Now that they've made their outrageous Hollywood fortune (and shared their method with you), the writing-directing duo of Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have decided to return to their alternative comedy roots with HELL BABY, a horror-comedy ostensibly about an expectant couple (Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb) who move into a haunted New Orleans house and wind up with possessed bun in the oven. I say "ostensibly" because while Garant and Lennon do tell this story, they've essentially taken everything they've learned from studio tentpole screenwriting and disobeyed every rule. This is the kind of movie where the only obstacle standing in the way of the two heroic Vatican priests (played with Sarducci-esque flair by Garant and Lennon) is their insatiable appetite for po' boy sandwiches. They could perform the exorcism in the first half-hour of the movie, but, you know, they've found the most delicious shrimp po' boy sandwich in New Orleans. The devil can wait.
If you're a fan of RENO 911, you know what you're in for with HELL BABY. It's a charmingly ramshackle collection of incredibly funny people pushing much further with bits than they'd be allowed to in a commercial movie. Thankfully, the hit-to-miss ratio is more than favorable. How can it not be when you've got folks like Keegan Michael Key, Riki Lindhome, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel and Kumail Nanjiani kicking around? Everyone gets at least one great moment, but Key literally comes out of nowhere (it's a running gag in the movie) to steal the movie as the cheerfully intrusive neighbor F'resnel. With his gloriously goofy accent and one-of-a-kind pizza salad recipe, you're primed to laugh every second he's on the screen. It's on a much smaller scale, obviously, but this is Will-Ferrell-in-OLD-SCHOOL stuff; it feels like he's one breakout role away from superstardom.
For Garant and Lennon, this was an opportunity to spend twenty days in New Orleans with friends making the kind of movie they'd like to watch once they've put the kids to bed. It's a rambunctious, puerile, knowingly silly goof. When I interviewed the duo a couple of weeks ago, I was curious to get their thoughts on the horror genre, and how they kept from veering into spoof. It's a typically freewheeling conversation with two of the funniest writers in Hollywood. We also talk Key's brilliance, Lindhome's nudeness, Nanjiani's stoned-ness, the value of startles and the state of four-quadrant studio tentpoles.
Mr. Beaks: When you're talking horror-comedy, there's a spectrum. There's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON on one end, and on the other there's a straight-up spoof like SCARY MOVIE. How did you guys approach this movie, and did you view it on any kind of spectrum?
Thomas Lennon: I don't think we did. I do know that AMERICAN WEREWOLF is one our favorite movies of all time.
Robert Ben Garant: We were the right age when that came out. It's got great in-your-face blood and violence, awesome nudity and Griffin Dunne is hilarious. It just goes back and forth between being funny and scary.
Lennon: When it's funny, it's really, really funny. Obviously, that's a much bigger budget movie.
Beaks: (Laughs) Just a little.
Garant: You think?
Lennon: They had Rick Baker doing some amazing things, and we have a little puppet from TRILOGY OF TERROR that bites people's noses.
Garant: But that tone is just so great. You don't see it anymore.
Lennon: You make a good point about SCARY MOVIE. People wonder "Is [HELL BABY] a spoof?" We're not spoofing anything. We just made one of them. To us, it's a very funny movie where I hope you will be startled. (Laughs) We almost called this movie THE STARTLING, but apparently there was a SOUTH PARK episode called that, so we couldn't use it. It's not so scary that you're going to shit your pants, but you'll be good and startled.
Garant: There are some good startles in it.
Lennon: My favorite thing in the movie is when Corddry yells out, "I'm so sick of being startled!" Startling is just not that scary.
Garant: It's not that the cast is commenting on the movie as they're in it, but they're not so earnest that they can't say, "Wait, this is the part usually in movies where people should leave, but they stay." People are acting like real people would in that situation, and it's just cast with funny people instead of dire actors.
Lennon: To us, the movie is a combination of... if we were at home, and our respective children had fallen asleep, and we're like, "What movie do I want to watch right now? What would be all of the ingredients it would have?" It would have Keegan-Michael Key doing a slightly weird accent creeping around on people; it would have a naked Riki Lindhome for a long time, and not get hung up on anything else. It's got a weird puppet, and it goes on a lot of tangents. It does not get right to the point. You could cut the movie down to about eight minutes of plot. I might be exaggerating a little.
Garant: Normally, this kind of movie would be driven by people who are really good at their jobs. The priests would be really good, and so would the cops.
