Our Favorites ’11 – Interview: Dave Green on the “Saved by the Bell”/”Final Destination” Mashup “New Romance”

The director of one of the year's most popular viral videos talks about spoofing two of his generation's guiltiest pleasures in a short that's a pleasure all its own....

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Although these things usually come as a surprise, there was reason to believe the video for Miles Fisher’s “New Romance” was destined for viral success, not only because of the killer hook on Fisher's song co-produced by Rooney frontman Robert Schwartzman, but also the literally killer hook of combining “Saved by the Bell” with “Final Destination” to ridiculous effect. Celebrating the gruesome, tongue-in-cheek death scenes of the latter and the earnestness of the former, “New Romance” took the best of both series and transcended them as Fisher and the rest of the stars of “Final Destination 5” are beheaded and crushed by lockers playing characters resembling Zack, Kelly, Lisa, Jesse, Slater and Screech.

Though I didn’t know who directed it at first, such a mix of the madcap and the macabre could only be the work of Dave Green, a filmmaker who I’ve been following since seeing his short “Meltdown” at Fantastic Fest in 2009, comprised entirely of talking leftovers in a refrigerator fearful of the encroaching ice from the freezer section. He would return to the festival a year later with the web series “Zombie Roadkill,” which featured Thomas Haden Church as a park ranger forced to deal with the undead, and like all of Green’s shorts, which are readily available at his personal site, it’s well-orchestrated mayhem.

Since debuting in August, “New Romance” racked up over 700,000 hits on YouTube, at least a thousand of which came from the computer this article was written on, so in saluting our favorites from this year, I had to get in touch with Green to talk about how the clip came together, which involves an intriguing backstory about how a personal project was financed as a promotional tool, recreating slightly imperfect “Saved by the Bell” sets and many, many blood bags.

DaveGreenStoryboardNewRomanceSince I’m always curious, how did you get interested in filmmaking?

When I was a kid, I had a big VHS camcorder that was my parents’ camera and all of my friends were kind of goofballs and actors in weird ways, so part of our activities as eight-year-olds and 10-year-olds was hey, want to come over and make a movie? And it grew from there. I just kept making short films and fell in love with it. I was also an artist when I was a kid. I would do tons of drawings. I think I was too young to see “Ghostbusters” in the theaters, but I would go see these movies and then I’d come home and I’d draw basically what were storyboards for the movie I had just seen. I didn’t really realize they were storyboards at the time, but I just loved drawing and telling stories with the pictures and it was like a weird translation into short filmmaking once I had gotten my hands on a camera.

How did you get involved in “New Romance”?

I was friends with Miles Fisher. He and I had done his first music video, which is like a musical version of “American Psycho” [set to a cover version of the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place”]. When I’d go over to Miles’ house, occasionally he would just be watching “American Psycho” and he loved the world and wanted to live in Patrick Bateman’s universe every single day of his life. I think the idea for “New Romance” came about the same way because he loved “Saved by the Bell” growing up and part of him just always wanted to be Zack Morris. He played me the song actually last May and basically it was a catchy, very sugary pop song, perfect for girls flipping their hair in slow motion and lockers and a kind of “90210”/’80s vibe. Then he had this idea about being in a kind of “Saved by the Bell” universe and we took it from there.

There were a couple opportunities we had with different brands to make the video. At one point, there was a razor brand and a couple other brands that might’ve been interested in paying for the video and working in a little bit of product placement, but that never panned out, so it was six or eight months we were trying to figure out okay, who can pay for this video? [“This Must Be The Place”] was cheap enough for Miles to finance and then this second video was much bigger – we had all these sets. Miles got cast in “Final Destination 5” and we were [worried] he’s going to disappear for a few months and we’d lose our window. But it ended up being great because Miles, who’s this great salesman, ended up talking to the producers of “FD5” and showed them the first video and said, hey, I’ve got this other song. And they said yes.

Me and Jake Avnet, the producer, and Miles all went into this meeting at Warner Bros’ marketing and played them the song and said, “This girl’s going to get hit by a locker… and all this stuff’s going to happen.” From there, it was like “Okay, great, how quickly can you do it?”

NewRomanceDancingDo you really follow the song when putting together a throughline or do you and Miles hatch out a storyline together?

We worked pretty closely together on this. I had an idea that Zack [played by Fisher] is trying to get [Jacqueline MacInnes Wood’s] Kelly’s attention this whole video and that’s the thrust of every set-piece. Meanwhile, all this other stuff is happening in the background and Zack and Kelly are the last ones to go and they don’t really notice or care that all these super-grim things are happening during the course of the day.

There’s little bits of narration that matched up with the dialogue and with the singing  — Miles really digs when he has a line from the song and hooks into this character [which] hooks into that character, so we gave everyone a motivation with the lyrics that existed before we even knew we were going to do this video. Then there’s little gags like Screech playing with his chicken that just come up as you’re figuring things out and as I was storyboarding.

Were you a fan of “Saved by the Bell” yourself or was this totally Miles’ thing?

The weird thing was I was watching whatever was on that time block, I’m sure, on a different channel. I don’t know if it was “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Ren & Stimpy,” but I never happened to be watching “Saved by the Bell” when the other kids were. We had to do a “Saved by the Bell” research session. Miles would say, “Okay, Jesse eats these speed pills – This is super important to the entire show.” So I was like okay, okay.

"American Psycho" was one of my favorite movies, so when we did the “American Psycho” video, before I rewatched the movie, I just sat down and thought okay, from 10 years ago, what did I still remember about the movie without even revisiting it? All the stuff that’s totally iconic to that movie? For me, it was [the same for this]. It was important that we didn’t get any bits that were too niche for the “Saved by the Bell” stuff like all the “Saved by the Bell” fans would get, not just the “Saved by the Bell” freaks.

