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One of the founders of the UCB Theatre and a friendly face in the comedy ecosystem, Matt Walsh returns to TV April 6th when Veep premieres its third season on HBO. In addition to Veep, Walsh has a number of other interesting projects up his sleeve including a role in the found-footage tornado film Into the Storm and David Cross’s directorial debut Hits. Most recently, Walsh turned to Indiegogo to crowdfund A Better You, an improvised film (the writer-director’s second, after High Road in 2011) starring co-writer Brian Huskey as a hypnotherapist in the midst of his mid-life crisis. I recently got to talk to Walsh about the process of making an improvised film, what's next for UCB, and being an action hero.
I wanted to start out with asking about A Better You. What it’s like to make an improvised film?
It’s organized chaos, a bit. You’re working off of a structured outline, so you have a sense of where the story’s going and where the characters need to be emotionally and what’s valuable point by point in each moment. But to also discover wonderful things you didn’t see coming or the chemistry of performance is remarkable in a way you hadn’t anticipated. You have a great cast, so you’ve got to create an environment where they reenact the story you had written.
Was the casting process different because the performers would be improvising?
The casting process is always the same. I just call up my friends and say, “You want to make a hundred bucks a day for being idiots?” And I tell them who’s doing it, and they’re like, “Yeah, of course, Walsh, let’s do this.” It’s just reaching out to people on stage at UCB Theatre and various venues around town. I just tell them, “We’re doing this movie, here’s your role if you can do it.” So the casting’s pretty easy.
How did you and Brian Huskey start working together?
I’ve known Brian since New York. He started UCB classes, I think, back in 1980. He was a photographer at the time and got involved in the comedy community there. And then we just became friends by seeing each other around the theater, doing shows together. He moved out to LA probably a year or two after I did, started hanging out here again. He’s a really good writer and I always try to write with people who are writers better than me so they can bring more to the table. I asked if he’d be interested in creating an improv movie, and he loves improv, too. We worked on it for a year, year and a half, when we were free.
And this is your second time directing an improv film, right? [After 2011's High Road]
Yes, it is.
Did you get to apply stuff that you learned from the previous one?
Yeah, I think some of the lessons I learned were keeping it all simpler, shorter, putting time in rehearsal before you actually get on set, really focusing on the outline before you go into production, making sure the story’s solid and airtight. And then just having jokes in your pocket; when you know what you’re filming that day, understanding what’s funny about that scene and also having ideas or actual jokes for the performers while you’re doing it.
What inspired the subject matter of the film?
There’s a lot of alternative therapy in LA, and I see a few people try hypnotism or several people who are performers or celebrities go to a hypnotherapist for treatment of various ailments. I thought that was interesting, and I also feel like LA has a certain kind of desperation other towns don’t have, primarily with the entertainment business, so I wanted to explore that. The problem’s unique to LA and also the strange choices people make about where they go to get those problems treated.
When you’re building casts for your projects, do you gravitate mostly towards friends or try to work with people you have existing relationships with?
I think you want to work with nice people. So if I don’t really know someone, but I know they’re nice to work with, I think that’s probably the first requirement: no jerks. People who are funny happen to be a lot of the people I know, so it’s kind of perfect that I tend to travel in the comedy circle. It’s actually ideal because it is like an invisible studio where you can cast all these talented people from this community, and they’re all very successful and working and nice. You want to have somebody who can be not just be a great actor but also a good improviser, which is basically someone who can write on their feet.
What made you decide to crowdfund the movie?
Ugh, I regret the crowdfunding. No, [laughs] I think it’s just something we were passionate about. We shot the movie, and we had very little money, and then there were all these other backend issues to finish the film: editing, ADR, sound, foley, color correct, music stuff, deliverables, etc. So there was a real need for what turned out to be fifty grand, and that’s basically it. We have the movie shot except for maybe one scene, so it was the simplest alternative.
I hadn’t really thought about crowdfunding, but I ran into one guy at Sundance and we ending up getting pizza, and I said, "Wait a minute, you work at Indiegogo." And they were really nice and normal, and it seemed like something to ask more questions about, so I contacted them when I was back here in LA. I wasn’t really looking to do crowdfunding, but I stumbled into a late night dinner at two in the morning with Indiegogo folk, and it was born out of that. I don’t think anybody likes asking people for money, and I’m particularly bad at it, so I’ve tried to approach it with as much levity and chilled-back mentality as possible. I think we have a lot of good prizes, a lot of small donation points, and I’ve been making a lot of videos; every day we do a free “Life Hack,” a way to make someone’s life easier here in this world. I think it helps.
