How to Talk to Strangers With Candy
By Andy Spletzer
June 30, 2006
"Don't betray... betry!"
The prequel to the cult hit TV show, Strangers With Candy, has had a strange and difficult journey to the big screen. For those who don't know, it's your typical story of an ex-con former junkie whore who, as a 47-year-old, decides to end her years of being a runaway by going home and picking up right where she left off... as a high school freshman. The movie premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and was immediately picked up by Warner Independent, but was then shelved for nearly a year because of "clearance issues." Luckily, ThinkFilm picked it up and decided to actually release it.
I had the good pleasure of speaking with the creators and stars of Strangers With Candy at the Sundance Festival: Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello have the easy rapport and playful infighting of friends who have been working together for years. For example, at the end of the interview, Stephen let out a loud "Fuck!" after smashing his finger between two tables. Amy immediately turns to me and says, "I hope you got that on tape. Can we hear it? Rewind it!" Our conversation took place just before they went into meetings with distributors to sell the movie.
17 months later, I spoke with director/star Paul Dinello after the movie had a wildly successful, sold-out Gala screening at the Seattle International Film Festival. We spoke about the delay in the movie's release, the changes he made to it since the Sundance screenings, and his take on the cults that are slowly forming around his friends Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris.
The first question I have - I was wondering if you wanted me to ask it in a confrontational manner or just as a standard question?
Stephen: Bring it! Bring the fucking hammer down! We need it. We deserve it.
So you take a pretty actress, you ugly her down, make her a prostitute... isn't this a boldfaced grab for an Oscar?
Paul: You saw through us!
Stephen: If we don't get a nod next year -
Amy: Films like this don't get nominated.
Paul: Yes they do.
Stephen: I'll quit the business if we don't get a nomination!
Paul: We were going to even make her retarded, just to hedge our bets.
What kind of changes did you have to make in order to make it a prequel? I know you had some casting changes.
Paul: We didn't make those changes based on the prequel-ness of it. I mean, it's only partially a prequel, then it sort of passes up the time that the show is and then maybe, I don't know, it covers everything. In some instances actors weren't available and in others they had sort of outgrown their roles. We liked the feeling of placing young high school students against Jerri Blank, and if you have a 40-year-old Derrick, it sort of takes away from that.
Amy: The only one who didn't age was Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer), thank God.
Paul: Which is odd because she's, like, 42. That actress.
The music was great.
Stephen and Paul: That was Marcelo Zarvos.
When did he come into the process?
Amy: He was pretty much the last one, right?
Paul: I had a lot of temp music in, so he had -
Amy: Tell him where the temp music came from.
Paul: Shawshank Redemption and Schindler's List.
Amy: It's a comedy!
Paul: Well, we knew we always wanted the music to be overly dramatic, to play against the ridiculousness of the situations.
Amy: And to manipulate feelings.
Stephen: Exactly. To underscore the pathos of each moment.
Paul: But Marcelo worked non-stop. I would go over to his house, he would show me stuff and we would talk about it and stay up all night and rework it. Then he flew to Prague in a whirlwind, recorded it there, and we got it in at the last minute. He didn't sleep. He showed up at the sound mix with his stuff and we slapped it in and it was perfect.
The movie does have a very strong Schindler's List vibe.
Amy: Oh good, that's what we want.
Stephen: But more uplifting.
Paul: But not as funny.
I'm curious about the writing process and how you guys work together.
Stephen: We improvise for each other.
Paul: We create an outline and figure out what the scenes are going to be. We order those and sort of figure out what we need and what's missing, and then to flesh out the scenes and, like, we'll say, "This takes place in a bar and Jerri is trying to pick this person up, but what it's really about is that she's searching for some information." Then we'll just improvise in the characters voices and flesh out the scene that way.
Speaking of structure and scenes, I like the way that you justified the weeklong span of the movie through the sudden and desperate need to win the science fair.
Stephen: We found in the series that we always worked up to an event that would change the students' lives if it were successful or unsuccessful, like a dance. Afterschool Specials tended to have that. It gives you a lot of license. You don't have to worry about the structure so much, because just the want of the person gives you the structure; it's the want to succeed at this thing at the end of the movie, and so you can play a lot more.
