Also known as Clyde Mego, he is an Emmy Award winning writer, producer and director living in Venice, California. At 21, he moved to New York City, where he wrote his novel “Ultra Lo Fi”, and eventually landed a job as a writer for “Saturday Night Live a position he held for six years. We talk about his experiences working with long time collaborator Will Ferrell, giving acting notes to Tom Hanks as a 25-year-old upstart at SNL and some of the inspirations behind Casa de mi padre.
How would you describe Casa de mi Padre since I have been having quite a bit of trouble to explain what it is since I saw the movie.
It is hard to decipher, it’s a satire on Mexican, Independent as well as Hollywood cinema. It’s tough to describe as it’s many things but I would say you have Will Ferrell on a horse speaking Spanish (laughs). There are really too many layers to get into, it’s a satire on spaghetti westerns, it’s a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky so really there are too many layers. I would say it’s Will Ferrell on a horse speaking Spanish and leave it at that. Trust me, I think you’ll like it, I can’t guarantee it!
I did see quite a bit of Grindhouse elements in it too. There are also influences by Mexican telenovella’s, a format we might not be aware of in Europe?
Yeah, well for us it was more of a jumping off point, they are essentially heightened soap operas for the Hispanic population basically they are melodramas, think of Douglar Sirk or Harlequin romance novels. Then we added different elements to make it a big epic movie like spaghetti westerns or the giant Peckinpah styled large wide screen feel, so it’s a party that everyone is invited to, so if you don’t get all the references to telenovella’s you won’t be disappointed and I think you will still enjoy the film. The people that do know the references, and even I hardly watched any of them myself, so there is no direct parody of telenovellas, it’s more of a tribute to melodramas.
So when making the movie, did you have a particular audience in mind? Do you think it’s accessible to everybody?
Well, I hope it is accessible to everybody and obviously you don’t know what your audience is. And I think this has a few levels on this, when I think it can stand as an art house for European UK as well as US audiences. For Hispanic audiences, we were down there in Mexico city for the premiere and they liked it, especially for those reason but they also have a history of Mexican cinema which we do some stuff with. So I never think about what is our target audience as much as did we make a movie that we like, because when we add it up there is a list of things you do so a movie makes money and we pretty much did the opposite of all of them. (laughs)
So we’re hoping people do see the movie but the goal was to make a good movie and then roll the dice and see who did like it.
And if all fails you have Will Ferrell speaking Spanish on a horse so you can always fall back on that.
Exactly and that was really our ace in the hole! Our trump card!
So you’ve been in the business for so long working on Funny or Die and Saturday Nite live, how was it leaving the comfort zone of what you know and finally making that leap to feature film directing?
You’re right, at SNL after a certain point it almost feels like you’re tenured professor. Even though it’s a tough grind, you get your summers off and you don’t shoot so I used to travel a lot. Since you write a couple of sketches a week, it’s a grind and it burns you out. It is hard but it’s a great job and you are “in the business”. Every job has a shelf life and after a while you need to get out or reach a point where you should have gotten out so yeah, it’s very difficult.
What goes on in the show is when you leave SNL it almost feels like a break up from a relationship of many years, you need a few therapy sessions to know that you’re not part of the show anymore but then you realize it was one of the best things you could do as it’s like a comedy or even showbiz bootcamp.
And it’s immediate, the biggest thing and I love directing is that show, would go on Live 1130 on Saturday ready or not, so you had to do it. So the immediacy and the stress I would enjoy.
Out here in Hollywood it can take up to a million year to get a project going but directing on set you leave the money at the door. So a long winded answer to your question, the point I left, I could have stayed on for another 5 years but fortunately I got all of the stuff that I wanted to say, and it was time to go.
I think it was Kirsten Wiig’s departure from SNL a couple of weeks ago and even that was very emotional.
Yeah, that was very emotional and I loved that sketch with Mick Jagger, he did great!
So you have made your decision? You are now a feature film director or would you be dipping back and forth to short movies and comedy sketches?
I am actually working on another short film just now. I think I’m less interested in anything in the television realm unless it’s something like the British model like what you guys do.
We did sell this thing to IFC, which is a 6-episode mini series, which I enjoy as it’s almost like a miniature movie. I do like the British model where you have 6 episodes and you are done! That’s not the model of American television, which doesn’t interest me, because it feels like they are making it as bland as possible, and if you are a success then keep making that bland thing forever and that is a difficult thing for someone with my personality to do. So, also features are hard to get going, but are so satisfying, but I also get the chance to direct commercials which are two week burst of working out and it fits my ADD personality better than television does.
