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May 23rd, 2019

Todd Strauss-Schulson Interview

Todd Strauss-Schulson, who makes his feature film directorial debut on “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” began making short films at the age of 13 when his grandfather gave him a video camera for his Bar Mitzvah. He graduated from Emerson College where he received numerous awards, including Panavision’s prestigious New Filmmakers prize. In Los Angeles, he began directing high concept music videos for major label artists. He’s helmed a number of TV shows and short films, working with comic greats like Stephen Colbert, Richard Belzer, Lewis Black, Jeff Ross, Patton Oswalt, Colin Quinn, Jackie Mason, Laura Silverman and Damon Wayans.MoviesOnline sat down with Strauss-Schulson at a roundtable interview to talk about directing the third installment of the Harold & Kumar franchise. He told us what it was like doing his first feature in 3D, how he enjoyed having the freedom to bring a lot of creativity to the storytelling process, and why he told the head of the studio that he wanted to be the Christopher Nolan of the Harold & Kumar franchise. He also revealed what he saved for the DVD and why directing WaffleBot was a pain in the ass.

Q: For your first feature film, how much of a crash course was it for you doing 3D?

TS-S: I had really nothing to compare it to I guess is the thing. I have literally no idea what it’s like to shoot a 2D movie. Before this I’d only shot things that were 7 minutes long with a video camera in my apartment with friends. And so, I’m sure the next movie that I make, if it’s 2D, I’ll be like “Oh my God, we just shot 10 pages. This is crazy! We’ve shot so much footage. How’d this happen so fast?!” But it really wasn’t a crash course. I just had no idea what to compare it to. I just assumed things take that long.

Q: How long did the Claymation sequence take?

TS-S: The company that did that did “Coraline,” “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” which are all movies that I think are incredible, so even to meet those people was amazing. That took a couple of months. Conception, conceiving it, was a month and a half — the ideas of what it was going to be like and all this — and then they animated it for 2-1/2 or 3 months. We visited Portland. They did it in Portland. They put the Claymation penis in my ear and my nose and took some pictures and Facebooked it. That was super fun. It was really fun just to see shots come in and slowly we would chunk together the sequence. It was awesome.

Q: What about the animated comic book sequences in between some scenes?

TS-S: That was something that I added just to keep the movie really visual and super bi-polar. The Perez flashback was something we shot after the fact. I loved the idea of seeing the little Trejo. I loved the idea of referencing all those other movies and doing graphic novel style. There’s that Godfather 2 shot in there telling the immigrant story. That was just exciting. I wanted to keep the movie as visual as possible, visual and fast. I wanted it to feel like a rollercoaster. The Sergei montage to me feels like you’re on the rollercoaster. The camera’s all over the place loopity looping and stuffs flying out at you. It feels like a first person shooter game or something. I loved the idea of doing that.

Q: You got to bring a lot of creativity to how you told this story. Are you afraid you’ll never have that kind of freedom outside of a Harold & Kumar situation?

TS-S: Hopefully, people will see this movie and love all that stuff and want me to do more of it next time. But, it’s true, I love these movies, this franchise, because movies really can do and go anywhere. There’s nothing you can’t do. You can go to heaven and you can go into a weird flashback and John can play five characters and you can do a car crash, a musical, and there can be a talking robot and Neil can be telekinetic. There can be a rape that people think is adorable and not horrible. I love that those movies can do that. For me, I come from a short film background. I made all these shorts that were funny and action packed and stylish and that helped to put me in this movie. This movie feels almost like it’s a series of shorts. It’s a series of episodes. It’s an adventure story with two guys in the middle of a thousand different worlds. I liked the idea that you could shoot each world like its own genre movie. You have a Busby Berkeley musical. You have a Frankenheimer car chase situation and you have a classic farce, noises off musical number. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, the guys aren’t even together. They’re ex-best friends with new spouses and they’re looking to come together again. I watched a lot of Nancy Meyers movies and that was the reference for what that would be like. I loved that. I loved being able to reference all of my favorite films in this one film.

