Capone Talks about Guy Stuff with I LOVE YOU, MAN writer-director John Hamburg!!!
Published at: March 23, 2009, 9:43 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey all. Capone in Chicago here, wrapping up my extensive interview coverage of I LOVE YOU, MAN with my talk with the film's writer-director John Hamburg, a man whose comedy roots go pretty deep. Hamburg's first feature was the great movie SAFE MEN with Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, and Paul Giamatti, among many others. After that, he directed a handful of episodes of the Apatow-created "Undeclared," as well as "Stella." He was part of the writing crew that scripted the MEET THE PARENTS films (including the upcoming LITTLE FOCKERS) and ZOOLANDER, and his last job as a writer-director was the successful Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston comedy ALONG CAME POLLY. And then along came I LOVE YOU, MAN. Although this is the last of my interviews for this film, this is actually the first one I conducted, and it was done over the phone a couple weeks before Paul Rudd and Jason Segel came to Chicago, with Paul bringing Hamburg as a surprise guest for the post-screening Q&A. John is a truly funny and interesting guy to talk with, and he has no problem keeping up with his stars in terms of telling great, hilarious stories. Enjoy John Hamburg…
Capone: Hey, John. How's it going?
John Hamburg: Good. It's great to finally meet you.
Capone: Likewise. You've made a great film here, so let's dive right into your story and career.
JH: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: In the last couple of years, I've interviewed both Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn, and when I asked them both if there was one particular film that people still ask them about with some regularity, they both mentioned SAFE MEN as one that people always bring up. I think that film is an unheralded minor masterpiece.
Capone: You've directed some pretty high-profile people over the years, but I have to imagine that the prospect of directing Paul and Jason had to be so exciting.
JH: They're both such good actors, so making these guys who were already friends appear not to be friends wasn't that hard. Basically, the SAFE MEN thing is fun because none of those guys were as famous as they are now, except for Michael Lerner and Harvey Fierstein. With I LOVE YOU, MAN, it was very simple--and they don't always start this simply. It was basically, I turned the script in and we all sat in an office at Dreamworks and said, "We want Paul Rudd and Jason Segel." We didn't now if we could get them. I knew both of them, but I've had plenty of friends I've known say, "I don't want to do your movie." That's never awkward at all…ever! But then there's the reverse, when you have friends who come in and audition and you don't want to use them. It's a nightmare. But I thought that that combination would be really interesting, and you hadn't seen that before, and we gave them the script and we talked about it in one meeting, and they were both into it.
Capone: Were they the first two you got on board?
JH: Yeah, it started with them. There are two strong male leads, so you could go a lot of ways. But I think those two guys set the tone for the entire movie, in terms of both of them being super funny but also being very real and relatable. And it's not like they bring a ton of "Oh, they've been in 2 million movies, and they're doing the same thing." Jason hasn't had the lead in that many movies, and Paul has had the lead in some, but not so many and he's played such a varied group of characters. I feel the audience accepts them as these people, without saying, "There's this movie star and that movie star."
Capone: Jason definitely isn't a movie star. He really just has the one big hit last year that put him on the path. And this is the perfect follow up.
JR: Knowing him, we say he's a cross between a golden retriever and a serial killer. It kind of like that's what we wanted Sydney to be; you don't know if he's the coolest guy in the world or…like, he doesn't let Paul Rudd's character into his house. Does he have dismembered heads in there? Or weird Kevin Spacey scribblings, you don't know.
Capone: Once they were on board, how much input did Paul and Jason have in molding these characters to fit some ideas they had?
JR: Part of the reason I think they agreed to do the film is that they felt like Peter and Sydney, they felt like they could imagine playing them as they were on the page. There were certain things, like when Paul Rudd gets kissed by Doug [played by Thomas Lennon] and Doug says, "Let's go to dinner next week," and Paul says, "I will see you there, sir." That's a very Paul Rudd kind of thing. But we spent a lot of time in my office going over the script. They're both really funny and really good writers, so they added a ton of stuff, and the three of us sat there and made it more and more real for the two of those guys and added a lot of funny stuff that came out of those sessions. I think the whole runner of Paul calling Jason "Jobin" and tries to come up with a nickname, that came about with just the three of us screwing around in my office one day. At least on the surface, nobody has big egos--maybe underneath, they all do--but these guys aren't like "I need to put my stamp on this." It was more like, let's get together and make this scene funnier; let's try to top it. It was a nice little collaboration.
