Interview: Harold Kumar director and Emerson grad Todd Strauss-Schulson

, Beacon Staff/strong

“I like the idea of being able to blend really cool Matrix-style, Michael Bay-style action with a Judd Apatow kind of comedy,” said director Todd Strauss-Schulson, who, with emA Very Harold amp; Kumar 3D Christmas/em, found the perfect feature-length debut to flex his highly-visual comedic sensibilities (a href=https://berkeleybeacon.com/2011/11/a-very-harold-kumar-christmas-hits-holiday-high/Read our review here/a). Returning to Boston to promote his film, Strauss-Schulson, a class of 2003 Emerson College alum, may have swapped making films in the Little Building for Hollywood studio sets, but still keeps his Emerson connections tight.

In a roundtable interview with The Berkeley Beacon (Strauss-Schulson was a cartoonist for the paper), and other new outlets, at the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill, just a few blocks away from Emerson on Boylston street, Strauss-Schulson talked about: shooting in 3D, being a Harold amp; Kumar fanboy, the Emerson connections on set, and the next holiday he imagines the duo surviving.

strongWe have been inundated with bad 3D movies recently, but you are someone who embraced the technology for comedy in a way that looks great. So was it your idea originally to make it in 3D?/strong

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TSS: I had read the script and got to pitch the movie, not knowing that it was 3D. When I got in to talk about it for the first time, they said, “We are thinking about doing this in 3D,” and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s such a lame gimmick.” Then I went, “Oh my God, that is such a gimmick! Holy shit! This is amazing!” And the idea of doing the world’s first stoner movie in 3D seemed like this epic, cinematic first, once in a lifetime opportunity…

strongIs the 3D challenging technically? I’d imagine that it allows for less improv./strong

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TSS: The whole thing was challenging technically, before this movie I had only made shorts that were seven minutes long or less in my apartment with a video camera, so the whole thing was overwhelming and incredible. The 3D, they always said it was taking a long time, the cameras were too big, you can’t do certain things, but I had literally nothing to compare it to, so it seemed fine to me (laughs). But the 3D gags, there is a tremendous amount of CG in the movie; there are over 400 visual effects like sky replacements so things look beautiful and all of the smoke that comes out of Kumar’s mouth is digital so it really wafts out into the audience. Those are all the small touches, but a buddy of mine from Emerson that I’ve known since I was thirteen ended up doing 80% of the effects for this movie. A tremendous amount of Emerson grads helped make this movie. What helped even to book the movie was all of these relationships from Emerson that moved out to Los Angeles together; these comedy troupe kids and producers – we all would work together!

strongSpeaking of the CGI, you also have a hilarious sequence that is all claymation./strong

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That was not Emerson (laughs). The claymation was always in the script and just another way to poke fun at the Christmas movie aesthetic. The company that did Coraline, A Nightmare Before Christmas, the animation director of Fantastic Mr. Fox all signed up to do it which was incredible to even talk to those guys on the phone let alone actually be creative and come up with ideas with them. I think that they loved the idea of doing a gory, dirty, claymated thing, because they usually have to do dancing raisins or adorable foxes, so they went crazy with this. They wanted more squirrels exploding; they wanted to make that claymation penis as big as possible and really push it in 3D.

The concept for me of what that sequence could be is that I am from New York and all I really wanted to do was make a big action movie. But this was a modestly budgeted Christmas movie that we shot in Detroit. So with the claymation I tried to cram in as much of New York as possible. So all of the Union Square is to scale and Park Avenue is there and all of this crazy action. The pitch was, “What if Michael Bay made a crazy, claymated action scene?” So it was gory and full of adrenaline and insanity, but it was adorable.

strongI really did enjoy the Christmas aesthetic, but the content you would never find in any other Christmas movie. So how do you balance the warm and fuzzy Christmas feel, but still have the crazy, perverse stoner aspect kept in tact?/strong

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TSS: For me that was one of the things that got me so excited about it at the beginning was that it could be a Trojan horse movie. You really could make a straight Christmas movie, it would look elegant and pretty … and fancy and rich looking, the score would be huge and brassy, and we had the London Philharmonic do the score! It sounds like Home Alone or something and if you close your eyes, you’d think that you are hearing a real Christmas movie! But inside all of that stuff would be this R-rated, perverse, raunchy comedy and that became very challenging. It took the hard edges off of everything. But what I like about this franchise in general is that it isn’t cynical, … these are nice guys who are good friends who just happen to be in an insane world where crazy stuff happens to them. So, the idea was to make a really sweet, non-cyncial movie and then just have it to be as filthy as possible.

