It takes a really special kind of mind to come up with the crazy and outrageous stuff to be found in the new Focus Features comedy Hamlet 2. It stars Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, a beleaguered high school drama teacher whose drama class is about to get shut down unless he can come up with a stage production that justifies its existence. Along with his star pupils Rand and Epiphany (played by Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole from the hit Broadway musical “Spring Awakening”) and a dozen Mexican kids thrown into his class, Dana decides to stage “Hamlet 2,” a sequel to Shakespeare’s greatest play, having to find a plot device that can bring back all the dead characters and work out some of his own personal issues in the bargain. Coogan is surrounded with a really funny cast including Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Shue (as herself), and the movie is so full of so many different kinds of laughs, that as much as you know it’s really wrong at times, it’s hard not to keep from laughing.
It’s kind of ironic that a summer full of R-rated comedies will end on Labor Day with the one that has the most potential to offend the most people, but what do you expect when you team Andrew Fleming of the political comedy Dick with Pam Brady, staff writer from Comedy Central’s “South Park” and Team America? Having now seen the movie three times since its Sundance Film Festival premiere, this writer has been dying to talk to these two creative people and find out what drives two people to create such an insanely funny movie, and we finally got the chance when ComingSoon.net sat down with Pam and Andrew bright and early on a Sunday morning in San Diego, where they were showing some clips from the movie at Comic-Con International.
(In honor of the film’s release, the Hamlet 2 Site has been relaunched with a special contest where you can upload a picture of yourself that shows your love and support for Sexy Jesus by dressing, dancing or posing like him, whatever strikes your fancy. The top 20 entrants with the best pictures will win Sexy Jesus dolls, t-shirts and bumper stickers!)
ComingSoon.net: Pam obviously has a background doing this kind of comedy with “South Park” and “Team America,” but Andrew, this was very different for you. How did the two of you meet and decide to make this sort of wacky and outlandish comedy?
Andrew Fleming: We met on a blind date.
Pam Brady: Yeah, it’s true.
Fleming: No, no we just met on a meeting. I had done “Dick”… The movie “Dick”… and figuratively… so I had done that and it was a comedy, but I’m a genre-hopper.
Brady: Yeah, Andy’s got way more range than me. He’s done some of that comedy stuff but way more.
Fleming: But we did a pilot together that did not get picked up because it was a little too weird for the network, and then we did another one, which did not get picked up.
Brady: This was really out of frustration of two failed pilots. We had so much fun doing it and we were like, “This is so frustrating. We had so much fun and someone just comes in and smashes it!” Not literally.
Fleming: Yeah… one time. It’s the development process that’s frustration actually. It wasn’t even that our shows didn’t get picked up, it was just constant disappointment of someone saying, “Well, that’s going too far. That’s making us uncomfortable.” So we thought let’s do something where we don’t filter ourselves.
CS: I’m surprised that knowing Pam worked on “South Park” for years, they wouldn’t know what to expect. When you decided to make the movie, which came first, the idea of a “Hamlet 2″ or the character of Dana Marshz?
Fleming: The character. We kind of reverse-engineered the movie from the character. I don’t know why. We were just talking and we knew we wanted a teacher, and we loved drama teacher right away, and we both loved that kind of super-enthusiastic character who wakes up and every day is a creative opportunity even in the face of no positive feedback.
Brady: It’s true. He has no reason to keep going, but then he lives by a code… I always think those characters are great, it’s almost like “A Confederacy of Dunces” kind of delusional character that just can’t be stopped.
CS: So at that point, did you just start figuring out everything you could throw at him and where to go from there?
Fleming: I remember finding this outline we did. It wasn’t even an outline because it was so random order: “This will be funny and this will be funny” and all this stuff came out, and it’s from about five years ago, this document, but an alarmingly high percentage of what was in that first random jot-down is in the movie, more than half of it. It was just because we had this code from working together on these two things, we just knew kind of what we wanted to see him do.
Brady: Yeah, and also we both have had and we’ve talked to other people who’ve also had teachers in high school who just carry themselves with this air but you just know at home, they just go to sleep with their thumbs in their mouths…
Brady: Yeah, and the next day they come in with a new lesson plan. We wondered what’s their home life like? It’s almost like that fantasy story of he probably does have a roommate and his marriage is his disaster.
Fleming: They’re not the best, most well-equipped teachers, but they reveal themselves personally in front of you and you kind of learn more from their character than you learn about the subject. There were a lot of teachers like that. I don’t remember information from teachers, but I remember sort of, “Wow, that’s such an amazing person who has that set of rules and thinks that way.” I’ve even been affected by them personally.
