Jay Chandrasekhar, director of Super Troopers, Club Dread and Beerfest as well as TV shows such as Arrested Development, Community and The Goldbergs, on taking his first steps into directing with comedy troupe Broken Lizard, surprise funding for the original Super Troopers, and his experience crowdfunding Super Troopers 2.
On a Sunday evening back in 2003, my uni friends and I were in recovery mode after a Friday and Saturday night of partying. Soundly beaten, we decided to blob in front of the TV and watch a relatively little known film (here in the UK at least) called Super Troopers. What followed was the discovery of 5 new comedy heroes, a gloriously fun turn from Brian Cox, and ultimately, because of the sheer fun of the film, another night of drinking.
Broken Lizard, the banner under which Jay Chandrasekhar, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske and Kevin Heffernan have been producing sketch comedy and films since the mid-90's, had come out of nowhere and knocked us for six. So it was with great privilege that I recently spoke to Jay Chandrasekhar, the director of the pack, about the group's beginnings, his journey from performer to director, and more recently, crowdfunding the crowd-pleasing Super Troopers 2.
"After finishing college across two separate years, we reformed in New York city as Broken Lizard. We were doing live shows which were basically a Monty Python-Saturday Night Live melding. In between the sketches, we shot short videos. Those were really designed because our costumes were so elaborate that we needed time to change out of a banana costume or mermaid costume, or whatever. We started shooting these videos and slowly they became more and more sophisticated. I'd shoot and go to edit something and say, "I wish I had that shot." Then the next time I'd shoot something I would get that shot, and so you learn by trial."
Shooting video fillers for dressing time during a live sketch comedy show is a far cry from directing a feature film that would premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. That's quite a leap for any filmmaker. Being in New York had it's advantages for Jay, however. who elected to take a film class at NYU over one summer in preparation for filming Puddle Cruiser, and the career he sensed coming down the tracks,
"We made five silent, black and white, 16-mm films. I did that and learned a little bit of the difference between video and film. One of the guys I met in that class, and as Broken Lizard, we wrote a half an hour film and the two of us co-directed it. After that we decided to make a feature film. New York City at the time was really bustling with the whole independent film revolution. Kevin Smith made Clerks for $40,000 and Eddie Burns made The Brothers McMullen for $60,000. Richard Linklater made Slacker for $110,00 or so. We were there watching it happen and said, "We can do that.".
We wrote a script, and picked a location we could get that would be cheap and easy and we knew. That was Colgate University where I went to school. We raised the money, stayed in our old fraternity house and sent a crew up there. I had an instinct to where the camera should go and how to make a film. I had done it with short stuff enough but by the time we tried to make a feature I felt maybe I would know how to do it. The truth is I was really tense and I lost I think 15 pounds of stress but it turned out, when we edited together, that I did know how to do it."
What might be easy to forget in all this, is that Jay was still a performer as well. In addition to being understandably wowed by the resources available to him to shoot the feature, he and the other Broken Lizards were thrilled to see themselves in a 'real' movie for the very first time.
"We were lighting all our videos with the lamps that were in the room! Occasionally we'd get a lamp that was really nice and bright and I would carrying that lamp around to wherever we shot. The way we looked on video was okay. Then when we had a real Director of Photography, with real lights and a real gaffer, who set the lighting so beautifully when we first saw ourselves on 35mm film, we were just so emotional. It's so thrilling when you're lit and you're lit properly.
When we saw that on the first day, we were like, "Holy shit we are in a real movie, you can't deny it." That was really the thing. I know that sounds silly. I'm saying when you are making a real movie then it should look like a real movie. It did. It was shocking because after all those years you started to think, "Well, maybe this is possible." It still was a long way to go but we thought, "Maybe if we were right about the script we wrote, who knows, maybe we'll be one of those stories."
One of those stories they certainly would be. However, not quite with Puddle Cruiser. The film screened at Sundance and did really well with audiences, but the subsequent distribution did not serve the film quite so well, nor launch Broken Lizard to the heights they could have expected. It would be Jay's first experience dealing with the downside of the Hollywood studio and distribution machine.
"The thing about Puddle Cruiser is we went to Sundance, and it was a hit. Everybody loved it, the crowds were going crazy and this company offered us a distribution deal. They'd put in 500 theaters, but their offer was for zero dollars. They said that they'd give you money once they make their money back. We turned it down but nobody else bought it. We went back to that first company and they were like, "Nah we've moved on, we are not buying."
That movie only came out on home video. So, when we went to make Super Troopers we didn't have a name. Studios would say, "You guys made that movie that didn't come out. It's really funny we know, but it didn't come out so you didn't make any money." Now we were trying to make a second film nobody wanted to give us money because they're like, "Who's going to be in it?" We said, "We are." They said, Who the hell are you?" "We're the guys from Puddle Cruiser." They're like, "That movie didn't even come out."
