“Denis could think of no logical reason why he should not attempt to mate with Beth Cooper.
North Shore Studios in Vancouver, British Colombia, just off the Second Narrows Bridge. We arrive in Soundstage 6.
“Chris, we’re ready. First team’s on the set.”
Someone sneezes. “God bless you,” says Chris. “Stand by.”
“22J take 2.”
Denis and his best friend Rich are crawling along the kitchen floor as glass bottles burst around them. Debris flies. It is as if they are at Omaha Beach. When the glass stops flying they stop and stand up. Denis points at his attacker and says:
“This is willful damage of property. That’s a legal term!”
“Duck,” yells the director.
Something is about to come flying at them, but more on that later.
The director is Chris Columbus. We are on the set of his teen comedy I Love You, Beth Cooper. After making a name for himself as a screenwriter and Spielberg protégé with scripts for Gremlins and The Goonies, Columbus turned to directing a series of smash-hit comedies including two “Home Alone” films and Mrs. Doubtfire. In 2001 he kicked off one of the most successful franchises of all time when he made Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, also helming the first sequel the next year. While raking in huge grosses, Columbus received criticism in some corners for making “bland,” “dull” and “by the numbers” entries that belied the magical essence of J.K. Rowling’s books. After skipping out on future “Potter” installments, he mounted an ambitious film adaptation of the Broadway phenomenon Rent, only to be thrown for a loop by its box office failure.
“I felt like I was starting to take what I was doing far too seriously,” says Columbus. “You can create a situation where the final product won’t be as joyful or as fun as some of the stuff you had done when you were younger. It was difficult for me to commit to ‘Beth Cooper’ because it felt like the first movie I would have directed. It has moments of things like ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ and some elements of ‘Home Alone,’ so I was reluctant to go back there. Then I thought to myself, ‘That’s the only way I can reboot, recharge my batteries, by going back to something that I would have done when I was 23 or 24.’ It was a challenge because it’s very difficult to do comedy, and I wanted to make sure I still kinda had it, that I could still make an audience laugh.”
Based on the novel by “Simpsons” scribe Larry Doyle, who also penned the screenplay, I Love You, Beth Cooper tells the tale of Denis Cooverman, a brainy high school valedictorian who, while giving his graduation speech, declares his undying love to Beth Cooper in front of all his classmates. Cooper, the head cheerleader and most beautiful girl in school, doesn’t even know he exists… until that moment. Thus begins a domino-effect trainwreck of an evening where Denis will be hunted like a dog by Beth’s Marine boyfriend, humiliated in every way humanly imaginable, beaten to an inch of his life, and possibly spark some genuine romance between him and the title object of affection.
To portray Denis, Columbus hired relative unknown Paul Rust, a veteran of Upright Citizens Brigade and his own sketch comedy group, Fireball Deluxe. Rust looks every bit the flustered geek, resembling a young Steven Spielberg, who he actually played once in a sketch as a “bedwetting manchild”.
“When it came time to cast, people would say ‘what about someone like Michael Cera?'” explains Columbus. “There was something about Paul that I just fell in love with. He has an incredible sense of comic timing, and his more touching dramatic scenes with Hayden are quite effective and quite emotional. After testing him and working with him on a few scenes, I thought this guy had everything. You really grow to love him over the film. He’s got a very unusual look, he’s sort of a bastard child of Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn.”
“I come from standup and improv,” Rust says somewhat exuberantly. “I was in one movie before, ‘Semi-Pro.’ My scene got cut out of it, but I’m in the background a lot. You’ll see me in the background in a wheelchair. This movie is actually the first time I speak on camera, so it’s exciting, and weird. It’s a lot of people’s goal to be the lead in a movie, and that was never my goal. I just wanted to be the third banana in an ensemble comedy.
