Last week I brought you my thoughts about the twenty minutes of footage from Walk Hard that Sony showed an assemblage of journalists. After the footage was shown, producer Judd Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and star John C Reilly, who was on his lunch break from filming the Adam McKay directed, Will Ferrell co-starring Step Brothers, sat down to take some questions from the crowd. A group of us also waylaid Judd and Jake after the Q&A, but I didn’t record that sycophantic session.
Here, preserved for posterity, is what the three fellas (before Reilly left to go back to work) had to say about their new movie, hitting this Christmas.
Why don’t you start off by telling us how you came up with the idea for this film?
Jake Kasdan: It was just sort of a thought one night, to make a fake biopic. I called up Judd after a day or two of having that thought in my head and said, “Does this seem funny?” We then started writing it together. Within a few days, even. Just kind of coming up with rock biopic jokes. We are both big music fans. And we enjoy crazy stories about rock lore. We just started throwing things back and forth. We discovered that if you took real stories that you knew and made them five percent weirder, or even just two percent weirder, you had something that was pretty out there and pretty funny.
Judd Apatow: We started watching every single biopic we could get our hands on. We even watched the Marilyn Monroe HBO biography. Just any kind of biopic.
Jake Kasdan: And also rock documentaries. I was watching people’s actual life stories.
Judd Apatow: There was this great, terrible Jimi Hendrix rock biopic from Showtime that was just great. I just recommend that you hunt it down at your video store. It looks terrible. They would cut to stock footage from the Sixties. Then they would cut to him. He would be sitting in these over lit rooms. Very early on, we thought, “If we can convince John C. Reilly to do this, this would be incredible.” So we started talking to him during the writing process.
Can you guys talk about creating the soundtrack? How did that all come about?
John C. Reilly: The creation of the soundtrack? Jake can probably speak pretty elegantly about this too. But we had this great stable of songwriters. And we kind of had this friendly, open competition. We had our own web page server, and people would post their songs on there. “What do you think about this?” And, “What do you think about this?” A lot of them started coming in. The one that really knocked it out of the park was Marshal Crenshaw’s Walk Hard. The title song. There were a bunch of great songwriters that we worked with. Mike Viola, Dan Burn, Van Dyke Parks, Charlie Bottoms. Did I miss anybody?
Judd Apatow: Mike Andrews.
John C. Reilly: Yeah, Mike Andrews.
We started putting this album together more than a year ago. The cool thing about working on this movie was, I wasn’t nervous on the first day of shooting like I usually am. Because I felt like I’d been meditating on the character for four months while we were recording. We kind of found a lot of the tone of the movie, and a lot of the ideas as we were recording. Once we started, it was really hard to stop. We recorded thirty-five songs. It’s hard enough to make one album. But somehow, after only four months, we had thirty-five songs. Five of which were covers. But still, that was thirty original songs. I was pretty blown away by that. And it kind of gave us a tonal blueprint for the whole movie, when we started shooting it. It was easier with this music that we already had.
Jake Kasdan: It seemed like in the beginning, the album was going to be the hardest part of this. Like there were several conversations that Judd and I had in the very beginning. We were just trying to figure out how funny the songs should be versus how good they should be. And if they could be both things at once. It was about coming up with a strategy. It’s seemed daunting to come up with an album. There was a lot of music written into the script. Titles for songs. There were specific scenes that were built around these songs. And its true. We opened it up to a whole bunch of people. And we ended up with about five people that wrote the majority of the songs. These were guys that I had actually known before. Dan Bern and Mike Viola were two of the first guys that I ever mentioned this movie to.
Judd Apatow: Mike was the voice on That Thing You Do!
Jake Kasdan: Yeah, he is the voice of John and Shep’s characters in That Thing You Do!. And Dan has recorded a bunch of albums with [Mike’s] band called The Candy Butchers. So he’s done a couple of albums himself. I had a feeling that both of those guys would be great contributors. Once it got going, suddenly, everybody had more ideas. It got to where we could say, “Is there any song that we haven’t thought of that we don’t have?” And we could generate them pretty fast.
