Harold Ramis is best known for some of the classic comedies he’s made or been involved with making over the past three decades going back to Animal House, followed by Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Analyze This. Not surprisingly, Apatow has always been a fan of Ramis’ work, which led to him hiring Ramis for small roles in Knocked Up and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It seemed like only a matter of time before the duo would be making a film together.
The result is Year One, essentially a biblical epic road comedy, starring Jack Black and Michael Cera as Zed and Oh, two primitive hill people who travel across the globe encountering various characters from the book of Genesis, all handled in a suitably comedic way. It certainly threatens to be one of the biggest epic productions Ramis has done–imagine The Ten Commandments if it was *deliberately* funny–especially when the duo end up at the city of Sodom, something that Ramis and his production team decided to build from scratch as their recreation of the city of Sodom sits a top five acres of a desert-like sandlot, a pretty amazing feat that becomes even more impressive when filled with the hundreds of local extras that make up the various inhabitants of the city from Centurion guards to lowly peasants and slaves, not to mention dozens of live animals!
Originally, the plan was to send ComingSoon.net’s Heather Newgen down to the set because they were hoping to get the visiting journalists to appear as extras in one of those big crowd scenes; Heather is a lot more photogenic and has a lot more experience doing on-camera stuff than this camera-shy writer. (Look for her as Party Dancer #12 in Superbad for instance!) Since this visit happened at a time last year when studios were panicking about a possible actors strike, there were an insane number of set visits, and it was decided that they would have to settle on little old me.
Once our group arrived on location, we were taken to a large tent where everyone was put through the procedure that the local extras have to deal with every single day. We saw a few examples of the various factions present in Sodom mulling about the tent, including the slaves who are forced to do heavy labor, Roman Centurion guards, a few merchants, and surprisingly, only a few women. The film’s wardrobe coordinator took one look at us, sized us up and decided whether we should play a lowly peasant or a rich merchant. We’re not sure if it was meant as typecasting or a commentary on ComingSoon.net’s position in the world of the internet, but without a second thought, they decided that we should play the part of a peasant. We were handed a disheveled pink tunic and robes to wear, as well as laced-up sandals to wear on our feet. Because this was taking place in the Middle East, many of the internet writers, who normally spend a lot of time indoors, were given a dab of make-up to emulate a fake tan. Fortunately, our cool beard was considered “vintage” enough that it would pass in a crowd scene, so we didn’t need to have a fake beard applied, but some of the journalists decided to do so. We also realized that we wouldn’t be able to wear our glasses while shooting the scene because they hadn’t been invented yet, and we weren’t quite sure how we were going to see what was happening without them. It was actually interesting to see this side of a production, how they dress literally hundreds of extras every day, keeping track of all the clothes and wigs and facial hair that’s out on loan. The fake beards and wigs are especially crucial to keep track of, because they’re so costly, so bearded extras have to leave their IDs with the wig department.
After everyone was dressed and looking the part, we were all given a big wardrobe bag in which we could leave our street clothes and jackets after getting dressed up. Of course, we were under the impression that we would just be walked on set and immediately be thrust into the middle of a crowd scene, which we heard have included upwards of 500 background players at a time. (The fact that there weren’t that many people hanging around made us wonder whether someone was pulling something over on us.) Poor unfortunate and naïve us, we were all having such a blast playing dress-up until we got outside and realized just how cold it is in Leesburg in March. We probably should have kept our jackets with us, even though they clearly would not be in character with the time period. The light robes we were given to wear were not even considerably warm when spending a day outside.
Regardless, we were finally led onto the set and were immediately impressed by the vast size of it, as they had essentially turned a six-acre plot of sand into an old biblical city, complete with stone floors everywhere. A few months earlier, we had visited the set of “Prince Caspian” and been awed by the interior courtyard of a castle, and this set was at least five times that size, all of it decorated to the fullest amount of detail to create a realistic environment for the last stop on Zed and Oh’s journey. We were walked around to explore the various facets of the city, which included metal gates and stone towers. We also were walked up to the entrance of the King’s palace, an ornate walkway flanked on either side by small ponds filled with lily pads, and then taken back to the city’s market area where pictures were taken of us at the various trader’s shops, holding gourds and whatnot.
