As the unstoppable comedy renaissance continues to produce some of the funniest movies in decades, John Hamburg, a long-time player known for his involvement in writing the hit comedy Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, as well as co-writing Ben Stiller’s cult favorite Zoolander, has returned with a comedy that looks to up the ante for all the comedies that follow.
Hamburg’s new project is I Love You, Man, a hilarious “bromantic comedy” that may be the funniest R-rated comedy that Judd Apatow had absolutely nothing to do with making. (Granted, one could say that a movie like this might never have gotten made if not for the success of Apatow and his extended family, but that takes nothing away from how Hamburg has progressed as a comedy filmmaker since directing 2004’s Along Came Polly, also with Stiller.)
Hamburg’s film stars Paul Rudd as realtor Peter Klaven, whose impending wedding makes him realize he doesn’t have any close male friends that he could ask to be his best man. Along comes Jason Segel’s Sydney Fife, a womanizing slacker not unlike previous Segel characters, and the two quickly become friends even as Sydney’s presence has an adverse effect on what Peter’s fiancée loved about him in the first place.
Although that premise might seem like any other high concept romantic comedy, the depth with which it explores multiple relationships, including that awkward relationship between a couple and their respective circles of friends, is what makes it so brilliant. On top of that, I Love You, Man features one of the impressive rosters of comics and character actors ever assembled from Rashida Jones of “The Office” as Peter’s girlfriend, to Jamie Pressly from “My Name Is Earl” and Jon Favreau as her squabbling married friends. There’s Thomas Lennon and Joe Lo Truglio of “The State” as two of Peter’s failed man-dates, and not one but two generations of “Saturday Night Live” cast members with Jane Curtin and Andy Samberg playing Klavin’s mother and sister. And who better to play his dad than J.K. Simmons, of the often far-too-funny-for-its-own-good HBO prison drama “Oz” and “Spider-Man” movies?
We’ve talked to a lot of the filmmakers behind some of the funniest comedies of the past few years, but the coolest thing about John Hamburg is that he’s also a reader of ComingSoon.net, so he’ll always get special treatment as long as he keeps making movies as funny as this one. While Paramount turned us down for our requested man-date with John, we did get a chance to sit down with him during his crazy weekend junket in New York.
ComingSoon.net: I know that the origins of this movie began with Larry Levin’s script that you were offered but kept turning down. He suggested that maybe you started appreciating it more as you got older. What was it about the script that convinced you to put aside the work you had in development to tackle it?
John Hamburg: I think it was a combination of things. I mean, I think as I got older… I also lived in New York even though I work in L.A. a lot and a lot of my friends moved out of New York and moved to L.A. actually, so I suddenly found myself when I was in New York not having that many guy friends and it’s hard to meet guys the older you get. Like even my Dad, a lot of his friends came through my Mom, the traditional roles at work. He started walking his dog in Central Park and he met a whole group of male friends just doing that when he was in his like late sixties and seventies. All those things got me thinking about male friendship again. Yeah, a couple years ago I hooked up again with Donald De Line, my fellow producer on the movie, and we got the rights to the script and I wrote my own version of the story.
CS: I know that you haven’t really worked with R-rated material before and neither has Larry. Did it kind of just evolve into that as you were going along? I can’t imagine that six or seven years ago when this project originated anyone would be making R-rated comedies.
Hamburg: I really wrote my own version of the script, so my version was always going to be R-rated. I wanted to discuss sex, I wanted to discuss – there were blowjobs in the movie, there was Sydney Fife’s character who’s no way he could live in a PG-13 universe. It wasn’t like trying to be raunchy or gratuitous, it was just like, I think most people live in an R-rated world.
CS: It’s funny that you mention that because there’s almost no nudity in it as far as I remember, even the F-word isn’t really said, they’re just talking about sex. When you knew that you were going to go that way, did you just let it go the way it went?
Hamburg: I was never conscious of, “Let’s be really raunchy, let’s not.” It was just like, “Who are these characters?” Well, a guy in his late twenties who lives in Venice who picks up divorcées is probably gonna talk about sex and curse, not in a gratuitous way, but in a realistic way. I don’t think Paul Rudd’s character, he only says the F-word once in the entire movie. He says “f*ck” at the end when he finally mans up and slaps Tevin, he says, “Stay the f*ck away from my listing.” That’s the only time I think he curses in the movie.