Q: What about the moment when you found out this was going to be your flick?

TS-S: It is not an exaggeration to say that I’ve wanted to make a movie since I was two years old. I’ve wanted this before I even had a personality. I used to point at the movie theater down the block from where I lived in Queens and my mother would stroller me down there every Friday because I somehow knew they were changing posters and letters on the marquee. I don’t remember this. This is a story she likes to tell at dinners. But I guess that’s what was going on. I just loved movies so much and I’d been making movies and drawing storyboards and watching movies obsessively for my whole life. I got some attention from these short films I was making and they would send me scripts and I would go up and I would pitch on movies and it’d always feel like science fair. I’d bring my little project and I’d have all of my ideas and I would just tell my ideas to people. I got close. I kept getting close to these movies but I never booked one and they sent me “Harold & Kumar.” It was a franchise that I loved. I’d seen the first one in college drinking beers with friends and the second one opening night in the theaters. So, I read this and I was just excited to read it just to see what the third one was going to be like and I went after it hard because I wanted it so bad. I hadn’t worked this hard since my haftorah portions for my Bar Mitzvah. I was off book. I memorized everything. I had 40 pages of ideas in my head. I had timed it. I had cut together a little trailer of the movie using clips from other movies. I went nuts. I had a thousand ideas. I told them I wanted to be the Christopher Nolan of the Harold & Kumar franchise. I said it with a straight face to the head of the studio.

Q: You did not get a budget for IMAX however?

TS-S: I couldn’t get IMAX but we got stereoscopic in-camera 3D which is not cheap.

Q: In a movie in which Santa gets shot in the face, was there anything that you thought went too far?

TS-S: No, never too far. As a fan of the movie, I just wanted to make this movie that I wouldn’t be disappointed in on a Friday night. That’s true. I didn’t want to be bummed out when I saw it at The Grove on Friday. I wanted to push it farther. I wanted it to be more action packed, more visual, and there’s some heart in the movie. I wanted to erase all cynicism and replace it with sweetness so it really did feel like a Christmas movie and I felt like that would be an even more interesting sort of friction to have in the movie. It’d be a Trojan horse that would look classy and elegant and it would have this huge movie Christmas score that the London Philharmonic would do and it would sound like John Williams’ “Home Alone” or something. But really, on the inside, it’s just full of raunchy, Godless, perverse humor. Danny Trejo ejaculates on you in 3D in this movie. But, by the end of it, you walk out of there hopefully feeling warm and sweet and sentimental forgetting that you just ate a bunch of perverted ideas.

Q: I’m sure on paper using a child +3 sounded easy, but on set was it kind of a nightmare? Would you ever work with children again?

TS-S: I would work with children again in a second. I mean, they’re just so funny and adorable obviously. But it was not easy. That’s true. We had three of them thinking that it would be great if one got tired or cranky we would just replace her with another one. But they’re all such great friends and they were connected weirdly in some weird twins way that if one of them started crying, the others would erupt and then you’d have this three-headed Hydra baby crying monster. It was so difficult we ended up having to hire a baby whisperer to help us with her who showed up with flowers in her hair and bell bottoms and she was hilarious. She trained this baby. She got this baby to do all this great stuff and be super serious and she would bribe the baby with sugar cubes like she was a horse. So the scenes where she’s rubbing her gums after the cocaine, that was a game. That was just ‘brush your teeth, brush your teeth’ and then she would get a sugar cube for it. And, when she gets the cocaine in the face, that’s just powdered sugar. The baby’s not really on coke or high, but she is high on sugar. She’s sugar buzzing and crazy.

Q: After watching the baby whisperer cajol all the children into acting with sugar cubes, did you contemplate tasty treats for your grown-up actors?

TS-S: I did. I just force fed John Cho with Kim Chi and Cal got Twinkies. When they were good, they got their snacks.

