The director explains how he brought music legend Dewey Cox to the big screen
By all accounts, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story could be the best American biopic ever made about a rock legend. That the singer doesn't actually exist makes the film even more prolific. The project is a culmination of many different biographical films culled from over the past fifty years. From The Buddy Holly Story and Coal Miner's Daughter to more contemporary classics such as Walk the Line and Control. It is a deconstruction of the genre, and a reconstruction of the biopic as an example of the perfect dramatic structure found in our thematic landscape. While the film has "spoof"-like elements, it is really an essay on our fame-addled culture and our nation's wanton need for idolatry. It is a classic stretch of celluloid that has been long in the making.
Here in our post-ironic, sibilated society, it is true that the film could only immerge as a comedy. The biopic has all but imploded inward; its often familiar beats have become a cliched mapping of any given celebrity's life. A film experience like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story could only be created right now, at the start of a new decade that is failing on a constant basis to produce anything new. It is subverting its own tired conventions to produce an ethereal experience. One that culminates the entire genre into a driving force of speed and light. Knocking down the gray barriers that have kept these films from being fun for quite sometime, Jake Kasdan's latest directorial effort is a sublime effort that plays like a greatest hits compilation of historic memoirs.
It is the end all be all of the rock biopic. Or any other type of biopic for that matter.
But how did such a film come to fruition? Kasdan and his co-writer/producer Judd Apatow sat down and watched every single rags-to-riches story ever committed to celluloid. And then they regurgitated this cinematic buffet binge in a pool of off colored jokes. I recently met up with Kasdan at the cool kid hangout The Standard, located on the Sunset strip, to discuss the conception of his latest cinematic construct. Our greeting place used to be a senior center, and that showed upon entry of our hotel suite. The sink was a strange florescent orange; the color of Battlestar Galactica silly putty. An iron curtain was hung in front of the shower, and a single bed laid upturned in the corner. Kasdan immediately started laughing at the site of the place, "Is this a hotel room? What is this? A single bed?"
I turned to the director, trying to find the humor in the situation, "It smells like mold in here." The place looked like some sort of hellish dorm room. We couldn't quite figure out why Sony would choose this as their place of business. Especially in selling a film like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. "This is crazy, right?" Kasdan asked me before flopping down on the strange looking, very uncomfortable couch, "This is a single bed?" I explained to him that I didn't much care for the place. He laughed it off, "It is very odd. This place is very weird."
I had first run into Jake Kasdan at a Blazers vs. Lakers game in Portland, Oregon while he was there shooting the film Zero Effect with Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman. Shot in 1998, it was his first project as a feature film director. Since that time Jake, the son of legendary filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, has gone on to make the comedies Orange County and The TV Set. It was around the time of The TV Set's theatrical release that the first impish thoughts of Dewey Cox came rushing into the director's brain.
Kasdan explained, "I had just finished this little movie called The TV Set. It came out in the spring, but I was done with it almost two years ago. I was sort of finishing it up when I had the idea for Dewey Cox. I woke up one morning with Cox on the brain. I think I had generally enjoyed the process of making that last movie. It was such a great experience. It was this little independent film about pilot season."
I stopped Kasdan for a second. I had recently learned that he'd shot a pilot based on his film Zero Effect with Alan Cumming in the lead role. Was The TV Set based on his experiences working on this failed pilot? Not exactly, "It was based on my cumulative experience making television. And that was certainly one of the experiences. It came from my experiences as well as my friends' experiences. I have had a lot of friends that have made pilots at this point. It was sort of the aggregate pilot making experience distilled to its most horrifying elements for comedic effect."
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story came as a change of pace for the director. "It was really different. You know, this movie was really fun for me to make. But that was part of what I was attracted to. That it was different. I like to do different stuff. The TV Set was basically a comedy. It is a movie that is supposed to be funny. Almost every scene works that way. I really enjoyed that aspect. But I was interested in what it's like to make a big comedy that makes people laugh and isn't totally depressing. The TV Set is dark. It is a dark story. It is about the most cringingly uncomfortable compromise you can imagine. The choices that people make and regret for the rest of their life. It was sort of a dark way to end a comedy. I was sort of interested in an idea that was big and fun. I had been interested in that for a long time. I didn't have an idea. But then I got this idea. I called Judd Apatow up and said, "What do you think?" He was down for it."
The story basically attacks the biopic, wrapping it in the trappings of a spoof. But so many spoofs fail. I wanted to know what Kasdan's secret to building a successful satire was. He was quick to correct my view of the picture as a whole, claiming that it is not a straight out "spoof" film. "I think we got excited about the project aside form the "spoof" elements. We got excited about the ambition and scale of this absurd film. And of the ideas and the music. Then we really got into making the music, and we got excited about that. It took on its own sort of motor."