CS: At the very core, this is a very high concept comedy–a guy without male friends tries to find a best man–but it’s a far more layered high concept comedy, so I wondered how you developed that beyond the initial pitch.
Hamburg: My whole thing about this was, it does have a high concept and it had been developed over the years. Larry wrote the early script and then different writers took a crack at it over the years ’cause it’s such a fun premise. Larry had a great premise and I give him all the credit in the world. Way before this whole romance craze or any of these movies, he wrote the idea for this movie. My whole thing was (to) take this premise and forget about it completely and make it as real a story as possible about a guy who needs a friend – how would you do that? That’s why I tried to create this girlfriend guy ’cause I’ve seen people like that in my life. They’re normal guys, they’ve always had girlfriends, they probably lost their virginity earlier than the rest of us, but they just don’t relate to men that well and that was my way into the story and Paul Rudd was my guy to achieve that. I think I tried to write it as realistically as possible and then cast guys like Paul and Jason and Rashida and the rest of the cast who, even though they’re really popular actors, they don’t bring that iconography that certain movie stars do, you know what I mean? They’re more, like, low-key kinda every day people almost in their performance style.
CS: Paul and Jason work really well together, and though we didn’t see them much together in “Knocked Up,” they really killed in “Sarah Marshall.” Had they already done the latter when you brought them together for this?
Hamburg: It hadn’t come out. I’d known Paul for years from New York, we were both friends, we live in the same neighborhood in New York and I directed Jason in Judd Apatow’s TV show “Undeclared.” I directed Jason and knew Paul and I thought, “These guys are just amazingly talented, funny, unique actors.” Then I finished the script and Donald De Line and I really talked and it was kinda like one or two conversations. There was never anybody else we talked about.
CS: Had you seen any part of “Sarah Marshall” at that point?
Hamburg: Yeah, I’m sorry, I’d seen a rough cut. I’m friends with all of those guys and Nick Stoller, the director, we’re friends and Jason and Bill Kerr, the editor who cut “Along Came Polly” and “I Love You, Man.” So I went to an early cut of the movie and thought it was really funny. It was really exciting for Jason that he’d written and starred in this thing and thought that some of our favorite scenes were those random scenes with Paul and Jason. I wasn’t thinking about them so much as Peter and Sydney in their scenes, it was more just like, “These guys are just showing me yet again how funny and talented they are.”
CS: I want to talk about the rest of the casting. If there’s nothing else this movie achieves, you actually brought together members of just about every single existing comedy group of the decade: I spotted Broken Lizard’s Jay in there, The State, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, “The Office,” “SNL,” you’ve got Jane Curtin which is amazing. I mean, when you were writing this, did you immediately start thinking of these people or did you just start tailoring parts to them as they were cast?
Hamburg: Thanks, I appreciate that. I mean, when I’m writing I try to think of the characters as real people. The only person that I cast was Lou Ferrigno, which is weird. Right when I finish, I feel like I switch from writer mode to director/producer mode and that’s when we start to fill everything in. A lot of these guys I’d known for many years like all the “State” guys and “Stella” and Tom Lennon and Jay Chandrashekar and Favreau I’ve known.
CS: Some of them are almost in competing groups. Well, maybe not competing, but definitely from different circles.
Hamburg: They’re all friends. I mean, obviously it was really fun to be on the set on some of these days where like, the wedding scene where everybody’s there. Especially when you get a bunch of comedians together, they all just wanna one up each other in the funny department which means that you have to corral the actors as a director. Look, for me, supporting casts are really important. I want to keep pushing to keep casting the funniest people that we can get and the most real and the most talented because I think that that just makes the moviegoing experience that much more fun. We had a great casting director, Allison Jones, and she knows literally every comedy person out there. I knew a lot of these guys, but she brought other people to my attention. I hadn’t really gotten familiar with “Human Giant,” I’d heard of them and I’d seen a little bit of their show, but Rob Huebel, who’s just so funny, he plays Tevin in it, these were guys that I wasn’t that familiar with and they just killed me.
