For those familiar with the Los Angeles-based comedy filmmaking collective The Vacationeers, it goes without saying that one usually doesn’t need to wait long for the insanity to begin, but their second feature “It’s A Disaster” may be an exception. Set in a cozy house in the suburbs, a quartet of couples in various stages of their relationships, from Tracy (Julia Stiles) and Glenn (David Cross), who are still getting to know each other on their fourth date, to married hosts Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller), meet up for quiche and conversation amongst friends. While Tracy notes being “psychologically unfulfilled” with Glenn for turning off the car radio before hearing the end of the “1812 Overture” and once inside Emma and Pete’s home, her wily friend Lexi (Rachel Boston) tries to seduce him with talk about her glockenspiel, there’s nothing overtly odd going until the gang learns that Emma and Pete were planning to wait until the end of brunch to deliver some bad news, only to discover that the end of the world may come first.
However, “It’s A Disaster” is both far more fun and sharply honed than either its title or its premise would imply. Left to their own devices and confined to the house when what’s believed to be a dirty bomb attack cuts off their supply of power, cell phone reception and fresh oxygen outdoors, the group must deal with the potential explosions that could happen indoors, whether it’s in working out their personal issues, coming to terms with mortality or the weaponized one-liners lobbed at one another that are bound to leave the audience in giggle fits. While the less one knows about the satire, which just premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the better, three of the Vacationeers – director Todd Berger and stars Kevin Brennan and Jeff Grace – took the time to speak to me about the comedy collective’s origins, the film’s fast-paced shoot, the confidence they gained from their first feature “The Scenesters” and what exactly is a colander.
How did you meet and start collaborating together?
Todd Berger: [Kevin and I] met at the University of Texas. We were both students working at the student television station. I took a thesis class where you had to make a half-hour short film and I asked Kevin to produce it, so he produced my first real film. Then we both decided we were both going to move to Chicago together and go to Second City, but a week before we were supposed to leave, I ended up getting an agent in Hollywood and selling a script. So I moved here instead to Los Angeles and Kevin went to Chicago anyway and that’s where he met…
Jeff Grace: Kevin didn’t sell out.
TB: But I had a blast selling out. And so [Kevin] met Jeff and Blaise [Miller], our fourth troupe member who’s in the movie, in Chicago and they all buddied around.
JG: We were doing artistic pursuit on stage, stagecraft…
TB: Oh is that what Second City is?
Kevin Brennan: We weren’t slaves to the studio system. We were doing the real work.
TB: Oh yeah. Is that the sketch about the guy with the baby arms that you guys did? [all laugh] Was that art?
JG: That was Doug Bentley. Doug Bentley did some baby arms…But Kevin and I were doing Second City, Improv Olympic with Blaise and we moved out here. Todd came in as the final member of this group called The Vacationeers and we all set out to make a video every month. That’s the genesis of how we kept making stuff, then we made a feature film with “The Scenesters,” that’s very near and dear to us. Then this is our second feature and Julia Stiles was kind of a key driver in getting it made.
She had been part of one of your Web videos, right?
TB: Right, we had met her through a friend of a friend. We were all just hanging out one day and all the rage with celebrities now is to do a Funny or Die video, so she was like, “We should all do a video together.” So we did this video called “Julia Stiles Styles” where she creates an eco-friendly fashion line and people dug it.
JG: And she was really funny. I hadn’t seen her do anything supercomedic, but she was so funny in that we thought she could be really awesome as Tracy and we showed her the script and she liked Tracy.
At the premiere, it was a bit mindblowing when you said you based each one of the characters off of the eight stages of grief. Is that where you started with each of the characters?
TB: I knew that I wanted to do four couples at four different stages of their relationship — the one that’s married and wants to get divorced, the one that has a weird open relationship, but they’re very happy, a date – like they barely know each other, and then a couple that’s been engaged for way too long that probably shouldn’t be together and everybody knows it. From there, I thought how do I make the characters even more unique because once the disaster happens, they all have to react in a certain way.
I started doing some research and that’s when I stumbled upon the stages of grief, how when you find out you’re going to die, you go through these stages, so I said, well, I’ll just have each one of them react in a different way. One goes into denial, one goes into shock, one is accepting, one’s bargaining, one’s filled with hope that everything’s going to be fine, one goes into a panic and just assumes they’re all going to die and the worst is going to happen because a disaster situation brings you out. However you are deep down inside, that’s how you’re going to act during a disaster, so it’s just eight types of people and eight personalities.
“The Scenesters” seemed like it was very experimental, was it different doing something more on a straight and narrow?
TB: I love “The Scenesters,” but I think some people didn’t like it because I’m a huge plot guy, like I love plot, plot, plot, and we lost a lot of people with it because the plot is so thick. So in this movie, I thought there’s not even going to be a plot. They all find out they’re going to die. That’s all that happens. Instead, let’s focus on characters and relationships. When you do that, then you end up getting deeper and more emotional.
KB: It’s funny. There’s a few people that we work with pretty regularly and they’ve seen this and look at “Scenesters” and they’re like, that is a big movie. That should’ve been your second movie. There’s tons of locations in it, there’s all different plotlines going on. But it was an ambitious thing for our first feature, which I think ultimately has helped us. We realized we were able to pull that off. It helped us get to this level where we can say, okay, let’s do this one differently.
JG: I just remember when Todd first sent us a script, it was a super quick read and every other line was hilarious. What I thought was interesting about it for me as both a producer and an actor was how contained it was. You put these people in this house and the rules are they can’t leave. It makes for a great story because these people have to collide with each other. We even discussed in the script at one point, do we want them to go out and do we need to see the world? Quickly, we were like no, we have to keep them inside because the minute we have to let them out into the world, then you’re releasing all the tension.
