There are a number of writers working in Hollywood who might be considered experts in comedy with Judd Apatow and Jay Roach leading the way. One who probably should be included in that list is Peter Tolan, who spent many years writing for “Murphy Brown” and for Gary Shandling on “The Larry Sanders Show,” winning an Emmy for it to boot, before writing comedies for Harold Ramis like Analyze This and Bedazzled. In the past few years, his main gig has been producing and co-writing the hit FX series “Rescue Me” with Denis Leary, which continues to find fans with its unique mix of drama and humor.
After years of writing comedies for other directors, Tolan finally decided to get behind the camera for Finding Amanda, a darkly funny obscenity-laced comedy starring Matthew Broderick as Taylor Peters, a television screenwriter trying to recover from a potentially career-ending turn with drugs and gambling. After a fight with his wife (the ubiquitous Maura Tierney from “ER”), Taylor decides to go to Vegas to retrieve her 20-year-old niece Amanda (played by Brittany Snow) who supposedly has been prostituting herself for drugs, but Taylor quickly finds himself falling back into his old bad habits once he gets there.
Tolan is an incredibly unique screenwriter when it comes to humor and his distinctive style of writing from “Rescue Me” carries over to the movie, which is sharp, witty and acerbic at times, but also strangely moving at others. It’s a fine debut from Tolan that allows Brittany Snow to break out with a performance that shows she’s much more than a young, pretty face.
ComingSoon.net talked with Tolan about the film, which–hard as it may be to believe–was partly autobiographical, as well as what we might see when “Rescue Me” finally returns next year.
CS: The most surprising thing I learned today was that this movie was somewhat autobiographical and that this was something you actually experienced in some way. You’ve been working on it for two years, so was this always something you wanted to direct as your first feature?
Peter Tolan: That was really the point because I really wanted to do two things. I wanted to say to the entertainment community, “Hey I’m directing now.” My agents several years before that said, “I think you can just tell people ‘I’m directing.’ It’ll happen, people will start to believe it.” And we did. I started to direct “Rescue Me,” a lot of those and the pilot for that, but I really wanted to do it more.
CS: What was the transition to directing because even with your writing experience, it’s not like you can just say, “Okay, I’m directing this episode and I’m just going to get behind the camera.”
Tolan: I think I wanted to do something different. I remember doing some four-camera stuff years ago and directing one of those, and I really didn’t like it because that’s more traffic cop stuff. You’re really just moving those big cameras on peds around. Some people can do that, it’s a real art, and I found it limiting and uninteresting, and then when Denis Leary and I started to do our first show, “The Job,” at a certain point I was just on set all day and I’d look back and go, “I think I worked twenty minutes today of getting out of the chair and saying, change that line to that, or fix this, or whatever,” and I just said, “This is a waste of my time and I also don’t live out here,” so I would come out and I would be like, if I’m coming out this far, I better be working, and so I just started directing, that was really it, just to be useful, and I found that initially when I saw some friends doing it, I thought, “That’s way too daunting, just in terms of the number of people asking you questions, and the problems that come up and all that, I just don’t want to deal with that,” and I found that the reverse had happened, that I was much more interested in being active, being out with people, solving problems, coming up with solutions to things.
CS: Was there any dissatisfaction with any of the movies that came out that you wrote that were directed by others. Harold Ramis is a great director, and he’s done a lot of comedies, but did how those movies turn out affect your decision to direct your own scripts?
Tolan: Yeah, I don’t want to say specifically because I don’t want to diss other people in the business, but there were things I just was not happy with.
CS: Others were saying that this was a very fast-moving set, the fastest set they’d been on, so is that just your nature of working?
Tolan: It’s functionally that I really had no choice. On that shoot, I only had twenty-one days to shoot the movie and it was pretty ambitious to try and get that. Looking back I probably needed twenty-three days, or something like that. I had a couple days where I was running.
CS: Would two more days have helped that much?
