Mike Million talks TenureMike Million makes his feature length debut with the hilarious new comedy Tenure, which hits DVD on April 13th. This darkly hilarious dramedy stars Luke Wilson and Improv legend David Koechner as two wayward professors seeking permanent teaching positions at their respected college. When newcomer Elaine Grasso (Gretchen Mol) gets tenure over longtime mainstays Jay Hadley (David Koechner) and Charlie Thurber (Luke Wilson), Jay convinces his friend to sabotage the woman's life. Off kilter hilarity ensues as Tenure wobbles gloriously off the tracks of predictability for a fresh and inventive take on educational politics. We recently caught up with Mr. Million to chat about his latest project. Here's what Mike had to say:
Did Michael Cudlitz drive his squad car in off the set of Southland? Or is it just a coincidence that Officer John Cooper makes an extended cameo in your film?
Mike Million: He only plays cops. No. It was a coincidence. We cast him before Southland came about. He is an awesome guy. I loved working with him. We only shot with him for one or two days, but he was a lot of fun.
He doesn't come with the added benefit of arriving on set with his own squad car?
Mike Million: I can't remember what his badge sad, but it was really funny. It was Officer Milton, or something like that. He's got that cop look, and he does a great job on Southland. Obviously, his role in Tenure is a little different. But he's still a cop.
Having watched Southland makes his scenes even funnier.
The outtakes make David Keochner look like a camera hogging diva. How difficult was it to keep David in his place during filming?
Mike Million: David is an awesome guy. We had a great relationship. One thing I learned about David fairly quickly is that he's got so much energy. We had a lot of conversations before we started shooting. I wanted to tone down that energy as much as possible. His character, Jay, is obviously an outrageous, oddball guy. But I wanted him to be based in realty. David and I worked a lot on that. He is still nefarious and big in the film. He is larger than life. But he did tone it down considerably for the performance. I Feel that paid off. One thing I learned very quickly is that every time I called cut, he would explode into these impromptu improv scenes. I figured out that it was his way of releasing all that energy. He has this huge presence. You saw a lot of that in the outtakes. That is how he got his energy out preparing for the next take. We had a lot of fun with that.
Koechner is someone that is known for his improvisational skills, and he is coming from a string of projects that have allowed him room and time to keep exploring within the confines of a scene. But you had a pretty solid script to work from. Was it at all hard adjusting him to the time constraints and budget that you were working with?
Mike Million: I got more comfortable with that as I got more comfortable with directing. At first, I wanted to just stick to the script. I was very true to the script. And all of the actors were 100% on board with the script. I also realized that when you have great comedic actors like Luke Wilson and David Koechner, it behooves you to allow them some freedom. To let them experiment. Typically, we would do two or three pages of the script as written. Then we would have a fun take. We would let them go off. A good amount of that stuff made it into the film. They made it better. They really are very talented comedians. And they have such great wit and sarcasm. It fit perfectly into the movie. It was something I became more comfortable with as I went along. But we were under massive time constraints. We shot the entire movie in twenty-five days. I didn't have the luxury of doing twenty takes of the same scene.
In the deleted scenes, we see that Keochner actually has stumbled upon the resting grounds of the Big Foot. Why did you excise this from the finished film? Did you feel it takes you too much out of the reality of the situation at hand?
Mike Million: Yeah. That was one of those things were I was very happy with how the Big Foot storyline played out. I liked that it was unsolved. That was part of the idea. It represents this chase. Figuring out who you are. All those metaphors. I was happy with it. But it was one of those things where the producers really wanted a punchy tag at the end of the movie. We decided that Big Foot was something we could try. Personally, I didn't think it was funny enough. I also liked that it's an unsolved mystery at the end of the movie. We tried it, but I didn't feel that it worked. That's why you'll now see it in the deleted scenes.
In doing research for the film, did you sit down and actually call a lot of telethon hotlines just to experience the responses from the volunteers working the phones?
Mike Million: I have never done exactly that. But I tell people that I get a lot of my humor from my adolescent years. We did a lot of prank calling of girls. Friends. That kind of stuff. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for prank calling. I also worked for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. My wife worked there for ten years. I have a lot of PBS history in me. It came to me that I wanted Luke Wilson to be prank calling someone. Then I thought it would be weird if he were prank calling a PBS telethon. That is where it came from. Personally, I've never done exactly what was in that scene. I thought it would be an interesting way to introduce this false love interest. And this weird scene. Its funny. When we shot that scene, Luke had no idea how to play it. He was like, "This is so weird. How do you want me to be?" We eventually got it right. Its definitely one of those scenes where the audience cringes a little bit. It's just so bizarre.
The payoff is so great, especially in the joke that its setting up. Throughout the film, you willingly buck any traditional sense of comedic predictability. When writing the script, did you just let your mind take you to the unexpected? Or did a lot of the film's more unexpected moments come out of the rehearsals and the improv on set?
Mike Million: Honestly, everything was in the script. When I wrote the script, I had a loose outline. I let it lead me. I discovered it as I went. Which is a big no-no for screen writing. But it worked in this instance. A lot of this stuff flowed out of me while I was writing. I just kept thinking, "Wouldn't this be weird?" Luke's character is such a lonely guy. What if he had to get a woman to come on this fake date with him? It all organically came out as of me as I was writing it. Even though I had the broad beats of this story down. How the characters arrived at certain points was something I discovered along the way. I am a huge fan of Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson. Those guys have these absurd moments in their films that are also based in reality. You are along for the ride. That is what I was striving for. These heightened moments of absurdity. They are weird, but you still believe in them. That is what I was going for.
This is your first feature-length project. A lot of the scenes work completely out of context from the rest of the piece as a whole. Do you think that was influenced by your previous work in short films?
