Like the two warring brothers at the center of “Awful Nice,” the filmmakers behind are getting pretty good at sabotaging themselves.
“It seemed like a good idea bringing in the world’s funniest people,” said Alex Rennie, who claims he never broke character on set though one can imagine the many opportunities he had during his new movie with folks such as Christopher Meloni in “Wet Hot American Summer” mode, and Derrick Comedy’s DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes stopping by. “You don’t think, ‘Oh my God, we just blew that one. Now, we’ve got to do it again.”
As it happens, “Awful Nice” is actually a redo that was caused by people laughing too hard, but not because someone screwed up a single take. An expansion of the brusquely funny short “’92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card” that premiered at Sundance last year, director Todd Sklar wasted no time in reassembling his troops for a feature-length version that once again follows Jim (James Pumphrey) and Dave (Rennie) Brouillette, a pair of ultra-competitive brothers who can barely conceal their contempt for each other and need to come together in order to claim their inheritance after their father dies.
Like the short, there is plenty of roughhousing and rough humor in “Awful Nice,” but also more room for its two wayward heroes to grow up as they make the trek to their family home in Branson. From the sound of things, the same was true for close collaborators Sklar and Rennie as they embarked on their second feature following 2008’s “Box Elder” and while at SXSW, the two were joined by Pumphrey to talk about reworking their feature ideas after the success of their short, letting cultural artifacts tell a story and where Meloni’s bizarrely wonderful voice came from.
If the feature script was written first, after the short was successful, was it a bit of a backwards process to go back to the feature and possibly reconsider it?
Todd Sklar: It was even more backwards than that. We set out to just shoot the feature originally and we were in pre-production on it for a couple weeks. Three days before we were flying to Branson, the main producer I had been working with jumped ship because he’d been developing another project that was a little bit bigger budget and ended up going [forward], so he left us kind of in the lurch there.
Alex Rennie: For some reason, he didn’t want to live in Branson for two months.
TS: When he left, we felt like this whole shoot’s going to fall apart. What are we going to do? Doing the short was pretty much a backup option because most of our cast and the crew remained on, so we pushed the feature a couple weeks to avoid a disaster shoot and did the short. Then the plan was to always still do the feature if we felt like we could pull it off – which I don’t know that we did — but we definitely launched back into it like two-and-a-half or three weeks later. It was always on the backburner waiting for us.
This really did take some of the bones of the short such as the epic food fight scene and add meat around them. Was it weird to reshoot things you already did once?
TS: It was so weird. The weirdest part is that because when we pulled the scenes from the feature to do the little short shoot, we did like another pass on all of them, so we had a really extra couple days to get really good. As we were pulling things back in to figure out what we were going to do with the feature, we had to cut a bunch of it due to time. It was like charting the course as you’re already kind of sailing.
Alex Rennie: Which is what you’re supposed to do.
James Pumphrey: You don’t plan it out beforehand. That’s not right!
TS: Yeah, you don’t want to draw up the blueprints, then start building. You’ve got to do it as the bricks are being laid.
Because Alex and Todd write together, do you each take on the voice of one of the brothers specifically?
TS: It’s funny. Both of us are doing the…I don’t want to say a self-hating thing, but we were both giving each other shit about [who’s] the more older, responsible brother…
AR: I’m kind of the younger, loser, like shithead brother [in this one].
TS: We’re kind of doing it with each film, our perspective, but trying to also do it in a way that it balanced out the other side of the story. James has an older sister and was representing my side of the story, but he comes from [a place] more relatable to Alex, so he had the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds, depending on how you look at it.
James, was it interesting to expand your character from the short?
JP: Yeah, I feel like I’m not a good enough actor to have a character, so I act like myself a lot. I definitely pulled a lot from Todd and I think essentially, I was playing Todd. I’m like this weird guy who lives in California and doesn’t work really. [all laugh] I kind of hang out for a living. So it was nice to pretend to be a grownup for a while.
TS: You did it well. You fooled me.
AR: I was jealous of that wedding ring [James wears in the film].
JP: Oh yeah, the wedding ring was so weird. Like I was wearing a watch and a wedding ring the whole time. [Looking puzzled] Like I don’t know.
TS: That’s acting, right?
JP: Yeah, that’s acting.
What was it like to bring actors from big cities on the coasts to Branson? It must’ve been interesting to see them interact with a place you knew so well.
TS: Very much so. We wanted to get a lot of people we felt could be their own character and run with these kind of crazy roles that we had written and I think everybody who came, whether it was prior to getting to Branson, we gave them the keys to the ignition to really take off. They all went as weird and as far with it as they could and that was always the intention.
Did Christopher Meloni come up with his character’s whiny voice on his own? He goes all out with a terrible wig and mustache.
AR: He came off the plane with that! I never heard him talk normally.
TS: Yeah, he was in character the entire time. We got him to break character one time when we asked him what it was like fighting Bill Goldberg in an episode of “SVU.” That’s when he broke character. But other than that, he was in character the whole time.
AR: Showed up with that mustache. That was his mustache.
TS: He developed his own speech impediment.
JP: Flew his own plane…
TS: …Off the “Man of Steel” set. But it was funny – he developed that speech impediment. The idea was this character that he plays is this bigwig lawyer in a showbiz oriented town and we wanted to come up with a very loose excuse as to why this guy maybe didn’t make it in a third-rate showbiz world. He just didn’t have the voice for it.
One of the other particularly funny sequences in the film is a montage of the brothers taking in all the local attractions in Branson set to Ween’s “Boys Club.” Did it take a long time to shoot?
TS: That was five percent of the things we did in Branson actually. That was probably one or two days of just going around, seeing shows.
AR: One day, me and James just rode go-karts for three hours.
JP: It was one of the first days we were shooting. It was great.
AR: I remember when we were done, James is like, “Man, I never thought I’d say this before, but I’m kind of tired of riding go-karts.”
TS: And the go-kart guys made us play laser tag.
AR: Yeah, they wanted us to play laser tag with them and they bought us all pizza.
TS: That was like an eighth-grade birthday party.
Speaking of which, I think we all grew up around the same time, so when you’ve got references to the Alonzo Mourning rookie card or “Virtua Cop 2,” it took me back to a very specific place and time. Do these cultural artifacts have a special meaning to you and do you debate what to include?
TS: For us, I would say it takes up 20 percent of our daily life is talking about dumb stuff like that from the past.
AR: How to buy [the ‘90s Mountain Dew ripoff] Surge off the internet. How about Wrestlemania?
TS: Yeah, specific stuff has special meaning to us. But I think that also there are a lot of movies about a lack of coming of age for young adult men and I thought that would be a very kind of loose and subtle way to really showcase this character not being able to move on from this period of life. That’s the golden era [for him]. There’s always like “College is the best days of my life,” but nobody really looks at the stunted growth of like seventh to ninth grade were the best days of my life – that’s really where [Alex’s character] holds onto this bond he has with his brother.
And I know for us when you see a guy like [Martin] Brodeur still playing hockey, it makes you feel like “I’m still a kid” in a good way. I remembered when ‘Zo retired, it was like, wow, that’s the guy who taught me you can make a game winning shot and it’s a thing that can happen in sports. Now, he’s not playing sports anymore.
AR: [The realization] I experienced an entire career.
TS: Yeah. And my career has not even really begun yet. (laughs) You know?
That seems like it’ll change soon. You self-distributed your first film “Box Elder,” so it kept a relatively low profile, but this one is getting a big premiere at SXSW. What’s it been like?
TS: The premiere was insane.
AR: Just watching it up there after spending so much time writing it and putting so much into it, seeing people laughing…
TS: It was nuts. It played through the roof. And we had a really crazy shoot. James said it best yesterday how the shoot in a lot of ways mimicked the story in that we were trying to do this [task] that shouldn’t be impossible, but made impossible by all the ways we were doing it. Getting to the end of the line and seeing it was incredible. We could not be more excited.