Comedy + Craft

“Best idea wins, no matter who it’s coming from” – Dave Franco in conversation with filmmaking duo Christopher Miller and Phil Lord
Film+TV | 30 May 2023

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Only partly joking, Dave Franco cites a Funny or Die short series he made in 2011/12 titled You’re So Hot – in which Franco and his collaborator Chris Mintz-Plasse lust after each other with lines of hilarious X-rated filth – as the moment he knew he wanted to direct. Funnily enough, this video was also one of the reasons prolific filmmaking duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wanted to work with Franco on their ambitiously brilliant 21 Jump Street – an appetite for flipping expectations is clearly shared between the three. Close friends since, the trio collaborated more recently on the acclaimed comedy whodunnit series The Afterparty, and reconnect in conversation here, fresh off the release of Franco’s second film as director, Somebody I Used to Know. Written by Franco and his wife Alison Brie (who also stars in the movie), the movie is a homage to their favourite rom-coms, spun into a new-age iteration that subverts classic genre tropes without losing any of the emotion.

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Christopher Miller: We should start with how we met on 21 Jump Street. I remember you auditioning with Jonah [Hill] and how he reacted around you. He clearly thought you were cool and interesting and wanted to impress you [laughs]. Afterwards we spoke about, “He was great, he was charming, funny, had all these gears… But also what he did to Jonah was really amazing.” That was the performance we wanted out of Jonah and other actors we liked didn’t get that out of him, so we were like, “There’s something special about this guy.”
Dave Franco: That’s very sweet. I remember after the whole process you guys told me that part of the reason you ultimately cast me was because you saw one of my silly videos on Funny or Die, where I was telling my friend Chris Mintz-Plasse how much I wanted to have sex with him in vivid detail [laughs]. This bizarre video led me to…

CM: Led you to you becoming a director [laughs].
DF: Kind of, yeah!

Phil Lord: We’d seen two things you’d made, You’re So Hot and Go F*ck Yourself [laughs].
DF: And you told me that these bizarre videos gave you the insight that I at least understood comedy a little bit [laughs].

PL: More than that, it was like, “These are hilarious!” There’s so much attention to detail, and they look good – better than any other Funny or Die video. How did those happen?
DF: So when I was first starting out as an actor I was obviously happy to get any kind of roles. But after a while I realised I wasn’t proud of anything I was doing, I’d literally tell my friends, “Don’t go see this thing I just did.” [all laugh] So me and Chris, who’s a close friend I grew up with, started making these short films for Funny or Die, and even though it was on a much smaller scale, it at least felt like an accurate representation of who I was at the time. That website was so popular, if you had a video that caught on, more people would see it than if you did an independent movie – it was insane. It was so fun because the two of us were doing everything: acting, writing, editing, directing. That became my film school, and I swear it’s the reason I’m directing today [laughs].

PL: You could tell right then, “Oh, he’s a filmmaker. He’s not just the ghost of Charlie St. Cloud’s friend” [all laugh].
DF: You love to bring up my role in Charlie St. Cloud about once every other year, and I appreciate you for it! [laughs] Thanks for keeping me honest.

PL: I think it’s the first time I saw you on screen. If I’m not wrong, we went to that film…
CM: We went to the premiere!
DF: Oh wow.

PL: I was like, “Who’s the guy having a great time playing his friend’s ghost?”
DF: Who’s the guy in the enormous hat! I remember this hat, I was this military guy and I was like, “This is dwarfing my tiny head, we have to cheat it and find a smaller hat!” [all laugh]

CM: Let’s jump ahead to your directing career and talk about The Rental [Franco’s directorial debut]. Going from being Mr R-rated comedy actor to like, “I’m going to direct a horror-thriller” – how does that happen?
DF: A lot of people were very surprised that I took on a horror as my directorial debut. But as a viewer there’s nothing I love more than a well- made horror movie. As a director I feel like you can take some huge swings with the genre because the stakes are impossibly high. You can have a lot of fun with the visuals and put your own stamp on it. I’ve been inspired by a lot of young horror directors recently too, people like Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent, Amy Seimetz. I was so affected by everything they were doing, it’s so visceral.

