Exclusive: Zak Penn Saves the World!


It seems that every year around this time, ComingSoon.net talks to Zak Penn, whose long been a regular over on Superhero Hype! thanks to the number of high-profile superhero movies he’s written. (This writer is proud that for a long time whenever you googled “Zak Penn”, you’d usually get one or two of those interviews in your search results.)

Last time we spoke to Zak, it was for The Grand, his second film as a director, before it premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and this time, well it’s also about The Grand although this time, it’s because the movie’s finally being released into theaters. Having seen the movie a number of times since we last spoke, we wanted to make sure that everyone who loves poker and improvisational comedy will know about Penn’s hilarious follow-up to Incident at Loch Ness. The Grand uses a similar mockumentary style, but this in this case, the story is set in the world of competitive poker with an ensemble cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Richard Kind, Dennis Farina, Chris Parnell and many more fighting it out for the $10 million pot at “The Grand” Poker Championship all for their own reasons.

In this lengthy follow-up interview, we also talked to Zak about his new television show “Section 8,” his current association with Fox and Marvel Studios and his latest collaboration with none other than Guy Ritchie on a remake of The Dirty Dozen. Basically, we kept talking until the tape ran out. (If you want to understand the title, you’ll either have to read our previous interview or be really patient…. or just skip ahead until our last question.)

ComingSoon.net: Great to see this movie’s finally coming out, so how was it doing the film festival circuit after Tribeca and CineVegas last year?
Zak Penn: Yeah, we played at the Puerto Vallarta Film Festival where I believe we won an award for Ensemble Cast, and I think we went to a couple of others – I think there was one in Florida. I didn’t follow it around like I did with “Loch Ness” because either I was busy or on strike.

CS: How has the reaction been in different places, pretty much what you hoped and expected?
Penn: Yeah, I mean it’s been good. I will tell you I’ve been… I wouldn’t say pleasantly surprised, because I was hoping it would be received well, but it’s definitely been a nice response. People seem to really like the movie and appreciate it, and we had an incredible run at Tribeca where we sold out all our shows. The release keeps expanding, which is really cool. Anchor Bay and their parent company Starz, they’re really into the movie, and I think the cast’s enthusiasm for the movie has pushed everything, so they’re expanding the release. Each week, the release is expanded by more cities, so it’s not going to be just two cities playing for two weeks and then it’s done. It’s really going to open all over the country eventually.

CS: That’s great to hear.
Penn: The key thing is when all the cast members are willing to promote even though they barely got paid a dollar… like Woody did Kimmel last night and Cheryl is going on all these talk shows, so it’s getting a lot of buzz. Woody has really been incredibly supportive of the film. He told me when he watched it, he was pretty surprised. He said, “I had no idea if this was going to work,” and I think that was a common feeling among the cast of “How is this actually going to work having all these people improv and is it going to cut together as a movie? Or will it seem like kind of a mess?” and I think they were pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn’t out of my mind. That was really gratifying, to have people who saw the chaos that was involved be able to judge, “This really came out well.”

CS: It seems very much the kind of movie that’s all about getting as much as you can on camera, and editing it all together must have been a lot of the work in making it.
Penn: Yeah, Abbie Schwartzwalder, our editor, who is an old friend of mine, as I say, she’s like the third author of the film, maybe even the fourth because the cast is partly the author of the film. We really spent a long time editing it, that’s partly why it took so long to get out. It is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, ’cause you’re shooting so many different subplots. There’s so many different possible ways to cut this material together.

CS: As far as the casting, I liked that there were all these poker stereotypes and a few new ones, you had a bunch who were already versed in improv like Cheryl and Michael McKean, but did you know that some of the others could pull this off, or was it really just about finding the right people for the part?
Penn: Well, a lot of people it was a leap of faith for us. I mean, you got people like David Cross, who you know is going to be good at it, and Chris Parnell who was on “Saturday Night Live,” but really, you go by your gut. You meet the person, you get a sense of whether it seems like they can do it. A lot of people who don’t feel comfortable doing improv will tell you right up front, “I’m not going to do this because it scares me.” Usually, if they’re game for it, you can find a way to make it work. It’s definitely trickier. Remember on “Incident at Loch Ness,” we improv-ed with all non-professional actors, so coming off that, I wasn’t that worried about people’s ability to give me what I need. I get asked a lot of questions about the mockumentary style, and it’s not like I have anything particularly new to say about that style. People keep asking me why do I go to it, and I go towards it, because it gives you a lot of latitude. If people are not incredibly adept as improvisational actors, the sit-down interview is a great way to get them into it. So that’s a tact I use to get the best out of people.

