During a recent press junket here in Hollywood, I sat down with screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg whose first produced script Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, starring John Cho and Kal Penn, comes out this Friday from New Line. During the course of the interview, we also had a guest appearance by the film's director Danny Leiner (Dude, Where's My Car?)
Blake: First of all I asked if I could speak with you guys specifically because I am formerly a screenwriter and now I write about writers for MovieWeb.com.
Jon: (laughing) Okay, cool.
Blake: So just to start off I want to say that I've seen a lot of movies this year and, for what it's worth, I have given four stars to only three: Spiderman 2, Before Sunset and Harold & Kumar which is hilarious.
Jon: Wow, thank you so much.
Blake: Not only is does it break a lot of stereotypical boundaries by starring two Asian-Americans [John Cho and Kal Penn] but it's about something, and I think that it ranks up there with the best in the genre.
Jon: That means a lot to us.
Blake: I've got to tell you, I thought it was just fantastic and you know, the direction was great, the casting was fantastic, but as a screenwriter, I think, what a great script! It is so packed with funny stuff.
Hayden: That is one of the great things about it, there is so much, by the end of the movie, you have forgotten most of the crazy stuff that's happened, and that's why I think a lot of people will see it two or three times.
Jon: And, the thing, you know, the school of comedy that Hayden and I come from is, we were fans of all different kinds of comedy, but the movies that we liked a lot growing up, were the Zuckers and the Farrelly Brothers were two of the main influences in terms of laugh per minute kind of shenanigans.
Hayden: Yeah, I think what made the Farrelly Brothers work is that it was raunchy, all this stuff and it had that laugh-a-minute thing, but it had characters that you root for or invest in and I think that rubbed off on us a little bit, but I think one of the things we kind of emphasized in our writing is drawing more from reality, like New Jersey...you know?
Blake: Yes, well I think it's a basis for great screenwriting. It's likable underdogs we can root for. And your whole movie is about one of the most primal things ever: hunger.
Hayden: That was the key to us. It was like, nobody has ever done a movie about hunger like this.
Jon: Yeah, and that was the thing that made it immediately mainstream and commercial to us.
Blake: And global.
Jon: Yeah, exactly, it's that it wasn't focused in on the Asian-American experience or even you know, just like how great White Castle is. It's just the idea that these guys are hungry, they want something to eat, but it's the fact that they want a particular thing. And they will drive around passing by the burger shack, they could have eaten there, but they want that thing.
Blake: Absolutely, yeah. But, I think that's all, um, really smart. And even though you're grounded in reality, as the night progresses, it gets more surreal. In the course of this film these two best friends Harold and Kumar who are really only looking for the perfect midnight snack have these weird adventures and even meet Doogie Howser, which is so amazing. But it just keeps getting weirder as the night goes on. There are moments in this movie that reminded me of After Hours, did that movie influence you at all?
Jon: We didn't think that when writing it, but everybody brings it up after seeing it.
Hayden: It was movies like Adventures in Babysitting. Like when we were kids, it all takes place in one night kind of movie. Or even American Graffiti where it's just a coming-of-age story, but like in a ten-hour time frame. You know, and it allows you to just travel with the characters.
Jon: Well, one thing that we really liked the idea of making the movie about something so simple and relatable, but also something so stupid where the whole movie is about going for burgers, but during the course of this one stupid little journey that anyone could go on, these two characters grow over the course of the ten-twelve hours and the whole movie. The White Castle is just metaphoric for things, going for the things that you want in your life. Like knowing what you want and not stopping until you get there is the message of the movie in terms of you know, Harold with Maria [John Cho's character's love story with actress Paula Garcés]. You know, that's why the whole burger thing, something so stupid, influencing a greater kind of enlightenment in the characters.
Blake: How did you learn to do this? I mean, in terms of your background, I read that you had other careers in mind, more business type careers and that you both decided to take a flyer at screenwriting and look what happened? How did you train yourselves for this job?
Hayden: You know, I would say that most of our training has been, if you call it training, has been watching movies. You know, watching every comedy. When we sold our first script, when we'd come out to L.A., we would see every single comedy that would come out, even like the ones that got horrible reviews and did suck. You know we lucked out and sold our first script and worked with the director on it and so we got a lot of on the job training.
Blake: And what was that?
Jon: That script was called Filthy. We had no training at first. The first draft of our first script Filthy was 200 pages on Microsoft Word in Times New Roman.
Blake: (Laughing) Oh, no.
Jon: So, that means it's probably on Final Draft, it's like 300 pages probably.
Hayden: You give it to a friend and they're like, you know, you can't have a 20-page scene.