CM: I feel like comedy and horror are really linked. There are some of the same philosophies of tension and release, and the audience having a big auditory surprise response. The experience of watching a horror movie in a crowd is similar to a comedy movie because you’re all in it together and there’s that thing of, “Woah!”
DF: Yes. Unfortunately, our movie came out at the height of the pandemic, but we ended up being the first movie to ever have their premiere at a drive-in theatre. Many movies after ours followed suit and it was kind of amazing because we were introducing a slight sense of normality back into everyone’s life. But for me, this was the first time I was premiering a movie I’d directed, and the screens at drive-in theatres aren’t the best quality in the world [laughs]. They’re inherently a little bit dark, and my movie was purposely shot a little bit dark, so I remember doing a tech check the night before the premiere, and I drove out an hour to this drive-in theatre and it was midnight. It’s just me in my car and I’m watching the movie and you get to certain sequences and it’s pitch black. You can’t see a thing. I start to have a full-on nervous breakdown, so I start texting and calling every single person involved in the movie like, “We have to cancel this event tomorrow, I refuse to show this movie – you actually can’t see a thing!” Everyone’s asleep, so I go home and can’t go to bed. People finally start waking up and they’re saying, “We’ve already sold all these tickets, we can’t cancel the event, we’re just going to have to go through with it.” And I’m like, “Well, can we reach out to the colourist and have them do a new pass on the movie?” – this is like sixteen hours before this thing premieres. [laughs] We call a colourist and he starts laughing and says, “I’ll see what I can do.” And normally, you know, it takes at least 48 hours if people are sprinting. Long story short, it arrived an hour before the premiere started. And it was slightly more bright. [all laugh]

“A lot of people were very surprised that I took on a horror as my directorial debut. But as a viewer there’s nothing I love more than a well- made horror movie.”

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PL: That’s incredible. Did you introduce the movie?
DF: Yeah, we figured out a way to project ourselves onto the big screen from our cars so we could introduce it.

PL: And everyone’s listening to the movie on their radio?
DF: Yes, and also I’m a psycho when it comes to sound and hear every single tiny tick, so when everyone is hearing the movie through their different radios, the sound is terrible. So again, I just had to let go. What you realise is that nobody else knows or cares, it’s just in your head.

PL: Maybe that’s why we’re friends, because I think Chris and I are equally obsessive about the details. And you are as an actor too.
DF: I feel like your guys’ superpower is almost in post-production, where you’ll take the time to find the absolute best version of the movie and you’ll kill yourself and not stop until every element of it works. Is that accurate?

CM: We certainly do kill ourselves [laughs]. If something is just fine, we keep working it until it’s at least interesting, or special, or something. You’re putting things out in the world and you want to make sure they’re things that last.
DF: Exactly, these projects last forever and I don’t want to look back and be like, “Man, if I’d just put a little more time into that one element…”

PL: You never want to say it’s fine.
DF: I don’t think any of us are wired to. I physically can’t stop. If someone took something away from me at a level where it’s just fine, I would lose my goddamn mind.

PL: Were you always like that? I mean, I wouldn’t describe you as a perfectionist as a person to be around.
DF: It’s funny, in my real life I’m pretty low-key and easy-going. I’m curious to hear from your point of view, when I’m on your set…

CM: I think of you as a really thoughtful actor. What I always appreciate are the conversations about the character and the scenes, and the level of care and thought you put into it. Thinking about The Afterparty, and how we crafted Xavier as a character together, and you being an advocate for him as a person and making sure he was well-rounded, redeemable and interesting. That character could’ve been just a one-note douche, but you brought a lot of nuance and vulnerability to it.
PL: It made us better. That’s what I always like about working with you, the conversation is always rigorous and you’re always trying to make the character three-dimensional.
DF: You really listen to your actors. I remember having a conversation with Chris and basically saying like, “Alright, we can’t have this guy being a cartoon villain, so how do we find these nuances without offending the whole story.” And you got back to me the next day with new pages and new dialogue for the character! That just shows who you guys are, how collaborative you are. It’s rare and it’s amazing.

