INTERVIEW- MICHAEL DOWSE
Make no mistake about Fubar: Balls to the Wall, it is hilarious. It is downright funny in a way that Jackass 3 was funny with the exception that the talent of David Lawrence and Paul Spence, who play Terry and Dean, respectively, are comedic actors who are so in tune to these characters that they feel like second skin that’s easily gotten into. They sell their performances by leaning on their abilities and it’s not really the story that’s compelling about this film, it’s them.
When director Michael Dowse (Take Me Home Tonight, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, the upcoming Goon) sat down to flesh out the second installment he knew what he wanted to get out of his main actors and they, in turn, helped write the story with him ultimately resulting in a six hour cut of improv, riffing, and general hilarity. It was the editing of those six hours to get you the version that will be available, surprise, surprise, on 4/20.
Michael took some time out of his day to talk to me about the lengths he went to get what he wanted out of this movie, what it meant to be coming back to this well, and the challenges he faced when trying to capture lighting in a bottle with a second installment with characters that ought to be put together more often. If the first Fubar was a labor of love then the second seemed to be a comedic orgy that would not be contained. The finished film is testament to his talents and strengths as a director and writer, to say nothing of how he could make a sequel that stands right next to the first in terms of quality.
Look for Fubar: Balls to the Wall on DVD and Blu-ray this upcoming Tuesday.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Hello
MICHAEL DOWSE: Hey Chris. How are you?
CS: I’m doing alright. How are you doing?
DOWSE: I’m doing great actually.
CS: I’m so excited to talk to you. I was a huge fan of the first film and after not being able to catch Fubar 2 when it came around South by Southwest I was determined to see it somehow. I was able to watch it last night and had a wonderful time with the movie.
CS: Right off the bat, you are really diverse with the way you built your career. You came on the scene with Fubar, moved on to the really wonderful It’s All Gone Pete Tong. Then you did some television and now you’re back to features again. What is it you look for when you are looking for projects to do? Are you just looking for something diverse or do you get into whatever might strike your fancy?
DOWSE: I look for something that has a conscience that will elevate it amongst the rest of the rattle. With Fubar – I always had a strong affection for headbangers having grown up around them. I just thought it would be an amazing concept for a film. And I felt the same way about Pete Tong. It was my first work for hire where somebody had hired me to write and direct something. Just the idea of a DJ…I thought was interesting. And with Take Me Home Tonight I grew up on those John Hughes films so making something like that was appealing. I really look for something that has a strong initial concept and then finding the quality as well as the heart I think is important. For a movie like this I ask myself whether it can it be funny, that when you look at the storyline and look at the third act and give it some weight and some heart, that’s important. That’s kind of the challenge for me. I’ve always been a fan of directors like John Borman and John Houston …… huge range in their films. So that’s something I’ve always been driven to as a director.
CS: Does it ever intimidate you to go out on a ledge and do something you have not done before? Like the television series, The Foundation, did you hesitate a bit or was that healthy for you?
DOWSE: No not at all. The Foundation was a show that I developed myself. My production company made it so it wasn’t like I was hired to produce and direct somebody else’s stuff. It was my baby. It was something I was excited to try. I don’t do any other television unless it’s a pilot or something. I was excited to work on the longer narrative format which would be to try and develop a comedy where you have…..just wrapping my head around how do I do something like that and make it funny as well. Our concept was strong too. Something I thought could go on forever. We took the notion of a charity event and ripped charity ideas right from the newspapers and got episode ideas from them.
CS: Working episodic television, did you find that it pushed you as a writer and a director to make things tight as they can be working with time constraints? Were you used to something like that?
DOWSE: It is a little bit more constrained in television. I guess it is a good exercise to go through but there’s always time constraints. I have yet to be on a film where I have tons of time so it’s always good to sharpen your skills with television. But, that was 2 or 3 years ago when we were shooting that. It was fun to do it and the show really got traction. It was an interesting experiment. I would do it again but I’m not rushing to get back to television. I like feature work. I like how it’s different every time.
CS: And kind of on that same point, time constraints, running and gunning, one of the brilliant things about the first Fubar was that I think I could take any number of my friends who let’s say are not completely into films, I could sit them down and they would believe that Fubar is a documentary. I think it speaks to David [Lawrence] and Paul’s [Spence] selling of those characters. When you are revisited it, let’s talk about day one when you’re thinking “OK, let’s make a sequel” how did you try and make something that’s faithful and just as good if not better than the first?
DOWSE: There was a long time in between the first and the second for a reason. I think initially none of us wanted to repeat ourselves and that was always something that was a big barrier to making a sequel. We wrote other scripts and they never found any traction but when we decided to go back to it we wanted things that were important to us narratively that we wanted to address in the sequel and somehow we found out how to meld all these elements into a plot. So the process was, “OK there’s an opportunity to make the film, we can pretty much fund the film pretty easily up here because of the success of the first one and it’s a privilege to make a film so why don’t we explore it by writing the first role?” And once we started writing we all came up with an idea we all really liked it had enough of a storyline in the third act. There is a lot of pressure. We knew we could not isolate our fans from the original. We also knew that we wanted to expand that fan base too.