Tolan: One day would’ve saved me from some real challenges.
CS: I understand you didn’t actually shoot in Vegas at all, even though I would not have guessed that from watching the movie.
Tolan: No, I did some second unit stuff in Vegas, that’s all. Just to do some of the transitions, just to say to the audience, “Hey look, I’m really in Vegas.” Everything else is in Los Angeles, the surrounding area. The casino was the Hollywood Park, the casino down there in Inglewood, California.
CS: That was due to the cost factor?
Tolan: You know, it’s one of the most daunting things about shooting a movie about Vegas is nobody wants you to shoot there. It’s not profitable for the casinos to shut down any part of their operation at any part of the day, and they just don’t care. They’ve got bigger fish to scam, so they don’t need you. Even if they’re not busy at three o’clock in the morning, “Oh, we got to turn the music off, we’ve got to do this.” ***holes, so we tried, believe me. I went to insane lengths. I had a meeting with the Maloof brothers who own The Palms where I talked about a reality TV series that we might do, and I mean I had these guys laughing, now the brother who wasn’t there is the one who manages The Palms, and he said “no”, so it was that kind of thing. You do a whole dog and pony show, and everybody said no. There was an NBC show called “Vegas” and their set was on the Sony lot and I had all my friends over there, and I was like, “Can’t I use that set?” “No,” so I was forced into that card club that never closed; it was operating while we were shooting.
CS: It’s believable though.
Tolan: It’s completely believable, but it’s also a small space, so I had to be very creative in terms of saying, “Hey, look at this big casino I’m in.” It was a challenge.
CS: That also allowed you to create some of your own clubs, like “The Aztec,” which is also very credible.
Tolan: Interesting thing about that–again a money-saving situation–in the original draft of it, the other casino was called The Oregon Trail, and it was supposed to be a real sh*thole. It was just an awful thing, and you know, the Oregon Trail was this horrible historical thing, a hundred thousand people died on the Oregon Trail from starvation, and like nobody gives a sh*t. (laughs) It was this whole thing and they had a covered wagon out front, and a big guy with a whip, and there was gold and hills and we just couldn’t construct all that. We also couldn’t find a space to build a fake casino in, but in Monrovia, California, just outside of Pasadena, there is a hotel called The Aztec. Now this is not a big town, why it has a f*cking hotel in the first place nobody knows, but all that architecture is already there. We just had to bring in the slot machines and everything else and decorate it, so it became The Aztec, and I rewrote the whole thing to reflect that, and we made that statue of the Aztec guy. which is now in my living room in Pasadena.
CS: So people are going to go to this hotel The Aztec after they see the movie and expect all the slot machines, but there’s nothing like that inside the hotel at all?
Tolan: It’s just a rundown and people don’t know, unless you really look at the thing, you wouldn’t know some of the things that we did. Like when Matthew comes in in the morning from the night out with her, and he gets in the bed and takes his clothes off. No sooner does he roll over then the phone rings and it’s his wife. I wanted to put a piece of music there, and I said, “You know what it is it’s (singing) ‘Good morning, good morning, we talk the whole night through, good morning,’” so I had that lyric line, ‘We talk the whole night through.’ It’s something really cheery and upbeat just as he’s dragging his ass in there, I can’t afford that, so my brother-in-law and I wrote the song that goes there, he made it sound like an old Andrews sister song and it’s called, (sings) “Mr. Rooster, don’t wake me up to early. We talked all night long my girl and me,” so the same lyric line is there, it was just all created for the movie.
CS: I had no idea, and I honestly thought it was a song you found from the old days.
Tolan: We did it, believe me, (sings) “There’s Everywhere Else and Then There’s Vegas,” we wrote that. We wrote it, but we had to. We didn’t have a choice. (laughs)
CS: That’s also an amazing song. If you want to get the producers some of their money back, you should try to sell that to the Vegas tourist board. That’s a great song!