PL: Suddenly you’re on the other side of those conversations. What’s it like working with actors from that different point of view?
DF: I love it. I’ve always really loved actors but I have more respect for them than ever since I’ve been directing. You’ll be in a scenario where you’ll see actors build themselves up for this really intense scene while hundreds of people watch and scrutinise their every movement, and you’re like, “This is fucking weird! This is so vulnerable and it’s such an impressive thing that actors do!” [laughs] It also just made me realise that even though I’ve always been very prepared and punctual as an actor, I always now go above and beyond to make sure I’m never a problem for the director. I know how much they have on their plate, and I never want to be the problem [laughs]. You realise if someone is 30 minutes late to set, that now means you might not have time to get this shot you’ve been planning for months. Obviously going into my first movie as a director I was anxious, I was nervous, I’d never done it before. But when I stepped on set that first day, I remember thinking, “Oh, I know a lot more than I thought I did,” because I’ve been on so many sets as an actor. It made me think about other first-time directors when they’re stepping on set that first day, that might be their first time on a set ever, and they’re just learning the general dynamics of how things work. So I felt like I had a huge leg up in that way.

PL: You’ve watched a lot of people do the job. The thing about sitting in our shoes is that you don’t really get to watch other filmmakers do it, but as an actor you’ve been on so many people’s sets.
CM: You can pick up things and be like, “I like that, I’m not going to do that. Everything that Chris and Phil do I’m going to do the opposite.” [all laugh]
PL: Are there things you’ve learned from another set that you were like, “I’m definitely doing that again!” Or, “I’m definitely not.”
DF: What I learned from you guys and the Seth Rogen camp is that you want to hear from everyone, it’s very collaborative and the rule is: best idea wins, no matter who it’s coming from. There’s no ego and it’s very loose in that way. It gives everyone their own agency and everyone feels important, they feel heard. You create these very loving, warm environments on set, and that was very important to me. When I was putting together the cast and crew for both my movies, I spent a very long time vetting each person before I brought them onboard. Obviously I wanted talented people, but it was just as important to me that everyone was nice and going to work their ass off. So the process took a little longer than usual because of that criteria, but at the end of the day I’m on set looking around and I’m surrounded by the most wonderful people who make my job easier. I don’t have to micro- manage everyone, I can just be a cheerleader and encourage them to do what they’re good at. It creates this really nice, family environment that you guys do so well.

“If someone took something away from me at a level where it’s just fine, I would lose my goddamn mind.”

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CM: Obviously we care a lot about creative collaborations, so what was it like [writing the film with Alison]? Also, the thing with Phil and I is, we can have a disagreement about something but we then don’t have to sleep in the same bed together.
DF: [laughs] You guys should try that.

PL: It might be easier [laughs].
DF: We work so well together. A lot of people ask us in a very sceptical way, “What is it like working together?” I think that’s more indicative of what they think it’d be like working with their own partner. For whatever reason it just works for us, I think it stems from the fact we just really trust each other. I genuinely think she’s one of the best actors working today, and she makes my job so much easier in that way, but on top of that, having her there as a form of support through this insane job of directing is so invaluable. At the end of the day I’ll come home and she’s there to ease my mind and keep me from spinning out. In terms of the actual process for Somebody I Used to Know, it actually came about when we were walking through my hometown in Northern California. We were going from my high school to my mom’s house, and I think being in that setting brought about these ideas of going home, reconnecting with your roots, confronting who you used to be compared to who you are now. All those ideas made their way into the script. Then how it practically works when we’re writing, it’s usually me at the computer and she’s pacing back-and-forth. I’m like, “OK, what would you say in this scenario?” She starts improvising, and I’ll be writing down. We kind of go back-and-forth that way, so it’s actually very beneficial to be actors who can improvise between us.