John C. Reilly: To Jake and Judd’s credit, a lot of the songs already existed in the script as concepts. A song like Guilty as Charged, about him taking these things he’d done in his life and how he turned them into a song. So the songwriters already had a leg up on a lot of these songs. Because they already had a song title or the feeling that a lot of these songs were supposed to convey. Rather than purely coming up with some idea. The script guided everybody.
John, can you talk about your influences? There sounds like a little bit of Gene Pitney in your voice. Who did you study, and what were you trying to convey with the voice of the character?
John C. Reilly: The cool thing about the music in the movie is that I didn’t really have to pick one person. As the time periods move on, the guy is such a chameleon, that he goes with the times. So, when he hits the Sixties, I was looking at people like Elvis and Roy Orbison. Even a little early Johnny Cash. When it started to move out of the Sixties, I looked at Brian Wilson. As it went along, there was a new person to emulate. I have very eclectic music tastes myself. So, yeah, like they say. Every rock star wants to be an actor, and every actor wants to be a rock star. This was a dream come true for me. Just the studio part. Just recording the album in the studio was a real dream come true. Not just with the singers and the songwriters, but also with the musicians they collected. I was walking into this dream job. I’d done music in movies before. But much more limited. Usually one or two songs here or there. I mean, I think the music in this movie stands alone as a great achievement. I am really proud of the movie. But I am also really proud of the Box of Cox that we will have coming out. It will include all thirty songs.
Joaquin Phoenix worked specifically with T-Bone Burnett [for Walk the Line]. Did you have someone you worked with?
John C. Reilly: Well, yeah. We just mentioned Mike Andrews as the producer of the music. He was the one that was pulling all of the levers and arranging the music. He was the one guiding the musicians, and pulling the right groups of people together for the different sounds that we needed. He was our guru. I’ll mess up if I try to name everybody. I will miss someone, so I just wont do that. But, Mike was the ringleader in the studio.
Judd Apatow: John brings a lot of heat on his own. He can really sing.
John C. Reilly: I was about to say that. I bring a lot of heat on my own.
Jake Kasdan: He wasn’t like someone that had to be taught from the beginning. He knew it.
John C. Reilly: I grew up doing musicals as a kid. And I had a lot of music in my family. So, yeah. Though, this movie made me feel like I’d been working my whole life for this moment. I didn’t know it was coming. I didn’t know it would be like this. But everything that I’ve learned before this has come into play in this movie.
Jake and Judd, this might be one of the broader things you have done. Maybe since The Ben Stiller Show. Has it been freeing to go a little bit larger with some of the comedy?
Judd Apatow: Yeah. I remember we used to do these U2 sketches back in 1992. Where Bono was played by Ben. And we did this very elaborate Metallica sketch. Metallica did the theme to a body-switching movie. Starring Fred Willard and Pauly Shore. That’s why we were cancelled. These things had some very dense levels. So, for me, as soon as Jake mentioned the idea, I thought this was going to be the most fun thing ever. My grandfather was the producer that produced the first Janis Joplin record. He did a lot of albums, and a lot of jazz. So it’s always been an arena that I have been fascinated by. I also thought it was time to make a movie where you saw a man’s penis. In a comedy. For a long time. I thought, “We already did the crowning shot…What else could we do?”
Jake Kasdan: Not to give anything away.
Judd Apatow: Yeah, not to give anything away, there is a penis in this movie. I’m not going to obsess about how great the songs are. There is a penis.
Whose penis is it? Is it a stunt penis?
Judd Apatow : Well, that’s the surprise. It’s my penis. I have gotten a big ego, and I just thought I wanted to show it.
John C. Reilly : One of the cool things about making this movie, and one of the great things about doing biopics, and I have been in a couple of them, is the level of production design and the attention to detail. Usually you have the epic spread of the time period. But, often times when you are on those kinds of movies, there is this almost sanctimonious feeling about it. “We have to get it right for the memory.” There is this overly serious vibe. Like, lets talk to some people. And read about them. See what they really say. The cool thing about this, you get all the bang of doing a real biopic, but you also got to have so much fun on the set every day. We got to make fun of it, yet we also got to live in all of these different time periods. And the music. I will go back to the music again. The cool thing about the music was that we didn’t set out to write bad music. Or dumb music. You very quickly learn that when you set out to write music, even if it’s meant to be funny, that you really have to put your heart in it. You have to try your very best to write a good song. It’s really hard to write one good song, let alone thirty. I really hope that comes across. Just the amount of care and love for music that went into making it. Everyone here, and behind the scenes, really has a love for the musician’s journey. We’re not just taking the piss.