How much did you think about building the world outside their door?
TB: I had to craft it so that like they had just enough information. Someone told me once that a story should be like a woman’s skirt – short enough to make it interesting, but long enough to cover the material. So the characters have to have enough information that you, the audience, isn’t wasting your mental energy going like, whoa, what’s going on? I don’t understand. But then there’s still enough mystery that certain characters like Shane [Grace’s geeky obsessive] still want to know what the fuck is happening outside, where certain other ones are like who cares, man? Like we’re all…what does it matter?
The first draft, you never had any indication of what was happening outside, to the point where even when the movie ends, you weren’t sure whether there’s actually a disaster or not. It was more ambiguous. I thought it was interesting at the Q & A last night, a woman asked, “Did you guys in your own minds really know what’s going on out there?” I was like no, because I don’t care. And a lot of people who see the movie don’t care. A lot of people who have seen the film do and they really want to know what was supposed to be happening and it’s up for you the viewer to decide.
Less ambiguous it would seem are your thoughts on cell phone plans and people’s predilection towards saying “duct” with a silent “T.” Are there niggling problems of yours in real life that find their way into the script?
TB: Of course. There’s some truth in all art, right? There’s even some parts of my own relationship issues. I got married and my wife had a garage sale when I was out of town once and it’s like a running joke for us because I’ll always be like, “Have you seen the yellow colander?” And she’s like, “Oh, I sold that at a garage sale when you were out of town.” And I’m like “What? What else did you sell?” And she’s like, “Well, you’ll have to figure it out.”
JG: I think a colander sounds exactly the kind of thing you should be selling at a garage sale. I don’t even know what a colander is.
TB: A strainer! For spaghetti.
JG: They call that a colander, huh?
TB: Yeah, and the fact that [the characters’] AT & T cell phones don’t work. There’s a lot of little things. X-Men #122, the first appearance of Alpha Flight [that’s a point of pride for Grace’s character Shane], I found at a garage sale when I was a kid for 25 cents and it was worth $35. To me, that was like the biggest find in the history of antiquing, so they’re all these…
JG: I like that you were a child antiquer. [all laugh] What a sophisticated kid you were. You must’ve found so many colanders.
What was it like picking a house to film in?
TB: When I wrote it, I [thought] this is something that we’re going to go shoot in a weekend for no money, so I wrote it imagining the house I was living in at the time. Then when the movie started getting bigger — we were getting more cast and more money — [we thought] let’s actually find a house that’s perfect [for these characters]. Not knowing what the house was going to look like, I couldn’t finalize my shot list and the DP and I didn’t know how the camera moves were going to go. It was very important that the kitchen wasn’t attached to the dining room and that the bathroom was separate from this and this was separate from that. We looked at a lot of houses and once we finally located the house and signed the deal, then I was able to really dig in. This was ten days before we shot.
JG: We were like almost a week out from shooting and [asking] the [assistant director] and the location scout, is it unusual not to have our only location locked? They’re like, “It’s not good.” We really lucked out in the house we found. There were some pretty crappy houses we looked at.
TB: The problem was they were either really crappy or they were just too big. You need room for the cameras, but they look like mansions. And Pete and Emma would not live in this mansion.
JG: There are plenty of Valley porn mansions, but they didn’t quite seem good for the tone.
TB: We saw a lot of houses that looked really good, but they looked like this room [pointing to the modern décor around us at a high-end apartment building in Los Angeles]. [Pete and Emma] get stuff at Goodwill. One of the touches that we did was all of the chairs around the table are mismatched because they don’t have a full dining room set, they just grab chairs from the other room…
JG: I think we went too far with that concept actually because I noticed there weren’t even four chairs that matched.
KB: There’s at least three.
JG: It’s like an insane person’s dining room table.
TB: But the house needed to be the ninth character in the movie and Peter Benson, our production designer, made the house seem lived in, like people have lived there for ten years and two people who are going through kind of a messy divorce have lived there recently.
David Cross said at the premiere that he felt the film really benefitted from the fact that you decided to rent the house across the street so the actors and crew could really get to know each other rather than the far more impersonal trailers that most films employ. How did that idea come about?
TB: Yeah. Who’s idea was that?
JG: That was [executive producer Eric Sherman’s] idea. It was a way to save money, but we thought it would add to the cast camaraderie because normally [the Screen Actors Guild] says that you basically have to have a separate Honeywagon trailer for everybody, which is like a large closet you live in. We thought our cast was going to be hanging out in these air-conditioned pods all day and no one’s going to hang out, so the cast had to sign off on it. [The actors] were all down with it. I thought it worked out really well actually…except the house was haunted.
You have a pretty impressive one-take shot at the start of the film, which would seem like the kind of thing you’d have to prepare for months, but it sounds like you didn’t have that luxury. How did you pull it off?
TB: There were a lot of scenes…
KB: …that should’ve been planned for months.
TB: We were on such a tight schedule. We only had 14 days from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If we went over 7 p.m., we were suddenly having to pay overtime, so there were a lot of scenes in the movie that were just these master [shots]. The scene with David [Cross] and America [Ferrera] where America’s going to the bathroom, we lit and shot that entire scene in maybe 25 minutes because we just had to end our day. Now, in the end result, there’s all these beautiful [long takes] in the movie where all the action plays out and it looks poetic and beautiful, but really it’s just an accident…I mean, some of it was planned.