With all due respect to the fine midnight movies at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, no film scared the ever-living crap out of me more than “May the Best Man Win,” a hidden-camera comedy that sees its three stars Drew Tarver, Whit Thomas and Rosa Salazar sneak up on unsuspecting civilians and do everything from the nearly-benign act of making a stranger move from a park bench to setting off an all-out war between armies made up of Ronald McDonalds and Colonel Sanders. And while most of these acts are hilarious, a sinking fear set in when I realized that some of these mortifying incidents such as when Salazar begins to eat off of people’s plates in a mall food court was taking place in my very own hometown of Burbank.
“That could be any of us,” Tarver faintly reassured me when we sat down to speak a day after the film’s premiere, though his co-star Salazar showed no sympathy, even taking more than a little pleasure in telling me, “I’m glad you felt that way.”
In fact, part of why “May the Best Man Win” works as well as it does is based on that dynamic. Having not exactly set the world on fire with their YouTube clips of low-level stunts, a pair of pranksters (Tarver and Thomas) recruit a girl to join them, thinking it’ll boost the popularity of their web videos. While they’re not wrong on that count, they couldn’t have possibly known in Salazar they were getting someone even crazier than they are, pushing the two to create such content as a show where Tarver confronts philanderers, only he interrogates men with no such problems in front of their wives, and Thomas is coerced into literally handling a male porn star to impress her.
Amazingly, despite the many threats to their livelihood that are captured throughout the film, Tarver, Salazar and the film’s mastermind Andrew O’Connor, who has long specialized in such shenanigans as a producer of the British hidden camera show “Balls of Steel,” made it to their premiere intact, alive to tell the tale of how they tapped into the real fears of the public and of themselves to create one jaw-dropping stunt after another.
Andrew, I know you’ve been doing prank shows in recent years, but you produced magic specials before that. Is there any connection between making those two kinds of productions?
Andrew O’Connor: We’ve made a lot of fun chasing that. This movie has definitely got a magic element as in, is it real, isn’t it real, how’s it done? There’s definitely something about what point does a movie become full narrative, at what point is it improv? We also are playing with that genre, so there’s definitely a magic correlation.
How did you get interested in these type of hidden camera/prank productions?
AO: I’ve always loved comedy and some of the funniest things I ever saw as a kid were on “Candid Camera.” We had an idea what that was about – people’s real reactions. It’s unfiltered. When you get a see a stand-up work and he stops doing the act and talks at the audience, [the fact that] it’s real, happening in the moment really appeals to me. And that’s the great thing about a prank, isn’t it? The prank’s only as good as the person that you’re hitting and their reactions to it, so it only happens once and you captured it once with that camera. That makes it a very visceral experience.
Your actors use their real names. Did you draw upon their real personalities for some of the pranks or their characters? For instance, Drew is airlifted because he’s said to have a fear of heights. [Drew and Rosa join the conversation.]
AO: [to Drew] I was just asked if you were genuinely afraid of heights.
Drew Tarver: Yes.
AO: He genuinely is. We did that because he’s afraid. He genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen before we were done. None of that was scripted. We set the tables to see what happened. If it was scripted, Rosa would have said more.
If you had sometimes literally no idea what you were getting into, whatever made you think to yourselves this would be a good idea to star in?
Rosa Salazar: I just was doing this kind of dumb shit my whole life, then finally, a great script came along that gave me the opportunity to do that and get paid for it with friends of mine that are very talented.
DT: Yeah, I wanted the opportunity to have real stuff to be able to improvise [with] and work that muscle and have that be on camera because it’s fun to get real reactions.
Was it a challenge to interact with real people as opposed to fellow improv actors?
DT: It makes it easier a lot of the time because you have to listen. You have to get that adrenaline running and you’re always nervous, so you’re just on edge.
RS: You have to pay attention and calm yourself. I get a weird high from it. I just like doing it anyway, and now people are going to film it.
There’s a scene in the film where you’re at a mall asking passerbys to participate in a “Jizz for Jews” program in which you’re collecting semen samples to aid the Middle East peace process, and Rosa looks genuinely shocked when someone takes up the cause. Was that the most shocking moment of the shoot?
DT: Yeah, that was for sure the craziest. The biggest surprise.
RS: It’s like he came to the mall just to do that and not go to [the hat store] Lids.
