Jake Kasdan has lived his entire life with a surname that’s been associated with great filmmaking, but when it came time to enter the family business, he decided to take a different route, focusing more on comedy first with his debut Zero Effect starring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller, and then joining the Judd Apatow camp for his high school television show “Freaks and Geeks” and its follow-up “Undeclared.” Kasdan’s first studio film Orange County introduced many young people to one Jack Black, and earlier this year, his independent feature The TV Set, which took a comedic look at the television industry’s pilot season, was released through THINKFilm.
Now Jake Kasdan is back with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a satirized musical biopic starring John C. Reilly as the title’s Dewey Cox, a musician from the South who tries to overcome childhood tragedy and the rejection of his father to make a name for himself. That career takes him from highs to lows and everything in between as one would normally expect in any good biopic, but in this case, it’s all done to huge laughs.
Oh, and did we mention that Kasdan co-wrote the movie with his good friend and the film’s producer Judd Apatow, concluding the trifecta of hilarious comedies released by 2007’s reigning king of comedy?
ComingSoon.net sat down with Kasdan during a recent press day in New York City where Dewey would be performing a few days later. (You can read our report from that concert and see some pics here.)
ComingSoon.net: Is it safe to assume that you saw “Walk the Line” and thought, “Hey I want to make fun of this movie” or was there a grander scheme behind this movie than that? Jake Kasdan: Not a lot. I mean, it wasn’t just “Walk the Line,” but it was sort of the aggregate of having seen a bunch of them in a short couple of years, both the music ones and then also other biopics. There was this pattern where every November, December you would get three to four very important lives. That was the idea. It was basically as simple as it seems, a fake biopic.
CS: I assume you started working on this two years ago after “Walk the Line” came out through. Kasdan: Well “Ray” had come out the year before and “Kinsey” had come out right around the same time and then “The Aviator,” so there was this series of extraordinary life movies.
CS: Obviously, you were already friends with Judd Apatow at the time, so how did the two of you decide to start writing this together? Kasdan: So a couple days after I had this little inspiration, I was on the phone with him and I said, “Here’s a funny little idea,” and I described basically what little I had, which was basically a fake biopic about a fictional music legend. We’ll do all the music and can have a great soundtrack if we play our cards right. This is generally the idea and it will be called “Walk Hard,” and he just dug it. He just sort of sparked to it immediately, and in fact, if he had not it probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s something that made me laugh, but it’s not the kind of movie that I write on my own. I think that our energy feeding each other and kind of getting into the ridiculousness of the endeavor was what made it happen.
CS: At this point had you already finished “The TV Set”? That was last year? 2006? Kasdan: 2006 yeah.
CS: So you finished that and you were sort of trying to figure out what to do next? Kasdan: I was just finishing it up when this idea came along.
CS: At what point did he get Sony involved or was the plan to do it yourselves and then shop it around? Kasdan: He did get Sony involved. He just finished “Talladega Nights” with them and he had a good relationship with them and so we brought it to the studio pretty early.
CS: And what about John C. Reilly? I know he was considered very early on for the role. Kasdan: Yeah. John also, we brought him into the conversation like very early. Sort of at the conception level before we had even written the script.
CS: And you came up with the name of the character Dewey Cox at the same time? Kasdan: Yeah, same time. That first night.
CS: It sounds like it came together very quickly. I remember seeing the trailer in San Diego when they showed it before “Superbad,” and I think it took a lot of people by surprise because it was flying very much under the radar up until then. Kasdan: Yeah. No, we got it together pretty quick. For me, it’s about two years of this is what I’ve been doing, and those two years, it doesn’t feel as quick as I’m sure it does from the outside, but we did put it together really fast and that was actually with some delays along the way, because we realized at a certain point that figuring out the music was going to take some time and would be its own project that would require a few months before we started even prepping the movie.
CS: I assume you had the foresight to write all the songs around the same time as you were writing the script? Kasdan: Yeah. We brought in all these songwriters to work on all these songs with us and tracked John doing forty original songs.
CS: That’s amazing, wow. Kasdan: Yeah, it was crazy.
CS: How did you meet all the guys who wrote the songs like Mike Viola? Did you already have some of them in your circle of friends? Langella: Well, a lot of them I did know socially. Dan Bern and Mike Viola are both good friends of mine and guys whose music I really love and that’s part of how we became friends. I mean I met them both different ways, but they are both guys I am friends with and huge fans of. So I was talking to Dan about it when we were still sort of in the earliest idea stage because I had a feeling he would be a big contributor and likewise Mike, and then Mike Andrews, who produced all the music and Manish Raval, the music supervisor on all my stuff, are both really good friends of mine. So we were all kind of talking about it at the planning stage like super early trying to figure out how to do it.