Mike Million: Possibly. I think it comes more from the writing. When you are writing the script, you should strive to have each scene take on a life of its own. That is what I tried to do. In every script. That is what you strive for. It comes out of the writing. That each little scene is, hopefully, a vignette.
I know that a couple of college professors helped guide you in creating a more realistic script. What insight did you gleam from them that wasn't included in your initial story?
Mike Million: I had one friend that is a professor, and he is on a tenure track. He is also a screenwriter. He was my man on the ground that I vetted everything with. I told him I was writing a comedy. That I wanted it to be funny first and foremost. I didn't want to have something that caused teachers to storm out of the theater. I didn't want them so angry because I misrepresented their profession. He helped me quite a bit in discussing the process of tenure. The reality is that every college has a different tenure process. There have been some people online that have attacked me for not getting it right. I realize that professors are very serious people. First and foremost, it is a comedy. It's an absurd take on that world. I tried to be as true as I could while still making it funny. There is no doubt that I got some things wrong. But the process is different at every school. I felt like I could make up a lot of it. I did vet it to a lot of professors, and they told me it was similar to their experiences. We took it to a lot of film festivals, and I was approached by many professors who gave it their stamp of approval. They told me, "I have been in this world. And you got it right." Obviously, people aren't accusing each other of stealing Cokes. And that kind of thing. But it makes me feel good when Professors tell me I got it right.
I think some professors are stealing Cokes, though.
Mike Million: I did read this story about a guy who was accused of stealing Tupperware out of the faculty refrigerator. It became a big thing. And he didn't get tenure that year. He thought the reason he didn't get tenure was because he was accused of stealing this Tupperware. That's where this idea came from. Who knows if that's the reason this guy didn't get tenure or not. The fact that it was out there, I knew there was comedy in the situation.
It seems like the refrigerator in any workplace is ripe for comedy. It's always scary to stick your food in there no matter where you work.
Mike Million: That is true. The refrigerator is a battlefield.
Tenure is a script that landed on the coveted Black List. As did your script Analog. Is Analog going to be your next project?
Mike Million: Yes. I was waiting for Tenure to get released before I started working on that process. It will probably be a long one. But that is going to be my next film. It's a script that's been around a long time in Hollywood. And people really like it. Hopefully I wont have too many barriers in front of me. It's always hard to get a movie made in Hollywood no matter what.
Do you have a dream cast in mind for that film?
Mike Million: I've spoken to a few actors who are interested in the lead role. I would prefer not to say who they are. Because they are not officially attached. We are still in the casting process. It is a great role. It is a very odd, interesting, meaty main character. And then there is a love interest. The screen time is fifty-fifty. It's a romance, so both the male and female leads are really strong roles. That's why there has been so much interest in it over the years. Actors are looking for that kind of meaty role. We are just now getting into the casting process. I'd rather not name names.
Are you looking to cast a more dramatic actor, or someone that is known for their comedy?
Mike Million: It has comedy in it. For sure. But its more of a dramatic piece than Tenure. When I wrote Analog, it was the first success that I had with scriptwriting in Hollywood. Everyone liked it. It was a great entry into the business. For me. But one of the things that happens when you write an interesting, oddly toned script is that everyone asks you, "Can you write anything commercial?" Tenure was my attempt at writing a commercial comedy after having Analog be widely read. Everybody liked it. But it's got a darker tone. It's a drama comedy. Where as Tenure is more of a comedy with a little bit of drama.
Has making Tenure helped you go back and redefine Analog as a script?
Mike Million: I feel that screenwriting is an ongoing process. It's a blueprint for a film. It is always going to change. I have done some work on the script. I learned so much from making Tenure. I can't wait to get back in the directing chair. I feel like I was a complete novice when I was working on Tenure. I learned so much. And I want to apply those lessons to making Analog. A lot of those lessons were in the screenplay phase as well. When I rewrite, I know a lot more about the process of what works and what doesn't work in places that need to be trimmed. Absolutely, the script will be changed from what I learned on Tenure. But largely, the character and the story will ultimately stay the same.
Do you think you will be bringing David Koechner back?
Mike Million: I'm not sure. I don't know. I will have to see if there is a role that works for him in Analog. He is a great guy, and a joy to be around. We'll see. The lead role is something he's not right for. But there are a lot of other great roles in the film. We'll see.
You pulled a great dramatic performance from him in this film.
Mike Million: Thank you. That was a real goal of both mine and David's. I am happy to hear you say that. That was something that I really wanted. I wanted Jay to be grounded in this real place. There is a real sense of sadness in him. David and I worked a lot on that, even before we shot the film. We had a lot of sit down meetings and rehearsals. We talked a lot about that character and where he is coming from. I think David nailed it. He is such a talented actor. He often plays bigger than life roles. When he gets a chance to spread his wings, he really shines. I hope he gets more opportunities to do more dramatic roles in the future. You also can't deny that he is a hilarious guy. He has a real talent for comedy.
Its funny, you don't hear about too many kids heading down to the art house theater to catch a flick. But your mother took you to a lot of these films as a kid. How do you think those sorts of movies curbed your own creativity when it comes to creating a film?
Mike Million: It absolutely shaped my worldview. One of the films that really made an impact on me, that my mom took me to, was My Life as a Dog. It was a Swedish film that is still a classic. I remember going to that movie when I was fifteen. I thought, "I want to do that." Many, many years later, I wrote my first script. I don't know. I loved those foreign films, and those art house films. I also grew up with John Hughes and Sixteen Candles. I loved those movies. I loved Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I loved every movie. My mom did have an impact. She took me to the other movies that kids in school weren't going to see. Typically they were writer-director driven character dramedies. That is my goal. That is my goal. To create a strong central character, based in reality, that is funny but also attempts to say something.
Tenure arrives on DVD April 13th, 2010.