Jake Kasdan : And all of the guys in the band. Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, and Mike Besser are all improv comics. None of them played. And they all learned all of the songs live. That required a tremendous amount of work. Tim had never played drums. But he spot-on can now. Those guys can play those songs now. They sat there and learned it. They gave it as much intensity and devotion as if they were playing any other type of character.
Sony person: I’m sorry, but we are going to have to pull John. He has to get back to the set.
John C. Reilly: I’m sorry. I was having so much fun. I really was. It is fun to talk about this movie.
Judd Apatow: Who has a finally question for John? Anyone?
It struck me that the tone of this…
Judd Apatow: Wait a second. I just realized that I am the producer of Step Brothers. You can stay for ten minutes. What the fuck is going on here? Who is going to get mad? Me? At me? Let them wait.
John C. Reilly: Hey, Judd, can I stay another ten minutes?
Judd Apatow: Go ahead. Let Will have another beer. Continue.
John C. Reilly: We are ahead today. We are one day ahead of schedule on that movie.
I was just saying how the tone of this film is very close to the tone of the Monty Python The Rutles: All You Need is Cash film.
Judd Apatow: Oh, sure. That is one of the great ones of all time. It is very daunting to look at films like The Rutles: All You Need is Cash and This is Spinal Tap and try to make a funny movie about music. Their music is so great. All of those Eric Idle songs are powerful. They were fantastic. They hold up. That whole movie holds up. So, we were aware of that. We had a lot of conversations about how funny the songs should be. What makes me laugh is that a lot of the songs are beautiful. If you weren’t really listening to the words, you wouldn’t realize how dumb some of them are. I was listening to this song the other day. It was called Dewey Cox Died Today.
John C. Reilly: I write my own posthumous song while I am still alive. Before I died, so that I could get it all on record correctly.
Judd Apatow: I felt bad that it was such a dumb song. When this is over, someone should write normal lyrics for this song.
Do you get nervous poking fun at a band like the Beatles?
Judd Apatow: Do I think Yoko Ono is going to come after me?
John C. Reilly: That has yet to be seen. If they get mad. I hope not. It was pretty hard to cast the Beatles. Should we tell the truth to the journalists? Seriously, where are you going to find someone who looks at least vaguely like them, or seems like them in sprit? And they had to be funny. They couldn’t be afraid of this daunting challenge of playing Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Then to get four of them that are available on the same day. It was an on going game every day. “Who else do we have for the Beatles? We need someone to play the Beatles. It shoots in a week.”
Judd Apatow: And then Justin Long shows up and he has a George Harrison impression. He’s just got that in his back pocket, waiting for the call.
John C. Reilly: And Jason Schwartzman is obsessed with Ringo. He has been making the Ringo face his whole life. Once they all got there, we were like, “Of course! This is the perfect team of people.”
Were there any surprises as far as casting?
Judd Apatow: Well, John, you can talk about our music cameos.
John C. Reilly: Yeah. Well, another tough part to cast was Elvis. Elvis Presley has a brief walk on. He comes off the stage just as I go on to sing that song. That was another one. You’d be amazed at what scaredy cats some of these actors are. You say, “You want to play Elvis?” And they say, “Oh, I don’t know man. That’s a lot. Everyone knows who Elvis is.” And I’m like, “So what. Why don’t you forget about all of that and come have some fun.” It turns out the only guy with balls is Jack White from the White Stripes. He showed up in the middle of a really busy schedule for him. And he was amazing. I don’t think he’d ever acted before. He was in Cold Mountain. He had a small part. But, he really hung with the improv. I don’t know what is actually going to end up in the movie. These guys are still toying with a couple of different versions of that scene. But we did one take where all we did was talk in what I call Tupelo Pidgeon. This weird sort of country talk, where only he and I can understand each other. We are both from the south. It sort of becomes a mix of those things right now.
