Exclusive Interview: A Conversation With Brian Herzlinger

The original film musical is all but dead in the modern era of filmmaking. Although the last decade or so has had an increase in screen adaptations of popular stage musicals, such as Chicago (2002), Phantom of the Opera (2004) and the most recent Les Miserable (2012), it seems as though familiarity is all that keeps the genre thriving within Hollywood. Even when an original story is used, the musical aspects utilize familiar songs from pop culture rather than writing new music and lyrics. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) pioneered this method, which was followed by Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005). Beyond the Sea (2004) uses Bobby Darin’s music as the soundtrack, as many biopic musical often do, though with the inclusion of large production numbers. With the release of The Producers, there was even a filmed musical which was adapted from the stage musical, which was adapted from a film.

But the one thing missing from the musicals of the modern era has been original content. The first musicals were not the glossy productions we think of today. These first trailblazers were shockingly crude in technical presentation. We mustn’t forget that the very first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was also Hollywood’s first musical. Audiences didn’t watch the musicals because they knew what to expect, but to be surprised by the convention of a changing medium. The original musical is all but dead in modern filmmaking, kept alive by the passion of a few filmmakers working with lower budgets and an independent mentality. Writer/director Brian Herzlinger (My Date With Drew, Baby on Board) is the latest to join this group with the release of How Sweet It Is, an original musical released in theaters this past weekend. 

         Herzlinger is probably still best known for his debut feature, as the man who bought a camera with the intention of returning it within 30 days in order to make a documentary about the pursuit of a date with his childhood crush, Drew Barrymore. My Date With Drew cost $1,100, which helped to make it the fourth most profitable film made. He as followed that initial success up with a wide variety of projects, including being an on-air correspondent for "The Tonight Show," hosting, directing, and writing with childhood friend Jay Black. Herzlinger may have first come into the public's eye with My Date With Drew, but he had already put a great deal of work into the film industry prior to this debut, working in a variety of different positions in both production and post-production. It should come as no surprise that this versatile filmmaker would boldly go where few other directors are willing to venture, into the world of film musicals.

The storyline of How Sweet It Is lends itself to the backstage musicals of that era, reminding me of Marx Brother’s film, Room Service (1938) in terms of plot and screwball zaniness. Comedy icon Joe Piscopo (S.N.L., Dead Heat, Johnny Dangerously) stars as Jack Cosmo, an alcoholic musical theater director with a reputation in fast decline. The opening scenes quickly establish Cosmo’s desperation when he first sells a beloved theater award to a couple of predatory fans (Todd Sherry and Shawn-Caulin Young), only to discover that this is not nearly enough to save him from the thugs who come to collect his debt. The head thug named Mike (Michael Paré) takes Cosmo to the head mob boss, Big Mike (Paul Sorvino), who happens to be a fan. In order to pay off his debt, the alcoholic director is asked to write and direct an original musical idea from Big Mike, using various lowlifes and social outcasts in the gangster’s debt and an abandoned strip club in place of a theater. The musical’s only chance at success comes with the voice of its star, Ethan Trimble (Erich Bergen), who is secretly an F.B.I. agent attempting to infiltrate Big Mike’s outfit with the help of his minor in musical theater.

Joe Piscopo and Paul Sorvino

         I could go into more theories about the state of musicals in film, divulge more information about the film’s plot or list the impressive amount of talent gathered in this small film, including Erika Christensen, Eddie Griffin, Jonathan Slavin, Louis Lombardi and many more, but I’m somewhat frightened of the possibility that co-writer Jay Black may review this article, as he did for Chris Packham's in The Village Voice this past week.For the complete Village Voice review and subsequent review of the review, click HERE.


After watching How Sweet It Is, I had a conversation with Herzlinger about the film and his thoughts on musicals. We ended up talking in the afternoon on Mother’s Day, which is quite fitting considering the fact that I brought my mother as my guest when reviewing My Date With Drew (2004) nearly ten years ago. There is also the nostalgic feeling I found myself having while watching How Sweet It Is. There are many aspects of the film, from costuming and production design to the story itself, which are reminiscent of a bygone era of movie musicals. My mother’s mother made it a family tradition to watch Easter Parade (1948) every Easter Sunday with the family. We have carried the tradition on each Easter, even after she passed, and I have always had a warm place in my heart for those classic musicals ever since. I, for one, am grateful to see a little life brought back to the genre.