CS: Did you have all the characters worked out beforehand or did you work on some of them with the actors once they were cast?
Penn: Almost all the characters were in the outline, the “scriptment” as we called it, but there were a few who as they came in towards the end… Andrea Savage, she and I kind of came up with the character and she did a lot of the work. Ray Romano, his part was much smaller, and he came up with a lot of the specifics of it. Then there were a few things like Brett Ratner’s character, I came up with sometime right before. I said, “Okay, I need something for you, so here’s what we’ll do.”

CS: There must have been some satisfaction in directing both Brett Ratner and Werner Herzog in the same movie.
Penn: That was a really fun day because the big tournament day, there’s all these different random people there from professional basketball players to professional poker players to Hank Azaria to Avi Arad….

CS: Oh, did Avi make the movie?
Penn: Avi’s on the DVD. He didn’t make the movie.

CS: There must be tons of stuff for the DVD, so have you had a chance to go through and decide what you want to include?
Penn: Yeah, actually during the strike, that’s what I did.

CS: I remember you mentioned that the final game was played for real, but what about during the tournament leading up to that? Did they play some of those games or was everything before that set-up?
Penn: They were actually playing at the tables to make it look real, but for the most part, the hands are staged until you get to the final table. We did actually play two rounds of poker. In some of the flashback scenes that take place at earlier tournaments with Chris Parnell, we actually played those out and shot it kind of documentary style, just ’cause it was a more fun way to do it, you have more accurate actions, but for the most part, everything else up to the final table was either staged or the cards are planted.

CS: Chris must have had the hardest part since his character had this monotonic voice and he had to keep that throughout whenever he improvised. Did he come into this with a lot of ideas, like for instance him doing that speech from “Dune,” was that improvised?
Penn: Yeah, totally. Chris did a voluminous amount of work before the movie. He had pages and pages of written of stuff. All the “Dune” stuff… what was funny was that I’ve always been a big fan of “Dune” and my wife always mocks me for liking that movie, but I really liked it when I was a kid, and it’s always stuck with me. When Chris pitched this whole thing, I was like, “Wait, that’s from ‘Dune’! I love ‘Dune’” and he said, “Well, so does Harold.” That’s where all that came from, and also, the big thing for Chris is that he’s playing a character who is a math genius, and Chris is not a savant, so he was constantly having to study to figure out what the odds were and to make sure what he was saying made sense.

CS: Has the movie changed at all since Tribeca or been edited down anymore?
Penn: You know, it hasn’t changed in terms of the editorial side of it. I don’t think we’ve edited anything from there, but we have changed the music, but it’s been finished. It’s funny because a lot of people have said, “Wow, it’s really a lot tighter from Tribeca,” and I said, “Really? I haven’t cut anything.” Doing the music and doing the color correction and the final output can make a big difference. It can make it feel flashier and slicker and faster sometimes.

CS: As far as the final game, you had to cut it down to be shorter. But do you have any plans of putting the entire game on the DVD?
Penn: The funny thing is that the whole game doesn’t fit on the DVD because we have so many extras that we did a cut of just the final game as though it were an hour-long show and we literally could not fit it on the DVD after all the other stuff went on. I think they’re talking about a Blu-ray release that would be later in the year and we will put it on there. The problem is that the DVD format that they use is not big enough to hold… you just have to make so many choices, and there are so many extras that I like. I just had to make a choice. If I put that on, I would not be able to put anything else on.

CS: Is there going to be a lot more of Hank Azaria and his crew on the DVD?
Penn: There’s a lot more. They were only there for only a couple of hours, but everything they did was hilarious. There’s a lot more of them on the DVD.

CS: Have any of the characters become favorites among people who’ve seen the movie?
Penn: It’s weird. I’ve noticed that for a lot of people, Chris Parnell’s Harold is their favorite character, partly because you feel so bad for him, and particularly younger people who’ve seen it are really into Harold, I don’t exactly know why. Other than that, I think that they occasionally will say something about Werner, that’s their favorite part of the movie, but for the most part, it seems to be pretty evenly spread among the six leads.

CS: There’s something in the movie I caught on second viewing about Old Vegas vs. New Vegas which is underlying with Dennis Farina’s character and Lucky’s grandfather. Had you been to Vegas when you were younger and had you seen the big changes that had gone on there?
Penn: Yeah, I’d been going to Vegas for years and years, and I did a lot of research. I talked to a lot of people. I talked to Steve Wynn, I talked to a lot of professional poker players. I had a lot of opportunity to really research the history of poker and the history of Vegas. It’s not like the movie was supposed to be about that, but one of the things you caught onto is very early on, I had this idea that Las Vegas has this very funny false nostalgia for its past where people will tell you about how much better it used to be when all of the hotels were more run-down and it was seedier and there was more violence. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and I started to realize that if you look at the movie, there’s a lot of nostalgia even on a personal level. For example, David Cross has kind of come to see his childhood as being a positive experience when we know that it’s not. That’s something I tried to drag through the movie, and it’s absolutely key. All those photographs obviously were a big part, and those were very complicated to do, so we did a lot of research and went to UNLV to find all those, but I’m glad you caught it.

