Ethan Checks Out the Set for Ruben Fleischer's '30 Minutes or Less'
by Ethan Anderton
May 10, 2011
Normally being in the middle of a junkyard watching two gorilla masked thugs verbally abuse and threaten a pizza delivery guy with an explosive vest strapped to his chest would be cause for concern. But in this case, the two thugs are Nick Swardson (Blades of Glory) and Danny McBride (Pineapple Express) and the unlucky guy with the bomb strapped to him is Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland), and I'm on the set of Ruben Fleischer's new action comedy 30 Minutes or Less, the follow-up to his 2009 hit film Zombieland. While there's no walking dead, there were plenty of laughs, f-bombs and much more we got to see on set. Read on!
For those who haven't yet seen the hilarious red band trailer, in 30 Minutes or Less, Nick (Eisenberg) is a small town pizza delivery guy whose mundane life collides with the big plans of two wanna-be criminal masterminds (McBride and Swardson). The volatile duo kidnaps Nick and forces him to rob a bank. With mere hours to pull off the impossible task, Nick enlists the help of his ex-best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari). As the clock ticks, the two must deal with the police, hired assassins, flamethrowers, and their own tumultuous relationship. Oh, and let's not forget that there's an explosive vest attached to him that the criminals threaten to set off if he doesn't follow through.
So when you have a hit film like Zombieland, and you have offers to direct films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, what makes a director like Ruben Fleischer choose another action comedy like this? The director chatted with myself and other online press on the set in Michigan which was right in the middle of a huge junkyard. Paintball splatters, half-mannequins, piles of hubcabs, metal, tires and more litter the area. But we're talking to Fleischer, who tells us why he took an interest:
"I was super aware of choosing something I thought– I felt like I wanted to show my taste as a filmmaker in a way and since I'm not a writer and in full control of coming up with those stories I want to tell, it's really selecting material. And so I wanted something that was tonally in the vibe of what I really love, and the movies that this reminds me of are 'Dog Day Afternoon' and 'Out of Sight', 'Raising Arizona,' 'The Big Lebowski.' A little bit of 'Reservoir Dogs' – those types of really original films. This script is definitely original, and that was important to me. But also in terms of scale of the movie, I had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of big movies, and I was a little nervous about doing something that I would call “biting off more than you can chew" and taking a big movie just because you can, but maybe not being ready for it, not being able to deliver and screwing up my career by laying an egg or something like that. I really wanted to do something that was on a scale I felt comfortable with, but at the same time was an original story that I could craft, that was funny, had a great cast, and was a story I haven't seen told before."
You have to hand it to the guy for being smart enough to not take on a big franchise film just because you have the success of one film to get the job. With big action films, there's usually so little leeway to do anything that isn't meticulously planned, but on set that day, the scene between McBride, Swardson and Eisenberg had the thugs laying out the diabolical plan to have our protagonist rob a bank or be blown up. Sounds pretty intense, but there's plenty of room for improv, and we got to see a lot of it during the many hours we spent on set that day last year. Fleischer says the improv is definitely something he encourages:
"Especially when you have people like Danny or Nick or Jessie or Aziz, Pena too. They're all just so good at it. We have a great script and I always try and get something resembling the script to begin with, but when you have people at that level of talent it would be, to me, just a waste not to access it. Some of the funniest things we've shot already have been things they came up with in the moment. I feel like as long as it's not completely self-indulgent and that you exercise restraint in the editing room and don't put in a ton of improvs just for the sake of it, what it allows you is more than just doing the scene the same way every time and then you just have a lot of versions of that scene. When they're constantly coming up with stuff, you have so many more options. When you play it for an audience, if that joke doesn't work you have three more to go to as opposed to just the scripted joke or whatever."
And the chemistry between Swardson and McBride on set is great. However, Both of the comedians are well aware of getting off track, and letting the improv get out of hand. But they also point out that as a director Fleischer has to keep them on track, too. McBride explains what that means:
"That's kind of what Ruben's job is, is just to kind of keep you on point. I think when you're improv-ing, you should never go into it trying to put restraints on what you should do or what you shouldn't. I think you just keep pushing it, and then when it goes too far you just have someone like Ruben to say, 'Hey, that's out of the realm.'
I think it's just about trying to improv, keeping the character in mind. That usually will keep things in track. And not just try to do standup or something, but just try to riff on stuff that you're supposed to be talking about in the scene anyway, and just see if there's a way to make it come out more naturally."
Swardson also elaborated on that same issue regarding the improv while shooting:
"Yeah, the key is really making sure that you maintain the character in the improv, do you know what I mean? Because with a lot of comics and stuff you see, they'll just start riffing and get jokey. But then all of a sudden you're like, 'It doesn't really make any sense to the character of the scene.'
So the key is really just keeping in character. But Danny and I could go for a long time. So that's why Ruben's almost like the referee in that kind of fight where you're just like, 'OK, OK, OK. The round's fucking over. OK, we got it. We got it. We got it.'"