Brady: This gives you a good taste of like “Well this person has real experience.” It’s never taught but he can do anything.
Fleming: Any kind of art teacher, drama teacher. In film school, you can imagine the variety of characters, but high school drama teachers specifically encompass that idea.
CS: How do you go from there to Elizabeth Shue… because that seems like a complete non-sequitur from right out of the blue.
Fleming: Out of the ass…
Brady: Right, she was lucky because she came in at the very, very end. She’s brilliant and really funny.
Fleming: I think Catherine Keener, we were just insistent that it had to be her, we wouldn’t consider anybody else and we lashed onto Steve Coogan and we just held onto the idea of him do it. But she was really… we never thought of her. We were thinking of somebody kind of a lesser degree… like a D-list person?
Brady: Like jokey…
Fleming: She’s like a Oscar-famous fancy thoroughbred kind of actress, and we originally wrote it for somebody from an archaic TV show, and we never gave it to the person we wrote it as actually, but we made it just this generic character and we offered it to a few peoplepeople you haven’t seen in a while, who were famous maybe in the ’80s or ’90sand these two in particularly were so offended, like deeply offended.
Brady: “You’re saying my career is over?” A little bit, a little bit…
Fleming: We were getting really bummed out. I had a meeting with one of these actresses and I said, “You don’t understand. You have to be able to laugh at your predicament. Everybody has to be able to do that.” It was really frustrating.
Brady: She actually berated him.
Fleming: It was probably the most frustrating meeting I had with an actor, and we were kind of depressed and out of nowhere, Elizabeth Shue showed up and said, “I love this…” She wanted MORE humiliation thrust upon her. It was her suggestion that the kids in the class didn’t know who she was. That was her idea!
CS: I’ve spoken to Steve a few times and he told me that the part wasn’t written for him originally, and the script had been development for a long time, but what was it like when he came on board? This is obviously a very different character for him, too. Why was he suddenly what made the movie possible to move forward?
Fleming: He didn’t change it, he just made it better, he really did. It was there, it was a very specific character but he took it up a notch, like Emeril Lagasse, “BAM!”
Brady: It’s kind of written in a broad way almost. Another actor could probably take it super-broad, not really let you see his pain. That’s the best part about Steve is that he will take you there.
Fleming: He was totally willing to address the humiliating underbelly of the character, he was not afraid of looking like an ass at all.
CS: In the movies he’s done with Michael Winterbottom, he’s played these characters which have this other side of them, but we’re used to him doing more dead pan comedy, but this is very broad compared to other things he’s done.
Fleming: He’s done so many different kinds of things, and I think he’s exceptional, because he finds a different way to be funny each time. He finds a totally new character with totally new pathology, as opposed to this thing I see in movies that’s always the same.
CS: is your writing process together very organic at this point? How do you work?
Fleming: I don’t know… what’s the unorganic process? We talk about it, we outline and we outline a lot, and then we literally split it up and do alternate scenes and then collect them together and rewrite that.
CS: Pam, you’re used to writing with the “South Park” guys so you’re used to writing in that kind of group way, but I wondered if you have desks facing each other or something like that.
Brady: Oh, you mean like a Bernie Taupin-Elton John situation?
Fleming: Yeah, we have facing desks.
Brady: You mean like old-time detective partner desks? That sounds awful… I mean, not with you, Andy.
Fleming: Facing me would be awful.
Brady: I have a hard time with desks anyway.
Fleming: I don’t really sit at a desk.
Brady: That’s what’s good that the more you talk it out, the less written it is and I guess that feels more organic. We do spend the most time on the characters, talk about the character, and I think the process on this was “We like the character. What’s the worst thing that can happen to the character?” It’s almost like approaching it as if underserved suffering is what this guy Dana is all about. Let’s load it up, what else?
Fleming: How else can he be humiliated and brought down to earth?
Brady: That brought us joy, which is weird, why we loved spending about four years talking about how to destroy a man.
Fleming: We enjoy watching cruelty.
CS: I think I read somewhere or maybe Steve mentioned it, that the nudity wasn’t in the script, but he just decided to do that.
Fleming: Was it? I don’t remember.
Brady: The nudity… when he was ass up?
Fleming: No, he was definitely bare-assed a lot after the acid trip, that was always there.
CS: Was it hard selling this to a studio? You obviously decided to do it on your own after many years, so was it hard getting them to understand it?
Brady: It was not an easy sell for a studio, and we…
Fleming: We really didn’t try that hard to sell it.
Brady: We were worried that it would go through the “Flatanator Machine”… Steve Coogan!