NewRomanceCaffeinePillsLike myself. The caffeine pills were definitely iconic, but sadly, you don’t have Zach stopping time or Screech’s robot. Did you have debates about which stuff would go in?

We did. We were considering the robot and another one of the producers on the video, my buddy Ryan Hendricks knew the show really, really well. He was helping us find extra people to be in the video and we noticed there are these two twins that are basically background actors in every single episode. They’re dressed exactly alike, these two girls, so for a while, we were trying to find these twins. There was a lot of little gags from the show we were trying to fit in, just like little pieces of set dressing like “Call the teen hotline.”

Recreating their hangout, The Max, must’ve been a huge undertaking.

We weren’t really allowed to do everything to the T in terms of set design. If you look closely, the floor in the Max is different. They’ve got a red and white painted floor in the Max and you walk down two steps to get into the main area, but for budget reasons and also for legal reasons, we didn’t want to get too close to the exact exact. What’s interesting to me is I see all the differences between the Max and what our set is, but yet in the collective memory, it kind of works because if you haven’t seen the show in a while and you’re not looking at a side-by-side image of the original Max with our set, people are like “Oh yeah, that’s the exact thing.”

Since it’s a parody, you avoid a lot of rights issues, but it sounds like there still must’ve been concerns.

There were. [slight laugh] I wasn’t worried about it because I wasn’t on the wire, but Warners wanted to be respectful. The whole thing was done in the spirit of fun and we were really trying to honor the spirit of the original show.

NewRomanceLockerDo you have a favorite kill out of the bunch of them?

The locker falling is probably my favorite. I’ve always been a big fan of blood. Can you be a fan of blood?

I think you can, because I’ve also seen “Zombie Roadkill.”

Yeah. [laughs] I’m a fan of blood. When we shot that, we knew how we were going to do it, but we didn’t necessarily think we were going to do both the lockers falling and the blood bag exploding in the same moment. We always thought we would crush the lockers and then do a blood pass and composite them together, so shooting that practically, everyone reacts like “Whoa!” You don’t get that reaction if you’re just compositing everything together, so the combined effect of the sound effect happening on set and the lockers actually falling a couple feet away from the actors – that was just really fun to do.

My friend sent me something a couple days after the video came out and he sent me a link to a five-second GIF sequence of basically Miles and the girl dancing and then cutting to Ellen [Wroe] with the lockers and she’s reaching for help. The GIF had several thousand hits on it, so it was like its own entity, and maybe people have seen the GIF and they’re like what video is this from?

You probably had some idea this would be a hit, but what’s it like for you to have something go viral like this?

It’s always a surprise. On this video, we knew people loved the show might be interested in checking this out, but at the same time when you’re going through the process of shooting the thing, you’re trying to make it the best it can be and there are doubts. You don’t really know how people are going to react until it’s out there, so with this video, it was really fun because people were really picking up on all the little details that were making us laugh while we were shooting it. On YouTube, they would tag a certain timecode in the video and go to the credits at the end where my editor would put “Executive Producer: Graham Reaper, Casting Director: Lou Sifer” and say look at this, look at that. It’s very neat and then I could send that stuff to my editor and say, hey, check this out, you’re really famous and embarrass him.

Given all the people and everything flying around, the final dance sequence has to be one of the most difficult scenes you’ve had to pull off. What was it like to shoot?

We used every single extra that we had. Everything you see was basically all of the resources that we had, so you’ll see background actors running left to right and then in the next shot, you’ll see them running from left to right again. Our friends who had visited the set that day were in there and people from every department — we were like, “throw records, throw records!” The tough part was a lot of people were laughing and that was the hardest thing to control because it was so much fun and people did have gore makeup on them and we were tossing records at them. Meanwhile, PJ Byrne, who is playing Screech was screaming and being hilarious and getting everyone to act like they were totally freaked out of their minds was the biggest thing, trying to make sure everyone was serious in that moment. The stuntgirl who did…

NewRomanceGirlonFireWho was on fire.

Who was on fire, she was a real trooper. We were only supposed to do one or two takes of that and ended up doing five or so. She was very cool and cooperative and then we wrapped. One of the more challenging parts was the style of “Saved by the Bell” the television show is hugely different than the style of the “Final Destination” movies just from a camerawork perspective. “Final Destination” is all slow motion and extremely dramatic and the lighting is really dynamic and “Saved by the Bell” is extremely flat, so trying to merge those was the trickiest part, especially when you’re shooting action. I wanted to be really sure that I didn’t do anything they wouldn’t do on “Saved by the Bell” and there’s maybe one or two moments that escape the sitcom storytelling mode — the shot of the girl with the milkshake in slow motion because they never do slow motion on “Saved by the Bell” — but I wanted to do as Spike Jonze did with the Weezer video [“Buddy Holly”].

That’s one of the things I admired most was how you were able to do so much with those limitations.

It was so tempting, especially for my DP. When I first called him, he was like, “It’s a shame we have to make everything so flat.” We both were really bummed about it and when we were in editing, we actually exported the whole thing to VHS and then captured it again, so it wasn’t an artificial VHS kind of vibe – it was real VHS. It looks so bad it’s fantastic. We showed it to Warner Bros and it just looked so bad and so real in a way that my only fear about it was people would watch, not even know that it was [and] pass it by. I still really love that version and maybe someday I’ll put it out there.

What are you working on next?

Actually, I did a music video with TJ Miller recently and that should be coming out pretty soon. It’s for his Comedy Central album, so TJ and I had a fun time getting really bizarre together. For that one, I’m really curious how people react. If I saw that video, I don’t know how I’d react.

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