Fanboys is an epic tale of battles waged in cyberspace, of the forces of good vs. those who seek to destroy them, of rebels squaring off against an evil empire—but for director Kyle Newman, it wasn't supposed to be this way. When producers Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey tapped Newman to adapt Ernie Cline and Adam F. Goldberg's screenplay, he just wanted to tell a simple story about lifelong Star Wars fans out to steal a print of The Phantom Menace before their cancer-stricken friend dies. Early supporters buzzed about the script's blend of geeky inside jokes and surprising pathos, as well as the promising cast Newman had assembled, including Judd Apatow-shepherded breakouts Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, and Kristen Bell, and cameos from familiar faces like Billy Dee Williams, Carrie Fisher, and William Shatner. Even George Lucas approved, giving Newman free rein at his notoriously exclusive Skywalker Ranch. Before long, the Fanboys hype grew to Hutt-like proportions.
Then, the dark times: Executive producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly wanted the "depressing" cancer subplot removed, and commissioned director Steven Brill (Drillbit Taylor) to make another cut playing up the yuks. The Fanboys community revolted, organizing the "Stop Darth Weinstein" campaign and demanding producers return the film to Newman's original vision. Finally, after months of setbacks and a cacophony of e-mails and boycotts, Newman was allowed to finish Fanboys the way he'd always intended, effectively restoring peace to the galaxy. Prior to its pre-release appearance at Austin's Fantastic Fest, The A.V. Club spoke with Newman about Fanboys' long journey to the screen, surmounting its Phantom Menace-esque anticipation, and whether it can make people fall in love with Star Wars all over again.
The A.V. Club: Fanboys has been delayed so many times, was there ever a point where you gave up on it seeing the light of day?
Kyle Newman: Of course! There have been a few points. [Laughs.] But they lasted, like, three seconds. I'd be like, "Why am I doing this?" Then I'd remember that there's a much deeper reason. I felt an obligation to finish it, for Star Wars fans and everyone else. A lot of people have, on faith, put a lot into it, so there's a lot of people I don't want to let down. Plus I've spent such a huge chunk of my life doing it. I've been involved with it six years. It's been a real battle.
AVC: Were you given a reason why The Weinstein Company wanted to excise the cancer subplot?
KN: There were always a lot of ideas discussed from the day we started shooting, because we made it for such a small budget. You know, it was a $20 million movie initially. There was always discussion about how you work with what you've got, and make it play bigger and broader. And to The Weinstein Company's credit, I feel like their intent was always to make the movie play as big and broad as possible, and to make it a success. It didn't always gel with what I or the writers wanted to do, but for the most part, it was always open to discussion. It was hard finding a middle ground, but ultimately I think we're to a place now that's better than middle ground. Sometimes you have to go through terrible things to get something good. You know, they have their goals, and we have our goals, and ultimately I have to respect the fact that they own the movie. But I'm happy and content with where the film is. It's not perfect. There are still things I'd change. But for everything it's been through, it's kept its shape really well. The heart of the story—the friendship—is intact, which is what I always fought to protect.
AVC: From an outside perspective at least, it seemed like the cancer subplot was the heart of the film.
KN: Yeah, to me that was like cutting the purpose of the movie out. It was the plot catalyst. I was definitely opposed to that, as I think people know. But even without that in it, there's so much that people would have gotten something out of. The road trip is still really great, and there's a great bond between the people. To me, it just never made sense to take out [the cancer], because it added such an amazing depth and layer to all the characters. Instead of operating on just one level, there was so much more of a purpose for everything that was going on. On top of it being a ridiculous plot about a zany trip, it was a quest to fulfill something. When there's a purpose to what they're fulfilling, it's much more rewarding in the end. I was always adamant about how much I thought that improved the experience, and how much better it would play to our core audience. Star Wars fans aren't one-dimensional. I've been to all the Star Wars Celebrations, and you've got people that are over 50 and kids under 6, housewives and businessmen—a whole spectrum. It's not a subculture that's easily reduced to "men in their 20s," where you can easily lampoon them as virgins or whatever. I was trying to capture something more universal, and I thought the cancer plot tapped into something deeper. That's why I was always passionate about that storyline.
