We had a chance to sit down with Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writers of a little indie film known as The Hangover and the writers and directors of the new movie 21 & Over (in theaters March 1, 2013), which can best be described as a college-aged version of… The Hangover.
21 & Over is both your directorial debuts. Was part of the deal that you would direct?
Jon: No. It was actually kind of a funny story. They asked us about directors. So we went around looking for directors, and we ended up Dick Cheney-ing ourselves and kind of picked ourselves after looking at lots of other directors. And the studio was amazingly excited about us directing the film. I’m not entirely sure why.
Scott: The studio, to their credit, was really helpful and supportive. But when we shopped the script around, we did shop it around saying who wants to make this movie? Not who wants to buy it and put it in development… We’ve been writing together for 13 years. We’ve seen a lot of scripts stuck in development and taken a lot of assignments.
<then the bastards at the next table over laughed really loud at something and I can’t hear my recorded notes>
So was there a cap on budget? “You can direct it, but…”
Jon: The budget was about the same. Because it really couldn’t get any smaller. If it was any smaller it would be what we all have in our pockets right now. So yeah the budget was pretty small, but we’ve worked on some pretty expensive comedies – we were really excited to work on a movie that doesn’t have to make $100 million to be successful. Or to be seen as successful. Too much money or time doesn’t necessarily make the best kind of comedy… I would have liked a little more money, but there does come a point in which – you know, we had 29 days, which is plenty of time to shoot a movie – I think there’s real urgency for the movie and that’s because we’re behind the camera running around. But that urgency comes through, there’s a real fast pace to the movie because we didn’t have the luxury of having people improv on a scene for four days.
How long did it take you to write the script for 21 & Over? From the idea stage.
Scott: I don’t know the exact time, but in general it takes us a month or two to create a pretty detailed outline before we start writing and then it’s usually two or three months to write the script.
Jon: The hardest part about this, though it may not look like it, is the plot is actually kind of hard for us. The jokes are kind of the easy part of the act because once you have funny guys the jokes are kind of straightforward. The plotting is, not unlike in The Hangover, getting all the beats to sort of be surprising and build in a certain way. It’s sort of like writing a thriller. And in that regard it’s harder than writing some of the other comedies we’ve worked on. So that’s sort of the bulk of the time.
Who is the first person you give the script to?
Jon: We have a group of writer friends that we send it to.
Scott: And our wives, because at least someone is saying, “Oh, I love it!” We always need that one person who is like, “This is amazing.”
21 & Over is similar to The Hangover in that both are “comedy mysteries.” Did you intend for it to be similar?
Scott: Obviously there are similarities, but I don’t think we were consciously trying to rip off The Hangover. The Hangover is this amnesia movie where these guys are trying to figure out what happened and 21 & Over structurally is more like an epic quest. It’s like Lord of the Rings where these three guys, instead of taking a ring to Mordor, they are taking a drunk Asian kid back to his apartment. And thus conceptually it’s a very different type of movie where it obviously has some similarities.
How did casting Justin Chon go?
Jon: Justin was hammered when he came in. We read a lot of kids and the thing I liked most about Justin was he felt so much like a normal American kid. I think some people came in and tried to read it with a more ethnic slant. The thing about Justin is that he’s a kid who just happened to be Asian; it wasn’t about him specifically having to be Asian.
He is also an artist at being drunk. His levels of being drunk are amazing. “I can give you 8 drunk or 6 drunk, what do you want?” He has a whole scale in his head on how to play drunk. The second we saw him we got him after the first read. He’s also just a really lovable guy. And at the core of the movie, you’ve got to love this guy or else the whole thing falls apart.
Scott: If you’re not really invested in him and don’t love him and want him to be OK, the whole movie doesn’t work. I think Justin has that quality.
How long did it take you to find Miller, played by Miles Teller, the biggest comedic role in the movie?
Jon: Miles Teller did Rabbit Hole which was hilarious.
Scott: We just kept bringing in people. Miles was one of the first guys who just walked into the room and killed it.
Jon: Actually, the funny thing about him was that he was supposed to read for Skylar [Astin]‘s role. He’s a good looking kid and we always pictured Miller to be less attractive, more of the Jonah Hill school – not that Jonah Hill is not attractive – or more of that mold, and Miles came in and we said, “Oh you’re reading for Casey today,” and he said, “No, I’m Miller.” And usually when an actor does that you’re like “ehhhh,” unless you’re awesome. If you come in reading for a different part than we thought you’d be good for, you better crush it. And he did. He reminded us of Vince Vaughn a couple times. As a director your only job is to contain him… you don’t have to feed him lines because he generated so much of his own comedy. We just felt lucky to have him there running his mouth.
