Last week I boarded a horrible little turboprop plane to head up to the north side of Lake Tahoe for the Hot Tub Time Machine junket. The film, which sees John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke catapulted back to 1986 through the titular chronological conveyance, really delivered the laughs in a big way. If I had to guess I’d say the film’s going to be a hit.
The guy behind that hit is Steve Pink. Pink grew up with Cusack, and together they have a production company called New Crime Productions. Interestingly this doesn’t mean that Pink gave all the best bits to Cusack; in fact Corddry steals the hell out of the movie. But after talking to Pink I could see why – the guy bows down first and foremost before what is funny.
This was a round table interview, which I’ve opted to not streamline as much as I usually do with this. In the next few days look for more from the cast, including Crispin Glover and a three-way with Corddry, Duke and Robinson (although I’m thinking of doing that one as audio – print wouldn’t really capture the interplay properly).
Warning! There are some spoilers in here. I think the TV commercials essentially spoil what is discussed in this interview, but to be safe I will be marking them when they begin, and marking them again when they end.
Crispin Glover told us that you never spoke to him about casting him as an homage to or a link with Back to the Future. Was that at all on your mind when you hired him?
Thank God I agreed with Crispin last round table because I would have really looked like a schmuck if I said I had cast him just because of that! Crispin wouldn’t talk to me anymore! Look, it’s both. He’s a great actor and he’s hilarious and iconic to me. As an actor from River’s Edge to Back to the Future and all of his other work from the time, and he’s one of my favorite actors. Period. It did not escape me that he’s in the most famous and successful time travel movie. The idea of bringing him in to do this movie was a really great concept. That being said, the way we treated most of the characters in the movie we just didn’t call attention to it. He just gets to play an independent character of his own, and it’s not important to reference the past – the past takes care of itself. It’s Crispin Glover in the flesh. It’s true with William Zabka. We could have had him come in and play the Karate Kid kid – you could have had him come in and play Johnny! – and then you would have known…
Because a lot of people don’t realize.
Right. And I don’t want to put all of my chips on people knowing who he was. What if he had come in as Johnny and… I don’t know how many people saw Karate Kid years ago. He’s just a good actor, so to have him play his own version of Rick the fucking club douche? And not call attention to his other characters. If you get that it was Zabka, great. If you don’t, then great. That’s not important because I still have to make the scene work on its own.
And it seems that’s the case with John Cusack as well. You know he’s 80s, but you don’t have to weave in Better Off Dead and everything.
We did have bigger jokes, and now there’s just a small one. There’s a shot of him looking around – you hear the line and then we cut to him and he’s going like this, and that’s it. We had to juggle a lot [with] the references. But first it had to be funny on its own, period. If it had just been a parody movie, if it had been ‘Hey, please enjoy and laugh at all these references,’ you would have been bored out of your fucking skull.
That’s what I was afraid of walking in, that it would be I Love the 80s: The Movie. And that’s not what you made.
I tried to stuff as much I Love the 80s in there because it’s important to support the idea of the movie, and it’s fun. And I don’t judge the references, like the metal stuff – some people like Motley Crue and some people didn’t listen to them at all. That’s why there’s New Order and the Replacements and Public Enemy –
You’re talking about in the quarters scene?
No, when they’re unpacking t-shirts there’s a Fishbone shirt. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s my 80s.’
You seem to embrace the 80s and not poke fun at it. It seems to poke fun at now, in fact.
How do you think it pokes fun…?
Looking at all the silly things we have now. Chernoblee, especially Clark’s character – he’s sort of the modern guy, and he’s totally out of place. With the 80s there’s some ridiculous things, but like you said it’s not constant parody of that time.
This was tricky in that way. To me most importantly you really want to like the characters because the more you like the characters the more everything is funny. You’re going to get the weird reference, because when you talk too much [at junkets] you start to get the weird shit, so here’s my weird one: Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. I watched it recently with my family, I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and he’s incredibly annoying for the first 40 minutes of the movie. And then, without changing a single thing he’s doing, you start to laugh at everything he does. You’re an hour into that movie and he hasn’t changed anything and he’s suddenly extremely funny, because you’ve grown to like this weirdo who is extremely annoying. As he grows on you he becomes more enjoyable, whether you think he’s funny or not. That’s just the example I thought of. So that to me is really, really important. If you don’t go along for the ride with the people who have to deal with these ridiculous circumstances they’re in, you’ll be bored out of your mind. Because then you’re just relying on something to be funny as soon as it’s not funny anymore you’re bored. That’s a bummer.
