Hot Rod In Theaters
"Hot Rod" Kimble ("SNL's" Andy Samberg), a self-proclaimed stuntman, is convinced he has bravery in his blood. He’s grown up believing he’s the son of Evel Knievel’s test-rider, a courageous stuntman who died in his prime. Rod is committed to fulfilling his father’s legacy. Only problem is…he sucks! "Hot Rod" lives at home with his loving mom Marie (Sissy Spacek), jerk of a stepfather Frank (Ian McShane) and nerdy stepbrother Kevin (Jorma Taccone). He doesn’t have a job, and can usually be found doing stunts on his moped, attempting to jump over everything from milk trucks to public swimming pools. Rod and his team – Dave (Bill Hader), the mechanic; Rico (Danny McBride), the ramp builder and Kevin, the team manager/videographer – are inseparable. It’s almost like they share a brain. When Rod’s neighbor Denise (Isla Fisher) joins the team, the group’s IQ virtually doubles.
"Hot Rod" remains optimistic in spite of the abuse he suffers from his stepfather. Frank has a penchant for beating the tar out of "Hot Rod," who just keeps coming back for more in the hopes of earning Frank’s respect by besting him in one of their regular knock-down brawls. When Frank gets sick and needs a $50,000 operation, Rod attempts to raise the money by undertaking his biggest stunt ever – jumping 15 buses, one more than Evel Knievel himself ever dared. After all, he’s got to get Frank all better so he can kick his ass!
STARRING: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Mark Acheson, Bill Hader, Danny R. McBride, Sissy Spacek
DIRECTOR: Akiva Schaffer
STUDIO: Paramount Pictures
RATING: PG-13 (Crude humor and Jackass type violence)
Wild About Movies Grade: D
Behind The Scenes
“The whole reason for making this kind of movie is to have some fun,” says producer Lorne Michaels, who likens “Hot Rod” to a good Road Runner cartoon. “It’s a sort of uniquely American kind of comedy, because most other cultures would try to sneak something worthwhile into the mix.
“I’m a big fan of physical comedy,” he adds. “As a writer you spend forever getting the exact word, the perfect humorous dialogue, and then somebody runs into a wall and you’re laughing twice as hard.”
The reason physical comedy is so universal, according to “Hot Rod” director Akiva Schaffer, is that “everybody carries an awkward 12-year-old around inside of them. When it peeks out every now and then, we’re ashamed and embarrassed. This movie celebrates that lameness…that awkwardness. The characters are locked into it. In fact, Rod doesn’t even know enough to be ashamed,” he quips.
When Michaels and his producing partner John Goldwyn first read Pam Brady’s script for “Hot Rod” they immediately scooped it up and offered the “Saturday Night Live’s” Andy Samberg his first starring role. “It was in 2005, just before the ‘SNL’ video ‘Lazy Sunday’ exploded on the Internet. So, Lorne and I went to Paramount and said, ‘How about Andy Samberg for ‘Hot Rod?’ They were all for it. They already knew all about Andy and Akiva Schaffer (one of Samberg’s partners in The Lonely Island comedy trio along with Jorma Taccone) and the phenomenon of how their video, a rap pastiche, became a viral phenomenon. Everyone was intrigued about how something that came from ‘SNL’ then took off on the Internet. Hollywood suddenly had to have Andy Samberg.
“Andy came back and said, ‘I really want to make it but if I’m going to do it, I want Akiva to direct and Jorma to be in it with me,’” Goldwyn continues. He said, ‘If I’m gonna put myself out there, I want put to myself out there with these guys.”
Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone have been friends since junior high school in Berkeley, California. After graduating high school, they attended different universities – Samberg went to NYU, Schaffer to UCSC to study filmmaking and Taccone to UCLA. Degrees in hand, the trio reconvened in Berkeley, screened each others’ student films and found that they were still very much in sync. So they decided to throw in their lot together, move to L.A. and pursue their dream of creating their own particular style of comedy. Their moniker derived from the apartment they shared, which they called “The Lonely Island.”
“Jorma once brought home a DVD of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’” Samberg recalls. “Akiva and I thought that was the funniest thing. Jorma’s much more a theater type than we are.” Schaffer was so amused by the film’s plot that he wrote a faux Tennessee Williams play called “The Lonely Island.” When the three young men sat on their balcony they developed a theatrical catchphrase: “Just sitting here at the Lonely Island, watching the sea of traffic roll by.”