Capone: Whose portion of the collaboration was the Rush infatuation?
JH: That was me. I was a big Rush fan as a kid, and when I was writing the script, I was like "What band would be good and big enough that people know, but not so big that it's obvious." And it literally was like, "It's got to be Rush." Then later, the more I got into it and when I met Rush, they said, "You don't understand, we call women at our concerts "Getty-corns," a mixture of Getty Lee and unicorns, because they are so rare. Our concerts are all dudes." And what happened was that my production designer said, "Hey man, I just saw that 'Freaks and Geeks' episode where Jason Segel plays drums to Rush." My heart sank because I've seen a bunch of episodes of "Freaks and Geeks," and I worked on "Undeclared," which was the follow up, but I'd never seen every episode, and I did not see that one. I didn't even think about it. And I said, "You've got to be fucking kidding me."
Capone: When the first scene set in the Man Cave occurred at Butt Numb-a-Thon, the crowd went a little crazy. Granted, that's a slightly more slanted audience that has probably seen every episode of "Freaks and Geeks."
JH: Right. Every episode of "Freaks and Geeks" was based on the Butt Numb-a-Thon audience, I think. I didn't write the script for Paul and Jason, so Sydney was originally a drummer. My production designer showed me the scene, and immediately changed his instrument from drums to guitar, who was great because it gave him the freedom to move around the Man Cave. I also called Judd Apatow, who's a friend of mine, and I said, "I need your blessing on this because this was totally random. I didn't know I was going to cast Jason Segel, and my guy just showed me this episode." And Judd of course was totally cool about it. He said, "I wouldn't want you to get called out for doing a 'Freaks and Geeks' thing." When we changed his character from drums to guitar, nobody at any of the screening has said, "You're trying to make him the same guy." He's such a different character.
Capone: Eventually we find that out, but at that point it could go any way. We don't know him that well. You could just play it cool and pretend it's an inside joke.
JH: I could, but I had a couple of sleepless nights where I wondered if I was going to have to make these guys bond of Journey. I didn't have the same personal connection. It's probably why those guys put Rush in "Freaks and Geeks," because we're all about the same age and that was like the band from our childhood.
Capone: One of the things I focused on in my review was that there is some insight here. There are genuine issues brought up about the nature of male relationships, and I appreciate that you didn't instinctively turn the female characters into screeching harpies or minimize them in any way. I'd even go so far as to say that they are equal partners and more likable than the men.
JH: My script is based on a script called LET'S MAKE FRIENDS by Larry Levin, and that was a project that Larry wrote and several others took a crack at that premise, and it went through a lot of development. I came back to it five or six years after I first read his script. What happened was that I came up with an idea on how you could tell this story. I always loved the idea of a romantic comedy between two friends, but I didn't want it to be a high-concept, cheesy Hollywood movie. So what happened is I thought, Well, what if the guy is a girlfriend guy. He's been focused on his girlfriends and his career, and the reason he doesn't have friends is that that's not the kind of person he is. I could relate to that. I've been fortunate to have guy friends in my life, but I could also relate to the aspects where he's into "Project Runway" and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. RUNAWAY BRIDE is a guilty pleasure of mine; I'm gonna throw that out there, I don't care what all your readers think.
But it started out that I could understand the character that became Peter, just a really sweet, well-meaning guy, but not a freak. He's not a guy that's never talked to anybody. He's actually a guy that's very comfortable around women and he's a great boyfriend and a great son. And I didn't want who he met to be the total opposite; I didn't want to do that kind of movie, where one's buttoned-up and one's crazy. I've been down that road before, and I wanted to do a different thing this time around. I like the idea of a guy who has a lot of theories--he's wrong half the time, but he's right a lot of the time. He has all these random thoughts about his Man Cave and jerk-off station. He's justified that in his mind, because what's wrong with that? That's part of life, and I'm not crazy and I'm not going to let women in here. He theorizes a lot of things. And as Paul's character says in the movie, "I want to disagree with you, but you make sense sometimes.
