Inside ‘The Spoils Before Dying’ with Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele
From their work on SNL to Funny or Die to Casa de mi Padre, Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont have consistently created some of the most uniquely funny, delightfully confusing, and film buff-friendly work over the past two decades. Their latest project The Spoils Before Dying is a followup to last year’s IFC “epic” miniseries The Spoils of Babylon, shifting focus this time from soapy ’50s oil tycoons in forbidden love to a retro jazz scene murder mystery with a star-studded cast led by Michael Kenneth Williams and Kristen Wiig. Ahead of the Spoils premiere, I spoke with Piedmont and Steele — who cowrote both series with Piedmont directing — about what it was like working with author Eric Jonrosh, which films inspired the series the most, and why worrying about genres and labels should always come second to making something you love.
It seems like every other week there’s news that Funny or Die is producing another new TV show or movie. Andrew, as creative director over there, how are things?
Steele: Oh yeah. We have a lot going on right now. In fact, I think there are a few TV shows we have in the pilot stage right now that I don’t know anything about, and I’m usually the person on top of that, so yeah. It’s pretty bizarre and wonderful.
What did you both learn making The Spoils of Babylon that maybe helped you approach the new series?
Piedmont: That we have no business in show business, I think that’s what we learned most of all.
Steele: [laughs] I don’t know. Matt and I are pretty stubborn human beings, so we don’t learn a lot. I guess we learned that it’s hard to make TV on a shoestring budget. I would say we learned that.
Piedmont: But I would say also that we learned that we put something out there that’s very specific and that we like — it’s a party everyone’s invited to and hopefully everyone will enjoy it — but what we learned is that more people actually enjoy it than we thought. So it’s nice to know that maybe there’s room for stuff like this that is a little bit in its own niche, but it seems like people appreciated it, so that was a pleasant surprise.
How’d you decide on what story you wanted to tell this time?
Steele: It was a toss-up. We had a few things swirling around, and somehow we settled on this one. I don’t even know how we settled on this one, Matt.
Piedmont: After the first one they wanted to do another one right away, and at the time it came up to be renewed this is where we landed. It happens organically. That’s kind of a hippy-dippy answer, but we knew that we loved jazz, we loved this era of the ’50s, so we kind of just put it all together.
Did you know off the bat that some of the actors would return for another one? Did knowing the cast members factor into developing the story or characters?
Steele: Not really. I mean, we did have people who wanted to do it with us again, but I don’t think we let it completely determine things. This one has a lot of music — we have a lot of people singing — so Maya Rudolph was an obvious choice because we know how well she sings. So there’s a little crossover there where we thought some casting would be contingent over writing, but in general, I think we just write then hope we can get our friends and a great cast to be part of it, and I think that’s what happened.
Piedmont: It’s kind of like being a door-to-door salesman where we hope to trick people into doing these roles, which we seem to been able to do. [laughs]
You mentioned how Maya Rudolph makes sense because of her singing talent, but after watching the first episode I’ve got to say: Kristen Wiig is an amazing singer! I know she’s talented, but I was shocked.
Steele: I’ve gotta be honest: It shocked us too. And by the way, that song was hardly worked out. She hardly had any time to rehearse it. She walked into a booth, sang it, and improv’d the end of it, in key, in front of us. We were literally blown away.
Piedmont: And she sings another song in a later episode that I think is even a better song, and she’s even more skilled at it. And I won’t spoil it, but she has another skill as well you’ll be maybe shocked to know that she has. But she’s a brilliant singer and she nailed two songs in an afternoon, and it’s like a revelation. Like Steele said, we both knew that she couldn’t be more talented, but the fact that she literally came in there and nailed a very complicated jazzy song right away was a miracle.
Steele: And don’t take away from Maya too…
Piedmont: She’s brilliant.
Steele: We just knew that she had that skill because of SNL and…
Piedmont: …and Maya’s mother is Minnie Riperton, so we knew Maya comes by it naturally and has a legacy of singing chops.
