'Joshy' Writer-Director on Working Without a Script, Garry Marshall's Advice

Jeff Baena - H Getty 2016
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Jeff Baena reveals how he brought together Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Adam Pally, Jenny Slate and more comedy all-stars for what he calls a drama with funny moments and what he learned from working with the late 'Pretty Woman' director on 'Life After Beth.'

Jeff Baena's sophomore feature Joshy is classified as an R-rated comedy, and while the movie's cast features several stellar comedic actors, the writer-director considers the film to be more of a drama with funny moments.

Indeed, the story has some dark elements, beginning with the abrupt end of Josh's (Thomas Middleditch) engagement, which hangs over Josh and his friends' attempt to salvage his bachelor party weekend with a guys' getaway in Ojai, California. Over the course of the weekend, there's some additional drama, partly from unexpected visitors. But this isn't the first time that Baena has blended comedy with heavier elements. His directorial debut, Life After Beth, served as a zombie rom-com about a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) who returns from the dead and reunites with her live boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) but can't seem to escape her zombie tendencies.

Unlike that film, though, Baena made Joshy entirely from an outline, instead of a traditional screenplay. Since most of the dialogue was being improvised, Baena put together a cast of comedy actors he knew and felt that he could trust, including Nick Kroll, Adam Pally and Jenny Slate.

Well known actors also pop up in some smaller roles, with Plaza, Paul Reiser, Lauren Graham, Jake Johnson and Alison Brie all making appearances. But Joshy doesn't feature a return appearance from Garry Marshall, who had a memorable role as a zombie grandfather in Life After Beth, one of Marshall's last acting roles.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about Joshy, Baena also shared his memories of working with Marshall, including the practical advice the filmmaker passed down from Francis Ford Coppola, and revealed that he even tried to get Marshall to make an appearance in an upcoming movie but the director, who died on July 19, was too ill to make the trip to Italy.

Joshy, which premiered at Sundance, is now in select theaters and on VOD and iTunes.

How did you go about putting this cast together?

After Life After Beth, which was almost exclusively scripted, I wanted to try something new, so I decided to write an outline. It was only like, 20 pages. It had all the beats and pretty much what everyone was saying, but the dialogue wasn't written out. I knew I had to get actors who had experience in improvisation, so I got people that I personally knew to some extent. I knew in some way, either we were friendly or through friends, pretty much everyone in this movie. I just wanted to find people that I could trust. I've always maintained that people that are funny and smart can do anything in film. Even if you get people who are more accustomed to comedy and they're generally not doing too many dramas, I do feel like they can handle the dramatic stuff because I feel like, not to undermine what drama is, but drama tends to work on more of an emotional base level and comedy works sort of on a more layered level. And I think if somebody's able to get the comedy stuff, I think they can figure out how to do the drama stuff. So it was just finding actors that I knew or I had a rapport with that were sort of open and smart and capable of pulling this off. Most of the people were UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] people. Alex Ross Perry, who's a director and a friend of mine, just having hung out with him a lot, I just knew as a character, he's able to maintain who he is without being too self-aware and I thought that would be an incredible performance. It was pretty much people that I had either worked with or knew personally. 

You said you wanted to try something new. How do you feel like your experience of working with an outline vs. a script went? Do you feel like this is something that you would do again?

I loved it. It's an intense experience because there's no time to slack, and we shot this in 15 days, and we didn't have a lot of money, so we were under the gun pretty much the whole time. But the necessity to produce something out of that environment, I think is really exciting as an artist, and to collaborate with actors and to really trust each other and know that we're all giving ourselves over to this and letting it kind of happen, it's a completely different experience than Life After Beth, where everything was scripted. Here we had so much wiggle room and fluidity that it just felt really alive and all of the performances felt real. We didn't rehearse because I feel like if you rehearse it then you lose generation and you're replicating a performance as opposed to producing it, so everything had a primal sort of impact as opposed to sort of massaging things or adjusting things. We found stuff and then we went into it and it just really felt alive. So to me it just felt like a really cool way of doing it. I definitely would do this kind of thing again.

Was there anything particularly surprising in the movie that came out of an improvised moment or exchange?

Nothing came out of left field. It wasn't like we were improvising the whole movie, just lines. There are certain lines that I think are hysterical. It's more little moments that I think are great. As I said, because we were so under the gun, we didn't really have a chance to say, 'What if the story went here? What if the story went here?' Everything had to kind of be worked out so we had a safety net. Everything was based on the performances. Thomas Middleditch's dramatic stuff for me was — I think he was so great and I don't think he's really had the opportunity to explore that side of him. I thought some of the stuff between Adam Pally and Jenny Slate, particularly the scene in the bar, where they're kind of having a heart-to-heart, I loved it. We'd talked about it at length but the way it came out, it felt like a real scene to me as opposed to something I'd seen before. There's lots of moments. Everyone's so good in it. I'm in awe of all of them.

There's a dark beginning to the movie in terms of how Josh's engagement ends and there's sort of a heaviness hanging over the bachelor party weekend and Josh's experience. How did you balance that with the comedic elements in the movie?

For me, this movie, it gets classified as a comedy but for me, it's hard to classify it. And the way I saw it was almost as a metaphor for the story itself. The movie keeps veering toward drama but everyone in the movie is trying to maintain a comedy. I feel like so much of how guys relate to and interact with one another and to some extent have an inability to articulate their emotional state — when something traumatic happens to guys they either avoid it, and in this case most [of Josh's friends] didn't show up [for the weekend in Ojai], or when they're confronting it they're almost confronting it by obfuscating it with distracting the person and just trying to have a good time. So for me it almost became the structure of, there's very obvious dramatic things that happen and then the movie itself is almost trying to focus on the fun, connected stuff between the guys but [the drama] kind of keeps rearing its head and we kind of keep pushing it down. In my mind this movie isn't even a comedy, it just has funny moments because there's a lot of funny people in it. But ultimately it's drama and it's just the way people are dealing with that drama is through comedy and joking around.

You worked with Garry Marshall on Life After Beth — that was one of his last acting roles. What was it like to work with him, particularly with him as an actor?

He was the warmest, most generous guy ever. It was such a dream to be able to work with him and he was so pleasant. I was freaking out. Paul Reiser [who was also in Life After Beth] was freaking out. In between takes they would just be going off because there was an energy to him. It's so impossible to explain. He didn't have to do this. He had just had surgery like a week or two before he shot. He had every reason to just say, 'I don't want to do this.' But he just put himself out there for this stupid indie movie. If I was 80-something I'd just be like, 'I'd rather stay home.' He kept taking me on walks in between takes and between set-ups and giving me advice as a director. At one point he took me on a walk and he said, 'I'm going to give you the piece of advice that is the most important advice you can get as a director.' And I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening.' He's like, 'I learned this from Francis Ford Coppola and I'm going to teach it to you.' And I'm like, 'I can't wait to hear what this is.' And he's just like, 'Make sure whenever you're shooting a movie to make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes. Whether it's sneakers or whatever it is, just make sure you're comfortable because you're going to be standing on your feet all day. And the last thing you need is a bad back; that's going to change your mood and you're not going to be sensitive to things, so just make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes.' I thought that was kind of sweet. I was devastated when I heard he passed away. I was trying to get him to, in the spring, we were trying to get it to work for him to come out [to do another movie] and we found out that he was a little too ill to travel to Italy. But I loved him.