As they zipped through Europe promoting 'American Pie: Reunion', I sat down with them in London to discuss the film -- and their thoughts on sequels, criticism, and the genius of Eugene Levy.
I’m guessing you’ve had a lot of interviews today. How is that, is it hard; you must have to answer the same things again and again?
HAYDEN: You do but it’s, y’know; when you work on a movie for a long period of time, and it’s only a short period of time it comes out – it’s easy to talk about something you’ve been working on.
The thing about the ‘American Pie’ franchise, is that people seem to have such a strong affection for the characters, more so than many other films. What is it about these characters that has resonated with people do you think?
JON: We can speak for ourselves with it. When we saw the movie, it felt like it was us and our friends on the big screen. It was cool because each character was almost like a different archetype from high school. It wasn’t like there were five guys who were all the same. Jim is the extra sexually frustrated kind of guy who is unlucky in a lot of situations --- Finch was the oddball intellectual kid who was sort of wise beyond his years in certain ways but sort of immature in other ways.
Stifler was the king of the high school, a complete asshole, but also a lot of fun to be around. And there was Oz who was a jock as well, but had a little bit of a softer side. And Kevin was that friend who, y’know, was like the glue of a group of friends. When we saw the movie you just felt like you were watching people you knew, and I think a lot of people felt that way. It wasn’t just the core group of guys, it was the whole high school experience. It didn’t matter what country you were in, you felt like you knew people like those characters. They’re all good people too, it’s like there’s a lot to love about them.
HAYDEN: Even Stifler, who’s an asshole. You kind of like it, you like how he’s an asshole, you know? I think there’s something about the characters that gives a connection to the audience that you don’t have in some other movies.
This is a writing question – when you’ve got these incredible characters like Stifler, and Jim’s Dad, it must be so tempting to just want to write the hell out of it, write twenty pages of Jim’s Dad – do you know what I mean?
How do you balance that?
HAYDEN: We start off by having a list of all the characters, we liked all the characters. And we know the movie works not just because of Jim’s Dad and Stifler. The Thomas Ian Nicholas – Tara Reid storyline, and the Oz and Heather storyline… the romance in the movie had a big part in making some of the raunchier scenes not seen as raunchy. When you left the theater you felt like that was a good movie, beyond just being a funny movie. It’s fun to work on the Jim’s Dad scenes, and Stifler is an amazing character to write for. But for us, we get excited about exploring things like first loves – cause here you have characters you’ve seen in a movie 13 years ago say ‘I love you’ for the first time, and now they’re in their 30’s.
So there can be some authenticity to them bumping into each other for the first time in a while, and the awkward feelings coming back up, it’s really relatable. So Jon and I get into that aspect of it.
JON: When we first signed on to do the movie, well when we first pitched to do the movie; we wanted it to be an ensemble again. What we loved about the original ‘American Pie’ was the ensemble nature of it. For this movie, especially if you’re dealing with the reunion concept, you want to see everyone back, and it’s not just about seeing the core group of guys and girls, but we wanted the MILF guys back and we wanted the Sherminator back. We wanted it so that everyone had something to do in the movie, or moment to shine. So when you’re going in with that agenda to start with you put the focus on every character equally.
And obviously, when you’re building up the comedy, and going in certain places, you rely more heavily on certain characters – but every character was important to us.
I got the feeling with some of the previous sequels--- like, with the Heather and Oz phone sex storyline in the second movie, I watched it again recently and it felt like they wanted to bring them back and have a story for them, and it didn’t really work. But in this film, I really got the sense that characters who you didn’t have much of a storyline for, like Natasha Lyonne’s character, or Nadia, you gave them their moment, a quick cameo -- here they are, but didn’t force more, do you know what I mean?
HAYDEN: It’s a challenge to give everybody --- there’s only so much pie to go around as we say. On the one hand, we love all the characters. On the other hand, there are a LOT of characters. In this movie they’re coming in with wives and girlfriends, and so it almost doubles the amount of characters that you have. So it makes it challenging at times to give everybody something, but we try ---- and I think with Shannon Elizabeth and Natasha Lyonne, we would love to see them in the movie a lot, but it’s a question of how long can the movie be?
And also when you’re at a reunion, part of the fun is people popping up. We felt like that was the right way to do it. And I’m sure there’s gonna be people who want to see them in it more, but ---
JON: The other thing I would say is: at it’s core, even though the first American Pie was great because it had the core group of guys and the core girls--- and there were scenes where just the girls were talking ----- the original American Pie was about a group of guys who make a pact to lose their virginity. They were the protagonists of the film. So in this movie we really follow the protagonists storylines. Stifler’s now part of the group because we’ve explored him as a fifth member of that group.
