We chat with the director about corralling his touring group of comedians and getting them ready for the big time
In 2005, Vince Vaughn gathered together four of his stand-up comedy pals and put them on a bus for thirty consecutive days and nights. The ensemble became a traveling variety act that consisted of skits and live comedy. Participants included Vaughn, comedians Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco. They also invited long actors Justin Long, Peter Billingsly, and Keir O'Donnell. Based on Wild Bill Hickok's traveling Old West vaudeville revue from the 1800s, this laugh-a-minute enterprise was dubbed Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show. And it has since become a thing of legend.
Vaughn and producer Peter Billingsly hired their longtime pal Ari Sandel to capture the entire duration of the thirty-day stretch and turn it into a film. The result is a rollicking documentary that is as funny as it is heartfelt. We recently caught up with Ari to discuss bringing this behemoth venture to the big screen. Here is what he had to say:
I want to start out with how you came onto this project, since it is your feature length directorial debut.
Ari Sandel: Sure. I've known Peter Billingsly for about eight years. I've known Vince and Ahmed Ahmed for that length of time also. Peter was my very first boss in Hollywood. I was a PA, and he was my boss. We became friends, and I just fell into the group. When it came time to do this film, Vince asked me to get involved. The next thing I know, I am on tour for thirty days.
How did you go about directing this? This is sort of a different kind of stand-up comedy concert film. How did you go about coordinating everything?
Ari Sandel: When you are directing a documentary in contrast to a film, a film has a script. You know what it is supposed to be. It becomes more about shots and the various different takes you can get. What is the best take in any given scene? And you have to deal with the acting. In a documentary, you are really trying to find the story as you go. You might be following fifteen to twenty-five storylines all at once. It can be very tedious and chaotic. When we were out on tour, Vince knew ahead of time that he wanted this to be something that would break these comics. He wanted something that would resurrect the old time variety show. He wanted to take live entertainment to towns that don't normally get those things. We had to look at what the documentary would actually be about. Would it be about the comedians themselves? Would it be about traveling America? We didn't rightly know. As it unfolded, we would interview the comics every single day, and we learned so much about their lives. We saw what it was like for them to go on stage, and what they had been through. That really became the crux of what the film is. At first it is about them on stage. But then it slowly becomes about these people and how their comedy came to fruition. I've known Ahmed Ahmed for eight years. I have seen his act a million times. I was just never sure what he was up to until I saw him doing his job. Until I went on tour with him. I saw how he prepares, and what that experience of being a comedian is like for him. Once we were in the editing room, we realized that the story had a few different points. A) it was about traveling the country. B) What it means to be a comic and bare your sole on stage.
How difficult was it to go through all of that footage and edit it? How did you make sure to give each comedian their ample amount of time on screen?
Ari Sandel: We had three cameras shooting the shows, then we would have two cameras shooting backstage. So, if you figure a two-camera minimum, you get about eighteen hours a day. We would be the first people to get up and the last people to go to bed. It was really grueling for us. Sometimes we'd have to get up at seven in the morning and we'd go to bed at three or four in the morning. We would shoot what ever they did. Eating, sleeping. Literally sleeping. Preparing for their shows. On stage, during the show, backstage, whatever it was. We had about six hundred hours by the time this thing was done. Just to watch six hundred hours, if you think about it, and that doesn't count the time it takes to load it into the computer, but just to watch what you have, takes several months. The process is a very long one. Then you have to go through each city. What do we want to say about each city, and how do we want to show it? Which storylines do we want to follow? We have about twenty-five different stories. It is a whittling down process. That took about a year. There were three editors going through all of that.
It's interesting that you have six hundred hours of footage. And you have already seen most of that happen in person. How grueling is that to go back and relive that six hundred hours?
Ari Sandel: Some of it I hadn't seen because it was shot by the other cameraman. Some of it is new. Some of it is nice to see, just to have the other editors watch it and give you an objective opinion. I think the most tedious thing was going through every single comedy show. Dan, one of our editors, went through each one and wrote down every single joke. So, for every one of Ahmed's jokes about flying, Dan knew which cut was the best, where it was done the longest, which audience had the best reaction in each town. We had a great big map of the cities, and all of the comedians' jokes on this grid. It was really meticulous. I think that was probably the hardest thing to do, and I'm sure after a while Dan probably went crazy. But we got to know every little nuance of these guys' acts. Things I didn't even pick up being on the road with them for thirty days. Believe me, after a year of watching them in the edit suite, I know everything there is to know about them.
After you went through all of that work, did the comedians or Vince Vaughn ever come in and take a look at the work, and disagree with some of your choices? Was there anything they didn't want in the movie?
Ari Sandel: We had free reign to shoot anything we wanted. Vince was really open to that. I could walk on the bus anytime I wanted to, I could sleep on the bus. There was never a time when they said, "Don't film this." As far as the issue of putting stuff together, we never had anything that wasn't appropriate or going to make someone look bad. We were all really on the same page. Especially Vince and myself. We knew what we wanted to show. There was never an issue of, "We can't show this." Nothing scandalous or crazy happened on tour that we wouldn't show. We really wanted to give an honest view of what and how this tour transpired.
