Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant on ‘Hell Baby,’ Horror and Ashton Kutcher
As the writers of The Pacifier, Herbie: Fully Loaded and three Night at the Museum films, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant are experts when it comes to crafting four-square studio comedies. But with a background in cult television series like The State and Reno 911!, they also possess a deep-rooted, anarchic sensibility, which has generated some spectacularly funny characters, jokes and sketches that continue to be celebrated today – by a small but fervent fan base.
Their latest effort, Hell Baby, comes proudly from that second school of creativity, eschewing the sanded edges and vanilla payoffs of their mainstream work for something scrappier, messier and more unpredictable. The story of a father-to-be who discovers his pregnant wife may have been possessed by the Devil, the film takes the standard conventions of a horror movies and places them within a setting in which a character can actually for once insist, “I’m sick of being startled!”
Spinoff Online sat down with Lennon and Garant at the recent Los Angeles press day for Hell Baby, where they discussed the origins of their idea, the genre conventions they were most interested in making fun of, and the odd challenges involved in using Ashton Kutcher and Domino’s as topics of conversation, without the benefit of product placement.
Spinoff Online: When you conceived Hell Baby, did you look at it as a comedy that you infused with horror, or a horror movie that you infused with comedy?
Thomas Lennon: That’s a great question. Ultimately, I think the movie only makes you jump in your seat three or four times, but I do think it will make you laugh very hard more times than that. So I think ultimately, we made a comedy with scary things in it, or a horror film with a cast of idiots.
Robert Ben Garant: A very miscast horror film.
Lennon: That’s a great way to describe it (laughs). It’s like a horror film with the wrong cast in every role. Whereas we should be like Antonio Banderas, like real cool —
Garant: Stanley Tucci.
Lennon: The cops should be real cool, like Russell Crowe.
Garant: And [Rob] Corddry shouldn’t say things like, “I’m sick of being startled.”
Lennon: Or get three erections in the film.
Garant: He does get a lot of erections.
In writing a film that is going to deconstruct the genre a little bit, where do you draw the line between indulging horror tropes and commenting on other ones?
Garant: One good thing about it is we sort of knew who was going to play everybody going into it, so, you know, the cops – every horror movie has got the cops that are coming in and investigating. And if you know that’s going to be [Rob] Huebel and [Paul] Scheer, you kind of know what those scenes are going to be like – and that helps.
Lennon: One of my favorite things is in that scene where we tell our entire back story as priests, and they really want to tell us their back story, and we cut to it for one and a half seconds, and then we just skip it. Weirdly, because the movie digresses about everything, but the second they want to tell their back story, we’re like, let’s pick up the pace here.
Garant: They improvised that, and so we ran out and shot the slow-motion shot that day just so we’d have something to cut to.
Lennon: But we weren’t trying to make a spoofy movie, we were just trying to make the kind of movie that we would watch that cracks us up. And for better or for worse, I think when you watch the movie, you can tell that almost everything that happens didn’t get approved by a big committee. Like, there was no committee that ever said, “Oh, you can do this – this is a great idea! You should cut back to eating po’ boys for a third time.”
Garant: “Guys, guys, you’ve got to eat more sandwiches!”
Lennon: “Take more time doing that.” But I do feel like it’s us sort of busting out of our very sort of mainstream stuff for a while.
Garant: Also, it’s clearly influenced by what there was like in the ‘80s when we were growing up, a type of movie like American Werewolf in London, which has horrible bloody scenes, and great nudity, and then really funny scenes. Every horror movie now takes itself super, super seriously, and there’s no just like fun popcorn horror.
Lennon: The first thing our priests say is, “Oh, that’s so gross.”
Garant: “Super gross!”
Lennon: That’s, like, the way we’re introduced.
Was there a specific convention in horror movies that you were most interested in satirizing or making fun of?
Garant: I’ll just speak for me, but there’s so many movies like Rosemary’s Baby, where there’s a hell spawn coming, and they never just attack it. You never have a scene where Rosemary’s Baby, like, it’s so serious – or, like, The Omen, it would be really easy to kill that kid.
Lennon: Fucking kill that kid! Hit him with a fucking shovel!
Garant: It would be so easy to kill that kid. And I just love the idea of, hey, it’s a kid but it’s the Devil’s kid – hit it with a shovel! I like that we did that. That was fun.
I hope I’m not mischaracterizing this, but it seems like the work you do for studios is more calculated.
Garant: And committee, and work for hire.
Do you look at this film as your “one for you” versus one for them?
Lennon: I’d say that’s not inaccurate. I’d say it sort of feels like, you know, when you’re writing studio movies, which is the best job in the world, but four, five, six years can go by, sometimes more when you’re working on that movie. And all of the dialogue will go through the producer, it will go through the director, the actor, it will go through a couple of executives, so everything that makes it on screen has been vetted by everybody. So it’s nice to do one that’s just like your id – it’s, like, blah, here’s a bunch of sandwich-eating. Here’s six or seven minutes of Riki Lindhome from every angle – and the weirdest thing about that is it’s not a sex scene. It’s just a talking scene, where she talks about something that used to happen to her that never is mentioned again when she lived on an Indian reservation.
