No Hollywood talent arrives on the scene with a completely independent and self-contained view of genre, style or even how to be a director. All the big names you hear about behind the camera today were once interns at production offices, gofers for powerful producers of yesteryear or just served the right person coffee at the right time once.
Andrew Jay Cohen is no different. After being an assistant to Adrian Lyne on 2002’s “Unfaithful”, Cohen joined the Judd Apatow stable, assisting Apatow on early productions and eventually working with Apatow and Will Ferrell and their contemporaries on movies like “Talladega Nights”, “Funny People”, “Neighbours” and “Sausage Party”.
He talked to Moviehole.net in Los Angeles about wrangling such experienced comic talents as Ferrell and “The House” costar Amy Poehler, what actors bring to the table and how fear of numbers really is a thing.
How daunting was it for this to be your first film?
Am I allowed to say it wasn’t? No, it was obviously very, very daunting, but I was in really good hands with Will and Amy and Jason [Mantzoukas]. I had the most amazing crew, all really experienced people who were so understanding of me being a first-timer, so it really was as smooth as it could have gone.
I’ve also watched so many directors do it. Between Judd Apatow, Adrian Lyne, Adam McKay, Seth Rogen, Adam Godlberg, I watched what worked for them, what didn’t and have been secretly planning this for a long time.
Some very experienced actors say nobody directs them anyway, they just know the part and play it how they feel they should.
These guys were very open. There was a two-way street with our collaboration where they’d be supportive of ideas but having co-written the script, I think it helps legitimise you.
When you’re a writer/director you know when you were writing it what you pictured, and I think that helps, but they really wanted somebody who had an opinion and a vision of where it needs to go.
When I got Will to do the movie I had to show him a look book, and one of the images was from Casino, it was of Robert De Niro, but I photoshopped Will’s face onto it – it’s the one where he’s got the really long cigarette, wearing red by the pool or whatever.
Same with those women’s sunglasses – when he put them on it was suddenly clear that visually the scene was going to really crackle, so you just get out of the way sometimes. I think that was part of the learning process. The peeing on the lawn? That was Amy’s idea. On every set I’ve worked on ideas can come from anywhere and you’d be an idiot not to listen to it. Key grips have had jokes that have gone in the movie.
It’s about keeping an eye on ‘okay, are we telling the story I need to tell right now?’ but letting them go down the rabbit hole, because it’s so much fun.
What did Will bring that was as good as Amy peeing on the lawn?
He brought those women’s sunglasses, the actual ones. They were his wife’s or something like that and he came up with the line when someone says ‘Are those women’s sunglasses?’, and he says ‘No, they’re Italian’.
You wouldn’t have the second line without the first, and you wouldn’t have the first line without the glasses. It was this constant ping ponging of somebody says something, then you take that a little further.
I really seek it in collaborators, especially with my training. With so many writers in that Rogen-Apatow world, the expectation is almost for an actor to be a participant and a contributor as well.
We all know Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s comedy personas, but what are they like in real life?
He’s very quiet, reserved and gentle, I think I find myself talking in a lower voice with Will. But that sort of approachability and sweetness is so great to have. He’s not like the characters he plays and when the camera’s rolling he’s almost possessed.
Amy is in control at all times, there’s a level of practice she has whereas Will is okay being loose right off the bat.
Do you find yourself rewriting for the actors a little bit after you cast?
Yes. I love writing to actors. My writing partner and I pitched this to Will when the script was about 50 to 75 percent done, so after that it was really locked in to Will’s voice. Then once we had Amy, we did a rewrite based on Amy’s voice. Once we had Jason, his voice has a mind of its own. You have to give him something to go with but not give him too much, because somebody like Jason likes to explore, and I like letting him explore.
I like to feel on set like we’re almost writing on our feet, I’ll get jokes from people on pieces of paper or we’ll just yell something out if it just comes to me, a line of dialogue or a different way to deliver it. You’ll get a different kind of performance and they’ll just run with it. They’re all really good with that kind of pace.
With so many actors good at improv, does the script become more a guideline, even though you wrote it?
You shoot the script twice, or at least I do. You get what you set out to get, and then a lot of times it’s a jumping off point. It’s pointing people in a direction, but then not obsessing. Maybe if it was a drama I would obsess more about the pieces.
But with this kind of comedy, I welcome the looseness. It feels more natural and real, performances just seem to be better. We’ll use the first or second takes on some scenes, which are from the script, but when they go off script, who am I to stop them? I’m just a guy either getting in the way or helping it.
Did you make up the fear of numbers thing Will’s character has?
I actually was really surprised that we were able to pull it off in the movie. I thought it was going to be too broad and there was a lot of disagreement about whether people would buy it. But it’s a thing – look up math anxiety.
[Note – it’s called dyscalculia, like dyslexia but just with numbers.]