CM: Were you basically playing the other part? You were Jay Ellis in the scene?
DF: I guess so. That brings up another point, people keep bringing up the fact I continue to cast these very handsome, charismatic men opposite my wife. [laughs] We’re very secure in our marriage. I learned on the first film that there’s so much for me to focus on behind the camera, if I also don’t have to run in front of the camera [as an actor]… There are so many great actors out there, you don’t need me. And if you hear that someone like Jay Ellis is interested in the role, it’s like, “Yes!” I get excited about collaborating with someone like that. So if I don’t have to act in any movies I direct forever, that would be ideal. [all laugh]

PL: That wouldn’t be ideal for the audience, but I know what you mean. It’s a big job.
DF: Jay’s such a natural actor, he’s incapable of having a false moment. We needed someone in that role who’s also inherently likeable, because he’s making certain choices that are somewhat questionable.

CM: He’d be an easy character to hate if he was played by a less charismatic person.
DF: Exactly. We wanted him and everyone else to be redeemable at the end because I like movies where there are no defined heroes or villains. Everyone is flawed, they make good and bad choices, but at the end of the day they’re good people going through a difficult time.

CM: When we last spoke you said you were working on something new with Alison. What makes you chose to peruse a certain idea?
DF: I’m drawn to projects that are attempting to do something slightly different, slightly original. Not reinventing the wheel each time, but for example, with Somebody I Used to Know, we really wanted to tap into the vibe of the romantic-comedies we love from the 80s and 90s – When Harry Met Sally…, Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle. But then we wanted to use what we know and love about the genre to lead the audience down a certain path where they think, “Oh, I know where this is going,” and then really trying to pull the rug out from them every step of the way. Subverting expectations and trying to be surprising within the execution while paying homage to these classics we love. But the main criteria is: can we bring something original to the table that starts a conversation?

PL: There’s something about that idea of returning to the womb [speaking about Somebody I Used to Know] that’s universal, and that’s why ‘returning to the hometown’ is like a genre in itself. How did you choose the beautiful town of Leavenworth, Washington, which is near where I grew up? An adorable, sort of Swiss Alps-themed novelty town. [laughs]
DF: So a friend of mine has a house there and I remember thinking, “What the fuck is this place?!” [laughs] It clearly stuck with me in a strong way and became the perfect setting for the movie because you can imagine people growing up there thinking, “It’s a small town, it’s isolating, I need to get out and spread my wings.” But then you can also imagine people growing up, looking back and realising how special, charming, unique and wonderful this town is. So that kind of tied into Alison’s character’s journey of trying to reconnect with who she used to be and realising that this place she came from and the people she grew up around informed the best parts of herself.

CM: You know what’s funny? You showed me an early cut of that movie and it wasn’t until about two or three months after that I realised the title is actually about herself [laughs]. It came up again and I was like, “Oh… Ohh.”
DF: Exactly. Again, going back to subverting expectations, people go to see the movie thinking it’s about her reconnecting with the one that got away, but really it’s about reconnecting with herself and getting back to the best version of herself. I think the easiest way to describe it is a romantic- comedy, but it’s like an adult coming-of-age story.

“I’ve always really loved actors but I have more respect for them than ever since I’ve been directing.”

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PL: So in a way, she’s the one who got away. [all laugh]
DF: We can still put that on the posters – it’s not too late! I’m curious, and I swear I’m not fishing for compliments, you guys are so good at identifying how to use actors in a way where they can really shine, for 21 Jump Street and The Afterparty, why did you think I was right for those roles?