CS: Who designed and built the models for the fake casinos?
Penn: The first two were built by Shepard Frankel, our production designer, who did an amazing job on everything. He designed everything and he built those to my specifications. Those jokes were in my script, and the models are really expensive to build so we couldn’t afford more than two of them, so for the third, they just brought us some other stuff that architect had. I think that was a piece of art that he had, that blue thing, and we said, “You know, that’s kind of funny,” and that whole joke came out of the necessity of not having a third one. We took that and we were literally spitballing, like “Imagine he’s f**ked up. What’s the most random name we can come up with?” And I just kind of blurted out “Hector’s Frozen Cart” and I insisted on keeping that because I had no idea what it meant. That’s where necessity becomes the mother of invention.

CS: And that adds to what Michael McKean was improvising which was kind of out there, as well.
Penn: Oh, yeah, absolutely, and those models of 1 Lavish Plaza. That’s obviously scripted, that idea is in the treatment, but they found this incredible location, it’s a real building in L.A. and that’s the model showroom and those are incredibly expensive models. There are like a half million dollars worth of models in that room, and the two towers turned into this hilarious accidental joke. It’s a little bit of an expedited edition in “Loch Ness” where we got there and here’s these two big towers and it’s supposed to be one room and Michael just went off on it and so did Woody.

CS: The last time we spoke was right after Edward Norton signed on to star in “The Incredible Hulk” and at that point, you were talking about taking some time off from superhero movies. After this strike, are you itching to go back to doing more superhero stuff again?
Penn: Well, I’m not rolling right into a superhero film, that’s for certain. I do have a big script to write and a couple of big writing assignments. I’m in the middle of working on “The Dirty Dozen” for Warner Bros. and Guy Ritchie and I sold a project to Fox that I’m pretty excited about, which I kind of have to keep under wraps. It’s an original idea of mine based on a classic story. It’s a little bit different from something I’ve done before but it’s definitely a big movie. The big thing for me right now is that I have this TV show “Section 8” that I’m producing and writing. It’s my baby, so it’s actually something Michael Karnow and I came up with. The thing is that if that goes forward, which I hope it will–it was supposed to before the strike–that’s what I’m going to be doing for the next year.

CS: What happened with “Section 8” with the whole strike?
Penn: It’s been a real mess. I don’t even know, to tell you the truth. We’re still figuring it out right now. When we got back from the strike, I had to go write the pilot and there wasn’t a lot of time so I had to write it pretty quickly. Now I’m just waiting to hear back from them.

CS: Can you tell me the general gist of the show?
Penn: Yeah, the show is actually about an Oliver Sachs like doctor, a guy who studies neurological abnormalities who operates this group of people, each of whom have some sort of special ability that’s based on a real-life neurological condition, so one of them has perfect aim and then one of them has total recall and anything he sees for a second he can memorize. There’s a character who can stimulate his fight or flight instinct at will. It’s kind of like a very naturalistic version of a superhero group, and they work for the NSA. It’s a little bit like “The X-Files” meets “Awakenings” or a little bit like “House” as if each of the people involved had some sort of unusual ability. It’s based on a lot of this research we did on real people, and each of the characters is based on a real person. It’s pretty cool.

CS: That’s a great pitch, and is that going through Fox as well?
Penn: No, that’s an ABC show.

CS: You mentioned “The Dirty Dozen” and I spoke to Guy Ritchie a few months ago and didn’t realize you were writing that for him to direct. Are you working with him directly?
Penn: I was hired to write it for him, and the problem is that the strike kind of interrupted it, but I just talked to him the other day, and we’re talking about the approach that he wants to take.

CS: What’s it like working with him in that way since he’s obviously well known for his very distinctive writing.
Penn: Yeah, you know, he’s pretty hands-off in terms of… I mean, he’ll pitch some ideas but I think he really wants… It’s funny because all my actors complain that on “The Grand” I didn’t have to do any writing, they did it all for me. With Guy, he definitely says, “Here’s some ideas, now you go do something with it.” He kind of challenges you. I guess when he writes the whole thing and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t, but it’s funny, because I worked with Matthew Vaughn for a while on “X-Men 3” so I feel like I got a little glimpse into their world of how they work, because they were partners for a while. I’ve liked it so far. He’s been pretty busy, he’s been shooting his new movie, and before that, I was pretty busy, so we didn’t have a hell of a lot of time together, but I literally just spoke to him this week and we had a really good conversation with how to ground the movie and make it feel real and how to do justice to it.

CS: Cool, and now you have a chance of getting both Guy Ritchie and Madonna to appear in your next movie, whatever that is.
Penn: That’s right. That’s the only reason why I did it, and I told Guy he has to star in my next movie with his wife.

