Getting your first feature film off the ground is no easy feat, but that task is made a bit easier when your friends include people like Rob Riggle, James Pumphrey, Lizzy Caplan, Abby Elliot, Joe LoTruglio, Rich Fulcher, Horatio Sanz, Dylan Obrien, Zach Woods, Matt Jones, Ed Helms and Kyle Gass. For actor and now director Matt Walsh, those are the stars he brought on board for his directorial debut, the improv comedy “High Road.” The film follows a weed dealer split between a pregnant girlfriend, a gestating rock opera and his illegal job which pays the bills. Things go from bad to worse when a deal goes wrong and he’s forced to go on the run with a teenager he’s mentoring, thus allowing for the rich cast of characters to come into play. We recently spoke to director Matt Walsh and actress Lizzy Caplan about their work on the film and how they approached the film, from both in front of and behind the camera.
For Walsh, doing improv just made sense given his extensive film and TV background and his time logged as a member of the comedy troupe of the “Upright Citizens Brigade” which allowed him to appreciate the true laughs that come from unexpected places. “I’ve done a lot of improv in my life and I enjoy the process and even on legit Hollywood movies, the directors allow you to improv and I think those moments are pretty special and I think you get a better performance when you loosen it up with funny people,” he said. “I’d directed a couple of episodes of an improvised TV show [“Players“] and I’ve done improv movies and I’ve been a fan of Christopher Guest movies so I’ve always had that in the back of my mind, like I’d to tackle an improv movie because I love that genre.”
Penning the script with his friend and writer Josh Weiner, Walsh took it to other directors and scribes to make sure the nuts and bolts were where they needed to be before shaping it into something that his cast could work with. “We had a script and then we turned it into a sixty-five scene outline and then underneath each scene heading we would have a paragraph and description of what happens, what characters enter and what we need to get,” Walsh explained. “That was our structure when we went on set and then because we are improvising there were story elements that people would improvise and I liked so we would take them with us into the next day or the next week like ‘Don’t forget that this is now happening too.’ And then of course there’s a lot of jokes and performances that you don’t see on the page and then people just knock it out of the park so try to get as many of those in the film as well.”
And with the talented cast riffing along each scene, the story did morph a little bit but with a DP and editor from the documentary world handling the filming, Walsh was able to roll with the changes. “[The story] didn’t change in a major way, but it changed significantly,” Walsh said. “We did have our story, and we cut the film to story, but we shot it like a documentary so my DP Hillary Spera and my editor Alexis Hanawalt [are from the documentary world]…so when we shot it, the camera crew was ready for spontaneous things much like in a documentary where you go in to get an interview and you have to be ready to get that moment. And the same with editing, we strung together everything we could possibly keep and we had a crazy long six to eight hour edit…and then we worked back from there.”
The common misconception about improv is that it’s just made up on the spot, but as Walsh revealed, this cast was given a luxurious pre-production time to find their characters before the cameras started rolling. “Everyone knew their characters because we rehearsed for two weeks before the movie and everybody got to improvise with each other and get a sense of their character. We just did scenes that would never be in the movie, but it helped educate everybody on what the story is and what the relationships were,” he said, adding that is was a benefit for him as well. “It was great. It was sort of like theatre camp and it indoctrinated [the cast] to my process and how I would give notes. It got everyone up to speed and most importantly, got people to immerse themselves in their character and understand the world [of the story].”
However, while Lizzy Caplan didn’t get a chance to rehearse with the cast it was as simple as Walsh asking her join the film to get her involved. Prior to “High Road,” two duo had worked together on the upcoming “Queens Of Country” and she was happy to team with Walsh again.
“My character’s name is Sheila. She is in a White Stripes cover band and is basically just a very sweet moron,” Caplan explained about her character. But alas, you won’t get to see her musical talents on screen. “I unfortunately did not [learn any White Stripes songs]. I would have liked it. I got to kind of play on the drums a little bit but you can’t even see me doing it — it’s like off camera. But I think everyone was clearly blown away by my drumming skills [laughs].”
And though Caplan is used to reworking her dialogue in films, having to make it up on the spot was very new to the actress. “It was very structured in that Matt knew exactly what he needed out of every scene but as far as dialogue went that was kind of all on us. Usually I tweak given dialogue quite a bit, but I’ve never worked on something that was fully improvised,” she said, adding playfully, “I showed up, clearly took over the whole movie with my amazing skills and then walked out [laughs]. I was in way over my head, but it was fun.”
Comedians are generally a competitive bunch, all trying to one up each other to get the biggest laugh but as Caplan describes it while that spirit was there, at the end of the day, everyone came together for the benefit of the film. “Yes, there was definitely a little bit of that. When you’re in a room full of very funny people yes, everybody I think wants to try to kill every line that comes out of their mouth,” she said. “But, it was a very, very low budget feature so there was also a great deal of camaraderie. I think because so many of the cast in that movie are all pretty established improv people and standups and actors — I think it’s a bit more cutthroat when people are kind of trying to get to a certain point in their career. I think people sort of chill out a little bit. I think most people in this cast were on a similar level of success in the comedy world.”
But it’s exactly this ragtag energy that Caplan enjoys. “I’ve done a handful of these kind of micro-budgeted films….It’s just a totally different animal than doing a large budget studio comedy. I actually prefer it because you’re in a room full of people who genuinely want to be there and they’re certainly not getting rich off of it or doing it for any sinister reasons,” the actress explained. “It’s just people who want to be there and be funny and do a good job for their friends. So I really like making movies like that. It would be nice if some of them actually were seen by audiences, but hopefully this one will be the one.”
Both Walsh and Caplan have a busy year ahead. In addition to getting his new film out there, Walsh stars in upcoming omnibus comedy “Movie 43” featuring in the Elizabeth Banks directed sketch. He recently wrapped “Free Samples” with Jesse Eisenberg and will be working on Armando Iannucci‘s upcoming HBO series “Veep.” And in case you’re wondering, his Todd Phillips streak is over — he will not be in “The Hangover Part II.” And don’t think that “High Road” is a one off lark either. Walsh already has an idea for a new film knocking around. “I have another project I’m going to try and do called ‘Mr. Christmas‘ and it’s basically subverting the ‘Christmas Carol‘ story,” he told us.
As for Caplan, she’s got the indies “Frankie Goes Boom” and the aforementioned “Queens Of Country” that will hopefully be on the way this year — she talked to us about both of those films in a piece we ran earlier this week.
“High Road” premieres tonight at the Newport Beach Film Festival.