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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Monkey Torture: An Interview with Thomas Lennon

For my seventh interview with The State I was able to throw down with Thomas Lennon. During our interview I was given an honest look into the oftentimes ruthless world of a studio comedy screenwriter. Between constant firing, re-hiring, and re-writing, the picture painted was not a pretty one. Somehow, throughout it all, Tom has managed to stay upbeat and maintain a sense of humor about everything. His positive attitude seems to be paying off as he continues to write wildly successful movies such as Night at the Museum with writing partner Ben Garant. Read on to find out more about his wild ride through the Hollywood system, some interesting background info on the writing process behind The State, and the true essence of Christopher Walken.

DJ Sorce-1: Most of The State cast is living in LA now. Is New York still a hot spot for established actors, or is LA the place to be?

Thomas Lennon: I think New York is better once you are established. But if you want to constantly find work it can be very helpful to be in LA, because stuff comes up on very short notice. Ben and I have to be here mostly for the movie writing. We constantly have to go in to talk to the studios.

DJ Sorce-1: You guys have been cranking out movies non stop for the last few years. I saw that you’re writing the sequel to Night at the Museum. The first one was a big success, so you must be happy about getting called back to write the sequel.

Thomas Lennon: Yeah, we’re pretty pleased with that one. People always think Ben and I have had so many of our scripts produced. We’ve had seven movies come out, which is a lot, but we’ve gotten about half or maybe even less than half of the movies we’ve written produced. For every movie that’s been made, there are an equal number of un-produced films that we’ve written.

Thomas Lennon and Kerri Kenney as Lieutenant Jim Dangle and Deputy Trudy Wiegel in Reno 911!

DJ Sorce-1: How are you able to write so frequently? I tried to write a movie script this summer, and it was so difficult I gave up. I can’t fathom writing that much material in a short span of time.

Thomas Lennon: It really helps to have a deadline where you absolutely have to hand it over to someone. When you can fiddle around with a script forever it’s hard to get motivated. One of the good things about Ben and me writing together is that when you write with a partner, it’s always a little bit competitive. You’re sort of always racing to see who can write more. Ben and I both write almost compulsively. The advantage of having a partnership is it’s half of the work and you’re always in a slight competition to see who can write more material.

We’ve never really written spec scripts. We’ve only ever written specific stuff for a studio where they tell us, “We want it, boom, you have 12 weeks.” That’s a very long time to have. We’ll spend eight weeks on the outline and four weeks on the script. The outline is kind of the hard part. After that it’s just fun because you get to write the dialogue and jokes.

Tom as Thayer in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

DJ Sorce-1: Are the movies that got shelved ones that studios approached you about and just ended up falling through?

Thomas Lennon: Yeah. There’s always someone who’s really hot for a second that the studios want you to write something for. We wrote a movie for Orlando Jones. I don’t know if you even know who he is anymore. Eight years ago he was the next big thing so it was like, “Quick, write an Orlando Jones movie right away.” We wrote a movie for Jennifer Aniston a long time ago. We wrote a movie for Eddie Murphy like five years ago that we actually just started working on again. It’s a really slow process writing movies for the studios. It’s unbelievably slow. You’ll work on the same thing for years.

DJ Sorce-1: Do you ever get frustrated with a project when it seems like it’s never going to get finished?

Thomas Lennon: You need a pretty thick skin to write in the Hollywood system. The studio system will really crush your spirit if you’re not prepared for it. The writer doesn’t have very much power, and you get fired and re-written all the time. If you write a script that’s going into production, generally you’ll get replaced on your own movie with somebody else just to let them do a draft, and then frequently you’ll come back in and rewrite everything they just wrote.

Lt. Jim Dangle at Indie 103.1 Studios

DJ Sorce-1: That’s so different than what I envisioned. I think to a lot of people who aren’t in the industry still have this illusion of an aspiring screen writer pitching their script to an exec, it ends up getting picked up, and then it gets made into a great movie.

