Improvisation in cinema has been tried a few times over history. The films of auteur Robert Altman were noted to use a script as merely a blueprint from which the actors improvised from. As the sophistication of certain audiences has risen, improvisation on screen has become more frequent with shows such as Larry David’s cult status show Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Matt Walsh, one of UCB’s founder, is now stepping into the arena by making his directorial debut with an improvised alternative ensemble road rom com High Road telling the story of Fitz, played by UCB perfomer James Pumphrey, a pot dealer who decides to go on the lam after a pot deal gone bad.
Taking a kid played by fresh face Dylan O’Brien that he’s mentoring, Fitz goes to meet his Dad, played by Rich Fulcher, while trying to maintain his rock opera band and finding out his girlfriend Monica, played by Abby Elliot is pregnant. Also, Ed Helms, Horatio Sanz, Zach Woods, Kyle Gass, and many more in the movie.
Needless to say, Matt Walsh’s High Road is becoming one of this year’s most highly anticipated comedies, even though it’s just running through the film festival circuit right now. I had a chance to speak to Walsh about the movie, it’s unique approach to story and performing, and where he’ll go next as a filmmaker.
How did the idea for High Road come about?
It’s loosely based on a friend of mine from Chicago who was a part time pot dealer who through certain circumstances ended up not doing it anymore.
Did you take that experience and develop a sketch and eventually wanting to develop it as a feature?
No, it was written as a screenplay with a friend of mine, Josh Weiner. He was kind of the character it was based on and my friend was sort of the idea to start it. We wrote a screenplay and then, for High Road itself, I always liked that story, so we decided to sort of strip it down to its story elements and so it became an improvised movie.
There are writing credits including Josh Weiner and yourself for High Road. How improvised exactly is this movie?
The dialogue is pretty much 100% improvised. We had 65, roughly, scenes tight. We cracked the story and spent a lot of time on breaking the story. At the end of the day we had 65 scenes, character arcs for the main characters, and locations and all of that figured. So, we had a solid story. Beneath each scene heading would be a paragraph description of what should happen.
Like Curb Your Enthusiasm?
It’s a little more detailed than Curb. Curb is very thinly written. This is a little more written than that. There’s a pretty good paragraph of who comes in and what information gets passed on before ‘so and so’ comes in. It’s at least a paragraph of description beneath each scene, which will say the plot points and everything else., but the lines were all improvised.
A big element of High Road is “Triangle Theory.” What exactly is the Triangle Theory and its role in High Road?
Triangle theory probably came out of me being a Chicago Bulls fan. The Phil Jackson triangle offense was something I always read about in Chicago and that’s probably somewhere in the back of my mind and probably where it comes from. The way it applies in our movie is basically it’s kind of a crackpot theory on the world invented by a stoner, but it does sort of apply to his life because he has a mom, a dad, and himself and that was his “triangle,” then when his mom passed away, his life broke apart.
He just had some events happen in his life and through pot usage, he came up with this “triangle theory”. At any moment, there’s three forces or three things in play that make a triangle. I love how everyone in the movie has their own take on Triangle Theory despite what Fitz thinks.
Everybody has their own “triangle.”
“The Triangle Theory” speaks to the improvised nature of the movie, which makes me wonder how would you actually going about shooting scenes in production?
Well, we kind of shot the movie documentary style. I had Hilary Spera, my DP, and she’s done a lot of documentaries. So we really had people that knew how to capture things that are unplanned. Then, we spent a couple weeks of rehearsal in the theatre working on improvising characters and relationships, spending a lot of time understanding who we the characters were. It was scenes that won’t appear in the movie, but more just exercises that really hone down who the characters are, what their relationships are, and what their histories are.
Then, on set, if we’re going to do a scene where Monica (Abby Elliot) and Fitz (James Pumphrey) have a fight, and in the middle of it Uncle Creepy (Kyle Gass) comes over, we’d start the scene with Fitz and Jimmy (Dylan O’Brien) and we would talk it through, then they would have real conversation in the moment on what they’re doing or what’s going in the movie. Then, we would have Monica come in and sort of say that you have this thing to talk about, the couch fight, and then we would give Uncle Creepy a cue to come in.
It was very loosely talked about. Then, we would just block a little for camera and then just shoot it. You make tweaks as you go. You shoot what you need “informationally” and looks most useful, what’s most pleasing to the eye. When you go in for coverage if we had time, we’d discover things and find that that’s a good riff and go back and do it again. That’s when you direct and explore or even rewrite lines.