The Spoils of Babylon drew from a lot of different cinematic inspirations, which Matt told us about last year: ’50s films like Written on the Wind and Bigger Than Life. What were your biggest inspirations for The Spoils Before Dying?
Steele: We both love noir, we both love period jazz and other things. And Matt sort of veered me in a different direction, which was really fun. We both went and saw a Godard film about two months before starting this…
Piedmont: Band of Outsiders, yeah. Bande à part.
Steele: We liked it, and since noir’s been done so much in parody, we wanted to have a slightly different take. We started to kind of play around with a combination of things and if you listen to Eric Jonrosh in the beginning talk about the project, he bloviates about pretentious French films and stuff, which was fun for us.
Piedmont: Yeah, we kind of took that noir thing of, you know, the Touch of Evil-style, black-and-white thing and combined it with maybe Young Man with a Horn, more of a CinemaScope widescreen Kirk Douglas film. And then by way of that, Godard and colored French films like Contempt with Brigitte Bardot or Une femme est une femme — some of those widescreen French films that look beautiful and have their own weird rhythms with their shots, widescreen and in this kind of bright, high-contrast color, so it’s a soup of all those things. It’s got noir elements but it’s obviously in this kind of very Kodachrome-style color palette, so it’s a mixture of a lot of things. But those three are kind of it: It’s a Hollywood piece about a guy with a horn like Kirk Douglas crossed with a French film crossed with noir. I’m not sure if it works, but…
Steele: Also, I would say the other style is when you have four hours to shoot nine pages. Then you have some other kind of style that’s happening there, too.
Piedmont: Well that’s the Trojan horse of what we say and then basically whatever we feel like doing, we do. So that’s good in the glossy eight-page program they send out, but then really you look at it it’s like “That doesn’t really relate to anything.” [laughs]
The Spoils series is really interesting in the technical aspect, because you can’t watch, review, or critique the show without trying to understand all the things beyond the writing and acting — the directing, the lenses used, the cinematography and lighting, the miniature sets, and everything else. All those things are like characters in the show in a way — compared to some other shows and movies where it’s easy to ignore the technical side of things.
Steele: I know our comedy — and I know Matt would agree — but there’s just different kinds. Like, a big Adam Sandler film usually is shot in a pretty meat-and-potatoes way; that doesn’t take away from the fact that the writing or the comedians are funny, but we just like to concentrate on something different.
Piedmont: Yeah, to me it’s something you hear all the time: “Oh, just overlight it and do it and it doesn’t matter — just get the performance,” which, you know, to some extent could be true for certain things. I think we love combining, even pretentiously, the love of cinema and staging and cinematography with the writing and comedy, and I think they can go hand-in-hand even though maybe the convention is that they don’t go hand-in-hand. I think that every time people watch something and go “Oh! That is a good combination!” is what interests us. And again, it’s not an exclusive thing for us. Hopefully if you don’t know any references it exists as a cool fun thing, but if you do know some of the references or whatever, it can be a fun thing for those two people to enjoy.
I’ve read interviews in the past where you two have been reluctant to embrace the “parody” label with some of your work.
Piedmont: That’s probably just a way of justifying. It’s like how every comedian wants to be rock star and every serious filmmaker wants to do comedy. I think it’s just more of avoiding the label. We don’t ever see it as a parody where we’re making fun of something, or even a satire. Really, I think it is a blend of stuff. And it’s not always very funny; I think for our comedy, sometimes some people can say we deliberately don’t go for a joke, and then sometimes next visually we do a Tex Avery type of thing that’s kind of ridiculous and hopefully we recover from that. But I think that’s what it is — it’s a blend of influences and then we make it our own thing. We’re never doing anything that’s a straight parody. It’s always something that was influenced by something else — whether it’s a piece of art or whatever it is, and it sounds so pretentious now that I say it — but this is stuff that we care about and we’re making something that we’d wanna see and that we’d personally enjoy, with an eye to completely entertain the audience, but there’s a final staple for both of us which is “Do we like it and do we wanna see it?” And if we do then it stays in.
