Director Matt Walsh discusses his improvised comedy High Road, arriving on Blu-ray and DVD March 6
There's a classic line in the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder where Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor playing an African-American soldier, says, "I don't drop character 'till I done the DVD commentary." Of course, on the actual DVD commentary, there was Robert Downey Jr., still in character, chatting away as Kirk Lazarus. Last month, when I had the chance to drop in on a DVD commentary recording session for the comedy High Road, it actually was somewhat similar... but they didn't go full Kirk Lazarus.
High Road, which debuts on Blu-ray and DVD March 6, is a completely improvised comedy movie about Fitz (James Pumphrey), a drug dealer who has to hit the road with his young pot-slinging Padawan (Dylan O'Brien) after a deal goes awry. So, naturally, the improvisational tone carried into the recording booth, with writer-director-actor Matt Walsh, James Pumphrey, and Joe Lo Truglio speaking away as themselves, and Horatio Sanz portraying "Justin," a high school kid who won a contest and got to visit this recording session. The banter flows so freely between these master improvisers, as Justin interjects some bizarre adolescent-esque statements here and there, and each of them just takes that line and seamlessly continues the flow as if it were scripted. It adds a unique layer of comedy to what looks to be a rather funny movie to begin with.
During a break in recording, our small press group got to sit down with Matt Walsh, who makes his feature directorial debut with High Road, co-writer Josh Weiner, James Pumphrey, and Joe Lo Truglio. Take a look at what they had to say below.
With this being a completely improvised movie, how much of a skeleton script did you have set up while you were shooting?
Matt Walsh: It's based on a screenplay that Josh Weiner and myself wrote. We took that and cut it into 65 scenes. It's a little more specific than a Curb (Your Enthusiasm) outline. Curb has like one sentence. We had multiple paragraphs under some scenes, just focusing on the emotional arc of the character, and the priority story points to hit. Then we had joke pages that we would bring on the day, to pitch to the guys, or they would say their own jokes.
How long was the shoot?
Matt Walsh: I think all in all, it was 15 days. We got everything in 15 days, and it's all within 30 miles of right here, wherever SAG would let us go.
Did any of the improv on the set mirror the actual dialogue you guys wrote before?
Matt Walsh: Yeah, some of it did. We spent two weeks rehearsing with the guys, so they could understand their relationships and their back story, and we improvised a lot of scenes that would never be in the movie. Then, on the day, we would sort of do a loose rehearsal, and my description of the scene was based on what Josh and I had written. Then there were jokes that we thought of in video village, or if there were things they discovered on the set and wanted to try.
Joe Lo Truglio: I think the biggest trick was to remember the story points or plot points, in the middle of the improv, just to move the story along. It wasn't really that hard, but you always had to remember to hit this name or this place.
I can imagine when you get caught up in improvising...
Joe Lo Truglio: Yeah, but it really wasn't that difficult. Ultimately, you're just saying that line and then going on about Gary Glitter again.
Josh Weiner: I found that, towards the end of it, the wide shots were rehearsals that we would tape, and by the time we got into the single shots, the dialogue was almost written, for the most part.
Matt Walsh: Yeah, there was a rhythm towards the end, whether they were singles or two-shots. They had a certain repetition that was pretty consistent, with room to step outside for little jokes and detours. There's always a free take to say whatever you want, but yeah, in the end, the final takes were pretty consistent.
Was there anything from the rehearsals that you guys were sad didn't make it in?
Matt Walsh: Yeah, good memory.
Joe Lo Truglio: I kept wanting to give Dylan a beer, just because he should appreciate the experience of the baseball game, and then Rob's character and I got into it. That's one thing that didn't really make it in. With their constant bickering, giving booze to minors didn't come up in the movie, and smartly so.
Matt Walsh: I think the directive of the rehearsal was to develop and explore the characters. I don't think there was ever a scene that we said, 'Oh, that's a good scene. Let's put it in this movie that we've already slated for production.'
So it wasn't as much to generate material?
Matt Walsh: No, there were jokes that happened, for sure, that we kept and put on camera, but there were no scenes, really, at all, that came out of the rehearsal process.
I have some friends in improv and I see some of their shows. It's always cool to see where they cut off scenes, during the middle of their show. Does having that kind of background help you as a director, especially with a story like this that isn't exactly structured.
Matt Walsh: Yeah, I think so. I think you know what you need, or you know when the energy is petered out. You could hang on, and eventually it will come back, but you have to ride out a long, monotonous plateau of a scene. I think improv does teach you that, but the big thing I liked about getting to direct, was you could keep the tone very real. These guys are all great actors, so I just kept an eye on, 'OK, that was real. Play it that way.' That's what I think improv has helped me develop an eye for.
Did you write the parts for specific actors while you were writing it?
Matt Walsh: Well, originally I thought I could play Fitz, back in the day, when we first wrote it.
Josh Weiner: Yeah, and then a production company said this one person that we had in our head the whole time.
Matt Walsh: I don't remember that story.
Josh Weiner: Well, it's not even really a story, but no, the answer is no.
Matt Walsh: But James is the first one we knew that we wanted to do it. I had seen James at the theater a lot, and he's really funny. He ended up doing a show that I did for Spike for a year. We knew that James was sort of the voice of Fitz, so he fit into that. Then, we probably had Abby (Elliott) in place next, because she seemed to have good chemistry with James, and James knew her, so we met with her.
Josh Weiner: Well, Kyle (Gass) was on the day.
