Larry Charles was ready to quit Hollywood. The comedian-turned-Emmy Award-winning writer-cum-filmmaker had spent the better part of a decade directing Sacha Baron Cohen to great, if diminishing, success in 2006's Oscar-nominated Borat, 2009's Brüno, and 2012's The Dictator. But 2016's Army of One, a farce starring Nicolas Cage as a construction work who receives a message from God (Russell Brand) and sets out to capture Osama Bin Laden, was an unpleasant experience behind the scenes and only barely secured a theatrical release. At which point, Charles decided he'd had enough.
"I did this Dangerous World of Comedy show, where I went around the world and I saw people, like in Liberia, put up a green sheet and they would do a TV show with their iPhone. I was really inspired by that," he explains. "When I came home, I thought, 'I'm going to do stuff like that and to hell with Hollywood!' I don't need all this fighting and confrontation and losing — that was the worst part. I was okay with doing other things, and exploring other mediums, and I was getting creative fulfillment with the stuff I was doing."
But eventually, Hollywood came a-callin', as Hollywood is wont to do. Charles was sent the script for Dicks: The Musical, a big screen adaptation of comedian Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson's off-Broadway show, F**king Identical Twins. The profane, insane, extremely gay movie follows business rivals (played by Sharp and Jackson) who realize they are identical twins and attempt to Parent Trap their estranged parents (Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally). In this one, Bowen Yang plays God. As the title indicates, it's also a full-on song-and-dance musical. (A24's first.) More important for the director, it was hilarious.
"I read the first page and I was laughing out loud, which is super rare. I read to the fifth page, and I was still laughing out loud. And I read the whole script, and I laughed through the whole thing," Charles tells A.frame. "I was like, 'I have to do this movie. I am the one. This movie wants me. I want it. We must make this movie.' I called my agent, and I said, 'Let's do this, whatever it takes.'"
You've worked with basically every 'guard' of comedy there is, from Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld to Sacha Baron Cohen and now into the world of alt-comedy with Aaron and Josh. When the three of you got together, did you find that you have the same comedic touchstones and sensibilities?
One of the great things about them was after I read the script, I also got sent the 40-minute video of the UCB show that they did. So, I saw them before I started even talking to them, and I was blown away by them. I thought, 'This is the gay Abbott and Costello, or something.' The play had me on the floor laughing, just like the script — which, they were different to some degree at that point. I knew if I made this movie that they had to star in it. I also knew — and I knew when I saw Sacha, and I knew with anybody else along the way — that if everything clicks, these two guys should be major superstars. They're super funny. I can see them doing other movies, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, you know what I mean? I could see their whole careers right now. They could really be something fresh in the entertainment culture. So, that was a big pull for me, was getting to work with them. And the initial thought was casting somebody else [in those roles], and I insisted, 'It has to be them.' That was important.
There's the saying that if everything is crazy, nothing's crazy, but that doesn't seem to have ever concerned you — and it's always worked out. How do you approach exactly how far you can push it into gonzo-ness without losing your audience?
Well, my life has taught me that that logic doesn't really hold up. There is a point past that logic where life really exists on the fringe, in my experiences. So, I know that stopping where you might normally feel okay stopping is not the place to stop. And this was something that with Sacha, I would constantly think, 'Okay, we have the scene,' but that's really when the scene was just beginning, because then he knew he had the scene and then he could start pushing, pushing, pushing and see how far he could go.
So, the answer is you must experiment. You must trust your instincts, but you must go out there on that edge and risk falling off. That's the only way you'll get to stuff that could be that funny. That's where it all resides, right on the edge of the cliff there.
This cast is incredible in their own right, but they're also all taking these big swings with how they play these characters. Was there a choice one of the actors made that particularly surprised and delighted you?
First of all, I wanted Josh and Aaron to do the performance the way they did it at UCB. I wanted all the camp and the John Waters filth and trash kind of vibe of it, and they set the tone with their performance. I did not want to pull back on that. I had some discussions with everybody involved in the movie about how far those performances are going to be going, and I told everybody, 'We're going to go as far as we possibly can.' This is not a naturalistic movie. What's honest about this movie is that it's these two gay guys playing these two straight guys giving a performance; that's very honest! So, I very much pushed their performances as far as I could.
Then Nathan came in. Nathan's thing was constantly, 'You really want me to do this, Larry? You really want me to do this?! Do you really want me to do this?!' And I would go, 'Yes, I want you to do it.' And Nathan is such an amazing actor that whatever questions he had, he trusted me and he plunged in and gave that immersive performance. But perhaps the biggest surprise was Megan Mullally. I thought she was a great performer, but Josh and Aaron told me she's a gay icon, and I didn't realize that at all! She came in with very specific ideas about the character, in terms of the way she was going to dress, in terms of the way she would talk, and everybody was taken aback at first by those choices. Because they were so bold and so radical! But now you can't imagine that there was any question about it at all in the first place. It's such an amazing, one-of-a-kind performance. It's like a work of art in and of itself.
Do you have a go-to party story about working with Megan The Stallion now?
The thing about her was that she came in and we didn't even know if she was going to show up! We stood on the set the day that she was supposed to show up going, 'Wow, we wonder if she will really show up or not...' And she showed up! But nobody in her entourage had told her, 'You not only have this song, but you have dialogue. You have to hit your marks, you have choreography.' So, one of the dancers showed her all the choreography, and then she went into the trailer and looked at the script, and then we shot all her stuff. We shot the entire song in one day, and we shot all of her dialogue for the other scene in one day. She was there for two days, hit everything, and then took off. We only hung out in terms of directing her in the movie itself. There was no hanging out on this movie. It was 20 days, so everything was like, 'Work, work, work. See you tomorrow.'
The way people are reacting to her musical number ["Out Alpha the Alpha"], she might be reaching out to you to direct her next music video.
I'm available! [Laughs]
Your first film, Masked and Anonymous, had musical elements, but they were very different than the musical numbers in here. Is there a learning curve on getting those right?
Each situation I approached individually. With the Bob Dylan movie, he and I spoke about the way we wanted the music to feel in the movie, and we looked at the references. The specific references for that movie were TV shows from the '50s where people would come on and it was only one camera, so they would have to get the guitar and the face all in one shot. I tried to shoot that that way.
When it came to the Dicks, I basically took a course on my own in the history of musicals, from Busby Berkeley through Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, through the '60s, like the Beatles movies and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and then Rocky Horror Picture Show and things like that. I drew on all those different things, and I knew we had a 20-day schedule. I wanted it to feel live, like you were there. I want to erase that barrier between the audience and the performer, and so I decided to use this very proscenium style. Everybody's coming at you constantly, and I thought that relentlessness was part of the fun and the energy of the movie.
The bloopers at the end were a dang delight, and especially Nathan Lane spitting ham into the Sewer Boys' mouths, saying, 'This is maybe the most humiliating moment of my career.' Did you have one moment on set where you looked around and you were like, 'How are we getting away with this? How are we able to do this?'
I was surprised in general. Every day, I was surprised that someone had given us money to make the movie. But this is a difference between this and Army of One: Everybody had this vision that if we get it right, it could be great. It could really work. They had faith. Everybody was able to have faith in this project, somehow, and it kept it going. It was the little project that could in a way. So that was the thing about it — it had that sort of quality to it that you had to give yourself over to.
By John Boone