One guy said he'd fund the movie if Ben Affleck played my characters part. I was like, "That's my part." We washed out there. We went to every studio, every independent financier, everybody said no. We weren't sure what to do because it wasn't like we could write another script and that somebody else would be like, "Okay. We're not going to fund Super Troopers but we'll fund this other script that you guys are in." That wasn't going to happen. What people really didn't like about Super Troopers was that we were in it, so a new script wasn't going to do it."
Becoming more and more frustrated with the situation, many of the group were thinking about quitting Hollywood altogether and returning to earlier career paths. That is until one fateful phone call would change everything and see Super Troopers finally hit the road.
"I was packing up my office to move out to California, everything's in boxes and my phone rang. It's a friend, who says, "Hey, I know this is a pain in the ass, but my dad, he's a banker and he's retired, and he wrote his own script. He wants somebody in show-business to read it." She goes, "You're kind of in show-business, right?" I'm like, "Just barely. I'm barely in show-business." She goes, "Yes, but you're the only one I know." So I talked to him and he goes, "Would you read my script?" I said, "Yes, okay. Sure, I'll read it." I know it's going to be terrible, because I'm like, "How good can it be? He's a banker." Before he sends it over, he goes, "Actually, is there any way I can read some of your writing?" Then, "If I like it then I'll send you my script," so he's literally auditioning me to read his script. I hope he doesn't like them because I don't want to read his damn script.
I send him Super Troopers and a week later he calls back. "I've read your script. It's funny." I said, "Okay, thanks." Like, who cares what you think? Then he goes, "What are you doing with it?" Now, when you're raising money, you don't tell everybody that you can't get any money. You don't want to do that, so I said, "Well, we're raising money and then hopefully we're going to make it." Then he goes, "Can you make it for a million-two?" I said, "Yes. Sure. Okay. Yes. Yes, of course, we could make it for a million two." He goes, "All right. I'll give a million two, if you want it." I was like, "Wha? Okay. I'll call you back." Then I got hold of my producer, he's in the office next door. I'm like "This dude, this banker. A friend of mine's dad, wants to give us a million two to make the movie! Can we make it for a million two?" He goes, "Fuck, yes. We will. Do you think he's real?" I'm like, "I don't know, man. He's a banker, he works at this bank!"
My producer is an investment banker, so he calls around and he goes, "I think this guy has the money for this thing. Let's bring him in and talk." We brought him in, and these two bankers talked for a while. The guy goes, "Do you want to do it or not? Million two." We're like, "Yes. Yes, we'll do it." He goes, "Okay. Great." We signed a contract and I think we had a cheque in probably two or three weeks. He was like, "There you go. Go, make the movie." It was literally the end of the rope. The guy saved our careers."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Super Troopers would go on to launch Broken Lizard into the big time. They enjoyed a wave of success, often billed as the new National Lampoon's, releasing a string of movies including Club Dread and Beerfest. Jay himself would go on to direct a host of television shows, including Arrested Development, Community and The Goldbergs. You would think that their break out hit Super Troopers would be a shoe-in for funding when a sequel was proposed to Fox, but it turns out, it would be a victim of it's own success.
"Well, what happened was the first film made so much money that Fox was unprepared, so they started pulling the Hollywood shuffle on us, They said, "As part of a settlement, you can make number two." We said, "Great," and they said that they will finance it, so we said, "Great." Then, they did some research and they were like, "I don't know. Maybe it's been too long. We're not sure if the audience is still out there. Why don't you guys come up with the money to make it, and all the money to release it as well?" That meant basically we had to go out and raise $23 million. We raised a million two for Super Troopers, but $23 million is a whole different thing. Where the hell are we going to get that? Look, Hollywood is full of insane people who are like, "We wrote a movie, we're going to star in it and we're going to go and raise $23 million." That's the kind of insane thing that we said openly. It was like, "Okay, why not. Right?" The first one profited $80 million.
"Right? Fox Searchlight were like, "We don't know if the audience is still there, so we're not funding it." We then went to all the investors, people who put up money and we said, "Come on. 80 million bucks. You want to do it?" Everyone was like, "I don't know. Fox didn't want to do it, maybe they know something we don't. I don't know." Nobody wanted to do it. Now, we're in the same exact position. We can't get this damned movie financed, because nobody wants to do it. Finally, somebody said, "Well, why don't we try to crowdfund a little bit. It will be a test." If we can crowdfund this movie, part of it at least, we can show that there's demand. The flip side of that was if we can't crowdfund it, then Fox is going to see that nobody wants to see this movie, and it's going to be dead."
And thus began the team's first foray into crowdfunding. Indiegogo was their platform of choice. with an ambitious target of at least $2,000,000. That is a lot of cheddar. With the fans and the following accrued since Super Troopers and the subsequent Broken Lizard outings, confidence must have been high that the demand was there, but as many of us know, converting that into a crowdfund is an art/science/sorcery of itself.