“My Character, Denis Cooverman, is a valedictorian. I was valedictorian of my class, and the same way that Denis in the movie does a speech that’s kind of a kiss-off to the school, I made the same stupid choice and did a speech that was a middle-finger to the school. My friend taped it off the radio, and I listened to it 8-months later and totally regretted everything I said. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m such an idiot! So full of bravado.’ There’s a parallel there. This is the part of a nerd, I act and look like a nerd, so that’s how I got the part!”
In a chair behind the set sits Beth Cooper herself, Hayden Panettiere. One look at her sitting in her chair laughing and smiling reveals that she has the kind of improbable beauty that turns men into quaking piles of smitten jelly. It is downright distracting listening to her talk about creating habitats for dolphins while she pulls her rose-colored strapless dress back up. Clearly Columbus has chosen the perfect embodiment of “the ideal girl” for a nerd like Denis to idolize.
“I was extremely impressed with Hayden’s work on ‘Heroes,'” says Columbus, “but when I met her in person I thought she was amazing. Working with her on the set, with someone who’s that age, at 18… Hayden is such a remarkable pro she makes my life very easy.”
Hayden is equally impressed with her director.
“The director always creates the environment on the set,” she says. “If the director’s in a bad mood then you best believe everyone else is gonna be in a bad mood. Chris is just so nice, so funny, laughs all the time. He creates a really great environment. He’s really open and unaffected by all the things he’s done. It’s very, very rare. He’s open-minded and realizes that when an actor is hired it’s because they bring something to the table. They bring an opinion, or the way they create a character. To openly have an opinion about something and have him say, ‘oh, I never thought of that, that’s really good,’ is a much more creative environment.”
“I like to work with people who haven’t become really jaded or bitter,” Columbus continues. “I’ve had much more fun on these last four movies, including ‘Rent,’ because I was working with people who, even though they had done the Broadway show, were just very enthusiastic about being in a film. That’s now something I care strongly about, as opposed to working with an actor who’s done about twenty films and I can’t get them out of their trailer and they’re grumpy in the mornings. I don’t have time for that. Life is too short to have to deal with prima donnas, and young kids just bring a spark of life and energy to a set.”
Today, the “set” is Denis’ house. Chips, dip, rice crackers, guacamole, and pretzels lay on the kitchen island in preparation for a very lame party. The house could be described as “suburban upscale,” like in most of Chris’ movies. Blue tile walls. Wood cabinets. Gray tile floors. Comfortable. Chris’ longtime producer Mark Radcliffe describes it as “middle class,” claiming the kitchen area is only big because it needs to be for shooting.
A calm Production Assistant politely intrudes. “We have to evacuate. There’s a fire in one of the lights.” As we evacuate we see the white cylindrical light hanging from the ceiling rafters of the studio is indeed on fire, dripping bright orange bits of burning nylon onto the set below. “It’s always something, huh Mark?” says the PA.
“There was a small fire today,” Columbus sighs. “The weather here has been completely non-cooperative. We were shooting a scene at the high school a week ago on Friday and we had a blizzard. This was supposed to be one of the hottest mid-western nights and snowflakes-the-size-of-potato-chips were falling. There were two-inches of snow that had accumulated on the ground so we had water trucks at 4am hosing down the lawn and the trees to make it look like summertime. It was insane.”
Once the fire is taken care of, we are back on set.
Says Columbus, “The context of the scene now is Beth’s boyfriend Kevin, not the Paul Rust character, has been doing cocaine and he arrives at Denis’ house, finds Beth, and assumes something romantic is going on and begins to trash the house. This is the beginning of that. In the next scene he’ll be throwing a microwave at them, which embeds itself in the wall. Should be pretty exciting.”
The stunt team prepares for the shot…
“Step out of the parameter where it’s coming. You want the microwave occupying the same area as their faces.”
The microwave is sliding in on wires, which Chris says will later be removed. The character of Rich, a know-it-all movie nerd who uses film references in response to every situation, is played by Jack Carpenter. Carpenter asks one of the stunt people to put some pads under him out-of-frame so when he dodges the microwave he can “go straight down on my butt.”