CS: Working with David and Paul – how is that as a trio? How do the three of you develop concepts? Do you all just bring something different to the table, is it all collaborative, are you just throwing things against the wall like what funny things can we put Terry and Dean in?
DOWSE: We really compliment each other well. We don’t write any dialogue so we really just work with what looks like a script without dialogue. We all bring our own strengths to the table. I like to think I understand the structure of a film better. And Paul’s fuckin’ hilarious. We all add different things to it and we all compliment each other very well. We come up with an idea and we all laugh at it then we know it’s gold. It’s an interesting relationship for sure but it’s very rare. I’ve worked with a lot of writers where we don’t share the same style of humor and it’s extremely awkward when it’s not the same.
CS: To that creative process filming comedy, did you find that things you guys thought would be funny on paper, as they started getting fleshed out in person, are there things you scrapped because maybe it didn’t work as well as you thought it might have?
DOWSE: Always. I would probably say rule of thumb is 80% of the line or the content we had in the story we thought was “funny” we do it and shoot it and get in the editing room and say this isn’t funny at all, doesn’t work at all, probably because it was too thought out or something. Definitely. The way we work it, we know the story, we know where each actor has to go, we know each theme but how they get there is the fun part. And that’s where you really find the comedy and I think with improve what it lends itself to is honesty because nobody knows really how to react to each other when you don’t know what the other person is going to say. Because of that you get honest performances and you also get honest comedy. People are genuinely surprised.
CS: You hit the nail on the head. It’s funny you bring that up. The Internet du jour when it came to movie talk this week revolved around a discussion about Hangover II and whether it can it recreate the same outrageousness of the first one. The second one doesn’t look like it can because it appears they’re trying to hit some of the same beats over and over again, callbacks if you will. To that point, I read that you switched up, or at least toned back, the number of times the word Give’r was used again and again. Were you consciously conscious of these things, that you didn’t want to recreate the first Fubar?
DOWSE: No. I wasn’t conscious of the word Give’r until editing. I remember calling Paul and saying, “I think this is going to be our tagline of the film.” I just noticed the rhythm of it. But, no, never conscious. We find things that will make it funny. Sometimes if it’s funny on set, it’s really not that funny. We are getting better and better at understanding and interpreting that as we do more films. But that whole thing about playing to the crew it’s usually too big to work subtly in a film. We find that a lot. It’s mostly lines that we think are so funny but don’t work. Probably because we know about them.
CS: David and Paul were the shining lights of the film. As a director and knowing them now for as long as you have, is your directing of them different than the first one or in the second one were you more apt to say something like, “Well, you guys know what you need to do so just go out there and do it?”
DOWSE: I think it’s developed because there is much more of a relationship than the first one. I had known Dave for a couple years but didn’t really know Paul at all. There is definitely some familiarity there that adjusts how we direct and edit. It’s just more trust between all three of us. We’ve all gone through the trenches together so we know what we’re doing and know that if I push them to try something – it’s a great relationship and pretty rare. And the fact that the three of us have all remained friends through two films speaks to how normal we all are. Ha – no big egos. It’s all about how we approach making the film. I try to keep the infrastructure really small. I operated the B camera – there’s no egos, there’s no cooks in the kitchen. If I want them to do something I’m whispering it them. Having me operate the camera allows me to improvise as much as they can and actually goes hand in hand. If they want to move and run around we can just switch to that.
CS: Do you find that that’s you style? Do you like to have a more hands on….like you said you have your A’s and your B’s and just let the other directors do what they do but do you like having that intimate “Let me control this the way I think it should be” involvement?
DOWSE: Yes, when you do more films you realize the reality of if you want your film to look good cinematically you’re going to have to deal with the timing and the infrastructure of it. There’s a big upside to that. It’s always a balancing act. Getting your film to look good, and giving your actors time on the floor to make it funny and honest is always a battle for me. Sometimes a more hands on approach works very well where if you want a bigger shoot you just fuck the monitors and go out behind the camera and talk to the people and that’s sometimes the way to go – just speeds everybody up. Lighting can be the biggest antithesis towards honesty and performance. It eats up so much time sometimes you’re just left with five minutes to get a performance so you have to make sure all that stuff is balanced and I think great directors do that or they just don’t give a shit and they go into overtime. I’ve got to gross a hundred million before I start doing that.
CS: Well, let me see if I can get you to sell a few more units with this.
DOWSE: That’ll work.
CS: And to that end, the bane of a lot of actors and what have you when it comes to productions are the set-ups, the time spent just trying to get things right so they can film it. In the first one, and it goes back to how it could easily interpreted as a wild documentary about a couple of burnouts, the film was dark, dirty looking whereas part two appears a lot more polished. Did you want to try to scuff up the corners, sort to speak, to make it look a little bit rough around the edges or did you say, “No, we really have to do this one right – get the lighting right, the set-ups right”?
