You’re Kind of Screwed: Todd Berger on It’s a Disaster

The director of the year's second apocalyptic comedy also gives updates on The Happytime Murders and Where's Waldo.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

It’s a Disaster premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. We ran our interview with star Julia Stiles over the summer, and writer/director Todd Berger’s news on Happytime Murders and Where’s Waldo. Now It’s a Disaster is opening the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival (www.friarsclub.com/filmfestival/) on Wednesday, Oct 24 in New York so we present the full interview with Berger. It’s a Disaster stars his Vacationeers comedy group, Stiles, David Cross, America Ferrera, Erinn Hayes and Rachel Boston as a group of couples having a brunch when they hear of a terrorist attack and barricade themselves inside.
 

CraveOnline: Who would have thought there’d be two end of the world comedies this summer, this and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World?

Todd Berger: Yeah, I know and now I read about Seth Rogen is working on one and Simon Pegg is working on one. Maybe it’s just all this 2012 talk about the world coming to an end, it’s on everybody’s brain. But then, part of the fun of this movie is you don’t really know the extent of the disaster, so is it the end of the world? Is it only affecting a few cities? Is it a worldwide thing? Are these people going to die? Is everybody going to die? It’s one of the questions of uncertainty that these people have, that also I would want the audience to have of who knows how big this disaster actually is? Perhaps 99% of the world is fine. Perhaps 28 Days Later style, it’s just them that’s affected, not really any other places. Or perhaps, who knows, maybe everybody’s going to die like in The Stand and they’re going to have to form good versus evil.
 

It sounds like you’re as well versed in this genre as I am. Have you been fascinated by this for a long time?

Yeah, I love post-apocalyptic literature and movies and the disaster genre, going back to Towering Inferno and all the Airport movies. I remember watching Airport ‘79, the one that’s about the Concorde, and then Airplane being a spoof of that kind of disaster movie.  Airplane was one of my favorite movies when I was younger, and the idea that you could make fun of a genre movie that’s about a horrible situation, but make light of it, that’s always stuck with me. I love zombie movies. I just love a group of strangers. Daylight, the Sylvester Stallone movie where they’re all stuck in the tunnel that’s flooding.
 

I think Daylight is the most underrated movie of that ‘90s disaster wave.

I agree. That was when we had Armageddon and Deep Impact in the same magnificent summer. We had Con Air.
 

The two volcano movies of course.

That’s right. We had Dante’s Peak and Volcano. So you know what, if Volcano and Dante’s Peak could coexist, then Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and It’s a Disaster can coexist. That’s what I say.
 

Daylight really came up with a lot of challenges those strangers had to work through together.

The scene in Daylight when they come across the weird catacombs, if I remember correctly, it’s been a while, there’s like the underground secret room that had been there for like 100 years. I remember that being so fascinating because I believe they shot the movie in Italy, in Rome but it’s set in New York. He was like a taxi driver but not really a taxi driver. He drove like a Lincoln towncar. But it was shot in Italy, set in New York and there were a lot of odd things about it. Man, Stallone, that was ’96 and it was [right before] the Copland Stallone renaissance. But he’s back now with The Expendables and Expendables 2 so I think we’re in good hands.
 

My favorite thing about disaster and post-apocalyptic movies is when the survivors have to find supplies. Is that something that fascinates you?

Oh yeah, I always think even for myself, because when the Japanese tsunami happened, my wife and I were like, “Do we have a fire extinguisher?” We don’t even know, do we have those things? There’s always the scene in the movie where they go to the basement or they go to the closet and they have so much stuff. They have water and granola bars because they’re always like, “Well, we’ve got enough food for four days.” I was just watching Flight of the Phoenix actually for some reason, the Dennis Quaid remake, and there’s the scene where they go through supplies and they’re like, “Well, we have enough water for 28 days” or something. I was like, “What? Why do you have that?” So we actually went out to Costco the next day and bought an emergency kit and a fire extinguisher and flashlights just so we could be prepared. What’s funny, and which is part of It’s a Disaster, is that you assume you’re going to be home when the earthquake or the terrorist attack hits but most likely you’re not. You’ll probably be at your friend’s house or you’ll be in your car or you’ll be at work. Then you’re kind of screwed because all the supplies you bought are sitting at home and you’re going to have to go figure it out.
 

