How to Make a Good "Chick" Flick: A Chat with Tom Brady
by Joel Cunningham
Tom Brady followed up his career writing for critically acclaimed shows like The Simpsons, Sports Night, and Home Improvement with a few not-so-critically-acclaimed Rob Schneider comedies—he wrote 2000's The Animal (co-starring Survivor's Colleen Haskell), and just recently signed off on the DVD for The Hot Chick, his first directing gig and one of the worst-reviewed films of 2002.
Never mind what the critics think, though?he likes his movies, and he thinks that the critics aren't willing to give goofy comedies their due. He talks with digitallyOBSESSED about Aaron Sorkin, critical response, and the technical craft of a good kick-in-the-crotch gag.
dOc: I took a look at your Internet Movie Database entry, and it's pretty impressive, particularly the TV entries. You've worked on The Simpsons and The Critic. How did you get involved in writing for television in general and those shows in particular?
Tom Brady: Years and years of hard work. I came out here [California] and was writing movie and TV specs and had a regular job and was trying to get people to read my stuff, and trying to get an agent. Finally, after about three years of trying, Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who were running The Simpsons at the time, and were two of the only people who actually read unsolicited scripts, just called out of the blue and said "We read your stuff, we think you're really funny, and we'd like to meet you." And I was like, "YES!" But even then it was really tough. I had to write an outline and a script and get auditioned for a few episodes and see if they liked me, and I'm so glad they did. To start on those shows was a dream. I always wondered what genius was writing those shows, and I get there and find out it is 25 geniuses. And the learning I did, on technique, and show craft... it was like a little think tank.
dOc: That was about the time Al Jean had left The Simpsons to start The Critic. Did you start off that show?
TB: Yes, I started on The Critic, and when that show hit a few bumpy roads I went to The Simpsons. Most of my buddies stayed and are still there, but I had a background in theater and wanted to get back to working with live actors, so I dipped my toe out. I turned down King of the Hill, and a year later I was on a show with Tony Danza, crying, thinking "I could still be on The Simpsons, what did I do?" After a few years and a few other interesting shows, I started on Men Behaving Badly and I met Rob [Schneider] and I started the work in features. It all has a reason.
dOc: I don't mean to focus too much on your TV work, since I am supposed to be talking to you about the movie, but I'd like to know what it was like working with Aaron Sorkin on Sports Night. Rumors have it he's a difficult boss.
TB: You know, every successful "genius" in Hollywood is very difficult in some way, but Aaron truly... I've hardly come across anyone else with his intellect. He literally would write almost everything himself. The writing staff was there to spark ideas, to do drafts and research, to stimulate, but essentially he wrote everything. He was like David Kelly in that way. That can be very frustrating as a writer. He'd take two or three scripts and disappear into a room for 60 hours with no sleep and come out with some other thing. You could speak of him in literary terms. He really is a unique American voice. On the other hand, yeah, it was frustrating, because he wouldn't tell you what was going on.
dOc: You mentioned you worked on Men Behaving Badly and you met Rob. Can you talk about the relationship you had working on that show and how that led to making films with him?
TB: It was one of those shows that should have been a huge hit. It was on after Seinfeld, ratings were great, we were an edgy and controversial show. But it was coming apart at the seams. There was tension with the company, and the network had one idea for the show, the company had another, the head writer had another, the actors had another, and I was the guy in the middle saying, "Wait, don't let this break apart, it could work!" Eventually I got to take the reins of the show, but it had moved to Saturday night.
TB (cont'd): Watching Rob tape week to week was riotous. He got standing ovations from week to week. I've worked on sit-com tapings before and I never saw anyone get a response like Rob got. But it didn't always translate to the show. It was very carefully edited, and there was a lot we couldn't get away with. It wasn't framed to showcase his spark, but I saw it and thought he was someone I wanted to write for. After the show I took Rob out to dinner and told him I had a couple movies ideas for him, one where he played a male gigolo, one where he got animal parts in him, and he's like, "That's good, that's good." Neither one of us had the power to make a movie at that point, so we'd played with the ideas until he did Big Daddy and got his shot.
dOc: How big of a role did Adam Sandler play in getting the film made?
TB: He's is great as an executive producer. He gives notes on the scripts and makes editing suggestions to make things funnier, he's always looking for some way to twist it. He has his taste and his style. Then on the outside, he provides us a kind of umbrella that allows us to make the movie we want to make without interference. That is very rare in this business. Plus he had a funny cameo in the movie.
dOc: This is you second high concept movie with Rob, and there is a lot of physical comedy and broad humor. Is that more your style of humor? It's quite different from the satire of The Simpsons. Are these the kinds of movie you saw yourself making?
