30 Minutes Or Less

August of 2010 was an interesting time… the year had trucked along mostly as a disappointment, with the few bright spots surprisingly coming from some of the larger blockbusters. A promising prestige season was ahead with no movie more anticipated than The Social Network, and here we were visiting the set of a Jesse Eisenberg film- a comedy about a bomb being strapped to his chest, no less!

30 Minute Or Less stars Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Fred Ward, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, and Michael Pena. It has quite the set-up…

After hiring an assassin to murder his father for his insurance money, meaty antagonist Dwayne and moronic partner in crime Travis kidnap a pizza delivery driver and force him to rob a bank with a bomb vest attached to his chest with a 9-hour timer in order to pay for the job to be done.

…and the trailer…

Already there was some controversy because the project resembles the real-life case of a “pizza bomber” that was similarly forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his neck, and an event that ended with the would-be-thief dead. Turns out the man was in on the whole thing, though he never expected a real bomb to be used (and the timer would never have given him enough time to complete the robbery, apparently). So there was already a question of taste as we began our visit, and you can definitely expect a great deal of self-righteous clucking as the film draws towards release in the coming months. Regarding that question… as I said then and will continue to say now: who gives a fuck?

A Day In A Scrap Yard

Me and crew of other online writers arrived in Grand Rapids, MI and soon found ourselves amidst the rusted steel wreckage of an honest-to-god scrapyard. The production, lured to the state by Michigan’s nearly shameless tax breaks, had latched onto Grand Rapids for its very welcoming attitude and wide range of unique resources. The production was especially pleased to find an operational scrap-yard that was willing to strike a deal with them. Our visit was to this lot, where the production and the yard had worked together to built a environment filled with piles of crushed cars, twisted metal, and ground-up machinery. I was particularly entranced by a mighty pyramid made entirely of piled gears of every imaginable size (a steampunk enthusiast would have needed a change of pants).

There was still a sense of Hollywood about the yard, as the piles were very neat, and dangerous edges had been shaved down and marked off, but just across the fence surrounding the set a massive crane shoved around scrap, a giant magnetic disc made new piles of cars, and 20-ton trucks came and went. One of my favorite aspect of the visit was witnessing that entire noisy operation shut down and grow quiet during takes, only to start back up again between set-ups.

The production designers had done a great job creating an environment for the two deadbeat losers who would ensnare Nick The Pizza Boy in their web of braindead scheming. Paintball splats could be seen everywhere, along with smashed beer bottles and other evidence of their jackassery scattered all over the place.

Being the nerd I am, I first noticed that the production was shooting on 35mm, and I grabbed what time I could to talk tech stuff with a camera p.a. and then an on-set mixer, but soon Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, and Jesse Eisenberg were on set to start the first of many takes we would see during the day. This was the first real confrontation scene between Danny, Nick and Jesse, as they lay out their orders to the panicked pizza boy, who eventually tears off in the delivery car with a bomb strapped to him. We weren’t able to get very close, but from afar we could tell the two comedians were adjusting their performances to the giant gorilla masks they were wearing, while Jesse looked terrified from head-to-toe, even from 200 feet away. At this point the crew was shooting day-for-night, and you can catch a few moments from the scene in the red-band trailer.

Following Up Zombieland

Watching a scene being filmed is always fun (especially if you’re as interested in the craft and process of the production as much as anything else), but the real meat of the visit was getting to talk to the cast and crew. Speaking with director Ruben Fleischer was interesting- the extreme popularity of Zombieland had catapulted the director onto virtually every blockbuster shortlist in Hollywood, and the level-headed Fleischer made it clear that he definitely sees projects like that in his future, but he’d prefer to level up at a more manageable pace. Fleischer has a surprisingly quiet manner about him- he doesn’t crack a lot of jokes or bring much ego to the table. I got the impression he’s a pretty focused individual, and not one to jump into bid decisions lightly.

I had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of big movies, and I was a little nervous about doing something that I would call “biting off more than you can chew” and taking a big movie just because you can, but maybe not being ready for it, not being able to deliver and screwing up my career by laying an egg or something like that. I really wanted to do something that was on a scale I felt comfortable with, but at the same time was an original story that I could craft, that was funny, had a great cast, and was a story I haven’t seen told before.

So instead of jumping onto the next major action sequel or superhero launch, he decided to focus on something that further explored his more grounded comedy sensibilities, which actually have a basis in edgy drama…

I felt like I wanted to show my taste as a filmmaker in a way and since I’m not a writer and in full control of coming up with those stories I want to tell, it’s really selecting material. And so I wanted something that was tonally in the vibe of what I really love, and the movies that this reminds me of are Dog Day Afternoon and Out of Sight, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski. A little bit of Reservoir Dogs– those types of really original films. This script is definitely original, and that was important to me.

Those 70s films especially seemed to be on the director’s mind, as 30 Minutes Or Less (whether it does or does not acknowledges exactly how dark the story’s origin is) definitely has some nasty possibilities written into its premise.

…this movie has real life-or-death stakes, and I think that’s pretty important and keeps it grounded. That’s why I cast Jessie- he’s such a talented actor. He’s funny, but he’ll play the reality really well. Sometimes with these action comedies where there’s life-or-death stuff, because it’s all comedians who don’t make too much of acting, they don’t play it real and it just goes into this farcical world, and that was definitely not my intent with this movie. I want the reality of this movie to be as real as Dog Day Afternoon or any of those great 70s movies, Straight Time and movies like that. But for the comedy, I want it to be as funny as a Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Aziz Ansari comedy.

