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 means 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.
"We called this guy who did the crowdfunding campaign for Veronica Mars and said, "Can you do a campaign for us?" He said, "Give me three days." He called us back and said, "I'm not a fan of yours per se, so I didn't have an opinion, emotionally. I went into the deep crevices of the web and I found your fans congregated at these 10 places. Based on this information, I believe that we can have a very successful campaign." I'm like, "Okay..." Then, he's like, "Here's how you have to do it. You have to make videos that appeal to your fans. They've got to feel like the original movie." We wrote all sorts of scripts. He goes, "That's junk. I'm not putting that in. We're not doing it." He's this cocky, nerdy guy, who had the balls to stand up to us and go, "Nah, that's dumb. We're not doing that."
Finally, we're like, "Well, what about this?" He goes, "Yes, that's it. Do that." We literally followed his gut and then made the campaign about Farva locked in the trunk of the car, and we're not going to let him out until we get a million bucks from the audience. Then once we've got a million bucks we're like, "Well, we're going to leave him in there for a little longer, and if we can get another million, we'll do a car chase," and we did that. We kept shooting sketches that always had Farva in the trunk. Then we put a camera in the trunk and shot in there, all this stuff. Then we pressed 'Go' on the campaign. That was the moment."
As with any crowdfund campaign, the perks available can make all the difference. Even with an established following and a desire to see ST2 made regardless of anything else on offer, fans were delighted at the access they would get to their heroes to make this film happen. One backer even bagged themselves a squad car actually used in the film,
"We sold the rights to be an extra in the movie. People were showing up in waves. We were having lunch with them. We were chatting with them. They were watching us shoot the movie and then they were in the scenes and I'm positioning them. I'm not a very emotional person but this was emotional. Without them, without that first chunk of money the movie wouldn't have been made. Nobody was going to finance it. For us, when we said thank you, it was so honest and heartfelt. We we're like, "Without you we would have no movie." They were like, "We're nervous because the first one was such an important part of our friendship group and we watched it together with our pals. You guys better make a good movie." I read a hilarious quote- I'm going to be bragging now- from David Mamet. First of all he said, "Super Troopers and Galaxy Quest are two of my favorite films." Then he said, "I heard they made a second one but I'm afraid to see it because like Gone with the Wind you can't make a better one than Gone with the Wind, you don't want to want it to be Gone with the Wind 2."
It really spoke to some of the fear of the crowd because they're like, "What if it sucks? What if after all these years you guys just don't have it anymore and whatever." Every movie is a risk, its an artistic risk. There is no guarantee you're going to be able to recapture the magic. I said to the guys, "We're all funny. We're all still funny but the audience may have moved on." They may have just been 20 when they saw the first one and smoking grass every day with their friends. Now they're 38 and the have kids. I said, "What we have to do is give a soft a landing as we can in this film. The way to do that, the only way to do that is to write as many goddam drafts of this thing. Fix every little bit of it before we shoot so that we are 100% confident this movie is ready to go.
The other thing we can do, is we need to look as much as like we did 15 years ago. The way to do that is we have to weigh exactly the same weights and I'm not rolling camera until everybody weighs the same. if people watch a movie I'm okay if they say, "They look a little older." I'm not okay if they say, "They look fatter and older." Everybody got to weight and we grew those moustaches we shaved those heads. You look at us between the two movies and you're like, "Yes, not bad."
The crowdfunding campaign was a part of that. Once we went on video asking for the money in character we had to look like we did in the movies then too, so we grew real mustaches and we got real got real crewcuts. We tried to get healthy for that too so they'd go, "Okay, this is the bridge between the two movies, this crowdfund campaign. Now I see them and they look pretty good. They look pretty much like they were, a little older than the first film, but okay. That whole campaign was like an ad campaign that lasted 2 years. We were sending are and we were setting updates and people were getting riled up and excited. It was all, the whole thing, the whole 2 years of it, all the art, all the image, all the video, it was all part of a very carefully crafted campaign that was going to culminate in the release on 4/20.
If people were like, 'Yes, I liked the first movie a lot but I'm not going to give you guys money to make another one.' Then that would've been it, but we came out of the gate so hot and we had two million in 24 hours. At the end of 30 days, we had $4.6M. 55,000 people gave us money. We were just like, "Oh, my God!"
I should throw in at this point that I am mesmerised by this entire story and laughing out loud - it shouldn't surprise me that a man with his comedy experience is funny, but he's a wonderful storyteller, and I'm hanging on every excited word.
"Then the president of Fox Searchlight called up and said, 'Well, yes. Wow, you guys were right'." He was like, "You still have to raise the money." Once we did that we were able to find the equity investors to look at that. They said, "Well, 55,000 people gave you money and we believe now that we'll give you the rest." We were able to raise that money but we still were missing the $10M needed to release the film. When we finally finished it we tested the movie and all of the Fox executives went down there. First of all, the test screening was a massive success, people were going crazy and the numbers were the highest we've ever had for a movie. They were incredibly high. Then when they asked the audience, they keep 20 people after it for a little chat about the movie. They said, "What other franchises does this remind you of?" The first kid raised his hand and he goes, "Star Wars." All the Fox executive they were like, "Holy shit, man. What the fuck?!"