Thomas Lennon: I suppose sometimes that happens. We’ve been fired and replaced on our own movie as many as three or four times. The comedy studio writing guise is a pretty small community out here. You’re usually getting replaced by people that are pretty good friends with you. We’ve had to replace them on their movies too.

DJ Sorce-1: That must get awkward.

Thomas Lennon: Oh totally. It’s very awkward, it’s embarrassing, and it makes you mad. But you just have to think, “Ok, fuck it, it’s part of the game.”

DJ Sorce-1: That’s a really good outlook. If I got fired from my own movie I would be cursing people out.

Thomas Lennon: You feel like you never want to go back, but then they hire you right back and they’re like, “Boy that last guy really fucked up.” (Laughs) It’s just a cycle. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend writing movies in the studio system if you’re looking for something that’s really fun.

DJ Sorce-1: Is there going to come a point where you’ll want to back off the studio system and do more independent and personal projects?

Thomas Lennon: I think at some point we will move on to smaller, independent stuff, but it’s a hard habit to break. Once you’re on the list as an approved studio comedy writer guy, there is a lot of opportunity. A career in writing for the studios is generally pretty short…like an NFL career. You don’t want to mess with it while it’s working.

Movie still from Reno 911! Miami

DJ Sorce-1: Let’s talk about Reno 911! Miami. What kind of things did you add to the movie to make it different from the TV show?

Thomas Lennon: The sex and violence in it is at a pretty high level that we couldn’t do on the TV show. Since it was the movie version we were like, “You know what, let’s just turn everything up a notch.”

Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

DJ Sorce-1: How did you feel about the film after it ran its course in theatres?

Thomas Lennon: We’re very proud of the Reno movie. It got terrible reviews, as did Balls of Fury for the most part, which we’re also very proud of as a movie. The kinds of comedies we write don’t get very well reviewed. That’s life. If you put something out there, you’re generally going to get ripped up on the internet. Ben and I have literally never written a film that has gotten good reviews, and we’ve written seven films now. I’m actually sort of getting used to it. There are lots of movies that I’m really proud of, and some that I’m not. Some movies we have credit on were basically re-written by other people. But I’m very proud of the Reno 911! movie. And it made more than double its budget.

DJ Sorce-1: That’s a success, right?

Thomas Lennon: Yeah.

Reno 911! Miami Trailer

DJ Sorce-1: Absolutely. You have to take the internet with a grain of salt. There are so many lame people that have websites or blogs solely dedicated to ripping on other people.

Thomas Lennon: Yeah, we’re thoroughly used to it. We realize were not working on art films.

Balls of Fury Trailer

DJ Sorce-1: What was it like working with Christopher Walken? He seems like one of the more interesting guys in Hollywood.

Thomas Lennon: He’s actually a very shy, extremely normal guy. Remarkably, there’s nothing that weird about him. He does look like he’s going to bite you all the time, and that’s kind of weird. But he’s the most incredibly soft spoken, shy person you’ll ever meet. It comes of as sociopath, but he’s just really mellow…very nice, and very funny. It certainly takes some getting used to him. Until you get used to him he seems pretty weird.

DJ Sorce-1: Had you and Ben met him before shooting Balls of Fury?

Thomas Lennon: We had never met him. He read the script, loved it, and said, “Great I wanna do it.” We got a message one day that we were supposed to call Christopher Walken, which kind of freaked Ben and me out. We were like, “Shit, really? I don’t know if I want to call him on the phone, it seems kind of scary.” So we called him, he was incredibly mellow, and we talked about Pennies from Heaven for a long time. The next time he showed up he had memorized all of his lines. He did the entire script like a monologue of all of his scenes. But yeah, he’s less interesting then he seems.

Thomas Lennon as Karl Wolfschtagg in Balls of Fury

DJ Sorce-1: Did you write the part of Feng with him in mind? Out of all of the characters who seemed like they could have been written with someone specific in mind, his seemed the most likely match.

Thomas Lennon: At one point we were thinking Eddie Izzard. And then for a while there was some discussion that I would play Feng. That fell apart when Christopher Walken called. We were like, “You have more academy awards, you can do it.”