While many "spoof" films such as Epic Movie and Date Movie have been disappointments, Jake reveals that he has a soft spot for some of the quick-hit comedies of old, "Judd and I both love a movie like "Airplane". A lot of people love that film. It is an irresistible comedy. It is brilliantly funny. When I was a kid, I remember being attracted to that thing. A movie that is going to have a joke every twenty seconds. It's its own beast. I was interested in it in that way."
Kasdan would rather have us look at the film as an actual biopic, "We very quickly stopped thinking about it as a spoof. Even though there are parody elements, we were rarely talking about it that way. Even though it clearly has that sort of stuff in it. We were trying to turn it into its own thing. John C. Reilly became attached to it very early on. And we actually had less of a discussion about, "What did they do? How do we make this funny?" We watched a whole bunch of movies from a very wide selection of "great man" Hollywood biographies. These Hollywood biopics. We were looking at the conventions people use to squeeze someone's entire life into a ninety-minute movie. That has to go into a perfect three-act beat structure. It was those conventions that we were playing at more than any movie in particular. That was what was guiding our process. The ghost that comes back and talks to you. The father that hates you. The dialogue style of people walking into a room and announcing themselves all the time."
What was the editing process like on this film? If you watch the trailer, most of that footage isn't in the actual movie itself. Judd Apatow is a man known for shooting multiple takes of the same jokes. And this film turned out no different. Piles and piles of discarded scenes are resting on the floor of an edit bay somewhere in Culver City. I'm reminded of that scene in Mario Van Peeble's Baadasssss!, where his dad Melvin looses his eye trying to edit a film from piles of stock footage. How long before someone in the Apatow camp suffers a similar fate?
Hopefully not any time soon. Kasdan let me in on a few of his editing room secrets, "We have a system in place to do that. We have a way of working with a group of people. We set up an infrastructure that allows that to happen. We work with two editors on each movie, as opposed to one. We hire assistant editors that can do some editing. We keep very intense notes. We figure out various ways of keeping track of stuff we are shooting as we are shooting it. There are people whose job that is. We have a script supervisor. But there is also me and a producer in there with him. We have an executive producer on this movie named Lou Morton. He is a television writer/producer that is on the movie with his eye towards all the jokes. Not keeping track of it in terms of cataloguing it away. But he keeps track of what makes us laugh. And our various discussions throughout about our different approaches and different options for different jokes. There are a handful of us that know everything we've done. We retain that information for a short time, you know? We start looking at cuts very early on. We have the editors start making different cuts of different scenes very early on."
Judd is known for making notoriously long comedies. Just look at Knocked Up and Superbad. It is a known fact that Kasdan wanted this particular project tight. Short. And full of spunk. "I like them fast. I like comedies to happen quickly. I thought this particular idea would run out of gas if it didn't keep up a pretty relentless pace. You know what happens to me when I am editing a movie? I start out, and I love so much stuff. I begin to wonder, "How am I going to get it down to the right time?" Then I work on it really hard. What happens is, I start asking myself, "How do I get rid of some of this crap, so that it can be the length of a movie." Then I start turning it over to audiences. I see what they are laughing at. What they are not laughing at. Sometimes, I don't care what they are laughing at. I just like it. Then, sometimes I do care. If they don't think that's funny, I certainly don't. Especially with a joke fest type of movie like this. A lot of times there is no other criteria. If they don't think it is funny, you don't want it there. It is a failed joke. So, you want to start extracting stuff. In general, I like things fast. Judd does too. Its not that he was pushing for this to be longer. Its just that his movies have been long. But they are also different kinds of movies. Because this is very stylized, you can have a shorter run time. Its not like The 40 Year Old Virgin, where you feel like you are watching five guys. And they are real people. That is a more instantly recognizable reality. This is a hyper-stylized movie reality. You've got to keep it coming pretty quick."
How real did they want to keep the film, though? In one particularly funny scene, Dewey Cox is singing at a rally for the midget man sometime in the mid-Sixties. In the background, an SUV drives by. Was this an accidental flub? Or intentional? It is known that various non-period cars show-up throughout The Buddy Holly Story. Was the SUV a nod to that theatrical mistake? "No, we tried to be very period correct where we could. You end up kind of prioritizing that. That is the first anyone has actually mentioned that. We were just out downtown, and that slipped by us. We fell in love with the performance. We didn't want to cut it out because of the car in the background."
And that is the story of how the greatest biopic of all time came together. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story opens December 21st, 2007.