The MTV scripted comedy The Hard Times of RJ Berger, from co-creators/executive producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith, returns for a funnier, more ambitious, raunchier and even more heartfelt second season. In Season 1, viewers got to see the anatomically gifted RJ Berger (Paul Iacono) chasing after the girl of his dreams (Amber Lancaster) and, now that he has her, Season 2 sees him facing various obstacles in keeping her. At the same time, RJ’s parents have romantic struggles of their own, when they announce to the teenager that they are separating. As with most high school experiences, life for RJ Berger turns out to not be everything he imagined it would be.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Seth Grahame-Smith talked about paving the way for original programming at MTV, making the show bigger and better for Season 2, balancing the series with 50% heart and 50% fart, and their guest cameos with Paris Hilton, Weezer and Vinny from Jersey Shore.
Grahame-Smith also previewed his next novel, which he’s currently writing, talked about the possibility of he and Katzenberg directing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted from his own best-selling novel, talked about the process of adapting his own novel for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which is now in production, writing dialogue specifically for Johnny Depp for the Dark Shadows script, which goes into production in May, collaborating with Tim Burton, and his goals for making Dark Shadows fun and funny. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Because Grahame-Smith is working on so many high-profile feature scripts right now, we parsed out the highlights from his discussion of the upcoming movies. A full transcript of the interview follows.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
- Grahame-Smith and Katzenberg put together a “visual presentation” to persuade Lionsgate to hire them as first-time directors
- He puts the production delays in perspective: “The book only came out two and a half years ago. When you compare that to however long it’s taken to get The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay made, or another book that found a big audience, it hasn’t taken that long, relatively speaking.”
- He doesn’t expect it will be too long before the studio decides on a director and gives Zombies the greenlight
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER
- The challenge with Abraham Lincoln was adapting his own book: “I had to cannibalize and just give up all ownership of the book, in my mind. What makes a good book and what makes a good movie are totally different things.”
- In retrospect, he would have included an African American point of view in the book for more perspective on the issue of slavery
- The main difference between the book and the script is that the book didn’t have a central villain, only “all vampires.” To make the threat more palpabale, there is a main villiain character in the movie.
- There is no villain in the book, but he added one for the movie.
- They’re filming right now.
- Meeting with Johnny Depp helped him write Dark Shadows because he could “sit down with him and hear him say these lines and talk to him about how he’s going to perform this character.”
- He took cues from previous Depp/Tim Burton collaborations: “This is a Johnny Depp movie. This is a Tim Burton movie. I know what the pallette of that is and I can draw on it.”
- Says his task in adapting Dark Shadows was to make it “fun and funny.” His approach: “Let’s not be afraid to be funny. Let’s make Barnabas funny. Let’s see this movie through his eyes and really see a man who is trying to come to terms with what he is, where he is and when he is.”
- They are still tweaking the script, but rehearsals are coming up in a couple weeks before filming in May.
Grahame-Smith also mentioned a new project he and Katzenberg are developing which he calls “a throwback to one of our favorite John Hughes movies,” plus an Adult Swim pilot for an animated half-hour series. But the bulk of the conversation covered Hard Times — read the full interview below.
Question: In doing Season 2, were there things that you wanted to be sure to do this time, that you didn’t get a chance to do with Season 1? Was there a theme you wanted to go with for this season?
SETH GRAHAME-SMITH: From a story standpoint, we wanted RJ to be presented with two real challenges this season. We wanted him to figure out his love life, now that he has these options open to him, and we wanted him to figure out his home life, now that his parents have split. That was something that David and I wanted to portray because that’s something that so many kids go through. At least half of the kids in high school are dealing with divorce at home, or have dealt with divorce, or will deal with divorce.
Just from our own point of view, the thing that David and I wanted to do with Season 2 was just to make a better show. We were first-time showrunners last year, when we did the first season. We were basically just trying to stay ahead of the avalanche. But now, we went in knowing a little more this season, being a little more confident in ourselves, and having a firmer grasp on how to actually write, produce and direct all these episodes at once. I think that we just had bigger ambitions.
