Ken Kwapis talks about working with Robin Williams, Mandy Moore, and John Krasinski
Robin Williams, Mandy Moore and John Krasinski star in the new comedy License to Wed.
Newly engaged, Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) can't wait to start their life together and live happily ever after. The problem is that Sadie's family church, St. Augustine's, is run by Reverend Frank (Robin Williams), who won't bless Ben and Sadie's union until they pass his patented, foolproof marriage prep course. Consisting of outrageous classes, outlandish homework assignments and some outright invasion of privacy, Reverend Frank's rigorous curriculum puts Ben and Sadie's relationship to the test.
Forget happily ever after -- do they even have what it takes to make it to the altar?
Ken Kwapis is best known for directing episodes of the hit NBC show The Office and the box office smash The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. He now directs this feature comedy starring the great Robin Williams and newcomer John Krasinski. We recently sat down with the creative genius behind such Office episodes as "Gay Witch Hunt" and "The Booze Cruise". Here is that conversation:
Was it a given that you'd have actors from The Office?
Ken Kwapis: Was it a given? No, no, not at all. In fact, I should back up and say that I had to fight frankly to get John Krasinski in this film because when we cast the film, The Office had only been on the air about a year, a season and a half, and I helped launch the show. I directed the pilot so I had a lot to do with John getting that job in the first place. Although John had appeared in small parts in some really terrific films, he'd never been the lead in a picture so I had a lot of work to do to convince Warners to take a chance on him - this despite the fact that the film had Robin Williams in it. I will say from the get go - I know mentioned this in the production notes - from the moment I did John's audition for The Office, I knew that he was a very rare specimen - someone who was incredibly attractive, very much a potential leading man, and also someone who was funny. And also, I will answer that question about the secondary characters, but I was just thinking about it the other day that John - I also remember when I met John, his stature, his look, the way he carries himself, he really does remind me of much more of a kind of an actor from a different era. I really do think about the Gary Coopers and the James Stewarts of the world when I'm hanging out with John. He's seems to partake in that kind of classic value. I thought it would be so great to invite a couple of The Officestaff along and I may not invite too many of them but I'm close with every one of them. It was hard to choose. The scene with Angela Kinsey and John and Bob Balaban in the jewelry store frankly had nothing in it. There was almost no scene at all but I just knew this would be a great springboard for something. The scene was about a quarter of a page long, but I knew once I had people like Angela and Balaban and John together. The third jeweler by the way whose name is Jess Rosenthal is actually not an actor. He was an executive at Warner Brothers. He was actually a junior executive on our project and every time we had meetings on the script I kept thinking "We've gotta do something with that guy." So I finally invited him to be in that scene as well.
Can you talk a little about directing Robin Williams?
Ken Kwapis: Well you know one of the great things about working with Robin in this film is that the part really calls for someone to have a certain level of anarchy, someone to have a sort of perversity, to be a mischief maker and yet he's also a reverend so all of that needed to work within certain parameters. You should never feel that he's actually threatening or dangerous so it was actually kind of a great challenge working with Robin who has this sort of unstoppable, almost natural resource in terms of his improvisational abilities. By the way, just to go on about Robin, he's shockingly well read and he's shockingly, to me, politically astute and so observant of people's behavior on the set and off the set and it all is grist for the mill. It all comes back out in the form of the most inventive ad-libs. Working with him, I see him just sort of a sponge, like everything around him again he soaks up and it comes back out in the form of the most inventive stuff. But again with this role, we were very clear, Robin and I, that we didn't want him to be Aladdin in a priest's outfit. We didn't want a character where there were no limits. We didn't want it to be just the flood gates are open. He can be any one at any time. So it was very important at every stage that we respect the parameters. What Robin and I would often talk about at the beginning of a scene was what the curricular value of a given scene was for this couple. - the marriage counseling scene for example in the bar or when he goes to their apartment and asks them to talk about their sexual inclinations with each other. Obviously those scenes are designed to make you uncomfortable and make you cringe a little and to push buttons, but at the same time, even though you don't need to know exactly what the curricular value is, Robin needed to know in order to make the scene feel grounded. And again, generally, Robin and I would talk about things that happen in marriage that you can't anticipate when you're getting married and how his course is designed to sort of bring those things to the surface in a way that people probably could benefit and don't know.
Was there a need to protect John from Robin?
