John August & Melissa McCarthy Interview – THE NINES

     September 2, 2007

To help promote “The Nines,” which is now playing in limited release, I got to sit down for roundtable interviews with Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy and writer/director John August. While most of you know Ryan Reynolds, you might need a refresher on who John and Melissa are.

With “The Nines,” John August is making his directorial debut. But while this is his first feature, he’s written a ton of movies you probably have seen like “Go,” “Corpse Bride,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Big Fish.”

Melissa McCarthy is mostly known for her work on “Gilmore Girls,” where she played Sookie St. James. But for those who’ve seen the movie “Go,” that’s where she met John August and they’ve been good friends ever since.

Now before getting to the interview, some background.

I saw “The Nines” for the first time at Sundance and walked out of the theater not knowing exactly what I felt. I knew I was blown away by the film and the story, but I wasn’t sure if it was due to the no sleep and the surprises the film unexpectedly threw at me. So I decided before attending the junket that I ought to see the movie again and take it for a second spin. Thankfully, the film was even better the second time as I was able to catch a lot of little things that I missed during the initial viewing.

But while I bought into the film hook, line and sinker, I did speak to some friends and they were less than impressed by John August’s feature debut. And this doesn’t surprise me. I really thinkJohn has made a film that will polarize the audience. Some of you are going to be like me and really dig this movie. And some of you are not.

But that’s also what’s so great about this film, the ability to be so different to so many people. It’s not like this is a huge budget Hollywood spectacle and it needs to appeal to all four quadrants. “The Nines” is a small budget indie that needs to just find a small passionate group that get it. And I’m happy that I’m one of them.

And before getting to the interview, I think you do need to know that the film unfolds in three parts, featuring the same actors in different (and in some ways overlapping)incarnations. Here’s a summary of the parts…

“The Prisoner” tells the story of a troubled television star (Ryan Reynolds) who finds himself under house arrest, with his chipper publicist (Melissa McCarthy) and disillusioned next-door neighbor (Hope Davis) providing his only links to the outside world. Mysterious events lead him to question whether one or both women are deceiving him about the nature of his incarceration.

“Reality Television” is a half-hour episode of “Behind the Screen,” a Project Greenlight-style documentary series tracking the process of creating a network television drama. Having shot the pilot, creator/showrunner Gavin Taylor (also Ryan Reynolds) faces post-production with the help of his best friend (and lead actress) Melissa McCarthy and development VP Susan Howard (Hope Davis).

“Knowing” finds an acclaimed videogame designer (also Ryan Reynolds) and his wife (Melissa McCarthy) facing car trouble deep in the woods. Their daughter (Elle Fanning) uncovers information which leads to a difficult and irrevocable choice.

And as I’ve said previously, “The Nines” is definitely not for everyone. I’ve been reading reviews of people who really didn’t get it, like it, or even understand it. But unlike some people, I really dug the film and found absolutely worth watching.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the audio of the roundtable interview here. It’s an MP3 so it’s easily placed on an iPod or a portable player.

“The Nines” is currently in very limited release.

So John wrote this for you?

JA: I did.

MM: Not bad, huh?

Did you ask him to do it?

MM: I begged him. I just came and cried on his porch every morning. “Please write me something.” No, but I certainly enjoyed it. It’s kind of based on something from, what was it, ten years ago?

JA: Melissa was in Go, which was my first movie. And she had a small role and just kicked ass in it. Then I wrote a short film starring her. I didn’t even know her; I was just like, “I really like that actress. I’ll write a film for her.” She was great in that. And that ended up getting her busy with doing a lot of other stuff. She was also in Charlie’s Angels and D.C., my TV show. So when it came time to start writing this, I knew I wanted her in it. So I talked to her about it before I put pen to paper, because I wouldn’t do it if she wouldn’t do it.

So you knew what the movie was about before?

MM: Not really. He basically just gave me a really rough outline of it. I think he just said, at least for my character, that he was going to take the character from the short and he just kind of wanted to play with where she was ten years later. And I think it changed quite a bit from that simple kind of statement.

So what was your reaction when you read the script?

MM: When I read it? Initially, to re-read it, immediately. Because I liked it some much and I kind of had the same feeling, I think, when people see it. You want to see it again right away and watch from what you missed the first time around. And I just loved it. I thought, for the love of God, I get to play three different characters, and it’s really good. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read, for sure. There weren’t a lot of drawbacks.

I heard you used the short film as your basic demo reel.

MM: Yeah, I really did. It was more interesting. I liked everything about it, better than a lot of things that I’d done. So I was like, “Why not?”

