WAMG Goes BACK IN THE DAY With MICHAEL ROSENBAUM
Michael Rosenbaum and the gang are taking a trip down memory lane in the all new side-splitting comedy BACK IN THE DAY and because I like you, you’re coming along for the ride. Recently, I sat down with Michael Rosenbaum, to talk about his experiences tackling his first feature as both the writer and director. Not only that, but he stars in the film as well. Michael is a buddy of mine, but we never talk shop so this was a real treat for me.
BACK IN THE DAY is the first feature film written and directed by Rosenbaum. He also stars in the film alongside Morena Baccarin Harland Williams, Sarah Colonna, Nick Swardson and Isaiah Mustafa. The film was acquired by Screen Media Films in early October, and will be making it’s way to theaters on January 17, 2014. Can’t wait that long? Well, you are in luck! BACK IN THE DAY is out on iTunes now!
They say “write about what you know, and there are definitely some similarities between you and JIm. You’re both actors, you have a similar sense of humor, similar friends. Was that your process for this film?
You know, I wrote it a long time ago… and this other movie that I wrote fell apart. We lost the money, so I switched gears and started writing what was OLD DAYS, now is BACK IN THE DAY. You know, they always say “write what you know”, at least in the beginning, so I kind of stuck with that. Write on experience. Write what you know. Write characters that you know. It’s real. It’s easy to write. You’re not just creating stuff. You can just elaborate, or make a character that you know a little bigger, and brighter. The foundation’s already there, and it’s a lot easier to write. So, these were characters that I knew… like this guy Skunk growing up. He was a trouble maker. He had a heart of gold, but he got in fights, and was a tough guy, and he drank a lot. He had some amazing stories behind him like waking up naked in the back of his neighbors pick-up truck, and the story – the true story – is more fantastic that the one in the movie. Then there were these guys that I grew up with like T… we used to play wiffle ball at his house since I was, like, 10, and he choreographed the dance scene in the movie. Isaiah Mustafa, who’s my good buddy now, plays him. The real T isn’t as ripped as Isaiah, so I said to him “Isaiah, you’ve gotta gain a little weight. You can’t look that ripped up” because this guy I knew wasn’t always this ripped up, so he gained a few pounds, and grew a goatee… All of the characters are loosely based. It’s an exaggeration. You hire funny people to make things funnier.
Have the people who are begin loosely portrayed in the movie seen it yet?
They’ve seen a lot of it. My friend Kent Brenneman – Kris Polaha, who’s a great actor plays him. Kent’s a church guy. He’s family oriented. He’s a good guy, but he’s got a little bit of an edge. He likes to have fun here and there. He saw some of the character and was like “Oh, wow! Kinda looks like me actually.” and T’s always been a smart ass, so there was an essence of T in the movie. Skunk was just an exaggeration. Obviously, when Harland Williams is playing him… but there’s a heartfelt moment in the movie where we see that he really loves Jim. He’d do anything for Jim. There was that part of the real Skunk in there. Nick Swardson plays Ron Freeman – it’s one of my favorite parts in the movie, because on paper he’s just this floater… who is this lost soul years later, and he finally meets someone who’s trying to find herself. These two lost souls find each other. What’s amazing, which I think people will see if you are a Swardson fan or not – if you’re not, you’re going to be a Nick Swardson fan – is that he’s [the character] just a genuine guy. Everyone knows, in their town, that guy, but it’s heartfelt, and it’s real, and it’s exaggerated. I say this with absolute sincerity… I think this is the best performance that I’ve seen him give. Regardless that this is my movie, I think that it’s like “Woah!”. It makes you uncomfortable. There’re all these different levels to him. Even though it wasn’t the biggest role in the movie, he has such a presence. I feel like every character in this movie is a leading role. Because it’s the 12 of us, it’s all about these characters. It’s about personalities.
You are no stranger to being onscreen. Do you think there is more pressure bringing someone else’s words to life, or your own? Is there added pressure since you wrote this?
Yeah. You always hope that your jokes are funny. Sometimes they’re funnier than you thought they were. Sometimes they’re not funny at all. Sometimes when you hear other people saying them, no matter how they say it, they can’t make it as funny. I had the gift of working with such amazing talent that, if something wasn’t working, we’d make it better. If something was really working, we’d make it even funnier. You write a script, and what I think is funny is that I can hear these people [the characters] talk, and when somebody else reads it, they don’t always hear it the way you do. It’s artistic expression. If any of these guys write a script, or write a movie it’s objective. It’s arbitrary. When somebody reads it, it’s their interpretation of those voices in their head. The jokes aren’t hitting how you have it in your head. So, you really have to rely on good acting. You have to trust… It was amazing. I remember the first day that I heard my words, going “This is working! This is coming to life!” “Oh, this is funnier than I thought!” or “It’s even funnier if I say this instead of making things work that aren’t working.” I don’t know. Sometimes you go to movies, and you go “I can’t relate to anyone”, and that was the biggest thing for me as a writer and director. I wanted people to go – worst scenario – “Eh, I didn’t like this story, but I liked the characters.” They’re going to relate. At least there is a believability. There’re jokes. I want them to at least like everyone, and I wanted to have every actors back. I wanted to make sure they were all likable in some way, and have some sort of redeeming quality. Like the character of Mark, who’s the fiancé. You think he’s going to be the stereotypical guy that cheats on his fiancé, or that he’s the dick, or the asshole, but he has some redeeming qualities. I wanted to go against the grain sometimes.