Capone: We pretty much learn all we need to know about Peter in the first 10-15 minutes of the film. But you deliberately keep Sydney a bit of a mystery. Is he at the open house because he's broke and looking for free food, or is he really there to pick up women? You keep us suspicious of his motives, and then when he asks Peter for a loan, you can almost hear the collective "Ah ha!" from the audience. Why did you decide to keep Sydney such a mystery?
JH: I guess I always saw the movie through Peter's eyes, and I was thinking that Peter was discovering this guy as we are as an audience. A new friend that you meet as an adult, you don't know anything about. That's part of the weird thing. Who are they? They've had a whole life. Somebody you meet in seventh grade, they haven't had that much of a life. They probably aren't a scammer or running on scheme. But a guy you meet as an adult, you're like, "What has this guy been up to for the last 25 or 30 years?" And just as a screenwriter, I thought this would be a cool device, because I didn't want to make the kind of movie where he secretly scamming him or he's a serial killer or criminal. That wasn't the story I wanted to tell, but I did want you to think for five minutes that he might be scamming him. And it's fun to watch an audience go through it because if you have a good, vocal audience, they go dead silent when Sydney asks Peter for money. They go, "Aw, shit. I knew it."
Capone: How much leeway did you give your actors in terms of on-set improvising?
JH: In terms of leeway, it was anything goes. But I think the guys would tell you, it's a good combination of scenes that are exactly how they were on the page, some where they're two-thirds on the page and those guys improvised either the funniest line or a line that made the scene seem more real, and some scenes there was nothing written. There's a montage of Paul and Jason getting to know each other, and we would just work out ahead of time, talk about this subject, or I'd throw out ideas. So when you have guys like Paul and Jason, that becomes a very pleasurable night of filming. But it really was a combo. If you read the script and saw the movie, you go, "Okay, I get it." It's close, but there's a lot of stuff for sure.
Capone: The sequence where Paul says "Slappin' the bass" 50 times, I couldn't help but think you shot him saying that line different ways with the idea that you would pick the funniest delivery, but that they were all funny, so you used them all.
JH: I want some smoke and mirrors. I'm neither going to confirm nor deny that. I will tell you this: the line "I slappa the bass big time" is definitely in the screenplay. Other than that, I'm not going to into how much Paul added. That scene is a pure example of the genius of Paul Rudd, and what a good actress Rashida Jones is. He is so frickin' funny and weird in that scene and committed to the character, and she is right there with him. It's not like it's Rashida laughing; she's this girl who's seeing her fiancée become a wild man for the first time. I think I was on vacation when they did that scene, so when I came back I was pleasantly surprised by the dailies [laughs].
Capone: Tell me about putting together the various man dates, because it becomes a tour of different types of men.
JH: I wanted to have every kind of guy be represented. For example, a lot of times if a guy is trying to meet another guy, he'll go through his wife or her girlfriends, and then she hooks him up with the husband or boyfriend of one of her friends. And that guy usually doesn't want to hang out with the other guy. From that came the character of Barry and then from Barry came the comic brilliance of Jon Favreau as the biggest asshole ever. So I was thinking, where would Peter be really uncomfortable? With a sort of grown-up fratty guy who has this group of friend and they think they're funny, but really they're assholes. And the high-voiced guy, I think at some point in my life I came across a guy who had a comically high voice, but I didn't want that to be his only thing. So not only does he have this voice, but he's really aggressive. So that combination is bad, and the character that Joe Lo Truglio plays, who we named Lonnie de la Pena--you never actually hear his name in the movie--just had this affliction and is one of these guys who will get into a fight at a sporting event.
And then Doug, the Tom Lennon character, I thought it would be funny to have him go on…look, if you're going to do a movie about man dates, the subtext is that "Is it gay?" So let's have a guy who is gay and he's a great guy, probably the best match for Peter of any of the guys he goes out with, but it turns out that they have different motives. He's sophisticated and smart and almost a mirror of Paul's character; it just turns out that Doug's gay.