strongWas there any one on set saying how far you can go?/strong

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TSS: I was lucky that this being the third Harold amp; Kumar is that everyone pretty much gets what the deal is at this point. You know what you are signing up for and the stuff goes pretty far. The baby is pretty high for most of the movie, she is crashing from cocaine, and then eats some ecstasy to pick herself back up and there are naked nuns making out amongst all this other craziness. But since the movie is sort of sweet at it’s core and the guys are nice and it isn’t cynical or mean-spirit, it also borderlines absurd, it almost becomes like a Mel Brooks’ movie from the seventies than a hard-hitting graphic rape joke. It is a little bit offensive, but sweetly offensive.

strongIs it easier for you that this is the third film having those extreme boundaries already set?/strong

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TSS: I think for me the challenge was two-fold. The challenge is that I am a fan of these movies. I am a fan of the first and I saw the second one opening night in the theaters. I kind of wanted to do it as a fan, which is what I said when pitching the movie. I just wanted to make a movie that on Friday night, the version of me that would go to see it opening night wouldn’t be bummed out. I wanted to up the ante by making it bigger, more action-y, more visual, and more absurd, go balls to the wall. This is a crazy movie! The other thing is that this was my first movie. I wanted to make a movie since I was a little kid and so the balance was, “How do you make a movie that is going to satisfy the fans and also be a debut feature that will be flamboyant and big and weird enough. But what’s good about this type of movie is that it lends itself to having these type of show-off moments, especially because of the 3D, so it is nice to do things you haven’t seen before in any 3D movie.

strongBeing a fan of the franchise, what was it like working on the set?/strong

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TSS: For me, the movie starts with them not being friends, so for the first two weeks, I never had [Kal Penn or John Cho] on set together. I had Kal and Amir Blumenfeld, I had John and Thomas Lennon, but the first day I had them together, I forgot that I was making a movie! I had them in the same frame and it was like I was watching a Harold amp; Kumar movie. I forgot to call “Cut!” … I was just a little bit star-struck, just wanting to watch them together. … People always compare them to Cheech and Chong, but to me they are like Martin and Lewis or something – like a buddy team in a silly, weird adventure story starring two guys who are in a crazy world, like Hope and Crosby. They aren’t smoking weed that much. Cheech and Chong have a joint in their mouth every scene and every joke is about that. Jon doesn’t get stoned at all in the movie until the very end, so they are weed movies, but to me at least they are like buddy comedy, adventure stories.

strongI noticed in the bar in Heaven scene that the bartenders were Evan Mann and Gareth Reynolds from your short film Mano-A-Mano. So were they old Emerson friends?/strong

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TSS: They are, those are the guys. When I got to Emerson, all that I wanted to do was make action movies. I wanted to make Michael Bay and John McTiernan movies and that’s what I was doing on campus – I was trying to do that. The comedy troupes, at least then when I was there, they would make their own videos, but they didn’t know what they were doing. So Gareth was the first one who asked me if I wanted to shoot some of their videos, and I was like, “I’d love to!” So I started making these comedy troupe videos like they were action movies and that changed my life. I realized that I had an ability in comedy. We stayed collaborators even now. They did a punch-up on this movie with new jokes. And Dan Levy, who is the paparazzi guy in the hallway in the movie, is in a similar situation where we all help each other out. He would book a job and he’d hire me to direct it, same with Evan and Gareth, so I put them in the movie.

strongBeing a Harold amp; Kumar movie, there is the obvious Neil Patrick Harris cameo. How open was he to the scene?/strong

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TSS: This movie is six years after the first movie so Neil’s public image has changed. He just loves poking fun at that image. [Series writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg] put him in the first movie, that is who they always wanted to be in it from the get-go. Neil is just tremendously down with doing it. When he showed up, there was not a barrier he did not want to explode. “Can you do more rape-y? Will you spit in your hand?” And David, who is Neil’s real life partner, is in the movie and he loved it.

strongAnd you do a musical number with Neil, which is hilarious, because you forget that he is a triple threat talent./strong

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TSS: The opportunity to do a 3D Busby Berkeleyshowstopper with Neil Patrick Harris got me so excited. That’s the day my Mom came to visit the set, thank God (laughs). But doing a really classic Busby Berkeley style musical full of little dirty, classy but crass jokes, became something we liked a lot. And the movie stops for three minutes. There is no more Harold and Kumar, no more story, we are just going to show you a Christmas extravaganza and hope that you are into that.

strongNeil mentions in his scene, “See you in the fourth.” Do you have plans for another one?/strong

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TSS: As a fan I want to see a fourth movie and I’m sure Jon and Hayden have a thousand ideas. I am suggesting A Very Harold amp; Kumar 3D Passover where they are just looking for the Afikomen all night long, but no one likes that idea.

emA Very Harold amp; Kumar 3D Christmas is in theaters now. To see Todd Strauss-Schulson’s short films, visita href=http://www.toddstraussschulson.com/ www.toddstraussschulson.com/a./em

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