Talking to the Olde English Guys About ‘The Exquisite Corpse Project’ and Writing With Friends
Splitsider’s first digital download, The Exquisite Corpse Project, is, I’ll admit, a little hard to explain. Here’s the premise, derived from the exquisite corpse party game: five writers each wrote 15 pages of a movie, having only seen the previous five pages of the script. The resulting film is a mix of that narrative with documentary footage about the making of the film and behind the scenes dynamics of the writers, all former members of the sketch group Olde English. The relationships of the group are explained more thoroughly in the film, but here’s the short version: Ben Popik started the group while a student at Bard College. Members came and went, but when Joel Clark left just after college, the permanent group became Ben, Caleb Bark, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Adam Conover, and Dave Segal. They went on to make sketches for the short-lived internet video site SuperDeluxe, before going their separate ways. In later years, Chioke Nassor was brought on to help with the production of the videos.
I recently sat down with six of the guys — Ben, the film’s director; Caleb, the movie’s star; and four of the writers, Chioke, Joel, Adam, and Raphael — to discuss writing as a group, figuring out how to be a production company, and their fraught relationships.
[To Ben] You explain a bit in the movie why you wanted to do this project, but could you talk a little bit more about where the idea came from?
Ben: Sure. So, Olde English used to have a regular show at the UCB, and we experimented with a format which we called The Rules Show. We would assign each other a list of rules by which to make sketches. So, we would each come up with a list of rules for each other person. For instance, my favorite example was for Raphael. I said, you need to write a sketch in which you combine your three most embarrassing memories into one sketch. That was rule number one. Rule number two is that he had to write that sketch in five minutes. And rule number three was the five minutes begin right now. And then I handed him a pen and paper, and he had to scramble to write them. Now the important thing is, we filmed the meeting where we assigned each other the rules, and then we would show the audience the video of that rule assignment, so they got to watch Raphael laughing at these rules, and then scrambling to try and write something. And when the video was done, lights up on the stage, they would watch what he’d written.
Raphael: Which was terrible.
Ben: Now what he wrote was absolutely terrible, and how could it not be?
Raphael: And embarrassing, because it was about three embarrassing things that happened in my life.
Ben: And it was honest, right. What he wrote was terrible, cause how could it not be, but an interesting phenomenon we discovered is that, the audience loved it, even though it was terrible. And from a comedy perspective, that’s fascinating, because usually if you write something bad, it will bomb. If they were to just see the sketch that he wrote, they would hate it. Why wouldn’t they? They would say, why did I just watch that piece of shit? But with the added context of knowing why it was terrible, they could find it funny. They were in on the joke and they liked it. And that was really interesting to us. So this feature was basically an attempt to explore the format, and what effect it has on the audience to share the creative context with them.
And why did you decide to go for this specific setup?
Ben: I mean, as complicated as it is, it seemed like the easiest format to sort of bring that phenomenon in.
Chioke: There were constrictions too. One, the number of people. You’re dividing a 75-minute movie amongst five people. But then also, Ben was leaving within a short period of time, so what could actually be made within that time with these people? It was like he reverse engineered the process. Like, we have this much time, this many people, this is how much time we’d have to allot.
Raphael: But I also think a big part of it was that we weren’t really working together anymore, and the reason for that is because when we tried to work together, we would fight a lot. Because we had very distinct creative visions, and we wanted to do things our own way more and more. So this was a way we could all work together again, but we could also have our own fifteen pages to do what we wanted to do, and we didn’t have to like run it by the group. Because before, we’d always work in consensus. There was no leader of the group, there was no hierarchy. You tried to muster enough support from the other people, and this was a way where you didn’t have to get support from anybody. You could just do what you wanted to do, and I think Ben on a certain level knew that that would appeal to us.
Ben: I think this is all just occurring to me right now.
Ben: That’s a great point, though.
[They all laugh.]
Ben: I think Chioke is probably closer. Being like, alright we need to start pre-production in March, so we need the script in five weeks, and how could we make it in five weeks?
Raphael: But again, how could we write a script quickly? Because if we try to write a script together, it’ll never happen.
Ben: No, that is absolutely true.
Raphael: But if we tried it separately, then we might.
Ben: If I believed that we could write a script together in two months, I probably would have done that. But it just would have been impossible. We tried and our sensibilities, while very similar, are different enough that that would have just been a big stalemate.