Tolan: We’ve already talked about it, and “Mr. Rooster” I think is going to be in a Brad Pitt movie someplace down the line.
CS: I’ve seen the movie twice and I just assumed those were old songs you found.
Tolan: If look at the song credits to see who does what, you’d see my name, my brother’s name, and my sister’s name.
CS: Wow. So I want to talk about casting Brittany Snow because she’s done a few things, but this seems like a breakout role, almost like Amy Adams in “Junebug” a few years back, and I wondered how you ended up casting her.
Tolan: People like her performance. I needed a very specific plan for that. I saw a lot of actresses first of all. I’m not well versed in terms of young actresses, I don’t keep up with casting, and I needed a very specific one. I needed a girl and a woman together, I needed her right on the cusp so I could see both things. If she’s too old, it becomes sad, if she’s too young it becomes creepy, so the story hinges on her and what she looks like. With Brittany, I got a young woman and I could still see traces of her as a girl, so she just landed perfectly. I’ll tell you how I knew this. I just saw a picture of her first. I never saw her in anything, I saw a picture of her and I went, “That’s the girl,” and then I looked at some of her work on film, and then I met her and she read, and she’s just great, exactly what I wanted.
CS: You’ve mentioned that you liked Matthew because of “Election,” and in the movie, Britanny reminds me of a young Reese Witherspoon. Was that something you were thinking of, and trying to create that kind of chemistry?
Tolan: No, not so much that, but I definitely love “Election” and I love Matthew in it. Every now and then he’d do something on the set and I’d be like, “That’s just like in ‘Election,’” and I’d be like, “Oh, that’s in my movie now, okay.”
CS: Your movie does have a very similar tone, not really a dark comedy because it’s a comedy first with darker dramatic moments. There aren’t many movies in that vein like “Election,” neither straight comedies, nor straight dramas.
Tolan: I think it’s tricky stuff. A lot of people don’t like those kind of movies because they just think you can’t blend those two things, and I try on “Rescue Me” and I try on this, and I try to be successful, sometimes I think, “Oh, did I go to far on the comedy side there?” and you know, that kind of thing, but I think it works all right.
CS: It’s also more like real life, which might be what bothers people since many people go to movies to escape from that.
Tolan: I think so, and also people see I don’t know about Brittany but they see Matthew Broderick and they go, “Oh, I know what this movie is going to be,” and then they’re like, “That’s not what I thought it was going to be,” so they come in with false expectations. You know what? I like the movie, in spite of maybe some more things production-wise, a little more time, other locations, I’m proud of what we came up with, and Matthew was too, which was good for me to hear because I think he’s notoriously closed-mouth about his own performances and he was actually very proud of the movie.
CS: I like Matthew and he’s been good in a few of his other recent movies. Also Steve Coogan, you told a story earlier about why he decided to do this (see below*), so he just showed up for a couple days to shoot his part?
Tolan: He only worked for only two days I think because all the scenes were in that casino, so the two days we were there, Steve worked, and I found it very daunting to direct somebody I have such insane respect for. I really think he is a genius.
CS: I think I’ve seen most of the things he’s done and I concur.
Tolan: Have you seen “Alan Partridge” and “Saxondale”? That’s the new series and I don’t know how many years he’s going to do, but I know there’s at least two. He plays an ex-roadie musician, heavy pot smoking, semi burnt out, philosophical guy who is now in pest control, and has a young guy as his assistant and he’s sort of trying to teach life lessons to, and when I met him I said, “I really like ‘Saxondale’ because it seems mature,” not that any of his stuff is juvenile, but it seems maturing for him, and he said, “You know what, you’re right,” you should see it, there aren’t wholes up yet, but if you go on YouTube for now, there are snip bits, you can get an idea of it.
CS: I want to talk about the R-rating, which is almost necessitated by the plot and location of the movie. You’ve worked in television for a long time dealing with censors when you did “Murphy Brown” but you now write for basic cable which must be different.