Ben Garant, Dan Fogler, and Thomas Lennon

DJ Sorce-1: Did the cast of Balls of Fury get along well and was there any hanging out off set?

Thomas Lennon: Quite a bit. Ben and I didn’t hang out that much just because our days were really long. The cast all became really close on that film and I know they’re all still really good friends. But Ben and I didn’t hang out so much, because when you’re making a movie like that, the days are epic, and the call times are like 5 a.m.

DJ Sorce-1: Wow. Do you guys have a short shooting schedule?

Thomas Lennon: Our period was about 42 days, which is somewhat short in studio movie schedules.

DJ Sorce-1: I imagine that can become incredibly stressful if you fall behind schedule.

Thomas Lennon: It’s pretty intense. We never fell behind schedule. We’re really used to doing television where you move really, really frickin’ fast. Particularly on Reno where we don’t rehearse anything ever and we’re just shooting all the time.

Movie Still from Reno 911! Miami

DJ Sorce-1: Speaking of television, I’ve read about a pilot you and Ben pitched to FX about porn set directors in the 1930’s. It sounds intriguing.

Thomas Lennon: It was called Formosa. I still hope something happens with that one, it’s pretty cool. It’s sort of like a combination of Chinatown and Boogie Nights. It’s about these two guys who are getting in on the ground floor of stag films. It’s set in 1936, and Hollywood still has orange groves and dirt roads. These two guys who failed in the moving picture industry decide to make stag films and get mixed up with the Mexican mafia. Formosa is actually much more dramatic than anything else we’ve ever written. It’s kind of like an ongoing mystery/thriller with comedy.

DJ Sorce-1: Do you think there’s any chance of it getting put into action?

Thomas Lennon: Often I think people have scripts of ours and they forget they have them. We get calls from people sometimes and they’re like, “Man we really want you guys to write a script for us.” And we’re like, “Don’t forget, you already have one.” Executives change so much that you have to remind them what they own. FX owns it and any time they wanted to they could pull the trigger on it.

DJ Sorce-1: I think the people from The State could do great work in genres other than comedy, so I’d like to see Formosa on TV some day.

Thomas Lennon: I’m pretty sure there are a couple of horror scripts in amongst the members of The State. I wouldn’t be surprised if horror is the direction that many of The State members go later. It’s basically the cousin of comedy. It’s closer to comedy than drama.

Jason Lee, Thomas Lennon and Shawn Hatosy in A Guy Thing

DJ Sorce-1: Are you a horror movie fan?

Thomas Lennon: I am. It’s weird, but most of the movies I rent tend to be in the horror of thriller genre. I don’t really rent a ton of comedies.

DJ Sorce-1: Speaking of comedy, I understand that you and Ben Garant have worked closely with Ben Stiller on a few comedic projects.

Thomas Lennon: Ben Garant and I have worked with him on a couple things. We worked on Starsky and Hutch for several months while it was in pre-production and shooting. The other project was Night at The Museum. Those were two kind of biggies for us.

Movie Still from Starsky and Hutch

DJ Sorce-1: Did you get any writing credit for Starsky and Hutch?

Thomas Lennon: We didn’t pursue credit for Starsky and Hutch because it was a slightly political situation, but a tremendous amount of our material ended up in the film, which was nice.

DJ Sorce-1: Do you think people in “the know” realize that you came up with a lot of the material?

Thomas Lennon: The only people that would really know that we wrote a lot of that film would be Ben Stiller and Todd Phillips and those guys. Again, it’s sort of a weird part of the business that sometimes you have to…you know…walk it off.

Movie Still from Starsky and Hutch

DJ Sorce-1: You have such a good attitude about all this stuff.

Thomas Lennon: You have to, or else you’ll go completely insane. When Ben Stiller asks you to do something, it’s good to do it. He’s the most bankable movie star; maybe in the world right now…probably him and Will Smith.