How have you noticed Veep change since it started?
The show has become much bigger and more standard in scope. I think the first year was just us chasing her around the hallway, the second year I think she stepped out of her role as Vice President and tried to find out who she was as a politician, and the third season is all about her aspirations to become President, and exploring what it is to raise money legally, what groups you have to meet with — we meet with gun control lobby and go out to Silicon Valley to meet billionaire youngsters — and also testing your likability, like really molding yourself to what will get you elected, we kinda play with that.
Have you notice it change behind the scenes at all, with the writing or performing?
No, everybody is still really fun and nice, we rehearse a fair amount where we generate new ideas and new lines when the scripts come in. We get so many drafts for each script, so it’s the same process, we’re constantly writing and constantly rehearsing, and then on the day, you know there’s very little improv. I think this year we probably didn’t party as much. I think we were all busier. It was a more standard shoot, with more shots, so there was less free time.
Do you like that, or is that hard for you?
No, I like that. We find time to get together for dinner and play cards and such, but we’re in Baltimore, and you might as well be working if you’re away from home; otherwise, you get into trouble.
I wanted to talk to you about the David Cross movie that premiered at Sundance earlier this year, Hits. That has another big ensemble cast of comedians. Is that something important to you when you’re choosing projects to get involved in?
That particular project was all about David. David has great taste, and he’s super funny. I sort of revere him. I came a little bit after him, so I’ve always admired his abilities and talent. He asked me informally a year ago to read his script and he told me the role and I was like, “Oh yeah, I’d be honored. I’d be so happy.” I didn’t necessarily know who was going to be in it, but I trusted David’s taste and intelligence, so that’s how I got pulled into it. Then when I showed up on set, I was surprised by who was there. I knew everyone there, in the same way that I probably cast my movie with all my friends in the comedy world that I just called up and said, “Hey, I’ve got a small project, it’s a labor of love, it’ll be really fun, and I think you’re amazing. Would you like to do it?” We got to hang in upstate New York, and it’s beautiful up there. It was a really nice summer hang. Gorgeous.
Do you find that you usually don’t have to get involved in projects you aren’t interested in as a labor of love?
I think comedians just want to do something that’s funny, and generally things can be as funny as they want to be, but it’s a little trickier when there’s lots of money behind them. They can still be really funny; it’s just trickier to find them. I just try to choose projects that I think are going to be funny. Also people who are casting comedies, if they have the same taste as you, they’re going to cast you, so that ends up working out. The things you get cast in are usually with like-minded people because they get you and you get them.
How did you get involved in Into The Storm, the 2014 found-footage tornado movie that you’re in?
I always liked trying stunts and physical things in movies, I always have a blast hanging out with stuntmen, et cetera. So I was just talking to my manager, and asked, "Is there ever a world where I could audition for an action movie?" He happened to have something that he could get me an audition for, so it started with that.
Do you think you’d like to do more action movies in the future?
Oh yeah, I’m a great action hero! I’m an amazing action hero. I’m like a poor man’s Bruce Willis.
Do you have any other projects coming up that you’re excited for?
I’m in a group out here called The Awesome Foundation in Los Angeles. Every month, we give a thousand dollars to an awesome idea, so this month we’re giving it to a guy who’s going to take those broadcast speakers that are all over the city in case of a disaster and create a little surprise concert for people that are walking around the city with music coming out of them as opposed to air raid sirens. In the past year, we’ve given to a 12-year-old girl who made a hundred backpacks, filled them with art supplies, and distributed them to underfunded public schools, and to a guy who built a flaming piano that he could take to Burning Man. So, if anybody is from Los Angeles, or has an idea for Los Angeles, go to AwesomeFoundation.org and click on the Los Angeles chapter and submit a paragraph about what your awesome idea is.
Is there anything new happening with UCB coming up?
UCB will probably be opening up its second theater in Los Angeles come June.
And the school is going to be there too?
School will be there, classes, a big cafe. It’ll be a theater, offices, and space for a podcast center. It’ll be like a tiny junior college.
Veep premieres April 6th at 10:30PM ET.
Jenny Nelson is a writer located in Brooklyn.