There was a giant golden bull’s head prominently displayed in front of a wide-open courtyard where the villagers could gather for the main event, the ceremonial sacrifice of virgins to the Gods by the High Priest (played by Oliver Platt). Apparently, Sodom has been suffering somewhat of a drought and the High Priest has been getting a lot of stress from his King (his brother-in-law) to fix the problem, so he’s been trying everything to get the Gods to bring water down from the sky. Even though the bull’s head was impressive, it was hard not to be even more awed by the giant phallic structure that towered over the entire city, which was clearly in the process of being built, going by the scaffolding that surrounded it. In fact, this scaffolding was not there for the production team as much as for the half-dozen barely-dressed extras playing the slaves working on the construction of what was meant to represent the Tower of Babel. They’d be actively working in the background whenever they were shooting a scene in that general direction. We also admired the number of animals grazing nearby, goats and donkeys mainly, but they had apparently hired an entire menagerie including horses, sheep and peacocks, all of them handled by animal wrangler Bobbi Colorado who brought added realism to the times by having an animal in just about every shot of Ramis’ film.
The unit publicist sat down with us and gave us a quick but thorough plot synopsis before director Harold Ramis joined us for an interview–you can find links to all the interviews we did at the end of this piece–and he told us how the Leesburg weather had been posing problems for the production, because it was windy, cold and rainy, which is most definitely not the type of weather one might find in the desert, where much of the film takes place.
That day began with Ramis shooting a scene featuring Michael Cera, and we got to watch Oh perform some of his duties as a slave, which apparently is the best job he can find once he arrives in the city. Cera was essentially wearing similar robes as us and a long wig, and we watched him shoot a scene where he was laying bricks in a mudpit, while a shirtless slave driver whipped him over and over as he complained about the job conditions. We watched some from outside, just a few yards away, and then we were brought inside one of the buildings, where they had shot some of the interiors. After watching Cera do different versions of the scene to make sure they got all the various camera angles covered, we had a chance to sit down and talk to Cera. (Again, see below.)
Afterwards, we got to see Jack Black do some improv scenes, essentially a pick-up from a sequence shot early where he is throwing out ad-libs while being tortured, so he was yelling things like “Is there no end to my toil?” He was very funny as he was throwing out lines, and then they shot a second scene where Black faced off against his oppressor. In between takes, they had an acoustic guitar on set and Cera, Black and Ramis were all playing and singing folk songs whenever they had a break as the crew set things up for the next scene or shot.
After watching more shooting, we were informed that the big crowd scene planned for the day was moved back due to the inclement weather, so essentially, this group of respected web journalists spent the day wearing period costume and ridiculous beards while interviewing a number of amused actors, including Oliver Platt, who found the whole thing quite hilarious, especially since he was on set wearing his normal street clothes. At least Jack Black and Michael Cera were still in costume when we interviewed them, so we didn’t feel that ridiculous and it felt somewhat like what it might have been like if internet journalism had been around back in the days of the Old Testament. (If that were the case, one can imagine that the bible would be more like Wikipedia with everyone adding their own version of history.) Either way, a lot of funny pictures were taken of the journalists that were thankfully kept under lock and key over the last year.
Later in the day, we watched the entire cast gather, most of them no longer in costume, as they discussed and rehearsed the scene they’d be shooting the next day, essentially one of the final scenes where the caravan is leaving the city and everyone gathers to send them off. Christopher Mintz-Plasse was there, reunited with Cera from their breakthrough comedy Superbad, as were some of the young actresses, including Olivia Wilde (Alpha Dog), who plays the princess, and June Raphael and Juno Temple, who play Maya and Eema, the initial love interests of Zed and Oh.
Our final stop before leaving the set was the enormous four-story zigarrat that had been looming over us the entire day. It actually was hollow inside and a wooden staircase had been built which we could climb precariously to the top where we had a terrific view of the entire Sodom set, as well as the surrounding Leesburg area. After our day on set was done, we still hadn’t had a chance to talk to David Cross, who plays the bible’s first murderer Cain, but he was gracious enough to meet us at the hotel restaurant for an impromptu roundtable interview.
Overall, it was a fun experience watching comic legend Harold Ramis working on one of his movies, mainly because he’s filled his new comedy with a very funny cast overall, something you can find out for yourself by checking out some of the great interviews we conducted, all linked below:
Year One opens on June 19.