Directed by Matt Walsh, a co-founding member of the world-renowned comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, the entirely improvised comedy High Road tells the story of Glenn “Fitz” Fitzgerald (James F. Pumphrey), a young man whose loyalties are split among his band, his girlfriend Monica (Saturday Night Live’s Abby Elliott), and selling weed. When one of his drug deals goes awry, Fitz and 16-year-old neighborhood kid Jimmy (Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien) hit the road together. Amid car chases, guns and a suspicious doctor (Horatio Sanz), Fitz has to navigate their way to safety. The film also stars Lizzy Caplan (New Girl, True Blood, Party Down), Ed Helms (The Hangover 1 & 2), Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street), Joe Lo Truglio (Wanderlust) and Zach Woods (The Office).
During this interview, conducted at an audio commentary recording session for the DVD/Blu-ray, director Matt Walsh and actor Horatio Sanz talked about how the film was always intended to be a low-budget passion project, the challenges of keeping a totally improvised movie on track, shooting in a creepy old hospital in downtown Los Angeles, that the improvisational films of Christopher Guest and Zak Penn were an inspiration for this one, and how there will be a fair amount of extras included on the DVD/Blu-ray. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: Horatio, what can you say about your character in the film?
HORATIO SANZ: I was like, “Put me in the movie!,” and they actually came up with a pretty fun scene. I played the doctor that the boys meet on the road.
MATT WALSH: His scene had the most on-set breaking, which I don’t normally like, but I know Horatio. That was the one day that became really long ‘cause it was getting so crazy. They were improvising insane things, and everyone was laughing. Fortunately, it turned into a great scene. I always get nervous when people are laughing a lot and I’m like, “I don’t know if I can use any of this.”
SANZ: That usually means that it’s not that funny.
WALSH: Or, it’s just completely bizarro and absurd.
SANZ: And, it’s hard to edit.
WALSH: Yeah, exactly. His scene was the longest to shoot.
Where did you shoot it?
SANZ: We shot it in some old, creepy hospital.
WALSH: In downtown L.A., where a lot of spooky things happen. It was very creepy. It’s an abandoned hospital.
SANZ: They use that same hospital for horror films, too.
WALSH: Apparently, some of the guys went to the morgue. There’s a morgue down there. It doesn’t have any bodies in it, but you can see the old drawers and everything. It was pretty spooky.
Were you ever planning on a theatrical release for this, or was it always going to be a VOD and DVD release?
WALSH: Yeah, it was always a low-budget passion project. It’s my directing debut. I’ve always wanted to make an improv movie because I have so much experience in it, but it’s not a big studio movie. It was an experiment that turned out better than I thought. Sure, I would have loved it, if we’d gotten 2,000 screens, but I never had that delusion. I was very realistic. I think it’s a success, in that it turned out funny, I got everyone I wanted to be in it, and it will get seen. The hope is that it gets a little cult following. I think people will be surprised about who’s in it and how funny it is. That’s my hope.
SANZ: Aside from myself, you have some really funny people that you see in a lot of big movies now.
WALSH: Yeah, exactly. That kid Dylan [O’Brien] has turned into a big star.
SANZ: Abby Elliott is on SNL and she was in Maxim.
WALSH: Andy Daly is not a star, but he’s a successful working actor and he’s so funny. People don’t know him and, even though he has a small role, he’s super funny. I don’t think anybody was a dud. Rich Fulcher is brilliant.
Matt, were you nervous about throwing people who didn’t have improv experience into something like this?
WALSH: The only person who was a newbie was Dylan, but I shoved him into a UCB course intensive for four weeks, and then I made sure he was there every day of rehearsal ‘cause he was stepping up into a whole other level of improv. He had done some in high school, but he was only 18 and just out of high school. He was the only one we were worried about, but I kept telling him, “Just play it real. You don’t really have to be the funniest person in every scene, or in any scene.” But, he was funny. He got it. He’s a very talented improviser.
Are there any improvised movies or shows from the past that you looked to for this?
WALSH: Well, I always admired what Christopher Guest did. He got to make four movies with his buddies. That, alone, is a huge success to me. He also did a great job of keeping it real. I love The Mighty Wind. Even though it’s not a funny movie, I think that’s beautiful and sweet. The way he portrayed it and the performances he captured were just brilliant. That’s what I love about an improv movie. You get real spontaneous moments, and really good acting. Obviously, there’s Spinal Tap, of course. There’s a bunch of movies. This guy Zak Penn made a couple good movies. The Incident at Loch Ness is really funny, and he did The Grand. Basically, all documentaries that feel funny but aren’t are very inspirational to me. American Movie is one of the funniest things.
Is it refreshing to not have to have an obvious framework and not have to be stuck in the cliched scenario?
SANZ: Yeah, it’s good for actors who are maybe not the best actors in the world. And, [Matt] Walsh was very open for anything. I don’t think I even had an outline of what he wanted me to do.
WALSH: We had an oral discussion, and then shot the rehearsal wide and dialed it in from there. Horatio’s took a little longer ‘cause he was fucking off a lot.
SANZ: Sometimes it can be too funny. Guys who were holding the camera started shaking the camera [with laughter] and the lights started moving around.
WALSH: That is true. You almost brought the hospital down. Even the ghosts came in and said, “Knock it off!”
SANZ: I tried to do a take with a rusty saw and a clown nose.
WALSH: Yeah, that was a little big.
SANZ: The best thing is that there’s an opportunity to do so many takes. It’s really collaborative because it’s truly several people that are putting input into the scene.
WALSH: It’s so pretentious, but I believe that with comedy, if you have a good story, 90% of it is casting. Once you get the guys and gals in there, it’s pretty easy to make a funny movie. A perfect movie is a different thing, but a funny movie is easy. I was really happy that I got everyone that I got. Everybody got to play to their strengths and was paired up in the right scenarios. It was very fortunate. It was exciting, the whole process. It makes more difficulty in editing ‘cause there’s more footage, but the guy I had handle it was a documentarian editor for a long time, so it was very useful.
Will there be a lot of extra stuff on the DVD then?
WALSH: I think there will be a fair amount, yeah. The first cut of the movie was super long, as if we could keep every joke we wanted, which would never happen. Towards the end, we lost two scenes that were in the front. With every movie, you have to get going and get into it quicker. We learned [what to cut] through multiple viewings for our friends. The collaborative effort went outside of the shooting and casting. I had screenings with friends of mine who are working Hollywood screenwriters and directors, who were happy to sit in and say, “Okay, this goes. That goes.” It tapped into a really sweet community. That’s what you see on film. There are a lot of people whose faces aren’t in it, but everybody was really happy to see it coming together. It was a great project that everybody liked.
Does something like this make it harder to go back to more scripted and structured work?
WALSH: In improvised movies, you can do what you think is funny, which is great. Everybody goes in like, “Hell yeah, I’ll do it. This is what I think is funny.”