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It was my mistake to go into the directorial debut of Upright Citizens Brigade founder Matt Besser and Neil Mahoney thinking that “Freak Dance” would be a mere spoof of dance films. A genre that often is a parody of itself, it didn’t need another with cheesy one-liners about spandex and potshots at their hackneyed plotting. No, what it needed was grand Broadway-style musical numbers and enough surreal humor to power past the obvious and “Freak Dance” becomes something indefinable as it does things such as staging a “Yo Momma” battle set to song or a love ballad while its leads are bathing themselves in pig’s blood that are so skillfully performed they wouldn’t be out of place in “Sweeney Todd.”
Contrary to its title, “Freak Dance” features a cadre of krumpers that actually don’t advocate “sex dancing” – as their bandana-clad leader Funky Bunch (Michael Daniel Cassady) points out, that bulge in his pants isn’t meant to be suggestive, but serves the purpose of balancing himself. He’s forced to make such clarifications after taking the place of the group’s fallen chief Asteroid (Hal Rudnick), who fell from the sky in an unfortunate accident while dancing on the roof, and needs to come up with a bundle of cash to save their dance lair from destruction by competing in a danceoff.
Of course, that’s pretty much the logline for every dance film ever made, but it was the way in which it literally hit home for Besser and his UCB brethren in 2003 that led to the creation of “Freak Dance,” first as a stage show then a film, when New York building inspectors shut down the comedy troupe’s instantly legendary club in Chelsea because of an unsafe “egress.” [The term for a rear exit that’s perhaps unfamiliar to anyone except for contractors, it has now been permanently been committed to tune in one of the film’s more memorable numbers about building code violations.] Without the money necessary for a proper renovation, Besser channeled the work that didn’t go into propping up the original UCB Theater in New York, which has since moved to West 26th Street, into plans for layered harmonizing and obsessive viewings of “Step Up,” “Breakin’” and, just because, “The Warriors.”
As with all the films to date from UCB alums such as 2007’s spring break comedy “Wild Girls Gone” and Matt Walsh’s trippy road flick “High Road,” which accompanied “Freak Dance” to the Austin Film Festival this week, Besser and Mahoney’s first feature didn’t come easy, but as they explain below, despite the film’s low budget and a staggering 13-day shoot (especially when you consider the scale of the musical sequences), the film is full of passion akin to the lambada with the unexpected laughs of the film with that title. While they were in Austin, the two graciously sat down to talk about their collaboration.
So this all started because of an egress?
Matt Besser: The New York City building department came in and said that the UCB Theater in New York didn’t have a second egress. And we did not. [slight laugh] We had no money at that point, so we had these big improv shows to raise money and that got me thinking, hey this is just like [dance movie]…when a community center gets shut down and there’s a big dance contest. That got me watching those movies again and all of a sudden, I became addicted to dance movies and that inspired making a musical.
What was surprising to me was I expected a Zucker-type parody and there’s actually almost a bigger influence of Sondheim-like show tunes.
NM: The point of the stage show that we tried to stay true to during the making of the film was not to make the dancing or the singing a joke [because it was bad]. We didn’t want it to be just throwaway and unimportant. We wanted all of it to be as good as we thought the funny parts were funny. Both of us coming from comedy backgrounds, that was definitely the hardest part to deal with, but we gave it a lot of attention.
MB: All [dance movies] do have all these clichés and the same plot, so to us, the story isn’t as important as everything else. Ours is a pretty absurd story, but you think about “Rocky Horror Picture Show” [and it’s really] a parody of “Frankenstein,” but you don’t ever really think of it that way. It just seems like they create their own world and that’s what we set out to do.
NM: I actually come much more from that side of things. I’ve not been as experienced in improv, but I came from more of TV production and short video production with very small budgets where everything has to be planned out. I was working at Funny or Die at the time where we had miniscule budgets to do pretty grand-scale shoots with celebrities who only have an hour. And if you don’t get what you need in an hour, you don’t get them again. That’s it. So the kind of attention to the structure and the rigidity of it, that was more my side of the process.
MB: Yeah, because I wrote it originally as a screenplay to be a movie. If it had gone straight from screenplay to be made a movie, [without ever been produced] on the stage, I don’t think it would’ve been nearly as good because just being able to hone everything over two years really helped.
It does have that ambition to it, and it works completely as a whole, but with a lot of comedy these days being compressed, I couldn’t help but notice this also has a kind of has an episodic feel. Is that something you actually intended?
MB: I think maybe what you see is that every scene I wanted there to be something that we were really excited about shooting. That was a goal of ours. Hopefully you think everything’s funny, but every scene had to have at least that one thing where there will be the special thing that will make it pop out and memorable.
NM: And being able to hang the movie on kind of this preexisting structure of all dance movies really. It was just taking those scenes and going, okay, we need to advance this part of a story here, but what are we going to do to have fun while we do that. So that’s where a lot of the more ambitious dance numbers came in.
UCB is a brand that could seemingly get financing for projects on a larger scale than this from studios or otherwise, but that you’ve perhaps opted for lower budgets with more creative control. Has that actually been the case?
MB: We were offered $40 million by Universal to make this film and I said, “No.” [laughs] They wanted Johnny Depp to be the lead and I said no! I do not want that much attention.
NM: I did not know that.