Thankfully, they were all about mixing up the scene that day with one take even allowing Swardson to show off a couple of karate kicks. It was really hard to be quiet on the set and to keep from laughing out loud and ruining a take. Keeping the comedic sensibilities in line with their characters isn't the only concern though as Fleischer wants to make sure that the urgency and danger of the conflict is still genuine and tense. Here's what Fleischer had to say on balancing the comedy and the action:
"It's something that's really important to me actually, and this movie has real life-or-death stakes, and I think that's pretty important and keeps it grounded. That's why I cast Jessie- he's such a talented actor. He's funny, but he'll play the reality really well. Sometimes with these action comedies where there's life-or-death stuff, because it's all comedians who don't make too much of acting, they don't play it real and it just goes into this farcical world, and that was definitely not my intent with this movie. I want the reality of this movie to be as real as 'Dog Day Afternoon' or any of those great 70's movies, 'Straight Time' and movies like that. But for the comedy, I want it to be as funny as a Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Aziz Ansari comedy."
One of the key factors keeping the film grounded is the talent of Jesse Eisenberg. As a huge fan of his performances in both Zombieland and The Social Network and more, seeing him work in this kind of environment is really sort of inspiring. In addition, his preparation, though seemingly mundane, really helped him get comfortable in the role. He's also aware of his character's place in life and how that affects the story. Eisenberg says:
"The pizza place where we're filming the movie, they let me go out with this guy Alex, who they thought most similar to my character. I was surprised to realize how similar he was. He was as sarcastic and self-aware as the character is. It was a perfect match for my character, also for the kind of basic logistics of how it is to deliver pizzas and who the costumers are. These guys who kidnap me in gorilla masks are surprisingly not far off some of the people we met that evening.
The emotional center of the movie is this character who has never done anything in his life. He has a line, I've never even quit a job, just waited around to get fired. He's in love with this girl who's his best friend's sister. He's never told her. He's just kinda ridden through life lazily. This metaphorically lights a fire underneath him to take a stand and spend these ten hours doing everything he should have been doing the last several years ago."
Dilshad Vadsaria (above), love interest, and Anasri's character's sister, also praises Eisenberg's talent:
"He's so good, he's so great. Obviously, everyone knows that, but he's so - there's this honesty in his performance all the time. Whether it's on camera, off camera, where ever. So, it's really wonderful to work off of him and to work with him on that. We've done all of our major stuff, we haven't done any of the car stuff that' going to happen next week with the scrap yard and things like that so I haven't been able to do any of the action stuff yet. But it's just so natural to work with him. I think that's probably the best way to describe it. There isn't much effort or you feel like there isn't much effort because he's just in the moment and he's just doing his thing. So it's been great to work off of him and he's a very generous actor because it doesn't matter whether he's on camera or not."
The dynamic between Eisenberg's natural comedy mixed with the emotional core and Aziz Ansari's comedic styling is an interesting mixtures, and the latter had plenty to say about working with the former and balancing their styles on screen and that it's not about just being louder and more obnoxious:
"No, I hope my comedy doesn't come off like it's just about being louder. No, that wasn't implied at all. No, I think what's great about him is I always find that the best acting for comedy is playing things very real and treating it seriously and not treating it jokey. He's such a good actor and his instinct is to play things real and that's always my instinct with comedy too. So I think it works really well. With this kind of movie, obviously it's a comedy, but you have to treat the situation like it's real. This guy has a bomb on him. There's like really emotional scenes and you gotta really play it real and if you don't it comes off weird so I think what's cool about this movie is it's grounded in things you treat real, but it's really funny and it's good."
In addition, this is unlike anything Ansari has done before, and so there's a lot of different methods that he has tried in order to stay in character and keep focused on the story. Ansari tells us:
"This is really fun because I've never done any acting where it's such a serious situation where it's like we're robbing banks we're in a car chase. These are all crazy situations. I always find movies where it's taking normal people and putting them in extraordinary situations to be interesting. That's what I liked about the script. I can't think of any bank robbery comedy where it's about two normal guys. it's kind of like 'Superbad' meets 'Heat' which is a cool combo and it's just fun doing a normal guy that's robbing a bank. When we were shooting the bank robbery, the day before I was like watching 'Heat' over and over again an I was like, alright what if this guy is trying to be like DeNiro in 'Heat.' So I was trying to be like an idiot trying to do De Niro in 'Heat.' I was trying to sound cool like, 'Think about things you love in your life.' Ruben had a folder of all these famous bank heists, 'Heat,' 'Our of Sight,' 'Raising Arizona,' I just watched all of them. I was like man a bank robbery sounds like a cool scene and it's only in a few movies. It's really cool to get to do one.
I feel like Ruben sometime had to be like before takes 'Hey! Don't forget you just robbed a bank.' and I'm like 'Oh yeah that's right.' I've got to make sure I remember that, I've got to keep that in mind because like you know it's definitely behind everything. The way you deal with that stuff is there's definitely scenes that are like really intense and a little more dramatic at times and that was so fun to do because there's nothing like that in the other comedy stuff I've done."
Honestly, if that first red band trailer didn't convince you that this looks like it will be a fantastic action comedy, I'm not sure what else I can say to convince you. Plus hearing all the actors talk about the balance between comedy and emotional core of the film makes me feel like Fleischer is a great talent to have in balancing action and laughs and blending them cohesively, something that seems to be harder and harder to accomplish nowadays. 30 Minutes or Less will be hitting theaters on August 12th towards the end of this summer, and it's going to be one hell of a ride. I can't wait to see the finished film myself, everything I saw looks to be leading up to a comedy classic. We'll let you know if/when they release another trailer for this!