As the season goes on, the show is going to look bigger than it did last year, it’s going to be funnier, it’s going to be better written, it’s going to be better performed than it was last year, and it’s going to have more coherently threaded narratives, from Episode 1 to Episode 12. We just wanted to do everything bigger and better. That’s sounds like a stock answer, and it sounds cliche, and I guess you always want to do that, but it really was one of our goals, before we started the second season.
Did you get more time to shoot each episode this season?
GRAHAME-SMITH: We shot an episode in three and a half days last season, which was insane. We had the luxurious schedule of four days this time. We got an extra half-day per episode, which actually made a lot of difference. And, we had a tiny bit more money to use this season as well. But, there aren’t many half-hour TV shows that are single-camera, live-action shows that have smaller budgets than we do. One of the great challenges for us, as producers, is to figure out how to stretch every dollar and what the sacrifices we needed to make were. But, the big difference for us, as a team, was that we went into last season, not knowing what we didn’t know about the process. Now, at least we knew the things that had surprised us, going into it. We knew just how much work we needed to prepare for. We knew how long and how grueling the process was. We also knew, from a production and story standpoint, what things the show does well and what it doesn’t do well, so we were able to write to our strengths.
Even in our pilot last year, we had a huge basketball game that was an entire act of one episode. We had to shoot some incredible amount of set-ups in one day, to get all that basketball stuff, because we had one day in this gym to shoot it all. With things like that, you learn that, if you have a basketball game in Act Two, maybe you shouldn’t have an outdoor, nighttime party in Act Four of the same episode because then you’re really going to screw yourself, like we did in our pilot. So, we were able to spread it around a little more and attack it from a more informed place this season.
Did you and David learn anything about each other, working under that kind of time restraint and with such an intense schedule?
GRAHAME-SMITH: One of the strengths we had, going in, was that we have been friends for several years. We’ve been partners for over four years now, doing this together. We started doing this for CBS Digital Media and doing these Internet series for them, so we had even lower budgets and less time. We figured out what our roles were, in those days, working together. We both attack everything together, like David will give a performance note, and I’ll move the camera from here to there. If you had to break it down generally, David is concerned with visuals, running the set and designing the coverage, and I’m more concerned with making script changes and giving notes to actors, but those things cross-pollinate. I direct some episodes and David directs some episodes, but we’re both there, every day. Even when we’re not directing an episode, we have a couple directors that we really enjoy working with, on the series, and we’re still involved, still bouncing things off the actors, and we’re definitely making our presence felt, at all times, on set.
Is it nice to know that you’ve paved the way of original programming that MTV is exploring?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah, it’s incredible. Last season, we were the only game in town, in terms of scripted programming at MTV. We were the baby. We were the experiment. In some ways, it was great because we got a lot of attention. In some ways, it was not so great because we got a lot of attention. Last seasons, every little line of every script was scrutinized by god knows how many people. That gave us a safety net for being first-time showrunners, where we didn’t feel like we were just off on our own, doing things. But, at the same time, we came under a lot of scrutiny and had to defend a lot of ideas and decisions. This season, I think everybody had more confidence in us running the show, and there were also six other scripted shows that were running at the same time. All the executives that were on set, every day last season, only came once every few days, this season. We definitely had more freedom. But, you can also get carried away with that. That’s like being given enough rope to hang yourself. We still had to run things up the flagpole, obviously, but we tried not to get too carried away with ourselves, this season.
Have you intentionally tried to combine the raunchiness of the series with a heart that keeps it from being offensive?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Our guidelines are 50% heart, 50% fart. That’s basically the balance that we strive for. The show is not based on reality. Obviously, it’s an elevated, comedic world that this kid lives in, and he’s surrounded by these absurd characters. He’s surrounded by these archetypes, and he’s the one semi-centered character in the middle of it all. I feel like, the more absurd that you are, the more you have to ground some things in reality. You have to earn that absurdity. Even though our show has one animated segment in every episode, even the live-action is like a cartoon, just with the way people carry on.