What’s different about John when he’s behind the camera, compared to when he’s just the writer?

MM: Obviously, much more input. I found it easier, especially for things like this, I can’t imagine anyone else directing it, you know? It’s out of his mind and it’s such a kind of wild ride. It’s three simple stories that make one bigger story, but I can’t imagine someone else trying to explain that to you. I feel like the wheels would have come off the track if someone else was then having to interpret what John meant. John’s very specific and very clear. So he made something that could have been a little confusing like, “No, its this. This part leads to this…” He just kind of simplified it all down.

What do you tell your friends when you want to sum up this movie?

JA: I usually say it’s three short films that all start at the same three actors playing different roles and it’s only through the movie that you actually realize that they’re not separate movies, that there’s something bigger going on. It’s challenging in that it’s a comedy but it’s also scary, and it’s a drama. It does a lot more things than a movie would usually try to do. So that’s challenging, but I avoid copping out with the whole “Oh, you can’t describe it.” You can describe anything. A writer’s job is to describe things.

It’s tough to put into a logline.

JA: It’s a hard logline. And that’s honestly why it couldn’t be a studio movie, because they need to be able to say, “It’s Spider-Man.” They need to be able to say this is what it is, and there’s just not a one thing that we can kinda grab onto for the movie.

As an actor, how do you prepare to play three different characters, and how do you distinguish between them?

MM: First I had to calm down from my initial thing, which was to make them incredibly different. You go a little nuts with like, “Oh, this one will have an accent and a limp.” You go like “actor school crazy,” because it’s such a fun thing to be able to do. So of course your mind goes to like, what are the opposites? How different can I make them? But then it’s like, that’s not what it’s about. It’s not like, “Look what I can do.” It’s about serving the story. So one, it was calming down, having John tell me, “No wigs.” Which I was like, “What?” To prepare for it, I think how John shot it helped tremendously. We shot each one kind of as a separate entity, so there was no crossover, which would have been one, physically impossible, because just hair changes wouldn’t have been possible. He helped keep them separate little movies, so when one ended, it was completely done and we moved on. And the next day you were a different person, you started a different thing, so it helped the focus stay. I think it was just realizing that, yes they’re three different characters, but there’s also a really specific through-line and there’s a reason that she’s always there, that she’s not a completely different person. And then his style of shooting helped keep them different but not a wacky different.

John, why did you decide to shoot it that way? Is it because you thought it would be easier?

JA: Yeah. Each story really demanded its own approach, its own style of acting, its own style of shooting it, and logistically it would have been just impossible to try to be doing two different things in one day. We used different crews, largely, for the different sections. When we got down to — the last thing we shot was the documentary, part two. And we shot it like a documentary: one or two cameras, video, a completely different crew, one sound guy. We didn’t look like a movie. We looked like yet another reality TV show shooting in Los Angeles. And that was a tremendous liberty because we could shoot in different places without permits and people wouldn’t bother us. Our footprint was so small, people wouldn’t pay any attention to us. Getting back to what she said, it was important to me that the actors prepare each character for who that character was and not try to react to things, not try to keep the characters separate in their heads or keep them away from each other. The characters aren’t aware of who they were in the previous section or the next section. They just need to be true to that story, and simple.

John, did you have any experience playing Second Life or games like that?

JA: I haven’t played Second Life, but I played way too much World of Warcraft. So the conversation after part three was really my World of Warcraft, which was, I was the Orc boyfriend who just played entirely too much. What’s so tough about those games is that they reward you for doing incredibly simple things. So like in real life, I wouldn’t want to go out and pick leaves, but in there you can get a level by picking enough leaves. And then you trade them and get a better sword, and then you can do this. And you never question like, why am I doing this? There’s this constant reward system. And writing is so hard and so unrewarding so much of the time, and that was so easy and so much more straightforward, that I ended up wasting entirely too much time playing that.

Did you see the South Park World of Warcraft episode?

JA: I did. The South Park episode is genius. It’s incredibly accurate of what that experience was. I would find myself getting so emotionally frustrated by like what was clearly like a 13-year-old kid in Dubuque. I wish there was some great altruistic reason (for quiting) like, “I really should put my family first,” or “I need to put my writing first.” I was in a dungeon instance with some party that I’d just met and they accused me of doing this horrible thing and poaching this one sword, and I was like, “I didn’t do it!” And I was angry: “Oh, I hate these people.” And then I turned off my computer. It does feel really real to me. Online I saw the new expansion pack. They had a video of it and I was like, “Ahhhhh,” and I was totally like that crack guy who’s seeing a guy shooting up in the corner. It’s tough.