Also, I was like let’s embrace the 80s but let’s let the character decide what they think about the 80s themselves. Some liked them more than others; obviously Lou liked them, but John’s character, Adam, hates the 80s. That was a terrible time for him, apparently. But for Rob’s character Lou that was a great time. I want to say that about all decades too. It’s not like all the decades are one thing. We can’t look back as a country and say it was one thing for everybody, because it was not.
That’s why I like having Clark. He’s a smart dude as an actor, and as a character in the movie he’s the commentarian who allows us to see the differences between the 80s and the present, he did it really subtly and really well, I think.
Can you talk about casting Chevy Chase, and how that came about?
We all wanted him. The idea came up and we thought it would be an incredible thing to have him, and I think John knew him just from being out and about in Hollywood, and he called him up and asked him. That’s how we got him to do it. That’s my understanding. He auditioned! He didn’t win the role in the room, really. He had to come back a number of times. I had him work on a couple of things and he got it.
I actually think he’s underutilized in the film because you really want more set pieces, and the role as written had real promise but we had little time. I think he’s underutilized, as great as he is in the movie. I want more Chevy, frankly.
Is everything you filmed basically in the movie because of time constraints?
No, I just mean in terms of the time we had [on screen]. This is the role we had. It would have taken more writing. You don’t realize how great the opportunity is – I mean, we understood it – but in order to fill it we would need to change the writing more significantly than we did. We needed to open it up a little bit more, and if we had opened it up to me he would have been able to take off more than he does. But it’s not anything we left out of the film. He’s just so great. I think. To me he fulfills the role really well – I just wish there was more Chevy.
The film left me with an interesting moral question – when they come back to the present and everything has changed and their lives are great: is it satisfying to walk into a life you didn’t create or earn yourself? Is it as satisfying to walk into that house and find you have a brand new beautiful wife as it is to live the life that brought you to the brand new beautiful wife?
Well that’s an interesting moral question. [laughs] First of all you have to address the paradox of time travel. You can’t say he didn’t earn it, because he paradoxically lived it in real time while he was time traveling. If he looks back at the pictures he sees himself married – his parallel self did it, so he did earn it and you can’t say he didn’t earn it. You always exist in two places at once – that’s the paradox of time travel.
But he doesn’t remember earning it.
Right, he doesn’t remember earning it. That’s the paradox. But you said moral! I didn’t say moral, you said moral. From a moral point of view, if I was a guy who walked into these circumstances I couldn’t say I didn’t morally earn it because my parallel self did. I didn’t, so now you’re saying could you morally or from an earning point of view did I earn the life I walked in to? The version of myself that time traveled I guess you could argue did not. But the version of myself that lived it in real time did. That would be my answer.
But also when I was trying to think about that shit all the time the thing that occurred to me was – and when you break it into principles it’s much more difficult to do, but when you break it down into individuals it’s easier – I wrote the line where he said ‘Was it wrong that I exploited my knowledge of the future for my personal gain?’ No! But for Lou? Am I saying in this movie that the only way to become happy by becoming rich is to go back in time and become rich? No! But for Lou – yes! For Lou he needed to be really rich to be happy. I’m not making a general statement; I’m saying that character of Lou, who is out of his fucking mind, found satisfaction and, in this case, was a better person. He is! He has a family, he’s nice to his family, he’s a better person. And he likes the riches that decision brought him. Craig’s character not that way at all. He’s more the conscience of the piece, and he wanted to have the satisfying life that he deserved. Now we did blow that out of proportion a little as well, frankly.
Have you given any thought to what if the film is a big success and where you might go with it?
I’m superstitious, so I don’t. I could think of all kinds – I said in the other room, if I was riffing, in this one they went back to only one place so Bill & Ted it. Wouldn’t it be great if they could jump in and then be in Medieval times and then jump in and be in the American Revolution and then jump in and be in the future? A lot of time travel movies do that. So they exploit that framework of a time travel movie. Whatever – I don’t know, I’d have to think of one, but Lou’s Medieval self possesses a secret orb and… I don’t know! It would just be really great to exploit the time travel genre structures that are available that we didn’t get to because we only went to one period of time. I was far more interested in this time travel stuff than I was always able to express. The Terminator speech was something I brought in and it makes me laugh every single time because it’s so true. That’s the time travel stuff that really intrigues me.
