From writer/directors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (Reno 911!), the outrageous horror comedy Hell Baby tells the story of expectant couple Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb), who move into a haunted fixer-upper in New Orleans and soon find themselves enlisting the help of the Vatican’s elite exorcism team. An overly friendly neighbor living in the house’s crawl space (Keegan Michael Key), Vanessa’s Wiccan sister (Riki Lindhome), and two inept detectives (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer) only add to the ever-growing chaos and mayhem unfolding around them.
At the film’s press day, first-time feature directors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how they ended up as a writing and directing team, their writing process, having complete freedom on their first independent feature, getting to cast who they wanted, and how much improvisation went on. They also talked about how they went in for a general meeting at Paramount and ended up writing the Baywatch: Red Tide script, which references some of the crazy storylines from the TV show. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
ROBERT BEN GARANT: We were afraid of each other, when we first met. We were 18 and it was fear.
THOMAS LENNON: In 1988, we met in the lobby of the Brittany Hall dorm at NYU. Ben had bright electric green hair like The Joker, and I had been mugged so badly. I would wear suits with bow ties, and I’d been beaten up so badly in New York on my second week that I had an eye patch.
GARANT: He looked like a Bond villain. He had on boots and a bow tie and an eye patch.
LENNON: He looked exactly like Sid Vicious, except much skinnier and with electric green hair. I was like, “What the fuck is up with that guy?!”
GARANT: And I was like, “What the fuck is up with that guy?!”
LENNON: Subsequently, we both became members of The State, but we didn’t write together for a long time. We later found out that we basically have identical senses of humor. We often write the same literal word-for-word joke in a script that we’re working on and send it to each other.
So, when did you actually start writing together?
GARANT: We ended up writing together when The State got a movie deal and everybody else got bored.
LENNON: Everybody else in The State quickly figured out that writing films is a drag, especially with a group of 11 people. That’s not gonna be fun. And then, it took us a couple of years to figure out how to write as a team. The answer is that you outline as a team and you write separately, and then you rewrite the other person and hand it back and forth. Writing is basically a solitary event.
GARANT: And the key to a good partnership with us is a similar work ethic. We both work all the time, and we enjoy it. We both write, all the time. If you have a writing partner that you don’t share a work ethic with, it’s doomed.
LENNON: You both need to be crazy compulsive.
GARANT: Or both super lazy.
LENNON: We both happen to be crazy compulsive, which is helpful in the studio system where 95% of what you write gets thrown away, even stuff that they’ve paid you for. Full drafts of movies get thrown away on a whim. And you have to be able to take things with a grain of salt.
LENNON: We never rewrite the other person, just to rewrite the other person. You can’t.
GARANT: If somebody writes something good, thank god. That’s great!
LENNON: If you have that attitude about it, it will never work out. Writing with a partner is almost impossible, anyway. But writing a studio movie that gets made, the odds against you are probably a thousand to one. For every movie we’ve had made, I think we’ve written somewhere between eight and 10 films, and we’ve had 10 made. And I’m not talking about on spec. Every movie falls apart, at every point.
GARANT: We have six scripts at Fox now, that are sitting on desks, that they paid us for and that might be going. I don’t know. There are a huge amount of people who sell a TV pilot, every year, but most of them never get produced. It’s very easy to make a living and never get anything produced.
LENNON: It’s also very easy to not make a living.
LENNON: If there had been a studio executive on the set, they would have asked a ton of questions about this movie. This is a pointless film. It’s very entertaining, but that’s the only point of the movie.
GARANT: A studio executive would have said, “Guys, if we’re going back to eat po’ boys again, shouldn’t we learn something in the scene?” They go to eat po’ boys and don’t talk.
LENNON: They would have been like, “Shouldn’t the story be moved forward, in some way?” Twice, they don’t talk. They just eat there.
GARANT: We’d never done an indie before. We met with the Darko guys, and they were like, “Great! Let’s go!” But until we were on set, I didn’t think it was gonna happen. I was like, “This is a joke, right? They’re not gonna just let us make this movie.” And then, we were on set and I was like, “Oh, jeez, we’re really doing this!”
