‘Nerdland’ Filmmakers Chris Prynoski and Andrew Kevin Walker talk Fame and Sweaty-Palmed Desperation
From their collected experiences around Hollywood, both screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker and animation director Chris Prynoski are familiar with the trappings of fame, as well as the desperation of those without it to attain it. Wearing a pair of outfits that Walker noted, “could combine for a really great Hunter S. Thompson costume,” the Nerdland creative team was at ease discussing the first feature film to emerge from animation house Titmouse, Inc. where Prynoski also helms Metalocalypse. Nerdland (read our review) takes a satirical look at a pair of ne’er do well Los Angeles roommates—aspiring actor John (Paul Rudd) and wanna’ be screenwriter Elliot (Patton Oswalt)—hung up on fantasies of making it big in the movies.
In their sit-down interview with Way Too Indie, Andrew Kevin Walker and Chris Prynoski discuss Nerdland‘s nihilistic vision of modern society, their shared appreciation for improv in moderation, and how the dream of writing the Great American novel has shifted.
What was the launching point for this story?
Andrew Kevin Walker: It was an original script I wrote and I tried in different ways to get it made. It was written to be live action – that was kind of the way I imagined it. It’s kind of loosely based on mine, and my best friend John’s life, trying to break into showbiz.
I tried to get it made as an animated TV show; I took the script and broke it down into smaller episodes then left it open-ended. Then when that didn’t happen because no one was interested, I broke it down into little five minute, bite-sized pieces that probably would have added up to one feature but they were made to be little internet shorts and that didn’t work out.
So I just regrouped again. I went back to the feature and I tightened it up. I had been watching and loving Metalocalypse and all the stuff that Titmouse, Inc. does. I’m wondering, “who are these geniuses? These mysterious weirdos who do all this amazing animation.” I managed through agents to get a meeting where I went with my script, they took a look at it, and it was a beautiful thing from there on.
Chris Prynoski: A lot of times you get these scripts and there’s a lot of work that has to be done, but this was very clear. I’ve been those people, I know those people, our studio exists in that neighborhood. It was very clear, I could see how this would worked and I was super stoked.
So the script you brought in to Titmouse was the feature version?
AKW: It was the feature version and that’s what we ended up doing. Fully independent, self-financed, sweat equity feature.
That’s despite Titmouse having not done a feature to that point?
CP: Yeah, we work on features. We do pre-production on features but our own movie that we have control over. We’ve done some direct-to-TV features but this was our first real feature that we had control over. I’m stoked, I’m really proud of it.
There’s a real nihilistic presentation to the world of these characters – is that your general perspective on society?
AKW: I think it’s exclusively about the entertainment industry and the kind of sweaty-palmed desperation you have when you’re outside looking in, trying to get in. I do think it’s interesting that in modern day society, fame can be this big (Andrew spreads his hands apart) like it always was, or fame can be this big (Andrew holds two fingers an inch away from one another). Small fame can become big fame and go back to small fame again then you really want another taste of that.
I don’t think there’s as many people looking to write the great American novel like there used to be, I think everyone’s either trying to write the great American screenplay or shoot the great American YouTube video. Looking in at Hollywood at this point is just kind of looking out at the world, in a way.
There’s a de-evolution in our popular entertainment that you can see through these characters aspirations – is that something concerning for either of you?
CP: I don’t know if it’s concerning as much as it is the way it is. It’s not like we’re trying to be like, “Hey, we’re making this important movie that’s going to change the way things work. If people just like watch this they’re going to have this revelation.” It’s more like, “Hey, this sucks, right?”
AKW: Yeah, isn’t this funny?
CP: This is the way we live. It’s funny, it’s weird. Society is obsessed with fame for fame’s sake.
AWK: Hopefully there’s a certain amount of recognition – especially for our peers. It does go beyond that now since everybody can be famous in their own way, in their smaller or larger social circle.
CP: Yeah you’ve got a phone. You can make your own YouTube video. Everybody’s got their own movie studio.
Andrew, a lot of your previous writing had been comedic but not quite so overtly comedic. You mentioned you had been working on this script for quite a while, was this your desire to do an out-and-out comedy?
AKW: I really do love comedy, I watch a lot of comedy. Humor comes into everything that you’re writing – no matter how serious or self-serious it is. I’ve written darker stuff that’s kind of balanced with comedy and this is almost a comedy that’s balanced with darkness.