Do you like working with unknowns?
Scott: Yeah, I think we liked it. There is a something a lot more freeing than working with actors who have some baggage that you need to fight against or play to, like if we direct Mission: Impossible 7 then we’ll probably use Tom Cruise…
Jon: That would be a terrible idea. A terrible idea.
Scott: It would be funny. There would be vomiting.
Jon: I will say on a strictly logistical level these guys are awesome. They just like to be in the movie. They are 20-something-years old, they showed up every day just saying “What can we do? How can we make this funnier?” If you work with stars, some guys don’t want to work hard, some guys don’t want to work on Tuesdays. I understand the need for stars in terms of marketing, but creatively it is so much more fun.
We also felt so old on our set. These guys would shoot for 12 hours, go party, have a great time – we’d go to bed, stumble in the next day exhausted and they’d be, “What are we shooting today?” I’d ask, “How are you alive?” I’m going to call them in a few years…
This is the first time you directed…
Jon: It shows, I know.
My question is: Did you get the bug?
Scott: As a writer, you spend a lot of time being told what to do. The studio is like, “Change this character,” the director is, “Change this joke.” As a director you spend a lot of time telling people what to do. And that’s way better. I was really surprised how much I enjoyed it. We sat down with our director friends and were like, we’re going to get killed. We’re going to die. We’re not going to make it through this thing. The whole movie is shot at night – night shoots are really hard, there are a lot of things about logistics. It’s all shot on the University of Washington campus so you have to deal with the administration. When you write a scene about a pep rally, a lot of people and a buffalo, it doesn’t seem that hard. But when you show up and you have 500 student extras who aren’t getting paid, how do you keep 500 kids sitting around? We raffled off T-shirts – I’m like, you’ll really stay for a free T-shirt? – but for college kids, that’s enough. You tell college students free T-shirts are involved and they’ll do anything. But it was really hard, but the great thing is that there are two of us. I don’t know how other directors do it all.
Would you direct something that you didn’t write?
Jon: We’d probably always do a pass on it, make it our own. It’s an incredible amount of thought. So much thinking goes into directing that every little thing needs to be worked out and I think you have to be happy that those words are yours. At the same time the real fun of it is that we learned how to make a movie while making this movie, so the next one, we’ll probably have other hurdles and stuff, but I like the thought of going into a new one with some idea of what I’m doing on Day One, instead of like, “What’s blocking? What is this called? OK, let’s do that. That’s cool.”
Why does it cost so much money to make movies these days?
Jon: Making movies is actually incredibly cheap. The marketing is what is so expensive. There are great crews throughout the country now, so it’s incredibly fast to do a movie. It’s just the marketing part,. Someone smarter than us has to figure out how to do it in a different way. It’s unfathomable to me to make an $80 million comedy. To make that money back, it’s insane.
You guys in some ways are responsible for that, with The Hangover.
Jon: That model wasn’t the first one. It was like cheap actors, no money to shoot and just do it quickly. I think it proves you don’t need a lot of money. That’s the great thing about comedy. Comedy is free. Jokes are free. You don’t have to have a spaceship or anything to make it funny.
You say comedy is hard. Was it intimidating now not only writing comedy, but directing it?
Jon: We’re really funny, so it’s not a problem. <laughs> It’s super scary, but like Scott said, you hire funny people. We’re not geniuses. There are a lot of comedies and I’m sure you’ve seen them, and you say why am I not laughing? Some of that is just taste. Some people love our movies, and some hate them. Comedy is so personal. But I do watch comedies sometimes and wonder why did they cast an action guy in this movie or a drama guy in this movie? But you find a funny guy… it’s not brain surgery.
If the subject of sequel came up, would you do it?
Jon: Yes. I have kids that go to school now.
Scott: <knocks on wood> We would love to be involved. We had a really good time making this movie.
What were your favorite comedies growing up?
Scott: I really liked Groundhog Day. It’s a little dated but structurally it’s sort of amazing how it’s put together and it’s funny and it has emotion and it’s just a really cool movie.
Before Jon could answer, the studio reps swooped in and ended the interview. Done.
Now read our interview with 21 & Over stars Miles Teller and Justin Chon.