For director/producer David Dobkin, the premise of two best friends who are in desperate need of a big change was one that he found fertile ground for comedy. When he was given the new script from Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writing team who created 2009’s record-breaking R-rated blockbuster “The Hangover,” the “Wedding Crashers” director was quickly drawn into their engaging story. In fact, in our interview, he refers to their screenplay for “The Change-Up” as “the best script he’s ever started a movie with.”
MoviesOnline sat down recently with Dobkin at a press conference in LA to talk about his new R-rated comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann and Olivia Wilde. He told us about the challenges of making a body switching movie and taking it where it had never gone before, what it was like pushing the envelope with its raunchy humor without sacrificing the heart that would allow the audience to connect with the characters, and why part of the fun of casting was putting people in roles where you hadn’t seen them before.
Q: Olivia told us one thing that really sold her on this was the fact that your female roles are always very well written. Can you talk about creating the female characters in this comedy and taking them further than what we normally expect?
DD: First of all, it’s important to me. I pay a lot of attention to those characters because they’re real characters in the movie and I think sometimes they get treated like ‘the wife’ or ‘the sex object’ or whatever it is. Every character is an opportunity to create a fully rounded three-dimensional person that can carry emotional weight, comedic weight, and can deliver on all these other different ideas. Early on, I caught onto that idea and certainly the opportunity in “Wedding Crashers” was wow, the women can actually drive all these scenes and carry all this comedy and push all this stuff and put the guys into a situation where they’re actually in a much more submissive situation which lets you go farther with sexual content, because if it’s the other way around, it’s not funny. I hooked into that, plus I think that they’re interesting characters and they’re really important. I’m glad that she saw the lineage of that in a couple of my other films. In this movie, you knew when you read the script, certainly for Leslie’s character, Jamie, she carries the entire emotional weight of the movie and you realized that the guys at a certain point were spinning off into losing themselves, and if you didn’t have that character in a real situation, you weren’t going to be able to follow the film to the end. For Olivia’s character, that would have been a very easy role to just do a Bo Derek “10” treatment to. All you needed was a hot girl. It was very simple. It would have succeeded at that level, but it’s not interesting that way. You want something that’s compelling, and you want the audience to fall in love with these characters as well and be invested in them. I always look for strong women. To play strong women, I look for strong women who are strong actresses who can carry the dramatic weight and also have a sense of comedy timing. They were both amazing. I’m totally thrilled with how they both succeeded in the roles. Then, the last thing is just selfish. It’s that until recently, I guess it’s “Bridesmaids,” absolutely nobody looked to score points in the area of what the women were doing in the movie. It was just because the expectation was so low and it was so easy to score in those areas. People were always surprised like wow. I’m like well, if you just treated them like other characters, then you’ll get there. It’s a long explanation, but I put some thought into it.
Q: How do you keep things spontaneous in this type of comedy and to what extent do you give your actors the freedom to improvise and add things to the scenes?
DD: First of all, the script was hilarious. It was honestly the best script I’ve ever started a movie with. So we had a lot of the blueprint down which gave us a lot of freedom to play. What I normally do in rehearsal – and I have a very long rehearsal process for my actors – in the rehearsal process, we read the scenes, we go through the scenes, and we let any kind of ideas or inspiration that they may have come out in that room, and then I have the writers take it and re-script it back into the script. I know it appears spontaneous and ad libby, but by the time we’re on set, it’s really not. There’s an actual study process to get to that point. That’s really just the credit of the actors being really good actors. And then, the other thing that I do is when I’m in the rehearsal room, I never get the scene to happen in the room all the way. I bring it as far as I can and there’s a lot of foreplay, but you never want to cross the line, because if you do, you’ll end up seeing a bunch of things that you love and then you’re going to end up forcing your actors to try to recreate something that happened and it won’t ever feel spontaneous or real. It’s a bit of a gamble but you take it to the point where everyone understands very specifically what the bull’s eye is, but then it doesn’t happen until you’re there on the day which is part of what gives it its sense of excitement or a sense of it happening in those moments.