Matt Walsh: Yeah. Kyle Gass was like the day before, because he was always bugging me, 'Put me in the movie.' We were going to have Martin Starr do it, and it didn't work out. It's a big break for Kyle (Laughs). It's a huge break for him.
Josh Weiner: I think one of the reasons we got so many great people in it is because we shot it almost like an internet video. Like, 'Can you come and give us one day?'
Matt Walsh: But a GOOD internet video. Not something Justin would like.
Joe Lo Truglio: Yeah. It's not like a cat playing a piano or something.
Matt Walsh: Then Joe, we had just come off a movie together, and I started thinking, 'He'd be great.' I think I had already talked to Rob Riggle at that point. Obviously, the size difference is hilarious, but their chemistry together was so funny.
Was there anyone that you brought in that you had to teach the improv ropes to at all?
Matt Walsh: Yeah, Dylan. When we cast Dylan, he was the only role we cast who had no improv experience. I plugged him into UCB. I got him into an intensive program for like four weeks. He was there pretty much every day of rehearsal, because he's the one who didn't know how to improvise. He, literally, was improvising with the heavyweights of improv, as far as I'm concerned. The best people I've ever played with are in this movie. He was challenged to step up his game, and he did a great job.
I wasn't sure if Lizzy (Caplan) had any improv experience.
When you wrote the script, was there much character development intact, or was that all up to the actors?
Joe Lo Truglio: There was a kind of general 'knowing who we were,' but not really. Ultimately, you're just staying in the moment and improving, and, like I said before, remembering where he's coming from.
James Pumphrey: When we would do rehearsals, we would improvise scenes from the past. None of it ended up in the movie. Walsh has this idea of like shared history, and things that have happened to all those characters. We knew what happened with the band, even though we don't touch on it in the movie, we're all pulling from this shared history, so we'll all be in the same place.
What did you guys like about playing your characters, compared to previous characters you've played?
Joe Lo Truglio: I liked that my character wore sweatpants the whole time. It was very comfortable.
James Pumphrey: I had never kissed anybody on camera before, so that was all right. I got to wear all my own clothes. That was nice. Usually I hate wearing costumes.
Can you tell us a bit about the character you play in this?
Horatio Sanz: First off, I was also like Kyle Gass asking, 'Put me in the movie, put me in the movie.' Then they actually came up with a pretty fun scene, and I play the doctor that the boys meet on the road.
Matt Walsh: His scene was the most on-set breaking, which I don't normally like, but I like Horatio. That was the one day that became really long because it got so crazy. They were improvising these insane things and everyone was laughing, and fortunately, it turned into a great scene. I always get nervous when people are laughing a lot, because I'm like, 'I don't know if I can use any of this.'
Horatio Sanz: That usually means it's not that funny.
Matt Walsh: Yeah, or just completely bizarro or absurd. His scene was the longest to shoot (Laughs).
Horatio Sanz: We shot it in some old, creepy hospital, right?
Matt Walsh: Yeah, down in downtown L.A., where a lot of spooky things happen.
Was it an actual running hospital, or abandoned?
Matt Walsh: No, it was abandoned. Apparently, some of the guys went down to the morgue. I don't think there are any bodies down there, but you can see the drawers and everything.
Were you ever planning on a theatrical release for this, or was this always planned for VOD or DVD?
Matt Walsh: Yeah, I think it was always a low-budget passion project. It's my directing debut, and I've always wanted to make an improv movie, because I have so much experience in it. It's not a big studio movie, certainly, but it's also an experiment that turned out better than I thought. Sure, I would've loved it if we would've gotten 2,000 screens, but I never had that delusion. I was very realistic. I think it's a success in that it turned out funny, I got everyone I wanted to be in it, and it will be seen. The hope is, knock on wood, that it gets a little cult following, because I think people will be surprised about who's in it, and how funny it is. That's my hope.
Matt Walsh: Yeah, and Dylan is going to be a star. Abby Elliott was just in Maxim, so we have a Maxim star. Also, the people that a lot of people don't know, are some of the funniest, like Andrew Daly. He's not a star, but he's a working, successful actor. You guys probably know him, but most people don't know him. Everybody in there is super funny. I don't think anyone is a dud.
It must be nice too with something like this, because it most mainstream comedies, you can see the framework of a joke being set up. Like you know if someone says this, a joke will follow. Is it refreshing to step into an environment like that?
Horatio Sanz: It's good for actors that maybe aren't the best actors in the world (Laughs). Everyone was very open for everything. I don't think I even had an outline for what you wanted me to do. Remember I tried to do that take with the rusty saw? (Laughs)
Matt Walsh: Yeah, that was a little big.
Horatio Sanz: Yeah, that's the greatest thing though, is there are opportunities to do so many takes, and I think it's really collaborative.
Matt Walsh: It's so pretentious, but I believe comedy, if you have a good story, 90% is casting. Once you have the guys or gals in there, it's pretty easy to make a funny movie. A perfect movie is one thing, but a funny movie, I think is easy. I'm really happy that I got everyone I got, and everybody got to play to their strengths and were paired up in the right scenarios. It was really fortunate.
They all were about to get back into the studio, but before they went back in, the actors all huddled up to bounce ideas off each other for how to improvise the next segment of this commentary. The improvising never ends, ladies and gentleman, and with hilarious people like this, that's never a bad thing.
High Road hits the shelves on Blu-ray and DVD March 6.