What were the hardest scenes to get through without your actors breaking?

[Laughs] The big dinner sequences, kind of the first table sequence when everyone’s seated and everyone’s just talking about what they do for a living, I had told the actors to improv, do a lot of improv because I really wanted to make it seem like these people are friends and in real life, friends talk over each other, they interrupt each other, they throw in little asides. So I told everyone to just improv and just pretend like you guys are friends and talk. Everybody was so funny that people just kept saying things that were making everybody laugh. Sometimes it was appropriate because that character would’ve actually said that. But then sometimes somebody like David Cross would just say something jokingly incredibly racist, that his character would never say, but just to be funny and everyone would just lose it. So eventually we had to be like, “Okay, everybody calm down and everybody get straight faced and let’s try this again.” Also there’s a scene that I won’t get too much into because it’s a twist, but there’s a scene between David and Julia in the basement that was very hard to get through for everyone, just because of David’s performance.
 

Did shooting in one location, the house, turn out to be helpful for making an indie film or more of a pain than you expected?

Well, once we got started it was nice because we never had to move base camp, everybody was allowed to set up their equipment and didn’t have to move it for two weeks. But, it was quite difficult to find the house. We had to find a house that fit perfectly with our intentions that the people living there would let us move in basically for three weeks. We had 14 days to shoot the movie from 7AM to 7PM and we ended up finding a house where people lived and they had to be okay with it. So we went through a lot of houses, and in our price range because we didn’t have a ton of money, but luckily we had the perfect house. We found it by accident because we were actually location scouting a different house and just happened to see a web series was shooting in this house. We just noticed their grip truck outside. We just walked over and said, “What are you guys doing?” And it was the first time that these people had ever allowed anyone to shoot in their house. It was a “Walking Dead” web series actually. You can watch online. It’s the same house and all the same rooms that we used. It’s dressed differently but it’s really weird because you get to know the house so well when you watch our movie that when you then watch another thing set in the same house it’s just kind of trippy. It ended up being great. The only downside was that the first week we shot it was like 105 degrees and it was a 100-year-old house without any air conditioning really, so that kinda sucked.
 

You didn’t have an air conditioning tube that’s on all the film sets?

We did. We got it eventually but we had to turn it off whenever we were shooting. We had these three or four minute long take sequences where we would have to turn it off and we would just hope that people wouldn’t start sweating before we yelled cut. It was decent but it would get the house from about 105 degrees to about 90 degrees which is still very hot, but it definitely helped.
 

How did you conceive of eight character types for the maximum possible conflict?

Well, first I thought of the four couples because I wanted four couples of varying relationship degrees. So one couple’s on their third date, one couple’s been married for eight years, one couple has a weird open relationship, one couple’s engaged but they’ve kind of been engaged too long and maybe shouldn’t be together. Once I had that, I had to figure out how do I differentiate these eight characters? I decided to base each character on one of the stages of grief. You go through anger, denial, shock, bargaining, hope, acceptance and these are all feelings that we go through one at a time. I said oh, I’ve got eight characters. How about I just have each one of them respond in a different way to this disaster, in the way that a human being would respond, all at once. That helped the most when I was writing the script. It helped knowing where that character was coming from and of course the characters don’t stay that way the entire movie, because there is character development and people change, but that’s where they all start from. That helps motivate their relationships with each other and with the outside world.
 

Who was the bargaining one?

Pete, Blaise [Miller]’s character. He was bargaining. He’s the guy who’s just trying to get everybody to calm down. “Hey, why don’t we all just figure this out? Why don’t we all look for supplies?” Lexi, Rachel Boston’s character, represents denial because she thinks this is all fake, it’s probably a prank, let’s not worry about it. America Ferrera’s character Hedy goes into shock and just acts completely irrational because she’s in that state of shock.
 

What prompted you to get this gang together and make the movie?