Can you talk about your writing process?

JA: I end up keeping nine to five office hours. My life is still like midterms in college, where sometimes I’ll have to pull an all-nighter to finish something up. That’s just the nature of being a writer. I can beat myself up for being lazy or for being unproductive, but that’s just my process. So sometimes I am sort of the up-all-night writer guy. Increasingly I am — because I have a family, I’m responsible to them, too — I’m not allowed to be exhausted all day. So I do have to keep office hours.

Some writers believe that there’s a limited window each day when they can be creative. Do you believe that?

JA: I think that is true. Sometimes you don’t know when those productive hours are going to be, buy hopefully you’re using those hours to do productive work and not to play Warcraft. That’s the challenge. I’m glad that I’m spending those productive hours now in this roundtable with you.

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When you write, how do you prioritize things? Is it based on whatever strikes you that day?

JA: I tend to only work on one project at a time, because…it’d be nice to have the luxury of, “Oh, I don’t feel like writing that today.” I tend to have to write on the thing that I’m writing on. But I will write out of sequence, so if I really don’t feel like writing that action sequence, I’ll go ahead and do that funnier moment that’s happening at the end of the second act. And I know I’ll get back to the action sequence when I need to. So I feel free to skip around. That’s the luxury of being a writer.

You talked about how, in the second segment, Ryan is really a stand-in for you. Melissa, was there ever a moment where Ryan was so much like John, or so different from John, that it got a little weird?

MM: I think he definitely changed his speech pattern. John’s got a very quick pacing to him. So there was something very kind of funny that would happen, like working with Ryan and then notes would come in from John. Every once in a while it was like, ok, there’s kind of like two Johns, so to speak, because Ryan was now rapid-fire at me and John speaks very quickly. So that kind of overlapped, but there was always kind of an otherworldly sense about that whole second part. I’m playing myself, we’re talking about personal things in my life, things that have happened between John and I; here’s Ryan playing John, who’s standing over there. It really was kind of like, “What’s going on?”

JA: And I’m the off-screen producer who’s asking questions, so you hear my voice in that section, redirecting stuff in cases. So I was constantly trying to sort of smudge the line between what’s real and what’s fiction throughout that section.

So what’s it like to have yourself played by Ryan Reynolds?

JA: It was fine. Just like Melissa was playing a version of herself who’s named Melissa McCarthy, he’s playing a version of me named Gavin Taylor. And if I was going to ask him to do that, I had to give him permission to take anything he wanted to take. And so he took a lot of my mannerisms that annoy me to death when I’m doing them, but he was accurate. And so I wasn’t afraid of that. It’s honestly my favorite section of the movie in that when you’re writing, you create a character and sort of hand it off to the actor. You don’t get to change it around again. In doing that section, there would be things that would come up, or he would be talking about something — a lot of that section is improvised — I’d hear him talking and it would be like, “Oh, I remember this thing.” And we would discuss it and he would sort of echo back what I was saying. To be able to do that in real time was a unique opportunity.

Could you talk about Shazam? What’s the status? Are you writing it with any sort of budget in mind?

JA: The last question is easy. I’m writing it for the budget that’s capable of making it, which is probably a pretty substantial budget, because it’s a big superhero movie and those aren’t cheap. So I don’t know what the budget’s going to be, but ample. To me, what’s so appealing about Shazam as a movie is that it’s a superhero movie where the characters in it would actually read the comic book that they’re based on. It had that ability to be meta without being incredibly annoyingly knowing. These are characters who are not only excited to be superheroes, but sort of really understand the rules of being a superhero. And they take the responsibility of being a superhero a little differently than other people would. And it’s actually a movie that’s inherently funny. The underlying premise is funny. So it’s not just Spider-Man plus jokes. There’s something inherently funny about a 13-year-old boy who gets to become a big, studly superhero, and sort of what’s a priority to him wouldn’t be a priority to a normal person who gets those powers.

How is it coming up with these crazy big action sequences?

JA: I’ve written a lot of set pieces, and I really enjoy them because I’m the kind of person, if I’m sitting around, waiting for a meeting to start, I’ll be like, where could I land a helicopter? And that’s just the sort of daydreaming that a screenwriter gets to do, is thinking about what’s almost impossible but kind of believable in a movie. With Shazam it’s been exciting to figure out things like, “How does flying work? If you were suddenly able to fly, how would you describe what it’s like to another character?” So figuring that out was really interesting. The bases of Shazam’s powers are different than Superman’s. They’re not based on the yellow sun; they’re magical. And that’s unique opportunity.

