Catching Up with Jay Chandrasekhar
While still attending college at Colgate University, Jay Chandrasekhar decided to start a sketch comedy group. Little did he know, this ragtag group of comedy actors would later become Broken Lizard, whose roster of outrageous, scatological-inclined comedies such as Super Troopers, Beerfest, Club Dread and The Slammin’ Salmon would earn them a cult comedy status.
Outside of Broken Lizard, however, Chandrasekhar has developed a reputation as one of the industry’s go-to comedy filmmakers. In 2005, he directed the big-screen reimagining of The Dukes of Hazard and is currently attached to the upcoming sequel to the live-action 2010 Yogi Bear movie. On the small screen, Chandrasekhar’s directing resume reads like a venerable who’s who of beloved contemporary shows, with directing credits on the likes of Undeclared, Happy Endings, Community, Psych and Arrested Development.
In addition to directing and acting, Chandrasekhar has also approached other projects as a producer. Released this year on DVD, Freeloaders centers on a group of jobless moochers who have spent the last several years partying it up at the mansion of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz. When Duritz (who plays himself in the movie) announces that he’s getting married and needs to sell the house, the group goes on a mad dash to figure out next step in life. In a conversation with Paste, Chandrasekhar spoke at length about the film’s origins, directing TV and how he approaches getting bad reviews.
Paste: Can you Tell me a little about how Freeloaders came together?
Jay Chandrasekhar:When I first moved to L.A., my friend Henry invited me over to a party at his house. Henry was sort of a beginning writer. And I go to his house and he lives in this monstrous mansion in Beverly Hills that you can see from miles away. I walk into this raging party and I see all these Counting Crows records on the wall. I run into Henry and I was like, ‘Where did you get these? A garage sale?’ He goes, ‘Oh no, this is Adam Duritz’s house.’ So I said, ‘Okay, where is he? Let me meet him,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, he hasn’t been here in over a year. He’s been touring.’ And I realized that there are about six people who lived there. They all had met Adam over the course of their lives in other place and he said, ‘I have a house in L.A. if you want to crash there while you figure it out.’ And many of these people had been here for two years figuring it out. I went to probably four or five parties and never met Duritz.
Finally, one day years later, I was at Warner Bros. and he walked into my office. He said, ‘I have a script and I have the money and I have the director who wrote the script and it’s about these freeloaders who live in my house and I’m supposed to sell the house and they have to get out.’ I was like, ‘I lived that.’ [laughs] So that was the beginning. He hadn’t made a comedy before so he kind of wanted our help in sort of shaping it a bit. So we came on and we produced the film with him. We play a small, one scene part. It was fun. We had a good time.
Paste: The film was made back around 2009 or 2010. What caused the delay?
Chandrasekhar: It’s really a function of when the distributor wants to release the film. I look at that time period and say, ‘wow, that seems like kind of a long time’ too. [laughs] I’m not sure what the answer to that is exactly. The distributor buys the film and then they choose when they’re going to release it. So, it’s a little bit out of your hands.
Paste: Is it one of those things where you look back and you’re like, ‘this was a weird part of my life that’s appearing again?’
Chandrasekhar: I obviously had a very personal story with it, so it’s sort of fun when we shot it. I had my own personal anecdotes. The crowd that lived there, a lot of them were from New Orleans, and so we did this thing called ‘the [Second] Line’ where everyone got a pot or a pan or a spoon and marched around the whole house slamming on pots and pans and singing. People played guitar. It was a really fun, weird little gig.
Paste: The last official Broken Lizard film you guys released was [2009’s] The Slammin’ Salmon. Are there any plans to do another one?
Chandrasekhar: We are chatting with Fox about making a sequel to Super Troopers.
Paste: That’s been long in the making I guess.
Chandrasekhar: Well, we’ve had a bit of an accounting issue on the first one. As we’re settling that one, I think we’re gonna start to move on. I mean, we’ve written it, [Fox has] read it and they like it. A lot of filmmaking is just sort of slowed down by lawyers who feel they’re more important than the filmmakers [Laughs]. And so you wait for them to kind of work it out.
Paste: Can you tell us anything about what we can expect from it?
Chandrasekhar:No, I have to tell you, this film has been rumored for so long that—until it’s real—I prefer not to give any tantalizing details of something when who the hell knows if it’s going to happen.