Ken Kwapis: To protect him? No, but see the interesting thing is I think that there's a yes and no. But here's the thing, Robin fell in love with John on day one. I think the first time they met was when we sat in a room about this size and read the script around a table and you have to imagine...Just let me set the scene for you. All the actors are sitting around the table together and then around the perimeter of the room are executives and producers and, oh my God, it's the most anxious making event this kind of read through. But immediately, as soon as they started, Robin and John, just sitting next to each other, just squared off and started jamming with each other and that was it. Love at first sight right from the beginning. But the other thing too, it's partly a function of this role that Robin plays, but it's also really a function of Robin's person. He could not have been more generous with the others. There was no sense that okay this scene is really a platform for ... It really was wonderful that way. I mean I've mentioned this before. So often when you're making a film, an actor does his coverage or close-up, his or her shots, and then when it comes time to do a reverse and do the others, well maybe they'll stay and do their off camera lines or maybe they won't. For Robin, he would always be there and be just as giving and just as vital off camera as he was on camera. Clearly for him the scene is not done even if he's off camera. And that is the exception I will say. You'd be surprised how many people shirk their important responsibilities in terms of helping their fellow actors.
You show your outtakes in the end credits, will there be even more great stuff on the DVD?
Ken Kwapis: There's actually a few scenes on the DVD that sort of develop a storyline that we decided was not important enough, so I'll just mention it very briefly and then I'll just say it's a teaser for the DVD, but there was a little bit more of an emphasis on Eric Christian Olsen's character as a threat to John's character and in particular the possibility that Eric's character was a sexual threat or rather that somehow there had been some romantic or sexual relationship in the past between Mandy and Eric's characters. And the scenes are terrific. You'll see them on the DVD. But it felt like it was not as important.
Are they funny scenes?
Ken Kwapis: Yeah, they're funny scenes but it felt like it was less important than Eric's character being simply an emotional threat. Somehow John being worried that his fiancée had slept with another guy seemed maybe a little phony. What was real and something I can certainly relate to and I know lots of people can is the idea that the person you're marrying, your fiancée, uses someone else as a sounding board or as a confidante. And so I think the important thing was feeling like Eric was an emotional threat and that was part of the reason those scenes will be available on the DVD.
You said shockingly well read and shockingly politically astute, why is it so shocking that a member of this industry would be as tuned in and as engaged? If it's not the norm, then what do you feel is missing? Or is it just something that the culture doesn't really support?
Ken Kwapis: Well, let's put it this way. When I say shocking, I actually mean among people that I know who are well read. I consider myself pretty well read and I am just surprised at the amount and variety of things that he's interested in. But now to go to your point, I'll be very blunt. Hollywood is as myopic a community as there exists on the planet. You know it's funny, I helped launch the television show The Larry Sanders Show which was in part when we were doing the pilot, we talk a lot about the idea of characters who were so myopic that they didn't actually... I remember very specifically the prop master or set dresser saying should we have copies of the L.A. Times lying around on the set as part of the set dressing. And I think it was Gary who said, "Oh no. None of these characters should be aware of what's going on outside these rooms." That is the absolute truth. So yes, I guess in a general way it's a little shocking.
Can you talk a little bit about the casting of Mandy Moore?
Ken Kwapis: Yes, oh my God, thank you. Well, first of all, the key thing is that I started with John. I campaigned for John, I convinced the studio to go with John. Then it was really a question of not just John and Mandy but John and someone who would create great chemistry with him. So I auditioned and screen tested several women, several wonderful actresses, Mandy among them. I met Mandy first and just had a really gut feeling about her. One of the things I liked about her was that she seemed very strong as a person, very grounded. And I wanted someone who ... See one of the tricky things about her role is she actually -- I didn't want her to appear naïve -- but she goes along with the marriage prep course and I didn't want that to seem flighty or naïve. John occasionally says things like, "He's insane. Why can't you see that?" So I wanted someone who could invest in doing that course in a way that actually was for the right reasons as opposed to just being stupid. But the main thing is romantic chemistry, sexual tension, something between the two actors. Its not one but two people. By the way, more often than not, with the help of wonderful cinematographer John Bailey, we tried as best as possible to keep them in the frame together. It's not about one or the other, it's about the energy between them in the frame. So when I screen tested John and Mandy, first of all they just looked like a couple. John is 6'3" and Mandy is about 5'10". And by the way, Mandy would be the first to say this. She's a little self-conscious about being tall. As soon as she stood there with John, that went away immediately. She literally threw her shoulders back. One of the things that made me absolutely certain that Mandy was right was looking at John looking at Mandy in the screen test. It was just very clear from the way he was looking at her that she was right. It's the way it is with any great relationship. I saw how she was reflected in his eyes and I thought oh wow, he really is finding something with her. It's great. I also by the way really admire her a lot. I think that she has grown up in public in a way that I find so graceful. Without getting too - oh gosh -- too something about it, I just kind of find her whole sense of seeking to find who Mandy Moore is really kind of a great adventure that I'm very happy to have been a part of for a little bit. I think that she's very young. She's been in public for a long time and I think has had to weather a lot of criticism. I mean people calling her overly wholesome, a teeny pop star, things like that, a bubblegum star and yet I think that she just sort of takes it and keeps moving forward and I think she's in this wonderful place right now where her choices are getting really interesting. But there's a sense that - this may sound like a contradiction - she's trying on different versions of herself to find out who she is and yet through all of this is incredibly grounded. So does that make sense? It kind of a little bit like two things that don't seem to fit but that's why I love her.