“We said it in that Paul Newman, ‘Cat-on-a-Hot-Tin–Roof’-way,” Samberg points out. “Later, when we had to choose what we were going to call our Website, we were like, hey…The Lonely Island.”
Soon thereafter, one of the gigs the trio landed was as part of the writing team for MTV’s music awards show. It was here that they met and worked with Jimmy Fallon and senior “SNL” producers Mike Shoemaker and Steve Higgins. The trio wrote the “Batman” and “Star Wars” spoofs that Fallon performed in the show.
“I got a call from Jimmy,” producer Lorne Michaels recalls. “He said that these three guys he was working with were really funny and that I should look at them for ‘SNL’… so I did.”
Samberg and Taccone went to New York to audition. (Schaffer, who doesn’t consider himself an actor, chose to have a meeting with Michaels instead). “I actually auditioned twice,” Samberg says. “Most people who get hired at ‘SNL’ are from improv backgrounds, so they have characters and impressions ready to go. I didn’t, but Akiva and Jorma helped me out. We wrote my audition in a couple of days. I went in thinking, if they don’t laugh they don’t laugh. So I just went in and goofed around. Supposedly I seemed very relaxed in the audition and that worked to my advantage, though it was a surprise to me, since I threw up before the audition,” Samberg admits.
Samberg joined the cast, while Schaffer and Taccone became members of the “SNL” writing team. “Andy is obviously funny, but he’s also charming and has warmth,” Michaels notes. “And when a new voice happens in comedy, everybody seems to know it all at once and there they were.”
“What we like about Will Ferrell is exactly what I think made Lorne and Paramount feel we could do this movie,” says Schaffer. “And that is that Will comes from a very positive place, it’s fun and fun-loving. It doesn’t come from bitterness or mean spiritedness. The three of us come from a similar place, and I think that’s why it felt like a good fit. Rod’s character is relentlessly positive and optimistic,” he adds.
“John and I felt very strongly that Akiva had the sort of guiding intelligence to be able to direct this movie,” affirms Michaels.
Adds Goldwyn: “We felt that the guys have a very specific voice and a very specific style, so if we were going to bet on this generation’s star, we wanted to have that star’s director. Akiva had already done several shorts for ‘SNL’ and before that he had done music videos. So we thought it was a very good idea, and were glad he responded so positively to the ‘Hot Rod’ script.”
In tailoring the script to Samberg’s talents, Schaffer and Taccone were respectful of Brady’s original story. “All we did,” says Schaffer , “is take a really good script and just kind of Samberg-ize it.”
Brady says it was her good fortune that her script wound up with the Lonely Island troupe. “I went to New York to meet Andy and we wound up having hamburgers together — the most important hamburger lunch I’ve ever had. It was the greatest first meeting ever. I was already a huge fan of his and the Lonely Island guys. Their stuff is great. Andy has great balance — emotional and physical balance.
“It’s a wonderful miracle that these guys got onboard and that Lorne got behind them, because that tends to get things done. I actually have a brass plaque at the entrance of my house that says ‘With Lorne Michaels behind you there is nothing you can’t do,’” Brady laughs.
The Lonely Island trio decided to cast fellow “SNL” cast member Bill Hader as Dave, one of Rod’s stunt team. “I heard him doing this crazy voice one day and knew immediately that it would be awesome for the character,” says Schaffer. “From that moment we saw Bill in the part.”
Another “SNL”-er, Chris Parnell, who co-starred with Samberg in the “Lazy Sunday” video, was also cast in the film. “I play Barry Pasternack, the owner and the lead DJ of this AM radio station, KNER,” says Parnell. “He’s bet all of the station’s last bit of money on this event, the climactic scene in which Rod performs his big jump to try and raise the money for his stepdad’s medical procedure. He’s a real believer in AM radio.”
In this respect, says Goldwyn, “Hot Rod” is a first — possibly the first all-“SNL” picture. “This was the first time that exclusively ‘SNL’ talent was hired to make a movie, with a regular cast member as the star, a guy who is exclusively an ‘SNL’ director and a writer from the show. So, we had to figure out a way to get the movie made within the show’s hiatus. The guys had to go back to the show in September. Fortunately, they were working on the kind of deadline they had become used to in the TV world. We were all very focused. As soon as Paramount gave us the OK, we were in Vancouver shooting. And we made sure Akiva had experienced people around him who would, on the one hand, make the film look as good as possible and on the other, support his vision and get the best out of him and Andy and Jorma. We’re really happy with the results.”