Jon: Yeah, we had a friend, like I met a random friend in college whose dad happened to be producer in L.A. who was unrelated to us selling our script, but he had read scripts growing up. So he was like, this is awesome material, but it should be 100 pages long and have 3 acts. But then after, when Filthy got sold, eventually there was a director put on that project. And we ended up spending a lot of time with this director, going over each scene in that movie and finding that while most of the scenes had a purpose for the scene, not every scene was driving the story forward in that kind of way. So that director taught us, drive the story forward. Most of the other stuff, the comedy, it's our natural instinct with this kind of stuff. But the thing that we learned that I think makes the project solid is making sure that every scene, for the most part, has some purpose.
Hayden: I also think with comedy screenplays, it's a very different world than any other screenwriting because it's broad comedy. But for the kind of comedy we do the main thing, do you laugh when you read the script?
Jon: It's like the difference between us picking a random child celebrity and actually picking Neil Patrick Harris who plays a role in the movie in terms of Kumar's character arc [Kal Penn's character is an aspiring med student], like the kind of mistake we might have made when we first started screenwriting was just picking some random celebrity. But because we have gone through the development process with different producers and directors on other projects of ours, we knew that when we were writing Harold & Kumar that anything like that has to have a reason.
Blake: Yes, well I think that's what takes it to another level.
Jon: Yeah, exactly.
Blake: I think it's going to be one of those great teen comedies like an American Pie.
Hayden: You know when we sat on the couch, like before we even wrote this script? We would talk about how awesome it should be. You know, but then, you write the script and it's a process and you never know, like, are we going to get actors that have the right chemistry. You know, is there going to be a director who's able to handle this message, the messages that are in the movie, in a subtle way, where it's not over the top and interfering with the broad comedy of it, you know?
Hayden: And so, everything just worked out. And so we're hoping that it works out.
Jon: Yeah, when we wrote it, first and foremost, it was for our group of friends, like our group of friends, we'll hang out and watch movies on the couch. And we wanted to add a movie to our DVD collection that we would all get together and enjoy watching. Let's make something that we would all love and it would be one of our favorite movies. And we're just hoping that there are people who will feel that way about it.
Blake: Well, this must be so cool for you, to see it all unfold and roll out, just almost perfectly.
Hayden: It really...
Blake: That's unusual.
Hayden: I can say for the first time, this is one of the best experiences that we've had.
Jon: Yeah, the best thing was Danny Leiner [director of Dude, Where's My Car?] was the best for this movie. He was great because from the moment he read the script -- he got it. He knew what we were going for, and he was collaborative and he was... he would elevate things and it make things better, but on top of that, he was the driving force who wanted us on set all the time. So we would sit behind him and if we saw something, he'd say just like let me know if you have any ideas. So we would just stop in between takes and say: here are our general thoughts.
Hayden: It almost never happens. You know, I think in movie making, but I think it should happen with comedies in particular. When you have a director and you have other writers, you know, who have written the script, you know the whole point of a comedy is to make people laugh and so the people who have created these jokes probably should just be around, you know, to make sure, like you know, that --
Blake: Well, personally, I think that is very smart. I wish that would happen more often.
Jon: We are the same way, like this is mine and Hayden's movie, this is Danny Leiner's movie, this is John and Kal's movie, this is the studio's movie, this is all of the actors' movie. You know, everyone plays such a vital role in making a movie great, and Danny from the beginning, like respected -- all of the actors loved working with Danny. And it's because he listens to people, he will let you give input, he will let you throw things out there, he will let you improv some things, and we are the same way. I remember the kid who plays the hippy drug dealer guy, a couple of his lines, you know, when he jokes, he talks about his poetry, and that kind of stuff, there were things that he was just randomly improv-ing, and then when he came to the script that day, he is like a 20 yr old kid, and he was just like, felt so happy that people were listening to everyone involved. But Danny loved what he was doing and we loved it and we put it in.
Blake: Well, I think that's what also brings it to life as well. These characters break the typical clichés, they are all brand new, I think that is just amazing.
Jon: Yeah, we put a lot of time and effort and thought into creating fun random characters, like the group of skateboard punks. Those kind of guys. You don't normally see them as sort of, a villainous kind of crew in a movie, but, you are used to seeing them in like, you know Fast & Furious, like this cool.
Hayden: Those guys, well we like to write the assholes, the group of assholes.
Jon: We loved The Karate Kid, and we loved the Cobra guys.
Hayden:The Karate Kid came out like at the exact, like we were the perfect age for The Karate Kid. You know, and it was like all of those assholes in that movie were so ridiculous to us that it just makes us want to, you know, we do have like, they are obviously over the top characters. Like...
Jon: We basically liked our characters to be colorful and full. It's like, instead of just being like "hey losers" you know, it's like "Hey, look it's the Brothers McFag." You know, it's like they're just being assholes in weird ways. Like using references to movies or TV shows or things that people in the real world do when they are being a dick.