MB: Yeah, I’m sorry to tell you. But…that is true what you’re saying. We do have complete creative control and that is one of the things that is so fucking awesome about doing your own movie and financing it. If we had tried to sell it, they probably would’ve made us change a lot of stuff. There’s no way we would’ve had the same cast and I feel like our cast was the best cast. I have lots of funny friends that are from my peer group that I grew up doing comedy with that I could’ve cast, but I think these guys, most of them or a good majority that are completely unknown, did the best.
NM: They had two years of rehearsals. I don’t care who you get, you’re not going to get a better cast than that.
The reason I ask that is because there are other comedy troupes out there that have the same wherewithal, but perhaps not the same mandate that UCB seems to have to make movies.
MB: I don’t know. It takes a long time to make a movie though. This took us from writing it until right now, it’s been almost a decade. And “Wild Girls Gone” from making it to making it street legal, it took six years. Everything takes so long in making movies, you have to be really patient and understand that’s what the process is.
What was it like to direct? You’re both first-time feature directors.
NM: It was as challenging and terrible as I hoped. [laughs]
MB: He had the hard part…I had the hard part writing and honing for two years, but then when we got down to the actual shoot days, Neil was working much harder than I was.
NM: In my mind, I had said, okay, well, I’ve done a lot of shorts and viral stuff and things like that and I go, well, this is just like eight of those back to back. But it was as tough as I could’ve imagined it because we shot the whole thing in 13 days, which is a ridiculously short amount of time for anything, nevermind with musical dance choreographed scenes like that. It was really exhausting. I got three hours of sleep a night and then I had a physical collapse afterwards.
You spoke earlier about wanting to respect the dance and musical aspects of this. Were the professional dancers actually arriving on set and wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into with such crazy numbers?
MB: They were psyched to do the movie too. We were actually surprised by how many great dancers we got. I think Quest Crew and Beat Freaks are both amazing [from “America’s Best Dance Crew”]. I had watched them both on television and just thought they’re really great acts, so when they came in, they didn’t even have to audition.
NM: Yeah, we held auditions for two days about a month and a half before shooting and they were just open auditions. It was an embarrassment of riches. We couldn’t find places for all the people we wanted to put in the movie. Some scenes were just invented [because] we’ve got to use these guys somewhere.
I guess it means there’s room for a sequel, but I was a little disappointed that there were the introductions of all these dance crews you wanted to follow for the final dance-off, but you didn’t get to see them in action like the dancing Hasidic Jews.
NM: That was actually our camera department in the rabbinical outfits.
MB: It’s funny how much bearded cinematographers can look like rabbis.
There’s a scroll that Asteroid holds that’s treated as the holy grail since it has all of his signature Freak Dance moves, but it isn’t onscreen long enough to tell for sure — did someone actually draw all the Freak Dance moves [most of them quite sexually explicit]?
MB: It’s most of them, yeah.
NM: It was amazing. We knew we needed that prop, but we’re so busy in the preproduction, I didn’t really analyze everything that was being made. But the day that that thing showed up and I was…it was so perfect. And I still have it.
MB: That’s actually a great example of what an entire crew brings creatively to a project because we didn’t create that. We just asked for a scroll and they come up with something so awesome like that.
MB: I don’t know if this answers the question, but I’ve run a few TV shows and I really like my whole staff and crew to be into the project. Even if it’s just the third electrical grip and he’s not into it? It bugs the crap out of me. I don’t want it to be just a job for anyone. And I know it is a job for everyone. I can’t expect everyone to love my project, but when they do, I really love them back, so a lot of the people who were on the crew of “Freak Dance” were either people that I’ve worked with before and loved because I knew they’d be into it or Neil had the same feeling. When you get more removed from that, you may get people that are…
NM: Watching the clock.
MB: Yeah, you can really find the bigger the production is, the more of that there is and it’s a real bummer. I’ve been on sitcom sets where after the director says “Cut, I like it” then everyone laughs. They’re like, “oh, that was great” and they’re really into it and everyone’s laughing. I just did a sitcom where it was “cut,” no one would laugh afterwards and it’s like God, no one’s having fun here and it shows. And you can tell every department has the person that’s really into it and really creative and some people are just showing up. The people who are into it and love it and think it’s funny and are creative, I think they’ll go further.
NM: For me, it’s very hard, especially with visual elements for things that I’m doing, to let go and let someone else do it because I’m used to doing all that stuff myself, so when those elements come back to me and they’re better than I could’ve expected, it’s the best feeling ever. It’s really like some sort of sign that this is going to go well and it just helps me feel better about what we’re doing.
MB: With the special effects, like the barge going down the street effect [late in the film], that was always one of those things that I wrote and it’s easy to write, but how do you pull it off? And we fucking pulled it off. It was done by people who were really good at what they do and a lot went into that barge – somebody had to go and actually shoot a barge at some point.
NM: Someone went to Cincinnati and shot a barge.
What was the most fun you had on this film?
MB: The final scene was a lot of fun to shoot. We were inside this empty pool and that’s always something I had in the back of my head as a cool place to have a danceoff. We got all these extras and every extra was a real dancer, so I found that really exciting. It was also nightmarish because it was a night shoot and you’re up all night and it gets cold.
NM: And it was Halloween.
MB: I forgot about that. So there’s a nightmare elements to it. It’s like going on outward bound to me. Once you’ve done it, you feel better and stronger.