Just a little over a week after the NBA shut down their season out of fears of the COVID-19 and the seriousness of the virus took hold, Jeremy Garelick had read an article in the Syracuse Post-Standard about Budmen Industries, a 3D printer company that had begun making face shields for hospital workers and first responders out of their home. Garelick had been gearing up to start on the next movie from American High, the studio he had started out of Liverpool, New York, but instead, he and Molle DeBartolo, who runs the studio’s physical operations, teamed with Isaac Budmen and Stephanie Keefe of Budmen Industries to quickly pivot to a different kind of production.
“I immediately reached out to [Budmen] and said, ‘Hey, I read about you. How can we help? We’ve got space. We’ve got people. We’ve got PR. We could raise money. You just need to tell us what we can do to help,” says Garelick, who opened his 50,000-foot school to house 15 printers that could operate 24 hours a day where volunteers arrived to help to pump out masks. “We were able to get 25,000 face shields to basically every hospital, nursing home, and police/fire [unit] before anyone was able to start making these things on a mass level and I feel really proud because Onondaga County, the area where we are, the coronavirus level is really, really low. I just can’t help but think [the faceshields] had a big part in just cutting this off very quickly early on.”
The creativity and efficiency involved in such a response came naturally to Garelick, who had first come to upstate New York when he located an abandoned middle school to set a series of coming-of-age comedies like the ones he cherished when he was younger. Falling out of fashion when major studios couldn’t justify the cost of marketing smaller-scale films, the writer/director ponied up some of the money he had accrued with the hits he made in Hollywood, writing “The Break-Up” and directing “The Wedding Ringer,” to buy the school to use as a soundstage and created a studio with financing from Mickey Liddell’s LD Entertainment that could produce artist-driven films that are often daring both in their humor and their capacity to be heartfelt.
You could argue that it isn’t just American High’s role in making masks that has been a lifesaver during this most dire of summers when the five films that the studio produced so far since its founding in 2017 have hit streaming services, promising a pick-me-up every time its neon logo appears on the screen. With comedies such as “Banana Split” and “Big Time Adolescence,” Garelick has championed exciting new filmmakers with a wicked sense of humor and though running a studio certainly takes time, he carved out enough to direct “The Binge,” an enjoyably raucous riff on “The Purge” in which high school friends Griffin (Skyler Gisondo) and Hags (Dexter Darden) are about to get their first taste of liquor and then some in the not-so-distant future where the institution of prohibition has made recreational drugs and alcohol legal for just one day a year where all bets are off.
It isn’t just the kids that push the limits over the course of a night that sees them lose eyebrows and break into song-and-dance numbers when they get a little too intoxicated, but the film itself, which climaxes at a most debaucherous event known as the Gauntlet, and with Garelick enlisting his old pal Vince Vaughn as the harried high school principal, “The Binge” may see time slow down for its intoxicated heroes, trying to hold off the next phase of their lives, but it’s quick-witted and fleet-footed. On the eve of its premiere today on Hulu, the director spoke about how a studio he built to make the kinds of movies that made him feel good is now doing the same for audiences across the country, the opportunities he’s been creating for others and how he wanted to do a different kind of drug comedy with “The Binge.”
When you conceived of American High, did you know this would be a big enough playground for you to spend a few years in?
I grew up loving the John Hughes movies and “Risky Business” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and when I was in college, I took a screenwriting course with Professor Mark Lapadula and I wrote a high school script and I turned it in. He read it and said, “I really love the script, but it’s not the right time. You should think about what’s going to sell. Like how can you start your career?” And he started talking about something called the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory where in pop culture lives in 20-year cycles. If you look at all the dominant movies that happened 20 years ago, there is this standstill and when I graduated, “American Pie” came out and 19 or so other high school movies — so many that they actually made “Not Another Teen Movie” — so that was a moment and then there was another dip.