Academy Award® winner Sissy Spacek and Ian McShane were the trio’s first choice to play Rod’s mother and stepfather, Marie and Frank Powell. “We wanted someone to play Frank who wasn’t traditionally known as a comedian, someone with acting chops who could be genuinely scary and intimidating in the role,” Schaffer explains. “We’re huge fans of ‘Deadwood,’ particularly Ian’s character Al Swearengen. So we sent the script to him, he read it and immediately said yes. He totally got it, and it was a pleasure to work with him.”
“Sissy is an amazing actress and to get her to be in a movie that’s so silly, we just had to hope she was in the mood for something different,” says Samberg. “We got very lucky. She was a joy and she was hilarious.”
“Sissy and Ian played husband and wife in ‘Nine Lives’ but they weren’t in the same scenes, so they never actually met until this movie,” Michaels notes. “They’re just incredible together. We didn’t want the movie to be all of one color, and I think that Ian and Sissy bring a real power to the movie, in the same way that Brian Dennehy did in a movie like ‘Tommy Boy.’”
Similarly, Isla Fisher was the first name that came up for the role of Denise. “We had all liked her in ‘Wedding Crashers,’” says Samberg. “She really brightened things up on set, and it was nice to have a female presence on the team.”
After executive producer Jill Messick saw Danny McBride’s film “The Foot Fist Way” at Sundance, she brought a copy of it for Andy, Akiva and Jorma to screen. “We just loved the hell out of it,” Samberg enthuses. “So we invited Danny to a table-read and he was fantastic. We really hit it off, and even though the character was originally written for a much older actor, we refashioned it for Danny. He’s the kind of dude who makes you smile and giggle…he’s just fun to watch.”
OUT-EVEL-ING KNIEVEL – AND MAKING IT LOOK REAL
The mechanics of making a film that progresses on from one stunt to another, raising the stakes and picking up speed all the way to the climactic “big jump,” required a top-notch stunt coordinator – and the filmmakers knew that Nick Powell, award-winning stunt coordinator for “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai” and “The Bourne Identity” was the right man for the job.
Only in this case, Powell had a unique challenge. Since Rod’s stunts are largely failures, he was entrusted with making all the screw-ups look realistic. “Sometimes it’s harder to make a stunt look bad than it is to make it work successfully,” says Powell. “We had several Rod doubles for the approximately 20 stunts in the film,” he continues. “There was one double for the hand-to-hand fighting, another for the motocross sequences and another for the big jump sequence. We would have one double working on set, while another was rehearsing an upcoming scene because the stunts just kept on coming.”
In addition, Samberg, despite his inexperience, did a fair bit of his own stunt work. “Andy had never been on a motorcycle; in fact he’d never even ridden a moped,” Powell explains. “We started him out with the basics and got him to where he was comfortable riding the motocross bike.”
For the big jump, Powell and his team spent seven days rigging and testing the wires. Since Rod has to separate from the bike in mid-air, after which both rider and bike continue to travel, there was the possible danger of the bike colliding with the rider. To help avoid any such mishap, he brought in James Churchman, who, with his team, designed and hand built what he has dubbed the “Superfly System.” “The system has four axes of motion, all controlled by a mainframe computer,” Churchman explains. “We use a laptop to tell the mainframe what to do and it’s accurate to within literally thousandths of an inch every time. Our cable stretch is more variable than the actual programmed move itself.”
“Hot Rod” was the third outing for the “Superfly,” which was previously used on “Underworld Evolution” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.” “This rig allows us to control the relationship between the motorcycle and the rider, so they’re not locked together,” Churchman explains. “A two-axis rig would just be traveling up and down, but with our system the motorcycle is on its own elevation and so is the rider. When the two hit the peak and separate, we can take the rider higher using the third axis, and keep the bike moving forward below him.”
The wire set-up for the big jump spanned 300 ft. and consisted of a 150 ft. down-ramp, a 130 ft. jump over 15 buses and a rough-and-tumble landing onto another ramp. “We had approximately seven days of rigging and testing on the wires,” Powell recalls. “Then on the day we shot, we had eight cameras running to make sure we got the shot in as few takes as possible.”
“The biggest challenge for the stuntmen was to look more amateur than they actually were…barely scraping by on stuff, all uncoordinated and out of control,” notes Samberg. “They have to flail around like I do, when I’m doing the close-ups.”