Question: How involved were you in the post-production process? Were you involved with the editing of How Sweet It Is?


Brian Herzlinger: I’m always involved in the editing in my films. I come from post-production, so when I’m in the production of the actual film I’m always doing it with post-production in mind, knowing what pieces I need in order to fill the puzzle that is editing. When I’m doing a movie, I always feel like I’m making three movies for every one; the movie on the page, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. Because it’s an organic process, though I’m still telling the story, I find new ways to tell it in post-production. And I love that. My editor Blake Barrie is a great guy and a great editor. He’s edited three of my projects already and How Sweet It Is was the first one. It was a particularly difficult film to edit because of the music numbers and I was very adamant about getting a lot of footage for the musical numbers to make them feel big and that was all calculated edits in post-production to make it all work. I’m very happy with how it turned out.


Q: Speaking of the musical aspects of the film, I felt like there was a classical vibe to the storyline. It reminded me more of older musicals than anything modern. Was that what you were going for? Were there any influences guiding you, or were you going for something completely new in terms of musicals?


B.H.: No, you hit it on the head. I definitely was going for an homage to the older style musicals. Matt Dahan was on from the beginning. We had numerous conversations about song and musical styles, and I couldn't be more thankful to Matt for the terrific job he did on Sweet. The songs for Sweet are all original, and Matt's abilities are equally so. I love the MGM musicals where you know they’re on a stage, where you have this big background and so forth. Even in The Wizard of Oz you get that backdrop as opposed to being outside in a real environment. I love that feel. I love that stage feel. West Side Story is one of my favorites. As far as source material, [How Sweet It Is] was not a musical when it first came to me. When Jay and I were asked to write the script it was just a straight-out comedy. I didn’t love the way the material was turning out as a straightforward comedy, and I thought this story and this material about Jack Cosmo lent itself to a musical. I was able to pitch that to the financiers and the producers and they agreed and let me go for it. I was just really happy, because Jack’s story was meant to be told as a musical. And for me, that was a dream come true, because I was dying to do a musical. I love them. My favorite musical is Grease, you know? I just really wanted to get the opportunity to tell a story through that medium. In terms of influences, I sat down with the choreographer (Sarah Scherger), the director of photography (Akis Konstantakopoulos), and production designer (Niko Vilaivongs) and showed scenes from my favorite musicals. The “Welcome to Show Biz, Kid” number with Jack was influenced by Bob Fosse just in terms of a look and style. It’s a much darker and starkly lit, and with the top hat it has an All That Jazz kind of feel. The movie starts very timeless, it feels like it could be the ‘30s, from the wardrobe down to the production design. Jack’s wearing a fedora and his wardrobe was specifically designed to look classic. You don’t even know we’re in modern day until he uses his cell phone to call his daughter. And as the movie progresses, it gets more colorful. The color palette becomes more a Skittles explosion by the time we get to the “Bite of Our Lives” number, and that was something we designed from the beginning. We were working on a limited budget and a limited schedule, because it was a small movie, and so there are things you have to calculate to make it feel as big as it is in your head. That was something that was always a challenge. The idea was that he has to put on a show in this deserted strip club, so we knew we weren’t going to be able to do a big Radio City Music Hall musical kind of thing, so it was a very calculated maneuver to keep it contained in the first two acts with the musical numbers. And I feel that through the musical numbers at the end there you see what Jack’s ability has been, what everybody has been talking about, that he was this awesome producer and he rediscovers that. So, yeah, the musical numbers were definitely influenced and intended to be an homage to the classic musicals, to my favorite musicals.


Q: In the opening shots you have some very realistic footage of L.A., with skid row and some less glamorous areas. Was L.A. always a part of the conception when you were writing this film or was it a choice because of budgetary concerns?


