The sketch-comedy group Broken Lizard formed at Colgate University, then moved to New York when its members graduated. In 1996, the quintet–Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske, Jay Chandrasekhar, and Paul Soter–wrote and starred in Puddle Cruiser, a college comedy directed by Chandrasekhar, who has also directed episodes of the cult TV favorites Undeclared and Arrested Development. Puddle Cruiser didn't sell at Sundance, but was eventually purchased by the Sundance Channel. Broken Lizard had much better luck with its next film, 2001's Super Troopers, a goofy comedy about a group of police officers, co-starring Brian Cox. The film was a huge success at Sundance, and it became both a sleeper theatrical hit and a popular DVD. The group recently followed Super Troopers with Club Dread, a wonderfully silly slasher comedy set at a Club Med-like island resort run by a Jimmy Buffett-esque "mellow island songster" played by Bill Paxton. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with members of Broken Lizard about the troupe's beginnings, Super Troopers, Brian Cox's Jerry Lewis side, and Jimmy Buffett.
The Onion: How did Broken Lizard begin?
Steve Lemme: We got together at Colgate University. Jay had been given an opportunity to direct a show for a semester, so he and Kevin put their heads together and decided that they wanted to do a sketch-comedy show. They came up with a list of people they thought would be right for the group. Then they had auditions, because the school made them, just to be diplomatic about it, so that's how we all came together and started doing sketches with little video interstitials between them. From there, the show moved to New York City after graduation. We performed at The Duplex down on Sheridan Square for a couple of years, and there we did a half-hour film called The Tinfoil Monkey Agenda. Jay had taken a directing class at NYU for the summer, and had met a guy there who was in the regular undergraduate program, and he asked us to write and star in his senior thesis film, which we did. From there, we got the bug and raised the money to shoot our first film, Puddle Cruiser. From that, we got the money to make Super Troopers, which we sold to Fox.
Paul Soter: From that, we got the money to make Club Dread.
SL: And from Club Dread, we got everything!
O: What connected you? What kind of stuff did you share that made you work well together?
SL: We all just hit it off. We knew each other beforehand, and for the most part, we were really all just friends. The writing sessions were a blast. We were in college, and we were having so much fun doing it that even when we weren't writing, we were hanging out. In essence, we'd be writing when we were not working. It was so much fun for us. And then, when we put the first show up onstage, the audience responded to it, and it kept growing, and we were encouraged to do a second show. It was the same thing in New York City. The audience kept growing, and we kept having more and more fun. Even in the leanest times, there's always been some glimmer of hope of taking it to the next level that kept us in it. We've had some rough patches, but there's always been something to keep us in.
O: Did you ever consider folding it and doing something else?
PS: If Super Troopers hadn't gotten bought at Sundance, it would have gotten pretty bleak for us. I don't know how much longer we could have kept doing it. We would have kind of started from scratch again, trying to find the money for another movie independently. It would have been tricky.
SL: We had about a four-year layoff between Puddle Cruiser and Super Troopers. Our first movie did not sell at Sundance. We had a lot of time to sit and think about that, and to experience life struggling like that and trying to get the second movie made, so when we finally did that and went to Sundance, everyone was kind of anxious, because I don't think anyone could have taken another four-year period of not doing anything.
O: What happened with Puddle Cruiser? Did it get any kind of a release?
SL: The Sundance Channel bought it and showed it on TV, which was cool. Now, we're close to closing a deal that will have Fox releasing Puddle Cruiser on DVD when Club Dread comes out on DVD. I don't think it'll be a double package or anything, but it'll come out.
O: Super Troopers must have had a decent budget. Brian Cox is in it, after all.
SL: It was a million and a quarter. We got the money from a private investor. We had gone through everybody. We had gone to the studios, we had gone to private investors. We just couldn't get the money for this movie that we were going to star in and direct. This one guy who had just retired from Wall Street and really wanted to get into film production saw the script and saw Puddle Cruiser and asked us if he could do our movie, and so he gave us the cash. He put up the million and a quarter—and got it all back, too.
O: Why do you think you had such a hard time finding financing?
Jay Chandrasekhar: We were trying to get like five and a half million bucks. Studios don't really finance anything that costs less than that. We were walking in saying that we were going to star in it, and that I was going to direct it. That was it. They asked us if they could put Ben Affleck in one part, and they asked if someone else could direct it.
SL: People were responding well to the script, but not as well to us.
O: Was that at all tempting? To compromise to get the movie made?
SL: No. We had made one independent film already, and we knew that we could do it again if we could just get the money. We're always pretty confident that people are going to see our good traits.