Do you ever feel bad about some of the things that you put your cast through on the show?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Oh, yeah. We abuse our cast. We’re terrible to our cast. In this season, kids are making out with each other in the gym, and then they’re high on this drug-laced Biscotti. The list is so long. Any time we have the guy who plays Miles (Jareb Dauplaise) take off his shirt, he hates it, but it’s just so funny. Having him run down the hallway naked is funny to us, just like it was when we had him sit in the hot tub naked, in the pilot. We have our characters vomit on each other. This year, Miles ends up sleeping with a teacher who has this splosh fetish, which is a food-sex fetish, and he’s eating Cannolis off of her. Our characters are scantily clad a lot, they’re wet a lot, and they’re vomited on a lot. I give them a lot of credit for bearing with us, especially Paul [Iacono]. Paul is in virtually every scene of every episode, and the fact is that we shoot so fast and we shoot so much. We shoot two episodes, concurrently. It’s hard because he’s got to keep all those things straight in his head. From scene to scene, it might be two different episodes. One might be a day scene in Episode 2, and one might be a night scene in Episode 3, and RJ might be in a completely different place, so it’s a challenge for the actors too.
Is it a challenge to balance the real situations in the show and the drama of being a teenager, with the comedy, especially with the parents’ divorce this season?
GRAHAME-SMITH: The challenge is riding that line of heart and fart. We found that people really liked the show last season, as it got later in the season and things got a little more real and characters had some more interpersonal relationships. It took us half a season to really find our footing last year, in terms of telling the story and getting our characters where they needed to be. One of the advantages that we had this year was that we carried that forward. High school is, frankly, a soap opera and there are some soap operatic elements in this show this year, and there are some heavy relationship elements that are weaving their way through all of these dick jokes and vomit gags.
You also have some fun cameos this season, particularly with Vinny from Jersey Shore, Paris Hilton and Weezer. How did those come about?
GRAHAME-SMITH: The idea to have Vinny from Jersey Shore in Episode 2 came from us. We felt like, because of the huge success that MTV had with Jersey Shore, we’d be idiots not to try to capitalize on it, so we tried to figure out what would be organic, in terms of storytelling. I hate the word organic, but it’s the first word that comes to mind. We thought, “What would be an organic way to integrate that into our world?” So, we came up with having Vinny come on, and he did a great job. He had never really acted before, but he came very prepared and very committed to doing it. He was very into it and excited to be there.
The Paris Hilton cameo happened because David’s girlfriend is Paris’ sister, so that was a no-brainer. That was something that we came up with in the writers’ room. We wanted Miles to see a famous person when he was having this vision, and then we wanted that person to turn into the devil. It just seemed too perfect not to have it be Paris.
And then, Weezer came about because, in the off-season, Paul [Iacono] did an Adidas commercial with B.o.B., and he ended up meeting Rivers Cuomo. Rivers started talking about the show because we had named our high school Pinkerton, after the Weezer album, and he off-handedly said, “I’d love to come and be on the show.” We said, “Really?!” We called their management and said, “We’ll write a whole episode for them,” and that ended up happening. That was incredible. In Episode 7, which I think people are going to love, the biggest thing the show has ever done was this big Weezer concert. We transformed this huge space into this big concert. It was an exciting day. They were really cool.
Did you intentionally want to have Vinny and Paris essentially playing themselves while still showing a side that people won’t expect?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah, it was really cool. We had talked about who we’d want from Jersey Shore, and we heard from somebody who worked on the show that Vinny is really serious about being an actor and he’ll do the work, and he did. He came in, knew every line, had rehearsed everything, and he was just on his game. We never had to wait for him. Honestly, our principle cast cracked up more than he did. He was great. I would love to have Vinny back. With Paris, we wanted to do something that would show that she has a sense of humor about herself. That’s definitely the bit that we got across. Paris Hilton turning out to be the devil is about as self-effacing as you can get.
