been. But there are only four or five guys on the list that big studios want and they’re all good and funny. Frankly, I know them all, but they’re also booked for a year or two in advance. So in this situation we were like do we really want to wait a few years to make this movie? And no, we didn’t. But I’ve had great experiences with studios. They’ve very much let me make the movies that I’ve wanted to and I imagine I’ll make quite a few more in that system too. But it is nice to occasionally make one where it’s all you; you have total control and yet you’re not trying to make this sort of super Avant-garde Indy film. You’re just making a funny film that would fit with the other funny ones we’ve made. It was a freeing experience. I loved it.
How do you like the directing as opposed to acting?
I’ve always said that when you act and direct you ruin two perfectly good jobs. [laughs] I love to direct. I direct a lot of television like ‘Community’, ‘Happy Endings’, ‘Up All Night’, ‘Royal Pains’ and ‘Psych’, a bunch of shows, and of course, the Broken Lizard movies. They’re all a blast. For me, the best way to get good parts was for me to act and direct. [laughs] If you have to go out and beg and audition for parts you might make it. And then again, you might not. You might wait forever. That sort of forced me and Broken Lizard to do it ourselves. Write the scripts; cast it; raise the money and shoot the movie. It’s not as fun to act and direct but I’ve done if enough times that I know at least how to do it in the least painful way.
Does that help you get the projects made the way you want them to?
It helps in the sense of what it’s going to be. Like, if we start with a script and we already know that Kevin Heffernan and I are in it, the picture is filled out a little bit more in the beginning as opposed to it just being a stack of papers.
What are the major differences between directing an episode of a TV show and a feature film?
I know a lot of people want there to be differences. They want film to be this precious medium but I don’t believe that’s remotely the case anymore. If you look at all of these wonderful shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Wire’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Mad Men’, they’re all super cinematic. There’s a lot of care that goes into making them, as is there care with ‘Community’, ‘Happy Endings’ and ‘Up All Night’. There’s a lot of care. The issue is that in the past you used to have to shoot television shows a lot faster than you shot movies. But now, particularly with these lower budget films, you have to shoot just as fast as you shoot TV. It’s all the same. We’re using the same equipment. In feature films, the budgets are bigger to do stunts. But then again, I worked on the series ‘Chuck’ and the stunts were massive. So it is a world that has really, even though some people probably don’t want to admit it, has totally blended.
Is it easier or harder directing the guys from Broken Lizard because you guys are so close.
Well, we all write these scripts together. We do 20 drafts of them. So when you get on the set I, as a director, have seen the scene a certain way. But sometimes one of the guys is like, ‘I actually didn’t see it that way’ or ‘I didn’t think it’d be read that way’ or ‘I’m not going to read it that way’. You work through some creative situations that don’t happen with the typical actor/director relationship. When you’re working with a new actor, for example, they’re inclined to try and do it your way if possible because you’re the director. But when I’m working with Heffernan or one of these other guys they’re like [laughs], ‘I’ve known you since you were 18. Don’t tell me what to do.’ It’s super fun and super friendly but there have been occasional blow-ups on the set over interpretations.
We’d imagine that’s natural when friends get together and do creative things.
It is. What we try to do is take the heat out of it and shoot whatever possible. Let’s shoot it both ways and I assure you the funniest one will go in the film. The fight may drag on to the edit room so then we’ll put it up twice in front of two different audiences and record them and debate the reactions. [laughs]
When you say you churn out 20 drafts of a script with Broken Lizard, do you improv at all or are the scripts so tight?
We grew up in the independent film world. Improv is terrific and there’s two basic styles. There’s the Judd Apatow style – his earlier films, he kind of shot and shot and improvised and improvised. To some degree, he’d let the story be affected by the improv. He had an outline for what the story for ‘Knocked Up’ was going to be and had stories that took you into corners that I’d imagine he expected to go in. But he did that and put the film together and it ended up being a great movie. The kind of improv that we do, because we came up in the independent world, we already have a script that we love. We’ve done 20 drafts. The worst case scenario is we shoot it and it’s only pretty good. Then I tell the actors to take a take or two and do whatever the hell you want to. So it’s really like improvising jokes within the structure of the scene. It’s not, ‘hey, I’m going to do this wild thing that’ll require us doing more scenes to support it.’ An example would be a scene in ‘Beerfest’ where we brewed this beer from this old recipe and taste it for the first time. I think I said something like, “I want to freeze it and skate on it in the winter…” that was improvised. Those kinds of moments, you know you’re supposed to say ‘this is a great beer,’ which we did. But then we say do whatever you want.
That process, can you take it at all into your television directing?
Absolutely. The writer is king in television. They have a staff of 10/12 writers, sometimes less, but they’ve really worked it out the way they want it. This is not accidental or an idea. This is what they want. So you can intervene earlier but they’ve got 12 people. It’s a hard process to churn out a script. Their process is to do it the way they wrote it. Then I can say try this, try this. And at the end you put the funniest thing in. If they want their joke in, it’ll go in. As a director in television you’re tying to give them the best version of the show you can and that must include shooting the jokes they wrote.
It seems that ‘in the moment’ process can be pretty remarkable.
It is. It can be terrific once you’ve gotten it. Once we get it I can be like ‘what if we…’ Because these are very talented actors and you just want to coax them into doing it. You take them and put them in the position to be the funniest person they can be, all within the tone of the show you’re shooting. That’s the key to improv; it’s within the tone of the show you’re making. If a joke doesn’t logically sit within the tone of a film and the director left it in, in my opinion they’re not as good. If they cut it out and put in a joke that was almost as funny but fits the own it’s like there you go. Look at the classic films like ‘Fletch’ or ‘Spinal Tap’, they’re tonally perfect films. All the jokes fit the movie.
Your television directing usually doesn’t include the guys from Broken Lizard. When you go back to do a film with them is like going home?
We travel on the road quite a bit to do live shows. We’ll do events sometimes; we did a San Diego Beerfest. We’re in contact a lot and Heffernan and I are in this next movie. He and I are doing a show in New York, a stand up show together on August 1st at the Bowery Ballroom with Olivia Munn. But we all see each other a lot and the creative relationship is still going. We’ve written Super Troopers 2. We’ve written about 12 drafts of it. We’re waiting for a legal issue to be resolved, but I don’t know. You never know. Ultimately, it won’t be a situation where we’re rusty with each other at all.
After all these years you still do live shows?
It’s fun. It’s a great excuse to get hammered and tell jokes. [laughs]