I’m in a comedy group called The Vacationeers with the three other guys in the movie, Kevin, Jeff and Blaise. I had been just looking for something to write you could do small, in one location, that could be fairly easy to shoot. I’d had this idea a long time ago about Night of the Living Dead, because the 1960s version of Night of the Living Dead is public domain. So I had this idea of why don’t we take Night of the Living Dead and shoot a bunch of new footage in black and white and have it like a couples board game night in 1967, and then there’s a zombie invasion and they have to deal with it while also dealing with their own relationship issues. Then splice the movie together and make a whole new movie. Then I just thought, “Man, that would be really hard to fake that.” Also zombie movies, Shaun of the Dead is such a perfect satire of zombie movies, that ground has been covered. But I still liked the idea of a bunch of people trapped in a house when something terrible happens. So I came up with this idea of okay, what about a terrorist attack? That’s pretty funny. I just decided to stick with the same theme and change it from zombie invasion to a bunch of dirty bombs getting set off to address our post-9/11 fears because I thought it’d be quick and easy. Then we got Julia involved because we had known Julia, we’d shot a viral video with her a few years ago. We sent her the script and said, “Hey, are you interested in this? Would you ever do this?” She read it and liked it, and once we had her on board we were like oh, sweet. She then recommended America and America then recommended David. We’d been big fans of Erinn Hayes and Rachel Boston for a while so we approached them and soon enough we had our cast. Everything went swimmingly.
 

That Night of the Living Dead idea sounds pretty clever, and one of the better repurposings of the public domain property we’ve seen. Would you ever still do that?

Sure. I think it’d be fun. Or now, if someone else wants to do it, they can go right ahead because it’s public domain but I would still totally love to that. I mean, I love Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the Steve Martin movie where they repurpose all the film noir clips. And What’s Up, Tiger Lily? It would be a cheap and effective way to make a brand new movie, so maybe one day I’ll do it or maybe someone will beat me to it now that I’m putting the idea out there for the world.
 

What are you doing next?

I’m writing a bunch of stuff right now. I have a project with The Jim Henson movie called The Happytime Murders that’s like an R-rated puppet movie that Brian Henson’s going to direct. Katherine Heigl’s attached to it. We’re still casting it so that’s been exciting. I’m working on the Where’s Waldo movie for MGM which is really a movie that writes itself. That’s been keeping me busy and I have several other lower budget independent scripts that I would love to make. As soon as the dust settles from our Disaster, we’ll see which one to take off the old pile and try to get some money and go out there and make.
 

Are you being sarcastic that Where’s Waldo writes itself?

I am being sarcastic, yes.
 

How did you crack that?

I can’t tell you. It’s going to be live-action. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be an adventure but the plot that we came up with, I think it’s pretty clever but I think legally I’m not even allowed to talk about it. I’ll just tell you that it’s going to be fun. Once it’s introduced to the world, I think people are going to be like, “Oh, that’s a good idea. I like that.”
 

With The Happytime Murders, do you get to create new Muppets?

Yeah, Brian has already been working on the main character puppet, the Creature Shop has already made a few test puppets that I’ve met in person that are amazing. Then the whole world, because it’s not associated with The Muppets which are owned by Disney, so the whole world, because it’s a movie in which puppets and humans coexist, a lot of the supporting characters are all puppets. They have a puppet improv group called Stuffed and Unstrung that tours around America doing improv shows so they’re going to use a lot of those puppets but they’re also going to create a bunch of new ones. There’s a whole cast of characters in the script that they’re going to create from scratch.
 

What are the challenges of writing a comedy mystery?

To keep it actually mysterious. Brian was very keen on this mystery actually needs to be interesting so that even if you took all the comedy out of it, it’s still going to be interesting to watch. So we tried very hard. I want to try to make the Heat of puppet movies. I want it to be the Dark Knight or Heat but in a world where puppets and humans co-exist.
 

Could it possibly be PG-13?

Oh no, it’s R. It is full on R. There’s swearing, there’s sex, violence, murder. There’s no way. Maybe with some work it could be PG-13 but as of now, we’ve embraced the R rating.
 

That’s pretty ambitious on Brian’s part.

Yeah, he’s very excited about it.
 

I am too. Labyrinth is my favorite movie so I’d love to see them go back to doing original Muppet stuff.

Oh nice. Yeah, that’s one of my favorites.