Talking to Alex Richanbach About His Film ‘We Are Young’, Working with Funny or Die, and the Other ‘We Are Young’
Last month, Funny or Die released its second full-length film, We Are Young. The film was written, directed, and starred in by Funny or Die writer/director Alex Richanbach, who had begun writing the script nearly four years earlier. The film, a romantic comedy about a 25-year-old trying to figure out romance and life in Los Angeles, premiered on Funny or Die’s site before appearing at Tugg screenings around the country. I got the chance to catch up with Alex after a recent screening in New York to talk about self-producing a movie, writing an age-specific story, and why he stuck with this title.
Where did the idea for the movie come from?
About four years ago, I just wrote myself an email in the middle of the night, I think at a bar somewhere. I was back home in Oregon visiting friends, and I wrote, “We are invincible, for we are young.” And the next day I saw the email, and I was like, What is that a lyric from? That feels like it’s something else. And I Googled it a bunch, and I couldn’t find it from anything and I was like, I must have just written it down. And then I was trying to write a feature script, and I couldn’t kind of wrap my head around anything. I came back across that email, and every time I read the sentence, it just gave me this kind of feeling that I couldn’t really describe. There’s this thing I felt at the time – like I could do anything, but also I couldn’t do anything. So I literally just set out to write something that felt like how that sentence made me feel. And that was the goal the whole way through, and that was the thing we talked to the cast and the crew about — whatever that sentence makes you feel, that should be the rule of the movie. Keep trying to feel that way. And for me at least, when I get to the end of the movie, it feels like that. It feels like that sentence.
You self-produced it. Why did you decide to make it on your own?
I had been trying to make a feature for a little while. I had done short films and stuff like that. There was this great executive I sent a feature script to, Dan Cohen. I sent him the script for the movie called Stealing Second, and he brought me in. I was like, this guy’s gonna make the movie! And he sat down and goes, “The first thing I want to tell you is I’m not going to make your movie.” I was like, “What? Well, why am I here?” And he was like, “I really like your writing, but no one’s going to make your movie. It’s funny and it’s smart, but you want to direct in it, and you want to act in it. I saw your short film — you should just go do it.” And I knew I couldn’t do that script; it wasn’t right to do it on my own. But then I had this 20,000 bucks that was basically set aside for grad school, and at a certain point I was like, he’s right. I should just go and do it. And then I wrote We Are Young to be able to do it that cheaply. Because from the get-go, the plan was always, let’s just make a movie that shows people we can make a movie and that feels good to us and then put it online, and then maybe people will know that we can make more.
Why go through Funny or Die?
While we were editing the movie, I got hired at Funny or Die. And we finished it and tried to host a couple screenings in L.A. to get people to see it, and Funny or Die was super supportive of the movie from the get-go. And we had always had this idea of, “don’t go to festivals with it, don’t worry about all the normal routes of distribution.” You didn’t make this to make money, you made this to put it out. And so we kind of sat on it for a while. We weren’t sure the right way to do it. And then we just asked Funny or Die, if we put this out – it doesn’t fit with Funny or Die really in terms of tone, and it’s an hour and half, but would you help us put it out? And they were like, yeah. Put it on the site, we’ll let everybody know about it, and we’ll see what happens. And then we got really lucky. People found it, and people liked it, and it did everything that we hoped it could do.
It’s a comedy, but it’s not what you think of when you think of Funny or Die.
Exactly. And to me, that’s so exciting. When I made the movie, I hoped to work at Funny or Die, and it wasn’t because I was a great sketch comedian or anything like that. It’s because Funny or Die looked like a place that would take a young filmmaker and give him a chance. And I was a big fan of people like Jake Szymanski and Lauren Palmigiano and Eric Appel, who were these young filmmakers who were doing whatever they wanted to do over there and proving that they could do it. I kept trying to make things to show Funny or Die that I could do it too. And I think Funny or Die has been so great in saying, like, this is not necessarily what you think of when you think of Funny or Die, but it is a comedy, and we do believe in it. And they’ve been awesome with it. That to me is the magic of that place and why you would put a movie like this on it.
I find it so interesting that places like Funny or Die and CollegeHumor are branching out into other areas, almost more traditional things like movies.
