Early last week I had the honor and the privilege (and vice versa) to sit down for a chat with Thomas Mann (TM), Oliver Cooper (OC), and Jonathan Daniel Brown (JDB), the three leads of the Nima Nourizadeh-directed, Todd Phillips- and Joel Silver-produced PROJECT X, a teen comedy/found footage mash-up that, for once, lives up to the hype (and the controversy). While conservative-minded pundits and critics will hate PROJECT X’s unapologetic celebration of wanton debauchery and hedonism, less conservative-minded critics and moviegoers may just find themselves rooting for the central characters to pull off the high-school-party-to-end-all-high-school parties. Vicarious thrills and wish-fulfillment fantasies are, after all, one of the primary reasons why we return to multiplexes on a regular basis.
VA: This might seem like an obvious place to start, but I am curious…the chemistry in the film is actually pretty awesome. What kind of prep work or hanging out did you guys do prior to shooting?
TM: That’s what we did. We hung out.
JDB: They set up play dates for us.
OC: We went to Disneyland once.
VA: Chuck E. Cheese…
OC: We had the same thing in common – we all had the same thing in common. This was a huge break for all of us. If you’re an established actor, you sometimes get lost in the shuffle. It’s just another movie for you.
JDB: For us, this was a big deal. We were all about hanging out, even when they didn’t tell us to hang out. What are you doing Wednesday night? We still hang out.
TM: We’d get together, help each other with lines when we started shooting. We all wanted to do well.
OC: I’m dyslexic…
JDB: Don’t make it about pity.
OC: They’re good people. Will we be friends the rest of our lives? In some way or another.
TM: We had the same enthusiasm going into the project, since it’s such a new thing for all of us. So I think if, like OC said, one of us was an established actor, the dynamic would have been different.
OC: The way this industry works…this was the first audition that I went on. I was so excited to put so much time and effort into trying to get this part. The more auditions you go on, the more of a drag they become. It’s not so special. I feel that the more movies you do…you lose that excitement.
TM: For us, we were all excited for the opportunity.
VA: If the script was set up prior to shooting, you guys started hanging out, getting along great, did that change the dynamic while you were shooting or did you just stick to the script?
OC: The script was reworked to fit us…
JDB: To fit our characters specifically and what we could bring to the characters…
TM: We did a lot of rehearsals, every day for a couple of weeks before we started shooting. And that’s when the script changed a lot. They kind of molded the characters to be a little more like us. Like his character (OC), he pretty much created in the auditions. They liked what he brought to the character.
OC: I went [to the audition] with a sweater vest on. I wore it because I didn’t have anything nice to wear. I thought…you go on an audition, you have to look nice.
VA: The same Lacoste sweater vest?
OC: I wore a sweater vest that my mom brought me. They also laughed. They asked me, ‘Are you from New York?’ I told them, no, I wasn’t. But they thought my voice…I guess, a high-pitched voice. At that point, I had shorter, slicked-back hair. They thought I was this New York Jew.
JDB: He’s a Toledo [Ohio] Jew.
TM: An Ohio Jew.
OC: So all that led to this character. I made some strong choices with this character, how I was playing this character in the auditions and improvising.
VA: Given the progression of the story and how extreme it gets, was it shot in sequence?
JDB: The party itself was shot pretty much chronologically. We used a working house with plumbing and water, so when we destroyed stuff, we really destroyed it. You really can’t go back once you break five windows. You can’t be, ‘All right, put all these windows back.’ Construction takes a while.
OC: There was a nighttime scene, the scene where the beer [bottle] gets blown up…that was real, that stove turned on.
JDB: It was pretty nuts, how we made this house completely alive and then proceeded to beat it to death.
VA: Where was it shot?
OC: We shot on the Warner Bros.’ lot.
TM: It very much was a house.
OC: The Warner Bros.’ lot we shot on, it’s called the ranch lot, a side lot. They have tons of houses. It’s really a whole neighborhood. We had the whole neighborhood to ourselves. They did so much construction on that house.
JDB: That one specifically…I could have lived in it.