Watching the film last night, I noticed that when Caparulo comes back from visiting the Katrina victims, he still has that pissed look on his face. He still doesn't seem happy about it, and the guy sitting next to me goes, "God, what a dick." I'm wondering how Caparulo reacted to that scene himself. I didn't get that he was pissed on the way back. I figured he was being quiet. He looked humbled to me.
Ari Sandel: That's actually what it was. That scene wasn't manipulated. That really is how it was. It was really funny when we were out there doing it. The comics find out that they have to go hand out these tickets. So I go to interview them. This was day twenty-three, I think. People were tired. They just wanted to be left alone. You don't have a lot of time to yourself when you are on tour. They wanted to go do their own thing. They didn't want to do this, which I thought was funny. So I kept filming them. As we got in the car, they started complaining about being on tour. They don't have this, they don't have that. Once we got there, it was literally as it was in the scene. It was a complete turn around. On the way back, it wasn't that Cap's face was annoyed. It was that they were in total shock. It was a real moment of clarity for him.
How did he feel about it after he saw the footage?
Ari Sandel: He laughed. These guys are used to a lot of self-deprecating humor. They laughed. They think it is funny to see themselves acting like a dick. When Cap saw that part where I asked him what he has to do, and he says, "I got to go to Best Buy". He laughed. He then shook his head and went, "Jesus."
Why the decision not to put this out as just a straight stand-up comedy film? Are you guys going to include entire shows on the DVD?
Ari Sandel: I think this experience was really about being on tour and taking this show to the people. That's really the essence Vince wanted to bring to it. He wanted to take a show to the people. We purposely went to towns that don't normally get live acts. We went to a lot of cities that get passed up by a lot of bands when they are on tour. These towns were very excited. People would come up to me afterwards and say, "God, I've never been to a comedy show in my entire life." I think Vince really wanted to bring this type of variety show feel to it. There is an element here that is different than most comedy shows. You don't know what you are going to get from city to city. You always have different guests at each show. Sometimes, Vince will do different things. In some cities, there will be different celebrities in the audience. We always try to bring them out on stage. And it will be a surprise. We had one of the Arizona Diamond Backs come on stage, and he threw dodge balls at Justin Long. That was a last minute thing. There is a certain live aspect to it that translates to, "You don't know what you are going to get." That is exciting.
Are we going to see full shows on the DVD?
Ari Sandel: Yeah. The DVD will have a lot of stuff that we couldn't show in the film. There were a lot of skits that we just weren't able to put into the film. And that was a bummer from a director's perspective. We shot six hundred hours. You know you can't make a six hundred hour movie. You can't even make a four-hour movie. So, it really is hard to get it down to an hour and forty minutes without losing stuff that you really like. There is a ton of stuff that I would have liked to keep in there. We just knew that at some point, we would have to stop the movie.
For me, personally, I want to see the entire After School Special starring Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsly. Is that going to be on the DVD?
Ari Sandel: You want to see the whole thing?
Ari Sandel: I don't know. That is a good question. I am sure you will see more of it. But I don't know how much more.
In the beginning, the question is raised about how these guys will change over the course of this thirty-day trip. How do you think they changed over the course of the trip?
Ari Sandel: Well, I think for the most part, they had never been on tour for a length of time like this. These guys are seasoned comics. They have been doing it for years. But this is the first time that they played venues of this size on such a consistent basis. In that sense, I think they really grew as comedians. And they discovered how to handle the big crowds. They know how to be really professional, and they know what to expect of themselves. I think we all became a lot closer. We have all known each other for a long time. I have known these comics for years. I think just being in close quarters like that, you share a space with them. At the end, there is a real sense of accomplishment. They can do thirty cities consecutively every night. No one else does that. Who goes on tour for thirty days without a break? It just doesn't happen. Usually, a band will go on tour for four days and then take a day off. We went through the whole thing without a break. It was exhausting. When we got to the last day, we all collectively felt we had accomplished something.
How important did you feel the Katrina scenes where to the narrative of the documentary?
Ari Sandel: I think it was important because it gives you a sense of two things. It shows you what comedy is and why it matters. Here are people that are in the lowest points of their lives. And something as simple as laughing can really help. Obviously it is not going to change their life. We wouldn't quote that. But when you are not feeling great about things, a simple laugh can raise your spirits. I think it lends some subtext as to why you should care about comedy. Two, it just goes to show you what we experienced and who we met traveling the country. You will meet a lot of different types of people. It gives you this wonderful mosaic of what the country is like.
I was told you guys are going back out on the road. What is the plan as far as that is concerned?
Ari Sandel: I don't know what the exact plans are. I do know they are going back out on the road. We do shows in Las Vegas every now and then. Just because it is kind of close to Los Angeles. We did a show last New Years. We did a bunch of shows over the last two years. In Vegas, we did quite a few. Before that we did shows at The Crystal Palace, Buck Owens place. That was separate from the tour. I know they are going on tour again, but I don't have those details.
Do you still go out and film when that happens, and are you planning a follow-up to this film?
Ari Sandel: I don't know. That is a good question. That is a Vince question. Sure, why not? A new tour could certainly be a new film.
Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show opens February 8th, 2008 in Los Angeles and New York.