Amy: We did it in Wigfield, too. We pretty much had a week to prove we were a town.
Stephen: One month. One month!
Amy: It was one month.
Stephen: But which month?!?
[To Paul] I read that it was almost a surprise when you were asked to direct this?
Amy: We've always wanted Paul to direct something. He was the perfect person.
Stephen: We knew it would be the perfect thing for him to do, and we convinced him that he should do it also -
Amy: - and that he should put us in it.
Stephen: I hope he's convinced it was the right thing for him to do, because it obviously was.
So a lot of the Afterschool Specials have messages. I was wondering, what's the message of this film?
Stephen: Don't betray... betry!
Paul: That no matter how hard you try, you cannot change your lot in life. It's all futile.
Amy [as Jerri Blank]: People don't change. Changes. Changeless.
Are you going to go back and work on some sort of a show? Or are you splitting up?
Stephen: We would like to work with each other, but we just don't know.
Amy: We were never a team or a group in the first place, so we can't split up.
Paul: We have a couple scripts that we wrote that have parts for Amy -
Stephen: - and ourselves.
Paul: We'll probably do another film at some point where we'll all be included in various ways.
To each of you, what are you doing next?
Stephen: More Daily Show for me.
Amy: Crafty Beavers and I are working on a hospitality book. So I'm working on that when I get back.
Paul: I'm going to do another film.
Stephen: We want to do another film with him, too. We've got three different ideas; we just don't know what to do.
Paul: We've got to see if the money's right.
Amy: I always thought it'd be funny at the end of Strangers where you decide this was Jellineck's film all along. You know what I mean? So we actually are all playing ourselves.
Stephen: A Geoffrey Jellineck production.
Amy: Yeah, that way it would be an excuse for anything anybody has a problem with... it would be Jellineck's fault.
Stephen: Oh, that was Jellineck. That edit? That was Jellineck.
Last question is about the distribution prospects. Does it look good?
Amy: We've had a lot of people call that are interested.
Stephen: Yeah, we just had a meeting about it.
Paul: Six or seven companies are sort of...
Stephen: And um, well, you'll be the first to know. We're finding out soon.
Amy: Why? You interested?
"They're the funniest people in the world."
Paul Dinello has cut his hair, but that hasn't altered his easygoing charm. We sat down in the Hospitality Suite of the Seattle International Film Festival and picked up right where we left off. He was flattered to find out that Strangers With Candy was the hottest ticket at SIFF, and says, "There must be a lot of misfits in Seattle. And I applaud it, because I'm one too."
When last we talked -
Paul Dinello: So much has changed since then. I'm a different person. I've had a lot of counseling, a lot of therapy.
- the three of you at Sundance were about to go into meetings to field about seven different offers for distribution of the film. What has your journey been like since then?
It rolled on for a while, then it's been a lot of hurry up and wait. Well, I'll just tell you: Warner Brothers picked it up in one of those infamous late-night wrangling sessions at five o'clock in the morning that's sort of famous for Sundance, that you hope that your film is involved in. So we were really excited and Warner seemed like a good company. Then when I went to LA and started working on the film again (I wasn't really finished). I seemed to have a good working relationship with them, and then some sort of problems arose. They stated that there were clearance issues or something. They wanted us to clear, like, a thousand things in the film.
Like posters in the background? It wasn't anything like music, was it?
No, it was mostly artwork. So it just became impossible to deliver what they wanted.
My take, because I had been following the story, is that they got cold feet for some reason.
You know, that could be. There's no official word and the head of Warner Independent is no longer running the company. It seems vague to me, but that certainly seems as likely as any of the official reasons. I mean, if they had gotten cold feet, they couldn't really have said that, so that's a possibility.
It seems like the most passive aggressive way to drop the film.
Legally, I don't want to - and it left such bad feelings - I don't want to reopen a can of worms. But the good thing is, there was a point where lawyers were getting involved and it was the kind of thing where the movie could have been slapped in a vault for years and years of legal trouble. And then the clouds cleared, and they agreed to not sue each other, and then ThinkFilm swept in, like, within a day and picked up the film and then we started again. But we lost a lot of time.