PL: It’s funny, they’re both sort of roles that are heels, right?
CM: You’re the charismatic douche in both. [all laugh]
PL: They’re both characters you have to sympathise with, and have to say some ridiculous things, like “ja feel,” with total commitment.
DF: [laughs] As a sidenote, I remember when we were doing that scene [in 21 Jump Street] and it’s written on the page, “I don’t believe in possession, ja feel,” and I remember being like, “Ja feel? This must be some sort of lingo I don’t know, so I’m just going to kind of throw it away.” But you guys were like, “No, no, hit the ‘ja.’” [laughs]

PL: Yeah, [your character] saw one documentary about Jamaica and worked in some Patois. [laughs]
CM: It’s funny that we’ve cast you as douches on multiple occasions and yet you’re the least douchey person in real life. To Phil’s point, those characters don’t work if you hate-hate them, you kind of have to love them and then it’s more delicious when you don’t like them.
DF: Most people who meet me think I’m a douche based on those roles. [laughs]

PL: You’re a good actor – that’s why! We want to work with people who are in on the joke and can help us do it, rather than someone who’s confused and thinks they’re just doing a dramatic role.
DF: It’s obviously credit to your writing as well, you give these characters their moment to show that vulnerability.

PL: My experience with you as a friend is that you’re always asking people what’s going on, you’re a great listener, you want to create fellowship. That’s a great thing to sense in a character, that they’re really reaching out. I think that’s why you got so much out of Jonah in those scenes.
DF: It’s interesting. I realised that when I was part of these big comedy ensembles, I was never going to be the guy who keeps up with Jonah or Seth Rogen, they’re throwing out so many jokes and they’re so quick. What I realised was, “Nobody is asking me to keep up with those guys, I just need to listen and play everything as earnestly and real as possible and let the humour come from that.” But what I would say is that The Afterparty was a different scenario, it was maybe the first time where I was playing the completely ridiculous character who was throwing out the insane one-liners. I remember going into it feeling a little vulnerable, like, “Can I pull this off?” But because it was you guys and I have so much trust in you, it allowed me to put myself out there and take these huge swings knowing you’ll never make me look stupid. If I ever go too far, you’ll reel me back in, but for the most part you were like, “Go crazy, let’s see what happens.”

CM: You and your scene partners would also build of one another. I think about the many scenes with you and Ike Barinholtz, where you’d take the scene on the page to a much crazier place, where you had this weirdly sexual energy between the two of you.
DF: You didn’t know whether we’d fuck or fight – and that was most definitely not on the page. [all laugh]

PL: On set you have to retain a sense of playfulness, and I think you do that really well. I feel that in your new movie.
DF: What’s your criteria when taking on new projects?

CM: Similar to you, is it something interesting? Is it putting something out into the world that you haven’t seen before? Does it have anything to say that we care about? Then there’s the masochistic challenge of, “I’m not totally sure how to do this.”
DF: It makes me think about 21 Jump Street, I’m sure when people heard that you were going to remake it as a comedy they were like, “What the fuck are you doing?”

PL: “Why?! Why are you doing this?! [all laugh] We obviously like telling stories about two people who work together and are in love – it’s something we can’t seem to escape. I remember Channing Tatum telling me that he was going to play his character in Jump Street the same way he played The Vow [Dave laughs], a movie about trying to get someone to fall in love with you in every single scene. He was like, “I’m going to try get Jonah to fall in love with me in every scene.” And it worked!
DF: Amazing. That’s an example of you guys casting someone to do something they weren’t necessarily known for, and it working extremely well. Tapping into what makes Channing so loveable as a human and infusing that into the character.

PL: We were pretty sceptical, but he’d done… a Funny or Die video, believe it or not, with Charlyne Yi where he’s Patrick Swayze and she’s Jennifer Grey [laughs]. It’s so straight and earnest, so funny. He’s wearing a silly wig and you’re like, “Oh, that guy’s not afraid to make fun of himself.” Then we had lunch and he was so good at hitting the ball back and we laughed so much. We were like, this is great, it’s a romantic comedy with these two guys and they’re in love but don’t realise it [laughs]. So we needed someone who could be a romantic comedy lead.
CM: When you cast for your films, what are you looking for?
DF: With this latest one, the tone of the movie is not super jokey, even though there is comedy throughout. I really wanted to bring in people who could seamlessly navigate back-and-forth between genres where it didn’t feel jarring. So it was almost trying to tap into what I said earlier about how I succeed in comedy, throwing these people into strange situations and having them play it as real as possible.

Interview originally published inside HERO 29.

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