Q: If one of these babies grows up to have a drug habit, are you going to feel a pang of responsibility?

TS-S: Absolutely not, they wanted this. I just gave it to them.

Q: They knew what they were getting into.

TS-S: They knew what they wanted.

Q: What is left to put on the DVD?

TS-S: There’s a bunch of stuff. We’re going to have 8 minutes in the extended cut of stuff that got cut out. We’re going to have deleted scenes and behind the scenes stuff. I’ve wanted to make movies for so long. I learned most of what I know from director commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes and criterions so I want this to be a fully loaded DVD. So, there’s deleted scenes. The musical number was all pre-vized and pre-shot before it was shot at all so that’ll be on there Robert Rodriguez style. Some of the deleted scenes at the end of the movie where the virgin Mary tries to ride Santa’s North Pole all night long and then Sergei, her father, the mobster, comes downstairs with an AK47 and blows him away with a thousand bullets like a John Woo movie.

Q: Oh, that virgin Mary.

TS-S: That virgin Mary.

Q: I thought you were talking about doing a full on religious blasphemy.

TS-S: No, no, no. It was the virgin Mary in the movie. So that’s a thing. Adrian, who plays Kumar’s best friend, had a hole runner where he’s renting out Kumar’s bathroom to homeless people to take shits in as an act of humanitarianism because it’s Christmas and the homeless need a nice warm place to shit on Christmas Eve which I cut out for time but that’ll be back in there.

Q: How did Danny Trejo come onto the project or did you always know you wanted him?

TS-S: I knew it. I love him. I love that guy and I love Robert Rodriguez movies and I love Trejo and I just wanted to meet him. Also, I thought it’d be very funny, I know that he’s a father. I know that he has a bunch of kids and a daughter he loves. I thought it’d be funny if he played a sweet father in an ugly sweater but it’s Machete. I’m aware of Danny Trejo. I know who that guy is. I thought that that fucking crazy face is like a face built for 3D. I thought that face in 3D in a beautiful, warm Christmas sweater holding a baby would be so funny and he loved it. He wanted to do it. He said he’d never had more dialogue in another movie ever. This was the most dialogue he’s ever had in any movie. I think he’s really funny. I just wanted to put him in the movie to also meet Robert Rodriguez one day.

Q: What was the first naughty movie that you saw as a kid that you probably were too young to be watching but you knew you had to see?

TS-S: I think I accidentally saw half of “A Clockwork Orange” which f*cked me up.

Q: Which half?

TS-S: The rape half. There’s got to be a better answer than that. I think I remember seeing National Lampoon movies, or things like “Meatballs,” I think, were the first movies that I really saw that were crazy. I also grew up watching a lot of William Castle movies which I think helped with this. They said they wanted to do it in 3D and I was like “What a gimmick!” And then I was like “What a gimmick! The world’s first stoner 3D movie, first Christmas 3D movie, first 3D comedy arguably.” I thought about William Castle in a lot of ways embracing the gimmick and feeling like a showman. I wanted to be a showman with this movie so I always talked about it like it was a Christmas spectacular. There’s something for everyone. You like singing and dancing, we’ve got it. You like gore, we got it. You like weird visual stuff, we got it. You like romance, we got it. You like action and chase scenes, that’s there. Claymation? You have some of that. So literally the kitchen sink is in this movie. But, in my mind, it was always like making one of those William Castle movies.

Q: What part of Queens are you from?

TS-S: I’m from Forest Hill. I grew up on Park Briar on Ascan Avenue near the boulevard and we shot some of the movie in Forest Hills. There are these background plates from when the guys are in the car and there’s some car stuff and we shot it right where my old apartment was. That was just people from high school to see. I closed down the street and went back in winter time. So weird.

Q: Aren’t you glad your grandfather gave you a video camera?

TS-S: Well it came after four years of relentless pestering. But I am, yeah.

