Jesse Eisenberg is sitting on the hood of his pizza delivery car in an abandoned junkyard. He’s been tied up. Standing nearby are Danny McBride and Nick Swardson. They’re wearing normal clothing, except for the gorilla masks to hide their identities. The two have captured Eisenberg’s character because they have a plan: instead of robbing a bank on their own, they’ve attached a bomb to Eisenberg and they’re making him do the job. As you might imagine if you were faced with this reality, Eisenberg is freaking out. However, it’s hard to take it seriously because McBride and Swardson are improvising during every take and each one is funnier than the last. I’m starting to think 30 Minutes of Less is going to be awesome.
But let me back up a second.
It’s late August, 2010. I’m in Michigan with some other online reporters on the set of director Ruben Fleischer’s follow-up to Zombieland. While rumors had him possibly directing Mission Impossible 4, Fleischer settled on 30 Minutes or Less as his second film. Even though many might have second guessed this decision, after talking with him on set and learning a lot about the movie, I think it was a smart choice. I’ll explain why and recap the set visit after the jump.
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the very funny red band trailer for 30 Minutes or Less, you should watch that first. Also, here’s the official synopsis:
In the action-comedy 30 Minutes or Less, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a small town pizza delivery guy whose mundane life collides with the big plans of two wanna-be criminal masterminds (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson). The volatile duo kidnaps Nick and forces him to rob a bank. With mere hours to pull off the impossible task, Nick enlists the help of his ex-best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari). As the clock ticks, the two must deal with the police, hired assassins, flamethrowers, and their own tumultuous relationship.
“Yeah, a lot. I was super aware of choosing something I thought– I felt like I wanted to show my taste as a filmmaker in a way and since I’m not a writer and in full control of coming up with those stories I want to tell, it’s really selecting material. And so I wanted something that was tonally in the vibe of what I really love, and the movies that this reminds me of are Dog Day Afternoon and Out of Sight, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski. A little bit of Reservoir Dogs – those types of really original films. This script is definitely original, and that was important to me. But also in terms of scale of the movie, I had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of big movies, and I was a little nervous about doing something that I would call “biting off more than you can chew” and taking a big movie just because you can, but maybe not being ready for it, not being able to deliver and screwing up my career by laying an egg or something like that. I really wanted to do something that was on a scale I felt comfortable with, but at the same time was an original story that I could craft, that was funny, had a great cast, and was a story I haven’t seen told before.”
While he didn’t come out and say, “I could have done Mission Impossible 4,” it’s clear he was offered high profile gigs and said no. The fact is, when you sign on to something with a high budget, you’re constantly dealing with studio executives and powerful agents who might be thinking about their client and individual interests rather than the good of the project. By taking on 30 Minutes or Less – something with a mid-range budget – Fleischer told us he was given no studio notes and pretty much left alone to make the movie he wanted to make. And with a great script and an awesome cast featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, Michael Pena, Fred Ward, and Dilshad Vadsaria, I can’t wait to see the finished film.
Before going any further, if you’d like a complete recap of what it was like on the set of 30 Minutes or Less, here’s the video blog I recorded with Adam Quigley from Slashfilm after we got back to our hotel. I’ve listed the time index so you can watch the parts that interest you. Further down the page are more quotes from the actors and more of my thoughts.
Video Blog Time Index
- We talk about where we are and what we did that day
- 1:25 What we saw on set and what’s the film about
- 3:55 How Ruben Fleischer told us that he didn’t want to do some huge hundred million dollar movie and 30 Minutes or Less had no studio notes
- 5:00 How the movie references movies the characters have seen in the movie
- 5:45 The differences in set visits
- 6:40 The improv
- 7:40 Was this the right choice for Fleischer instead of MI4
- 9:30 The release date and how it’s after Comic-Con
- 10:35 Set visit talk
- 11:15 How the cast and crew ate together and the crew was kind of small
- 11:45 Blowing up Teddy Ruxpin
- 12:45 Will someone blow up in the movie
- 14:10 Aziz Ansari talk
- 15:20 Final thoughts
As you might imagine with talented comedians, you’re constantly balancing sticking to the script and allowing your actors room to improvise. Ansari talked to us on set about how much freedom he had to ad-lib.