Did you ever feel that it unraveled at any point like it became a David Fincher production with 70-80 takes?
I definitely have a litmus or an internal clock that says this feels self-indulgent, let’s move on.
That’s good. I like that…
If you have 60 different jokes and we’re only going to use one, let’s move on. There were times where people were being really funny and I was hoping that it would fit into the reality of our movie and it did, fortunately. There were times when I just went with it and it was pretty crazy, like when I had Horatio Sanz for a day and he was really funny.
I imagine that must be tough with people like Horatio Sanz or even Rich Fulcher who I’ve only seen live once, but imagining him getting carte blanche to improvise, I think, can just go off the deep end.
Yeah. He’s great because his character needs to be crazy and loopy. His story is that he lost his mind when the mother died; he plays James Pumphrey’s/Fitz’s dad and went off the deep end, which we see later in the movie.
What exactly is Rich’s role as he, in the trailer, is wearing drag?
Rich is the estranged father of Fitz. He plays Arnie Fitzgerald and Fitz is his son Glen Fitzgerald. They haven’t been in touch and supposedly Arnie has cleaned his life up, but Fitz is still mad at him for bailing on the family, basically, or bailing on his childhood. So, because Fitz has nowhere to run because of pot deal gone bad, he thinks, “Fuck it, i’ll go see my dad,” that kind of thing.
With all of that in mind in how you would go about shooting, how many cuts of High Road are there?
There’s only one. There’s the 83 minute final cut. There are additional jokes that will make the DVD. We had another guy, Alex Hanawalt; he was the editor. He helped me sift through everything.
I was just curious as High Road is all improvised dialogue and you don’t really know if it’ll work until you put it all together.
You cut it to story. We had our outline, so we knew what story we had to tell, but then, there’s so much more additional information you want to find out if you have time for it. All the jokes are improvised, but there are small storylines developed through improv because once you catch onto something like we discovered this guy’s a libra or something for the rest of the film we would stick to that. I knew that was really funny quality or a really funny idea, so let’s make sure we pay tribute to that in other scenes in the movie.
I love that there’s organic approach to High Road, but it’s not like a “mumblecore” movie, is it?
No, it’s not that. I’ve seen some of those movies, but this is more of a hard outline. I mean were going for comedy, it’s not some existential exploration of relationships through conversation. Like we have a scene where Monica finds out Fitz is a pot dealer and the game of that scene is that everyone knows that Fitz is a pot dealer. So she has a conversation with her friend where she tells her that she found out that Fitz deals pot and her friends suprised, “you didn’t know that he dealt pot?
Everyone knows that. He deals tons of pot,” then she gets it, but they keep pounding it home how much we weed was selling. That’s the game and that’s in the story/script. So, I guess that each scene, comedically, has a game or a dynamic that hopefully the actors can explore.
There’s a mountain of recognizable talent in High Road with this cast from Ed Helms, Kyle Gass, Zach Woods, Lizzy Caplan, Horatio Sanz, Rob Riggle, and even more. How did you make it all come together?
I know most of these people. The only person I never met or hang out with was Dylan O’Brien, the boy that Fitz mentors in the film, and we had straight ahead casting calls for 25 young actors that can look 16 that are 18 so we can work them. Everyone else was just a phone call from me. “I think we’re doing this movie in July, do you have a couple of weeks? No money. everyone’s paid the same, but it’s a fun movie and a fun cast.” People were very cool about doing it.
They’re all UCB, right?
Most of them are. Matt Jones, and of course, James Pumphrey, Zach Woods all studied at the theatre. Helms did UCB a little bit, but he was more of a stand up.
Ed still does a lot of stuff at UCB LA.
Yeah, he’s definitely a big part of the theatre. Whenever he’s in town, he loves to do stuff for the the theatre.
As mentioned before, there’s a lot of recognizable talent in this movie, big names, and though I think James Pumphrey is hilarious from his performances at the Midnight Show, he’s relatively unknown. So, I’m curious, why you chose him as the star?
James sort of has a unique, natural quality where things I’ve written or created, his talents applies to. I did a TV show for Spike called Players and we cast him as the bartender whose not a bumpkin, but sort of a simple minded guy and he was perfect for that role. He has a good look and he’s a really talented improviser, which lends itself to the things I’m doing. So, James, to me, once I had written it and having worked with James on the TV show, I thought that he’d be perfect. I think a lot of what he was asked to do was “writerly” a lot of the time.