Q: How much improvisation was on the set?

TS-S: It was interesting. Every actor was a little bit different. John and Kal didn’t do a tremendous amount of improvisation. They know their characters well. They had a lot of input and a lot of ideas during the screenwriting process so a lot of their ideas were already integrated into the text. Guys like Tom Lennon or Amir were hyper improvvy which is something I’m used to from the shorts and the people that I’ve worked with before. So those guys would do riffs and run. They’re stuck in the closet. That was just so fun to do. Also, when Neil and David showed up, David is a chef now but he was an actor also. Those two guys went crazy with improv. A lot of that stuff – the shoulder massages, the fingers, that’s them being hilarious which is always fun. Both ways were interesting. Danny Trejo does not do a tremendous amount of improvisation but he’s just so good at what he does. Everyone was a little bit different. WaffleBot was a pain in the ass. He was. He didn’t do much.

Q: If WaffleBot actually worked, would you own one?

TS-S: Yes. In fact, I wanted them to make one.

Q: There seems to be a real bias against pancakes in this movie. Was that intentional?

TS-S: It’s too much starch. Too sweet and to much starch. A waffle holds the syrup better.

Q: What’s next for you?

TS-S: I guess I get to make movies now for a little while longer. That’s good. I recently sold a pitch for an action-adventure comedy to New Line. It’s my own idea that we’re writing right now. There’s a couple of other things that we’re writing. I’m going to continue to make short films. I love making shorts. I don’t have a boss. There’s no boss telling me what I can and can’t do. I find that it’s incredibly creative and challenging to just keep doing that. It feels like me making shorts after high school still. So there’s a lot of that stuff. I’ve putting that stuff on my website. But movies – bigger, weirder visual action comedies.

Q: What’s the experience like working for a studio where you have a lot of bosses?

TS-S: I thought that it was going to be a big time disaster and that I was going to have my hands tied a lot, but because my pitch was incredibly specific and very, very dense and I showed up honestly saying what I wanted to do – I want this to look better, I want that car crash to be two minutes of a car crashing without real jokes, that Claymation should look really cool, and being very specific about the two best friends, the ghosts of Christmas future, and we’re going to tell that kind of story. It’s going to be a bromantic comedy and we’re going to really lay into some of that sweetness. Once they started to see dailies, I was just doing what I had said I was going to do, so there really weren’t any problems. I assume that people get in trouble when they do a bait and switch, when they say something to get the job and then they just don’t do that thing. But they were all very excited about it. They loved how it looked, and once we were cutting, if there were any issues, we all seemed to agree on. “Oh that scene’s too boring” or “That joke isn’t funny.” We were all on the same page so it was actually really, really supportive and great.

Q: Is there more Christmas carol stuff that was cut out, like with Ghosts of Christmas Future?

TS-S: That was just as a concept. They’re two best friends and they’re the most calcified, worst versions of themselves. Adrian is the most immature and Tom is the whitest guy, the most boring, conservative white guy in Docksiders. It’s what could happen to Harold if Kumar doesn’t show up, and it’s what could happen to Kumar if Harold doesn’t show up, just conceptually.

Q: This movie will probably run for Christmas after Christmas for God knows how many years.

TS-S: From your lips to God’s ears.

Q: How cool is that notion that every Christmas on TBS or TNT or HBO, someone’s going to be able to watch this Christmas movie?

TS-S: It’s cool and it’s overwhelming. I hope that that happens. That was part of the idea of erasing all the cynicism out of it and replacing it with sweetness which I think helped to make it funnier and weirder. Like WaffleBot doesn’t just hate pancakes. He also loves you and he follows you around and he falls in love with Kumar and that’s weirder but it’s also nicer. I find out that my mother loved this movie. She thinks she loves the music. It sounds sweet and everyone is nice, and Harold and Kumar are sweet guys stuck in the middle of a crazy world. I think that, in a weird way, it’s kind of Christmassy even though it’s obviously disgusting – but both those things.

