Here at ComingSoon.net, we’re often invited to exotic locales where we get to check out impressive larger-than-life movie sets… and then every once in a while, we’re invited to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not that we’re knocking the industrial state’s second largest city, but the reason we were more excited to go to Grand Rapids than we may have been otherwise was that we would be visiting the set of Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less, and we remember having a good time when we visited the set of Fleischer’s previous film Zombieland.
After the success of that zombie comedy, many wondered what Fleischer would do next, and 30 Minutes or Less is a similar melding of genres, being a dark R-rated crime comedy filled with action. It also reunites Fleischer with Jesse Eisenberg, this time playing Nick, a hapless pizza delivery guy whose slacker lifestyle is disrupted by two ne’er-do-wells, Dwayne and Travis (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson), who knock Nick out and strap a bomb to his chest with a 10-hour timer. Nick is forced to rob a bank to get the duo enough money to pay off a hitman they’ve hired to kill Dwayne’s father (played by Fred Ward) before he can squander off all his inheritance.
To help him, Nick calls upon his best friend Chet, played by Aziz Ansari from “Parks and Recreation,” only Chet is angry at Nick for his interest in his twin sister Kate so he’s not particularly open to the idea of helping Nick rob a bank. Dwayne and Travis have kidnapped Kate as extra security to make sure Nick follows through, while the assassin they’ve hired, a gun named Chango, played by Michael Peña, just wants to get his money by whatever means necessary.
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The main reason we were brought to Grand Rapids was to watch some of the comedy talent Fleischer brought together for his second feature, and when your movie has the likes of Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride and Nick Swardson involved, you just know you’re getting into something that has to be pretty damn funny. (Some may have noted that having Ansari, Peña and McBride in the movie makes it a bit of a mini-reunion for some of the cast of Jody Hill’s Observe and Report, though we were told this was just a coincidence.)
We were driven out to a scrapyard that had been dressed up for the night shoot, and in between takes, we walked around on the set and saw what the production team had done to dress up the scrapyard with piles of junk and tires. They had old decaying cars scattered in the yard as well as a really dirty van. (Apparently, they shot part of the ’80s comedy Gung Ho in the same location.)
This is where the characters played by McBride and Swardson reside in a small prefab house that was specially built, and our evening on set was spent watching them film a pivotal scene later in the movie after Eisenberg and Ansari had already robbed the bank. This scene gave us a great taste of why so many directors and comedians have called upon McBride and Swardson for years to punch up their comedies.
Jesse shows up in his car and calls out that he’s back and McBride’s character Dwayne comes out wearing a monkey suit that makes him look like an extra from Planet of the Apes. Jesse says he’s got the money and asks for the code to get the bomb off and McBride says it’s “69, 69, 69” (yuck, yuck). “Are you serious?” Nick asks, and Dwayne replies in the affirmative then claps his hands twice over his head and out comes Swardson, also in a monkey suit, carrying a flamethrower and bringing Kate out with a Slayer T-shirt over her head. (Considering that 30 Minutes or Less opens just a week after 20th Century Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we think it would be hilarious for Sony to make a commercial that features McBride and Swardson in their ape costumes.)
Jesse throws them the money and they let Kate go, but Jesse thinks out loud that as soon as they turn around, they’ll shoot them and burn their bodies with the flamethrowers. As they begin negotiating their way out of this stalemate, Dwayne notices there’s a red dot on Travis’ forehead and Jesse says that he has a sniper named Cruz ready to take them out if they so much as move. In fact, it’s actually Chet with a laser pointer, but they believe his bluff. Nick and Kate walk off and then Kate lets out a blood-curdling scream. We’d learn later that the second part of this scene involves Jesse being attacked by Michael Peña’s Chango who has been following them, and things just escalate from there.
They shot this scene a number of times from all different angles, including close-ups of each of the guys, and McBride was just getting filthier and filthier with his improvisations each time.
Over the course of the shoot, we had a chance to talk a bit with Fleischer, Eisenberg and most of the cast, as well as some of the crew. Bear in mind, this set visit happened at an interesting time for all of them, since avid Fincher’s The Social Network had yet to come out and McBride’s second season of “Eastbound and Down” hadn’t yet aired on HBO. Nick Swardson’s new show “Pretend Time” also hadn’t aired on Comedy Central at that time.
