EXCLUSIVE: Comedian Michael Ian Black on Writing Run, Fatboy, Run
The actor talks about giving his script over to the team of Simon Pegg and David Schwimmer
This week sees the release of David Schwimmer's directorial debut Run, Fat Boy, Run, a film starring Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg and Crash's Thandie Newton. The story centers around a slightly overweight loser that attempts to run a marathon in order to get his ex-girlfriend back. The catch is that he left her pregnant at the alter five years ago. The film is a heartwarming and very humorous look at one desperate man and the lengths he will go to for true love.
While the screenplay was rewritten by Pegg, a superior scribe in his own write (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul), the original story came from fellow comedic actor and longtime Sprit spokesman Michael Ian Black. Black got his start with the improvisational group The State and has since gone on to create indelible characters for both screen and television in projects likes Stella, Ed, and the upcoming Kids in America.
Black originally wrote the screenplay for Run, Fat Boy, Run with the intentions of directing it himself. Instead he sold the screenplay, and was quite happy that the film wound up in the hands of Schwimmer and Pegg. I recently met up with Michael to discuss the origins of his work and how his New York-based script wound up in the very British hands of the guy responsible for Shaun of the Dead.
While they put us together in a room with a queen-size bed, I opted to conduct the interview from two chairs near the outside balcony...
I don't think we should do this from the bed. The last time I did that, it was a little awkward.
Michael Ian Black: I bet. Who was it with?
Joy Bryant from Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins.
Michael Ian Black: Pants on or off?
She had her pants off. She was just wearing a skirt.
Michael Ian Black: What about you?
My pants stayed on. I was sitting on the floor.
Michael Ian Black: Balls in or out?
Michael Ian Black: Yeah, I guess that is more professional.
You actually think so?
Michael Ian Black: Ah, it depends. Everything depends on the situation.
I guess. Now, I recently saw you walking up to the front of the Sutton Place.
Michael Ian Black: Ah, you were in Vancouver recently. I was with Ken Marino. We were working on Reaper, which shoots up there in Canada. It's a CW show. We play gay demons. Yeah. We have recurring characters on that show.
Do you guys get bugged a lot up their in Canada?
Michael Ian Black: No. No one knows who I am.
I thought maybe you guys got mobbed a lot. You looked at me like, "Oh, God! Not this guy. We don't want to talk to him." Like you'd been fighting off fans all day.
Michael Ian Black: We probably just didn't want to talk to you. If you looked at us like, "Oh, I recognize those guys." That is probably how we looked at you. My look was probably, "Oh, God. Not someone that knows me."
I'd just interview Ken Marino for The Ten. I figured he recognized me and didn't want anything to do with me.
Michael Ian Black: I'm sorry if we made you feel bad. But that was our intention.
I was like, "It's those comedy geniuses!" And then you snubbed me. Now, can you tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea for this script?
Michael Ian Black: I had just written a couple of screenplays that were a little less commercial. I thought to myself, purely as a writing exercise, that I should write something that was a more mainstream Hollywood movie. As a genre, the romantic comedy just sort of presented itself readily to me. Then in terms of plots, I was thinking of opposites. Because opposites are good for comedy. "Fat guy runs marathon" was the first thing I thought of. Those were two things that would play well against each other. Both conflict and comedy would spring effortlessly from that. "Fat guy runs marathon" seemed like an easy thing. So I just sat down and started writing it.
Did you willingly give this script up to Schwimmer and Pegg? I know Pegg came in and did some rewrites.
Michael Ian Black: My intent was to either direct it or to sell it for a lot of money. And I did neither. It was not an easy thing to give up. There were many times along the way were I regretted giving it up. I was very nervous about reading Simon's rewrite when he did rewrite it. Because it was set in London, and I didn't know what he would keep and what he would get rid of. But then I was delighted when I read it. I thought he did a really great job. Story wise it is identical. He changed one character from Italian to Indian. And the relationship was different. In the original, the Italian guy had a much younger wife. Now, in this one, it is his daughter. He changed the ending a tiny bit, which I thought was for the better. He Anglo-sized it. For the most part, I thought he made it better.
So you never had any problems with him coming in and changing it up a bit?
Michael Ian Black: No. I think he is a great writer. I had no issues with him or his rewrite. I was happy that he got cast, and I was happy that he reworked it.
Did you have anything at all to do with it once it went into his hands?
Michael Ian Black: Not really. They invited me out to the set for a week. And I hung out. I saw some dingy parts of London. And I hung out with David Schwimmer a little bit. They treated me like a distant uncle that had come from across the pond to visit. And that is essentially what I was.
How do you think the change in location changed what you were initially trying to get across with your draft of the screenplay?
Michael Ian Black: It changed it very little, if at all. London is one of the four cities I thought it could take place in when I wrote it. The other cities being Chicago, Boston, and New York. Each of those cities has prominent marathons. But in terms of the story, in terms of the themes, and everything about it, it made no difference that the location changed to London.