CS: Somewhat of a tangent, but you really got some funny stuff out of Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Along Came Polly,” and he mentioned wanting to do more that kind of thing when I recently interviewed him.
Hamburg: You know, look, he’s such a brilliant, brilliant actor, but I get people in my life all the time who tell me how funny they think he is as that character ’cause he just played it like a drama, he just committed to it. I think the key is when people play comedy like a drama, don’t try to be funny, they just are funny.
CS: I’m not sure how this experience compared to “Along Came Polly” but were you a little more open to improv and getting away from your script or has that been something you’ve always done?
Hamburg: This one, I think different actors are more adept or more interesting at improv that other actors. “Polly” is just a little more on script than this movie. I think it was maybe just because I was four or five years older making this movie and just thought about my style and the things that I wanted to do and the kind of story I was telling and it felt like a very loose kind of story. Still, I spent a lot of time on the script, but I wanted it to have a looser feel ’cause it’s about these friends getting to know each other. It’s not about like hitting punch lines or anything like that and then when you get Paul and Jason and the rest of the cast too, who are just great improvisers, that added a lot because sometimes in some scenes in my past movies that I’ve directed, you might have one great improviser, but the other person likes to stick to the script more so it makes it a little bit, you go away from improv. But with Paul and Jason and Favreau and Rashida, they’re all good at throwing out adlibs.
CS: Comedy has come a long way since your early days writing it, and you’ve probably been able to see that evolution first-hand from “Meet the Parents” and “Along Came Polly” through this, so I was curious how you viewed that evolution and where comedy is now.
Hamburg: Yeah, I’ve been doing comedy the last ten years and had the fortune to work on some movies that did pretty well. I think maybe a certain group of people–and hopefully there’s a lot of them out there–are relating to kind of realistic comedy and they like when they see themselves up on screen or see everyday situations that they can relate to. Certainly that’s where I’ve been moving towards I think as a writer and director. It may be just like the older I get, the more I wanna try to explore… I’ve always tried to explore real life issues, but sometimes I’ve done it, like in “Meet the Parents” or “Meet the Fockers,” it’s more farcical. It’s still trying to be about real things, friends, family and human dynamics, but under the guise of kind of a farce and I love that kind of stuff. “Zoolander” is a total absurdist kind of, not a parody, but basically it started out as a sketch, but I think where my true love lies in comedy is that Woody Allen, that James L. Brooks kind of reality based character comedy and I’m gonna probably keep striving for that. I’ll probably never, ever get there ’cause those guys are so freakin’ talented, but I certainly try to approach my movies from that point of view.
CS: Another little tangent from your mention of “Zoolander” – I just saw this documentary about Jay McCarroll (“Eleven Minutes”) which takes place in the fashion world and I couldn’t help but think of “Zoolander” while watching because it’s hard not to think about that when watching anything set in the fashion world.
Hamburg: I don’t know that much about fashion and I didn’t when I wrote that movie, I co-wrote that movie. But yeah, it was fun. The movie wasn’t a big hit when it came out, but it got discovered on DVD. Fashion was just so ridiculous, it’s such a crazy world that it felt right for parodying and Ben Stiller had the idea to parody it and I just tried to help him make it funny.
CS: Going back to what you said about realistic comedy, it’s one of the things that has always been very popular on television, whether it’s “All in the Family” or “Everybody Loves Raymond,” classic sitcoms that people love. It’s funny to see that sort of comedy making the shift to movies, but at the same time, getting away from the normal TV standards with more R-rated adult material. Still, it’s interesting to see what has been popular on TV for decades being equally popular in movies.
Hamburg: That’s a good point. I mean, I think people felt like movies needed this extra element, like a big, high concept hook to sell it because it’s different to go out to the movies on a Friday night and get a babysitter, or with your kids, or pay to get some popcorn, all that stuff. It’s an expensive endeavor. There’s TV, you can just turn it on and you don’t need the big hook, you’re just watching these characters. But I think what audiences discovered is, even if you don’t have that big hook, if you have realistic characters and very funny relatable situations, that makes for a great night at the movies as well.
CS: So I wanted to ask about where you go from here because you’re obviously doing “Little Fockers” which you’re writing for some other director I assume, but how about some of the other things you were developing after “Polly.” Do you think you’ll go back and finish up one of those things?