He had to carry the movie in his head, knowing it better than anyone, while playing a straight man to all these crazy characters he would meet. People like Ed Helms would come in for a day or Kyle Gass would come in for a day. So, he would basically just be reacting that he would be introduced to. He didn’t have to necessarily be funny, but he had to play it real and listen. He’s really funny and he’s also a really good actor, so he can play it real.
You’re one of the founders of the UCB and have been a figure in sketch comedy for years. Why now have High Road be your directorial debut?
I think I’ve always wanted to direct an improvised movie. I’ve done friends movies and some legit movies where they let you improvise inside the script. I feel like I’ve garnered enough experience to feel comfortable. Then, on the TV show, Players, I was allowed to direct a few episodes and I think I was beginning to understand what you need to do when you’re directing improv.
I’ve done stage shows and stuff over the years, obviously. I think it was just a combination of timing because I had some time open up and this script that I had that I really liked and my exposure to directing stuff for television. It all really came together and I really wanted to do this.
How did you manage to get High Road into production?
Well, I was originally was just going to do it for no money and then my manager said, “Let me make a call.” He set up a meeting at the Gersh Agency. They heard the idea and then had someone in line that was interested in projects like this that’s very low budget. So these guys from North Dakota, Northern Lights, they’re called; I had a meeting with one of the guys and they loved it. Fortunately, for me, they understood the sort of movement that is UCB or the movement that is alternative comedy. Then, I mentioned the sort of guys that would probably do it, but no guarantees, that kind of thing. We were very lucky as they were very few meetings. I think it was because it was small.
So you avoided “development hell?”
I really did. In my mind, I was going to make it for $0 or whatever we got. I knew I had a window of time and I told my manager to not book anything, I’m going to make this movie and I’ll use my own money. My manager said, “hold on a minute,” and he put us in a room with people that had sort of the same comedy taste as us and we were very lucky. Once we had the money, I’ve worked with enough D.P.s and art people that I could kind of make calls and say, “This is what were doing, are you available?”
That’s amazing when everything comes together like that.
I don’t want to piss anybody off that’s pushing their script up a hill, but we were very lucky. I do feel kind of blessed that it came together so easily.
As you hinted at earlier, would you label this as an “alternative comedy” movie?
It could be an alternative romantic comedy movie. I don’t think that personally fits in, but it’s a big part of it. It’s also an improvised comedy and it’s also an ensemble comedy, so it has all of those elements.
I kept watching the trailer and I thought, on the surface, you could call it a stoner road comedy, but that’s not entirely indicative of the movie.
I think it’s pretty smart or at least realistically played for a concept comedy. We do get out of the stoner world pretty quickly like finding he’s a pot dealer, his life doesn’t change, and he’s in danger of getting stuck then all of sudden he’s forced out on the road and then there’s a kid who has problems at home and ends up going on the road with him for various reasons. Basically by the end of the road trip, they both grow up. But, once they get out of the stoner world, which is pretty much the first act, it’s pretty turns into a road movie.
High Road is debuting at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 29 and is going to play at the Seattle International Film Festival. Do you have any traction with distribution yet?
Not yet, but fortunately it was a modest budget for us so I feel like it will be a success for the investors on some level. Still, we don’t have anyone who has tried to buy the movie yet. Literally, I’m finishing the movie this week, so it’s not ready.
Are you trying to get it into other festivals?
I don’t know what else there’s talk of. Northern Lights has their own plans as to how to break this movie in regards to the festival route. In a perfect world, we would get in touch with sort of the underground audience or the comedy nerd audience and that would be the starting point. Then, hopefully we would get into smaller theaters somehow and if we’re lucky enough it catches on and if not, all of our fans got to see it.
It sounds like you had a great time making High Road. Are there any more movies in your future?
I have a screenplay that I wrote with a friend of mine that I’d like to turn into an improvised movie, which means boiling it down to the story points and then maybe keeping some of the jokes or throwing them away on set during filming. It’s basically taking the Charles Dicken’s story A Christmas Carol, then really subverting it and making it much stranger than it is on paper. It’s called Mr. Christmas.
For more info on High Road and where else it will be playing, check out highroadmovie.com.