AVC: Considering the positive response it got at advance screenings, why do you think the Weinsteins were hesitant to release Fanboys as-is?
KN: I don't know. From my perspective, if you put the right amount of money behind it and [generate] the right awareness, it's a no-brainer. There's a definite group of people who will go see it, and I think we hit that niche really well, and I think we'll make money off that. Maybe there was an underestimation of how vast that fan base is. Obviously there have been some differences in how everyone thinks this should play, and whom it should play to, and how big it will play. But the best news is that finally everybody is in agreement that the version I completed is the best version.
AVC: Did you see Steven Brill's version?
KN: Oh yeah, I saw all the various versions… I'll just say they were different. [Laughs.] He's his own thing, and they gave him room to experiment. Some stuff I liked and some stuff I didn't. I felt like I was the best judge on what should have been in the film, since I was involved for so long. The writers and actors were close allies, and this was stuff we knew inside and out. We knew which moments worked while we were creating them. And there was even some good stuff that was brought to the surface in the re-edit that was mined from stuff that was cut. But you know, ultimately I'm relieved that it's not that version. I think this is the version everyone's been excited about. What got everyone amped about this film were the human elements, and those are intact and firing on all cylinders. We've come full circle and gotten to make what we were trying to make initially.
AVC: Were you surprised by the intensity of the "Stop Darth Weinstein" campaign?
KN: I couldn't believe it. I thought it was just a small group of people on MySpace, but it kept gaining momentum. I was shocked. But I didn't necessarily think everyone needed to hear what was going on behind the scenes. Stuff like this happens on a lot of movies. There was just so much attention drawn to it because so many people were already paying attention to our film. People got keyed into this behind-the-scenes drama—which is unfortunate, because I think it turned a lot of people off. People were worried about what the final product would be, and there's still a lot of doubt as to what version is coming out. That was disheartening, seeing all this stuff that was out of my hands get further out of control. But it's a testament to how strong the fan base is. I screened it in London and got a ridiculous response. That buzz got out on the Internet, and when people heard that it was being tampered with, they took it personally.
AVC: Obviously the Star Wars fan base is intensely protective.
KN: And I'd known that. I'm a huge Star Wars fan myself. I've been to all the Celebrations, and I've been a collector since I was, like, a 1-year-old. I could pronounce Star Wars alien names before I could pronounce human names. [Laughs.] I've been obsessed with it forever. So I knew how powerful the culture is, but I didn't know it was going to apply to our film. I didn't know people would embrace it so wholeheartedly. That was a real surprise. I felt like we were trying to make a film for the fans, and the fans returned the favor and decided they had to protect it.
AVC: It seems like the biggest concern was that the film was being changed from something that celebrates being a "fanboy" to something that makes fun of them.
KN: The type of humor I was going for, I knew the threshold of how far you could go with things. I know how much you can make fun of fans—people like myself—without alienating them. We can make fun of ourselves and our character types without letting it get too personal. And yeah, I think people were wary that it was going to move into spoof territory. Everything was explored on The Weinstein Company's part—and you know what, it's a business, and they've got to explore every avenue. And good business people come back to where the money is. [Laughs.] I think they realized there's more power being on the side of the fans than against them.
AVC: Do you think all this publicity and the lengthy anticipation has put undue expectations on Fanboys?
KN: Partially. People may have lost sight of what we set out to make, which was a small indie comedy about friends with a lifelong love of Star Wars. It's not a huge movie, and it's not without its shortcomings. But the sum of its parts adds up to something better than it is. The amount of awareness it's gotten for such a small movie, I don't know if it'll ever live up to those expectations. But I'm still 100 percent confident that people are going to be satisfied. Anyone that had any vested interest in it, who put themselves out there on the Internet or whatever, I don't think they're going to be let down. It's funny, it's fun, it's got all the heart we hoped it would have, and I think the performances from all the actors are great. We've got amazing cameos, and for the scale of our movie, it definitely delivers. If people lose sight of what that scale is, they may be expecting something way bigger. But if people are realistic about what they're going to see, they're going to be satisfied.
AVC: Ironically, it's almost reminiscent of the build-up to The Phantom Menace.