Hamburg: There’s a movie I wrote called “The Troubleshooter” which is like a comic thriller. I kind of wanted to do a movie in the vein of those movies like “Foul Play,” but do it real, like have a mystery in the middle of the comedy, but make it real characters and stuff and I will make that movie someday. There’s another movie that I was writing that’s more of like a character comedy, more in the vein of say, “I Love You, Man” that I just wrote a bunch of notes for before I wrote my version of “I Love You, Man” and I may return to that and develop that as my next thing to direct.
CS: As far as your approach to directing, do you feel like you want to continue doing this kind of thing with more improv or try something completely different next time?
Hamburg: I really, really liked making this movie. I mean, each movie I’ve made has been an enjoyable experience in different ways, but this one just was really fun from beginning to end and it was fun to work with friends of mine and new people that I hadn’t worked with before. If I could make “I Love You, Man” style comedies for the rest of my career I would be a pretty happy filmmaker.
CS: Someone earlier asked you about a sequel, but I wondered if there’s an opportunity for a spin-off like with Russell Brand’s character from Jason’s movie. Do you think any of the characters deserve their own movie?
Hamburg: I think Favreau and Pressly could do that.
CS: I do, too.
Hamburg: They’re so funny, I mean, they just crack me up as a married couple the two of them. (Laughs) Look, I just want to get this movie out and hopefully a couple of people will go and see it, but those guys could stand to have their own world explored a little more.
CS: We don’t really get that many recurring characters in non-franchise comedies. Maybe if you do another movie, you can have Jamie and Favreau show up, simply because they happen to be friends with someone in that other movie. I think the closest we’ve seen of something like that is when Michael Keaton showed up in “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.”
Hamburg: That’s right. I know, look, these guys are so fun to work with and I love the characters in this one so it would be fun to let them live on beyond just “I Love You, Man.”
CS: I wanted to ask about marketing a movie like this, because it’s clearly a movie that have elements that only guys will appreciate and love–Rush for instance–but it’s also a relationship comedy and when a guy thinks of a movie about a relationship between two guys, it’s hard to avoid “Brokeback Mountain.” So how has it been finding the right way to market this?
Hamburg: I think it’s a challenge to market any movie, especially like, it’s an R-rated movie and you can’t show a lot of the R-rated stuff on television in 30 second ads. So, in terms of the like, are people gonna think it’s a “Brokeback Mountain”? I give audiences a lot of credit. I think they know that this is a movie about guys who are friends. Look, that could be a cool movie too, it’s just not our movie, you know? But hopefully, audiences are smart and can suss out what this story’s about and I think word of mouth, hopefully, we’ve been screening the movie around the country and it’s been fun to watch it with a lot of different audiences. Hopefully people go and Twitter it, or whatever the kids do nowadays.
CS: The good thing about this movie is that it’s not necessarily about opening weekend and it has an opportunity to build something based on word-of-mouth.
Hamburg: Yeah, that’s the idea. I mean, I can’t control the opening weekend and all this kind of stuff, but I do think that it’s the kind of movie that could grow over a little bit of a run.
CS: I was going to ask Paul before, but, do you think there’s a role for him in “Little Fockers,” ’cause it seems like he has connections to every single aspect of that franchise: Universal, he’s doing a movie with Jay Roach, you, Stiller…
Hamburg: You’re right. I love writing for Paul Rudd, so if there’s a way, it would be cool to get him in there somehow. Did he set you up with that question?
CS: No, he didn’t. I was just hoping to ask him and didn’t get a chance so I figured I’d ask you if you might deliberately write a role for him, maybe in the second draft?
Hamburg: Paul’s the best, so maybe if he like, buys me dinner tonight or something like that I’ll see if I can write him in.
CS: I’ll make sure to put that up as a headline on the site: “Rudd, Buy Hamburg Dinner!”
Hamburg: One dinner with Hamburg and you will have three scenes in “Little Fockers.”
I Love You, Man opens everywhere on Friday, March 20, but if you happen to be in Austin tomorrow night, you can queue up and try to get into its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Look for a riotous interview with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel sometime next week.