Q: Can you talk about your four leading actors and how everyone got along on set?
DD: They all got along great on set. They all have a little bit different acting techniques and everybody does have a very different style of filmmaking. It’s my job to marry them all together seamlessly and make them feel like they’re in one movie. They got along really well. When you come into a movie like this, the one great thing is you know you’re taking risks and you know you’re pushing boundaries. If you can make your actors comfortable, you’re going to find people really pushing themselves to do different kinds of things in their performances than they’ve done before and reaching that far. When they see the other actors doing it, it’s infectious. Everybody pushes each other and you have to raise your game because if someone else is going for it and you’re not, it’s really going to leave you behind. They all actually had to accelerate to keep pace with each other. It was fun in that way.
Q: Was the chemistry already there between the two couples?
DD: No, not really. None of them really knew each other very well. I know Jason knew Leslie but he’d never been in anything with her. That was the stuff you do in the beginning when you’re putting a cast together and you’re trying to imagine them together. I always felt like Leslie and Jason looked like a real couple and they would feel like a real couple. You wanted that to be very realistic in the beginning because that’s really the heart of the story. Ryan and Jason were friends but I didn’t know that when they were cast. I had no idea they knew each other.
Q: Did you have Ryan and Jason in mind right from the beginning?
DD: When I first read the script, I wrote down a very short list of actors and they were both on that list. It was a list I actually brought to the studio. There were eight actors that had been pre-approved for the movie and Ryan and Jason were off that initial list. They fit it perfectly. You could see clues in both of their careers that they had performances that touched upon these things, but neither of them had gone all the way with it in my opinion. It’s fun. Part of casting is not putting people in roles where you’ve seen them before. I know that’s what everyone wants but it’s a little bit of the trick of going this is what you love about somebody, but this is a way you’ve never seen them do this before. You can’t come up with a performance like what Vince did in “Wedding Crashers” if you aren’t putting them into…Roles are very specific. Each one is a unique opportunity for that actor. There are no two that really are the same. If you line it up at the right time with the right person, you usually get something really combustible. I felt like both these guys really nailed it on either side. It wasn’t easy. They worked really hard to share characters and do that stuff.
Q: There are two ways to do a body switching movie – the way you did it where once the switch happens the actors play the other part or where the actors continue to play their character but the other characters in the film see that as the other person.
DD: Yes, “Heaven Can Wait.”
Q: I’m curious why you decided to go this way. Can you talk about that choice?
DD: I thought about it a lot. The real reason is kind of tied into the reason that I mentioned before which is, I didn’t want the destination of their performances that are the majority of who they play in the movie to be the role that you see them as. I don’t really need to see Jason Bateman play that guy the whole movie. That’s not the event of the movie. The event of the movie is watching him turn into something and part of the shock of seeing him talk and behave in that way and be crossing boundaries is the fact that you haven’t really seen Jason – as sarcastic as he may be in “Arrested Development” – you’ve never seen him go to the mat like that before. To me, that’s the thrill of seeing that happen. And with Ryan, he’s actually playing a guy that’s a nebbish and it’s really weird and interesting to see him do that. The thing that was always interesting was you’re a gorgeous man and you’re going to be playing someone who has no idea what it feels like to be in that body and getting that attention the moment when she says I actually had a crush on him. It’s such an amazing moment because it’s Ryan and he plays it like such a little boy. It’s really sweet. I think that’s what it was. I thought about it a lot. And again, to credit the script, in the script it says “The actors will remain in their bodies.” There was a screen direction in the original screenplay which indicated that that’s the way that it should go. We had a moment of thinking about it and then we said but it’s not as challenging.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you making this movie? What did you absolutely have to get right to make it work?