Chris, when it comes to the character design, many of the characters have traditionally attractive features that get exaggerated in discomforting ways. What kind of calculation did you make to decide how far out the look of the world would be?
CP: Oh it was definitely a calculation because these days it’s kind of – in a weird way – easier to make stuff look beautiful and shiny and clean. With computers that’s the default. We made a conscious effort to make this very crunchy and rough around the edges. [Make it] feel like hand-drawn drawings. Not use a lot of the bag of tricks we use on other things like there’s no depth of field in this, there’s hardly any lighting on the characters – really just used in special circumstances – there’s not a lot of the, like, fancy stuff we use on other productions.
We really wanted to make this feel almost like films that were shot under an oxberry. You know, the production designer Antonio Canoobio, we really wanted to challenge ourselves by not going slick with it. It sounds kind of counter-intuitive.
That has its own appeal, too. It’s a distinctive look. People talk a lot about “the Adult Swin aesthetic” but it’s got its own distinctive style so it’s not so easy to just lump them all together.
CP: I think it’s more of a sensibility or a tone than an aesthetic with the Adult Swim stuff. I did the first character lineup but beyond that I pretty much handed the whole movie character-wise to Joe Bennett, who did most of the character designs. Obviously I had input on it but you see a lot of his hand there. He’s got a great mind for comedic detail. Little things you’ll notice on the characters that are really, really smart.
CP: Patton was the first actor of any of the actors to get involved. He had done voices for other cartoons and is a fan of Andy’s. He said yes in the room to it, which was great, and kind of had a cascade effect.
As far as stuff that those guys added… it’s interesting. The way I record, is you record the exact page, you do a loose pass and then you do an improv pass. These guys did so much incredible improve but what ended up in the film was really, largely, what the script was. There’s heightened parts where we used the imrpov but it’s all woven in to what’s there on the page.
AKW: Patton and Paul did amazing improv. Paul Scheer really stuck out to me. He was insanely amazing. Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome in a way had such thankless parts and they made a lot of very little. But every actor did improv in great ways.
I think Chris was very judicious in choosing a balance between improv keeping the flow moving forward. I think we’ve all seen improv where you see a piece of a film get caught in an improv bubble for a minute. You’re kind of there on the day with them, appreciating that moment, and it might be a little longer than maybe [necessary] and then things get started again. So I think [Chris] was kind of great in judging stuff and choosing it very thoughtfully.
CP: Yeah it’s so easy to get caught up when you’re in the booth recording with these guys making you laugh. It’s like, “That’s great! That’s genius!” Having done Metalocalypse it happens all the time. There’s so much more than we can use in any episode. You really, really have to work hard on focusing. Not falling in love with something that is not going to work or ultimately not work as well.
AKW: It’s almost like unless you were there on the day it’s not the same. It stops the movie for a second. But that’s what blooper reels and Blu-Ray extras are for.
At some point you have to kill your darlings.
AKW: Absolutely. Or the darling has to be the thing from the script that gets taken out, and the improv goes in its place.
CP: I got to say, too, the combination of Paul and Patton – they had such good chemistry together. You really felt that these guys knew each other very well, they lived together, they were roommates. These guy were recording on opposite coasts. They could hear each other and see each other on a screen but Paul was in New York and Patton was in LA.
They made these characters likable while they were riding a dangerous line where people could have just checked out and been like, “these guys are assholes and I’m not with them anymore.”
AKW: The most embarrassing thing for me… Every actor was bringing so much more to everything that was on the page. I would be the one laughing the hardest at my own stuff I had written. To hear Patton Oswalt’s voice saying these lines after all this time living with it on the page, and then Paul Rudd and on and on from top to bottom… there’s not a lot in here by an actor or actress you don’t know.
For Rudd and Oswalt particularly they’re not even altering their voices much, it’s a lot through their natural congeniality.
AKW: And also I think it’s selling the friendship between them. It lets you keep caring about them no matter what semi-despicable things they discuss doing and attempt to do.
Is there a future for the characters of Nerdland?
AKW: That will be determined out there rather than in this room but they certainly live in my heart.
CP: I’d love to work with Andy again on something, who knows.
AKW: We’re already trying to figure out what to be able to do next together. It was just the best experience ever.