Judd Apatow: I found Jack White irritating. He is the coolest guy on earth. He is the greatest rock musician, and writer, and performer that you have ever seen. Fuck him! What is that? Now he’s stepping on my territory. God damn it. He is so talented. It was so daunting to all of us. He can do what we do in his sleep. As an after thought.
John C. Reilly: Through another person, I was told, “Jack was so nervous! Thank you for being so nice to him.”
Jake Kasdan: He really couldn’t have been looser. He spent hours improvising with John. It was never the same scene twice. Which we think of as a good thing.
Judd Apatow: And Eddie Vedder came. Dewey gets his lifetime achievement award, and Eddie does the over the top induction speech. That was irritating too, because Eddie nailed it on the first take. He did it perfectly.
John C. Reilly: That’s because he lived it, dude. He already did it for real.
Judd Apatow: He can act as well.
Jake Kasdan: He actually inducted R.E.M. into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He can act, and he has pitch perfect comedy timing.
Judd Apatow: And he is handsome as shit. He is way too good looking as well.
John C. Reilly: I was really in awe when all of these people showed up to support our little movie. Like Jackson Brown, and Ghostface Killer, and Frank Black, and Lyle Lovett, and Frankie Muniz. Is he still in the movie? [the crowd laughs] I’m not trying to be mean. Frankie really is in the movie. He came out of retirement, and took time from his racing career, to play Buddy Holly in one scene. But I don’t know if that will stay in the movie.
Do you think this will get an R rating?
Judd Apatow: Why? Because of the penis? Is that R?
John C. Reilly: It’s not hard. Does that get us anything?
Judd Apatow: An R? That basically means a little boy can look down and see it, but he is not allowed to look up and see one on the screen. I don’t understand this country.
How much of a biography did you create for Dewey before writing the script?
Judd Apatow: We are not the type of people that sit and write eighty pages of bio background. Because we are lazy. We were forced to figure it out; we had to figure out the details of his tragic yet triumphant life.
John C. Reilly: A lot of the back story stuff we came up with in the studio, when we were recording the music. A song would remind us of something from a specific time period. We filled in a lot of blanks that way. Jake was there when we were recording a lot of the music.
Did you guys look at the recent spat of spoof movies for an idea of what not to do?
Judd Apatow: I studied them. No.
They are so bad.
Judd Apatow: Tell that to my ten-year-old daughter. She digs them. But, no, we didn’t. But I am a fan of the spoof movie. Some are funnier than others. The Zucker Brothers made some of the best spoof movies of all time. Airplane! is probably the funniest movie ever made. There has never been a movie that has gotten bigger laughs in the theater than Airplane! when it came out. So, I think, like all movies, there are good ones and bad ones. We just thought it would be fun to make one that wasn’t bad. This isn’t a joke for joke spoof. This movie is more making fun of the genre and the structure of the movies. And if you watch a lot of biopic movies, a lot of the scenes are the same scenes. It’s almost unavoidable. When you are telling the story of a musician, there are going to be multiple wives, and rehab, and loss of senses.
John C. Reilly: Is this officially like I am fucking with Will and Adam if I don’t go back to work?
Judd Apatow: This is a standoff I am comfortable with. I want to test the power trio. Will Will come here? Will McKay go home? What happens? Actually, John, you can go now.
John C. Reilly: Thank you guys all very much. [Reilly leaves]
So, Dewey Cox is this chameleon. Was there any genre of music that you couldn’t get in? Does Dewey have a rap career?
Jake Kasdan: There was actually this funny sequence where Dewey is older, and semi-retired. This rap star samples Walk Hard and makes the filthiest song you have ever heard. And that rapper’s name is Lil’ Nutsack. That song is really dirty. We asked this guy to write us a dirty rap incorporating the lyrics from Walk Hard. And man, it is really filthy.
Judd Apatow: Look at me. I’m embarrassed. I don’t even like that it’s on my computer at home.
Jake Kasdan: What’s funny is, when we were shooting that scene, everyone was referring to him as Nutsack. That’s the way it was written in the script. We got a memo from the legal department saying that we couldn’t call him Nutsack because there are four other rappers named Nutsack. So you have to change his name. So we changed it to Lil’ Nutsack. Which is fine. There were four different spellings of Nutsack.