After that test screening the guy calls me after and he goes, "We're going to pay for the advertising. You don't have to worry about that. We're doing that part." Then they pitched the perfect campaign, I thought. It was beautiful. The art was great. The tone was great. The posters, the trailers, they nailed them. We were deeply involved every step of the way. We did a huge 40 city tour. We went to every town. We showed the movie to the backers first, the people who gave us the money. That generated all sorts of press.
The interesting thing about it was, as much press as we were getting when we went to all those places, Fox do a thing called tracking. It predicts what the box office will be on the opening weekend. This tracking was predicting that we were going to make $3 to $4 million for the weekend, and that would have been a bomb. We kept coming up three to four, three to four, three to four. Finally, on Tuesday before the movie came out my agent called up and he goes, "You know what pal, you did your best. You tried. What can you say? Fox is bummed but we did what we could. There's nothing more you could have done. Went to every city." I was like, "How can this be? The first film came out and it made, I think on the opening weekend, like 6.6. How could we make a sequel all these years later and it's going to go three or four million." I said that can't be and he goes, "The numbers have remained the same. I don't know what to tell you."
Now we're rolling into the end feeling like, "Oh, no. This thing is going to be terrible." We have a great movie but it's just not going to happen. Then the Thursday night sneak preview was really big. Everyone at Fox is like, "Yes. Okay, but the people who really wanted to see it now have so I wouldn't count too much on that. Maybe it will do four to five, but I wouldn't get too excited." Then the Friday morning matinee, which is 10:00 AM on the East Coast, was a massive number. I looked at it and I called the Fox guy and I'm like, "You see that number?" He goes, "Yes, I don't think it could be correct because it's more than every other movie and so it's not really possible for that space." Then the noon screening came in and it was bigger and then two o'clock was bigger and suddenly Fox, they go silent. They're not telling us anything. They're like, "Well." They're trying to figure out what the hell is going on. If this is a mistake or whatever. By Friday night we had $7.9 million, for just Thursday and Friday night. We were the number one movie in America!
Everyone was like, "Wow, that tracking was really wrong." It was. In a weird way, it was like Trump. Nobody saw that coming over here. What brought Trump over the line was all these small towns that they don't really count in the polling. Normally Times Square in Manhattan and The Grove in Los Angeles are the two biggest movie theaters in the country for our market groups. The number one was this random town in northern California and Madison Wisconsin and Iowa City. All of these country towns. In this weird way they don't count out there. They're not doing the tracking out there. In a weird way that's what made us ahead. New York and LA were big too but not compared to these little towns."
So, there you have it. In a world where the polls swinging in an unexpected way so often end in disaster, it makes a refreshing change to hear tale of that being a good thing. I'm sure he didn't need it, but that 15 pounds lost through the stress of making Puddle Cruiser must have been laughable in comparison to the stress of getting this sequel made. What advice would he give anyone looking to follow in his footsteps?
"The best advice I can give is write as many drafts of that script as possible. When you're making an independent film you should show up knowing that if the worst that happens is you shoot what you wrote, it's going to be great. Sure, if some actor improvises some great line, that's extra, that's great, but you can't count on that. You look at some American comedies where they're like, "Well, the general scenario will show up and will have the actors be really funny." That doesn't always work.
In fact, mostly it works sometimes, it works this day, not that day. It all has to go in the movie. That's why some movies are just okay. The writing process is critical. We literally wrote 37 drafts of the script before we shot this movie. That's the most important thing.
Now in terms of crowdfunding, it's very hard if people don't know what it is. The reason Veronica Mars was able to raise all that money and we were able to raise all that money is because people had seen the first one and they knew what it was. That's the hard pill to swallow for most people because they don't have that. They don't have the profitable previous bit of art to lean on like we did. There's a group out of Austin Texas called Rooster Teeth and they raised, I think, 2 or 3 million bucks for a film as well. The way they did it was they built up a following on the internet by making short videos. I think it was the same group of people who were in them. It was a little sketch group and they build up a community of people who were like, "Okay, we like you and will share with our friends this video. It's funny, man." Eventually, when they said, "We want to make a movie." Their people came together and said, "Okay, we're in."
If you really relying on your 20 friends and their friends, it's incredibly hard for people to go, "Yes, I'll give you $25 because your friend wants to make a movie? I don't know, man? I don't know." What if he's really going to make it and all that stuff. Crowdfunding is not that easy. For us it was incredibly time intensive but it's doable. I don't know that it's doable if you don't have some fan base to come at it, to start out. People who don't know you need to like you before they going to give you money."
You can follow Jay on Twitter: @JayChandrasekha
You can also follow Broken Lizard: @BrokenLizard