PS: We had sold Puddle Cruiser to NBC to do a pilot called Safety School that we ended up shooting. They actually wanted to go younger with it, so we cast TV versions of ourselves to play our characters from the original movie. While it was sweet to have little TV doppelgängers with perfect teeth and long sideburns running around posing as us, it wasn't that fulfilling. They were all great actors, but they didn't know the material inside and out like we did. I think one strength we have is that we write the material, and then we know how to perform what we write. It's sort of our brand. When other people do it on their own, they might not know where we're coming from. It's just because we know everything behind the words that are written.
O: How did you get Brian Cox to be in Super Troopers?
JC: He actually called us. He's always playing parts like pedophiles and Nazi generals and nasty people, and he's a big Jerry Lewis fan, and thinks he's got that bone in him. He's been looking for a comedy to do, and he kept contacting us and contacting us, and he turned out to be amazing.
O: His presence couldn't have hurt the chances of getting the film distributed.
PS: We needed it. Given the way in which independent film has changed, the investor wanted to get some sort of cast, so the money was cast-contingent. It was huge for us to get him. When he first approached us, we desperately wanted him to be in the movie, and I think he nailed it.
O: Was he a lot like Jerry Lewis? Was that his default personality when the camera stopped rolling?
SL: There's a scene at the end of the movie where we're doing our death ride, and we're all drunk in the back of the car, and he gets out at the local police chief's house. And what's in the movie is about 10 seconds of him running around and doing stuff, but the actual footage of it is five minutes long, and if there was ever a definition of an actor going off, he's doing it. We had rented a house from these people who were like, "Sure, yeah. You can use the outside of the house." But he went into the garage and stuck a hose in the guy's truck and turned the water on, and dumped the garbage can into the payload of the guy's truck. When he was done, he got a huge ovation from everyone, and basically passed out in the back of a car because he was exhausted.
O: Why do a movie about the police?
PS: After college, we went to a lot of our friends' weddings, so we were spending a lot of time in cars together, and naturally getting pulled over. We all thought it was funny how we would all pretend to be bad-asses, talking trash and all the braggadocio, and then you get pulled over and the cop comes up to the car, and your demeanor immediately changes to that of a pussy. You're like, "Oh, sure, yes, officer. I'll do that. Right away." We just thought it'd be funny how easily cops could fuck with people if they had a sense of humor.
O: Most sketch-comedy groups do television and then film. Did television interest you?
JC: We actually wanted to do television, but when we were performing onstage, we didn't really know how to make the jump. We'd invite TV people to see us, and they'd come and say, "Okay, what do you want to do?" and we'd say, "Put us on a TV show." That's not really how it works. You have to approach them and say, "Here's our show. We're going to be in it," and all that stuff. We had one night where we performed for MTV, and we had a great, great show—they were looking for a group to put on, and we thought we had sewn it up, because we pretty much nailed it. The next night, apparently, they saw The State, and they apparently nailed it even more than we did, because they got the show. At that point, I took a film course at NYU, and we all decided, "Why don't we try and make a movie?" It was a real big lucky move that we never got that show, because we would have probably tried and done an okay job on TV not having any technical knowledge, and who knows what would happen? We ended up making a movie because of that failure to get on TV. As a result, we were able to learn a lot about making movies.
O: Did your stage show feature a lot of film parodies?
JC: We've never done parodies so much. There were a lot of short video segments. It's kind of like on Saturday Night Live, where they always have little commercial parodies. We would do five or six little short films in the shows. We were getting better and better working in the video-film arena. In terms of going to feature films, we always were big Monty Python fans and John Landis fans, and it seemed like something that other people had done before us, so we just sort of assumed we could do it, too.
PS: We'd go shoot the videos at Kevin's house on the weekend and make these videos and just have a blast doing it. We realized we could have so much more freedom. The stage is a great place to perform, but you are limited by the confines of the stage. On video—and ultimately film—you could write whatever you wanted. It just seemed like the logical next step.
O: Where did the idea for Club Dread come from?
SL: It was pure, selfish, pleasure-driven plot creativity.
JC: We wanted to make a horror movie, Paul and I particularly. It seemed ripe. At one point, we were going to set it during the winter at a ski resort, so that we could splatter a lot of snow with blood. But shooting in the snow is a nightmare, and tends to add three or four days to your schedule, so after having shot at Poughkeepsie and at the side of the road and in some pretty rough places, we decided, "Let's see if we can get the studio to agree to shoot it on a desert island." First of all, we thought that was a cool idea for a plot, to go to a beautiful resort, a place that you really want to go to, and then all of a sudden you want to get off it. Of course, there's that whole formula of being stuck on an island and you can't get off, the whole Agatha Christie kind of thing. We were sort of shocked and surprised when Fox said, "Yeah, sure, we'll do that," because we knew then that we were going to spend two and a half months at a five-star resort in Mexico.