KN: [Laughs.] I know. It's strange the way these things happen in patterns. That's one of the key things about the movie: It's a coming-of-age story, but we also made it so pathetic—the fact that these guys are in their 20s and they're just now coming of age—and we set it against a backdrop of so much innocence about the change, back in 1998. Back then, it almost didn't matter if Episode I was good or bad. Everyone was coming together over their shared pasts. We all grew up on Star Wars, and people were thrilled to go wait in lines and talk to other fans. Casual fans became more than just casual fans. It was a rare time for Star Wars. It boomed again, and especially after it being dormant for so long, people were really hungry for something new. Fanboys really hones in on that era and that sentiment. We really captured it well. And yeah, ironically, Fanboys has been somewhat famous in that sense for a couple of years, so it'll be interesting to see how people feel after anticipating it for so long, with all the expectations people have put on it. It's on a micro scale compared to something like Star Wars—it's just skewed to our little culture, but Star Wars is in every scene of Fanboys, so we definitely tap into that.
AVC: You're a fan of Episode I—in fact, you said in another interview, "If you don't love all the movies, you're not a true fan." Do you think that's an unpopular opinion in the Star Wars community?
KN: Oh, totally. That's an extremely unpopular opinion. And people are justified to it. But there's a slight selfishness to fans who expected the franchise and the writing to mature with them and their tastes. Star Wars was so personal that it was supposed to have grown up with them. And Star Wars also kicked off a bunch of other filmmakers' careers who went and pushed things further, but the new trilogy didn't. I never expected it to all of a sudden become like The Matrix and change perspective on things. I respected it trying to stay close to the style of what George Lucas was originally doing. I don't understand how people can hate them. I think even the most cynical person can find something that reminds them of the Star Wars they loved. They're not void of that. Maybe there are holes, but it's like your family: You accept people's shortcomings, and you still love them. I love Star Wars wholeheartedly.
There are casual fans who treat it like Underworld or something, but I think Star Wars is much bigger than just a sci-fi fantasy film. Star Wars changed the industry. It's very profound. There's a standard that people put on it, and it's probably a standard that [the prequels] were never going to live up to. And people wrote those movies in their head, and they knew what was going to happen with Anakin and Obi-Wan based on 15 years of fan debate and conjecture, fantasizing and playing it out with action figures and board games and computer games and role-playing games, trying to keep the universe alive. And when something comes out that isn't exactly the way they visualized it, they're bound to be let down. But I think if you really look at it, there's so much in those films that are worthy of Star Wars. I love them.
AVC: But… Midi-chlorians.
KN: Midi-chlorians are like mitochondria! [Laughs.] I think it's cool that it opens up debate. And come on, the Jedi have been around for thousands and thousands of years. They would have developed some scientific awareness of what made them different. At the height of their culture and the Jedi order and understanding of themselves, they needed some system to devise that. Whether you should go into that is another thing, but I think you can't have this very advanced culture of people with amazing powers who aren't aware of the chemical and biological and scientific side of that. Whether it should be in the film, well, that's more conjecture. They could have just sensed that Anakin had all those powers. I don't know if it needed to be a quantifiable number, to know that it was "greater than Master Yoda's." [Laughs.] These are the debates I get drawn into.
AVC: Are you also one of those guys who defends Jar Jar?
KN: I don't like Jar Jar, but I don't hate Jar Jar. Episode I, there are lines I'd have changed, and exposition I might have trimmed down, but that's just how I would have done it. What I like about Star Wars is that you have this independent filmmaker who's funding this thing himself. He's pushing the boundaries of technology, and he doesn't have to answer to anybody. It's like the ultimate independent film. In that respect, if he wants Jar Jar, let him have Jar Jar! I'll deal with Jar Jar! I think he was aware of how people felt, and obviously the character was minimized throughout the trilogy. But you know, we'd want to hang out with a Gungan if we were 8 years old. Little kids love him. But yeah, it was like fanboy death. A lot of people were like, "I want something cooler than a Wookie, because I'm cooler now." But like I said, it's never going to be the film they wrote in their heads. I genuinely like Episode I. I think it's a great film. My least favorite of all six is Episode II, but there's even stuff in that that I really like.
AVC: Given that George Lucas has become such a friend to Fanboys, are you maybe a little biased?