So really, the other characters were all in the film in a way that serviced the core group of guys and their storylines. So Heather plays a big role in Oz’s storyline, so she’s in the movie more. Jim’s Dad is always a big part of Jim’s storyline, so he’s in the movie more. And he can also tie in with Stifler and what he’s going through. Jessica is really not relevant to the storylines of our characters in a major way, so we found a way to tie her in, in a way that makes sense while giving her some comedy to play with.
Eugene Levy in this movie is just brilliant. I thought you made some really surprising choices in the writing, and it gave him a lot more depth. There were some really heartbreaking moments with him that I don’t know if I would have expected in an American Pie movie.
It made it so much richer, and I loved that.
JON: That was a thing that was important to us. When we first came up with ideas for the movie, we were thinking, okay, we have Eugene Levy who is such an immense talent. What can we do beyond just having him give Jim advice again and again?
When you’re in your thirties, you no longer just view your parents as Mom and Dad. They become actual human beings who have real issues, and sometimes you’re giving them advice. So we wanted to create a moment for role reversal with Jim and his father.
Furthermore, we wanted to free him up to have more fun in the movie. We were like, wouldn’t it be great to get Jim’s Dad and Stifler’s Mom together. So we were like, okay, either the Mom died, or there’s divorce. We felt like the kind of relationship that Jim's father and mother had, felt like a loving and nice healthy kind of relationship—so we had to kill her!
Like if it was divorce, it wouldn’t ring true. But killing her – to put it so harshly, making it where Jim’s mother passed away; we liked the idea of adding a certain maturity to the film, even though it goes as immature as they always do. The issues that you’re dealing with in your thirties are more mature – and for a guy like Eugene in his 60’s, we were really excited about that choice. We felt like we could utilize Eugene Levy in a better way than he’s ever been used before.
HAYDEN: Yeah. It’s interesting though. In the first movie it just kind of happens at the end., y’know?
HAYDEN: And the Michelle character is really a sort of one note thing throughout the whole movie and then there’s the twist that she’s really filthy at the end. And it’s a great pay off. I think when you look at the sequels and you look at the Michelle character, it was challenging I think, to take this character who you just knew as “this one time, at band camp..”, and actually give her more dimensions. I think that was the kind of thing we tried to do with ‘American Reunion’, was just really try and make her feel a little more like a real character. She’s still Michelle, she still has her band camp moments and everything. But she’s with Jim in this boring marriage and she really needs to spice things up, and she’s really lost her mojo as a Mom. And Alyson is a mother in real life – she was really able to get into that.
How do you feel in general with--- I mean, American Pie you’ve made the 4th movie, there’s been three Harold and Kumar movies. You always get this thing when you hear there’s another, like, ‘Oh God, another one..’. How do you as filmmakers who are part of that—do you feel a certain pressure? Does it not matter to you?
HAYDEN: There’s two sides to it, y’know? For every franchise there’s people who don’t get it. I don’t get --- um, okay, I’m just trying to think of a random franchise that goes on—
JON: You’ve never seen a ‘Twilight’ movie before.
HAYDEN: Yeah! I don’t watch Twilight movies, but I get that there’s people that love them. I’m sure if they made another book there’d be fans that really like it. With ‘Harold and Kumar’ we created a fanbase. We created something that was a sleeper—kind of underground cult movie, and we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could give that cult, like a drug—it becomes like you’re a drug dealer, and you get to get everyone intoxicated with something that they like. And when you go out with it there’s going to be people that say ‘oh, another one of these’. So okay, it’s not for them, it’s for our fanbase.
JON: We don’t make our movies for the people that don’t enjoy them.
JON: We make our movies for the people who are excited about them. When we tested ‘American Pie: Reunion’ for the first time, the audience didn’t know what they were about to see. They were just told that they were going to go and see an R-rated comedy, like if you like ‘Bridesmaids’, if you like ‘The Hangover’, if you like ‘Harold and Kumar’, then come see this R-rated comedy.
When they announced at the beginning of that screening that you’re about to see the next installment of the American Pie franchise, the crowd went apeshit. It was like a rock concert, people were going crazy for that. We had the same experience when we tested ‘Harold and Kumar 3’ and they didn’t know what was going to happen. These were again people that just knew they were going to see an R-rated comedy. Comedy fans, fans of these kinds of movies get excited about them. They have a love for the characters, and it’s a fun and unique experience for a fanbase and for a filmmaker.