O: That probably didn't hurt as far as bringing other people onboard.
SL: The problem with that, though, is that often, when you get to these places, you're having such a good time that you come to equate having a good time with making a good movie, and the two are totally separate. Good movies tend to be made out of really stressful situations, because you're working really hard, and you're forced to come up with new ideas. When you're really relaxed and you're having a blast, usually that means that it's not often going to translate onto film. We kind of knew that going down there, because we had watched a lot of these island comedies, and none of them had been particularly great. We went down there and made sure that we were incredibly prepared, and we kept the stress level at least as high as we could, even though we were swimming in the ocean and drinking tequila all the time. You still have to keep the independent spirit going, or you're going to wind up with a lousy movie with everyone smiling and tan at the beach.
PS: Even though this was the biggest budget we've had for a movie, and we had the most time to shoot the movie, it's been the tightest schedule we've had to deal with, so we really were working as hard as we could down there. Most of our blowing off steam came in the off hours.
O: Was it ultimately a fun movie to make?
PS: Oh, yeah. One of the great things was the addition of Bill Paxton into the mix. He, too, approached us. He hadn't done a comedy in a long time, and he's a great comedic actor, so he wanted to get back in touch with the next generation. Being in Mexico with that kind of a budget and shooting it was unbelievable, because it was a much bigger scope than we were used to, and we were working with Bill Paxton, who is another childhood idol of ours. A lot of things change. You look around and say, "Oh, hey, there's the Pac-Man maze we wrote into the script," or "Those are the boats we designed." The scope of this thing was enormous.
O: Why is the resort run by a Jimmy Buffett type?
JC: We were thinking about the Super Troopers structure we had, where we had an older guy playing our chief, and it kind of works well for us to have someone like that in our movies, someone who's of the same sense of humor, but a little older. At first, the resort owner was a guy sort of like Ricardo Montalban, and he was just like a tough guy from New York, but he was an island guy. Somebody came up with the idea of basing it on Jimmy Buffett, because Buffett has all these restaurants called Margaritaville, and we thought, "If Buffett had a resort, what would that be like?" We wanted to create a resort devoted to his lifestyle: smoking grass, drinking margaritas, getting laid, that kind of thing, the stuff he sings about in his songs. We decided to create this guy Coconut Pete, who is sort of the "B" version of Buffett, as Bill puts it—the guy Buffett could have turned into had he drank a little more and done a little too many drugs. Bill and I flew down to West Palm Beach to screen the film for Jimmy Buffett, and he loved it. He was singing the [Coconut Pete] songs as we were leaving the theater. He might cover one or two of the tunes. He's going to help us promote the movie. He just got it all. He got the stuff that we were having fun with.
O: Club Dread has a late-'70s/early-'80s feel to it. Did you think at all about setting it back then?
SL: No. Doing creative pieces, you have to have a really good reason to do things, because otherwise, it just drives the budget up. We thought about it briefly. It's easier for us to do jokes that are set in the modern day because the current culture is what we know best. We didn't want to have to make jokes about that time period. We decided that just making it feel like a late-'70s/early-'80s movie would be a better route to go.
O: Club Dread is a slasher-movie parody, yet it's nothing like Scream. Was that a conscious decision, to get away from that style of moviemaking?
JC: We wanted to make a movie that could fit in with those late-'70s movies plot-wise. Granted, it would be us and it would be funny, but we're not looking to make fun of those movies, because we love those movies. So whenever we make fun of something, it's more like, "That reminds me of that." Frankly, I love Scream: I think it's one of the great scary/funny movies. We weren't looking to make fun of horror movies in that way. We just wanted to make a horror movie.
O: What other genres would you like to explore in the future?
SL: We'd like to make something like The Dirty Dozen. A sports movie might be fun to do. We've got kind of a road movie set in ancient Greece.
O: What can you say about that one?
SL: Plato is a wrestling recruit at Athens University. He's supposed to wrestle for them in the Olympics. They've given him a chariot to wrestle there, because he's a big-time wrestler. He's failing his philosophy class, Basic Thought, so his school hires Socrates, who's a senior, to tutor him. Plato's a little thick, so he ends up cheating, and they end up road-tripping to Mount Olympus so he can wrestle in the Olympics. The Greek gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are all wrestling fans, and they're betting on whether he'll make it, so it's kind of a big Greek epic.