KN: No, these are the same opinions I had before I was even involved in the film. I know, I know. It would be easy to do that. But I keep it above board, and I'm critical about Star Wars where I need to be. Overall it's just a tremendous universe that he created—one that's rare and will never be duplicated again. It's just so vast, and it's been so successful for over 30 years. It's unprecedented the way it's tapped into our culture. You can't get through a season of The Simpsons or Family Guy without it being referenced. Everybody knows about Star Wars. Everybody knows Darth Vader. Everybody's going to have an opinion about Star Wars, no matter how much it appeals to them.
AVC: Seeing how notoriously proprietary about Star Wars Lucas is, were you surprised at his willingness to cooperate?
KN: Going into it, I became nervous, like, "If he doesn't let us use this, how are we going to do that?" But I was never too afraid, or I wouldn't have been developing it. I always had faith that it would work out—that he and the people close to him would see that it's a love letter, and it's very reverent, and that in the absence of new films, it would help keep Star Wars alive in some small way. Lucas gets a bad rap. He hasn't made a lot of movies. He does what he likes, and he does it on his terms, and you've got to respect that. I think Lucasfilm felt this script was fun and well-written, and they liked the characters. They're not stereotypes. They're everyday people, and they're people you'd want to hang out with. They just happen to like Star Wars. If you grew up with Star Wars, you should and probably can see a little bit of yourself and your friends in these people. I think Lucasfilm saw that it didn't have anything negative about being a Star Wars fan, and that was a big step toward them getting on board.
From then on, it's only been amazing. They really got behind the film, helping us get word out about it. They let us do post-production up at Skywalker Sound, and even tap into the Star Wars audio library. We have a scene with Carrie Fisher where one of the characters says, "I love you" to her, and I wanted her to retort, "I know"—like how she responds to Harrison Ford in Return Of The Jedi—but we hadn't recorded her saying it. On a whim I was like, "Can we get that?" In 30 minutes, they got me this snippet of clean, unmixed dialogue from Return Of The Jedi, we got approval, and we dropped it in. It was great. We had access to whatever we wanted to make it the best it could be. They were very giving.
AVC: Were any of those original players resistant to getting involved in another Star Wars project?
KN: From my perspective, no. Those parts were written for them, and other people had to go off and try to get them, but it never seemed like it was difficult. I was never sweating, like, "Is Carrie Fisher gonna do it?" She read it, she liked it, that was it. I was friends with Ray Park, and when I told him about it, he said, "Of course, mate! I'm in." Billy Dee Williams was also immediately game. Same thing with William Shatner: Even though there's a constant conflict with Star Trek in the movie, he was on board. He even wanted to push that stuff further. Everybody knew not to take anything too seriously. And all the Star Wars cameos, they're playing people other than themselves, outside the Star Wars universe.
AVC: Were you tempted to treat them like big action figures—make Billy Dee say, "This deal's getting worse all the time" or something?
KN: I tried to get him to say, "We've got to give Han more time—there's Colt .45 on that Death Star!" [Laughs.] He didn't want to do that. But no, we didn't really go there. The first night that Billy Dee Williams came down, we were having our preliminary conversations over dinner with the producers, and right then somebody was like, "You have to go upstairs and talk to Carrie Fisher." I was like, "Why right now do I have to leave my one hour talking with Billy Dee Williams?" It was the worst thing ever, but what do you do? And as soon as I got back to the dinner, Billy Dee was like, "And that's all I've got to say about Star Wars." [Laughs.] I missed out. But they were good sports about us all being fans. Without fans, the movie wouldn't have existed. They appreciated the love that was going into it.
AVC: Was there anyone in the cast who wasn't a fan of Star Wars?
KN: No, although there were different degrees of fan. Dan Fogler is a huge fan—out of all the cast, he's probably the biggest. The other guys are a little more casual. Dan's around my age, around 30 years old, so he grew up with it. Sam [Huntington] and Chris [Marquette], when they were just getting into toys, it was when Star Wars was fading into that late-'80s lull. Jay Baruchel was raised in a Trek household, and his mom was a big Trek fan. He liked Star Wars, but he was definitely more a Trek fan. Same thing with [Seth] Rogen, which brought a great extra dimension to his character. We tried to get people to play to their strengths. But everyone to some degree was a fan. Even Kristen Bell is into it. It wasn't a mandate when I was casting that people had to be fans, but they just happened to be, which was great.
