Interview: 'Community' directors Joe and Anthony Russo
On translating Dan Harmon's ideas from page to screen
The "Community" season two premiere arrived in today's mail, and besides being very funny (I'll have more to say on that after it airs a week from tonight), it reminded me that I still had a couple of "Community" interviews from this summer to run. In case you missed them earlier, I talked to Donald Glover and Danny Pudi, to Alison Brie and to creator Dan Harmon, and I still have a couple of actor interviews in the bank.
Today it's time for the show's chief directors: brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who are tasked with taking the strange ideas and unlikely references that Dan Harmon and his writers come up with and making them work on film. I sat down with the brothers shortly after the show's raucous Comic-Con panel a few weeks back.
Over the course of this first season what did you guys learn about what you can and can’t do in executing these ideas that come into Dan’s head?
Joe Russo: One thing that we have to give Dan props for is that he wanted to test the boundaries of the show in the 1st season. I think the most fun we’ve had in television prior to "Community" was "Arrested Development," which was a show that we tested the boundaries on every week, and there was sort of a chemistry that we felt with Mitch (Hurwitz) that was very similar to what we felt with Dan. And I don’t know I don’t think there’s anything we couldn't do. I think Dan did a great job of creating a very large sandbox. So challenge-wise, it’s all a cost issue. That’s struggling with the studio. I think when something like a gamble like the paintball episode pays off, it's ammunition next time you want to go out and do an 8-day episode of (what's usually) a 5-day shot.
To do the paint ball episode, did you have to sacrifice something in another episode?
JR: Sometimes you do. We took a little longer with that.
Anthony Russo: Because they don’t give you any extra time. A little bit extra, but not much.
JR: There’s a game you play as a producer where you accrue your extra days until the very end and then it’s like, "Want us to not finish the episode?" We were at the end of the run there, so it’s usually where to get them. But for example, the billiards episode had more complicated set-ups, and the boat episode.
AR: Oh, the sailboat, yeah.
JR: The sailboat episode. And I was doing the Annie-dates-Vaughn episode and I needed to give him a day. Annie and Vaughn was a very contained episode. So I gave him a day and he did the sailboat. So you’re horse trading.
How specific are the scripts in terms of, "In this scene, we want it to look like the tracking shot from 'Goodfellas,"" or whatever and how much is license that you can take?
AR: There’s a lot of license that we take. Part of Dan’s strength as a creative force is that he understands and he loves collaboration. So he knows where the line exists between what a writer does and what a director does. But his vision is still very specific and thorough. It’s a healthy relationship, and he respects that line where it crosses into a realm of not his. And he likes to position things so that they can be interpreted by the director.
JR: There’s a lot of back and forth that goes on, especially through the outline phase. And we’ll talk about things conceptually. It’s just a lot of riffing and then he’ll write something and we’ll pitch him an idea back and he’ll alter the script to fit that idea. And so he’s very open to that collaboration .
AR: That’s a really tough question. We're cinephilies, you know? We're fucking movie geeks. So we love that stuff at a creative level personally, but every once in awhile we do consider, "How much does the mass audience get this?" A lot of people watch television comedy to shut off. They don’t sit down because they want to be challenged. They don’t sit down because they want to think. They want to be able to be…
JR: After a hard day at work you want to have a beer and a sandwich.
AR: …shut off and laugh. Have something easy wash over them. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. That doesn’t mean it’s not even great. They want something easy so when you start to get into references, that’s where, for me, that’s what I think about. It’s like how hard do you want to make an audience work?
With "Arrested," that was a show where everyone was sort of venal and selfish. And even Michael, who you start off thinking of as the nice guy, you realize, "No, he just enjoys feeling superior to everyone else." And here it’s a show where you come in and Winger seems like a rat bastard and even he, like everyone else, turns out to have a heart of gold. Can you talk about sort of how you go about infusing the warmth into the show and keeping it from undercutting the joke while still having heart in it?