B.H.: It wasn’t even about location. It was not about the location; it was about the reality. I was very adamant about getting the footage of real people in those situations in all kinds of life. So you’ll see there are people in business attire, going to work, doing the grind. There’s homeless people, there’s people getting arrested. It’s just a really gritty, kind of industrial feel, which I wanted because I wanted to establish Jack as being in that kind of a world, at least in his head. I just wanted to ground the fun we’re going to have with a reminder that there’s heart here, there’s a reality here and you’ve got to care about these guys.


Q: Tell me about the cast. You’ve got an incredible list of talent. How did they all fall into place?


Joe Piscopo as Jack Cosmo
B.H.: The key to it was finding the right Jack. Going back to what I said, I love musicals, and Mary Poppins was one of my favorites. I really wanted to get Dick Van Dyke. I thought, how cool would that be? Dick Van Dyke playing Jack Cosmo! The problem was that the role is so demanding physically, and the whole thing rides on Jack. I quickly swayed myself that that wasn’t a good idea. My writing partner Jack Black and I grew up together and one of our favorite movies was Johnny Dangerously (1984). The idea is for the character of Jack is, “Where have you gone? What happened? You used to be in the spotlight and then you just disappeared.” Big Mike even says that to Jack in a scene. And we were wondering, “What happened to Joe Piscopo?” I know he’s been performing, but it’s been a long time since he’s done a movie. Anyway, we love Joe. We talked to the producers about it and we made the offer to Joe, and that was something Jay and I were really excited about. For me, I wanted to show something that people haven’t been able to see Joe do. And the balance of the act was finding someone who could sing and dance, do the drama, do the comedy…And Joe delivered in spades. I think everybody will see a Joe Piscopo they haven’t seen before, and I’m really excited about that.


Q: You mentioned both your love of comedy, which has been long-lasting, and your friendship with Jay. I would love to hear the story of how you and Jay met.


B.H.: Oh, that’s a great story. We met in fourth grade in the lunch line. Helen L. Beeler Elementary School. He was talking to somebody in front of me about body cavity searches, and the guy didn’t know what it was. And I knew exactly what he was talking about. It was a quote from Police Academy 2: The First Assignment.

So I’m like, “BCS? You talking about Police Academy 2?” He was like, “Yeah!” I’m like “Police Academy 2! It was awesome.” And that was the beginning. Instant friendship. As a matter of a fact, our production company is called BCS Entertainment based on that. Jay’s amazing. He’s the number one college comedian in the country. He’s a brilliant writer and I’m lucky to have him as my partner. He’s just so good at dialogue. My strength is structure and massaging what he does, from a dialogue perspective, but he’s the driving force in the writing. He’s a great guy and a great friend.


Q: When did your mutual love of Police Academy and comedy turn into collaboration in writing and filmmaking?


Jay Black and Brian Herzlinger
B.H.: Well, that’s kind of two separate things. I’ve always wanted to make movies. Jay hasn’t always wanted to make movies. He always wanted to do stand-up. That was his life dream and he achieved that life dream right around the same time that I achieved mine, when I made my first film, My Date With Drew. After My Date With Drew we had a conversation about starting to write together. And the first script we wrote together was called Three for the Road. It was a road trip comedy and it was such and amazingly awesome and productive experience. We had a blast, and so we’ve been writing since 2005. Although, technically we wrote together in 1988. Bar Trek in which we spoofed "Star Trek" and had them all drunk. It’s been a blast. For me, its been a search of putting the best team together, putting a dream team together to make my movies. For How Sweet It Is I found a wonderful director of photography, a wonderful editor and a wonderful casting director. You just start to put together these different pieces that you need in order to surround yourself with a team that can pull it off. I loved the cast. They were all terrific. They all came ready to play, they came prepared, giving 150 percent to the project, from Joe all the way down. Jay and I wrote a pilot for Paul Sorvino based on what he did with Big Mike. We decided to do a more grounded story about a mob boss and we wrote a pilot. The financiers are Rick Finkelstein and Steve Chase did How Sweet It Is. They are just terrific guys and I have a wonderful relationship with them, a wonderful partnership and they financed the pilot and we made “Paulie,” which is our half-hour pilot with Paul Sorvino, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Madsen. Jay and I wrote and Jay and I produced it and I directed. Creatively, it was an amazing experience, and that all stems from How Sweet It Is. And I’m proud to say that I have Joe Piscopo as a good friend now. It’s all about the people you meet. Erich Bergen, who plays Ethan; this was his first film and he knocked it out of the park, and he’s a great guy. Unfortunately for him, he and I are a lot alike, so we have a blast catching up. We’re good friends now too. It’s part of the creative process. Some of the best side effects are the relationships you get after you’re through working with somebody. And it’s something that I’m very aware of and thankful for. You’re just got to keep surrounding yourself with the people you want to work with and be with, and that’s one of my goals. I learned that from David Kelly. When I first came to L.A. in ’97, I was a production assistant on a TV show called “Chicago Hope” with him and Bill D’Elia, my mentor. Once you find someone you want to work with, you keep them around.