AVC: You met your wife, Jaime King, on the set. Even she was a Star Wars fan?
KN: Oh yeah, Jaime's a Star Wars fan for sure. She's really into Harry Potter. She's a huge Lord Of The Rings fan. She's into comic books. She loves those kinds of movies, really gravitates toward fantasy. She's even writing a comic book right now. She knew all about Star Wars before anybody found her.
AVC: You're giving hope to millions of nerds right now.
KN: [Laughs.] I know. There used to be a clear line delineating, like, "Women can like this, and men can like this." But I think '80s cartoons and the crossover appeal of stuff like He-Man and She-Ra made a generation of people open to both things. It's why you see so many females into Harry Potter, and so many female Star Wars fans. There's no stigma, no taboo about being into stuff that's traditionally been for boys. The worlds that are big—Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars—the ones that have female voices and don't leave any stone unturned, they have a lot of success drawing in a female fan base. Star Wars has a huge female fan base. Go to any of the Celebrations—I wouldn't say it's 50/50, but it's got a great amount of females there. I don't think people on the outside expect it to be so balanced. But Jaime, that's what's so cool about her. She'll talk about anything. She loves that stuff. She's always giving props to Harry Potter. We're both the type of people who like to wear our hearts on our sleeves, and when we're passionate about something, we go for it. There are probably a lot of girls who like Star Wars, but they don't know how to embrace it or be open about it. But Jaime's cool like that.
AVC: This cast has familiar faces in even small roles. Is that a testament to the script, or to the attraction of Star Wars in general?
KN: A little of both, but ultimately it's a testament to the script. The way Ernie and Adam wrote it, it's very smart and reverent, but not sappy or clichéd. It was always trying to do something new. Regardless of whatever level of fan you are, the script was really the selling point. And once we got some people on board, everyone wanted to do it, even if it was a small part. It's how we were able to build up such an exciting cast. When I put this together, it was way ahead of the curve. The producers and I targeted some really good people that went on to pop, and now these people are way more established than when we made this movie. It's good to know that we were on the right track. I think it'll help us at the box office a little bit that these people have more status than when we initially fell in love with them.
AVC: You've got so many of Judd Apatow's repertory players that it's practically a de facto Apatow film. Do you think that association will help or hurt Fanboys?
KN: People who are familiar with those people are going to come in and like their performances. But we're a PG-13 film, and we're trying not to be extremely vulgar. That's why those Judd Apatow comedies are great: They push those boundaries, but still keep the heart and character, yet they can be as crass and as real as they are. But we're in that PG-13 territory where you've got to be a little softer, so maybe people are expecting that, and that's not what this is. We tried to make a movie that 8- and 10-year-olds could see. That was one of the mandates from Lucasfilm, because their audience is very broad. We're not gonna have Stormtroopers doing drugs. So maybe that familiarity is going to help us, but it's definitely not in the Pineapple Express, Superbad, hard-R school of comedy.
AVC: These are tough times to be a Star Wars fan. Do you think Fanboys will help people recapture that love they used to have for it?
KN: I think so. I think it will remind people of a time when things were a lot simpler, the Star Wars universe was a little bit smaller, and it was all about the old films. No matter how you feel about the new films, everybody loves the old ones—there's no denying how good they are. But yeah, it's tough now. People reviewing Clone Wars, it seemed like a contest to see who could be the most obnoxious and negative. It's unfortunate. I thought that movie was fun! If I were 10-years-old and I saw it, I'd be begging for bed sheets and Colorforms. People were complaining about the prequels saying, "I want a movie without taxes and trade routes and the Senate." So they make one that's just a simple adventure, and people are like, "This is for kids!" It's a catch-22. You can't appeal to everybody. I'm just glad that Star Wars is still alive. Everyone who wants to moan and move on and give up on their childhood, they can. Sure, there's some prequel backlash that people are still going through, but Star Wars is a phoenix. It'll always rise from the ashes. And I think Fanboys will be something that helps keep it alive, and remind people of the good times.