TB: You're right, and that's a good question because it raises something that is also a little frustrating. If you look carefully at The Hot Chick, there is a lot of "Simpson-esque" humor built into it, but because the concept is so broad, it was easy for critics to say, "Oh, it's just Schneider pulling his pants down again." That's not really what the movie is. It's a very subtle acting performance, and it is very carefully structured, there's a lot of subtle humor. On the other hand, you're right, it isn't my sensibility, it's a Rob movie. Although I do like high concept movies in general. It looks like the next movie I'll be doing is a remake of The Shaggy Dog with Tim Allen. It will be cleaned up and more family friendly. The movies that impressed me when I was a kid were movies like Big and All of Me, where some normal guy would be hit with some magic that changed his perspective and allowed him to change his perspective. But I would like to do something a little more sophisticated.
dOc: About the critical response: You know when you are making a movie like this, just based on the star, that it will be a critical roasting.
TB: Well, it's interesting. Sandler, at least until Punch-Drunk Love... the critics can't figure him out. He gets hit with things, and falls down steps, yet somehow he keeps making a lot of money. The press has a hard time with that, but now they are starting to accept him more and Rob has become the punching bag. It is very, very frustrating for him, but we knew it was going to happen going in. I just look at the ratio of good reviews. On The Animal I think we had two. But on The Hot Chick, I think we had about 25. So even though it isn't an overwhelming positive response... Some of the reviews commented on stuff that was in the trailers but that didn't make it into the movies, so you could tell these people were giving it a bad review without ever having seen it.
On the other hand, for what this movie was, I'm proud of it still, and I encourage people to look beneath the surface. I mean, for people who want Simpson-esque humor, it's there, and for people who like seeing someone get whacked with boards, it's there. And I hoped critics would pick up on Rob's acting performance, since when we were testing we never find an audience who didn't think he was convincing as a 17-year-old girl. That's a huge thing to overcome, that this weird-looking 35-year-old hairy guy can pull that off to the point where he kisses a girl at the end of the movie and audiences would react like it was two girls kissing.
A lot of the young actors in the supporting roles are great too. It was a great group with good chemistry. I wish there a little better box-office so I could stick my tongue out at the naysayers. It did ok, but I'm keeping my tongue in my mouth for now.
dOc: How involved are you in the casting? It seems like there are a lot of up-and-comers in this with a chance to go on to better things. Anna Faris has got the Scary Movie franchise going.
TB: I was thinking of that, in a Fast Time at Ridgemont High way, to find the best actors for the roles so they could go on to better and bigger things. I spent a lot of time with the casting and we're proud of everybody.
dOc: The Hot Chick was you're first feature directing credit. Were there any particular challenges?
TB: I have a masters in directing theater, and I loved it, and I always thought it was hard to put behind me. Running TV is similar, but not the same. I always had a hunch it would be something I'd love. I'd like to think it works on a technical level. It is always tough as a writer to hand something off to a director who might make it better or worse, so it was great to be able to create what I'd had in my mind when writing it.
dOc: In a movie like this, how do you balance the humor with the heartfelt, character-changing arc without becoming maudlin?
TB: It's the greatest challenge. Even The Simpsons did a great job in the early years. To me, the best laughs are the ones you earn emotionally. The best time I have in a theater is when I'm led into an uncomfortable place, so once the laugh comes you can feel the audience rush for that humor. I tried to build a lot of that into the movie.
dOc: You were very involved in the DVD. Does knowing you can show deleted scenes make the editing process easier?
TB: It takes some of the frustration away, so you know you aren't going to lose it, and you can put it in that back pocket. It wasn't like we planned to shoot a bunch of extra stuff, but we started with a very dense script. And we had a guy, Brian Spitz, a budding director, who followed us around throughout the movie and he got hundreds of hours of footage that we were able to work into the DVD. The fun comes across well, too, on those features. And you don't usually see these technical breakdowns on a comedy movie.
dOc: I like the bit where Rob keeps asking the guy to kick him in the crotch to get a better hit.
TB: Yes, people don't realize the craft and the science of getting a cheap laugh.
dOc: Are you a DVD fan?
TB: I'm getting there. I've started to catch up in the last few years. I do know ones that I thought were boring, so I was involved in creating fun graphics and including as much as we possibly could.