HAYDEN: Sequels and franchises, they get a bad rap. But it’s like, at the same time, it’s funny, cause I was just thinking about it and like – one of the first stories in Western literature, or in the Western world, was Homer’s The Iliad, and then there’s The Odyssey. And there’s the Old Testament and the New Testament. I think there’s always this urge to see iconic characters continue on, you know?
HAYDEN: When Jon and I got into movies as children, everything was a sequel and a franchise.
JON: We loved ‘Star Wars’, we loved ‘Back To The Future’, we loved ‘The Karate Kid’.
HAYDEN: So it’s not like ‘oh my god, Hollywood today and these reboots’. It’s like, they’ve been doing it for a long time! I mean, Shakespeare, a lot of his plays are like Greek mythology that’s rebooted in his amazing way! I feel like it’s a little bit of a clichéd, almost innacurate thing to say, “oh, Hollywood today, making a sequel, trying to milk money..” - of course, it’s a money-making business over there. But I think the way we go about it, when we’re writing a sequel, we’re not thinking about how much money we’re going to be making, we’re thinking how are we going to make a good movie out of this? It’s got to top it, it’s got to have a familiar sense that the fanbase is going to love but also be different enough so it’s not a rehash. These are the things we think about when we---
JON: That’s not to say that we don’t want to do original movies. We did create the ‘Harold and Kumar’ franchise, and we have a lot of original ideas that we’d like to do. But y’know, we do enjoy this.
HAYDEN: It’s fun when you have a fanbase the opening night of a movie, and you feel the excitement of people, you know? It’s an equally fun thing though when people discover something.
So what do you guys do when you’re not writing and directing movies? What are your lives, what do you do -- ?
JON: I’m a Dad. I’m a husband and a father, I have an almost two year old daughter. Usually Hayden and I are hanging out working on stuff. Otherwise it’s, uh, y’know, I’m taking my daughter for a walk or tucking her into bed and things like that. I’m on the internet a lot!
HAYDEN: I’m just Googling ‘Harold and Kumar’ and ‘American Pie Reunion’ and seeing what people are saying on message boards.
Do you read all that stuff? Do you read the reviews?
HAYDEN: Of course, I have to.
Does it bother you when it’s negative and hateful, or -- ?
HAYDEN: Yeah. It doesn’t feel good when it’s negative and hateful.
JON: You know what it is? I’ve found the reviews on ‘American Pie Reunion’ in the States to be fascinating. A lot of the critics that we love and respect, they totally got the movie, they totally got what we were trying to do. And we’ve sat amongst audiences --- we’ve been in twenty audiences for this movie, and every audience laughs from beginning to end. Every audience applauds at the end of the movie in our experience. People are having a great time, people leave the theater smiling, loving the film.
And then you start seeing a bunch of negative reviews that show up. People that say that the movie’s not funny, and you’re like – well, all those rooms full of people found it funny. It’s weird. It’s an interesting and fascinating disconnect where you start to realize –
HAYDEN: It goes to your point though, y’know, about franchises and sequels, because I think there are some people that are like ‘oh, another one of those’, and then they go to see the movie and they’re not gonna give it a good review, it wasn’t meant for them. That’s how I view it.
And people feel powerful writing a negative review I think. You feel really strong if you can write something negative—
HAYDEN: Especially when it’s personal about the actors.
JON: That’s the thing we really hate the most. I don’t really care when people diss us.
HAYDEN: It’s actually kind of funny, cause we like any sort of personal attention, cause we’re the behind the scenes guys [laughs]. But when they start criticisng some of the actors, or saying that they look like they don’t want to be there, it’s like, okay, you’re wrong. We all had a great time.
JON: It’s funny. A lot of reviews bring the reviewers own perspective before they walk into a movie. The best reviewers judge a movie for what it is. That doesn’t mean everyone has to love all of our movies. I mean, sometimes I read a review where they didn’t like the movie, and I’m like ‘Oh, I get why..’.
HAYDEN: I don’t think that ‘American Reunion’ is trying to be this great piece of film. It’s trying to be this great piece of entertainment, for an audience that connected with the first ‘American Pie’, or that would be interested in this type of movie about a high school reunion.
'American Pie: Reunion' is released in the UK on May 2nd 2012.