"This is like an adolescent version of The Passion of the Christ" - Paul Rust, 2008
I Love You, Beth Cooper. Page 89. Earlier in the day, class valedictorian Dennis Cooverman emphatically proclaimed his love for Beth Cooper in the middle of his graduation commencement speech. Though she doesn't know it yet, she is the love of his young life. Sweet, yet almost too pretty for the room, Beth accepts these words and agrees to meet Dennis at his graduation after-party. It is now 10 pm that night. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Beth has finally arrived at Dennis' house with her two friends Treece and Cammy. They are known as the Trinity, and neither Dennis nor his pal Rich, can believe they are actually here, hanging out with them.
After one little mishap with a champagne bottle that sees the cork nailing Dennis in the eye, the party actually picks up, and the five teenagers proceed to get their "drink on". Without warning, Beth's thick gorilla of a boyfriend Kevin, on leave from killing people in the war, is in the house ready to beat poor, nerdy Dennis to a bloody pulp. After a skirmish with the cheap champagne bottle, Kevin picks up a microwave and hurls it at Dennis' head. It barely misses him, wedging itself into the wall with a loud crash.
This is the scene on set in Vancouver. Director Chris Columbus is bringing Larry Doyle's very popular and hilarious teen novel I Love You, Beth Cooper to life in a sound stage retrofitted to look like a modern kitchen. The place is a mess. Actor Shawn Roberts (Kevin) has just hurled a real microwave at the heads of his two co-stars Paul Rust (Dennis) and Jack Carpenter (Rich). This decent sized piece of metal and plastic nearly took both of them out, for real. It was a close call. Rust, who is making his feature film debut, could actually feel the microwave on his face. We talked with him about the experience:
How close did that microwave feel?
Paul Rust: My first thought when I went down was, "That was really close." I could feel it on my skin. I looked up at the crew, and they all had these giddy smiles on their faces. They were like, "Holy crap! That almost hit you." We all had a good laugh about it.
It seemed like the microwave was going a little too quick on the actual take.
Paul Rust: Yeah. It went a little faster. That's okay. There are no hard feelings. I won't say that I've been doing a lot of the stunts, because that will take away from the work of the stunt guys. But I have been doing a lot of the physical stuff. I've been doing a lot of jumping and running around. But the major stunts, like getting hit by cars and falling off of buildings, is being done by someone else. Those guys are doing all the heavy lifting.
Is this your first film?
Paul Rust: I had a part in Semi-Pro, but it got cut out. You do see me in the background during a lot of that movie. I'm the guy in the wheelchair. This is my first speaking role. I've done a lot of sketch comedy in the past. A lot of that was very physical. This is a completely different arena, working in front of cameras. This is has been a very exciting experience. It's weird. A lot of people have this goal to be a lead in a movie. That was never really my goal. It's weird to have it now. I'm certainly grateful for it. At the same time, I was never looking to be in this position. I wanted to be a third banana. I would have been happy with that. I wanted to do sketch comedy and TV stuff. So this is pretty exciting.
How has it been working with Hayden Panettiere? Are your friends jealous?
Paul Rust: (laughs) She is great. She is really skilled and really funny. She knows comedy. I'm really impressed by her.
Who were you in high school, and do you find it to be a parallel with Dennis Cooverman?
Paul Rust: My character is the valedictorian of his class. I was the valedictorian of my class. Like Dennis, I made the same stupid choice and gave my school a kiss off in my speech. It was a middle finger to the whole class. My friend taped it off the radio, and I listened to it about eight months later. I felt like such an idiot. I was full of bravado, so there is a definite parallel there. I don't know. I got the part of a nerd, and in the past I acted like a nerd.
In the book, Dennis is such a powder keg of anxiety. How are you projecting that in your character?
Paul Rust: My first idea is that every encounter he finds himself in scares him to death. Any scene I go into, I say to myself, "Okay, I am scared of this." From there, it is a varying degree of being on edge. Being on a roof is scary. But the possibility of being naked in a locker room with girls is the ultimate fear. I am trying to project through each moment, and the horror is being manifested in stupid looks on my face. The book isn't written from his perspective. You don't have his voice. So you don't really get a chance to climb inside his brain. But Larry Doyle captures the moment so perfectly on the page, you can sense how Dennis would be acting. We used a lot of Larry's book as a guide. Some of the lines from the book, that didn't make it into the movie, are used for inspiration.
What makes Dennis likable?
Paul Rust: When I first read the script, I thought Dennis was really irritating. He does all of the bad things that nerds do. I think nerds can be really funny. But their most annoying quality is always saying, "I know this, and you don't!" And they try to shove it in your face. There are some parts of the script that are like that. I wasn't sure how I would make that funny or likable. It's just irritating. I tried to focus on the qualities I like. Dennis seems very sincere. He tells Beth that he loves her. That seems like a very sincere thing to do. He is saying it because he wants to be liked. I think wanting to be liked is a likable quality. So I try to focus in on that during some of these scenes. He isn't trying to be smarter than everyone else. He just wants to be accepted by them. He gets himself into trouble because he doesn't have a filter. He assumes that people know some of the things he knows. But it comes off wrong.
Later on set, director Chris Columbus decides that they need to go through the scene again. He wants to throw the microwave at Denis and Rich one more time, only with more feeling. Hayden Panettiere, famous for her role as Claire Bennet on Heroes, stands behind the camera, laughing. The mood on set is fairly jovial. And everyone seems to be having a good time. Panettiere is playing the Beth of the title. And she is certainly the embodiment of every hot girl in high school. It's easy to see why any nerd worth his weight would love her. Taking a break from watching her co-stars get pounded, she chats with us about her experiences shooting in Vancouver:
What was it about this story that made you decide to be a part of it?