When you were making the movie, how much did you know of the structure going into it?
Ben: Originally it was going to be structured so that we would see the complete individual sections, and then in between the sections have documentary footage. It’d be like fifteen minutes of section one and then two to three minutes of documentary footage, and back and forth. And that’s the way we originally edited it, and it doesn’t really work. Which was a bit terrifying because, we’ve just made a movie that doesn’t work. It’s like, oh shit. A lot of time and money at that point. So there was some panic there. And then we sort of started to experiment with editing it different ways and thankfully we were relieved to discover that that made it work.
Joel: Also, I think after the first cut, the idea was we were gonna maybe show a little bit more of the conflict between the writers because in the first cut, that was kind of passed over for the sake of the narrative. But it was interesting to bring that out and see the parallels between the narrative and the conflict that we were having.
Raphael: While we were editing the movie, the surprising thing that came out is that the interesting parts were us fighting with each other. And that was actually very controversial because there were some members of the group that did not want that to be in the movie, because they felt like that’s not what they signed up for.
Ben: It certainly didn’t start out as a documentary about our relationships. That was never part of the plan.
Adam: I kind of always hoped it would be that, though. [They all laugh] I was like, that sounds like fun. I’d probably get to work through some shit.
Caleb: I think there were at least one or two times when people tried to make documentaries about the group, in college and after, and it sort of devolved because it became all of us just yelling and fighting the whole time, and so they were like, we’re not gonna make these documentaries.
[To Ben] But there was a lot of documentary footage, so you obviously knew what was happening.
Ben: I did have a lot of documentary footage, and also part of it is we went back and recorded more documentary footage after. So the weekend when I showed them the finished cut of the movie, I did a bunch more interviews, and by that point we’d sort of figured out that we wanted more documentary footage.
Raphael: Well, also by that point, we’d all seen the previous documentary footage, so we saw the little ways in which we all kind of talked shit about each other, and then we were all raring to go. [They all laugh.] So when the cameras came around again, we were like, “Well, actually I have something else I’d like to say!” And it really escalated.
Ben: The first time I think people were critical of each other on a professional level.
Raphael: But even then, very positive. Like, “I love love love this, but one minor thing.” And then I heard that and it was like, “Oh whoa, now it’s on.” [They all laugh.] “Oh I got some shit I gotta say. He doesn’t like that minor thing? Well I don’t like anything about him. Not just his section, but him as a person.”
Ben: “His ex-girlfriend is a slut!”
Raphael: Yeah we dug up some shit. Things escalated very quickly.
So is there a cut of the movie that’s just a movie?
Ben: We are the only people who’ve seen it.
Raphael: Not that interesting.
Does the movie within the movie have a name? Did it get that far?
Ben: No. Chioke originally titled it “I Love You Guys.”
Raphael: Because he wrote the first 15 pages.
Chioke: Which is ironic, in hindsight.
[The all laugh.]
Ben: Yeah, that’s true, it is. But I think that was just a note to us.
Adam: Well [someone] wanted to call it at one point, “This Is Not My Story.” I thought that was like a very poetic name and like a nice name for that narrative. I didn’t think it ultimately sold the whole movie as a package that well, but we had to name it something.
Raphael: But it’s also like, do you need a name for the inner-narrative? No.
Adam: I dunno. It’s an interesting question.
Caleb: Shut up, Adam.
Raphael: Adam’s an idiot.
Caleb: Bad idea.
Raphael: At this point, the room roundly agreed that Adam was an idiot. Even I, the interviewer, was convinced.
[They all laugh.]
Ben: My name is Elise.
Adam: Sketch comedy group can’t stop meta-commenting on interview. Film at 11.
[They all laugh.]
Actually, it felt like the movie within the movie got more meta as it went on. Was that bound to happen? Did you decide the order based on…
Ben: The order of writers was chosen completely randomly.
Chioke: Out of a hat, even.
Ben: Out of a hat, even.
Chioke: The order, maybe it would have also been perfect if it was a different order, but in this case, it seemed like it made the most sense. Because I started the story, and I was the most detached from the process of working with [the group]. I mean we’d worked together but always in a kind of polite way, which is why it was easier to be like, yeah, I love you guys, this is gonna be fun. With old relationships, people immediately fall into old patterns.
Raphael: Yeah, like your relationship is the least fraught of anybody’s.