You brought some of your close friends to Indiana, which is your home turf. Did you take them to some of your old stomping grounds? How fun was that?!
It was amazing. I was nervous though, because we were coming out to Indiana, and leaving LA during pilot season. Not only are they going to Indiana in the middle of that, but they’re also going into a cold climate. They’re not getting paid much money. I was nervous. I wanted them to like Indiana as much as I do. I go back, for a reason, twice a year to play in wiffle ball games. There’s just this sense of reality there. It’’s a family there. You go back and it’s more relaxed. It’s slower. LA moves so fast, and you get caught up in your own life. Sometimes you just forget about what’s important. What’s great is, I think they all came back and said “That’s the best time I ever had on a movie.” Isaiah, Harland, Morena, Sarah, Liz, Nick… all loved being there. They loved the town, and didn’t want to leave. I remember seeing a tweet from Morena when she went to LA for an interview and was coming back to Indiana to finish filming. It was something like “I’m on my way back to Indiana. I can’t wait to be back. I miss it so much.” and that touched me. They appreciate where I came from. When you make an independent movie, a lot of stuff could be a disaster. You don’t get stuff done. I was a first time director. ‘Does he have my back?” “Am I going to look like shit?” “Will there be a good makeup artist?” “Is there a good team?” Those are all things to think about, but I’m an actor. I knew all of these things. I actually can relate to them. So, I said ‘I’m going to take care of you. You’re not going to look bad!” You have to, hopefully, know that they trust you, and they did.
You have quite a few friends that are writers and directors. Did you get any tips from them seeing as this is your first feature?
You know I did. [laughs]
We don’t ever talk about this stuff. [laughs] That’s kind of the beauty of it.
Yeah. We leave work alone. We went on a hike to the hot springs with a whole bunch of people. I think I was the only one naked.
You were the only one naked. [laughs] Although I was the dumbass that forgot a suit and went in wearing shorts.
We go to concerts and things, and that’s who I am. I have friends from being in the business so long, like James Gunn. He’s one of my dearest friends, and he’s directing the new GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and SUPER. He’s just a really smart guy, and he’s directed a lot so I wanted to get advice from him… and my friend Jason Reitman who did JUNO, and my friend Greg Beeman who did LICENSE TO DRIVE in the 80’s, and Peter Segal who did TOMMY BOY. I sat with all four of these guys, not at the same time, and I got something from each of them. My friend Greg, who’s a dear friend, and we’ve written a lot of stuff together told me “Tell the story. Get the performances. Tell the story. Have transitions from scenes.” and “Be honest and sincere.” That’s another thing Reitman really dug into me, was “Find honest moments. I know your movie’s funny and a little outrageous, but find those little nuances that make your characters likable, or relatable so that you feel something for them.” That was a great note. And Pete, well, most of them said “Don’t play the lead role. Don’t do it!” They were like “Listen, by the end of this thing you are going to collapse. You are going to be exhausted.” I did not take their advice on that one. [laughs] As much as it worked, I think the next time I just want to direct. You can see more from outside looking in, rather than being in the scene acting, and being a part of it. They all gave such great tips. They all told me “Look, this is your first movie. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Have fun. Get the jokes. Don’t worry about moving the camera and being fancy. Just put the camera where it tells the story best.” That’s something Reitman really dwelled on.
What’s the one thing, as an actor, that you wanted to make sure that you did, or didn’t do on set?
I didn’t want to be selfish, or narcissistic, or an egotist. I didn’t want to be perceived as that. I wanted to be someone who the actors thought “He’s got my back.” Whenever you’re working with a first time director there is some worry. I’m sure all of them were like “Fuck!” I just wanted them to know “Hey, I’m going to make you look good. Trust me on this.” I also wanted to let them know that I knew what I wanted. Sometimes it can be hard to get, and you’re not the most articulate person, but I wanted to be a leader. It’s funny, because in my personal life I feel like a leader.