Your timing is great because you have Lost in its final season right now, doing all this time travel stuff. It seems like time travel is in the popular consciousness.
I guess. It kind of always has been, though. But you’re right that because of Lost it’s bigger. And people are embracing it in a mainstream way as opposed to thinking of it as a gimmick. I mean, you’re right about that. The popular ideas around time travel… I wish I could remember the name of the big Rob Corddry gave me [about time travel] to read, and then NPR had this segment about time travel while we were shooting, and there was this guy who had proven mathematically that you could time travel and there was this equation.
You’re interested in time travel, the mechanics of it, all of that – but how often does it get in the way of the comedy? How often do you say, ‘Fuck that, we need a joke.’
All the time. It always gets in the way of the comedy. When in doubt, throw out the fucking time travel. ‘What’s got to go? We’re sinking, and something’s got to go, and it’s not going to be the comedy.’ All the time. Comedy is king. It has to be. And who knows anyway? Time travel – are you kidding me?
What’s the balance between the script and the improv on the set?
I think there’s this myth of improv, which goes like this: ‘Hey we got all this money and we’ve got a camera, let’s put on a show! Let’s just fucking make things up! We’re so smart and so funny we can just fucking say whatever we want and it’s going to be awesome and the audience is going to enjoy it, because we are comic gods!’ I read it in the paper all the time – ‘They say the film was largely improvised.’ No it wasn’t. Improvised means we have a ball of string and some gum wrappers and we’re going to fly to the moon. You don’t MacGyver it. Basically the answer is once you have a very specific set of circumstances that tell all of these things – a character beat, a story beat, a plot beat, whatever it is – then you have the comedy expressing those ideas in each scene of the story, and then you have the dialog that tells that story, and then you take off from there. Because those guys are such brilliant improvisers they’re able to embrace whatever circumstance they’re in and play to that circumstance and then it becomes improvisational. A lot of what those guys did came purely out of their relationships. They’d be like, ‘You’ve never been my friend, you mother fucker! [looks at a reporter at the table] Hey that’s really cool, you’re doing a long sleeve, short sleeve thing? You’re doing brown and red. I do mostly black. Would brown and red be good on me?’
Are we in the example or are you actually asking me?
I was in the example. They would constantly undermine the stakes of the characters, but that came out of the guys knowing each other. They would be able to move from the reality of their circumstances to something totally preposterous because they knew each other’s characters so well, and they knew kind of their disposition as characters. They were always in the moment. All of those guys are also really good at using the sets. They’re really good at diving into where they are to get that kind of material.
How much of the budget went to the soundtrack? With a movie set in the 80s you have to get the right songs, but clearances will cost a lot of money.
The studio supported the music budget really, really well. They knew it was going to be significant. We were able to make it affordable because a lot of musicians were willing to give us songs without killing us. [Having artist] believe in the project always makes it more affordable. We knew we had to deliver that. I’m a music geek – for reals – and I still miss a lot of stuff that could be in. I think we have a good spectrum from Public Enemy to the Replacements to New Order to David Bowie to Echo and the Bunnymen to Poison to Motley Crue – that’s a pretty full spectrum from the 80s – but there’s still some left out. I think we even have English Beat in there, but there’s still stuff I missed. There’s so much great 80s music that’s not in the movie. So I hope people go, ‘Oh I remember that song’ and then go listen to something else.
How did you settle on Let’s Get It Started as the Johnny B Goode of this film.
The Johnny B Goode rip off? To what are you referring, sir? [laughs] Of course we deliberately ripped off all kinds of things. We ripped off whatever we could, frankly.
I just liked the song. You try to find a song that you’ll listen to next year and like. It had to be a current enough song and be modern in production, in terms of the way the music is produced, and I think Black Eyed Peas is kind of unique in the way they produce their music, and I think they’re great at the way they produce their songs and their songs sound current – it’s not a sound you heard then. That was one aspect of it. The other aspect of it was that it was a good enough song to last a while. I think it’s a genuinely good song that will last a long time.
You chose the radio edit.
You chose the radio version. Instead of Let’s Get Retarded. How come?
That’s a great question. I hadn’t really thought about it. I don’t know. I guess to me thematically it didn’t matter. The music’s the same. And with that particular song I didn’t need to make a comment about knowing the original track was this and that in order to make it a giant hit on the radio they changed the words so they didn’t offend half the population. It just wasn’t relevant to the scene. But some music is relevant, and it has to back what you’re doing.