Ben: Yeah, well the order was chosen randomly, but I’ve since thought a lot about that and I think that was a mistake on my part. We should not have done that randomly.
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: “One mistake, one of many mistakes.” Ben on himself.
Ben: But, thankfully I think this is the correct order of the writers. If I had thought about it, this is the correct order. Adam, Dave and Raphael, who’ve worked together as writers forever, and have the most fraught relationships, is that what we’re saying? We’re saying fraught a lot? They have the most fraught relationships.
Raphael: I think fraught is the apt choice.
Ben: Fraught? Fraught. Fraught.
Caleb: Keep saying it.
Ben: Yeah, fraught. Word means nothing.
Ben: Their relationship are the most fraught, so…
Chioke: The fraughtest.
Raphael: The fraughtiest.
[They all laugh.]
Caleb: Ok, go on. This is one question, just know that.
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: If we were on a website, FraughtOrNot.com, [they all laugh] we would make our relationships as ‘fraught’. Not ‘not’.
Raphael: 9.7 on the fraught or not list.
Ben: I want to get that website. FraughtOrNot.com.
Raphael: FraughtOrNot.com. A service that you try to judge how fraught the friendships are.
Ben: I’m totally gonna see if that’s a thing.
Raphael: It’s not a thing, don’t look it up.
Ben: If it’s not a thing, I’m going to buy it right now.
Caleb: You’re going to buy FraughtOrNot.com?
Ben: Absolutely, that’s hilarious.
Adam: Aren’t things normally fraught with something? Like, things can’t just be fraught.
Chioke: That’s what you thought.
Adam: Fraught with tension, is the implication.
Adam: But you can also be fraught with, like…
Chioke: I don’t think that’s a thing.
Adam: Fraught with…
Ben: Anyway, sorry. [They all laugh] To get back to what we talking about.
Adam: This cannoli is fraught with cream.
Ben: Before we got to the fraught festival.
[They’re still giggling.]
Ben: So because their relationships were the most complicated, [they all laugh] it worked well toward building the conflict of the film and the climax and the resolution and all those things that movies should have.
Raphael: But to your original question, which I think was about the meta-ness of the script itself, I think that was kind of baked into the premise. I don’t know if there’s anyway that wasn’t going to happen. Because we all knew that this documentary footage was gonna explain what was happening, so we knew the audience would know that it was an exquisite corpse project. There was never any pressure to make it try to pass as a normal movie. And I wonder if that was part of it. If it’s like, this has to be on its own, the audience is gonna have no idea how it was written so it has to work, I think we would all approach it differently, because by the time it got to me [the last writer], it had been through several of the writers already, and it was just craziness nonsense, like there’s no way I can’t comment on this. There’s no way I can’t have the characters be like, this is weird, because it is weird. That’s all I had, was the weirdness.
Joel: And also we all know like how a film script works, so like we know our spot in the order, so we also know like our responsibilities towards the story. Whatever we think the story is, it’s like rising action and conflict and resolution and all that stuff.
Ben: I’d like to update and say that I checked on GoDaddy and FraughtOrNot.com is available.
[There are yays and boos.]
Caleb: You should buy it before this.
Ben: Yeah, I gotta buy it before this interview is up.
Raphael: Don’t buy it on GoDaddy.
Ben: No, that’s where you buy things.
Three people in unison: No, not GoDaddy.
Raphael: GoDaddy’s a very bad company. Don’t buy on GoDaddy.
Adam: The owner of GoDaddy, like, shot an elephant and recorded a video of him doing it and he was like “Look at me, I shot a baby elephant.” They’re bad people.
Ben: The elephant…well, whatever.
Raphael: If you set up FraughtOrNot.com on GoDaddy.com, prepare to see our picture on FraughtOrNot.com.
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: That’s all I’m saying.
Caleb: You think you’re gonna be able to submit?
Raphael: I dont know. I assume there’s some sort of submission process.
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: I don’t think Ben is arbiter of what’s fraught.
Ben: Sorry guys, I got to go. I’ve got to get back to work at my FraughtOrNot.com job.
Raphael: Fraught fraught fraught fraught fraught fraught fraught.
Anyways. Before this, did you guys ever attempt to write a full-length movie script together?
Adam: We wrote a pilot script.
Raphael: And that was enough.
Joel: We had worked on a couple longer form ideas, pilots and similar ideas. They had all taken so long and no one was really happy and it sort of dwindled and killed us.