Lennon: As soon as Max von Sydow shows up in THE EXORCIST, you're like, "This shit is getting settled right now." Not us!
Garant: And the attitude of the cops is "I guess we should find out about that woman, but fuck it, what are you gonna do?" Nobody's driving anything. Nobody is helping.
Beaks: It seems like the absurdist version of a studio film. All of the elements are in place, but when you hit that part of the script where it's like, "The priests and the cops are going to discover what's going on at the house," they fuck off and go eat po' boys.
Lennon: It's almost a reaction. You know, big studio movies can take two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight years to get going. This movie was shot in twenty days with some of our best friends, and no one approved anything in it. Ever. We were like, "We're going to go shoot in New Orleans." "Okay."
Garant: Also, we go to eat po' boys twice. Once we don't talk at all, and the other time we don't talk about the plot. Normally, we'd be like, "Okay, we've got to get the devil."
Lennon: We give you the backstory of characters that will be dead in four minutes. That is so stupid. We give this long backstory - and at Sundance it was six minutes longer. But we get super in-depth about characters that will be dead--
Garant: Not the main characters.
Lennon: -- supporting characters that will be dead in four minutes!
Garant: Nobody's helping. Nobody's driving.
Lennon: It's a little bit like our version of a jazz record. What's the one SPINAL TAP does? JAZZ ODYSSEY?
Garant: It was just fun. I think everybody got a moment to shine, which, if this was a real driven movie, most of the parts would be thankless.
Lennon: Kumail Nanjiani comes into the movie for eight minutes in the middle that is the most pointless appearance of a character...
Garant: Totally pointless.
Beaks: (Laughing) He doesn't forward anything.
Lennon: Anything! He comes in the movie, he looks right at the camera and says, "I'm just here to install the cable." He hangs around for eight minutes, and then he leaves. It's like THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW.
Beaks: And you give him a wonderfully protracted exit.
Lennon: It could be longer in my opinion.
Garant: He did his own stunt driving.
Lennon: Watching him walk across the street is my favorite thing.
Garant: It's very accurate. It's the walk of someone who does not enjoy marijuana.
Lennon: I know, because that's me on marijuana. All the paranoia in the marijuana scene is me.
Garant: There's a take where he stands at the door of the van for four minutes. He's obviously trying to get his shit together just to open the van door.
Beaks: I have to ask about Keegan because he's amazing in this.
Garant: He steals the movie.
Beaks: Were you writing for him?
Lennon: Of course. And not only were we writing for Keegan... when we were discussing the movie and scheduling the movie - because he's obviously very busy on KEY AND PEELE, which is an amazing show - the one thing that we basically agreed on that was the only deal breaker for the movie going forward was "Is Keegan F'resnel or not?"
Garant: There was no movie without him.
Lennon: You can't teach someone how to do that, how to come in and say, "Marthupials... they're spooky!" Everything he says is weird.
Garant: He did RENO 911. We'd never met him before, and he did the hypothetical guy. "Hypothetically, if I were to tell you..." and we just said, "This guy is so funny!"
Lennon: We'd been bringing people on RENO for six years, but no one baffled us with their genius as much as Keegan. He was always ten steps ahead of us. It's always fun to surround yourself with people who are more talented than you are. The raison d'être of this movie is 1) oiled-up Riki Lindhome and 2) Keegan winning some kind of award for this character. I don't know what kind of award there is for something like this.
Garant: Everything is reverse-engineered so he can come in and say weird stuff.
Lennon: At the climax of the film, where all this crazy shit should be happening, he makes everyone a pizza salad. And then he explains the recipe almost to camera, which is that you take a Domino's Pizza, mix it with a salad from Domino's in a bowl and then eat it all together. By the way, that's not product placement.
Garant: No, we went to them.
Lennon: We had to ask them, "Are we allowed to say this?"
Garant: We say it's good!
Lennon: It's not defamatory.
Garant: At the end, when [Keegan] goes into the closet to get the devil baby, there were takes where he was in the closet in the dark talking for twenty-five minutes. He ran into a little ghost girl.
Lennon: It was almost like a Guillermo del Toro movie. "Who is this little girl in a wheelchair with the burlap sack on her head?" That was in the movie for a long time, that there was another ghost in the house that never even gets mentioned. (Laughs) I wish we'd put that back in. He meets a ghost from THE ORPHANAGE.