Was it easier making that leap since you knew Will Ferrell from before and you were surrounded by people that you trusted and you knew?
Yeah, I think it’s always difficult but when you’re around talented people of the caliber of Will Ferrell, Gael Garcia Bernal or Diego Luna. When you have talented actors, you can all be on the same frequency so yes, whilst it’s nice to be friends, sometimes being friends makes it more difficult, because a shared history makes it so that you can’t do some of the things you could do but, in this instance it was not the case, it was more that I think we could get everyone on the same frequency and make a product that we can stand behind and where everyone from the top of the bottom is on the same frequency. So yes it’s a help in this case but I don’t want to overstate that and Will is the greatest to work with, so that in itself was great.
Will is such a powerful performer, he acts, he produces, he writes. Was it hard for you to come in as a first time director and you both being friends were there moments where you had to put your foot down and say this is how it is or should be?
It’s not hard; as I’ve learned how to do it over the years, see that’s the one thing most people balk at when they try to be a director. Like you put the camera there, you get to talk to the nice ladies, you set your shot up but when you have to get everyone on the same page it becomes difficult.
You know my first episode of SNL back in 95-‘96 had Tom Hanks as a guest who had just won 2 academy awards, I had 2 sketches in and during the dress rehearsal Lorne Michaels (producer of SNL) told me to tell Tom that he was playing something too big. So as a 25 year old kid, that’s a problem right there. Do you have what it takes to go up to tell a major movie star that has just won 2 academy awards with the right note?
So you know that’s been a variation of my career and being a director is just that, being able to assert yourself but also be very contentious of who you are dealing with and I think it’s just being good with people and understanding where people are coming from. Being an actor is vulnerable but hopefully you can explain in a calm way what you are looking for and it works but yes it does take a lot of effort.
Once you had the movie script locked it was there room to improvise especially when you have people like Will Ferrell who are obviously great improvisers who always have something funny to add? So did you let the cast let loose or was the framework of the movie set and this was what you were working in?
Well the overall script was written in English so all three of us, with writer Andrew Steele and Will, we would insert our ideas into the script before we translated it. But on set, Will Ferrell is probably the all time best improviser and quite fearless so you’re taking a guy that is the equivalent of having Muhammed Ali in the ring and tying his one arm behind his back because during the movie not knowing the language how could he improvise?
But I did, knowing the script, ask the other actors like Diego to feel free. I was always like to run the camera way longer, until it almost becomes uncomfortable to see what happens. Even sometimes not telling the actors, just to see what they would do. Will played into his character but Diego who is a brilliant improviser too would say stuff in Spanish and I didn’t know what he was saying until much later but Will in terms of improvising it was mostly gestural and dialogue wise he had to stay on book. Because it was almost a fever dream where he had to learn it and learn how to pronounce it. Which was a herculean task in itself.
Ok final few questions, lately these grindhouse movies have been tried by some really big directors like Tarantino and Rodriguez was there any sense of trepidations? I know some smaller movies in the same mould like Hobo With a Shot gun and Black Dynamite have been successful so what kind of lessons did you take from them when you were approaching studios?
Since this was sold to Lionsgate as a small budget movie, I just tried to drown out and not to repeat what these guys did and at the same time have love for that kind I didn’t see it as a grindhouse but more like a movie projected on Mexican screens where in the day or there were certain scenes like Diego with the blue curtains thinking that footage had been lost and you had to go back to the airport and shoot those scenes with a different RED cam. So I’m very aware that I should be a copy cat of something that those guys did so brilliantly but this is a comedy so there are certain beats you want to hit and you want to make it your own, ever since I was young I had a certain love for that stuff before it even had a name, even visually I want to be part of that dialogue compare it to a pop art painting like a Lichtenstein or a Warhol, people do stuff within that framework but hopefully something in a personally authentic way.
Ok final quick fire question: Favorite movie and director when you were growing up?
Oh ok that’s an easy one, Mean Street with Scorsese. I was obsessed by it and watched it probably a 1000 times like a lot of people that movie got me the Scorsese bug and as a young kid growing up in the north west of the united states, I was obsessed with Mean Streets.
That’s a great pick, thank you so much for your time Matt.
It was great chatting with you; Asim and I love the site.
Best of luck with the movie!