A good deal of the hand-to-hand fighting between Rod and his stepfather Frank (Ian McShane), however, was done by the actors themselves. “Ian is, hands down, in much better shape than I am,” Samberg says. “That became apparent very quickly when we were rehearsing the fight scenes. We’d go through a few moves and I’d be like, okay, I’m done, but Ian was just getting started. He was also very specific about how he wanted to dress, you know like weird jumpsuits…very similar to what we were imagining.”
“Frank’s more than a little crazy,” McShane says of his character. “The whole family is a bit mad. It’s a very heightened reality. When Rod asks his mother why he was never told that Frank had a heart condition, she replies that the rest of the family didn’t think he could handle it. Befuddled, Rod asks why they let him fight Frank, to which she replies, “Frank didn’t exert himself too much and the doctor thought it would be okay if he beat the crap out of you every week!”
ON LOCATION WITH SOME OF THE LOCALS
To visually accentuate Rod’s off-kilter world and that of his family and friends, production designer Stephen Altman worked with Schaffer to craft a singular environment. “It’s a kind of enhanced mediocrity, an interesting blandness…a stylized nothingness,” Altman offers. “It does have a bit of a ’70s-’80s feel to it, a kind of stuck in the past-ness that shows up in the décor.”
The site for the big jump and most of the other small-town exteriors were shot in the suburb of Cloverdale, 25 miles southeast of Vancouver. Surprisingly, Cloverdale’s main street needed little enhancement. On the street the production used for a big crowd scene, only three stores needed to have their signage changed. Others, like the H&H Barber Shop and Ken’s Café, were perfect as they were.
Costume designer Patricia Monaghan had a lot of fun dressing the eccentric characters in Rod’s world. “Kevin, Rod’s younger brother, although 20-ish, dresses and acts like he’s about 12. He has a serious case of arrested development,” Monaghan laughs. “I raided my personal stash of kids’ t-shirts from the ‘70s and ’80s. Everything he wears is too small, too tight, too faded… it’s just perfect on him. We got the tightest pants we could and stuffed him into them. To top it off, we gave him a rabbit’s foot, a little pouch and bad shoes.”
“Rod occasionally picks on Kevin as older brothers often do. That’s why Kevin has so many inner demons that come out in different ways over the course of the film,” Taccone offers. “He was pretty much forced into being the team manager/videographer, so he has to carry all the heavy things like the video camera. He also has to make sure there’s enough juice at the jumps. And he has to make sure everyone is wearing pants,” he deadpans.
The chemistry and the unique vision that the Lonely Island crew brings to “Hot Rod” is something of an “SNL” tradition, Goldwyn notes. Their Internet phenomenon, “Lazy Sunday,” he says, is part of a repertoire of material that sprang from the program and had an effect on the culture at large. “‘Lazy Sunday’ exploded on the scene. It was totally fresh — you hadn’t seen that before. That’s the good thing about that show — every so often something comes out that just rocks the world. It’s part of the ‘SNL’ tradition. It happened with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. It happened with Eddie Murphy and then Mike Myers. Andy and his partners are in the long tradition of guys coming in and doing something that just galvanizes the mass audience.
“Hot Rod” wasn’t originally a Lonely Island guys script or even a Lonely Island movie,” he continues. “It is a movie produced by Lorne Michaels from a script he developed. That being said, however, these guys have brought their tone to it and their own unmistakable stamp. Their version is sweeter than originally envisioned. It also has more emotion and the music is more of their generation.
“The most thrilling thing for me about ‘Hot Rod’ is to have been included by Lorne. As the director, Akiva has brought a kind of world view that is very fresh. There is nothing about this movie that feels recycled. When you’re watching it, you feel like you’re watching something you haven’t seen before. There is just the sense that something has been created that you can let the audience discover. That same thing was true of films like ‘Wayne’s World’ and ‘Mean Girls’ and I believe that is true of this movie. I give credit to Lorne for that. It‘s not a movie that has been created by Hollywood. It absolutely speaks to its generation, because these guys are true originals.”
Schaffer hopes that “Hot Rod” may one day be included in the library of comedy classics that have inspired him alongside “Ace Ventura,” “Caddyshack,” “Airplane!” and all the Monty Python movies.
“Five or six years after it came out, Siskel and Ebert apologized for panning ‘Ace Ventura.’ They admitted they were wrong — that at the time they just didn’t get it,” Schaffer recalls. “I’m hoping that our movie is funny to the degree that it maintains its relevance way past the release date and for years to come.