The one question that inevitably comes up on every single set visit we’ve done was how everyone got involved in the movie, but that’s especially true of Fleischer who probably had his choice of projects following Zombieland.
“The story is just so original and it’s really funny on paper. The script was one of the funniest I read,” Ruben told us about his own reasons for picking the project when we got him later in the night. “It was a chance to do a smaller movie that I could craft and make my own and try and make an original film. I really feel like this movie doesn’t exist already. It’s really weird and messed up and dark but hilarious. The cast is incredible. It was a chance to do something on my terms and do something I was passionate about.”
“The script honestly was written with Danny in mind,” Ruben said. “Anyone who reads the first draft of the script will know that it was meant for Danny. Danny is someone I’ve been a huge fan of for a long time and Nick was in the first short film I ever made 8 years ago so I’ve known Nick forever. They’ve never worked together and I don’t think they knew each other. I think it was a fresh pairing to put Danny with someone who’s not of that Apatow world and Nick has always been so funny in Sandler movies. It’s nice for him to do something a little different than what he’s used to doing. The chemistry is great and it works really well so far.”
McBride told us his side of how he came on board. “I got a phone call from Ruben that he had this script–he had been reading a lot of scripts for his follow-up to ‘Zombieland’ and he said he had been passing on everything–and this script caught his eye and he was curious what I thought about it. I read it and really responded to it, I thought it was funny. It’s a pretty wicked dark comedy. It’s crazy, I mean, a comedy based around a dude who has a suicide bomb vest seems… timely. Yeah, so it just seemed cool. I was a big fan of ‘Zombieland’ and I was excited to see what Ruben would do with something of this tone, and kind of see the elements that were in this, it just seemed like it could be a good time.”
Having already worked with Fleischer, taking on the role of Travis was a no-brainer for Swardson. “Red Hour Films called me to do a table read on the script, they just acquired it, and so me and Jonah Hill did a table read for it maybe a year ago, nine months ago. And then they called me up and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing that movie, would you want to be the bad guy?’ so I was like, ‘Yeah, sure!’ I’ve never been a bad guy ever, so, I was really excited to do it. And then I found out Danny was doing it. I never worked with him so I was just fired up, and I knew Ruben, so all those elements were just really exciting.”
Then there’s Aziz Ansari, who has been exploding in recent years even before starring on “Parks and Recreation,” and he told us what interested him in the movie. “I read a lot of scripts for something to do in my off time from ‘Parks and Recreation’ and this was my favorite. It really felt like a role I could really make my own and bring something to it. Just the idea of a comedy based around a bank robbery seemed like something that would work. When I joined I think it was just me and Danny when I first signed up. Unfortunately we don’t have any scenes together really but we are writing another movie for us to do together, so we’ll actually do some stuff together in that but we were fans of each other so I was excited to find out he was in. You know, he was a guy I respect a lot, and I respect his work and his taste and everything, when I heard he was involved I definitely started bugging out.”
Ansari also told us about his own past connection to Fleischer. “Ruben showed me an e-mail he sent me in like 2006 saying, ‘Hey, I just shot this McDonald’s commercial and I have some extra time with the equipment. I’d love to do some short film with you, I’m such a huge fan.’ This is years ago before I did ‘Human Giant’ or anything, and I was like ‘Sorry man I’m busy.’ I didn’t say it like that, I didn’t blow him off, but it was so funny because he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been wanting to work with you for so many years,’ so we have finally been able to work together on this. I knew his stuff from like ‘Zombieland’ and I thought he did an awesome job with that, so from watching that, just imagining that skill-set applied to the stuff we’ve been shooting I feel like its going to turn out really good.”
When we finally got around to talking with Michael Peña, he was looking far more worse-for-wear than we’ve seen him as he was covered with lots of scars and tattoos, far from the starched shirt and tie look he sported for Battle: Los Angeles. “This is where I got shot with the pen,” he boasted pointing to one of his scars. “I was pretty f*cking amazed. It’s one of those scenes where I was like, ‘I don’t know how the f*ck we’re going to shoot this,’ and actually, the writers always look this sh*t up, so it’s actually like a pen that does shoot a .22.”
The actors tried to explain the complicated plot that led up to the scene we watched filming. “My father is played by Fred Ward in the film and yeah he’s a motherf**ker to my character so I really despise him,” McBride told us. “You get the backstory of what our motivation is to put a bomb on young Jesse Eisenberg here, that’s fully explored. You get the good guys’ angle, and you totally get the bad guys setup, and you follow them along the journey too, for sure.”
Peña’s character ends up playing a much larger part in the story when Dwayne changes his mind about killing his father. “He actually calls off the deal because Danny McBride is like, ‘Yeah, can I bump it,’ as if it’s a reservation at Sizzler. I’m like, ‘No, dude. You can’t bump it. F*ck this. You became the hit.’ So then I go after Danny and then with this scene over here, everything just comes to a head and I want to kill Danny. Then I see Nick Swardson’s character and I was like, ‘What?’ Then I have to kill two guys.”
“I like movies where everything’s kind of spread apart, the storylines, and they kind of come to a head at the end, so that’s kind of cool,” Swardson mused. “Like I’m psyched to see the movie just to see what Jesse and Aziz are doing. Really, Danny and I, there’s a whole half of the movie that we have yet to see anything of, so it’s kind of cool.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of crazy,” Peña agreed, “They’re putting a f*cking bomb on one dude to go rob a bank to pay the other guy to kill his dad, and I was like, ‘Why don’t you just put the bomb on the dad?'”
We wondered whether the majority of the movie had a similar tone from the scene we watched them film that night and how that tone differed from Zombieland.
“The tone of the movie is a little different,” Eisenberg told us, “Because this movie is set in more of a real world context whereas the other movie was so little, at least for my character, was a little more heightened comedy, where at least with my character, this pretty straightforward and a real world context.”
“‘Zombieland’ was a little more popcorn, it’s pure entertainment,” Fleischer agreed when we got to talk to him later in the evening. “You have zombies, comedy. It’s a classic avenger story. This one has darker undertones and the best reference point would be ‘Fargo,'” the groundness of it; the reality but humorous. Hopefully this will be more actively funny than ‘Fargo’ was because of the comedians. There’s definitely a grounded reality to it. It’s a crime story similar to how “Fargo” was as far as the messed up plot of it. Just a misguided plot and this is a misguided plot and it’s bad for everybody.”
“The comedy in this is a little less winking to the audience,” Eisenberg added. “‘Zombieland’ had more the tone of constantly playing on the absurdity of the real characters in this crazy situation whereas this movie is genuinely scary in a real way. It doesn’t ever feel like safe like ‘Zombieland’ always felt scary in a safe way and in a cleverly humorous way. The stakes in this movie are legitimately high and at least Aziz and my character are real world characters.”
McBride agreed. “I think it’s similar to ‘Pineapple Express’ in the fact that it’s like humorous and it kind of has a violent tone, but there’s nothing really similar as far as that. These characters are totally different. This movie is much more of of ticking clock. I think ‘Pineapple Express’ is pulling from ’80s action films and stuff and a lot of the points of reference that Ruben has are thing like ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ It’s kind of this ’70s bank-robber-heist films what this is kind of pulling from. So I think in that regard it’s a totally different beast. I’m always up for people mixing genres and doing things a little more f*cked up than they should with a comedy or an action film, so they have that in common for sure.”
“When I did ‘Observe and Report,’ you knew you were doing a comedy,” Peña said. “I guess I was the bad guy for that. This one, it’s interesting because you have to do a little bit of drama. This one, even when I read it, there are two scenes that I’ve done out of my character’s sequence where they’re actually more like drama, then the other ones you can f*ck around with a little bit.”
Anzari also chimed in on the comparisons with Zombieland. “I think this is a little bit more of a comedy than ‘Zombieland’ was in my head, I don’t know. I think he’s been really good. He’s been so open to any ideas, and for me as an actor he’s been so open to any ideas. I feel like I’ve had a really lucky career where I’ve worked with people who have really been open to things like that, like Apatow, the guys at Parks and Recreation, where they are not just like “This is it, do it!” They are like “Whatever ideas you have. Whatever it is.” That’s been really cool, it’s been really collaborative. Like every scene we go in and try to elevate the scene and make it better than it was. ”