Ben: That democratic process of all trying to arrive at something we could each agree to would water down each idea to being not really interesting or engaging to anyone anymore.
Raphael: I think it helped in sketches because it was always like, let’s punch this up, let’s make this funnier, let’s make this better. And we were always trying to make each other laugh and win each other over and it was never good enough for just one person to like it, we all had to get behind every single thing. And that’s great for four minute one-gag sketches, but its very hard to write anything longer that way because we all have different ideas of the arc of a story and what we want our characters to represent, and what the tone should be. I think you need some sort of leader in those situations. You need like a cohesive vision. Like, this is what we’re doing, you guys can help me but I’m in charge here. And we kind of had that on sketches, but for a movie, it felt like it was like too important for one person to take control, because we all wanted to write a movie. We all wanted to have our say and it represent us as individuals and you can’t really do that in a movie.
Adam: Well we didn’t try that for that long. I think it was a matter of, we did sketch for years and years and then we all wanted to move on to doing bigger kinds of writing and working on more projects and we just tried to import the sketch comedy process into writing a pilot. It doesn’t really work. You know, five people don’t write a pilot. I think at some point our process morphed from like, “Oh that’s cool, yeah I like that, why don’t we do that? Let me add something to that!” It was a very additive process, but it became a thing where anyone had veto power over anything. It slowly morphed into a much more negative form there. It was mostly just saying, “No you can’t do that,” to each other.
Raphael: I remember I brought in an idea for a web series that was like very personal to me, but you know, something that I thought was funny and fun and we could all get behind. And I remember the general reaction was like, “Yeah, this feels very you, but its not very me. So how can we make it, like less you and more me?”
Raphael: Yeah, more the rest of us. And that process took three years.
Caleb: What was that?
Raphael: That was “How To Be Alone.”
Caleb: Oh right. What the fuck happened to that?
Raphael: Nothing came of it, because then as it became less and less me, I was like, oh I don’t know if I’m still interested in this anymore. I think that’s something, in any creative process, there’s a line of how to make it universal enough to engage other people and get people to work with you but still be personal enough that you still want to do it and you believe in it.
Adam: I mean, I think a lot of it was we had done something at the beginning of our creative development which is very useful, which is that we had like yoked all of ourselves together into like one creative entity that was doing things together. And so we made a lot of progress very quickly and we did a lot of material very quickly and did a much higher quality of work than we would have been able to do in college if we’d just been doing it individually. We did that for about six years and then we had a point where we needed to find our own ways and work on our projects, but we didn’t really realize that because we’d been working together for so long, so we kept trying to move forward as like one unit in a very awkward way for about like a year and a half, and then we just collapsed.
Ben: And we never had any sort of professional guide. We never had a system to work from, and we really sort of taught ourselves how to do everything, which was both our strength and our crippling weakness. Because we never had a model for how a writers’ room should work, so we figured it out ourselves, and the way that we figured out was extremely rough on each other and cruel and maddening. Effective for sketch comedy but, like you said, for something longer form, was just impossible.
Adam: I work in a writers’ room now, and if any of the people I currently work with acted the way that we did then, they would have been fired.
Raphael: And you work in sketch comedy.
Adam: Yeah, I write for College Humor.
Raphael: You are doing what we were doing on a more professional level.
Adam: Yeah, and if people gave the kind of notes that we gave each other, you would get fired for it.
Raphael: We’d give each other notes like, “This is a stupid idea. You are bad.”
Ben: “If you want to go that direction, that’s fine, but I will not be your friend anymore.”
Caleb: We had to cut the word corny from our vocabulary.
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: We were not allowed to say corny.
Caleb: You weren’t allowed to say corny because it was just not a descriptive enough, and made everyone feel like shit. When you were like, “That’s just a corny idea. I don’t know what else to say, it’s just corny.”
Ben: And we were saying it so much that we were like, “Alright, we can’t say corny anymore.”
Raphael: But then we would get to the point where, giving notes, it’s like, “I don’t quite know how to give the note I want to give because it involves a word I’m not allowed to say.”
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: Which follows the letter of the law, but not exactly the spirit of it.
Caleb: That was also true of our production process as well. We had taught ourselves basically how to be a production company.
Ben: Sort of.
[They all laugh.]
Raphael: It was also a thing where we would, when we first started getting paid to make sketches [with] Super Deluxe, we didn’t know what to do with the money, because we’d been just making it on our own, super cheap, for so long. And the first note we got back from Super Deluxe was like, “What are you doing with all the money we’re giving you? Because we don’t see it.”
[They all laugh.]
Ben: We were used to making sketches for like 30 bucks, and then they were giving us these big production budgets and they gave us the note, “We would like you to use some of that production budget on the production.”
[They all laugh.]
Adam: But it was a weird thing because…
Ben: My favorite idea that we came up with, and didn’t do for some reason, is I really wanted to have a sketch in which we smashed 400 bottles of champagne. And I don’t know what the joke would be, I think the joke would be…
Raphael: I think we found out why we never made it.
Ben: …Fuck you boss? Right, exactly.
Raphael: I think we’ve figured out what stopped us from doing that particular idea.
Ben: I guess we wanted more money in the future and that’s why we didn’t do that, but I think that would have been a funny fuck you.
Raphael: How dare they want us to make better sketches with the money they were giving us?
[They all laugh.]
Caleb: You want to see the money? Fuck you.
Ben: Here it is, burning!
Raphael: Oh, “the man” wants us to use “their money” to make “higher quality material” that will gain us “popularity”. Uggh.
Caleb: Fuck you!
Adam: But it was also a weird thing because I don’t know of any other time that this would ever happen. They didn’t hire us to work with a production company or something, they just gave us…
Ben: I wish they had.
Adam: …they just gave us a production budget.
Raphael: We had to allot salaries. There was no distinction of what the money was for. It was like, here’s all the money you’ll need.
Adam: And so we’re 22 at the time, and we’re like, I guess we’ll start a production company? We started a company and started like, alright how much should we pay this person? Everything was case by case.
Raphael: Including us. Like, how much money should we make for each video?
Adam: Yeah, exactly, it was all just one thing.
Raphael: And then if we spent less money, we’d get to keep more money.
[They all laugh.]
So when it came time to make this and you were actually filming it, how different was that than your old process? Had you evolved?
Raphael: Oh now we were super professional.
[They all laugh.]
Ben: I mean, no. I’m the director of this movie, but I asked Dave to come on and help me direct the actors because I am also shooting this movie. I am literally operating the camera for most of this movie, and when people aren’t in a scene, they’re often holding a microphone or they’re moving a light. This was the production staff.
Later on, we’ve begun talking about Olde English’s web videos (we’ll be posting those conversations in the weeks to come.) Ben has stepped outside to take a phone call.
Raphael: I mean there’s kind of a pattern. For a lot of these, Ben would be the one who’d be like, “Let’s push this through. We can do this.” For a lot of stuff that I would think was impossible. And this movie is an example of that as well. Like, that’s crazy. What’s the point of trying so hard to make something? And he was always like, “No no no. Let’s do this, it’s gonna be worth it.”
Caleb: It comes out [in the movie, when Ben suggests the project] when Raphael goes, “but you have to make it!” Because Raphael’s like, “It’s not gonna get made.”
Chioke: Well that’s something—I feel like it’s really good to talk about this while he’s not here—is that Ben is the kind of person who you could hang out with and then feel like you could literally change the world. Like, you have a conversation with him, and you’re like, that could happen! That’s a thing that’s gonna get made. I don’t think any one of us here, well I speak for myself, when were in the room and he said we’re gonna make an idea off of these interconnected scripts. It was very quickly like, “We have to make it, though.” His response was like, “Okay,” but as soon as he said it I knew the movie was gonna get made.
Adam: Yeah. I think Ben, in a big way, was always the engine of the group. He was the one who started the group initially, who called the first meeting and just always had the energy to make things happen. And that’s why when he sort of left the group a little bit in advance of us all splitting up, it was like really hard to get things done, because…
Raphael: Well, it was also hard to get things done while he was still there.
Adam: Yes, it was. [They all laugh.] It was, definitely, but I mean that’s why, when…
Raphael: That’s why he left the group.
Adam: He left the group and then like six months later, he was like, “Hey I have an idea for a movie”, and we’re like, “Alright, this is happening.” Because he just had that energy that you just want to jump on board.
Caleb: Yeah, just a little example of Ben’s ability to make things happen is we were just talking about the word fraught, and this joke on FraughtOrNot, and then he bought the website.
Adam: Yeah, that website exists now.
Raphael: Because of Ben.
The Exquisite Corpse Project is available for download from Splitsider Presents.