Drink, Drink, and Be Merry
Steve Lemme and Erik Stolhanske discuss Broken Lizard’s latest project Beerfest
Celebrity scoop by Joel Fowler
Inspiration can take many forms. For Isaac Newton, an apple fell on his head, which ignited his theories regarding gravity. With Alexandria Fleming, fuzzy fungi in a culture dish brought the world penicillin. For the concept-humor troupe Broken Lizard, the muse for their latest project, the hops-fueled farce Beerfest, spotted them on a desolate publicity tour half a world away.
“We were promoting Super Troopers [in 2001], and 20th Century Fox sent us down to Australia,” recalls Erik Stolhanske, one of the five founding members of the Colgate University comedy crew that also includes Steve Lemme (who’s seated to Erik’s right), Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter, and Kevin Heffernan. “They wanted us all to don the cop uniforms and do public appearances, but the movie hadn’t even come out yet… They sent us to a tire store opening and then to a mall an hour outside of Melbourne, put us on this little three-foot tall platform in front of moms and kids in strollers, and introduced us (using a perfect Aussie accent) ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, from America, the Super Troopers.’”
“I mean these people didn’t know who we were. They all just sort of walked pass us. So, the next thing they wanted us to do was go to this beer garden [grand] opening [and do the same lame thing]. We were like ‘screw this!’ We thought it’d be a lot more fun if we challenged five of the [audience’s] best drinkers. Well, that got us instant attention, as all of these guys are charging up the stage.”
To which Steve adds in an overly exaggerated voice, “What? These Yanks think they can outdrink us?”
With a laugh, Erik (who played rookie Vermont police officer Rabbit in Super Troopers) continues, “So, we had a drink-off, and they just barely beat us. But, then all of a sudden, we were instant friends… We just thought it’d be a fun environment to have every country bring their top five drinkers [to a competition] and base a movie on it.”
“Yeap,” Steve (who’s notable for his mustachioed madman role of Mac in Troopers) agrees. “Kevin just threw out the title, and we ran with it.”
While a film about ‘a tag-team of lovable losers’ (as Stolhanske calls them) trying to win their dignity in the only way they know how (by consuming mass quantities of suds in a Fight Club meets Bloodsport type of tournament) may not sound as revolutionary as discovering a scientific law or a life-saving medication, Broken Lizard’s dedication to their craft is still quite impressive. These guys will go to any lengths to make their comedy work, whether that means filming while soaking wet during a freezing February night in Albuquerque, New Mexico (as Erik and Paul Soter had to for this film) or almost going into a diabetic comma while drinking pancake syrup (as Erik and Jay Chandrasekhar did in the filming of Super Troopers). That’s not to say everyone is on-board with the films these five crude-humor guys are trying to make. In an earlier draft of the film, they planned to have the main characters develop their own American Oktoberfest to squash the German’s traditional celebration with their hook being to allow under-age drinking within the confines of a Native American reservation.
“Strangely, Warner Brothers wasn’t going to let us do that,” said Steve sarcastically.
Yet, when their chips were down after the flop of their 2004 Troopers follow-up Club Dread, good fortune came their way in the form of a very famous fan.
“Adam Sandler was very instrumental in getting Beerfest made,” states Steve. “Just after Super Troopers came out, he called us into his office and said, ‘I think you guys are the real deal… but, I think you’ll have a hard time doing ‘R’-rated comedies, so if you ever need any help, let me know. So, when Club Dread came out and performed poorly at the box office that first week, Adam called and said, ‘I think you guys will need my help now.’ So he asked us to pitch him ideas, we threw out Beerfest, he loved it, and we developed it at Happy Madison (Sandler’s production company).”
So, why is Warner Brothers and not Sony, Adam’s usual home studio, releasing this movie?
“Well, right at the time we were finalizing our deal, Deuce Bigaloo 2 came out [and subsequently tanked],” explains Erik. “Sony just sort of felt burned by the whole ‘R’-rated comedy thing. So, that’s when Warners made the offer to buy it away from them.”
Were the guys pressured by the corporate honchos to tone down their humor a bit and make Beerfest ‘PG-13’?
“Surprisingly the opposite,” Erik subtly states. “They actually wanted more. They wanted us to push it.”
As Steve remembers it, “the head of the studio Alan Horn said they were going to look the other way on this one. After some very positive test screenings, they actually gave us extra money to go out and film bawdier material.”
So, is it difficult to sign more classical actors (like Brian Cox in Super Troopers and Jürgen Prochnow in Beerfest) to take part in Broken Lizard’s brand of raunchy comedy?
“It’s a whole lot easier than you’d think,” quips Steve.
“Like with Coxy in Super Troopers,” Erik responds using the group’s affectionate nickname for Brian Cox, “he’s always offered the most serious roles, like Hannibal Lecter [in Manhunter]… these guys just don’t get comedy offered to them often. So, when they do, their eyes go big. Coxy was a big Jerry Lewis fan, and he always wanted to play broad physical comedy. So, he was just thrilled to have been offered that role and he just ‘went off’ on it.”
Though, it had to be easier to get a well-known comic actress like Cloris Leachman (who plays Erik’s great-grandmother Gam Gam in Beerfest) to go along with your humor?
“Oh yeah,” Erik exclaims enthusiastically. “She’s bawdy as hell and would go just about anywhere the joke goes.”
“You know, it sounds clichéd, but we actually did write this character with Cloris in mind. We were like, who could play Gam Gam and there was only one choice… She shows up on set and was dirtier than the five of us combined. She had no problem being a former German whore,” adds Steve.
“Though,” Erik interjects, “there was one joke with a [summer] sausage she wouldn’t do [concerning her swallowing it]… she wouldn’t do it, because she said she has grandchildren.”
“Yeap, the prop guys developed a telescopic sausage and everything, but oh well…” Steve concludes.
As for Broken Lizard’s future, the five pals who met at college and just won’t let their lifetime keg party end are now in high demand, actually more for the work they can do behind the camera as they are for what they can do in front of it. When asked about what’s on their plate, Steve rattles off five or six projects they are writing, producing, or directing (with their first non-Lizard production being last summer’s amped-up modernization of the 80’s TV series The Dukes of Hazard).
“Yeah, with our production deal, we can do a lot of different things… I’d be happy if we could step up [our success level] a notch and have [Broken Lizard] be who the studio wanted to make movies for,” said Steve, “but, you have to consistently make films that make like $100 million consistently, and we’re not there yet.”
“[Success would be] just to be able to continue to make the films we wanted to make,” adds Erik.
To which Steve concludes, “Absolutely, you always want to be able to make that next movie… You may not realize it, but [even after our success] it’s still a hustle.”
Photography credit: Heather Seebach
©2006 Thomas Huff and Joel Fowler, BlownPotential.com