The director, writer and star of this quirky new comedy talk about their upcoming film
Hamlet 2 is a unique independent comedy about a falied-actor-turned-drama-teacher on a quest to sequelize one of Hamlet's plays for the high school stage with the help of his students and his favorite actress. The film, which stars Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz, Amy Poehler, David Arquette and Elizabeth Shue, as herself. Coogan along with writer-director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady recently talked about their new film, and here's what they had to say.
Writer-director Andrew Fleming and Co-Writer Pam Brady
Why goose Hamlet? Why not Othello, or Romeo and Juliet? Those are "downers," those are "bummers," like Dana [Steve Coogan] calls Hamlet.
Andrew Fleming: You make a very good point.
Pam Brady: I think we may have made a mistake.
Andrew Fleming: Actually, it was that we just liked saying Hamlet 2. It made us both laugh.
Pam Brady: Especially since it's territory that Mel Gibson has covered already; we might do Apocalypto 2 too. It's worth emphasizing that we truly believe that a Hamlet 2 would be one of the worst ideas ever.
A lot of people don't know that you had worked together prior to Hamlet 2.
Andrew Fleming: We worked on a couple of pilots that didn't get picked up, perhaps wisely, by the network.
Did you only meet when you began working together on these pilots?
Pam Brady: That was the first time we ever met, at the...
Andrew Fleming: Meeting.
Pam Brady: A meeting that just became magic.
Andrew Fleming: You started crying and laughing and dancing around the room.
Pam Brady: We held each other by the wrists. That was over five years ago.
What was it that led you both to say, 'Enough with the pilots, let's write a feature script,' and how did that come about?
Pam Brady: I think it may have been through frustration. The pilot process is a hard process.
Andrew Fleming: There are a lot of rules.
Pam Brady: Yeah, and we figured that if we wrote something that we thought was funny and just kind of did it for ourselves, that would be more satisfying in the end.
Andrew Fleming: We didn't want to pitch it or try to sell it ahead of time; we wanted to spend our time writing it ourselves, and so...we really spent a lot of time - five years. Six, by now. Something that Pam and I have in common with each other is "high and low" - we love highfalutin literary allusions, but we also like to see people get kicked in the head. At one point, the movie was called "Mr. Holland's A--s."
Pam Brady: That's true! But then we realized that the title had already been used by a popular pornographic film.
Besides the title, what was the entry point?
Andrew Fleming: It was about drama class, and the production that they were putting on wasn't as prominent. The show, in the script, was vague, and we kept putting off deciding what it was actually about, or if it had any meaning. We wanted it to be a bad idea.
Pam Brady: Our main character is haunted by his dead father, too. One of the early inspirations, too, was just how aggravating inspirational-teacher movies are, how badly they talk down to the audience...
Pam, you've done middle America-themed satire before. Did you see this as a logical extension of that, thematically, or as new territory?
Pam Brady: The difference with Hamlet 2 was, it didn't start out intended as satire, it really was about this character of Dana; it started from character, and not necessarily about him poking fun at society. It turned out that way, with the ACLU, but that was developed later on, wasn't it, Andy?
Andrew Fleming: Our intention was to do something funny and along the way a political stance appeared. I think it just came out of...us.
Pam Brady: Yeah, it wasn't really designed that way.
Pam, given that South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police were so un-P.C. but they did not involve actual people, did you feel that you had to dial down the outrageousness a bit, or did you really feel liberated?
Pam Brady: I don't think we dialed it down at all. I think the only difference from before was that actors have to have lunch breaks. Stylistically, what turned out different is that this movie is very emotional, because of the way that Andy directed it and because the cast is so good, like Steve Coogan and Catherine Keener in their scenes together. You get good actors, and they make your writing look better - that's the trick. We have all these very broad scenes, too, of course.
Andrew Fleming: It is about being emotionally on board. The death knell of a comedy is, even if it's funny, if you're an hour into it and suddenly you realize you have no emotional involvement and it's just about laughs. We wanted, and we wanted you, to feel for this guy and kind of identify with him. He is trying his best, in the middle of pathetic circumstances. The more you like him, the more you feel for him, so the funnier it is.
The big lesson that Pam and I learned on this was, we didn't filter ourselves and we didn't come up with strategies; we followed our interests with the scripting and didn't pre-meditate anything. We found ourselves where we ended up, because we didn't have to articulate the intention to executives and we didn't have to sell it to anybody. We did what we wanted, and it was more fun, too.
Was there any point in the writing process where one of you said to the other, 'Oh, that is just beyond the pale?'
Andrew Fleming: That did happen!
Pam Brady: When did it happen?
Andrew Fleming: Well...the three-way.
Pam Brady: Oh, I forgot about that, that's right! In an early draft, Dana got inspired to save [his] drama [department] after a very vigorous lovemaking session with his roommate [David Arquette's character] and his wife. That confused people as to his sexuality, and was distracting.