DOWSE: It’s more than just scuff up the corners. It’s actually having a bit more money and wanting to do bigger set pieces than stunts and putting that money on the screen, obviously you need a bigger production plan to do that. We wanted the film consciously to look a little bit better than the first one – to be a little bit more polished but without giving away what gave the first one so much energy. The production on Fubar 2 was really balancing that out as we didn’t want a lot of hair and makeup in the way. We knew we had to have a bigger production crew because we wanted the film to look a little better. We wanted to accomplish more ambitious things. So rather than just scuffing up the edges, it was just polishing what we kind of did on the first one a little more.
CS: Did you use the same DPs that you worked with before to get these things right?
DOWSE: Yes. We used Bobby Shore who shot The Foundation, that was the first thing I worked with him on, and then I did Fubar 2 and finished Goon. And the same thing with the editor Reg Harkema who now edited Goon. I’m trying to make these guys my core “team”. Part of the problem is up here in Canada you have to shoot in so many different providences you (go where the tax credit is better). It’s always better to get your production company locally, I find, when you are under a tighter budget. They just know where to get all the shit. Definitely a core crew that’s coming together with me.
CS: You raised an interesting point of having these crews around you as you do what you do. You go into the edit bay, you have what you think is a finished film with all the footage you wanted to take, how is the editing from this one different from the first one in terms of did you see the beats that you wanted to get when you envisioned this project? Was it just as good as what you thought it was or did you have to go back and say “Nope, didn’t get it”?
DOWSE: No. Fubar 2 was a rarity. I don’t think we did any re-shoots. If we did anything it was really small. A shot here or there but I don’t think we did. We didn’t do another scene that’s for sure. Which is really rare – on the first one we were re-shooting and picking stuff up. Balls to the wall – no pick ups. We also had a six hour cut. I shoot the fuck out of my movies. I started as an editor. I’m a coverage maniac. So having a six hour rough cut there was no need to do pick ups. I don’t feel that we lost any beats at all. In fact we had too much stuff and had to whittle it down just a bit. A six hour rough cut is crazy long. It goes from six hours to two and a half within two weeks.
CS: I am amazed.
DOWSE: You just put up all the jokes next to each other and see what works. Pretty much the story beats remain the same outside of a few here and there. The only thing we did pick up was we picked up the picture at the end. That was it. Paul just had a baby – a son, Adrian, three months old. We just went to Sears and got a whole bunch of family portrait stuff.
CS: I’m ignorant when it comes to this stuff. You said 6 hours of material. Is that normal in a comedic film like this? Do you do multiple takes of different jokes. Are you the David Fincher now of comedic film where you go take after take?
DOWSE: No. I’m working my way up to that. My films have to gross a little bit more money and then I’ll be able to do that but not quite yet.
Like I said, time is your biggest thing on any film shoot. So I am still in a position that I can’t talk somebody into a bunch of overtime. Maybe I’ll get to that but I find that more takes doesn’t necessarily help comedy. When you work with improv some are better off the top and get worse and then other actors hit their stride after the fourth take. So it depends.
CS: Did you find that David and Paul they like that ability to just start riffin’ extemporaneously, just going with it?
DOWSE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. But David and Paul just feed off each other so well. David is a very well trained improv actor at the Loose Moose Theatre up in Calgary years ago, so he was able to jump in and the places where that would go…we were dying. If we were stuck in a car trailing behind them he would have us in tears on the floor. It was hilarious. We threw a lot great jokes away because they just were not as good as the best ones. There’s only room for one or two jokes.
CS: And this is not anything like false praise but David and Paul, I wish I could see them in more things together. They have this relationship that doesn’t feel like acting. It just feels so natural and so honest it doesn’t ever come across as fake or false or put on. Do the two of them, do they realize they have that kind of chemistry together?
DOWSE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And that’s the nice thing to see seven years later come back right away. The first scene we shot I don’t know quite sure what the crew thought – I had never worked with any of these people before - but they immediately picked up like they have never stopped. They always know how to play off each other because they have been friends for so long. They grew up together.
CS: Was there any sort of temptation to put them in Goon?
DOWSE: Yeah, I tried to get Paul but he moved and had a baby and didn’t want to leave his family.
CS: I know I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the production of Goon. I know Eugene Levy is one of the great improv artists. How was it working on that film?
DOWSE: Amazing and awesome. It might be my best to date. I am really proud of it. It’s powerful. He is an amazing actor. I was blessed to work with so many great actors and working with Eugene Levy – he’s a hero of mine. It really was a dream come true. And the irony is that in Goon he doesn’t play a comedic part, he plays a very serious part. Yeah, he’s got a couple lines here and there that are funny but he plays the brain surgeon’s father of our Goon. So, Goon is amazing. I’m a hockey fanatic. I love comedy. So it’s a perfect combination for me and I love my hours and I was excited to make a sports movie something like what Evan [Goldberg] was doing with Pineapple Express where violence is actually treated as physical comedy.
CS: And this was something you haven’t written. Was that odd directing a film you didn’t write?
DOWSE: No, it’s my second time doing that and each time you develop with them. You are not writing the physical pages but you definitely help out with the structure and how the story should go. It was really fun. It was more enjoyable because I had writers on the set with me. It was a blast and was really fun.
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