LENNON: They had no notes, as you can tell. If someone had given notes on this movie, it might make more sense. But, I think the charm of this movie is that it’s like, “Wait, what?! Oh, okay. There’s that guy again! Woah, that was kinda scary! Oh, look who doesn’t have any pants on!” It’s that kind of movie.
GARANT: The movie has its own feel. Not a lot of movies have their own feel.
LENNON: It doesn’t feel like a bunch of corporate suits put this together for you to enjoy. ‘Cause why would they?! It’s so dumb!
LENNON: It wasn’t even a discussion. Every single person in the movie is exactly who we wanted. Big roles and little roles.
GARANT: The discussion with the Darko guys who gave us the money was, “Oh, yeah, that guy is great!” And that was it.
LENNON: Of course, everyone did it for no money. It’s a very inexpensive film, as you can tell by the egregiously crappy special effects, which are exactly right for the tone of the film. We didn’t want a digital baby that looks great and runs around. That would be weird.
GARANT: We shot that scene for three days, and every usable second of that baby is in the movie.
LENNON: It never fucking worked, ever! Even the shots in the movie were barely usable. But, it’s my favorite part of the film. I truly love the scene where – SPOILER ALERT – many of us get killed.
GARANT: It was so great! It’s pointless. We mostly kill each other.
LENNON: We’ve come all the way from the Vatican and we’re standing right there next to the baby while it’s killing people, and we’re not helping that much. It turned out exactly as we meant. It may not be for everybody, but I assure you that it turned out exactly like what we meant.
Are you pretty open to improvisation?
LENNON: Oh, yeah! For example, the entire last six or seven minutes of this movie, not one word of that was in the script. There was a little bit of wrapping up, but all of the rest of it was improvised.
GARANT: All of that was just those guys riffing. But, it’s all people who we know and trust and love. The other great thing about this experience was that people would show up on set a day they weren’t working. People were listening to each other’s scenes, which doesn’t happen that much. People got what everybody else was doing.
LENNON: It felt very much like we were an improv troupe together, which we basically were, for the month that we did this.
Are you guys actually doing a Baywatch movie?
LENNON: Yes, we wrote it for Paramount.
GARANT: The script is done.
LENNON: I don’t think we’re supposed to say who’s in it. There are rumors that a big movie star wants to be in it, which is nice.
GARANT: It’s good. It’s funny. It’s basically Reno 911! with sexy people.
LENNON: Yeah, with big, buff, sexy people. It’s called Baywatch: Red Tide, which is to clarify that we’re going to make, hopefully, eight or nine Baywatch movies. One for every year that Baywatch was on the air.
GARANT: We went to a general meeting at Paramount, and they had this bulletin board of all the different things that are in development. And down at the bottom of the board, upside down, was a corner that said, “Baywatch?”
LENNON: We were like, “That’s not brain surgery. How hard could it be to write a Baywatch movie? Half of that movie is in slow motion, of people jogging with music.” So, yes, we did write it.
GARANT: We watched a bunch of the show, and I was unaware. The plot of one of the episodes in the first season is that there’s a giant squid stealing people’s surfboards. That’s a real episode.
LENNON: It’s called “Tentacles Pt. 1″ and “Tentacles Pt. 2.” It’s an insane series! They introduced the idea of a ghost in the second season.
GARANT: It’s “Coronado Del Soul.” Nicole Eggert was a ghost. It’s The Shining in swimsuits, with Nicole Eggert.
LENNON: It’s some of the weirdest plots that you’ve ever seen, in your entire life. We tried to get a little bit of that into the script. It’s also a bit action comedy.
GARANT: It’s Point Break-y.
LENNON: They do talk about the surfboard-stealing squid, and Summer has a ghost of herself that she ran into. Some of those references are in the final script.
Hell Baby opens in theaters on September 6th.