Q: One last question about Jay, because I can’t resist. I read Chris Packham’s review in The Village Voice, as well as Jay’s review. I have to say, I thought it was spectacular. I wanted to give Jay a standing ovation. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.


B.H.: He asked me if he should post it, and I was like, “You know what, do it. What the hell.” We work in a business that’s a court of opinion. That’s all it is. All they care about is that you pay the money to see the movie to make your opinion. They don’t care whether it’s good or bad. They just want to get your money. Jay took it a little harder than I did. When my first reviews for My Date With Drew came out, we got really beautiful reviews... mostly. We were Fresh Tomato Certified but there were some critics who didn’t like My Date With Drew, and I thought, “How does anybody with a soul not like My Date With Drew?” And it was Entertainment Weekly. Owen Gleiberman loved Dukes of Hazzard with Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott. He loved that movie. Gave it a B plus or something, and gave My Date With Drew a D! He not only bashed the movie, but he bashed me and called me a charm-less gasbag. At that moment, that hurt. I was like, “I might be a gasbag, but I’ve got charm.” My mom and dad wrote a strongly worded letter to Owen at Entertainment Weekly, but after that it doesn’t get to me. But it got to Jay and I was like, “Yeah, do it. Have a blast.” I see how the movie plays and I have not been in a screening of How Sweet It Is where the audience has not really liked it. That’s what I care about. I care about the people who are choosing to spend their money to see it. That’s all.


Q: You mentioned your family’s support when you got bad reviews, so I’m assuming they will be seeing your film this weekend. It opens in L.A., New York and New Jersey, correct? Which are you most excited about?

B.H.: My parents are seeing How Sweet It Is right now! They’re going to see it on Mother’s Day and Joe Piscopo is taking his mother to see it today as well. Where do I care about it opening? I was born in Brooklyn, New York, my childhood was all in Jersey and I’ve been in L.A. since ’97, so I care about all three. At least, that’s the fairest answer I can give. But if the thing opens in Pacoima, I would care about them as much as anybody else. It’s an interesting experience when you put yourself out there creatively. The only thing you can do is make a movie for yourself and the movie you would want to see. Because you can try and please everybody else and you’re just going to end up getting disappointed. It’s always about having a story to tell and being able to do that in the way you think the story should be told. That’s what I do, and if somebody doesn’t like it, that’s fine. That’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to like it. I made a movie called Baby on Board. There are things I would do differently with that film, but I still enjoy watching that movie. There are scenes in there that make me laugh out loud.. And the film had mixed reviews. I think it’s all about creating voices the audience can tap into, and hopefully what you are doing, the people who are giving their hard earned money are going to like it.

Q: So, having made a documentary, tackled comedy and now having completed your first musical, what is next?

B.H.: I'm very excited about a few projects I have coming up. My first project is called "The Death House." Jay Black and I wrote the script, Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase, who produced How Sweet It Is, are producing along with Tony Oppedisano and Michael Guarnera. It's an awesome project that we describe as The Expendables of horror, with a multitude of iconic horror actors attached, including Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street), Doug Bradley (Pinhead from Hellraiser), Bill Moseley (The Devil's Rejects, House of 1,000 Corpses), Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond), Danny Trejo (Machete, Planet Terror) and many more. I'm as big a fan of horror as I am of musicals, so I'm excited to get into production this summer! 


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