Garant: It’s great. And it’s really nice, because we write a lot of stuff that people hate things that we didn’t write, and people blame us for it, which is really frustrating as a writer. It’s like, “I didn’t …” and “That’s not …” but if you hate that they eat sandwiches three times in this movie, that’s us.
Garant: No, if it took 100 days and cost $100 million —
Lennon: Great point.
Garant: It was 20 days, and $1.9 million, so it was too hard.
So many of the great horror movies operate on a metaphorical level. This film seems in a way about the fears of impending fatherhood. Did you think about that or anything else as a thematic underpinning to this as you conceived it?
Lennon: No, but the movie certainly was written and shot while both of us – well, I was having a baby and he was about to. So certainly, probably, as much as, like, a naked Riki Lindhome is in our subconscious, probably the terror of impending fatherhood, that’s probably in there. And I’ll be honest, I’d never thought about it until you mentioned it.
Garant: No, but that’s a really good answer, though.
Lennon: That makes a lot of sense.
Garant: Could we say that on the director’s commentary? Subconsciously, your wife has a baby and it rips your face off? I think that’s probably —
Lennon: And it’s going to bite you in the balls.
Garant: And it’s going to bite you in the balls. That’s not that subtle.
Lennon: Yeah, that’s not that hard of a metaphor to get.
I thought of this as a horror movie where people react more authentically.
Lennon: I love that. That’s my favorite thing anybody’s said about the movie. Because these people almost look right at the camera and they’re like, “This is the part of the movie where we move out.” And I believe they even say, “This is the part of the movie.”
Garant: “This is like one of those movies.”
Lennon: This is like in those movies when people don’t leave the house that’s obviously evil.
How did you make sure there was a forward momentum in terms of their reactions, and at the same time find room to comment in a more realistic way?
Garant: Well, there was a ton of improvisation, but we didn’t use a lot of it, because even though the story is pretty simple, it does need to move forward. And our cast, they’re all professional improvisers, so they really knew how to improvise the story.
Lennon: Some of the most wonderful moments are fully improvised – obviously with Huebel and Scheer, and we talk about Ashton Kutcher endorsing the Nikon Coolpix. Like, that is like a five-minute conversation in the film … See, now that would never make it into any studio movie. “Why are you guys talking about the printer that Ashton Kutcher endorses?”
Garant: And you can tell, especially with Huebel, there’s a vibe in that scene where you can tell he thinks, “well, this is never going to make the movie, so I’m just going to go.” So when it starts to wind down about the printer, he’s like, “And the other thing about the printer …” You can see what he’s thinking.
How did you decide what to keep in the film? And where did you draw the line between something that was cohesive and yet still allowed you to indulge those little idiosyncrasies?
Lennon: Ultimately this movie for example is six minutes shorter than the version we showed at Sundance. The Sundance version of the film had six more minutes, mostly of us. And honestly we watched it and went, you know, the priests are fun – but they’re not that fun. Let’s keep it light – let’s just make this a movie that’s delightful to sit through.
Garant: But the Ashton Kutcher thing just killed us. The whole end of the movie with them talking about —
Lennon: “Sometimes when people see you walk down the street, they won’t give you the time.”
Garant: “Hello, F’resnel, hi.” They have this, like, The Help scene, and that was totally improvised. And it’s the end of the movie and you could tell the actors think, well, they’ll never use this, so let’s just go for an Oscar.
Lennon: My favorite thing that was improvised in the film of a bunch of things in a mostly scripted movie is that like seven people have been murdered by the end of the film, at least. There’s blood everywhere, like soaked in blood, there’s body parts lying around. And Rob Corddry says, “What a crazy week!”
Garant: He acknowledges [her], like, “You were possessed! That was so weird!”
Lennon: You’re exactly right – it’s, like, what if people in a horror movie were, like, this is super weird!
Having done this, was Hell Baby a project you wanted to get out of your system in one fell swoop, or do you see this as a parallel to the more mainstream stuff you’re doing?
Lennon: Oh, I would love to make more movies like this. This is like the dream scenario – it was a script that no one approved, a cast that no one approved, a shooting schedule that was very fast, but that’s the way we like to shoot anyway. We get bored if we’re sitting around thinking about things. So a set where you could make up a whole different version of a scene, if you wanted to, or not, these to me are some of the most fun projects to work on. That said, we love writing studio movies – we wrote a whole book about how it’s the best job in the world you can get, if you can get it. But these are really fun to do.
Garant: And the cast of this movie, every single person was there because they wanted to be there, and their agenda was to have fun and be funny. And that was really rare – it’s rare to be on a set where nobody had another motive or somebody had to get talked into being there. It was just a bunch of friends.
Lennon: It was also one of my favorite movies because if there was product placement, we chose to do that – there is no product placement.
Garant: Domino’s didn’t come to us, we went to Domino’s.
Lennon: We said, “You know what? You should mix together pizza and salad and make a pizza salad.”
Garant: And Domino’s was like, “Well, we guess it’s not disparaging.”
Lennon: “OK, you’re allowed to say that, technically.” But we even had to fight for that. But yeah, it’s just a weird movie. The short version is, it’s just a weird movie.
Hell Baby arrives today in theaters and on VOD.