Jake Kasdan, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Our perception of a director hinges heavily on the most recent film they’ve made. Jake Kasdan’s last movie, The TV Set, was a smart, sardonic satire of the process of creating a hit series that drew on Kasdan’s own bitter experiences in network television. Though Kasdan had enjoyed working for Judd Apatow on Freaks and Geeks (1999) and Undeclared (2001) — directing episodes for these in between making his first and second features, Zero Effect (1997) and Orange County (2002) — the less positive times he had spent on other shows had given him ample fodder for his film. Kasdan’s razor-sharp analysis of the brutal entertainment business could also be traced to the many years he had spent watching the intricacies of Hollywood life growing up on the sets of the films of his father, director Lawrence Kasdan. However, the dry, observational humorist that emerges as the writer-director of The TV Set is only one side of Jake Kasdan, as his new film seems to come from an entirely different place, an entirely different person, almost.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is the tale of fictional rock ‘n’ roll icon Dewey Cox, whose need to make music stems from a deep-seated childhood guilt — he cut his brother in half with a machete. Co-written by Kasdan and Apatow, the film relentlessly pokes fun at clichéd music biopics and their shortcomings, and features John C. Reilly playing the eponymous lead from the age of, yes, 14 years old onwards. Where The TV Set was sly and subtle, Walk Hard is shamelessly broad and often laugh-out-loud funny. Highlights include a meeting in India between Cox and the Beatles (Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman as John, Paul, George and Ringo respectively), and an “anatomical” gag which has no right to be funny, but is in fact hilarious.
Filmmaker spoke to Kasdan about his wide-ranging work, the comic potential of the name “Cox,” and the current WGA strike.
Filmmaker: Coming one after the other, Walk Hard and The TV Set are radically different films.
Kasdan: They’re so different that it’s almost hard to even think of them as being the same job. The TV Set is more personal, it’s more singularly my voice, and this is a lot harder. [laughs] It’s a lot more demanding and also more gratifying in certain ways. I love both of ‘em, but they couldn’t be more different processes.
Filmmaker: This movie seems more like you and Judd Apatow just having fun.
Kasdan: Right. That’s a good way of putting it. [laughs] This movie was partly a reaction to The TV Set. I wanted to do a comedy that was more fun, [laughs] as opposed to The TV Set. There was a moment late in it when I realized that it was basically a comedy that is designed to make people laugh and then ultimately sort of feel bad. It’s kind of depressing, and I wanted to make a comedy [next] that wasn’t depressing. I remember sitting in those screenings of The TV Set and thinking how much I was enjoying making a funny movie, but then there was the thing that the people who loved it would say, “I love it, it’s so depressing!” “I love it, it was so painful I could barely sit there!” [laughs] So I was attracted to making something that was a less complicated experience of laughter. I had the idea, and Judd sparked to it and the decision to do it was kind of, “This seems like it would be a fun thing to do…”
Filmmaker: What was the process of writing with Judd like?
Kasdan: I had never written a screenplay with anyone before, but it was great. This [movie] never would have happened but for that. I never could have sat there by myself and generated 120 pages without him. It’s hard too with a movie like this that’s meant to be funny constantly. It lives joke to joke and you can’t have a scene that’s not funny. There’s a problem if there isn’t a joke at the center of the scene. It requires a lot of joke-writing, a lot of ideas, and you need that energy of just exchanging material — making yourself laugh, making someone else laugh, and someone making you laugh — in order to just get through it.
Filmmaker: It seems like you and Judd were trying to make the dialogue in the movie as clunky as possible….
Kasdan: Right, no subtext. [laughs]
Filmmaker: …And also trying to throw in contextual information as awkwardly as possible.
Kasdan: What year it is, how old people are, all those sorts of things. It was one of the go-to jokes. There was even more of it, and in every scene we would make sure there was some line where someone was saying exactly who they are and what they’re thinking and what the context is. It was one of the original inspirations for the movie, that style where people constantly walk in and announce themselves, the clumsy exposition: “It’s the Sixties, man, things are changing!” “As your manager, I’d like to tell you…” [laughs]
Filmmaker: Over the course of making this film, did you come closer to finding the answer for how to make a good, serious music biopic?
Kasdan: I think this might be the answer. [laughs] Finally, a biopic about somebody who doesn’t exist.
Filmmaker: Then there’s the unavoidable subject of “Cox” gags…
Kasdan: The gift that keeps on givin’! [laughs] It turns out there are an endless number of them and we haven’t gotten sick of them, if that’s your question. It’s a very understandable question. I don’t know how it happened, it’s the constantly regenerating fuel source. [laughs] They just keep on coming, so to speak. It’s funny, when I came up with the name I wasn’t even really thinking about it, believe it or not, as insane as that sounds. And then John [C. Reilly] and I embraced it pretty wholly while we were recording [the music], and by the time we were shooting we were both in a rhythm where the Cox jokes would just appear wherever you wanted them to. It was like a magic trick: you could pull one out of thin air in pretty much any context [laughs], sometimes amusing ourselves more than anyone else.
Filmmaker: You and Judd didn’t write any of the songs, but was there a stage early on when you were trying to write them yourselves?