“Yeah, Ruben’s really cool about letting us improvise and whenever we do a scene or rehearsal I kind of like think about it as “Is this working? Are the jokes right there? Is there a way to punch this up at all? I go in every scene I do just being like “Alright. Is there any way to make this better? Is there any way to change this? Are there any other jokes or anything that could help?” And it’s not just improvising like Whose Line is It. I think when people talk about improvising it turns into this silly thing like, “Oh there’s like a hula hoop there and I’m like ‘Oh what’s going on here? Is this a really big ring?’” It’s not that at all. It’s very focused. It’s almost like rewriting in the moment and really thinking about the scene and any jokes I make I try to make sure it’s on story and helps the characters and makes sense with the movie. But Ruben’s been cool about – any scene we do he’s always telling me “If there’s anything you want to try – try it. Just try it.” The bank robbery scene we shot the other day was so fun because I’ve never done a bank robbery and that’s like the funnest thing to ever do. You just get to yell whatever nonsense you want. It was such an amazing opportunity. It was one of the funnest scenes I’ve ever gotten the opportunity to shoot and he is always just pushing to get us to try to come up with stuff and is very encouraging when we come up with stuff he likes. He’s always like “It’s so great.” and it’s just a fun process.”
McBride: That’s kind of what Ruben’s job is – it is just to kind of keep you on point. I think when you’re improving, you should never go into it trying to put restraints on what you should do or what you shouldn’t. I think you just keep pushing it, and then when it goes too far you just have someone like Ruben to say, “Hey, that’s out of the realm.” I think it’s just about trying to improv, and keeping the character in mind. That usually will keep things in track. And not just try to do standup or something, but just try to riff on stuff that you’re supposed to be talking about in the scene anyway, and just see if there’s a way to make it come out more naturally.
Swardson: Yeah, the key is really making sure that you maintain the character in the improv. Do you know what I mean? Because with a lot of comics and stuff you see, they’ll just start riffing and get jokey. But then all of a sudden you’re like, “It doesn’t really make any sense to the character of the scene.” So the key is really just keeping in character. But Danny and I could go for a long time. So that’s why Ruben’s almost like the referee in that kind of fight where you’re just like, “OK, OK, OK. The round’s fucking over. OK, we got it. We got it. We got it.”
Of course, when you’re making a film about a bomb strapped to someone’s chest, the tone could easily go dark and the laughs could be hard to come by. We asked Fleischer how he keeps it from becoming too grim while at the same time maintaining the constant tension of “Oh. He has a bomb strapped to him.” He explained:
“Again, I think it’s just casting Jesse to keep it real and then casting Aziz to keep it light. As a duo, they really complement each other well. Jesse plays the realness and Aziz keeps it light. That’s a really good balance. Then everyone else in the movie have more lighter stories. Jesse is really the one with the cross to bear, but everyone else keeps the movie sort of up.”
When we spoke to Eisenberg, he talked to us about what the film is really about and how his character deals with the fact that he might die
“The emotional center of the movie is this character who has never done anything in his life. He has a line “I’ve never even quit a job. I just waited around to get fired.” He’s in love with this girl who’s his best friend’s sister. He’s never told her. He’s just kind of ridden through life lazily. This metaphorically lights a fire underneath him to take a stand and spend these ten hours doing everything he should have been doing the last several years.”
Before I left for the set of 30 Minutes or Less, I was pretty sure the movie was going to be good based on the cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Nick Swardson, Michael Pena, and Fred Ward) and the fact that Fleischer’s debut film was so awesome. Thankfully, everything I learned on set tells me his second feature might be as good or better than Zombieland. We’ll know in August.
For more on 30 Minutes or Less: