Next Tuesday sees the DVD release of High Road, a new improvised comedy written and directed by Matt Walsh. High Road's cast is filled to the brim with comedy heavyweights, including Rob Riggle, Joe Lo Truglio, Lizzy Caplan, Abby Elliott, Zach Woods, and James Pumphrey, with the likes of Ed Helms, Horatio Sanz, Andrew Daly, Curtis Gwinn, and Rich Fulcher making appearances, as well. If a Guinness Worlds Record official had only made it to the set, Matt Walsh would easily have a "Most Funny People in One Movie" plaque on his wall for High Road right now.
I recently sat down with the cast and crew of the movie (writer/director Matt Walsh, actors Horatio Sanz, Joe Lo Truglio, and James Pumphrey; and co-writer Josh Weiner) for a roundtable interview. Check it out below!
Journalist: This was a completely improvised movie, so how much of a skeleton do you guys have set up when you're shooting?
Matt Walsh, director and co-writer: It was based on a screenplay that Josh Weiner and myself wrote. Then, we took that and cut it into what, 65 scenes?
Josh Weiner, co-writer: It was 12 pages.
Walsh: 12 pages and a little more specific than a Curb outline. Curb has like one sentence. We had multiple paragraphs under some scenes, just focusing on the emotional arc of the character and the priority story points to hit. And then, we had joke pages on the day that we would bring to pitch the guys if they wanted to use them or they would say their own jokes.
Journalist: Did any of the improv you guys did on set mirror that original script that you wrote before?
Walsh: Yeah, some of it did. We spent two weeks rehearsing with the guys, so they could understand their relationship and their backstory, and we improvised a lot of scenes that would never be in the movie. And then, on the day, we would do a loose rehearsal. My description of the scene was based on what Josh and I had written basically. Everyone could see the outline, and then, if there were any jokes that we thought of – Josh and I in the Video Village – or things that they discover on set or they wanted to try…
Joe Lo Truglio, actor: Really the biggest trick was remembering some of the story points or plot points that you had to in the middle of the improv, just to move the story along. That wasn't really that hard, but that was really the only thing, that you had to remember to hit this name or this place.
Weiner: If anything, something that kind of codified toward the end of it, the wide shots were rehearsals that we would tape. By the time we got into singles, the dialogue was kind of written I think, for the most part.
Walsh: Yeah, there was a rhythm by the end of the final shots – whether they were singles or two-shots. It almost had a repetition and it was pretty consistent, with room to step outside for jokes and detours. And then there's always a free take to say whatever you want, but, by the end, the final takes were pretty consistent.
Splitsider: Is there anything in particular from the rehearsals that you guys were sad didn't make it in?
Lo Truglio: Rob Riggle, Dylan O'Brien, and I did an improv at a baseball game…
Walsh: Good memory.
Lo Truglio: …where I kept wanting to give Dylan a beer just because he should appreciate the experience of the baseball game. Then, Rob's character and I got into it. That was one thing that didn't – besides their constant bickering, giving booze to minors didn't come up in the movie.
Walsh: Yeah, but the directive of the rehearsal was to develop and explore the characters. I don't think there was any scene that we said, "Oh that's a good scene. Let's put it in the movie that we've already slated for production."
Splitsider: So, it wasn't as much to generate material.
Walsh: No, there were jokes that happened [that] I'm sure we kept and put on camera, but there [were] no scenes really at all that came out of the rehearsal process.
Journalist: Does having a background as an improviser and knowing where to stop things help you as a director on a movie like this?
Walsh: Yeah, I think so. I think you know what you need and you know when the energy's petered out. Because you can hang on and eventually they'd come back, but you'd have to ride out a long, monotonous plateau of a scene. Yeah, I think improv teaches you that, but the big thing I liked about getting to direct is that you could keep the tone very real. These guys are all great actors, so I just kept an eye on like on "Oh, that's real. That's good. Play it that way." That's what I've felt that improv has helped me develop an eye for.
Splitsider: Did you write the parts with specific actors in mind?
Walsh: Well, originally, I thought I could actually play Fitz back in the day when we wrote it. James Pumphrey is the first one we knew that we wanted to do it because I'd seen James at the [UCB] Theatre a lot, and he's really funny. He ended up doing a show that I did for Spike for a year. James is sort of the voice of Fitz, so he fit into that. We probably had Abby in place next because she seemed to have good chemistry with James, and James knew her, so we met with her. Kyle Gass was like the day before. He was always bugging me, "Put me in the movie. Put me in the movie." And we were gonna have Martin Starr do it, but it didn't work out. It's a big break for Kyle.
Walsh: Huge break for him.
Weiner: I think one of the cool things about this and why we got a lot of great people in it is that we almost shot like an Internet video. It was like, "Can you come and just give us one day?"
Walsh: But a good Internet video.
Weiner: Like a decent Internet video.
James Pumphrey, actor: Not just like a cat playing a piano or something.
Walsh: It was like really long too. It was like a really long Internet video… It's like 50 minutes too long, this movie.
Walsh: I had met Joe [Lo Truglio] before, but we'd just come off a movie together, and I started thinking like, "Oh, he'd be great." And I think Riggle I'd already talked to by that point, so obviously the size difference is hilarious, but their chemistry is so funny.
Lo Truglio: And I'd met Riggle before, so that made things easier to kind of fool around and riff. When I say fool around, I do mean make out.
Journalist: Was there anyone that you brought in that you to teach the ropes of improv to?
Walsh: When we cast Dylan [O'Brien] – Dylan was the only role we cast – he had no improv experience. I plugged him into UCB, I got him into an intensive for like four weeks. He was there pretty much every day of rehearsal because he was the one who didn't know how to improvise. He literally was improvising with the heavyweights of improv as far as I'm concerned. The best people I've ever played with – and I've done a lot of improv – were in this movie, so he really was challenged to step up his game. He did a great job.
Journalist: When the script came forward, was the character development intact, or was that all up to you guys too? Did you guys know who you guys really were before you stepped on set?
Lo Truglio: Just kind of a general knowing who we were, but not really. Ultimately, you're just kind of staying in the moment and improving. And like I said, remembering your character, where he's coming from.
Pumphrey: We did a bunch of rehearsals before, and we'd improvise scenes from the past… Walsh has this idea of shared history, so the same things have happened to all those characters. We knew exactly what had happened to the band even though we don't touch on it in the movie. So, if we're all pulling from this shared history, we're all gonna be in the same place.
Splitsider: What did you guys like about playing your characters when compared to previous roles you've had?
Lo Truglio: I like that my character wore sweatpants the whole time, so it was comfortable.
Splitsider: The entire movie?
Lo Truglio: In fact, one wardrobe the whole movie, which is very comfortable.
Pumphrey: I'd never kissed anybody on camera before, so that was alright. I wore all my own clothes. That was nice. Usually, I hate wearing costumes.
[At this point, Horatio Sanz joined us].
Journalist: Tell us a little bit about your character in this.
Horatio Sanz, actor: I also was like Kyle Gass, asking, "Put me in the movie. Put me in the movie." They actually came up with a pretty fun scene. I play the doctor that the boys meet when on the road.
Walsh: His scene was the most [full of] on-set breaking, which I don't normally like, but I know Horatio like…
Sanz: I need it.
Walsh: That was the one day that became really long because it was getting so crazy and they were improvising and saying things [and] everyone was laughing. And fortunately, it turned into a great scene. I always get nervous when people are laughing because it's like, "I don't know if I can use any of this."
Sanz: That usually means it's not that funny.
Walsh: Yeah, or just completely bizarro and absurd.
Sanz: And it's hard to edit.
Walsh: Yeah, exactly. His scene was the longest to shoot.
Sanz: And we shot it in some old creepy hospital, right?
Walsh: Yeah. Down in Downtown L.A., where a lot of spooky things happen. Very creepy, very creepy.
Journalist: Is it an actual running hospital? Is it abandoned?
Walsh: No, it's abandoned.
Weiner: They use that for horror films, that same hospital.
Walsh: And apparently some of the guys went to the morgue. There was a morgue down there. I don't think there's any bodies in there, but you can see the old drawers and everything and it was pretty spooky.
Journalist: Were you ever planning on a theatrical release for this or was this always kind of a VOD?
Walsh: Yeah, I think it was always like a low-budget passion project. It's my directing debut. I've always wanted to make an improv movie because I have so much experience in it. It's not a big studio movie certainly, and it was sort of an experiment that turned out better than I thought, I guess. Sure, I would have loved it if we got 2,000 screens, but I never had that delusion. I was realistic. I think it was a success in that it turned out funny, I got everyone I wanted to be in it, and it will get seen. The hope is, knock on wood, that it gets a little cult following because I think people will be surprised about who's in it and how funny it is. That's my hope.
Sanz: Yeah, you have some really, like aside from myself, you have some really funny people in it that you see in a lot of big movies now.
Walsh: Yeah, exactly.
Sanz: Riggle and Joe, I think, are hilarious.
Walsh: And that guy Dylan is gonna be a star.
Sanz: Abby Elliott has gone on to be on SNL.
Walsh: She was just in–what magazine was she just in?
Walsh: So, we have a Maxim star. [Laughter] And also, the people that people don't know, I still think are some of the [funniest]. People like Andy Daly. He's not a star, but he's a working, successful actor. You guys know him because you probably cover comedy, but people don't know him. Everybody in there is super funny to a T. I don't think there's anybody who was a dud.