DT: Yeah, he showed up [like] well, I’m going to go joke with them and have fun at the mall real quick, and I’m going to hit the doctor’s office…”
RS: In a suit!
DT: Yeah, we had a meeting where [Andrew and the production team] were telling us all the pranks. There were big chunks of the script that were just vague or blocked out because they didn’t want us to know exactly all the pranks that we had and we had to figure out all of them. We had this table read where we just went through all the pranks that we were going to do about a week before we started filming, and they were so crazy, and for the most part, I just didn’t think anybody was going to buy it.
RS: I didn’t think anyone was going to be so gullible.
DT: I was having a breakdown, like at the conference table, I was [saying], “We’re going to get dressed up like this and act like this and people are going to buy this? You think people are going to…” because I’m so aware of it. I would never even go up to a tent or talk to people.
RS: Yeah, no one thinks that they’re being pranked. You’d have to be a total psychopath to be like, “Here it comes again. Everyone’s filming me. I’m the stalker.” No one thinks that, so of course they would have a fertility crisis in Israel [“Jizz for Jews”] tent, and of course people would be actually coming up to it. And every type of person came up to it, like [there was a] frat boy, dads, old people, little kids. Everyone came up to this tent. At that meeting about the pranks, I just was okay. We’ll do this, but I also didn’t believe it.
DT: When you’re lying to people, you know you’re lying, and you know you’re doing this thing, but they just don’t.
RS: People only see what you let them see.
AO: [pointing at Rosa and Drew] Their acting abilities are so strong that that’s what carries it as well.
Was there a particularly fun day to shoot? Some of these look like you might have had a really good time.
AO: Did you find it all painful?
AO: When I would pitch the movie, I’d say it’s about these two blokes who do pranks and they’re good at it, but they find this girl whose more fearless than they are. That’s what happened and the movie [actually] followed the storyline of the script.
DT: I would say, bravery-wise, it would be Rosa, Whit, and then me, for sure.
RS: I don’t know about that. Whit plays like I’m holding back, but he’s a good boy.
DT: He’s definitely affected by it. Afterwards, I feel less remorse than Whit does, so I’m ahead of him remorse-wise.
AO: Less morals.
RS: I have zero to begin with. I’m not going anywhere.
DT: It was a roller coaster each day. It’s a lot of scary work that leads up to a prank and then doing it, when you get it and it goes well, it’s a blast.
RS: I could only think, “Ah, I can’t wait for this to go well.” The dogstitute [for which Salazar plays a pimp for] that’s in the [end] credits, that was the only one where it was like, “Is this guy going to kill me? I might get killed, but I’m going to see this through.”
AO: When we were in Nevada, [we told Rosa],”Okay, you’ve got two chums and a little t-shirt. There’s a big man over there. Go up to him and ask him if he’ll cum on your breasts. Okay, ready, set, go!” What? Here we go! Fearless. No matter how funny the movie is, it’s much funnier in Nevada watching it live. I was crying with laughter.
RS: You can hear them like, “Now go up to him with that.” And you’re like, “All right.” The movie is in their hands, really. We just have to get that from them, somehow.
Is there a cultural difference between the reactions you would get here and the reactions you would get in England?
AO: The people have slightly bigger reactions here, but sometimes a small reaction can be funny, too. I think we’re all American. We’re all into the same TV. I think of it all as entertainment, and apart from people’s slightly bigger reactions here, I’d say, not really.
RS: Because the team behind the movie was all-British, they know comedy. We didn’t have to worry about that. But so much fucking tea! You’re in America, drink coffee! Espresso!
DT: Too much tea.
RS: [Andrew] would bring a little Rubbermaid container of milk.
DT: I think culturally the British care less about racial stuff. It doesn’t affect them as much. They’re just done with it. It’s just like, “Yeah, no, this isn’t a big deal.” It’s more of a big deal here.
RS: Which I think is great because they need to ease up.
DT: “They” being the American people.
RS: Yeah, especially when we’re like, “Ah, that was a long time ago. We’re such an old country.”
DT: Speaking as a privileged white person, let’s ease up. [laughs]
“May the Best Man Win” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW twice more on March 12 at 9:30 pm at the Stateside Theatre and March 14 at the Marchesa at 4:45 pm.