by Hiko Mitsuzuka
If you think listening to four bickering couples while stomaching a vegan-friendly menu sounds like the Worst Brunch Ever, then add the Apocalypse to the mix, and you'll get writer-director Todd Berger's keenly observed and hilarious It's A Disaster.
The indie black comedy, which made a splash at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, features a group of friends who gather together for a weekend meal, only to find their self-involved lives interrupted by mysterious, world-ending events taking place right outside their door. Much like this summer's Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and 2006's Right at Your Door, the film takes a lo-fi approach to the Apocalypse and focuses more on character-driven conflicts. There's Tracy (Julia Stiles) who's nervous about introducing new beau Glenn (David Cross) to the group, the seemingly mismatched Hedy and Shane (HIH alum America Ferrera and Jeff Grace), the sexed-up Lexi and Buck (Rachel Boston and Kevin Brennan) and picture-perfect Emma and Pete (Erinn Hayes and Blaise Miller), the hosts who have an announcement to make.
With nearly all of the action taking place within one house, it's easy assume that the film is an adaptation of a two-act play. But that isn't the case. Berger, who has a neat cameo in the film, claims to have no theater background. The story just came to him naturally. "I could easily take it off-Broadway," he tells me as we sit down to chat at WaterMarke Tower in downtown L.A. "One day I'm gonna take Broadway by storm. That's the career path," he laughs.
In fact, the idea for Disaster was inspired by George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which (tidbit alert!) had become public domain after 1971. Berger originally thought of the comedy as a period piece, taking place during a game night in the 60s. "I like the idea of couples being stranded somewhere during a brunch," he says, because "I do dislike going to brunches."
And throwing a global disaster into the mix helped raise the stakes, something Berger finds fascinating. "I think a disaster situation, any sort of an emergency, kind of heightens who you are deep down," he adds.
Joining us over a couple of bottled waters in a conference room at the high-rise residence are cast members Kevin Brennan (Buck) and Jeff Grace (Shane). Having all three dudes together in one room, I get the feeling I'm watching a bunch of high school buddies reunite, ready to kick back and shoot the shit. That's probably because all three, including actor Blaise Miller, make up the comedy troupe the Vacationeers, the minds behind 2009's serial-killer comedy The Scenesters (they also performed at this year's Comic-Con). These guys have been at it for the past several years. The rapport is instant.
TB (to Kevin): Did you smoke a pack of cigarettes this morning?
KB: I smoked like 30,000 cigarettes this morning. I wanted my voice to be perfect for this interview.
HIH: Thank you. It's perfectly raspy.
KB: You are welcome.
HIH: So, Shane would be the perfect guy to be on your team during a catastrophe. Which character would you resemble during a real-life crisis?
TB: I'd like to think that I would be the Heddy character, get really drunk and kind of ride it out. But deep down inside I think I'm a Shane, and I would start gathering weapons and prepare for the oncoming zombie apocalypse.
JG: [Shane] is basically a guy who's little stuck in the 7th grade, but when the disaster hits, he thinks he's John McClaine, like he's the action hero of the movie. But he's totally ill-equipped to be that guy. So it's a funny contrast...everything that he says is almost self-aware.
TB: Shane thinks he's the main character in the movie. But it's a different movie that he's in than everybody else, and so everyone else is kind of rolling their eyes at him.
HIH: Kevin, since your character seems to be the horniest of the bunch, would you jump into an orgy?
TB (laughs): He doesn't need a disaster for that.
KB (deadpan): We can just do one right here.
Finding other actors to round out the ensemble proved to be easier than anyone had anticipated. The troupe had met Julia Stiles through a friend of a friend, and together they produced the viral video "Julia Stiles Styles". When Berger wrote the script for Disaster, Stiles immediately jumped on board (she loved the idea of playing a neurotic, Woody Allen-esque character). However, instead of shooting something over a few weekends, as originally planned, Berger had to postpone filming while the Dexter actress finished her stint on Broadway. This gave him and his crew some extra time to lure more recognizable names to the project. Stiles was the one who suggested Ugly Betty's America Ferrera, who then suggested looping in Arrested Development's David Cross. It was one big domino effect. Everyone who read the script liked it and immediately signed on.