Hayden Panettiere: I really wanted to do a comedy. Coming from a show like Heroes, its nice to spread your wings a little bit. If you don't do it, you get categorized. You are your last film. It's hard for people to see you in another light. Coming from a drama, it was important for me to show another part of my personality.
Did you get a chance to read Larry Doyle's book?
Hayden Panettiere: Yes. They sent it to all of us. It was an interesting story. I was pitching another film, which was also based on a book. And they told me about this film. They thought I would be great as Beth Cooper. At the time, Chris Columbus wasn't directing it. He was only producing it. But when he decided to take over, I thought it sounded like a great idea. So, I read the book and fell in love with the material.
What sort of movie does this remind you of?
Hayden Panettiere: It's a combination of a few different things. Without having seen it yet, it's hard to say how it will turn out. You never know what the comedy is going to be like. Things might get cut out. The film takes place all in one night. Its kind of like Mean Girls. We assumed that it would be a teen flick, and it was so much more than that. Even adults enjoyed it. This has that same kind of vibe. The film starts out with the title. He makes that speech, and he tells the school all those things he never got a chance to say. He says, "I love you, Beth Cooper!" This is a girl that is the queen bee of school. He thinks a lot about her. He thinks she is flawless in everyway. But he gets to know her, and she isn't anything like what he expected. It's like going back to your high school reunion and meeting someone you never talked to while actually going there. Throughout the entire film, even though it is hilarious, it has heart because these five people get stuck together, and they discover that, even though they came from completely different social backgrounds, they have a lot in common. This is an odd group. Dennis comes to realize that Beth is pretty in a picture, but there is so much more going on with her. He realizes that she thinks she is perfect. Because she was popular. But that was the high point of her life. Removed from school, she is not really smart. She is not good at cheerleading. She is not an athlete. She doesn't have any ambition. After high school, she becomes extraordinarily ordinary. And she ends up looking at Dennis as this beautiful, unobtainable person. He has a life that he is heading off towards. He is going to be a doctor. He might even cure cancer. High school was wonderful for Beth. But life is going to be wonderful for Dennis. It really is a sweet story. As much as it is a comedy.
What has it been like working with Chris Columbus?
Hayden Panettiere: He is wonderful. He's one of my favorite directors. He is one of the nicest people. I never see him get upset about anything. It makes me feel like an ass when I get mad. He is really open, and unaffected by all of the things he has done. That is very rare. He is very open-minded. He knows that when an actor is tired, its because they have been bringing it to the table. He listens to them, and he allows them to create a character. Ideas are allowed to be discussed. Everything is out in the open. He honestly listens, which helps the entire process move along without any problems. He is laughing all the time, and that creates a wonderful environment.
Chris Columbus is happy with the final take. He feels the microwave has provided enough firepower in the scene. We believe that this rotating food heater could have killed his two actors. And he thinks it's hilarious. I Love You, Beth Cooper is Chris' first real comedy since directing the popular sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York way back in 1992. And he seems extremely excited about returning to his roots. It certainly is in line with his first film, 1987's classic teen comedy Adventures In Babysitting. Shortly after hurling the microwave at his two stars, he took a moment to chat with us:
What led you to some of your casting decisions on this film?
Chris Columbus: There were a lot of things that influenced this film. A lot of recent teen films have lost that beauty and the beast feel. I was a big fan of Wood Allen films. A lot of people wanted us to get Michael Cera, or that type of actor. But there was just something about Paul that I immediately fell in love with. He has an incredible sense of comic timing. Not only that, he has some pretty touching, dramatic scenes. And he can get to that place. This guy has everything. You grow to love him through the course of the film. He has a very odd look. He is like the bastard love child of Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn. But he's a really amazing actor. Hayden was someone that wasn't yet attached to the project when I came on. I got a call from one of the producers, and he said, "We are thinking of casting Hayden." I told him that she sounded great, even though I had yet to see her TV show. When the time came to meet her, I did watch Heroes. And I was more than impressed. She is amazing. Working with her on set, Hayden is such a remarkable actor, she makes everything that much easier.
Is there any dark humor in I Love You, Beth Cooper?
Chris Columbus: Certainly. The character of Beth Cooper is complex. She is slightly dark. But this is more about comedy that teens can go see. This isn't Superbad. This is more along the lines of what John Hughes was doing in the 80s. This feels more like Ferris Bueller's Day Off. We are trying to see how far we can push the Woody Allen vibe. Part of the film is about this really touching relationship that these two people find. I look for something that is appealing, and that is related back through these characters.
Are you guys able to keep the potency of the book's humor with a PG-13 rating?
Chris Columbus: The humor is pretty much intact. Taking my eleven year old to a lot of PG-13 movies, I realize that you can get away with quite a bit. If you are going to do an R rated movie, it has to be pretty hard. That's what the audience is looking for. I think we are certainly skirting an R rating. But I am contractually obligated to turn in a PG-13 movie. If I'm in jail, its because I turned in an R rated movie. We are shooting both versions. There is no way to go to the ratings board without that. You never know how the ratings board is going to feel from one day to the next. We certainly haven't lost any of the humor from the book. We couldn't do that. I trust my audience. Test screenings tell me a lot. And if something is funny, I will fight for it. This is as close to the book as we can get.
With that, Chris went to set up the next shot, which would see Dennis and Rich hanging from the roof. Fans of Larry Doyle's novel are certainly in for a real treat, as his words are being translated to the silver screen with a lot of care. I Love You, Beth Cooper opens on July 10th, 2009. You don't want to miss it. It's hilarious.