Sanz: Oh, and Rich Fulcher.
Walsh: Yeah, Rich Fulcher is brilliant.
Splitsider: What were some other improvised movies or shows that you looked to when making this?
Walsh: Well, I always admired Christopher Guest. What he got to do. He got to make four movies with his buddies. That alone is a huge success to me. And he also did a great job of keeping it really. Like, I love A Mighty Wind. Even though it's not a funny movie, I think that's kind of beautiful and sweet. The performances he captured were just brilliant. So, that's what I love about an improv movie. You get real spontaneous moments and real good acting. Obviously, Spinal Tap, of course. There's a bunch of movies. This guy Zak Penn made a couple good movies, like Incident at Loch Ness. It's really funny… He did The Grand. Basically, all documentaries that feel funny but aren't are very inspirational to me. Like American Movie is one of the funniest things.
Journalist: You see some of these mainstream big budget comedies and you can tell everything's getting set up towards something. You can like see the framework. Is is refreshing to step into an environment like that?
Lo Truglio: I like those kind of movies where you can ad lib a lot and put it in your own words. Make the words sound right.
Sanz: Yeah, it's good for actors who are maybe not the best actors.
Walsh: Which I'm not.
Lo Truglio: Or terrible memories.
Sanz: Walsh was very open for anything. I don't even think I had an outline to remind me what to do.
Walsh: We had a discussion and kind of shot the rehearsal wide and dialed it in from there. Horatio's took a little longer 'cause he was fucking off a lot.
Sanz: Something can be too funny.
Walsh: Yeah, it's too funny. You almost brought the hospital down.
Sanz: Like guys holding the camera are shaking, the camera starts shaking…
Walsh: That is true, though. In your scene they did.
Sanz: The lights are moving around.
Walsh: Even the ghosts came in and said, "Knock it off."
Sanz: Remember I tried to do a take with the rusty saw?
Walsh: And the clown nose? That was a little big.
Sanz: That's really the best thing. There's just an opportunity to do so many takes. I think it's really collaborative because it's truly several people who are putting input into the scene.
Walsh: Yeah, I really believe – it's so pretentious – but I really believe that comedy, if you have a good story, it's like 90% casting. Once you get the guy or gal in there, it's pretty easy I think to make a funny movie. A perfect movie's a different thing, but a funny movie? I think it's easy. So, I was really happy that I got everyone I got. Everybody got to play to their strengths and [was] paired up in the right scenarios. Very fortunate.
Pumphrey: When Horatio's day was halfway through, we had that pre-wrap party thing. Matt and I drove to the bar together with him. He was talking about, "Oh, the tone of the movie is so different now."
Walsh: After his scene.
Pumphrey: "I think it's a little more broad than it was before."
Walsh (to Sanz): You're turning into the Crispin Glover of the cast. He was a problem. Horatio was a problem. It was exciting, the whole process. It makes more difficulty in editing because there's more footage, but the guy I had, Alex Hanawalt, was a documentarian/editor for a long time so it was very useful.
Journalist: Is there gonna be a lot of extra stuff on the DVD?
Walsh: I think there'll be a fair amount. Certainly. The first cut of the movie was super long, as if we could keep everything we wanted, which would never happen.
Lo Truglio: Where there entire scenes that [were left out]?
Walsh: Yeah, towards the end, we lost two scenes and they're in the front. Like, every movie, you have to get going. You have to get into it quicker. We learned from multiple viewings of our friends… Collaborative effort went outside of the shooting and the casting. I had screenings with friends of mine who are working Hollywood screenwriters and directors and happy to sit in and say, "Okay. That goes, this goes." So, it tapped into a really sweet community. That's what you seen on film, a lot of people whose faces aren't in it, but everybody sort of was really happy to see it coming together and it was a great project that everybody liked.
Splitsider: Has it been hard to go back to more structured acting roles since then?
Walsh (to Lo Truglio): Well, you just did a real sitcom. How was that?
Lo Truglio: Free Agents. It wasn't hard to get back in there. It's just kind of a different working environment, especially with television, where time is of the essence and they really have to keep shooting and make their days and there's not a lot of time to really improv or ad lib, but we did a little bit on Free Agents but not much. But you just kind of adjust. High Road was just easier because it was more in my wheelhouse to kind of improv and do stuff. The other stuff just takes a little bit more time.
Walsh: Yeah, I think in improv movies, you can do what you think's funny, which is great. I think everybody goes in like, "Oh yeah, I'll do it. This is what I think's funny."
High Road comes out on DVD, VOD, Blu-ray, and iTunes Digital Download on Tuesday, March 6th.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.