Andrew Fleming: We realized we had to pull back.
With the Dana character, was a guiding concept "those who can't do, teach?"
Andrew Fleming: I think the guiding concept was, "Drama teachers are always nuts." There's always this one teacher in your high school who is crazy and wildly unconventional and sort of a sorry spectacle. But they end up affecting you more than the teachers who are totally together and know their stuff, because they teach you something about the sadness of human endeavor -
Pam Brady: The fact that there's a lot of disappointment coming your way when you reach middle age; how to process disappointment, that's what those teachers teach students. That's invaluable.
Andrew Fleming: They kind of serve as a cautionary example; "don't end up like that teacher and you'll be all right."
So his story came first, not the show-within-the-movie. When you were coming up with that, was it like we see him doing in the movie? What was that process like for you?
Andrew Fleming: Piecemeal. At first the show was much more topical, with Monica Lewinsky in it...and a series of random images. Everybody kept saying, 'Well, what's the show going to be like?' and we kept avoiding the question. The idea of there being musical numbers came quite late.
Pam Brady: Eventually, every time we would talk about it, it kept coming down to what the content of the show was. We realized that Dana's problem was the specter of this mean, abusive dairy farmer father who never believed him, and that's what he had to overcome. Suddenly it came together, with the symmetry of forgiving someone.
Andrew Fleming: We wanted it to involve Christ, because...
Pam Brady: ...we're really behind him; we think he was one of the more spiritual people who ever lived.
Andrew Fleming: The idea of there being a time machine and turning Hamlet's tragedy around had already gotten into the script, but as a throwaway. About a month before we started shooting, we watched Mel Gibson's Hamlet to remind ourselves of the storyline.
Pam Brady: Yes, who the characters were.
Andrew Fleming: Because, basically, not since high school had I read it.
Pam Brady: I think it was a sign that I had never read it.
Andrew Fleming: We realized that there was some interesting material we should make use of. Making the movie was like putting on our own crazy high school production. We didn't have a lot of resources; we were throwing things together. Very few of the kids playing students had any kind of musical theater experience. A lot of the students [in the on-screen class] were kids from the high school we were shooting at in Albuquerque. None of us had ever written songs before, and I'd never worked with a choreographer or filmed a dance number before, so there was a real sense of "let's put on a show." We didn't have to imagine that naïveté, it was real for us.
Was the movie ever close to filming, or simply being developed? You ended up making it independently...
Andrew Fleming: People would read the script and say, "This is really funny. How the hell are you going to pull this off?"
Pam Brady: Nothing really happened for five years, and then all of a sudden...We got Steve Coogan, then we got the financing. From the time that our producers read the script to the time that the movie got made was really fast.
Andrew Fleming: Then, from the beginning of prep to showing it at Sundance was not even eight months.
You've both worked on movies within the studio system, including your most recent projects before this. Did you feel you were taking a chance in going with independent financing with Hamlet 2?
Andrew Fleming: I've done it before; Threesome was financed independently, and Dick was made essentially outside of the studio system with [the production company of] Mike Medavoy. We didn't have a distributor when we started shooting that movie.
This was definitely going a little bit further out on a limb. But it was this thing where, we would get distracted and then four months would go by and we'd pick up the script and say, 'We have to make this movie, we have to do this, we can't not do this.' Pam and I couldn't forget about it.
Pam Brady: It haunted our dreams.
Let's talk about Steve Coogan. How and when did he come aboard?
Pam Brady: Probably in the year leading up to when the movie got green-lit.
Andrew Fleming: I think it was at least a year-and-a-half. He read the script and said, 'I'll show up anywhere, I'll do it, I'm on board.' No qualifiers, no equivocations. We liked that.
Pam Brady: Yeah!
From his ongoing work in the U.K., it's clear that he is willing to look bad or discomfited as his characters. He goes deep into them, so you probably knew that there was nothing he wouldn't do.
Andrew Fleming: That was the main thing. We didn't send the script to many people, because we weren't trying to find the most popular famous actor in the world; we wanted it to be somebody who just really got it. I will confess that there was one conversation that I had with an actor who shall remain nameless. His concern was that he would look like an a--, that he would humiliate himself in some way. Steve had no such qualms.
Pam Brady: He loves it!
Andrew Fleming: Steve loves to look like an a--.
Pam Brady: What's key to Dana is that there's so much pain. I think that's why when people see the movie they are responding, because you feel so sorry for him and so bad for him. You believe that he exists, and that everything is going wrong for him. Steve will go there and never wink at the audience. It is true British fearlessness.
Andrew Fleming: But he's also a fine actor. There's this one monologue that he has which is very funny, but he's weeping in the middle of it. Steve understood what and where the jokes were but also acted realistically through it. It's a double-pronged approach that very few people can do.
