From writer/director Michael Rosenbaum, Back in the Day is a raunchy comedy with heart that tells the story of Jim Owens (Rosenbaum), an aspiring actor in Hollywood who decides to go back home to Indiana for his high school reunion. Reliving the glory days with his now-married friends, he encounters an old flame (Morena Baccarin) and wonders what could have been, had he chosen a different path in life.
At the film’s press day, actor/filmmaker Michael Rosenbaum spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what started him down the road for this film, how directing an episode of Smallville was a great trial run, having to write for your budget, how he got this great cast together, how much improvisation they did, keeping track of his own performance while he was directing, changing the ending, editing the film down from a two hours and 20 minute assembly cut, and what he’d like to do next. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
MICHAEL ROSENBAUM: I was on Smallville and I had a lot of free time on my hands, sitting around on the set, and my friend was like, “You need to write.” Carrie Fisher, who’s a friend of mine, said, “Just write stuff. You’re always telling me these crazy stories, so write it!” So, I wrote a whole bunch of short stories about growing up, and then I gave it to her. She said, “Did this really happen to you?,” and I was like, “Yeah.” She said, “You need to write this. This should be a movie or a TV show. This is really funny.” I was like, “What?! You wrote Postcards from the Edge. You’re a genius!” So then, I started writing and I got to sell a few things. None of them got made, but I sold them. You’ve always gotta look at the little things, and the accomplishments in life. While I was at Smallville, I was like, “Why don’t I take the opportunity to direct an episode?” So, they let me direct an episode, and I was like, “Oh, my god, I love this!” And then, I directed a short, produced another short, and wrote this and that. Then, I decided that I was going to direct a movie. I’ve seen a lot of people do it who can’t, and I’ve seen a lot of people who really can, so I decided to give it a shot. And then, you realize, “Wow, I have no money,” and you have to raise money, which takes forever. Then, you lose money. Then, someone else comes back. Somehow you get a movie made, which is a miracle, on its own. And then, you have to cast it and finish it. This was one of the first scripts I had written. It was loosely based on a lot of stories that happened when I was growing up.
Did directing an episode of Smallville really help you with directing a movie?
ROSENBAUM: Yeah, it helped. But, you’ve gotta remember that Smallville had millions of dollars in the budget, an infrastructure, a special effects department, a stunt department, a make-up department, and a hair department. Everybody was already doing their job. You don’t have to direct anyone. You just get the performances. But, I felt that I really got great performances, and I thought, “Okay, I can do this.” We had nobody. We just had one person doing make-up and hair. A lot of times, people think directing is how you can move a camera and how you can make big explosions. That’s not directing. I haven’t directed a lot. This is my first movie. But, directing is more about telling a story. You have a script and you tell the story, the easiest way possible. The best direction I got was from Jason Reitman and James Gunn. They’re big directors and they said, “Tell the story. Transition to the next scene. Get performances. Get a variety of performances, so that you have something to cut, if you don’t like it.” To me, it’s really about performance and telling the story. I’m an actor, so it’s easier for me to talk to actors. I felt like I could get what I wanted out of them. That was the biggest thing I had going for me. I knew that the characters were going to be good and that they were going to be believable, I just didn’t know how the movie was going to turn out. But, I was very happy. You’ve just gotta keep it simple. There are movies where you need to do big things, and they’re called action movies. But for a comedy, you’ve just gotta tell the story.
When you wrote this, did you know you’d also be directing it? Did you think about that while you were writing it, at all?
ROSENBAUM: You just have to know your budget. You have to go, “Okay, I want to do a stunt scene driving.” I wrote this scene where a truck jumps off into the cornfield and busts through a billboard that’s my face with a big thumbs up, but I couldn’t afford that. We had six hours to shoot a stunt scene. I was a little over-ambitious. I wanted to do so much, but I love what I have. We had 20 days to shoot the movie and a million bucks. That’s it. We shot in the middle of nowhere with no tax credit and no overtime. To do what we did was simply amazing. I can’t believe we did as much as we did. We shot driving scenes, stunt scenes, a wedding, a reunion with 12 actors and at least eight days of it, a wiffle ball scene and a BBQ. There were a lot of big group scenes, and that’s very difficult. I knew that we could do it. I just hoped that weather permitted and that Lady Luck was on our side.
How did you get this great cast together?
ROSENBAUM: I got lucky with this cast. I was a first-time director, and it was pilot season. I had no idea how I was going to get people out to the middle of nowhere, where I grew up, to shoot this movie. But somehow, I did. We didn’t have enough money to get through the days, but we did it. Then, we were finished and we were in the editing room, and I was like, “Wait, there’s some funny stuff here, and this actually looks like a real movie.” The one thing I didn’t want to do was make an arthouse movie. I love them, but I didn’t want this to just show at a small theater. I wanted people to go, “This looks like it could be a studio movie.” And I give that credit to my D.P., Bradley Stonesifer. It looks great. And we’ve got a great soundtrack. Call it luck, or whatever, but I am lucky.
Did you have these particular actors in mind?