That’s when I realized, “Oh, we might have something here,” [because] I knew there was a lull in high school movies, but these were the movies that I grew up loving. While I was working on bigger studio movies, I was really, as a side job, was working on developing high school scripts and said I know one day I’ll be allowed to make them, never really having any sort of plan. But having gone through the studio system, I realized there’s so much money that’s wasted in bigger studio films. If we owned a high school and controlled the environment, we’d be able to go and recreate these movies, so this all started three or four years ago.
I also love the fact that they’re all about firsts – the first time you’re falling in love, the first time you discover your parents aren’t perfect, it’s the first time you learn to drive a car or sip alcohol or smoke weed. I think there’s just something so relatable to watching someone do a first and that’s why I was just really drawn to the whole teen genre.
When you’re running a mini-studio like this, has it been easier to be creative or harder when you’ve got to balance out the time you spend with day-to-day operations?
Every time I read a script right now, I’m able to say “Oh, this is where we can shoot this. This is the person we can call to bring in to do this. This is the corner where we were going to do this. The difficulty of making a movie is taken out, which is the great challenge. We remove that from the process because we know where we’re shooting, we know for the most part who our crew is going to be. We know the process of editorial. We know the music. So we’ve eliminated a lot of the decision making for things that aren’t part of the director’s vision for the movie.
It seems like you’ve also given a lot of people their first opportunity to work in the industry when there’s a whole section devoted to training, the Academy at Syracuse Studios. Has it been a priority to give people a leg up to working in the film business?
It’s sort the karma payback that I always feel good about because when I was getting into the business, I had pretty amazing mentors – Joel Schumacher, Todd Phillips – and I always want to pay that back. But then there’s just the practical nature of essentially building an industry where an industry didn’t really exist. When we first came here to do “Holly Slept Over,” there was no industry and we essentially had interns be trained by our department heads and those interns, the ones that were really good, were the ones that were hired on our next movie “Banana Split.” Then there were interns that were hired off of that and then we had more interns step in and get trained and by the time we made “The Binge,” we probably hired 50-75 people that had never worked on a movie before when we first got here, but then we trained them and [now they’re] qualified union members of the crew who are part of our American High family.
You’re able to pull off an amazing musical number with that crew in “The Binge.” How did that come about?
I didn’t want any of the side effects of the drugs to be like anything you’ve seen before and I was pushing Jordan [VanDina, the screenwriter] like, “Every time they take a drug, what can we do that’s a little bit different?” Jordan’s a genius and it’s his first movie and he could not have been a more collaborative partner on this, and we just came up with the idea of, “Let’s do a musical number.” I had worked with [composers] Matt Bowen and Chris Lennertz before and they’re both just geniuses. I also worked on a musical for Universal and spent a lot of time working with Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz on a movie for Josh Gad, and I’ve just always loved musicals, so the idea of making a musical about getting high and drunk just seems like it could be so much fun. I reached out to Travis Wall to do the choreography after we had worked together on “The Wedding Ringer,” [where] he did the dance moves for Josh Gad and Kevin Hart, so I was like, “You’ve got to do this.”
My producing partner Michael Schade really helped coordinate a lot of the efforts and it’s challenging because the crew had to really give me a lot of trust because they’re like, “Oh, there’s a musical sequence too?” I’m really glad they let us do that and it was probably the most fun scene to shoot and to prepare for. You can probably tell from the result we had a good time doing it.
It makes you stick around for the end credits when it extends into different musical genres.
It’s funny because we had three or four [other pop] songs in there when we first had the credits on, and I was like, “You know what, I want everyone to be singing [“Let’s Get High”] as they’re walking out of the theater,” [but the song wasn’t long enough] and and I didn’t want to put another song at the end, so I’m like let’s just add more to the end of it. [laughs] I wanted them to be singing the songs, and in corona time, [you can sing them] walking off of the couch. [laughs] I didn’t anticipate these movies would go straight to streaming. My whole thought when I started was we’re going to make these movies and we’re going to put them in theaters and people are going to go watch them, but we just want to make people laugh and our goal was to bring laughter to everybody.