Pam Brady: He's so brilliant that I just can't believe more people don't know about him. They will, and if it's not this then it'll be something else.
Andrew Fleming: He's inevitable.
Speaking of actors and limits, how did Elisabeth Shue's characterization come to be? In the past decade, since Being John Malkovich, we've seen several meta self-parodies; this one seemed oddly affectionate.
Andrew Fleming: Originally, the idea was for somebody more obscure, whose zenith was a TV show in the early '90s. Pam and I resorted to calling the character "Famous Actress" in the script, even though we had a few examples in mind. Elisabeth, like Steve Coogan, got it and was totally up for humiliation. She embraced it, and ran headlong into it, and I adore her for that.
Was she an active participant in brainstorming specifics of how to tailor it to her?
Andrew Fleming: Yes; it had been written more generically, but she told us stories. We incorporated them into the script, and they're in the movie.
Pam Brady: It was her idea to have the kids not know who she was and say, 'Who are you?'
Andrew Fleming: Well, that wasn't...
Pam Brady: I think, we may have had it an earlier draft but we took it out when people were getting nervous.
Andrew Fleming: Yeah, we took it out. But she thought of it after we'd already taken it out. She said, 'Wouldn't it be funny if they didn't know who I was?'
Now, the young actors...you had several to cast for this. A couple of them did have musical theater experience, like Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole of Broadway's Spring Awakening.
Andrew Fleming: I was in New York and saw that show, which reminded me of the kind of show that Dana would put on - in that it's unconventional. The language and the content are a little scandalous, pushing the boundaries of what you can do onstage. I remember seeing Phoebe and thinking, 'That's Epiphany, that's her!' They both read for us, and they just nailed it. They were right on in terms of their choices, no question.
Pam Brady: They're both really inventive; the scene where Skylar, as Rand, does his animal onstage and jumps up and claps his hand to go back to his chair. That was all him.
Among the transfer students, you have Melonie Diaz as Ivonne. Counting Hamlet 2, she had four movies at Sundance this year...
Andrew Fleming: Well, Melonie I'd seen in Raising Victor Vargas, and we just pursued her. Ivonne was not a very big part for someone who's done so many films already; basically, I begged her to be in the movie. Kind of stalked her, for a little while...
Pam Brady: But didn't you also make the case to her that this was the one time where it's not "the white teacher coming into the city and saving the kids;" this guy is lost, and it's the kids that save him.
Andrew Fleming: Yeah, and she was very keenly aware of the idea of playing a Latina teenager who would defy the usual expectations. It's the opposite of what you've seen on bad TV and in other movies, and she was down with that.
So, you finished six weeks of shooting at the end of October?
Andrew Fleming: Appropriately, on Halloween. In New York City.
Then you had the most hectic post-production period...
Andrew Fleming: ...in the history of cinema. There was only about 10 weeks between wrap and showing it at Sundance. It was a little nuts. We showed Geoff Gilmore [of the Sundance Film Festival] an early cut about 2 weeks after we wrapped, and he was interested enough to save us a slot. But we had to show him something a little more finished before he could commit. So we raced and worked furiously, and after another 3 weeks' work, in early December he committed. It was a little tough having to do all this technical work over the holidays. Honestly, though, doing television, where you have to turn things around in a week or so, was good practice.
What was the Sundance experience like, from the inside?
Andrew Fleming: It was like being on a game show, on steroids and acid. It was crazy.
Pam Brady: It really was. With snow.
Andrew Fleming: We had kept joking, 'We're going to go to Sundance with this movie, and there's going to be a bidding war!' We were being ironic, blowing ourselves up because we never thought that would happen - and then that was what happened.
What should audience members look forward to when seeing Hamlet 2?
Andrew Fleming: I don't think anything can prepare you for this film. Prepare for gorgeousity.
Pam Brady: Gorgeousity?
Actor Steve Coogan
Who inspired you, comedically?
Steve Coogan: I have great love and affection for a lot of British comedy that didn't cross over into America because it's very British in a way that doesn't always travel. But there were also those you would know; Monty Python, of course. John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Blackadder. Peter Sellers, of course, was a big influence; Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and the films he did with Blake Edwards - the Pink Panther movies and The Party.
I also love American comedy, dry humor. When I was a kid, I would listen to Bob Newhart on vinyl. Mel Brooks, too. I would try to memorize things and try and replicate them, and do impersonations of those who I admired. Later on, Saturday Night Live. This is Spinal Tap was a bench mark in terms of performing and taking a naturalistic approach to comedy.
That film also combines comedy and music. Did you perform in high school musicals in the U.K., like the students do in Hamlet 2?
Steve Coogan: There are school plays, and sometimes we would do musicals - The Mikado, other Gilbert and Sullivan. There is also a tradition of putting something on at the Christmas holidays; I was in Aladdin when I was 10.
