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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Das Boot? I Vant Vone! An Interview With Broken Lizard's Kevin Heffernan

Count yours truly among those very excited for this Saturday's Higher Ground Ballroom performance by comedy troupe Broken Lizard (Super Troopers, Club Dread, Beerfest). In advance of that show, I had the pleasure of speaking with troupe co-founder Kevin Heffernan by phone last Friday. We covered a range of topics, including beer, beer games, BL's upcoming movie — a restaurant comedy starring Michael Clark Duncan as a retired (and crazy) heavyweight champ/ restaurant owner deeply indebted to the Japanese Yakuza — beer festivals, comedy and why Super Troopers was set in Vermont. And beer.

Kevin Heffernan Kevin Heffernan: I hear there's like a big beer fest in Burlington.
Seven Days: Ha! Yeah. It's a brewers' fest, actually. It's down on … there's like a waterfront park. And like four or five thousand people get drunk on ounce and-a-half beers.

KH: That's awesome.
7D: It is fun. But it takes a long time [to get drunk].

KH: When is it? Is it next weekend?
7D: Um … yeah. I guess it is. I think I have to work at it, actually.

KH: We've been getting tons of emails about it [from people in Burlington]. They're like, "You're coming and we're having a beer fest!" So I imagine when we come do our show, everyone is just gonna be shitfaced.
7D: Thaaaaat's a distinct possibility.

7D: So let's start with the new movie, The Slammin' Salmon. This is your directorial debut, right?
KH: It is. It's my first time.

7D: How did that work out for you?
KH: It was awesome. It was  a situation where we put this movie together, and it came together really fast. The last couple of movies we did with studios and we used private financing for this one. So it came together very quickly. Jay [Chandrasekhar] was committed to doing a Warner Brothers picture at the time, so he couldn't commit to this. So I said, "I'll do it." All along we've edited our films and sort of learned the process together, so it was a pretty simple thing to just start doing it. And there is a comfort level with the crew that we usually use and using the same actors and stuff like that. So, it was seamless.

7D: So I was talking to a friend of mine recently, who is a huge fan. And he was talking about the new movie and he said, "You know, I think it kinda sounds like Waiting 2. So if you talk to those guys, could ask them not to do that?"
KH: [Laughing] It's definitely not Waiting 2. It definitely has a strong Broken Lizard vibe. It's set over one night in this restaurant. So it's almost like a parlour comedy, you know? It's like a stage thing. What we did is we just went a built this set [ of a restaurant] inside of a soundstage and just went and shot for 25 days, in this one room. And it was really a blast. It was like doing a stage thing. But it is a little bit different than like a Waiting thing, in the sense that it's  more like comedy contained in the restaurant over the course of one night.

7D: Gotcha. Do you know when that's coming out?The Slammin' Salmon
KH: We're trying to seal the deal right now. We have a company that's going to distribute it in the fall. So we're supposed to sign the contract within the next week or so. But we haven't gotten the official word.

In the meantime we're going to keep showing it. We're bringing it up to Montreal for the Just for Laughs festival, like three days after we're in Vermont. Every time we have a screening it's been great. We took it to South By Southwest and had some awesome screenings there. It seems like fans of Broken Lizard really like it.

7D: Well, as someone who spent a lot of time working in bars and restaurants, it looks like a pretty great premise.
KH: Yeah. Well, between the different guys, everyone has had some good experiences. The funny thing was, it was all about these characters we put together. We got Michael Clark Duncan to play our boss. And he's kind of this crazy Mike Tyson kind of guy. He's really hysterical and the whole movie really centers around him terrorizing us.

7D: He's a pretty imposing figure …

KH: Yeah, he's like 6'6" and 300 pounds. And he has the deepest voice you've ever heard in your life. And he was like, "I just lost 80 pounds, actually." It was like, "Holy shit."

He's also a guy who had unbeliveable comic abilities. He's always kind of a heavy, so you never see him do comedy stuff. But he has some great comedic turns.

7D: I'd like to talk about Beerfest, if we could. That's my personal favorite BL movie.
KH: I'm always happy to talk about Beerfest.

7D: Awesome. So, would it be really foolish of me to challenge you guys to a round of Das Boot?Das Boot
KH: It might be. There was a time, certainly when were promoting the movie, when we were in fierce shape. Like, you wouldn't be able to compete.

