Jake Kasdan may have come from famous lineage (his father is writer/director Lawrence), but he quickly established his voice in early efforts like Zero Effect. He also started his directorial career around the same time Freaks and Geeks was hitting TV and directed that show’s pilot, which made him part of the Judd Apatow comedy family. Bad Teacher isn’t an Apatow production, but it did reunite him with Jason Segel. Bad Teacher is a solid black comedy, and Kasdan knows his way around the camera. Check out our interview.
On the commentary track for Zero Effect, Kasdan mentions that if people can assemble the sentence he lays out during the commentary he’ll give five dollars to charity, and as I had listened to the track (and given the chance to talk with him) I started by talking about his first film.
I’m from Portland, Oregon, and I’d like to say as a fan of Zero Effect: “the spooky rumblings are a distant timpani.”
Jake Kasdan: There you go, I love to hear that. Five dollars to the charity of your choice.
You made that in 1997, as a Portlander we had Body of Evidence, The Hunted, there’s so many bad movies made in Portland, I think that film has a special place in Portland’s heart because it’s actually good.
JK: That’s great. Thought there were certain Portlanders who were pissed off with certain aspects of it.
I think they’re not used to the fact that when you film in a city not everything’s geographically going to match up.
JK: We got a lot of “there’s an observatory in the mountain!” that sort of thing, exactly.
Zero Effect feels precise, and now with the Apatow style of doing more and more takes, is that something you’ve moved to?
JK: Yeah, I mean, I guess. Right after Zero Effect my next job was the pilot to Freaks and Geeks, and the process there started the ball rolling for all of us, partly in the way that we work and a voice. There’s a shared element to the voice, even though we’ve done all different kinds of stuff. And there’s a process part of it that started there, all of us together. It definitely characterizes Judd’s movies. But a lot of the way that I worked evolved out of that beginning.
Watching Zero Effect it seems very methodical.
JK: I’ve made movies that are more and less that way. And there’s a lot of improvisation to Bad Teacher, but not nearly as much in Judd’s movies. There’s a system for hard comedy that relies on getting a lot of material to make it funny as often as we want it to be funny. Because you don’t know if you’re going to hit at the rate you want it to. That’s the basis of the thing, and the additional element is that for certain kind of storytelling, people are playing characters derived from an aspect of their personality, so the actors are helping you find the characters. There’s a real additional benefit to getting something that’s trying to be real happening for the first time in front of the camera. There’s an energy about that can be really cool. Zero Effect is just a completely different kind of movie, and it’s very elaborately plotted in a way that a lot of these comedies just aren’t. It’s a certain kind of writing that’s much more designed. The truth is The TV Set – there’s a bit of improv, and jokes that emerged on set – but that’s really close to the script. And I’ve done it all different kinds of ways. Depends on who you’re working with and who the actors are and how good they are. With this movie it was interesting because we had a lot of talented improvisers, and there was a lot of improv on set, but the script itself was clearly what drew us all to it. Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky wrote 200 jokes we all really wanted to nail, so I think we were all little bit more faithful that voice that we were all drawn to, so it was not as improv-centric as some of the movies.
With the improv is there a carving process to making these films?
JK: Yes. Slightly less so with this movie than some, but you’ve got to walk away with a ton of stuff, and if something isn’t playing you want to have something else. And by not right that’s either not getting the laugh, or not telling the story the way you thought it would.
When did you become involved with this project?
JK: They had written the script, sold it to Sony, had done a little bit of work to Sony’s Specs, but minimal, they reworked a little bit how it ended, and I came into it at that stage.
There are models of the black comedy, are studios now smarter about going black? It seems there used to be a lot of studio notes for a project like this, when your main character is a bitch, did they ask “could you give her a cat to be nice to?”
JK: With this movie we didn’t have any of that. There are certainly some movies where that’s the case, we were all aligned in the making of it, studio included and there was no pressure like that.
It seems like they’ve gotten smarter about this stuff.
JK: Yeah, I think that there’s an appetite for all different kinds of comedy, and if you’re in the right place, working with the right people, it can get made.
I remember you talking on the Freaks and Geeks commentary about having Jason Segel spinning leaves to show that he was stoned, how nice was it to have Segel smoke a joint in a movie?
JK: It was great. (laughs) It was the end of a journey that started ten years before.
How’s your working relationship evolved?
JK: Fantastic, we hadn’t worked together in years, but we did some really important stuff early on in our careers, it was right when we were getting going, and he’s one of my favorite people to work with. It was a total joy.
One of the great things about the movie is that you keep bringing in ringers. Was it constructed that way?
JK: In as much as the script had a dozen hilarious parts, and the casting opportunity of it was huge. So then you’re just trying to fill it up with the funniest people in each spot.
And with UCB and others there’s a lot of go-to people. What’s your favorite moment in this?
JK: There’s an incidental sense of humor to it that I love, every time I see Phyllis and Cameron walking down the hall together, I’m happy. There’s great stuff with Cameron and Justin and Jason that really makes me laugh.
Do you ever keep things that you feel like only make you laugh? That might play to ten people?
JK: Always. Even if no one laughs at them, they’re always going to be there. I mean eventually we got stuff working to some extent. Dave Allen Gruber, he gets laughs in the movie, but he makes me cry laughing. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” I loved that in the script, but it’s so quick and early in the movie that the audience might not be ready for it, but it’s as funny as anything in the movie.
Bad Teacher opens June 24. Check it out.