Tolan: Years ago, I did network and after “Larry Sanders” I was like, “F*ck, why am I beating my head against a wall?”
CS: I was curious about your take on doing R-rated comedy. Is it that you just don’t want to limit your writing by the rating?
Tolan: When I used to write “Sanders” I would get a lot of Emmy nominations for the episodes, and I was also working on “Murphy Brown” at the same time, so I would go to “Sanders” during the break, and then I’d come back to “Murphy Brown” and the guys on “Murphy” would be all jealous. “Well of course you get Emmy nominations, you can use foul language,” and I’m like, “Guys, I hate to tell you that ain’t it.” I would love reading spec scripts for “Larry Sanders” because it would be filthy, and you’d go, “What show are you watching?” I don’t mind filth as long as it’s accurate to the characters and as long as it’s elegant, as long as you put some thought into it. I’d see episodes of “Larry Sanders” that I did not write, or that were not on my watch and I’d go, “What’s with the cocky doody? I mean, what’s with that kind of talk? Where is that coming from?” Also, I’m a little prudish. I don’t want to see a lot of sex. On “Rescue Me,” I thought it needed that a couple of years ago, but the sex had to be funny. There had to be some element of fun to the scene. It can’t just all be this hot and heavy soft porn thing because I’m just not interested, so you’re looking at a movie about a prostitute where there is no sex, and the most shocking thing is she tells a story about blowing some guy in a bathroom, and that’s there for a reason because I want it both way. I don’t want to show a Disney version of a prostitute in Las Vegas. I want to show a girl who is saying, “Hey look, my life is perfect, but here is what I had to pay to do it,” and she tells that story when he’s passed out, so she clearly does not share that much.
CS: There’s definitely an art of using obscenities in a script. Quentin Tarantino is a good example of a master as is the playwright who wrote “In Bruges.” There’s a way to get them in there naturally, but then you’ll see some indie movies where it’s really obvious they’re putting “f*ck” in there to spice up a weak script and it just doesn’t work. What is the art to doing that? Is it just knowing what feels natural and what doesn’t?
Tolan: It’s a balance, it’s just a balance. I still think–although I use it a lot in my personal life–that the word “c**t” is the barometer for when you’ve gone off the rails, and I put it in this–it gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture. I sound like I’m from 1937 (puts on 1930′s voice) “that gets one of the biggest laughs in the picture, when he says ‘I’m still back on the c**ts and the rocks.’”
CS: But then there’s the scene where his wife says she called someone the “c-word” which his just as funny.
Tolan: The c-word, she won’t say, but that makes sense because that’s her character. She would never say that, you know. I don’t know, “c**ts and rocks” seem funny to me, I don’t know why, but it seemed bright to me that that stripper would say, “The girls here, they’re just a bunch of c**ts,” it seemed right. It depends on what kind of a movie you’re making. If you’re making a movie about mobsters then yeah, every other word is f*ck. Believe me, when I wrote the first draft of “Analyze This,” there’s one “f*ck” in it. Go back and watch that movie again; every other f*ckin’ word is “f*ck.”
CS: So let’s talk about “Rescue Me.” I know the writer’s strike forced the new season to be pushed back a year, and you’re doing some sort of five-minute episodes in between. Can you talk about them?
Tolan: We’re doing little mini scenes–they’re not really episodes. They’re just scenes to whet the appetite of the audience, to let them know where we’re at. It’s just our guys for five minutes, stand-alone scenes, primarily funny. That’s it really, just a little taste, you know.
CS: These are going to fill in the space between the two seasons?
Tolan: They’re going to be on momentarily. In the next couple of weeks they’re going to start to appear, but I don’t know how they’re programming them. I don’t know if you can look anywhere to know when they’re going to be on. That’s the thing I want to know because they said it’s going to be interstitial programming, like before one ends another starts, but I was like, “Oh, well how do you find them?” I think they’re going to be on the web too.