ROSENBAUM: Yeah. Harland Williams was always Skunk. It’s based on a real character, who I grew up with. Skunk was such a great guy, and Harland nails that character. Nick’s character is based on a guy who used to ump our wiffle ball games. He’s a big drinker with a heart of gold. They were all loosely based on different people, for the most part. So, I knew Nick would play Freeman, I knew Harland would play Skunk, and I knew [Jay R.] Ferguson would play the fiancé. I was blessed, but I was lucky that they all did it.
It seems like a movie like this would have a lot of improvisation, but when you’re on such a tight schedule with such a tight budget, can you even allow for that?
ROSENBAUM: I had to. It would be a disservice to not let these gifts in the improvisational world not to improvise. As little time as we had, I always said, “Take one, say it how it’s written. Once we get that, let’s play with it.” And I’m acting in those scenes, too. You take your time for things that are really important, and those things that aren’t as important, you just go, “Hey, that’s enough. Let’s move on.”
Did you find it hard to keep track of your own performance while you were directing?
ROSENBAUM: Yeah! I thought I was going to be so stressed about knowing my lines because I wrote it and it’s embarrassing, if I don’t know my lines. But, I was at ease because I was so worried about everything else that I forgot. I just became myself. But, I had eyes on the camera. I was just say to my first assistant director, “Hey, are we good?” Every once in awhile, she’d say, “You could use a little more energy.” And I trusted her because she’s done 30 movies. I just shot as much footage as I could. I knew that the key was to shoot as much footage as I could, keep rolling and get the moments. I wanted people to connect, and I also wanted people to laugh. The jokes had to be there, and the relationships had to be there.
Was this always the ending you had written for this?
ROSENBAUM: No. The scene at the end wasn’t supposed to be there. I wrote it at the end. I was like, “You’ve gotta have a little bit of a happy ending, and some morsel of hope that maybe things work out.” This is a comedy. This is light and fun. This is a date movie, where you’re going to laugh and enjoy yourself. You don’t need to feel sorry for anybody. I didn’t want it to be too cliche. It’s just a real story.
How challenging was it to put together a final cut?
ROSENBAUM: It was easy, but there was a lot of great stuff that got cut. Richard Marx was a gift from god. He was hilarious in the movie, but I ended up cutting him out. It was not because of his performance, but it didn’t work. He was nice enough that he gave us a song. He’s become one of my best friends. He’s like my big brother. But my editor said, “I’ve never been with a writer/director that cuts as easily as you do, ever. You can cut stuff like you don’t care if it’s you.” I was like, “If it’s not funny, it’s not making the movie. If I don’t believe it, it’s not making the movie.” This is a comedy. People don’t want to go so a two hour and 20 minute comedy, although some directors do that. I wanted to make an hour and a half movie, where you’re in and out and you laugh your ass off. We have outtakes at the end. That was important. I didn’t want the movie to drag. There were some dance scenes at the reunion and some bachelor party stuff. I cut a lot of Harland Williams stuff. I had to just cut stuff that was really funny, to get out of the scene. When they gave me the assembly cut, it was two hours and 20 minutes, and I said, “What the fuck?!” I remember chopping it down to two hours, and then to one hour and 50 minutes, and then to one hour and 40 minutes, but that still wasn’t enough. I even think I still could have cut another four or five minutes, but it moves and it’s fun.
When you throw so much of yourself into a project like this, do you then just want to go do an acting project and leave the rest to someone else?
ROSENBAUM: I’ve gotta say, as much as that sounds so easy, and it’s fun sometimes to be the actor and go home and not worry about anything but your lines, I loved coming to work every day and seeing this whole crew that looked at me like, “What are we doing today? It’s your call.” I like to direct. I like to engage with people, and I want people to have fun. I’m a people person, and I feel like I could be a good leader. I think being a good leader is knowing what you want, having professional people around you, who are fun to work with, and know your taste and what you want. That makes it easier. A lot of these big directors work with the same people, for years on end.
Do you see yourself directing scripts that you haven’t written?
ROSENBAUM: Sure. I’d love to direct my own stuff, but a lot of my stuff isn’t as good as most people’s stuff. I don’t think I’m the world’s most gifted writer. I think I have great ideas and great characters. Sometimes I think I write really well, but sometimes I don’t. If a script comes to me that’s great, I’m game. If I can get the rights to it, I’m gonna direct it. But, I like to put my own twist on it. I like if they can give me the freedom to add things to it and take things away. I always want that freedom. I want to improvise. If it’s not working, I want to have the freedom to not have to call the writer and say, “Do you care if we change your words?” I’m not going to be that director. You’ve always gotta respect the writer, but if you write and direct your own stuff, you can change it.
Do you know what you’re going to direct next?
ROSENBAUM: I’m gearing up to hopefully direct my next movie in the summer. I can’t really tell you anything about that right now ‘cause everyone steals in this business. But, it will have a bigger budget with more days off. It’s a very funny romantic comedy. There’s also a camp movie that I wrote, and another movie that I won’t talk about. I’m really narrowing it down, revising both and seeing what’s best. But, I’m up for anything. One of my favorite movies is Tommy Boy, but then I love The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I like to make people a little uncomfortable, and then say, “It’s okay. These things happen.” There’s just some kind of awkwardness that I want to convey, so hopefully I’ll be able to do that, in the future.
Back in the Day is now playing in theaters and on VOD.