CS: Now, you obviously have songs that sound like Dylan and Brian Wilson, etc. but there’s also the comedy aspect of the songs. How did you and Judd relay to the songwriters what you needed in each of the songs throughout Dewey’s career? Kasdan: Well we wrote a bunch of titles of the big ones and little lyric fragments into the script to sort of give an idea of how the sequence would work and what kind of song it was, there would be a description of the song. In several cases there would a few lines and in about half of those cases, those ended up being lines that were in the songs and in other cases not. So there were kind of signals and some of them we thought about more about than others, but neither of us are songwriters. We needed people who could actually do that. It’s a whole different deal. We’d go to the guys and say, “It’s this kind of thing.” We would describe it further, we’d try to answer their questions, they would write demos and in many cases several people would write demos for the same songs. And the ones that seemed closest, mainly John and I at that point were kind of honing with the songwriters and with Mike and just kind of figuring out how to zero in on the final thing.
CS: How many days did John have to spend in the studio? Kasdan: Every day for months. Forty songs, I mean that’s a lot of time, you know? And he was very involved in it and kind of directing that process with me.
CS: And he has credit on a few of those songs. Kasdan: Yeah, he has credit on a few of them. I mean he kind of wrote a few of the songs.
CS: I remember him singing in “Chicago” and “Prairie Home Companion.” Has music always been something that he was involved in? Kasdan: He’s a very musical guy and he’s an amazing singer which is a big part of how this movie operates. He’s just a monster singer.
CS: Did you go back and watch “Walk the Line” a lot and make visual notes? I mean that movie cost around $28 million, so did you figure that you had to spend that much money to make your movie? Kasdan: They’re a comparable size in that way. We watched all of them. I mean the truth is we really didn’t have to do that much because we knew the basic gist of what we were doing very early, and we were also trying to have it not be a scene for scene. We wanted it to be its own story ultimately by the end of it. You know what I mean? To have its own kind of rules and stuff, and since we weren’t encumbered by an actual biography, that’s an advantage, but Judd and I did do a day where we watched like six of them.
CS: I imagined “Beyond the Sea” was one of them, because when John shows up as Dewey Cox in his teenage years, I immediately thought, “That’s gotta be Kevin Spacey.” Kasdan: A lot of them have that thing where the lead actor plays the role from an impossibly young age to an impossibly old age. That was a really funny idea. To have him keep saying how old he is to emphasize it.
CS: There’s always the danger with spoof movies of having to go the physical route to get laughs like in “Epic Movie” etc., so how did you avoid that pitfall here? Kasdan: We were sort of thinking of it on it’s own terms. Just trying to do this idea as well as we could and all the while cognizant that it’s an absurd idea. So we were definitely pushing each other to go for all kinds of jokes: bigger, broader, smaller, more verbal, behavioral stuff too, but also swinging for the fences and doing some crazy set piece kind of sequences. There’s a lot of different things that are funny to me. You can get a great thing out of John’s reaction to almost anything and then there’s also a separate pleasure to be had by watching him flip cars over on PCP.
CS: Was there any pressure for this movie in following movies like “Spinal Tap” and “A Mighty Wind,” which are the standards of the genre? Kasdan: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. I mean “Spinal Tap” is the gold standard in this particular genre or sub-genre of the big rock comedy. We were very aware of it. That’s what you’re hoping for with the music, is to get in that neighborhood even a couple of times, those songs which are so brilliant and funny. We took great pains to avoid treading into their territory stylistically, or with jokes. There’s nothing in this movie that is in that mockumentary style because nobody is going to do that better about a band than they did.
CS: There are a lot of cool cameo appearances in “Walk Hard.” How many of these are still being kept secret? Kasdan: It seems to be out there at this point. They aren’t really well protected secrets at this point.
CS: In that scene with the Beatles, how did you figure out who would play them and how did that come together? Kasdan: The three of us, Judd, John, and I kind of talked about it a bunch and it was something we were trying to figure out how to do for a long time. Should they be English? Should they be good impressions? And what we ended up doing was just getting the four funniest people we could think of to do terrible impressions and that’s kind of the joke. They barely look like them, I mean they really don’t look like them, they don’t really sound like them, except for Justin Long who sounds exactly like George Harrison.