TM: So it wasn’t a real house, but we treated it as if it was one. It’s cool for a ‘found-footage’ movie because it forces you to shoot around corners, through door cracks. It didn’t have any removable walls. There’s not a lot of green screen. Everything is really practical.
VA: How often was Dax the videographer on set?
TM: He was there every single day.
OC: He was there the most out of all of us. He had one or two days off.
TM: It was interesting because he and Ken Sang, the cinematographer, talked a lot. Basically, operating the camera as Dax, he has to follow Dax’s motivations I think, so they worked together a lot on that. Sometimes the cinematographer would wear the black trench coat and the boots in case we swiped by the camera or saw it.
VA: Because you were constantly interacting with him…
TM: Yeah, yeah.
VA: How did you guys interact with Nima [the director] on set?
JDB: Nima was fantastic. He’s just one of the most chilled, relaxed, nicest guys on the planet. We were shooting so much crazy shit, so much over-the-top, explosive scenes so much that could have easily fallen apart. Nima always kept his cool and was friendly. He was always open to talking. Something would be set on fire and he’d come over like nothing was happening.
OC: Obviously, the director has one of the most difficult jobs on a movie set. He’s dealing with so much. He’s overseeing so much, he has to be the most passionate one. He has to make sure we’re doing the right things, wearing the right things. He has to make sure everything looks real, everything looks the way he wants it to look. He had so many people chirping in his ear and yet he was really cool with us.
TM: It was really comforting to talk to him too. We were on the set with all these people. It’s a Warner Bros.’ movie.
JDB: … 300 extras…
TM: We’re unknowns and Nima’s also coming to this [as a relative unknown]. It’s his first big thing so we kind of shared that with him. We talked to him on the same level. And that was really necessary and that made us feel a lot better.
OC: It made us feel like we weren’t outsiders.
VA: Was there anything that you guys pitched on set or was too extreme that Nima just pulled the plug and said, ‘No, we can’t go that far.’
JDB: We didn’t pitch the extreme stuff. He was definitely open to ideas and we got the chance to play around a little.
OC: I pitched one idea before reshoots: ‘I’ve gotta do cocaine in this movie.’ [Response:] ‘No, I’m not doing coke in this movie.’
JDB: They could film a scene where a kid’s getting peed on by three people while his head’s in the toilet bowl.
OC: That got cut…
VA: I was going to say that doesn’t sound familiar.
TM: That’s too extreme. That got cut. It was this character who was cut I guess from being a character. Now he’s just an extra. He’s throwing up in the toilet and people are pissing on his head into the toilet. Three different guys…
JDB: Too dark, man…
VA: And those cuts came because….? Studio executives?
JDB: I’m sure Nima and Todd didn’t end up wanting it either. I mean, I don’t know. I just remember filming it.
OC: You know, one of the lucky things of working on a film with Todd Philips is that he’s done so much for the studio. We had a lot more freedom. He’s proven he knows what he’s doing that he could make whatever movie he wants. That played a huge part in this movie getting made and done the way it is.
VA: Was Philips a behind-the-scenes guy or was he on set a lot?
OC: No, no. He was on set. It’s his movie.
JDB: Without Todd on board, we’d never make this movie. If it had been made without him, it wouldn’t have had Nima, it wouldn’t have had anything wild and experimental… a monster movie feel.
OC: Todd and his producing partner were instrumental in getting it made. This was a baby of theirs.
VA: You had Joel Silver on there too.
JDB: That’s right. He’s the king of action movies.
VA: …which is weird for him to take on something like this.
JDB: Is it, though? I mean because toward the end of the movie, it did get borderline comedy slash thriller.
VA: Well that flamethrower… LETHAL WEAPON 4.
TM: Honestly, it felt like an action movie when we were filming that. It was intense.
OC: DIE HARD was hilarious at times.
VA: Was Silver on set?
JDB: He was on [set] a lot. Silver was on just as much as Todd, if not more.
OC: I’d say 40%-50% of the time.
JDB: He loved it. He loved the movie. He’s really passionate about it, just like Todd. We have this Holy Trinity. We have Nima, who’s this eye for this very distinct, cool visual feel. We have Todd, a comedic master. And we have Joel Silver, who’s the action king.
PROJECT X opened March 2nd at finer multiplexes near you.