Hayden: It's also like, just watching it the other day and the extreme punks in Harold & Kumar, they are both kind of part of the counter culture, but in different sub-divisions within it and they are at odds with each other, so it is just another weird kind of...
Blake: Well that is what was so great for me too, is that I think it is very American movie. Like all of these groups of people, they all have their lives, but they are all in it together ultimately. All part of the society anyway and definitely thorn in the side for guys like Harold and Kumar. The perfect bad guys.
Hayden: That really tied the movie together, like for us, I think, it made us say this is a movie we should write. It was just that there was this interconnection between all of these different ideas that we had, having the ethnic leads, burgers, you know?
Jon: Kind of what it's like being young in America.
Hayden: It had a very American feel to it, just like we want fast food is an American thing. You know, the quest that they are going on is a luxury. Like to be able to have those options in life, and also combined that with the multiculturalism, like, Harold and Kumar and the White Castle, there was a connection there. You know, what is America? Like for us, it's the amount of fast food places, the Big Gulps and all that stuff and the fact that we are multicultural. That is the unique thing about this country, the different cultures and the amount of opportunities.
Blake: I totally agree, that comes across onscreen and I think the movie taps into that. I mean, in a pretty amazing way, I also think, this will play around the world too. It's specific to America but universal.
Jon: Well that is what we learned when we went to Amsterdam. We went for a research trip, we are writing the sequel right now called Harold & Kumar Go To Amsterdam.
Jon: So, we have been finding British journalists and British, like John Cho [who plays Harold] started on this show Offcenter with an actor Shawn McGuire who is from England, and he is one of the biggest fans of the movie. We have British journalists who were just raving about how much they loved it, and we were just like, this is great. Like it was, we are finding...
Enter Danny Leiner.
Danny: Don't believe any of it. You know that Jon is a pathological liar.
Jon: Okay, every nice thing I said about Danny Leiner is completely untrue. Write the opposite in the article.
Danny: I also want to compliment these guys on their ordering abilities.
Jon: I got a Cobb Salad.
Hayden: We take advantage of every single perk. We milk it for all it's worth.
Blake: What is like working with these guys, they tell me that you were fairly open on the set to new jokes and improv-ing with the actors, is that right, Danny?
Danny: Sure, yeah, it was great. I mean, um, for me, it was like, just to have them up there was like the greatest luxury I could ever think of. Just to bring, you know, I really wanted them to come up there in shooting and the fact that we were able to make that happen was great. And then, originally I thought they were going to come up for a few weeks, but our secret plan was for them to come up for the whole show, and that is how is worked out. And uh, it was great. Yeah, I mean look, I am an equal opportunity taker. Actors, writers, you know, I mean these guys wrote a hilarious script. So, it was like, what could be better than to have them there. You know, sometimes, it's like NO, but a lot of times, it's like -- that is hilarious, let's try one like that or, try to incorporate it, so, for me it was awesome. I've got to say. Personality wise? They're a little difficult (laughing) on the plus side, but the rest of it was really good. Alright, well listen...
Jon: I guess we will talk to you later.
Danny: Alright cool, I'll see you guys later.
Exit Danny Leiner.
Blake: I just have one final question. So you are doing the sequel now. And you have these role models, like the Farrellys and the Zuckers and such so we know your school of comedy is like theirs but different, what other kinds of other things are you working on?
Jon: We have a number of projects that are actually in development right now. And with different roles on them. We are working on Harold & Kumar Go To Amsterdam now. We have a project also called The Wingman, which is at New Line, which is on the verge of getting, it's nearing the green light right now.
Blake: I think I read about that, what is that?
Jon: It is basically about a guy, The Wingman is a like a term on the bar scene. It's like, you know, we were both at the bar, I see a girl that I am interested in, but too nervous, so I'm like come on man, be my wingman. He will come over and help, help me in the situation. This movie is about ultimate wingman. He can hook any guy up with any girl in a bar.
Jon: So we are doing that, and that is looking, it's looking really good right now.
Hayden: We also have a project with Senator, who bought and co-financed Harold & Kumar, called The Gym Teacher, which we have talked to them about being the first movie that we direct. Because we definitely want to get into directing as well. The Gym Teacher is basically about a guy who is the big asshole in his high school, but the coolest guy in school and his life just totally goes down hill after high school, after the glory days and when he is at his low point, his old high school football coach sees him and gives him the job as the new gym teacher at his old high school. So he gets to relive his glory days and maybe eventually grow in high school this time, as opposed to how he was the first time. So that, which is fun, because like if you see Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, Officer Palumbo [actor Sandy Jobin-Bevans] is kind of that kind of guy.
Blake: Well, fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, guys and good luck on all your endeavors.
Jon: Thank you.