JR: It’s a very insightful question because it’s the core engine of what we decided to do when Dan gave us the script and we sat down and started having creative meetings. Of course he’s an "Arrested" fan, and we felt like coming off of that show and watching things being influenced and evolved because of that show, that single-camera comedy had moved in a very cynical direction. And it was very self-reflective and ironic and acerbic and we spent 2 years doing that kind of material and then spent 4-5 years watching it. You get to a point where you want to do something different. And you’re like, "Okay, let’s swing the pendulum back in the other direction. Why isn’t there" - and we use this a reference constantly - "sort of a John Hughes type show on the air right now that appeals to an intelligent viewer but has a real warmth and a real heart to it that doesn’t trade the intelligence of the show?" And so that’s been a mandate of all 3 of ours since we did the pilot: "Let’s maintain that warmth. Let’s maintain a joy for the characters." And I think it really just comes down to everybody who’s involved loves the characters. Loves to see them express themselves and we’re not afraid of heartfelt moments.
AR: But to your question about where you draw the line, which is really a difficult one to understand... Joe and I always loved layered material. We like material that gives you everything. It makes you laugh but pulls your heartstrings, that excites you. We like dense layered stuff, and at the end of the day, it’s comedy. Comedy trumps everything, but at the same time you like to find room between that and around that to sort of round out the dramatic experience.
JR: And embrace the characters because the show is going to live or die with the characters.
Has there been a performance you’ve seen the way the actors and the characters evolved from your cast that’s surprised you over the first bunch of episodes. Like, "I didn’t think he or she had that in them" as it went along?
JR: I think they all kind of surprised us in a way with their emotional range, which is very satisfying, because the casting process in a pilot is one of the more idiotic sort of components of the television business. It’s about a 3 week process where 80 shows are competing for, you know, maybe 100 talented actors. And it’s a bit of a feeding frenzy and a lot of it is a roll of the dice as to how lucky you’re going to get with the cast that you put together. In particular, I think Joel’s had some really nice moments because that character is probably the hardest to access. He’s also the most cynical and I think he’s done a great job of balancing that character out. I think there’s been some great moments with Abed. Complete credit to Dan in making one of the most unique characters in television. He’s a very strange engine.
AR: Yeah. That character is just the wonderful combination of someone who can express very little emotion, while being perhaps the most emotionally endearing character of the cast. It’s really a brilliant construct.
Donald and Danny talked on the stage about sort of when they figured out they got along. At what point were you guys looking at footage and saying, "My God, these two..."? Was it the first library rap?
JR: It was before that actually. It wasn’t in the footage. We were watching them early on after the pilot - the way those two guys bonded. And they had a great rapport in between the pilot and the first episode. Just a good energy, and they’re riffing on-set a lot. The rap was written, I think, 5 hours before the shot, and the idea was hatched probably the night before. And I think it was hatched because day 4 of episode 1, those guys were beat-boxing in a corner together and Harmon heard them and said, "Let’s have them do a rap." He's very good at studying the actors, who they are personally and what motivates them personally and how their chemistry works together and he writes the characters to fit. The relationships on the show are very similar to the cast real-life relationships.
AR: The other thing with Danny and Donald too is they both have lightning fast comedic minds. It’s just shocking how fast they can process.
JR: And they’re both great at improv.
AR: Yeah, and I think that’s part of their bond with one another is just sheer intensity and speed of their wit and ability to perform it, so.
And speaking of chemistry, was there sort of a similar thing with Joel and Alison, where even before the debate episode there was something clearly there? Or did you see it when you shot them in the study room together?
JR: You know what, it was that. We shot the scene. It was one of those things where we’re all racing through episodes. It's episode 9, everybody’s a little tired because you’re a few weeks in and it’s a grueling schedule. And that scene was just a crazy idea somebody had, like, "Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if the straight-laced girl had to kiss Joel," and we had a construct for it why they had to do it. And I remember the crew was just going crazy about it. Everybody was talking about it and you’re watching it on the monitor and as a director or a producer you try to absorb the material the way you would a show you were watching at home. And you go, "That’s really exciting." And I remember everybody was sort of titillated by the idea. And I called Dan, I was shooting that episode, I said, "Something happened. There’s a really interesting chemistry here. I think we should exploit it." And he makes fun of me for an obsession I have with Annie’s character, sort of this really repressed character that is also incredibly sexually charged because of her repression. And we just felt it was a really interesting place to go with the relationship.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
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