They review the previous shot, the “Omaha Beach” stuff, and freeze it on the point where Rich and Denis are standing. Denis is pointing at Kevin in anger, while Rich stands with his arms awkwardly locked at his sides, shoulders up, mouth agape in fear.
Now the stunt team is testing the microwave, flying it in on 3 thick cables. The wall seems to be jiggling on impact. ‘When it goes into the wall it should hold more solid,” one of them says. On the monitor they superimpose a hilariously low-rent temp effect onto the rehearsal footage, a still image of an explosion over the microwave that looks like a red mushroom cloud.
“Okay, lock it up! Ready to shoot. Same cue, guys 3-2-1.”
“V22 take 3.”
They do one without the microwave so they can have a clean plate. Then
“Okay guys, the real microwave is COMING AT YOU.”
Paul Rust makes a hilarious and dark crack about a famous real-life on-set tragedy from the ’80s that the publicist asked us not to print, unfortunately. If only Rust knew how close his joke was about to come to being a reality…
“HOLY SH*T that was so much faster!” Rust yells out after the take, laughing nervously.
There is a visceral reaction from the crew. They play it back in slow motion and everyone gasps at how close the microwave came to the two actors. Paul and Jack duck and it literally misses their heads by milliseconds before crashing into the wall. Everyone claps on the replay.
“Part of the fun of the book is hearing Denis’ thoughts, what’s inside his head,” according to Columbus. “Without a voiceover that’s very difficult to do. I wouldn’t say we departed too dramatically from the material. I don’t feel there’s that MASSIVE fanbase with ‘Beth Cooper’ that I have to make happy. I have to make a moviegoing audience happy and assume they haven’t heard of the book.”
“In the book you definitely get inside his brain and have his worldview,” agrees Rust. “Larry is such a great writer that you sometimes think, ‘I wish this was a line of narration because it captures what the scene is.’ Chris used a lot of Larry’s book as a guide, specific lines of narration in the book that you’d never see in the movie, but I’d have them in my mind and use them to inform the character, to use a pretentious phrase. (laughs)
“Everything that he encounters he’s scared of,” he continues. “That’s the basic rule, so any scene we go into I go, ‘okay, I’m scared of this.’ Then it’s just a varying amount of fear. Being on the roof of a house is scary, but the possibility of being naked with girls in a locker room is the ultimate fear, so I try to position the amount of fear he has in each scene. I try to manifest it in silly faces and stupid walks!”
Adds Chris, “Most comedians I know, particularly stand-up comedians, come from a dark place. They’re troubled, kind of sad sometimes. Paul, who’s done a lot of improv comedy over the years, is like the sweetest, happiest guy I’ve ever met, but he is also a hotbed of anxiety. You can tell just because of his physicality and the way he uses his body. He’s kind of a master of physical comedy, almost athletic in the way he performs. His anxiety, Dennis’ inner voice, comes out through his performance. Just the way he looks at Hayden, the very first shot of the film, which takes place at graduation, you know exactly what’s going on in his mind by taking a look at his face.”
“There’s a lot of physical stuff in this movie,” Paul says. “My mouth gets cut open, I get a bruise in my eye, scratches on my face. When they were doing all the make-up tests I said to Chris, ‘This is basically an adolescent ‘Passion of The Christ’!'”
Behind the set is the Cooverman’s backyard, as seen through the kitchen window. There is an elaborate backdrop, a large drape of woods and blue sky, in front of which are some real trees and a fence as well as a garage with a thatched roof and a basketball hoop. Behind the massive 40-foot-high drape is about 20 lights pounding into it. There is also a long yellow tube pumping cool air into the studio.
According to Radcliffe this is nearly the cheapest movie Chris has ever made, shot in 47 days. A bell rings and the AC gets turned off. “On the bell.” They’re ready to shoot again.