CS: Are you going to try to do another movie as a director soon or is that going to be dependent on the TV show and these other things?
Penn: Well, I am going to direct another movie, but the question of when I’m going to do it is the bigger one. It probably wouldn’t be for another year. Look, if the show does well, then I will have to stay with it for a while, but I have no idea. I assume in TV that everything is a complete crapshoot, so theoretically, next year I would go and direct another movie but I’m probably going to do one until then, just because I have three kids and I have a lot to write on my plate right now. I got offered a couple of movies that were interesting to me to direct, but I’m not ready to go back out… particularly for some of the bigger movies I’ve been offered, which is a big big production, I’m just not ready to move to Canada or Australia for a year with three little kids in school, and that’s what the bigger movies to require.

CS: Well, it’s cool to have a bunch of your own projects in the works rather than adapting other people’s properties.
Penn: Yeah, I mean, there is an “X-Men” spin-off that I’m supposed to write and direct one of these days, and it’s kind of got to wait for a while until Fox sees what happens with “Wolverine” particularly.

CS: And also the “Magneto” prequel I’d imagine.
Penn: I don’t know if they’re doing that one, but regardless, it’s something that’s more down the line for me. I’m just not ready to… I don’t actually know how people direct a movie every year. It seems like a pretty difficult pace to keep up.

CS: I don’t think people realize that it’s much more than spending two or three months on a set and how much is involved before and after. Last time we talked, Ed had signed to “The Incredible Hulk” and since then he’s been involved with rewriting the script. Have you read his changes and if so, what did you think?
Penn: You know, I’ve been pretty hands-off. I actually rolled right out of that. Once he came in, pretty much right after that, I rolled right into doing this TV show. I’ve seen absolutely nothing of the movie. I haven’t gone to a screening and I haven’t seen any of the footage. It’s actually kind of interesting because I’m really looking forward to see it because I have no idea what it’s going to be like.

CS: Universal has been very secretive and supposedly, they’ve only seen some footage somewhere in Germany.
Penn: I’m probably going to see it soon. I mean, I spoke to them recently and I will see it soon, but a lot of times… the best thing is when a new writer comes in, it’s best to let it take its natural course. That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way over the years. The best thing for everyone is to let there be a single voice and not to try… like when I was younger, I would try to stay involved as much as I could, and you kind of realize, it just doesn’t work that way. I’m curious to see what they’ll do. Look, he came in… I guess he started rewriting 8 or 10 weeks before production, so I presume a lot is still the same movie. I just don’t know the extent of the changes.

CS: I’d assume a lot of it would be to make the character more comfortable for himself as an actor.
Penn: No, I think he had some specific ideas. I mean, he’s a smart guy. I think he had a lot of ideas and I don’t know how many of them… the constraints are always the budget. Quite often that’s the real thing, how are you going to shoot it? Look, it’s (Marvel’s) movie and they’re going to do exactly what they want to do.

CS: Have you seen “Iron Man” yet?
Penn: No, I’ve only seen the trailer stuff. Really, since Tribeca I guess, I’ve literally have had nothing to do with the comic book (movies). Because of the strike, too, I’ve barely spoken to most of the people I usually work with. I’ve been in a totally different world for a while.

CS: It must have been somewhat nice to have a break to recharge even during such a stressful strike.
Penn: Well, the strike wasn’t exactly a recharge because it was definitely a pretty stressful time, but it’s the way things work in Hollywood, you move from one thing onto another. The only thing that’s really been consistent over the last two years is “The Grand.” I’ve been working on that for a couple years now, but the rest of it, you just float in and out of things. I had to deal with Fox for a really long time, so I was always working on Fox movies, but I don’t anymore. My deal ended with the strike, so I’m kind of a free agent now, and just getting back into remembering all these things that I actually have to do.

CS: Last question: Have you come any closer to solving the problems of the world with “The Grand”?
Penn: Oh, yeah, that’s the notes I wrote for Tribeca, right? The weird thing is that we did succeed.

CS: Oh, you did? Awesome!
Penn: Yeah, a lot of people don’t know, but most of the problems in the world were solved by the movie, just by its existence. It wasn’t even so much showing it. Once we finished the final cut and color-timed it, literally everything seemed to work itself out. Even the Middle East, I’m sure you’ve seen that everything’s worked out there, and everyone’s happy.

CS: Thanks, Zak. We really appreciate that, and I was worried we’d have to wait until the movie is released on March 21.
Penn: It’s all good. It’s all totally good thanks to “The Grand.” You guys can continue to live in the perfect world we’ve created.

You can thank Zak for what he’s done by going to see The Grand when it opens in select cities on March 21 or when it opens in your neck of the woods some time after that.

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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