CS: Do you have the entire fifth season written and ready to start shooting?
Tolan: No, we didn’t write because of the strike, so we didn’t even talk about stuff. We could’ve certainly gone on the air sooner than April of ’09, but just the way that FX rolls out their programming, they’re very careful, so it all happens in it’s own time. There’s other stuff to come out, and then we’ll come out. The unusual thing is that we started shooting in March and we’re going to finish in March of ’09, so we’ll finish the whole twenty-two episodes before they even start airing, and FX has to pick up more episodes in January before they air and before we’re done, so we’ll see what happens.
CS: Is that difficult to do? I would think that when you’re doing a TV show, you can sometimes modify a season as go along if you see that certain things are working in earlier episodes.
Tolan: Here’s what’s great about this: For example, the networks would go, “Could you stunt cast something?” They would’ve never asked us to do that, and we said, “Yeah, we could do it,” and we wrote a character and it turned out to be really fun, and it had really a four or five episode arc for this character in little pieces. Well, you know what? We don’t have to rush to cast this person. We could wait ’til we get the person and then shoot all those scenes and drop them back in because we don’t go on until April, so in that way it’s great. We have a little time.
CS: I wanted to ask if you were going to bring in some known actors like Gina Gershon this season and whether you wrote the roles specifically for those actors.
Tolan: We write a role and then try to cast it, but it’s always hard, these showbiz things, because Denis will go someplace and somebody says, “I love your show, I would love to be on it,” and you never hear from them again. Or you call and they’re busy, or that kind of thing. We’re trying to entice some people to play this very, very funny part.
CS: I read somewhere that you also adapted David Schickler’s short story “The Smoker.” Any progress on that?
Tolan: I did quite a while ago and I’m supposed to direct it, but it’s definitely on the back burner. I mean again it’s the same issue as this movie. The majors don’t make this kind of movie, and that’s a small character. It has some interesting casting sort of talked about, but as it languishes. In many ways, it’s interesting because it’s the same template, a thirty-year-old guy with an eighteen-year-old girl, they marry actually. It’s a wonderful script, I’m not very good at adaptations, but this one I was particularly good at and I’m desperate to get it made. I talked to Scott Rudin, and he’s like, “Yeah,” but it doesn’t move.
CS: But you’re definitely planning to continue directing feature films?
Tolan: That’s what I want to do. These “Rescue Me” things, there’s only three writers for an hour. It’s me, Denis, and one other guy, Evan Reilly, that’s it, so we’re dying. At the end of the year, it’s like we’re on life support, and it’s a machine, you write a draft and you’re like, I can relax for two hours. I’d rather sink a lot more focus and energy into a bigger project like a film, focus on that as opposed to this splintered, gigantic beast.
*Here’s a story Tolan told us earlier during a roundtable about how he got Steve Coogan on board to play the Vegas hotel manager who gets in trouble by helping Taylor’s character.
Tolan: Do you know why Coogan did it? He told me. I’m aware of Steve Coogan’s work and I’d been Emailing with him about something entirely different and I mentioned it to the casting person and she said, “Oh, you should ask him to be in the movie.” I said, “Are you crazy? First, he lives in the UK, it’s a small part. He’s not going to come over to do this indie thing.” So she sent it to him anyway and he did it, and I said to him, “Why? Why did you do this?” and he said I did it because of this: (Peter gives a hand motion that’s key to Coogan’s role in the movie) I read that and I just said “I gotta do that, just that.” He just wanted to do that. (does the hand motion) I think (in the script) it says, “He makes a motion with a flat palm between the two of them.” It’s a parenthetical “making a motion.” (It’s a pretty funny moment in the movie which probably doesn’t translate as well into writing. Oh, well.)
Finding Amanda will open in select cities on Friday, June 27, and check back later this week for our interview with actress Brittany Snow.