Paste: It’s like the Arrested Development movie.
Chandrasekhar: Yeah, but they made it. They obviously went and did it. Is that up yet?
Paste:No, the show is coming back May 26 on a Sunday. I’m basically expecting no one to come into work the next morning because they’ll all just veg out on it the whole day.
Chandrasekhar: I directed a number of those the first two years.
Paste: Definitely. You’ve been behind episodes of some great shows between Arrested Development, Undeclared, Happy Endings, Community. As a filmmaker, what’s it like approaching a project like that where a specific visual style is in place?
Chandrasekhar: Well, you’re really there to make sure all the moments play well together and make sure the tone is stable and then you just sort of write little jokes here and there. It helps to be a fan of the show and know what your favorite version of the show is and then try to put that up there. [I envision] what I specifically like about Community and then, when you go shoot it, you try to make it one of those—one of your favorite episodes.
Or, you come in early. Like with Arrested Development, I think I did the third one. In that case, you’re trying to go ‘ok, I see what you did with the first two, here’s another version of your show’—whether it’s slowing down the cuts or adjusting the camera. If you come in on the first six, you’re really setting the look or helping set the look [of the show]. But if you come in deeper into the run, like late in year one or two, you go, ‘ok, you guys have your whole thing set, here’s a great episode for you.’ If the writing is great, you can make a great one. And in all the shows you named, the writing was always great.
Paste: Going back a little, can you tell me a little about how you found your path to comedy?
Chandrasekhar: Well, I’m from Chicago. And I was an actor in high school and college and I wanted to see if I could make a run of it in this job. So, I went downtown in Chicago and I went up on a stand-up stage and did an open mic. It went well, so I’m like, ‘alright, I’ll give it another try.’ I had been sort of taking some classes in Chicago in a group. So I went back to Colgate and started a sketch group. And that group was called Charred Goose Beak and eventually that group moved to New York and we became Broken Lizard. We always wanted to be Monty Python. We hoped to get a TV show and we almost did, but The State beat us out for this MTV show. So because they were there and SNL and Kids in the Hall were there, we thought, ‘let’s go try to do what Python did and instead let’s make movies.’ So now we’ve made seven movies. We’ve made more movies than Python [laugh].
Paste: You came from a family of doctors, right?
Chandrasekhar: My father and mother were both doctors, yes.
Paste: How did they take your decision to go for a career in comedy?
Chandrasekhar: They were totally game. They were into it. I think they thought I wasn’t going to make a good doctor, even though I claimed I wanted to be. They said, ‘try it’ and it worked and kept working and eventually they said, ‘alright.’ [laughs]. If I failed early, it might have gone the other way, but it really went well.
Paste: Have your parents watched your movies?
Chandrasekhar: They’ve watched them all.
Paste: Are there any moments where you’re like, ‘oh, that’s a little embarrassing for them to see?’
Chandrasekhar: You know, there’s a little part like that in every movie. I always tell them, ‘it’s pretty racy.’ I mean, they don’t care about nudity, they’re doctors. They’re not into violence. They have never complained about anything I’ve done.
Paste: So when Broken Lizard started first doing film work or short films, were you the one who stepped up to the plate being the director?
Chandrasekhar: Yeah, I mean, I started the group, so that was just an extension.
Paste: Had you had any technical experience working with a camera before?
Chandrasekhar: No, none. I just learned it one my own.
Paste: So it was just a trial-and-error thing?
Chandrasekhar: Yeah, I’d shoot stuff, go into the editing room, have someone teach me how to use the editing machine and then I would look at what I shot. I’d think, ‘I could really use a close-up’ and next time I’d get a close-up.
Paste: Were there any mistakes you made in those days that made you go, ‘I’m never doing that again?’
Chandrasekhar: The first short film we made, I didn’t shoot anything besides the wide. And I had to show the wide and there was nothing else there. I was like, ‘I could really use a close-up’ I mean, one of the characters forgot her line, so I bumped her elbow and she said her line. It was comedically terrible. But I had no choice; I didn’t know what to do. I should have just snipped it out and had a little jump cut, but I didn’t even have the guts to do that. I didn’t know. But eventually I learned how to move the camera and what footage was actually useful and what was a waste of time shooting. It was all through editing ultimately. I became an editor before I became a good filmmaker.