DD: I thought the switch was the hardest thing because neither of these guys is for better or worse, just as a fact, neither of them have personalities that are so incredibly distinct that you sit there and go “Oh, it’s Christopher Walken and he’s going to be Christopher Walken.” Or Nic Cage and John Travolta. You can tell when they’re playing each other that they’re also imitating each other because they’re each distinctly funny as personalities. It’s kind of like them doing a ‘fuck you’ to each other when they play. “I’m Nic Cage and I’m going to show you, John Travolta, what you act like.” That’s part of the fun of “Face/Off.” And then, now I’ve got to pretend to be me so I’m going to riff myself as well. When you have personalities like that, you can do that. Ryan and Jason are much more everymen in that sense and don’t have such quirky, weird personalities. They’re also not Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis where the polarity of the switch is there. I’m playing a child and I’m playing an adult. It really required the characters to be created clearly and distinctly from each other, the single guy and the married guy, and for them to truly have to swap the inside characteristics of those characters so they can play that from an honest, authentic place. It’s very complicated honestly. I know that it works in the movie but it was hard keeping track of it. You shoot unchronologically in a movie. Everything is out of order and all of a sudden you’re like who’s who. On the Call sheets we had to indicate to the crew who the hell was playing who each day because the wrong wardrobe would show up and everything was a little bit insane. There was even a draft of the script which had their names next to each character so you could know who was who. I think that was the most challenging part and now it’s nice because it doesn’t matter. There was a part of us that were like “Okay, they’re pissing in a fountain.” Obviously this is an irreverent movie and we’re not taking this thing seriously, so there was a part of us that was like “The audience will go with it. It’s punk rock. They get it.” But then, you’re like well maybe they won’t. You can’t just assume that because we did that that they can’t be the same. You’ve got to believe that Mitch is that Mitch, not here’s Ryan’s Mitch and here’s Jason’s Mitch because that really didn’t work. We started there and we quickly were like oh wow, we have to do more than that.
Q: Can you talk about working with Jason and Ryan and what kind of preparation you did?
DD: We didn’t want them to imitate each other. We wanted them to play the same share of the characters. There were just little things that got created along the way. There were things I could do with the camera. I don’t know if anyone notices. There’s a lot of subconscious stuff. They switch colors. In the beginning, Dave wears blue. Dave always wears blue. Wherever he is in the movie, he’s in blue. Wherever Mitch is, he’s in red. There are little things that are happening unconsciously to help you switch over and understand those kinds of things. Preparation-wise, we just talked about what the different characters did in different emotional situations. What do you do when you’re agitated? What do you do when you feel cornered? What do you do when you are excited and elated? What are the different things that are expressed in that, that come out into physical attributes? We talked about it in the room and then we let whatever showed up show up in the performances. There was enough of it that showed up even in language things. “Fuck knuckles” popped out of Ryan’s mouth and we were like we should make sure you say “fuck knuckles” and silly things like that. Wherever you could, you kept tossing it back and forth and it grew. It was the same thing with the rules in “Wedding Crashers.” There were not that many rules. The rules kept getting spat out each time and the number kept changing. We were like it’s always funny if you don’t know what they all are. It’s not like there’s one through ten. Also, there was a moment when rule 149 came out and I was like we’re really out of control here. We’ve got to come back. That’s part of the fun of it being created. It’s the clay changing on set. You have what you’ve shot to go back to and build from as you go.
Q: “Wedding Crashers” started the trend of the raunchy comedy but this movie really pushes the boundaries. Did you feel there was pressure to go further?