There’s been some talk about you and David signing on to direct the film adaptation of your novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Is that something you’re considering doing, and is it something that you feel more comfortable doing, now that you’ve had the experience of directing on the show?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah. Honestly, it’s great that we’re in consideration. Who knows how it will turn out. We went into Lionsgate and made what I thought was a really great case for ourselves, in a visual presentation to them, and pitched our case for directing the movie, and I don’t think we would have done that, if we didn’t have these two seasons of running the show and directing all these episodes under our belts. By no means do we think we’re god’s gift to directing, at this point in our careers. We’re young guys and we’re still learning, but I think that we’re both hard-working and we’re both ambitious. I think that doing something like that just makes sense for us, going forward.
Because it is your novel, has it been frustrating that the film has come so close to going into production, but it just hasn’t happened yet? Or, do you just attribute that to being how things work in the movie business?
GRAHAME-SMITH: It is how things work in the movie business. You read all these things about all these stops and starts with Pride and Prejudice, and how long it’s taking to become a movie, but the book only came out two and a half years ago. When you compare that to however long it’s taken to get The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay made, or another book that found a big audience, it hasn’t taken that long, relatively speaking. It’s just the way it works. It’s just a business of hurry up and wait. When they find the right director, whether it’s us or someone else, they already have a great script and they already have a studio that wants to greenlight the movie, so I don’t think it will be long, after they make their director decision, that things really get going quickly.
As a writer, is there a difference for you, in writing a script for something like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, where you didn’t know who would be cast in the roles, as opposed to something like Dark Shadows, where you know Johnny Depp is playing the character and that’s who you’re writing for?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah, there is a difference, sure. The challenge with Lincoln was adapting my own book. I had to cannibalize and just give up all ownership of the book, in my mind. What makes a good book and what makes a good movie are totally different things. Someone told me that the best adaptations are merely inspired by the book, they’re not dictated by the book. That took awhile to learn. It took me awhile to get to the point where I could say, “Okay, maybe this movie does need a villain,” since there’s no villain in the book. And then, it was, “Who is that villain?” It was a huge learning experience for me. At the same time, working with Tim [Burton] and Johnny [Depp], I could meet with Johnny and sit down with him and hear him say these lines and talk to him about how he’s going to perform this character. That absolutely dictates the way that you write because you have a basis in which to imagine these words being said. It actually makes it easier and it makes it a little more fun to write in that situation. You’re like, “This is a Johnny Depp movie. This is a Tim Burton movie. I know what the pallette of that is and I can draw on it.”
Was there anything specific that you wanted to bring to Dark Shadows, both from your own sensibility and so that you made it familiar to fans?
GRAHAME-SMITH: My job on Dark Shadows was to make it fun and funny, first and foremost. It can still be dark and it can still even be gory and gothic at times, but it also needed to be fun and it needed to be an experience that people would enjoy having. I came at it from, “Let’s not be afraid to be funny. Let’s make Barnabas funny. Let’s see this movie through his eyes and really see a man who is trying to come to terms with what he is, where he is and when he is.” I think we really got there with the script. We’re still making some tweaks, and there are rehearsals coming up in a couple weeks and there will be some tweaks after that, but I think everybody is really excited, me included, about where we got. They’re filming Lincoln right now, which is exciting. And, they’re going to be filming Dark Shadows in May, which is also really exciting. It’s hard to believe. For me, thinking that these movies are going to be in theaters in a year or so, it’s just astonishing.
What’s it been like to collaborate with someone like Tim Burton, who is such a visual filmmaker?
GRAHAME-SMITH: It’s just another amazing experience, and a learning experience for me. Honestly, the last couple of years have been like going to film school all over again, times 100. It’s been amazing to watch the way that his mind works, and how he collaborates with Johnny, and how Johnny’s mind works. Also, getting to work with a producer like Richard Zanuck, who did Jaws, Planet of the Apes and The Sound of Music, is just incredible. It’s having living legends, all around you. It was intimidating at first because you’re walking in with these iconic people, but that goes away pretty quickly, and you get comfortable and realize that everybody is just a normal person.