Paste: What was the moment where you made something you were proud of and considered yourself a filmmaker?
Chandrasekhar: With [Broken Lizard’s first feature film] Puddle Cruiser I had a lot of guesses about where the camera should go and it turned out I was right. But I didn’t know I was right. So I was proud of that film. And then Super Troopers was the same thing, I was guessing where the camera should go. It turned out my instincts were right.
Paste: After Super Troopers, you guys blew up in a big way. What was that transition like?
Chandrasekhar: Mostly it manifested itself in every bartender or doorman having seen the film. So we got into every bar, we stopped really paying for drinks, they would keep bar opens until six in the morning. It was this party culture that really embraced us. I think ultimately we were a group of friends who made movies with private jokes that we had and I think everybody and their friends thought, ‘oh that’s like us.’ It continues to this day with Beerfest and Slammin’ Salmon and all these movies. It feels like we’re very passionately owned by this crowd that likes to smoke grass and drink.
Paste: Broken Lizard has its legions of devoted fans. But there’s always a portion of the critical community that are less enthused by your brand of humor. Are you the type of person who reads the bad reviews? If so, how do you deal with that?
Chandrasekhar: Well, a reviewer—what are they? They watch movies and give their opinions? Who are they? Why is their opinion valuable? They were hired by someone to write about the movie. There’s no inherent skill you have you have in watching a movie that’s more valuable than someone else. Even the great Roger Ebert didn’t like Caddyshack. You think, ‘well, how is the man who didn’t like Caddyshack going to judge this movie?’ Negatively, probably. So then you say, ‘well, what does any of it mean?’ At the end of the day, these reviews are disposable. You could roll them up in toilet paper and they’d have about as much value.
The problem is when [the reviews] come out [laughs]. You know, it’s usually smart people who are writing reviews because they’re writers. They’re smart people and so they feel above it. Let them try to make a comedy—good luck [laughs]. I think writing about film is fine and great, but I think at the end of the day—I mean, things like that and music reviews are ridiculously pointless.
Here’s what I would say, if I were a film reviewer. ‘I loved Animal House, but I didn’t love Caddyshack. I do get why people like these kinds of movies, but I don’t tend to like these kinds of movies.’ That’s how I think those reviews need to start. ‘My favorite filmmaker is Fincher and I like dark films, however, they asked me to review this film called Beerfest and here’s my opinion, even if I don’t like this kind of movie.’ Otherwise, we get reviewed by Grandma’s Review, right? And she’s like this woman in Phoenix. You’re like, well, who gives a shit what Grandma has to think about Beerfest? [laughs]. And yet, it counts against your fucking Rotten Tomatoes score. The whole thing is a fucking shamble.
Paste: Have you ever considered maybe breaking away from your comfort zone and maybe pursuing something completely different—I know that Joe and Anthony Russo are doing Captain America: Winter Soldier now. Would you ever want to direct your own action movie or even a deadpan, dark comedy?
Chandrasekhar: It’s possible. I think this movie I made The Babymakers is different—not a lot but it’s at least a little more real. It’s still zany but there’s a little bit of humanity in it. I think ultimately you have to transition. You can’t just jump to Zero Dark Thirty because there’s a built-in expectation from me when I make a movie that it’s supposed to be funny. You have to almost hide when you make a drama and let the actors and the story be front and center and not you.
Paste: As an accomplished comedy director now, what’s the best advice you can give someone who wants to start their career as a comedy director? You mentioned some of the things you learned before, but what’s advice you would impart onto people pursuing your path?
Chandrasekhar: I think the smartest thing you can do is do it yourself as much as possible—write it, try to raise the money and make it. Most people spend their lives writing and selling scripts to Hollywood and Hollywood doesn’t actually make that many movies. The ones that they do, they’re making from their top flight, high-level people. The chances of a beginner getting a real chance to make something while they’re in their 20s is slim, unless they make it themselves. Then, we’ll watch it and we can judge it and if it’s good and commercial then you can be allowed in the system. The truth is the system is somewhat closed. A lot of people write great scripts for 10 years and get nothing made. You have to be incredibly proactive to break into this business and that really means writing your own material and making it.