DD: I don’t feel pressure. Obviously this movie was started two years ago and I think what showed up this summer was just a reaction to people embracing this kind of comedy. Like anything, you can’t go do the same thing again and again. You want to push boundaries. If you’re in the lineage of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, you’re trying to do that. There was a long stretch in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s of PG-13 comedies, and R-rated comedy made its way back into attention, and now that you’re in the arena, it’s like if you’re going to go do it, go do it. Just stretch it and see where people will go. I think that there’s a part of it that’s why design a rollercoaster if it’s not going to have an upside down loop on it? There’s just no point. Everybody’s supposed to get a little bit sick. That’s the fun of it and some people more than others. So there wasn’t a consciousness. I had no idea what they were doing in “Hangover 2” or in “Bridesmaids” for that matter and we just did what we did. Honestly, the writers wrote it all in the script. I was just following a blueprint that made me laugh out loud when I read it. That’s what’s fun and exciting about it.
Q: Were there any scenes that you had doubts about, that you thought maybe we shouldn’t go that far?
DD: On set I push everything as far as I possibly can and then I pull it back in the editing room based on what an audience thinks when I test it. We test these comedies a lot. Everyone has a moment where they’re like “That one was the one that went too far.” But honestly, anything that anyone unanimously agreed on is probably not in the film anymore. Although, interestingly enough, you will be surprised how hard people laugh at something and then later say they didn’t like it which I cannot answer to that phenomenon. Part of being an R-rated director is you realize that you will watch people laugh at something, and then afterwards, when you ask them, they will say that was too far and you really should remove it from the movie. It’s a weird thing.
Q: There’s a scene where Jason is carrying the babies upside down. For animals, they have an organization that protects them. What about babies?
DD: The parents were there. The one take where the baby was upside down, they said please don’t do that again. Those babies were amazing. Everything in the movie that you saw them do, not that they did it, but they were the babies. Normally you have eight sets of babies and you change them out because these babies can only last for two hours. These babies did the whole movie. It was crazy.
Q: At a certain point, Mitch and Dave realize they want to return to their real lives and they switch back into their bodies as we watch. Was that in the script?
DD: That was something I thought of the first time I read it. I tried to write it into the script and it confused everybody so I pulled it out. I shot it that way fully well knowing that actually it may be confusing as well on screen. I didn’t know if it would work or not. But I thought it was important because normally at the end of the third act of a movie you have a more definitive moment. Because this was an internal moment, I felt like you had to go inside and pull the mask back for a second and see what was going on and that it would be powerful to feel yourself get to the brink of where they were and then realize. I felt like it had to have something else to really communicate that. I was really happy when it ended up working for people. Like the first time when we finally put it in and test screened it, there were no questions. I was like oh my God, I can’t believe it. Honestly, the editors and I have talked about it endlessly. We worked on it for a long time.
Q: You mentioned you received feedback from test audiences, did anyone have a problem with the Down Syndrome comment?
DD: I probably have more of an issue with it than anyone. Honestly, it crosses a line from a character. No is the answer. Did the test audience bring it up? No. It was really weird. The amount of complaints for the movie for different issues — like you do a test and say there’s 350 people in the audience — I can’t tell you there is anything in the movie that got more than one or two people individually to comment on. Oh, I didn’t like this poop thing. Or oh, I didn’t like that… or why did I have to look at these breasts? By the way, if it had been, I wouldn’t have been able to survive the studio. The studio, the minute they get the consensus to tone anything down, they will. I was pleased and I think everybody else was a little bit amazed that there wasn’t much more of a universal outcry for something. There is racist stuff in this movie that is absolutely shocking to me. I was like okay, that happened and that happened on set and that was actually an improv. I was like let me put it in the movie and see what happens and then people are laughing and we’re like alright, we’re an equal opportunity offender. I don’t know what to say. There’s nowhere this movie doesn’t go. But I think that’s part of the spirit of it and I think the movie has a sweetness to it and the characters have a sweetness that you understand they don’t know any better. It’s not being said from a malicious, dark place. It’s just an idiot who’s saying it and he grows up and I think part of what’s satisfying about his arc is his growth through that. He’s a bit of a dumb dumb. That’s what Bateman coined him. He’s a mouth breather. He’s a dumb dumb.
“The Change-Up” opens in theaters on August 5th.