Would you say that this is more of a PG kid’s movie?

JA: I don’t know what it will ultimately be. It’s not rated R. The thirteen-year-olds who are reflected in the movie will really love the movie, and I think other people will too. At this budget, it’s gotta be one of those classic four quadrants, where everybody and their brother goes to see it.

Which incarnation of the character are you basing it on?

JA: I think it will take a fair amount from the current mythology and a lot of sort of the classic mythology, in terms of that wish fulfillment. Like, it’s hard to say what decade Spider-Man takes place in. It’s sort of like a perfect, utopian kind of…this is what a big city looks like. Our story has all of the classic qualities but is also set in a modern age. It’s like, kids can have cell phones. There’s been a lot of questions about, “Oh, is he really Billy Batson when he converts or is he really Shazam?” That I really can’t get into.

Can you talk about Hancock?

JA: Hancock used to be called Tonight, He Comes. I came on to do a couple weeks of work shortly before they went into production and it was just an amazing script. I passed on it four times because it was like, “I can’t. This is great. Ok, maybe there are a few little things I could work on.” So I just stayed on for a few weeks and helped out. But it’s not my movie at all.

Can you tell us a little about the story? Not much is known about it.

JA: Honestly — it’s not The Sixth Sense, but there’s a big secret that’s sort of at the heart of it, and I don’t want to ruin it for people. It’s a revisionist superhero movie in the way that Shazam is a revisionist superhero movie, but just 180 degrees different.

Upcoming projects?

MM: I’ve actually already started shooting a new show, Samantha Who? for ABC. So that’s been really fun. It’s a nice change from Gilmore and I think it’s really funny and smart. Don Todd’s the writer and it’s been great to do something kinda new but still…I like TV. I like working a lot, so it makes it possibly to go in every week and work. I have two movies coming out but I’m not sure when they’re being released. One is…what’s it called now? Just Add Water. And then another one’s Pretty Ugly People.


MM: I know; I love that title. So those’ll be fun. I should have a fun year coming up.

JA: After Shazam, I signed a deal at Fox owing them my next original script, so I’ll be writing that for Fox.

When will you be directing again?

JA: I would love to direct again. Honestly, I’m kind of stacked up for a while, but I do intend to direct again.

Would you direct someone else’s script?

JA: No, I wouldn’t. People ask me that a lot. It takes so long to direct that I just can’t imagine spending two years of my life doing something that I just didn’t have to direct. And this was a movie I had to direct. So I can’t imagine doing someone else’s script at this point. Ask me again in six months.

For your original script, have you thought about the genre that you want to tackle?

JA: Yeah. A couple different genres. The movie I write for Fox is gonna be one of those big movies, and there’s nothing wrong with a big movie. But I don’t know if it’s gonna be a thriller or action or…

Can you talk about your experiences at Sundance?

MM: Well, I was five months pregnant, so I was just kind of concentrating on getting up those hills. So it was a lot of like, “Oh God, why can’t these all be in the same place?” But I really loved it. I didn’t get to see any movies, so I had a very strange Sundance experience, because basically when we got done with press, I took me and my belly home and passed out. Did you see anything?

JA: I saw nothing. I skied, I did press and I just enjoyed myself. It was just weird, because my very first movie, Go, premiered at Sundance, and was comparatively big to what we were. So there was a lot more happening for that. But it was still a great experience.

It’s supposed to be the best time to ski.

JA: It was actually great. No one was skiing, so we were like the only people on the slopes.

Where did the line about the koalas come from?

JA: I’d always had a secret…there’s something going on with koalas. There’s no way…they’re thinking about something while they’re doing all that stuff. I just thought it was too boastful to say that humans are just one step away from being the creators of this universe, so I they were good in between. Dolphins, they get way too much credit. Koalas are where it’s at.

What was your casting process like for this film?

JA: We never had a casting director. There were so few roles that we just made direct offers to the people who we really wanted in the movie. So Melissa I called up. Ryan — we just had a really short list and I said, “I’d like to meet with him,” and we met and he was great and he wanted to do it. Hope — it was just a hard time finding the right actress who would fit all three roles. We just finally made a direct offer to her agent and she said yes. It was tough because she lives in New York, so getting her to come out for this schedule was rough but she was great. People like David Denman I knew from Big Fish. Octavia I new from Melissa. And there’s people who I always kind of wanted to work with.

Did you pick Ryan because you guys had a similar physique?

JA: Yeah. When I look in the mirror I’m hugely delusional, so I was like, “Yeah, that’s me.”

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