They begin another scene right after the microwave throw where Kevin and his associates chase Denis and Rich up the stairs. “Guys you just need to be a little quicker there at the end,” says the director. Columbus wears glasses, and has a very affable, humble demeanor. Between takes, when not explaining plans for the next day’s shots to his assistants, Chris paces thoughtfully, and sips on a Diet Coke. Someone pipes in Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”.
The straining nature of doing multiple takes becomes visible. Paul, whose run was wild and kinetic in the first few takes now seems a little limp. A Hispanic-looking man with long dark hair stands around wearing Denis’ blue and brown striped shirt, presumably his stand-in. Comedy is hard work.
“You look at a guy like Michael Cera, who I think is a fabulously gifted actor,” explains Columbus, “but if he appeared in the first scene of this movie you would think ‘Oh, Beth Cooper could fall in love with him.’ When the audience sees the first conversation between Paul and Hayden I want them to think ‘There is no way these two could ever be together.’ But I want the audience to believe, by the end of the movie, that they’ve had a bit of romance, and also share that sense of loss that it could never happen again. This was one night where these completely diverse characters joined paths.”
“Denis thinks of Beth Cooper like a picture,” says Hayden. “She’s perfect. She’s flawless in every way, but she’s not perfect. She’s pretty in a very human way. She thinks that she’s nothing. She’s done well in high school because she knew how to control people, she knew how to get attention and be Miss Popular, but that was the high point in her life ’cause she’s not good at anything. She’s not smart, she’s not an athlete, or has any ambition in life. She thinks after high school she’s going to be completely ordinary. She winds up looking at him almost like a picture, like ‘You’re incredible. You have a life. You’re smart, you’re gonna go off and cure cancer and be a doctor. You have so much more than me, even though high school wasn’t great for you. It was wonderful for me, but your life is gonna be great for you.'”
Like Beth Cooper, Columbus has plenty of sympathy for the nerd.
“In high school I was like both Denis and Rich! I was much like Rich in that I knew who directed every film I saw. I was quoting film. I was obsessed with film. On the other side of the coin, the Denis side of the coin, I was very shy about talking to girls. I was in love with about 10 of them, not just one Beth Cooper. Didn’t go to the prom, so I was a complete and utter movie nerd. For me an exciting time was Saturday night alone at the movies. To me this is the ultimate sort of dream night. Denis says it in the film, he says ‘all my memories of high school are from tonight.’ My memories from high school are just me watching movies and drawing comic books!”
Paul Rust sums up his thoughts on the message of I Love You, Beth Cooper thusly:
“Not to make this movie sound too grandiose, but the idea that keeps me passionate about it is it’s about the complications of being sincere in a hostile world. A world that doesn’t want you to be earnest, and is trying to make you lie and be deceitful and not be honest to yourself. So the movie’s just about this adventure where somebody is sincere, makes a big honest proclamation in front of their school, then for the next two hours gets punished for it! People hate him for it, they beat him up, gets chased. All this horrible stuff happens ’cause he said one honest thing, but at the end of the movie he’s a better person for having said something honest and gone through these struggles. Being sincere and true to yourself is a scary thing, but ultimately a rewarding one. Hear that, kids?” (laughs)
Ironically, this is a lesson Chris Columbus learned all-too-well, and clearly takes to heart every day on the set. He is a reinvigorated filmmaker, ready to prove himself once again.
“After the failure of ‘Rent’ it took me several months to think about doing anything else for awhile. Once I got over that situation, I told myself I had to do something extremely important to direct. It has to be important! It has to say something! It’s gotta mean something! I beat myself up for nine months, ten months trying to find something that addressed, you know, whether it was the Iraq War or… and then I thought ‘Stop it, you’re denying who you are and what you do best.’
“As a result, not only am I glad to be back but it feels like I’ve recharged my batteries a bit, and I forgot how much I love doing comedy and how much I took that for granted. It’s like that last scene in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ I think I’ll stick with comedy for awhile. Like I said, it’s great to be back.”
“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” -Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels
I Love You, Beth Cooper opens in theaters on July 10.