Beaks: You mentioned that this was sort of a reaction to writing studio films. Is this a mode that you're going to slip into from time to time?
Lennon: I would love to make more movies like this, committee-free movies. They may not be for everyone. Certainly they will not be the box-office hits that some of our tentpole studio family films are. But for your spirit, they're a tremendous amount of fun. Honestly, I've seen this movie many, many times, and it still makes me laugh really hard.
Garant: It's still cracks me up. And just the experience of going to New Orleans with a cast of people who are all hilarious and delightful. They were all there because they wanted to be funny in this movie. It was the best experience.
Lennon: It was one of those movies where no one goes to the dingy trailers we had. Everyone was on set the whole just hanging out and cracking jokes.
Lennon: I think on this movie, we didn't at any point say, "Oh, people will like that." It's all things that we find really funny.
Garant: Or "This guy's got fans. He should be in the movie."
Beaks: This summer, there's been a real struggle with what constitutes four-quadrant movies, and what's acceptable as a PG-13. Things have gotten really dark, and some films might've bombed due to this. I wonder how you guys look at it, because you've obviously done very well in that field.
Garant: People are pointing at a couple of movies that have flopped this year, but, also, a lot of four-quadrant movies have made a billion dollars this year. SKYFALL and IRON MAN 3 made a billion dollars. Any time people talk about audience backlash, I'm a little dubious. I think it's movie to movie. The trailer for THE LONE RANGER... that movie was too dark to take kids to. I don't think that's a four-quadrant reaction.
Lennon: Disney lost a lot of money on that movie, but, to be fair, they also pulled the plug on it before they started shooting two years ago. They said, "No, no, we're never going to make this." And then they did. So it's weird that everyone is like, "We didn't see that coming." The only people who saw it coming were Disney.
Garant: But they know ALICE IN WONDERLAND 2 is going to make a billion dollars, and Johnny Depp might've said, "I'm not going to do that if you don't do this." They're still so in the black this year.
Lennon: Wwhenever you do certain things, and they say, "Oh, that killed the genre." A bad one comes along, and they say, "None of those will ever work again."
Garant: TRANSFORMERS 4 is going to make two billion dollars. As much as people say, "Oh, TRANSFORMERS, blah, blah, blah." That movie's going to make a fortune. People like turning off their brain and watching a movie.
Lennon: And if you like turning off your brain, you can really turn off your brain for our movie.
Beaks: But it's a knowing kind of stupid.
Lennon: Nothing in that movie is an accident. Parts of it might not be good, but--
Garant: It's on purpose!
Lennon: (Laughs) It is on purpose.
Beaks: While you say you're not thinking of what other people find funny, you've still got to be thinking, "Our people will find it funny."
Lennon: If you're a fan of our work, you'll definitely like it. It's legitimately an alternative kind of movie.
Garant: It's very RENO. In RENO, we don't think, "Oh, this is broad!" We think, "This is funny. I think trying to wipe poop off of books in the donation box is great!
Lennon: Oh god, that was one of the best things we ever did. And that wasn't to satisfy some demographic.
Garant: (Laughing) It wasn't "I think some demographic likes that!"
Lennon: But we've been doing that for a long time. I think this movie is more reflective of our TV work. That's probably obvious.
Garant: And the budget is so cheap, they let us do it.
Lennon: This cost less than the posters for a studio movie.
Beaks: Is there another genre you'd like to work in?
Lennon: We do like scary stuff a lot.
Garant: And going to New Orleans.
Lennon: We do like going to New Orleans a lot. We have an idea for a period piece we might do at some point, but, again, most of our projects are just trying to think of reasons to go film things in New Orleans. It's a really fun place to hang out. You gain a lot of weight, walk around with a mint julep in your hand... it's awesome.
Garant: We would bike to work, and we'd go past the sets of DJANGO UNCHAINED, some Tom Cruise movie...
Lennon: There's so much stuff shooting there now. It's a fun time.
Beaks: So this period piece, would it be willfully anachronistic?
Lennon: No, no, it would be a very sincere period piece.
Garant: It's a funny idea. It's our version of a period piece.
Lennon: And "very sincere" was in air quotes that no one could see.
Beaks: I'll amend the transcript to reflect that.
HELL BABY is currently available via VOD, and will receive a limited theatrical release starting this Friday, September 6th. Fix yourself a pizza salad, and check it out.