Q: Can you talk about the special effects in the movie?

TS-S: There are over 400 special effects. Most of them are 3D gags which are CG. Guys that I’ve known since I was 13 did those effects. I grew up in New York with these guys and we all made short films when we were little kids together. They went to school with me at Emerson and I saw the first Harold & Kumar with them in a dorm room drinking beers. And they moved out here and we did all of our music videos and shorts together and they ended up getting this job. The process of doing things like the eggshin and the Trejo, that whole scene, the WaffleBot with the syrup, all of these effects in the movie that are in the trailer moments, those were all done with guys I’ve known my whole life.

Q: With this being the third film and John and Kal knowing their characters so well, did you ever have a moment on set where one of them would go “You know, Harold would never really do that.”

TS-S: There were moments. They were few and far between but that happened mostly in the screenwriting process and it happened a lot with John and Hayden who invented the characters. There would be these long conversations. I’d almost be a fly on the wall for a lot of it just listening to these guys talking about the histories and learning about who those guys are, where they came from, how they met and all this stuff, what’s been going on the last six years. There were things about this story that were specific. It is a story really about two ex-best friends learning to become best friends again on Christmas Eve. That’s something I can relate to, growing out of friendships as you get older. Also, it’s about guys pushing 30 trying to figure out how to be adults and how to be kids. It’s a small part of the movie but it is part of it and that’s something I could relate to also. I turned 30 on set. I turned 30 four days into shooting. Having to act like an adult because I was directing a big movie but also feeling like a child because we had reindeer and big cameras and they had fake snow. I just wanted to go play in the snow. So all those conversations I got involved with. How’s that feel? What’s that like?

Q: Have you ever encountered the dreaded black ice while driving?

TS-S: (laughs) It’s everywhere. It’s hard to see. It’s all over the place. I have encountered black ice. It’s the worst kind of ice that there is. It’s terrible.

Q: What was film school in Emerson like?

TS-S: Film school at Emerson was awesome. It was really amazing. A lot of guys that are in this movie were in my graduating class. The paparazzi guy, the bartenders in Heaven, they’re all guys from my short films. You could pick up a camera and make whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to make it. It was a pretty supportive environment. I loved being in Boston. What was important about that experience for me was that when I was in high school I just wanted to make David Fincher/Michael Bay/Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies. I just wanted to do that stuff. When I got to college, that’s what I was doing. I was making big, annoying action stuff and watching a lot of music videos and then these comedy troupes. Emerson has this huge tradition of comedy troupes. Denis Leary graduated, Laura Kightlinger, David Cross. A huge amount of comedians came from that school and I was asked by one of these comedy troupes to start making their comedy videos. That was the first time I’d ever tried to do that. I started making their comedy videos like action movies. They became very popular on campus. That’s what I came to L.A. continuing to do. It helped me to build a bit of a style and personality and this movie is full of basically whatever I learned at Emerson. The action scene is a good example. That’s a funny action scene and most of what’s ridiculous is like that “Platoon” shot. It’s like film jokes. That was a big Emerson influence. And those guys helped do punch up work on the script and they’re in the movie and I continue to write and work with all those people from Emerson still.

Q: Do you have more Harold & Kumar concepts in mind? Is this a world you might want to return to?

TS-S: I know that I’ve heard the guys talking about stuff. I know that they’ve talked about grumpy old Harold & Kumar when they’re 60 years old complaining about each other.

Q: We had several successful pitches in here earlier. Like Harold & Kumar in space. With Cheech and Chong.

TS-S: In space. With Cheech and Chong. There was “The Secret of Eazy-E Stash” which is like a National Treasure type movie where they’re trying to find easy, easy weed. There was a Spring break movie starring Neil and the WaffleBot.

Q: Neil needs his own movie.

TS-S: Neil is the best. Love it!

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” opens in theaters on November 4th.


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