CS: That’s one of the most surprising ones. Kasdan: Yeah, he’s an incredible mimic. Justin can actually do separate impressions of all four Beatles, which is crazy. Try that on your way home.
CS: I assume a lot of the people who showed up and did this stuff were music fans and understood all the jokes. Kasdan: It turns out that actors want to be rock stars, that thing is true, and comedy stars in particular really like the idea of being a rock legend for the day. So we’d call up and beg, but they were all kind of game if they were free to do it because I think it just sounded like fun to be “The Beatles” for the day, or Jack White for Elvis.
CS: You mentioned that there are forty songs. Obviously they didn’t all make it onto the album or into the movie, so does that mean you have another hour of footage somewhere and what happened to those other songs? Kasdan: There’s an extended soundtrack already out on iTunes which is thirty songs as opposed to fifteen. It’s pretty cool. I think it’s just insane what John does. The songs are really cool and the guys just did an amazing job, so we’re really stoked about that, and we had all this material so we had to get it out there.
CS: Is Dewey performing any of those songs live? Kasdan: Yeah, there’s a couple that he does live that aren’t in the movie.
CS: I know he’s touring across America, so has he been doing the same set every night? Kasdan: There’s some variation. He plays the hits, you gotta play the hits. He plays the standards of the Cox canon, but he also you know, shakes it up a little bit. The show is unbelievable.
CS: Yeah, I can’t wait to see it. Kasdan: It’s like the craziest thing. He’s absolutely remarkable in this character.
CS: So is there a future for Dewey Cox? Obviously Spinal Tap has continued to appear with songs and concert appearances over the years since their movie, so is John game to continue playing Dewey if there’s enough demand? Kasdan: Well, you’ll have to ask him. He’s brilliant doing it. I think he likes doing it. Maybe somebody pulls him off the shelf once in a while hopefully.
CS: Do you know what’s next for you? Will you try to do another independent film like “The TV Set” after this? Kasdan: I have no idea, to be honest at the moment, what will be my next move. I’m just sort of getting out of this movie, and I did do two in a row so I need to probably take a beat and figure it out, but I don’t know, we’ll see.
CS: Are you going to switch to a director for now while the writers strike is going on, or do you want to stick to your own writing and wait? Kasdan: I hope the strike is over soon. I probably won’t go back to work before it’s over though. It’s hard to imagine. I just finished this movie about forty-five minutes ago, so I’m still not convinced it’s done.
A few hours later, we’d ask Kasdan about his working relationship with Mr. Apatow on this movie after writing the script:
CS: You’ve worked with Judd for so long so on a movie like this where he’s co-writing and producing, when do you need the space as a director to make some of the decisions? Kasdan: We work closely together. We talk about almost every part of it. He was rarely on-set though. I was always happy to have him there and would sometimes ask him to come for certain stuff, but we’ve been together for a long time, and we don’t really have a problem with giving each other space to work at this point. In a way, Judd, as you may have noticed, has a lot going on, and I think that he on some level is always relieved when there’s some large aspect that he doesn’t feel he needs to be attending to on a daily basis. When I’m shooting something that we wrote together, he doesn’t feel the need to sit there on set, and in general, he hires and works with people that maximize the possibility of him not he’s not like a control freak at all. He’s very collaborative and because this was an idea that I had that I brought to him that I was directing and was going to have to suffer with on a day-to-day basis of making it, he would generally defer. The way that this worked was that we were working on it together and in terms of the actual content of the movie, I was sort of the final…
CS: Producers tend to have ideas and notes on all aspects of a movie so was there ever a time when he thought something you really loved didn’t work or vice versa? Kasdan: Yeah, no, I mean we disagree about things all the time, although less than you’d think. It would be more pointed towards a scene that I liked that he doesn’t think we need or a joke that he likes that I don’t want. The testing (in front of audiences) does eventually work almost all of that out, because if something you might not like is playing really big, you start to like it more. If it isn’t, there is kind of that third voice and then at the end of the day, it’s sort of your instinct and you just make a decision together.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story opens nationwide on Friday, December 21. You can also check out our video interviews with Judd Apatow, John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer here and buy the excellent soundtrack at Amazon or better yet, download the extended version exclusively from the iTunes store and hear a bunch of those extra songs not in the movie! Also, check out our report on the Cox Across America tour’s stop at New York City’s famed Knitting Factory here.