(At this point in the interview, Coogan walks by and the three of them exchange greetings and such)
Fleming: We didn’t want to get into that development thing because it was the sort of idea that we could definitely find a place that would like to turn that script into something and develop it for so-and-so, but we just didn’t want to get into that. We really wanted to… it was our little special project.
Brady: We wanted to avoid development.
CS: What about casting all of the kids around Steven? I talked to Skyler and Phoebe about them coming over from “Spring Awakening” but what about all the Latino kids and all the different characters?
Fleming: Pam Dixon, the casting director who I’ve known for a long time, she just goes out and finds 800 people, she narrows it down and shows the best ones, but it was really auditions. Melonie Diaz I’d seen in “Raising Victor Vargas” and I just felt, “Oh, yeah, she’s really good.” I almost stalked her for a while, ’cause she’s good, and she read the script and she liked it, but she didn’t want to come off like… just the idea of her being a Latina actress, it does mean something to her and she doesn’t want to dispel it and play that cliché character.
Brady: Yeah, she was concerned what the joke was, the joke that she’s just a Latina student…
Fleming: Yeah, like she’s a prop or something. No, once she talked, she was on board.
CS: I know that Sundance can be seen as a testing ground because you can play your movie in front of an audience and gauge reaction, but has anyone gotten so offended that they walked out of one of those screenings… or is everyone always in on the joke?
Fleming: Not at Sundance, but we did a couple of proper test screenings, and I think there was about a half a dozen at the one I was at who… I think they maybe came in and had younger kids with them but some of them were just offended and said, “This is not for us” and left. I find that strangely exhilarating. (laughs)
Brady: To get energy to get into the theater and the energy to leave a theater means we’re getting through.
CS: I have a feeling you had to deal with the same thing with “Team America” because it has a similar irreverent sense of humor, but I loved that movie.
Brady: That was a weird movie!
Fleming: Yes, yes, I remember being completely overwhelmed by that movie. It was so funny and so strange and so crazily original.
CS: Do you see a potential for a sequel to this? (Which I guess would have to be called “Hamlet 3″?) After everything, he does wind up in a good place at the end of the movie, surely from where he can fall again. Have you talked about that at all?
Fleming: (flatly) No.
Brady: Yeah, but I don’t know if the does fall again, because it feels like he made it. SPOILER ALERT! (Brady actually yelled that out, that’s not something we added.)
CS: What else are you two working again? Are you going to go around with those earlier pilots if the movie is a success and sell it as a new idea?
Brady: Yeah, dust it off.
CS: And everyone will be like, “It’s great, why didn’t you come to us with this three years ago?”
Fleming: (deadpan) We did.
Brady: It’s genius!! (laughs)
Fleming: Yeah, we’re working on something else… haven’t shown it to anybody or talked to anybody about it.
CS: But is it in a similar type vein of comedy?
Fleming: It’s a tragedy.
Brady: (laughs) You know what? It is a tragedy! I think that’s right, and also in the future, I think we’d like to do a “sit-trag”… in front of an audience… Tragedy! Like “August: Osage County,” have you seen it? It’s devastating, but we’d love to do something like that in front of an audience, just sort of see the nervous laughter.
Fleming: Yeah, basically like a thirty minute “Death of a Salesman” every week.
CS: I think they do things like that in England, but I guess at some point, it just becomse a live soap opera.
Brady: Yeah, it’s going to be tough. Not a lot of laughs.
CS: Before I forget, I wanted to ask Andy about the potential of there ever being a sequel or a remake of your earlier movie “The Craft” and if you’d remain involved if so.
Fleming: I wrote a sequel for Sony that they were going to do, and I wasn’t going to direct it, but I don’t know what happened to it. Actually, I really loved it… I actually liked the sequel I wrote better than the original.
Brady: The sequel idea was great!
Fleming: It was a really good idea, but the moment may have passed, but it wasn’t using those characters (from the original movie)… well, one of them. In a world where even “Charmed” isn’t on the air anymore.
Brady: That’s right, “Charmed” ripped you off!
Fleming: They used a song that we recorded for “The Craft” as their theme music, that Love Spit Love version of The Smiths… as their theme song!
Brady: Really? If Aaron Spelling wasn’t dead, I think I would go with Andy and kill him tomorrow! You can quote me on that!
And if you don’t find Pam’s closing joke funny, then you might be one of the (hopefully few) people who get offended by Hamlet 2, when it opens in select cities on Friday, August 22, and then nationwide on Friday, August 29. Look for our video interview with Steve Coogan and possibly more in the weeks to come.