KB: The best text message I ever got was from America [who was shooting a film out of the country] on a Saturday night at 11pm Los Angeles time...and it said, 'David's in'."
All of the actors appreciated how the script portrayed different couples in different phases of their relationships. Jeff Grace, who plays the pop culture-savvy Shane, thinks it's all about the recognizability of the characters.
JG: Everyone knows a couple who are like, 'How did they end up together?' And then they get divorced one day, and you're like, 'Oh that makes sense.' And I think that's where Shane and Heddy are. They're too afraid to confront each other and end it.
HIH: Were the vegan jokes [in the dining room scenes] inspired by any real-life brunch experiences?
TB: I was vegan for a few months. I became everything I hated because I used to be the guy who made fun of the vegetarians, like, 'Oh we can't get pepperoni on our pizza!' And then I became a raw foodist for a little while. But now I'm back on. Bring on the barbecue.
KB: Todd and Elena [his wife] had a raw food dinner party that we all went to last year...
JG: It's called Thanksgiving...I think I was one of two people who was actually eating real turkey.
TB: We had a tofurkey that everyone was eating...
JG: That should be the sequel.
KB: The raw Thanksgiving!
HIH: Todd, what kind of comedy inspires you?
TB: I'm a huge Woody Allen fan. I told everybody, for research, to watch Manhattan Murder Mystery because it has a similar tone...they're dealing with a very dark situation, but they're not treating it very seriously, and they're more wrapped up in their emotional relationship issues while they're solving a murder and are in danger. Dr. Strangelove is another one that I love, and the Coen Brothers, kind of that dark, comedic sensibility.
HIH: You guys shot the entire film in a house on West Adams, right off the 10 Freeway here in Los Angeles. Was it like a house party on set?
KB: It was a hot house party. We shot in the hottest week in the history of Los Angeles, and obviously when you're shooting with sound, you can't run the AC, so that was rough. But instead of trailers, we rented a house across the street from the house we were shooting in, which was actually the house Marvin Gaye was murdered in.
JG: The house was haunted to some degree.
KB: So when we weren't in the extreme heat of that house, we were in the other house, relaxing and hanging out. It was very much like a summer camp. It had a living room area where you'd put you bag down and have your own little space.
JG: Kevin was playing guitar on the regular, got a little hippie vibe going.
HIH: Any Marvin Gaye ghost stories?
KB: There was something going on...
JG: The room he was murdered in was the room before the bathroom upstairs, and every time you walked by it, you just felt like, 'I don't want to look in that room'. There was some weird energy.
HIH: Which is worse: finding out your significant other cheated on your...or the end of the world?
KB (pointing to Jeff and Todd): You might have to direct that to these guys. I don't have a wife or a girlfriend, so I think the end of the world for me!
TB: I think it would the same thing. I think it would be the end of the world to find out my significant other cheated on me, because that would murder her...and myself. A murder-suicide.
TB: I think it's interesting, because in most end-of-the-world movies, or everybody's-gonna-die type of movies, usually there's a lot of time, but in this movie, you've got a couple of hours at best, so how are you going to spend those last hours?
KB: I would probably call up any girl I've ever wanted to have sex with and be like, 'Let's just do this now,' as we're binge eating and drinking.
TB: I'd probably go with an ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins. Like mint chocolate chip. The whole thing. Who cares? Why not? Or maybe those clown cones...
JG: I remember in college I didn't have a very good sense of nutrition, and I remember I was a fan of the pizza at Taco Bell until 20/20 did 'Death in the Fast Food Lane', and it was the number one, worst-rated thing you could eat. It hit the 1,500-calorie mark...that's what I'd have.
As for life after Disaster, these guys have more than enough lined up. The group just shot a pilot for a web series at MSN. Brennan is currently writing for the animated web series Samurai Day Care. Grace will start shooting Mother's Day in August alongside Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci. And Berger is writing the live-action adaptation of Where's Waldo for MGM ("Which is a story that just writes itself") and The Happytime Murders with the Jim Henson Company.
Sounds like their plates are fuller than a loaded vegan dish.
It's a Disaster opens on VOD and Digital March 5, 2013. In theaters April 2013.
- Hiko Mitsuzuka @TheFirstEcho