Kasdan: Yes, it was not pretty. [laughs] You would not want to have had anything to do with that, believe me! There was never a stage where we believed that we were going to do it, but there were definitely moments when you would believe that you would have something to contribute, and it was always a horrible realization that we had nothing to contribute musically.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Judd for close to 10 years, so what do you think the reason is for his recent success? Has he changed what he’s doing, or is it that Hollywood is finally listening?
Kasdan: I don’t think that he’s changed what he’s doing, I think that he’s got better and better at what he does, and he’s found a place to write from and make work from that people are really responding to. It started with the TV shows [Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared], and for some reason it works better for a broad audience in movies. Part of it is just he gets better and better (as we all hope to), and part of it is that right at the moment there seems to be a real desire for a certain kind of comedy.
Filmmaker: He also seems to be very smart about marketing his movies. A month or two ago I received a pair of Dewey Cox underpants in the mail, and before we started the interview, we were talking about the Cox Across America tour that John C. Reilly and the band are doing. It all seems to go beyond the movie.
Kasdan: [Judd]’s really good at that. It comes from a place of really trying to come up with fun stuff to do. The sense right now is that Judd’s presence makes this a very commercial movie, but that’s a brand new concept. I mean, Knocked Up is a Seth Rogen vehicle, and Superbad is a Jonah Hill-Michael Cera vehicle — he’s doing all these movies without comedy stars, which is very unusual. We are doing [Walk Hard] with [John C. Reilly], a guy that is a super-established, brilliant guy but who hasn’t carried a movie like this before. There are huge advantages to doing that and it’s part of what excites Judd and excites me, but it does require getting people to understand what it is a little bit more than if it’s somebody whose movies they have a long relationship with. [It’s] trying to figure out various fun ways to explain to people what we’re servin’ up, and Judd’s very good at that, very imaginative.
Filmmaker: This film seems to be in the grand tradition of spoofs like Airplane and Hot Shots. How steeped are you in those movies?
Kasdan: I think Airplane is one of the funniest movies of all time, I loved Top Secret. When I was a little younger I never missed one of those movies, so we knew that we were moving into territory that’s been done quite well many times and that you gotta bring your A-game and figure out some new way to do stuff without it feeling like you’re ripping off other movies. We also knew that the ultimate dream would be eventually [the movie] takes on enough of its own unique characteristic that it has a story you can follow to its conclusion, and by the end of the movie you’re invested enough.
Filmmaker: The movie is being called a spoof of Walk The Line.
Kasdan: You know, there were several of them [that we were spoofing]. There were a whole bunch of them in a short time, music ones and biopics in general. I actually loved Walk the Line: I thought [Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix] were both so great in that movie, and I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan. It was more the recurrence of these types of movies that are about someone’s extraordinary life and the series of “important American life” movies that we were playing at, the conventions of those things.
Filmmaker: Have you seen I’m Not There? It’s strangely similar in some ways to your movie.
Kasdan: I haven’t yet. They are [both] deconstructionist biopics. [laughs] It’s the year of the deconstructionist biopic, it turns out.
Filmmaker: What would you like to do ideally after this film?
Kasdan: I really don’t know. I always kind of think it’s a mistake to [look too far ahead]. I discovered early on these things just never work out how you planned. Usually the main thing a movie does is make people think that you could make a very similar movie, and usually what I want to do is not that. I don’t want to do the same thing two times in a row and this [movie] is so unusual for me that I have no idea [what’s next]. I think what you’re really hoping is that the movie allows you to make another movie.
Filmmaker: So have you got a project that you’ve written that you’re hoping to do?
Kasdan: I don’t, no.
Filmmaker: Is that a daunting prospect?
Kasdan: I feel like this was the more unusual thing, that I had [The TV Set and Walk Hard] lined up [one after the other] like this. I could use a break. It’s important for a director to keep working, but it’s also important to have moments when you’re not.
Filmmaker: Do you sit down with a blank page, or does it take you getting an idea for you to sit down to write?
Kasdan: I sit down with a blank page. At the moment, no one’s sitting down with a blank page…because we’re in this horrible thing. But hopefully it will be over soon.
Filmmaker: How do you see the strike panning out?
Kasdan: No one knows how it’s going to pan out right at the moment, but I think it’s critically important. There’s a reason it’s happening, and it’s a reason that’s really unpleasant. This is a set of issues that needs to be resolved, and this is the moment. If it weren’t for this strike, these issues would not be forced because, as we’re seeing, there’s tremendous momentum not to do anything about it. But for people who make things, for the primary creative forces behind movies and television, this is incredibly important. The issues at stake affect every writer and every actor and every director, and they affect you slightly less when things are going well, but when things are not going well, it’s like life or death. It’s your mortgage payment, it’s really critical. The frustrating thing has been to watch it, to feel so powerless in it, but we’ve got to trust our guild to work out this problem. Everybody knows it’s a real problem, and it’s only going to get more painful as it continues because people are really going to [suffer]. The studios have decided to shut down Hollywood over this, and it could be resolved. It’s not like this is some uncrossable divide, these are finite economic issues that can be resolved. It’s not going to put anyone out of business, it’s just a very basic kind of negotiation that’s at a horrible impasse. There’s a number of ways it could proceed from here, but you just hope that it wraps up quickly and fairly.