Coming to theaters August 12th is Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less. The film, which reunites Fleischer with his Zombieland star Jesse Eisenberg, tells the story of a pizza delivery boy (Eisenberg) who is strapped to a bomb and forced to rob a bank as part of a harebrained scheme hatched by two hapless criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) looking to inherent a fortune. Along the way, Eisenberg enlists his best friend, (Aziz Ansari) to help with the heist.
Recently, I got on the phone with Fleischer to discuss his directorial technique, real world news that echoes the film, the casting process, how he helped to create Between Two Ferns and Rob & Big, some details on Gangster Squad and more. Hit the jump for the full interview.
Fleischer: Well, first off all, thank you. That’s really nice of you to say. With Zombieland, I came up in music videos and commercials where it’s a more visual medium and there’s always an incentive and challenge among music video directors to come up with a visual technique that will distinguish it. And my idols in music videos are people like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze and Johnathan Glazer and David Fincher and that’s always kind of been my reference point in music video and commercial directors. So when I got to make Zombieland I was really kind of excited to explore that element as much as the comedy element. I mean comedy has always been something I’ve been a fan of and is in my instincts but it was cool with Zombieland because with the post-apocalyptic world and the non-linear storytelling elements I thought it was something that could be really visual. But for 30 Minutes or Less I almost purposefully tried to make it not visual, so I appreciate you saying that because by design I tried to make it function as just a straightforward comedy. You know, down to, like, the opening title sequence, which I think was a really beloved element of Zombieland. I actively wanted to have just words on a screen as a guy drives a car while a song plays. So, you know, there’s a couple of flourishes with the car flip, here and there. But, I appreciate you saying it, but it certainly wasn’t my intention with this film.
One of the other things I wanted to know about intention was, this film is very similar to some real events where a pizza guy had a bomb strapped to his chest. Was that a point of reference for the writers?
Fleischer: I can’t imagine that it wasn’t. But the story is so different in a lot of ways that I think they’re very distinguishable, distinct stories.
Clearly. But was there ever any worry about making a light and fun comedy about such a strange and kind of horrific event?
Fleischer: I think this is dark comedy to be honest, just by virtue of its’ premise. It’s a dark premise that you would strap a bomb to someone’s chest and derive comedy from it. But the lesson, which is that you never know what’s going to happen and that life is short and you can’t just sit on your couch all day and smoke weed and deliver pizzas, you’ve got to make every day count. If you’ve loved a girl your entire life and you’ve been afraid to tell her, don’t wait because you never know what might happen. So hopefully the message that this movie tells will allow audiences to appreciate the story no matter how dark the premise might be.
You’ve got a really eclectic cast on this film. Can you tell me about how it came together?
Fleischer: Jesse [Eisenberg] is a pretty obvious person to start with, just because I’d worked with him on Zombieland and I’m such a fan of his talent and just him as a person. He’s really, truly just a special guy who’s so generous and hard working and thoughtful and collaborative. So he was an easy first choice for Nick. And I also think he’s just so talented, playing the reality of that bomb strapped to his chest and also the comedy required. It requires a very capable person and Jesse was able to do it effortlessly. For Danny [McBride], I think the writers wrote Dwayne with Danny in mind. It definitely had the feel on the page of Danny McBride. So he was the obvious go-to person to cast and it’s great that he agreed to do it. Aziz [Ansari] and Nick [Swardson] were just two people who I’ve been a fan of for a a long time. As stand ups, as much as their performances in films. They both auditioned and were hilarious and felt real and natural. And then Michael Pena was a real revelation to me. I wasn’t familiar with him or his performances in films when he came in and auditioned and brought that truly distinct approach to the hitman. I was really just blown away and wanted to work with him.
Fleischer: Entirely. In the audition, he came in exactly: to the tone of his voice, the look, the vibe, everything was all intention and in the audition. I can take no credit for what he brought to the screen.
He is so incredibly funny in this.
Fleischer: Yeah. And a lot of people have been talking about the improv in the movie. Obviously with people like Danny and Aziz you expect a lot of improv, but actually Michael Pena improv’ed a ton as well. And his funniest moments in the movie, you know when he’s cleaning his wound in the mirror?
Fleischer: You know how he’s like, ‘You’re a pimp! You’re a pimp! Your Mama always told you you were a pimp!’?
Fleischer: That scene as written has no dialogue. It just says he cleans his wound in the mirror. And I just encouraged Mike to bring some life to it and that’s what he came up with. So he, as well as being an incredible dramatic actor and creating such a unique character, he is just as funny and as talented at improv as the rest of the guys.
Aziz Ansari has a great breakout role in this. It actually reminded me a lot of the impact that Zach Galifinakis had in the first Hangover film. In effect at least. You actually directed Zach in a couple of episodes of Between Two Ferns. How do you make those? How long does it take? Are they just a lark or, are those actual promotional stops for the actors?
Fleischer: I only did the first one with Michael Cera and was in this other one with Jimmy Kimmel. They were intended as part of a pilot for Fox that we were doing. And Zach just had this funny idea of his version of a cable talk show and he’s friends with Cera, so he got him to do it. And yeah, it’s funny. They’re super funny and Zach is a comedy genius. Mainly I just pointed the cameras at the really funny dude and pressed record.
Those things are entirely improv’ed or are they written?
Fleischer: Yeah, yeah. Entirely improv’ed. I think Zach has a design on what he wants to do but there’s no script for sure.
You were doing reality TV just a few years ago with Rob & Big. How did you go from that to this so quickly?
Fleischer: The Rob & Big stuff was just kind of a strange sidebar. I was working in commercials and music videos, always with the goal of working in feature films. And the skill set of music videos and commercials lends itself far more to feature film directing than it does to doing a reality TV series. I was hired to do this documentary about this weird car race around the world called the Gumball Rally. And Rob and Big were just two guys on this rally. And during it I was filming Rob and Big a lot because they were just such original fun characters. And when I was editing it, I was like, ‘This is just too funny, these guys need their own TV series’. So I took the idea to Jeff Tremaine, who created Jackass and who I was friends with, and said, ‘Let’s do a show with Rob and Big’. And it all worked out. So it was more like a weird sidebar point in my career. I mean, I’m proud of it, I’m glad that I did it and that its’ become so successful but it was not my goal. Just a happy accident.
And next up you have a big opportunity, Gangster Squad which was rumored to have Darren Aronofsky interested for a while.
Fleischer: Yeah, there was a bunch of fancy directors that all passed on it and I got lucky enough that they did because it’s an amazing script and we’ve assembled a great cast. For me it’s a huge, huge opportunity. So I don’t take it lightly. I’m actually already in preproduction now and working really hard on it so that we will deliver what will hopefully be an iconic gangster movie.
Can you tell us a bit about the feel and tone of the film?
Fleischer: Sure. It’s set in 1949 Los Angeles. So it’s a period gangster movie and it’s got those classic, beautiful 1940’s cars and tommy guns and those classic gangster tropes. But I think part of the reason I got the job was because of the action in Zombieland. There is quite a bit of action in gangster squad so I think it will be really fun to find a balance between these classic gangster movies and, you know, whatever my approach to the action in the film will be.
So that film’s not a comedy in any way?
Fleischer: No, certainly not. Though, I wouldn’t say it is without comedy. I think Jack Nicholson in Chinatown is a very funny character, but I would never call that a comedy.