There was a moment before we put the movie on the site where everybody was like, “You wanna put this on our site? Where it’s, like, old dudes looking for fake sex tapes?” And we really felt like if people just watch the first five minutes, then if they start to like that, they’ll watch the rest, and they’ll tell their friends. And that ended up being pretty much what happened. But for me, Funny or Die can be a network, so to speak. Funny or Die can be a platform that any kind of comedy, or just good entertainment in general, can be on. The talent in that building and the amount of drive of what we can do and the reach that they have at this point. Why can’t we have a movie like We Are Young next to a movie like iSteve, which was brilliant in its own right. And those are two totally different things, and why can’t they be on the same place? And why can’t that be right next to Alyssa Milano Sex Tape, and why can’t that be right next to Throwing Shade, and all these things that I love? And so that’s hopefully where we’re heading. You don’t come for just one thing; you come for entertainment.
And the movie was made in 2010-ish?
I wrote it in 2010, shot it in 2011, and we were completely done with post in 2012. And then it’s basically been a year and a half of showing it to people in LA and kind of figuring out what was the best way – we always had the intention of putting it online, but once we had the platform of working at Funny or Die, and once we started to know people in the industry and have jobs, we were like, how can we make sure people actually see it? And that was kind of where the conversation started with Funny or Die.
It’s movie that’s so much about age. What it’s like to watch yourself from a few years ago on screen? I absolutely could not watch three-years-ago me in a movie.
Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve watched it so many times now, to edit and everything. When we set out to make it, I wanted to make something about the age I was right then. I just felt like I loved so many of these movies that are about that age period, but they’re always directed by somebody who’s like 45 years old, and not that they don’t put a great perspective on it, but what would it look like if I just tried to be thoughtful about what’s happening in my life right now, and then directing myself as I’m still living that stuff? So for me, it’s fun. We were just tossing it out there. We had no idea really what we were doing and we were just trying our asses off. So it’s kind of fun to go back and watch, because it’s fun to watch people figure it out.
It is so specific to a time period – the characters are 25 and I’m 26, and I feel like I just got out of that phase they’re going through.
Yeah, like I started dating my current girlfriend after I started writing the movie. So it was like this weird goodbye to that period of my life, as it was happening. As I was writing it [and] shooting it, I was like, “Man, am I ever gonna be like this again? Am I ever going to be running around with my friends just drinking and trying to meet girls and getting shut down and all these things?” And I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be like that again. But it was weird to be doing it as it was happening. It’s like that idea of, once you write it down it doesn’t exist anymore. It kind of felt that way as we were shooting it.
And I have to ask about the title. Did you think about changing it [after the Fun. song came out]?
I woke up one morning and saw a song called “We Are Young” on Spotify after I’d been working on this movie for almost 2 years and I wanted to die. And I literally just thought like, I hope this song just disappears. I hope it just goes away. What are the odds? I’ve never heard of this band, they have a period at the end of their name, this can’t be anything. And then it’s this number one song. It’s on every playlist. It was whatever. And honestly, I think that’s part of why we held it back for a while instead of just putting it out when it was done. The words “We Are Young” really, really meant something to us. And there was nothing titled “We Are Young” when we did that. We wanted that to have impact, and it hurt when we saw that. But good for them. I’m not a fan of the song, but good luck to them. They seem like nice guys.
You never say the words in the movie; you could have changed the name without affecting it too much.
Yeah, I thought about it a bunch. But this was the thing we set out to do. I was 24 when I started writing it, and I really felt like I had backed myself into a corner, career-wise. I don’t know why, I was only 3 years into being in LA. But I didn’t have a writing portfolio, and I didn’t have an acting reel. I didn’t have a directing reel. I had only ever done these shorts where I was always doing all these different thing in them. And I was like, no one’s gonna hire me to do anything unless I can actually do this. So for me, it was really, put my feet in the ground and prove to myself that we’re capable of saying something. And because we never set out to make money with the movie, and we always planned on just putting it out on online, I was just like, we have to stick by it. The title doesn’t necessarily have to apply to it, but what if it does? What if there’s this other thing that matters to all of us that it loses if we take it away? So we just stuck with it, and I’m glad we did.