In adapting your own material for Abraham Lincoln, were there things that you added to the script that you wished you’d have thought of for the novel?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Oh yeah, absolutely. The book deals with slavery, in a very delicate way. In retrospect, I should have had an African American point of view in the book. In the book, the slaves, until the very end of the book, are just victimized. That’s something that works, in terms of a book that’s purporting itself to be historically accurate, but at the same time, in a movie, you need all points of view. But, the real thing with Lincoln was that the book didn’t really have a cohesive central villain. The villain was all vampires and it was this thousands of years old movement that led them to the Civil War. You need an embodiment in a movie, much more than you do in a book. That’s something that we realized, along the process. We kept having all these conversations about making the threat more palpable, but what we were really saying was that we needed a person. So, as I’m writing my new book, which I’m doing now, the things that I’ve learned from the experience of doing these movies has just taught me so much about writing books. Not just because I want these books to go on to be movies and I want the process of adapting them to be easier, which is also true, but it just makes the stories richer, it makes them easier to tell and more fun to tell when you have people to say the things that you’re trying to get across. That’s definitely on my mind now.
Is the book you’re working on now along the same lines as your other novels?
GRAHAME-SMITH: I’m being kind of cagey about it, but I’m doing something that is the purported true story behind a very famous historic event. It’s a very famous Biblical event. It’s dark and bloody, and it’s adventurous, and it purports itself to be the real story of something that basically most of the humans on the face of the Earth, whether they’re religious people or not, are aware of.
What is the script that you’re writing with David?
GRAHAME-SMITH: David and I have a company now together. We just opened an office up and hired some people. We’ve had all these projects starting to gain steam and we need people to help us organize them. It’s also fun to go to an office and work, instead of sitting at your house all day. So, yeah, we had an idea for a throwback to one of our favorite John Hughes movies. Not that we’re going out to remake John Hughes movies ‘cause I don’t think you can do that unless your name is John Hughes, but at the same time, those are the movies that really spoke to us and really spoke to so many people, growing up in the ‘80s and re-seeing them in the ‘90s. Today, when it comes to comedy, you basically have Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and these gross-out movies. It’s sort of what we do on Hard Times. But, at the same time, nobody is making these really sweet but insane teen movies. We’re all about trying to breathe new life into these old brands and old properties, and it fit along the line of what we’re doing, in terms of my books and some other ideas we had and our show. So, we wrote something together and we’re just starting to show it around to people now. We’ll see what comes of it.
Does that film have a title?
GRAHAME-SMITH: No. Honestly, we’re calling it Untitled KatzSmith Project.
Is that something you’re also looking to direct?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah, perhaps. One of us might direct it, or both of us might direct it, or we might end up just hiring a director and producing it, depending on what we’re doing. When I’m finished with the manuscript for this next book, which should be in the early summer, that’s going to be something that we’re going to think about, in terms of a film, as well and see who wants to make it with us, if anybody wants to make it. There are a lot of things up in the air right now. There are a lot of great things going on right now.
Are you also hoping for a Season 3 of Hard Times?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Yeah. We also have another show – an animated half-hour show – at Adult Swim that we’re doing the pilot for right now. That’s coming up. And then, hopefully, we’ll have a Season 3 of Hard Times because the way that we’ve ended Season 2 with another cliffhanger, it would be really depressing to not see it be able to play out. We’re really hoping that happens as well.
Have you thought about how many things you can take on at one time, without completely going insane?
GRAHAME-SMITH: Personally speaking, I am beyond that point, and I have been beyond that point for two years straight. Believe me, there’s no part of me that’s complaining. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. But, I literally work all day, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and that’s not an exaggeration. While I’m still able to be young enough and upright enough to carry it off, I’m going to try to do it, but I’m also aware of the fact that you can’t sustain this forever. I also don’t think it’s going to sustain itself forever. People get hot and then they peter out a little bit. I’m trying to take advantage of the great opportunities we have right now, and I know David is too. We’re trying to build the foundation for a company where we can have more supervisory roles on a lot of projects, rather than have all-inclusive roles on a lot of projects.