How did you prepare for this movie's musical numbers?
Steve Coogan: We spent a lot of days off rehearsing. I only did a little bit of - I wouldn't call it "dancing." My daughter wouldn't call it that. When I saw in the script this song "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," I was nervous that people might take it in the wrong spirit and be offended by it. I do think that any comedy that is interesting has got to take some risks. But the way that it's conceptualized in the movie is so generous.
In the screenings of the movie that we've had so far, people have seen that there is real heart and proper sentiment. There is some edgy comedy, but it's not a cynical film. Some people come expecting frat-boy comedy, and have found instead universal themes and sympathetic characters. When we screened the film for theater owners at the ShoWest convention, they warmed to my character.
How would you describe your character?
Steve Coogan: He's trying to do his best. However misguided he is, he is earnest and trying to do something for the greater good - save his drama department. That's why people watching the movie have responded to him. Dana is slightly theatrical and neurotic; he's overly demonstrative with his emotions and very effusive with his feelings. This is part of why he has failed as an actor. He's channeled everything into teaching students his love of the craft. What fuels a lot of the humor is that he's obviously not very good at it. But he's someone who genuinely believes in what he says, and there's nothing Machiavellian about him; he's open and honest.
On some levels, Hamlet 2 is a parody of inspirational-teacher movies, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds. Dana is pretty idiotic at times, but he does what he says he's going to do - ultimately, inspire his students.
What kind of research did you do?
Steve Coogan: I didn't read Hamlet. I mean, I have read it and I've seen several stage productions over the last 20 years, so I'm certainly familiar with the story. In terms of research for the character, I had lots to draw on because I went to drama school and know people from a theatrical background. I experimented with different voices for Dana. In a comedy movie, you have to know what the rhythm of the speech is going to be. I had to make sure that I got the American accent right; I worked with a coach. During shooting, when I would hit a vowel incorrectly, I'd think 'I'm an English impostor.'
Did you watch Elisabeth Shue's movies?
Steve Coogan: I was familiar with a few of them, so I didn't go through the catalogue. She's a lovely person. On occasion, she and I would improvise. She was game for anything if it was funny.
What was refreshing about working with her was that, for a Hollywood actress, she is self-deprecating and mischievous and very un-self-conscious and un-self-obsessed. She didn't really care so much how she was perceived. I think she found it slightly cathartic to mock her image and the baggage she has from her past work.
Catherine Keener and I had met a couple of years ago and did that mutual admiration thing; 'You're great.' 'No, you're great.' We said we'd work together if the opportunity came along. The dinner scene with her in Hamlet 2 raised the quality of my game. She's so committed and truthful, and tries different things, so you're really kept on your toes. It was like playing tennis with someone who changed the technique, so you'd have to constantly be alert.
Was it challenging to work with the college-age actors?
Steve Coogan: Yeah, well, I resented them for making me feel old. But they were very supportive, and you can learn something from everyone. The first day, Skylar Astin came up to me and made a couple of suggestions; 'Why don't you do this?' I was a little bit, why is he telling me what to do? Then, when I listened to his ideas they were really good. After that, I kept going back to him and asking, 'Have you got any ideas for me?'
How was Andy Fleming's direction?
Steve Coogan: He would allow improvisation and embellishment if the film benefited from it. If I tried to do too much of a comic performance, he would rein it in to be more grounded. He made sure that, however animated the performance was, I kept it rooted in reality. Having that integrity to the character is what takes you through the film. If it had just been me doing comedy schtick, I don't think that would have sustained it.
Hamlet 2 is different from what I've done before; playing American, and playing a character who is by nature slightly larger-than-life while still being truthful. It was an opportunity to go big yet not be un-naturalistic.
In terms of the comedic approach, how does Pam Brady's sensibility come into play?
Steve Coogan: They have a shared, reciprocal sense of humor. It's about what makes them laugh, and Pam is a very strong comedy voice. She's quite uncompromising; her material is always slightly twisted, and that appeals to me.
They have you getting into some physical comedy in the movie...
Steve Coogan: In my contract, I insist on being able to take my trousers off because I think it enhances the narrative. I won't do a topless scene...I like physical comedy, but you have to plan it properly and be very specific with it. You can improvise dialogue, but with physical stuff - you have to know where and when you're going to do something and the camera needs to be there. There was a healthy chunk of physical comedy in the script, balancing the funny dialogue.
We had a discussion that went on for a while about whether Dana should wear blades or skates, and for some reason we figured that skates were funnier. Since, in terms of roller-skating, I could propel myself along, the falling-over helped those scenes, too. I did take some lessons in Venice Beach, and I am now pretty good at it.
Hamlet 2 will be coming to theaters on August 22 in select cities and August 29 nationwide.
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