She's not one of those Hollywood wild childs?
Ken Kwapis: Not that she doesn't have an irreverent streak of her own, that's for sure, but I think that there's something - I keep coming back to the word graceful, the way she carries herself in public and I really admire that.
Which scene are you most proud of?
Ken Kwapis: Oh my gosh. There are so many scenes I'm proud of. I'm actually really am happy with the scene toward the end of the second act in which they break up at their wedding rehearsal because it was a scene that needed to be very dramatic and it was a scene that we shot early on in the schedule for various reasons before the actors had really had a chance to live inside these characters for a long time so it scared the hell out of me how we were going to basically... You've set up the goal before you get their organically so I'm just thrilled with the way it [turns out] and it's a long scene. One of the things about this script is that there were many, many scenes that were just two and three times as long as an average comedy scene and so a lot of the challenges for me was how to sustain and create variety within a scene that often lasted ten pages long. That scene was easily ten pages long. It' was like, "Wow, how do we keep this thing alive? How do we create? And it's a scene by the way ten pages long where people don't move. They're standing in one spot. Or the scene I'm really proud of is the scene around the table at Carlyle's loft where they're doing the word association game. Probably for the same reasons, the only way to play this is for people to be kind of stuck there and yet it's a long scene and how do you kind of shape it so that it really sustains, builds, has variety within it. And again, with the parameters being there's going to be eight people standing around a table and not moving.
How did you initially get involved with The Office and where did you go to get John involved in that?
Ken Kwapis: Before doing The Office, I helped launch a few single camera half-hour shows that were innovative in both their style and their tone. The Larry Sanders Show obviously is one. The Bernie Mac Show is another important one. So I was somebody who people looked to in terms of that format - single camera, half-hour, non-live, etc. I just met with Greg Daniels and we just really had a great meeting of the minds. We both agreed right at the start that it was incredibly daunting to embark upon this. In fact, when I went home and told my wife I was going to do a pilot of The Office, she said "Well that's a suicide mission." And then in fact, a lot of the challenges was blocking out that because basically we all knew it seemed like such a fool's errand to try and improve upon something that was so miraculously good. The good news is that NBC got it and they understood that in order to make this thing work in an American form, it still needed to have those off beat values. It couldn't be cast with stars. People didn't know Steve Carell as well as they do now obviously. But basically other than Rainn Wilson having been on Six Feet Under, people didn't know who these people are. So in a way John and also Jenna Fischer who plays Pam, they had to be newcomers, they had to be unknowns. But it was an audition process. There was a ton of screen testing. I will say Jenna Fischer - I'll just do a little Jenna Fischer sidebar here because I love her so much. She was so eager to get this part and the way the process works is the actors will meet with the casting director first and then meet with me and the producers and Jenna said, "I'm so dying to meet..." She said to the casting director, "I'm so desperate to get this part. What do I need to do when I go in there and meet the director?" And the casting director said, "Just go in there and bore them." And I thought that was the most brilliant advice because that's the style of the show -- people who kind of disappear under the woodwork. She came in to audition and just sat in the corner for a while and I remember literally someone came up to me and said, "I think that woman is under the misperception that she's here for a receptionist's job." But it was perfect. The same with John, there's something about the whole style of the show and the kind of people we needed to play it where yes, you need to have incredible charisma doing nothing and as I say in those notes and I think it's really true, John knows his way around an awkward pause better than anyone. It was very clear when John started, particularly in his scenes with Jenna, that they were right and they'd be great in the story.
There are a couple of characters that upstage everybody in this movie - the twins. Can you talk about the creation and the look of the twins?
Ken Kwapis: You mean the robots, the robotic babies?
Oh, you mean they weren't real?