My nickname for you after all of the concerts and kickball games was “The Captain Of Summer”. [Laughs]
“The Captain Of Summer” [laughs], people call me Grizwold! Clark Grizwold from the Vacation movies. I like that. I think that’s sweet because I do organize things, and I like people to have a good time. I kind of feel like I lead people out to have fun. I was like, “I want this to be a really good movie. I want them to give me what I want, but I also want them to have a good time.” It was a balancing act. I think most directors don’t give a shit, and they just want to get what they need. They don’t care if you hate them. I felt like, not only was it important for everyone to have a good time, but to be comfortable, and for them to be happy with what they were doing.
Is it easier, or more difficult to direct your friends? I know Isaiah and Harland are your boys.
Sometimes. You know, Isaiah wasn’t my boy. I didn’t know him.
That’s how you met Isaiah! [Casting him in this film]
That’s how I met Isaiah. I interviewed him, and I thought the fucker was late! I was sitting in this restaurant, and finally I call and go “Where’s this fucking client? He’s really going to be 20-30 minutes late?” and I look over, and he’s sitting at another table. We were both looking at each other like ‘Is this you?” Within five minutes I knew “This man is just a sweetheart.” He’s a sweetheart. He’s a gentle soul, and I knew, right there, that he had to play T. Everyone was pushing me to play these other actors, but there was something about Isaiah that, I thought, was midwestern… genuine. That’s what I think about when I think of the character. Harland is one of my best friends, so that was a no-brainer. He was like “Well buddy, I’m a little older than you.” So I told him “Just dye your hair. You’ll look great! You’re a character that flunked out of class a few times. It’ll be fine.” I knew Jay Ferguson, who’s on Madmen, and Jay has more energy than anyone. He has worse ADD than me. [laughs] Keeping him entertained was a balancing act. Ultimately it comes down to performance, and he gave a great performance. They all did, but it was challenging. It’s challenging when you’re directing your friends, but Harland said “Hey buddy, anything you need man!”
You actually said that in his pacing. [laughs]
“Hey buddy, anything I can do for you man. It’s your movie”. [laughs] There were times when I’d give a certain direction, and you could tell that they weren’t sure that they wanted to do it, but they listened to me. I wanted a variety of things. I didn’t want the same reaction every take. One actor was going a little psychotic with his character, and I told him “You’ve gotta bring it down. I don’t believe it. If you want to look like an asshole on camera… ” and he brought it down. I think they started to see that I knew what I was talking about. A week later I showed them a scene, and they were like “Oh wow. This looks like a real movie.” and it helped to build trust. You can’t build trust overnight. You have to work at it. I think, by the end, people started realizing, and especially once they saw the film… Now I’m not a first time director. Now, not having to say “He’s a first time director.” Now they can say “He’s directed a feature”… so, hopefully next time it’ll be easier to cast this son of a bitch…
Are you working on something?
Oh yeah. I’m narrowing it down between three. Right now there’s one script that might direct, that I didn’t write, but there are three that I am thinking about. I mean, I’ve written, and I’m revising. I have to decide between another buddy, romantic, balls out comedy or one that’s more of a romantic comedy… I don’t know. I fell in love with this.
You’ve played such a wide variety of characters. You’ve done the superhero villain, you’ve done the comedies… is there any type of role that you haven’t gotten to play yet that you’d like to?
Hmm. You know, I’m very lucky, and I’ve played a lot of different roles, many of which probably no one has ever seen. I know that SMALLVILLE – Lex Luthor – was the most iconic, and most of the time people think of me as this serious, intense actor… I’m so not if you know who I am… if you meet me. Actually, it’s a compliment. You know, Wes Craven told me in a movie that know one saw, called CURSED that he directed – I love Wes – and he told me “You’re going to play this killer one day… this psycho, and it’s going to be just brilliant.” and I don’t even know how to take that.
Thank you? [laughs]
It was just a really great compliment. He said “You have this way about you that is likable, so when you turn [snaps]….” I don’t know. It always sat with me. I hope he’s the one who directs that. Look, I don’t think anyone has seen what I can do. I’m 41 years old, and I really believe that. I mean, I like to believe that I can do anything, and I really hope that people can see that. I mean, I’ve done drag in SWEET NOVEMBER, where I played Charlize Theron’s neighbor, I was the homosexual in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, I was Lex Luthor – the mastermind, and I was in SORORITY BOYS… So, I like to be funny. I like to be serious. I like to mix it up. You just hope that you get the chance. It’s really hard. I don’t care what you are doing. At my level, with a million people above me, I have to fight for everything. I have to audition, and I’m fighting against everyone constantly. It’s never easy… to get a movie made, to get the role that you want. You just have to keep fighting. Some people just decide “Fuck this. I’m going to go have a family. I’m tired of fighting.” I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of fighting.