When you were writing the screenplay, did you have a concept of who you wanted to see in this?
Michael Ian Black: Not really. Jack Black was an obvious casting choice from the very beginning. But I didn't write it with him in mind. Another guy that I thought would do a great job was Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But once Simon came on, I thought, "Oh, this is great!"
Did you have an trepidations about him coming on, since he isn't particularly overweight?
Michael Ian Black: Not really. It was never meant to be, literally, a fat guy. A guy who you would fear for his safety if he were to run a marathon. They put a little belly on Simon. He is British, so he is naturally doughy.
Did they ever approach you to be in the film?
Michael Ian Black: No, no. They didn't really approach me about anything. They just took it and ran with it.
You said that initially you had thought about directing this. Is that something you are currently looking to do? Do you plan to direct a film in the near future?
Michael Ian Black: I wouldn't say that I am headed there exclusively. But I am headed in that direction. Yes.
Are you and David Wain, and those guys currently working on a new project?
Michael Ian Black: I am working with Michael Showalter on a pilot for Comedy Central. And The State is reuniting for a special. Then I am working, maybe, with Ken Marino on something for the Internet.
When you write something like "Run, Fatboy, Run", is it easy for you to empathize with the main character?
Michael Ian Black: I think, as a writer, you have to empathize with all of your characters. No just the main guy, but with all of the supporting characters as well. You have to see things from everyone's point of view.
What was it about Dennis that made you want to flesh out his story and tell it to the world?
Michael Ian Black: I definitely empathize with the guy that has a hard time finishing the things he has set out to do. That is a challenge that everyone faces. It's that feeling of having fucked up time and time again, and then hoping that this time you will succeed. It is that struggle to constantly pull yourself up after you have failed numerous times. I think everyone can identify with that. I also liked Dennis' relationship with his son. I have a son. I have two kids, actually. But when I started writing this, I only had a son. And it was important for me to convey the type of relationship I would like to have with my kid.
Have you seen this type of behavior that Dennis exhibits at the beginning of the film? The guy that takes off when faced with commitment? It seems like it is coming form a very real place. Like you know this guy.
Michael Ian Black: Sure. I think everyone experiences this type of panic. Especially men before getting married. Rarely do we jump out the window and run down the street. But its that panic that I think everyone can empathize with. Myself? In terms of commitments, I have never had to struggle. At least not when it comes to a romantic commitment. I have always been a monogamous sort of guy. That has never been an issue for me. But I know that type of panic. Definitely. When I got married, I felt that.
Did you ever experience the fleeing scenario with any of your close friends?
Michael Ian Black: Yeah. One in particular comes to mind. But that idea wasn't based on anything that I knew of. It wasn't anything from my own life or one of my friend's lives. It came more from a place where I needed a reason for him to want to run this marathon. The idea of him running away, and then running towards something is the theme of the film. When you are running away from something, you are aimlessly running towards something else. That's what it was about. He'd been running away from things his whole life. In doing that, he has been running towards this new life. He just didn't know it.
Did you see the idea of running this marathon as sort of a metaphor for finishing this script itself?
Michael Ian Black: No question. Finishing a script is one of the hardest things, as a writer, that you can do. It is very daunting to sit down and churn out a hundred and twenty pages that are coherent, have a story, makes sense, has jokes, and does all of the things it needs to do. It is a very daunting challenge for anybody. And it is definitely akin to running a marathon.
Do you have anybody you are able to bounce jokes off while you are writing?
Michael Ian Black: I guess. But I don't usually do that. I think I am too insecure. If someone didn't like something, I don't think I would trust myself anymore. If I asked someone if they thought a joke was funny, and they said, "No." I would turn around and start trashing everything I had written up to that point. So, I just tend to write in isolation. I actually think I need to get better about sharing my material. I think there is value in that. I need to get better at it.
Do you ever get distracting when writing some of the secondary characters? Does that ever take you out of the experience of writing solely for the main character?
Michael Ian Black: There are times when I feel like I am spending too much time on supporting characters. That happened with my first screenplay. It is a struggle, because you fall in love with all of them. You want them all to be fully fleshed out and realized human beings. They become people that have their own goals. With this one, it wasn't as hard. I sort of knew where everyone fit into the puzzle. I knew what their job was. The challenge was to try and give them all some personality, and make them all people.
After this experience, are you more willing to let your scripts go out into the hands of other people?
Michael Ian Black: I am less willing to give my scripts up. I am more protective now. It would really depend on the project. It is far more satisfying to be involved with something from beginning to end than to write something, hand it off, and show up four years later to talk about it. For the most part, everything I have written, I have been involved in. This is the first time I have let someone take one of my projects.
Run, Fat Boy, Run opens this Friday, March 28th, 2008.