Capone: Many of your supporting cast seem overqualified for their parts.
JH: Oh yeah. I told them all they were the leads and they showed up and had like five lines, but by then it was too late.
Capone: I was thrilled to see J.K. Simmons knock another character out of the park.
JH: I got lucky with him because technically he has to be in one out of every four movies made. So I just got that slot, but he has to do it because of some contract he signed years ago. He's the greatest, such a cool guy. He's got that great New York actor sensibility, "Yeah, cool, what time do I show up? What are my lines?" There's this great outtake where he's asking me, "Do we go from 'I'm gonna fuck a dude.' or 'My son sucks his dick.'"
Capone: What about Jaime Pressly? I was just excited to hear her swear, which she doesn't get to do on her TV show.
JH: She's brilliant and so edgy, but can also be sweet. She's a great combo of things. And Favreau is one of the greatest improvisers I've ever seen, and she totally kept up with him line for line. And "My Name Is Earl," I think, is mainly a scripted show, so she's not improvising all the time. She's really good and has such a presence.
Capone: And you got to work with the largely unknown Andy Samberg.
JH: This was the first thing he's ever done, yes. And people mainly know him from the SNL shorts. He's just one of the funniest guys ever. Again, I knew him basically from the digital shorts and HOT ROD, and he's so dry and weird and funny. We met, and he said he knew guys like the Robbie character. He was totally into making this guy the coolest dude you could, and he likes to fuck guys. That's his deal; it's not an issue. His dad's cool with it, there's no weirdness. There are a lot of people like that, why not put them in a movie? You have to face the gay thing head on. You have this guy that's kind of metrosexual, who doesn't have friends, going on man dates. Let's just face it. Is he gay? I thought he needed a guide through the world of men, and how funny would it be if his gay brother is straighter than he is. And I liked the idea of the father-son relationship. You've seen so many films where the father doesn't accept the son, but I hadn't seen the other thing. I've certainly know people like that.
Capone: I have to admit, I was surprised by your choice of Lou Ferrigno to play Lou Ferrigno.
JH: There were a lot of guys who read for the role of Lou Ferrigno--Jonathan Silverman did a great job, Martin Starr was amazing in his audition, Jonah Hill would have been good but he was unavailable. [laughs] You know, that was just a random idea that I had. I really wanted the movie to take place in L.A., in the real world of L.A., where you come across famous people of semi-famous people all the time. What I love about L.A., and I look at it as a bit of a visitor because I'm still based in New York, is when you see celebrities not at a restaurant opening but picking up their dry cleaning or at Rite Aid. That's kind of cool, because then you realize they're real people and have lives. So I wanted Paul's character to sell the house of a real person, a person who we could get as a celebrity. And that led to Lou Ferrigno, which of course led to the idea that somebody had to fuck with him, and since I'd written Sydney as a hot head, so of course, he's going to try and attack him.
Capone: I've heard it said by wiser critics than myself that a way to make a character seem more real is to show them at their job, and we see Peter in his office a lot in this movie.
JH: That's a good point. Here's the thing, most people I know, including myself, we're at work all the time. Whether it's an office job or you work from home and you're working on your computer or you travel. Work is a major point in people's lives, so I think it informs the character. What do you co-workers think of you. You're right, I hate those movies where they just give a character a random job--it's always advertising.
Capone: Architect is a big one; any job that would make you think "Okay, this guy has a decent amount of money." But with Peter, we are ultra aware of his economic status. He's trying to sell this house, so he can put a down-payment on a piece of property.
JH: Exactly. And women characters always work at a magazine, so they can dress funky and have a gay coworker who's their confidant.
Capone: John, thanks for answering all the tough questions. Hopefully, I'll see you down in Austin.
JH: I hope so, and thanks so much for your review. It's nice to read a review that not only gets the movie but you also had some space to get into some analysis. Look, we're trying to be funny and tell some jokes, but there's another thing we're trying to do about relationships, and I felt like you picked up on that. Take care.