Love Seat Skit

DJ Sorce-1: Let’s talk about The State for a little bit. I asked Michael Ian Black to give me some background on Barry and Levon when I interviewed him. Do you want to share any additional details?

Thomas Lennon: A lot of the great sketches that I wrote were written in the amount of time it takes to write them down. For Barry and Levon skit we just started talking like they talk in the sketch, and wrote it in about five minutes. Usually your first instinct is right with those sort of sketches, and if you start really thinking about the logic of it you’ll say, “That doesn’t make sense, why is there a big pile of pudding?” The great thing about The State is that we were all so young that we didn’t really second guess ourselves on stuff like that. We just did it. “Pudding” was written very fast, and I think it was immediately approved. It seemed to go over very well the first time we pitched it. Somewhere I still have the blueprint for the set that the set designer did for what the pile of pudding would look like.

Pudding Skit

DJ Sorce-1: Another favorite of mine that you and Michael Ian Black did was “Monkey Torture”. Are there any interesting facts to go along with that skit?

Thomas Lennon: A lot of people don’t know this, but “Monkey Torture” was a backup sketch. We cut a piece from the show, and we didn’t have enough pieces to shoot that night. We needed to add one more thing. I had pitched “Monkey Torture” earlier, but it hadn’t been approved. Something else bombed when we kept rehearsing it and we were like, “Fuck, let’s add Monkey Torture.” We knew it needed no set and we found out from our producer it was super easy to get a monkey there that night. Essentially “Monkey Torture” got called up from the bench. It became an enduring, popular sketch for some reason, and I’ve never quite understood why. It has my favorite Michael Patrick Jann appearance as Terry from back stage.

Monkey Torture Skit

DJ Sorce-1: What was the approval process that you talk about when it came to pitching skits?

Thomas Lennon: First it had to go through The State cast. Every day at three o’clock you’d have to pitch. Some people would pitch one thing; some people would pitch three or four sketches. It taught us all to be productive, fast writers, because you had to have stuff to pitch every single day. First you had to get it through the group, and you’d have to have it get a majority vote in order to go on to the board. Then it would have to go through the producer, Jim Sharp, who was sort of the George Martin of our group. He would cross stuff out or say, “You can’t do this.” Jim was a very powerful voice in terms of what made the show and what didn’t. He’s the executive on Reno 911! right now.

DJ Sorce-1: Was it ever hard to stop yourself from breaking up and laughing when you were doing a sketch in front of a live studio audience?

Thomas Lennon: I don’t remember ever having any one of us cracking up in front of the audience. We were really, really serious about our sketches. We were all just out of drama and film school, we fought a lot, and we took it really seriously. We shot so many sketches in a row in front of a live audience that there was never any time for mistakes. If you messed up somebody else’s sketch, they would be really mad, because it might not make the final show. We rehearsed a lot, and it was surprisingly serious how we treated the sketches.

DJ Sorce-1: Do you have an all-time favorite?

Thomas Lennon: People always ask that, and sometimes I say the Cannonball Run credits are the coolest, weirdest thing we did. For classic sketch writing, I always liked "Tenement." I’ve always liked the "Taco Man" one, and of course "Cutlery Barn", where it’s just our strange talking heads. That was one of the ones Jim Sharp didn’t want us to do. He really thought it was a bad idea. The reason it’s shot in a black space with just heads is that we designed it to be so easy that there was no point in not doing it. It was like, “What’s the worst that can happen? It’s just heads in a black space popping up.”

Tenement Skit


Anonymous said...

I have read a ton of Thomas Lennon interviews. (I have been a rabid fan for nearly 15 years) Hands down, that is the best interview ever. Seriously, nice job!!

berlenga said...

Yo, Griff,
Good interview, I'm impressed!!
Mr. G

Adoodles said...

i always love these interviews - seriously good work. who's up next? i'm very curious about todd holoubek.

Anonymous said...

A few years later . . . but great interview. Became a huge fan of Lennon after 911. Good stuff!

Nick Harvey said...

nice interview. thanks