7D: So the training montage was legit then?
KH: It was legit. That's why we're doing this tour, because we're hoping to get back into drinking shape. Actually, during the show we'll do a little Beerfest drinking with some folks in the audience. So you might get a shot at us.

7D: Bring it on. So, there have been tons of rumors floating around about how much of the drinking from the movie is real. And it seems like you guys drink an almost inhuman amount. So how much did you actually put back?
KH: We drank for real. But the German guys, it was all digital. It was all computerized.

Beerfest 7D: Really? The German guys?
KH: [Chuckling] Yeah, definitely. It was really a good amount, actually, that we drank. It was funny, because when we walked into it, there was all this bravado."Let's do the drinking! Let's do the drinking!" And then you'd plow through, like, a keg of non-alcoholic beer. And then you show up the next day at 8 a.m. and do six takes of chugging a beer. So after a while it got a little bit rough, in terms of the actual beer drinking. And we definitely weren't supposed to drink beer with alcohol in it, for insurance reasons. But we did it anyway.

We always thought it was funny. Because you'd be literally be shooting all day, drinking beers, and even though it was mostly non-alcoholic beer, you'd be soaked in non-alcoholic beer. Ad then you'd get in the car and drive home. So we always thought it would be hysterical if a cop pulled us over. "Sir, you stink of beer! How many beers have you had?" And it's like, "25."

7D: What's your favorite beer game?
KH: Hmm … Let's see. We got pretty good at Beirut and the beer-pong stuff. But it wasn't huge when we were at school. So when we went on the Beerfest tour, it was huge and we had a lot of fun doing that. But I have to say, when we started pulling out the stupid games … like, in the movie we play that game Thumper, which I always thought was a stupid game. But when we were actually shooting it, it was a blast. We had a lot of fun doing it.

7D: I've always been fascinated by the sort of "behind the scenes" aspect of comedy. The idea that even the stuff that seems off-the-cuff or totally improvised is, in a lot ways, actually very rehearsed. Could you describe how Broken Lizard arrives at the finished product?
KH: Our background was in the independant film world. We learned very quickly that the most expensive component in filmmaking is the film stock. So we really never had enough money to be as off the cuff as say, a Judd Apatow style movie. So the way we went about it is that we had to be very prepared because once the camera rolled you couldn't waste the film. So we were always very scripted and would rehearse a lot. And in rehearsals, you would come up with a lot of the improv-y stuff and you just write it into the script.

Now, as we've moved on we have a little bit more money and a little bit more leeway. So a movie like Beerfest is something that we improv-ed more than we ever had. And it was a lot of fun. But I think we always come at it with a scripted thing. And then rehearse it until it feels natural. And then it feels more improv whe you actually see it. We're big preperation guys. But we've been together for so long that it does get very loose and more comedy comes out of it.

7D: And how does that translate to a live setting?
KH: I don't know. We're gonna see, because Higher Ground is the first show we're doing. We're doing some smaller comedy club type shows, but it will mostly be standup. We won't be doing sketches as much. So Higher Ground, we're gonna try it out.

We started as a stage group. But we haven't done it in years. So we actually did script out some stuff and we'll be very prepared. And we'll have some audience participation stuff and some improv stuff with the Beerfest charcters and some Super Troopers characters. So that will be more loosey goosey. But the other stuff will be more scripted. And I'm sure it will transform as time goes on. But you're gonna be the guinea pigs.

7D: Since we're a Vermont paper, I have to ask: Super-TroopersWhat is the Vermont connection? Why does Super Troopers take place in Vermont?
KH: You know, we had a couple of stories that really centered in Vermont. Super Troopers was born out of coming up with funny pullover ideas. Like, you know, it would be funny if you were driving down the road and saw some guy fucking a bear on the side of the road. What would you do? What would you do?!

So it came in little vignettes. And a bunch of it came from a road trip we did to somebody's wedding in Vermont. And we had another buddy who had a cabin up on the border, near Canada. So we came up with some funny stories about trying to get across the border with pot, or whatever. So it kind of grew out of being a Vermont thing. And we decided to just keep it there.

I personally wrote the letter to Colonel so-and-so, whoever the guy is who in charge of these kinds of requests for the Vermont State Police. And he was like, "Well, send me the script." So I sent him the script. I think I still have the letter he sent back. He was like, "This is a very funny script. But I am sorry I cannot give you permission to use the Vermont State Police logo. Because I don't want to be the guy whose name is on the bottom of the paper that says 'yes'."


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