It also seems like genres are blurring these days more than ever, especially between things like comedy and drama or parody and sendup.
Steele: Yeah, you’ll see in Spoils Matt borrow the Dutch angle from a noir shooting or something like that, and we both borrow language from old cop shows or old noir things. I think it’s interesting to see that there are noir shows out there that are put in different contexts now — they’re in the ’60s or they have color or look different, but they’re considered noir. I think people do like using genres as a kind of shorthand to maybe do some other stuff with, which is sort of the way we look at it too. We don’t look at it as parody so much as just another format that you can go in and out of that everyone understands.
Piedmont: That’s a good point. It’s almost like we try to sell it as one genre, and then within it tap into multiple genres. So those are the well-worn things that people kind of know, and then if we can we’ll just veer a few degrees off of that to where we like it. I think that makes it easier to swallow — something where you know the expectations of the genre, and if we subvert them a little bit, then maybe it’s easier to follow, if that makes sense.
That reminds me of the Lifetime movie Andrew wrote recently starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Which was really not a comedy at all.
Steele: That is written as a complete and straight Lifetime movie. There is not a wink or a nod in the movie in any sense except for the fact that Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are starring in it.
Piedmont: It’s brilliant.
I love how weird that setup is — take an SNL and Funny or Die writer, two huge comedy stars, and make a totally straight Lifetime movie. It’s just so unexpected…I don’t know.
Steele: [laughs] You picked the perfect response: “…I don’t know.”
Piedmont: When you think about what would be the ultimate, it would be if you did a Lifetime movie and didn’t have it be a comedy. I mean it’s certainly funny because it’s those people, but what if you committed to that? It was like for us: What if we committed to doing a miniseries? There’s no reason to do that, it’s just that we wanted to do that. What happens in lots of stuff, like the movie we did Casa de mi Padre, is I think people expect one thing like “Oh they’re parodying this,” and then it makes a lot of people angry but opens up another door to people saying that it’s their new favorite thing. So it’s a lot of five stars and a lot of one stars. There’s not a lot of “Eh, this was good. It was okay.”
Both of you spent some time as SNL writers before moving on to other things. Obviously landing a writing job at SNL is a top goal for a lot of aspiring TV writers, so I’m curious: What’s it like after you get that then move on? To experience the dream job, leave, then figure out what’s next?
Steele: Matt and I still write sketches to this day and did before SNL and after, and I think about it a lot, because what’s great about SNL is it’s very formal training that’s fun and allowed us to be free, and for the most part it’s almost the perfect academy for comedy people. And then like anything, when you go through that academy for…Matt five or six years, me 13 years, you just want to start playing around with other forms. Look at Will Ferrell — he wants to do it all the time too. Kristen Wiig likes changing it up by doing a Sundance film or a serious role — you just like playing around in the medium a little more just because you’ve been doing it for so long. But with that said, it’s a great foundation for any of that, I think.
Piedmont: It is also the best thing in that you can write a different thing every week, which I think appeals certainly to my ADD sensibility. And as far as the structure of SNL, Lorne’s always fond of saying that you go on at 11:30 on Saturday because it’s 11:30, not because you’re ready — it’s because you have to go on. I found that I missed that very much and when I segued into directing commercials and stuff the pace and the stress of that is similar, but I really miss that. But once you leave Saturday Night Live, it’s still kind of like a breakup. It’s like this whole part of your life and then you don’t have it, and then you have to figure out what the next step is and it’s not quite as…you know. It’s your crystal meth and now you’ve gotta go down to coffee, so it’s a little bit of an adjustment. But once you get that adjustment, then you can move on to the next phase.
The Spoils Before Dying will be the second Eric Jonrosh book to get the miniseries adaptation…how many books does he have total? I think I remember something around 20?
Piedmont: I think there’s 40 total, but I think three of them…one’s passed into the public domain, and two of them, I think the rights are tied up in some kind of Belgian publisher right now.
Oh I see. So stay tuned, I guess?
Piedmont: Stay tuned!
The Spoils Before Dying premieres on IFC tonight at 9:00pm.