Ken Kwapis: No, but there were real twins with them too. The robot babies - here's what happened. I said to the model maker, we were trying to decide how realistic they should look, and I made a comment kind of offhanded that I felt that all newborn babies looked like Edward G. Robinson and I saw the model maker write a note to himself and then the next thing I knew they brought in these babies and in fact they looked like little Edward G. Robinsons to me. And they were so odd and I think at first some members of the producing team thought I don't know if this is going to scare people or not but they are quite, quite remarkable. At first, yes, all the actors had to hold their own with them. [laughs] I think they were very complicated. You know it's funny too because I liked being able to do that scene particularly with John because I also think of John as having great physical comedy skills that he doesn't get to do in the television program. John and I definitely talked about how to engineer, how to create a sight gag. We really talked in real pure Buster Keaton terms. We talked about "I'm going to lay back, I'm going to compose this really wider than normal just so I can see your whole body language as you're trying to change this baby's diaper." So it was really fun to sort of - not that I think of it this way - but it was really fun to have sort of a silent comedy interlude in the middle of the film like that.
Was there a lot of discussion about how far to go with the bodily functions?
Ken Kwapis: That was a case where we said let's find out once we've shot it because there are some things you don't really know. I'm always surprised if I read something and say, "Oh that's ... We can't do that." And then audiences totally embrace it. That was a case where many things you know are right for this story, but in terms of comedy sometimes many things you can't really be sure of until you see them in context and with an audience.
I noticed in your bio that you won a Student Academy Award for Dramatic Achievement but you've had to much success with comedy.
Ken Kwapis: I did win the Student Academy Award for a film I made at USC when I was a graduate student, but in fact the film that I made was a musical. It's called Dramatic Achievement but it doesn't mean for dramas. It just means for narrative. It actually should be called Narrative Achievement.
Do dramatic portrayals appeal to you?
Ken Kwapis: Absolutely. In fact, the last feature I made was very dramatic. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I couldn't be prouder of that picture and the emotional content couldn't be stronger in terms of it playing as drama. I mean the truth is that picture, particularly the storylines, could not have been more intense in terms of their emotional content. So, no, I'm equally drawn.
Are you doing the second one?
Ken Kwapis: No, I'm not and I'm sorry that I'm not because I loved those actors and loved the material and I did help shape the sequel but partly it had to be done too quickly for me to do it partly because of America and her schedule on her television show. I'd have to be in two places. If I had done it, I wouldn't be here talking to you. But I'm embarking on a new picture which to speak to your question actually has a combination of humor and drama in a great way. It's an adaptation of the non-fiction book "He's Just Not That Into You." It's for New Line. Drew Barrymore is the producer of the film and it is a multi-layered story about people who pine after and are rebuffed by others and it's a wonderfully hard to pin down piece. I keep calling it, when I meet people on it, I say this is a social document with humor. It's so funny you mention that. I just have to say this one thing. Every once and a while I'll think, "Oh gosh, let's go to the video store and see if all the copies of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are checked out." And then my wife says, "You go and I'll stay home." But then what often happens is I'll go to the store like a total nerd and I look around and I'll say "I can't find any of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Can you tell me where it is?" and instead of saying they're all out, they'll say, "Oh no, it's in comedy." which is one of these painful things for me as the director of that kind of film. Why? I don't know. I have no idea. It doesn't fit in any box. It really doesn't that film. I went to a video store on the Warner Brothers lot, they sell videos, and they had a little box set there. They're always packaging and repackaging their product and they had this little thing called a "romantic comedy box set" and I said "What's in this?" and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was in it. [laughs] And I'm like, "What's this? This doesn't belong here at all." I feel like, to go back to your question about dramatic achievement, I'm attracted to things that kind of have both. That film has...the storylines are so heart wrenching and it certainly has wonderful humor, but God knows it's not a comedy or a romantic comedy or I don't know, so why? It's the same thing with this New Line film. It's the same kind of thing. Who knows where it's going to be in the DVD store, if they even have DVD stores by then.
Have you started that film?
Ken Kwapis: It's just starting. I will say that Drew is in it, but she's also a producer and we're just starting to film it and fill in the cast.
As a director, whether it's comedy or drama, how do you know if something is working? What's your theory? What does make something funny and how do you know it's working?
Ken Kwapis: There are different kinds of comedy. There are comedies that are very kind of observational, behavioral and there are comedies that are about jokes and then there's everything in between. There are visual comedies and set piece comedies and physical comedies so actually I can't...it's hard to generalize. But in this film, however, which obviously has broad physical comic moments but it also has I think more finely observed moments in terms of behavior, my focus was to make sure that you recognized yourself in this couple. That's the big headline for me because if you're watching this that you see yourself or you say, "Ugh! I wish I was that person," but more often, "Oh shit, I've done that." Sometimes for me the measure of a good comic moment is whether or not it makes me cringe because I'm sort of shocked to see myself up there.
License to Wed opens in theaters on July 4th.