There were many questions about Zombieland, possible cameos or other easter eggs, but Ruben made it clear he’s not making his own Askewniverse, and that 30 Minutes or Less is a very different project than Zombieland. That said, the film was not without some fun casting opportunities…

…this has a lot more characters than Zombieland so it has been fun juggling all these different stories.  It’s kind of like three pairs.  There’s Jesse and Aziz, Danny and Nick, and then Michael Pena and Bianca are another one.  Then there is Fred Ward, who plays Danny’s father, and he is a funny sort of hovering figure that Pena at one point interacts with.  So, it has been fun juggling lots of different people as opposed to Zombieland where it was just four people in a car.  But as far as the linearness, it’s essential to the story.  It was fun playing with those jumps and the flashbacks in Zombieland, but I don’t think you need it to make a good movie.  It’s fun to just do a more straightforward one.

You can get an even better idea of where the director’s head was at by reading the full interviews, but it’s clear the director has the long-game in mind.

Talking with the cast

Speaking with the case of 30 Minutes or Less was fascinating because of how diverse the background and success-level of each player was. This was pre-Social Network Jesse Eisenberg, so it was well known that the was a gifted individual, and word was already out that he’d knocked it out of the park, but this was not Oscar-nominated Jesse Eisenberg.

Our interview was a touch awkward because Jesse really is as guarded and nervous a person as he often appears in his films, at least in dealing with the press. Surrounded by a gaggle of enthusiastic journalists shoving microphones in his face, Jesse kept his cool and was very energetic about answering questions- but you could tell he wanted nothing more than to dart to craft services or back on set. For all his rhythmic stammering and self-effacing charm though, his wit is ever present and his star-quality obvious. Only a few minutes with him makes it clear that Eisenberg will be an enduring actor, and one whose potential we’ve only seen a portion of.

Comedy or not, Jesse took this part seriously, and described some of his process, which included hanging out with a local delivery boy.

Well the pizza place where we’re filming the movie, they let me go out with this guy Alex, who they thought most similar to my character. I was surprised to realize how similar he was. He was as sarcastic and self-aware as the character is. It was a perfect match for my character, also for the kinda basic logistics of how it is to deliver pizzas and who the costumers are. These guys who kidnap me in gorilla masks are surprisingly not far off some of the people we met that evening.

Be it a soon-to-be-billionaire manipulative tech genius or a slouchy pizza boy, Eisenburg clearly doesn’t fuck around. He talked a little bit about where he felt Nick was coming from, and how much different the tone of this film and his approach to it was, compared with Zombieland.

Yeah, the emotional center of the movie is this character who has never done anything in his life. He has a line, I’ve never even quite a job just waited around to get fired. He’s in love with this girl who’s his best friend’s sister. He’s never told her. He’s just kinda ridden through life lazily. This metaphorically lights a fire underneath him to take a stand and spend these ten hours doing everything he should have been doing the last several years ago.

This movie is more, at least for my character, was more serious in tone. Zombieland was a little more fun, at least for my character. This one if, at least for me, has to be played pretty much straight. This one is a little more exhausting because there’s no room for me because it’s set in the real world. There’s less room for me to have — there’s no winking to the audience, with this one.

While they clearly were equally invested in the production and their place within it, speaking with the comedians was a little different. Danny McBride was (and still is) mid-stride at his comfortable level of exposure in the comedy world, with Aziz Ansari being in a fairly similar place, though with more TV exposure than feature film exposure. The two had similar things to say about the place of improv in a film like this, and how much they relied on Ruben to guide the tone of the film.

Danny placed full faith in Ruben, though he clarifies that improving in a film is not the same as digging into a bit on stage.

That’s kind of what Ruben’s job is, is just to kind of keep you on point. I think when you’re improv-ing, you should never go into it trying to put restraints on what you should do or what you shouldn’t. I think you just keep pushing it, and then when it goes too far you just have someone like Ruben to say, “Hey, that’s out of the realm.” I think it’s just about trying to improv, keeping the character in mind. That usually will keep things in track. And not just try to do standup or something, but just try to riff on stuff that you’re supposed to be talking about in the scene anyway, and just see if there’s a way to make it come out more naturally.

Ansari talks about the need for the director to keep the stakes present, and how new of an experience it has been for him to keep a ticking time bomb in mind for his performance.

You know it’s definitely a thing. I feel like Ruben sometime had to be like before takes ‘Hey! Don’t forget you just robbed a bank.’ and I’m like ‘Oh yeah that’s right.’ I’ve got to make sure I remember that, I’ve got to keep that in mind because like you know it’s definitely behind everything. It’s really cool because Jesse’s so good at that stuff he did a scene where he was crying like crazy and it blew me away. And I was like, ‘Oh man I’ve got to figure out how to cry. That would be really good if I could do that.’ So when I had a scene like that, I really challenged myself to step my game up to his, and it was fun. I think we have those scenes that are very real so doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh why are they not acting more intense? The bomb is on the guy.’

While the chemistry between Nick Swardson and Danny McBride was clear on set (and is clear in the interview I’ll be posting shortly), It was hard to get a feel for Ansari and Eisenberg’s chemistry as they had no scenes together on this particular day. We certainly got the sense that they were both bring different, complementary things to the table though, and the trailer seems indicate they play well off of each other.

I have to mention that speaking with Ansari was a great deal of fun, as he was much more interested in shooting the shit with us about movies and Chick-fil-A than he was in playing video games in his trailer or whatever. It’s not hard to tell why so many people want to work with him.

So Will It Be Good?

Can’t say! What I saw was certainly funny, and virtually everyone involved is beloved for one reason or another, but action/comedies are always tough movies to balance, and that will totally come down to how well Fleischer manages to please those dueling elements of the film. Zombieland says a lot about the director’s skill in that department, and he’s certainly surrounded himself with funny motherfuckers, but it ultimately comes down to the adrenaline and the laughs in the individual theaters. We’ll have to wait till August to judge that…

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