When was that?
ThinkFilm has only been involved for, I don't know, three or four months. Three maybe? I was in LA working on the film for about three months and then the impasse happened. That was about eight months of waiting, so we lost a lot of time. I was worried that people would think that maybe the studio thought the movie was bad, because I always think that when movies don't come out when they're supposed to. I think, "Oh, it's a stinker." But people seem to like it, so it will all be forgotten, I hope. It seems like the movie is coming out when it's supposed to.
Worldwide Pants, were they involved with the TV show or just the movie?
No, originally an independent producer called me. He's a friend of mine - Mark Roberts, from LA - and said, "I have these silent business partners who have this cash, and if you make a movie I'll just give you the money. You'll have total control and freedom." So I wrote a script with Stephen and Amy, and we went into preproduction and blocked off time - you know, we have some big name stars who had really short windows. I mean, Sarah [Jessica Parker] had, literally, three days that she could do it. So I scheduled all the time, and it had to be done during that block of time because Sarah was going off to do movies and Matthew [Broderick] had his thing, and Philip [Seymour Hoffman] did, too. We had a one-month window, and then my friend said, "Guess what. Those guys high-tailed it out of town and they took all the money."
We literally had to find someone in a week, so he sent the script to Worldwide Pants. Amy already had a relationship with them - David Letterman loves her - and they stepped up to the plate within a week. There wasn't even time to work on contracts and stuff. They had to open up an account, stick money in it and work on the details later. And they did. They were great partners. They essentially said, "You guys have done 30 episodes. We're going to assume you know what you're doing, and we're going to let you do it." It worked out great, and we were happier. Letterman's an idol of mine, and if I could pick any partner in the world it would be Worldwide Pants.
Amy herself is kind of -
What's your take on her career arc?
Both her and Stephen, I think they're the funniest people in the world, and both brilliant in different ways, so it doesn't surprise me. I mean, I thought they were stars when I met them 20 years ago. Before I knew her, I saw Amy perform in what was called the Players Workshop, part of an improv training center, and she was already - as soon as I saw her perform, I was like, "Oh my god. She's ready to be a star now. " So it doesn't surprise me. I'm surprised they weren't big stars 20 years ago. But that's just because they both have souls. They're both more concerned with doing good work and their ambitions are in check. Not that ambition is a bad thing, but neither of them has the concern to be famous. They're not motivated by that. So that's the only reason they weren't big stars 20 years ago: they're more interested in the work, and doing good work, and they've consistently done good work. It's just, people are taking notice now.
One thing I wasn't surprised by when I met him, but maybe I was just a little bit because of his persona, was just how nice Stephen comes across in person.
Because he seems like a cold hearted bastard.
I understand the alter-ego thing...
He's a father of three. He's a wonderful father, lives in the suburbs, and is a wonderful husband. Yeah, I couldn't think of a more loyal, more trustworthy person. He's got a huge heart. I can't say enough nice things about him. Except he's jealous of my work. He's jealous of my skill. He's stolen a lot of stuff from me, and he's a heavy drinker. [Laughs] No, the guy doesn't have any negatives. That makes you want to hit him. He makes us all look bad.
It's been nice seeing you on The Colbert Report every now and again.
We're trying to find ways for me to fit in. You know, he's created a character where he sort of has to be in control of his whole show, so it's hard for people to come on and be characters. But he's looking for ways to take the weight off of his shoulders, because it's essentially him talking for 22 minutes.
It's all about him. That's part of his character.
Right. But he's starting to realize, "Wait a minute. It's all about me, which means I have to be on camera the whole time," and that's fatiguing. Um, but we'll figure out ways to take that pressure off.
What would Bill O'Reilly do?
Right, and Bill O'Reilly would never be off camera. That's the thing. He never wants to relinquish talking.
I hadn't seen the movie since before he had his show, and I was amused to see how similar the character is.
"I would have trouble breaking up with me, too."
"I know what you're missing... I'm not pushing you away, I'm pulling me towards myself." He's great at playing that kind of character. Just detached and cold and self-involved.
It takes a nice guy to be able to pull that off.
I think it does.
Otherwise it wouldn't be so engaging. You wouldn't be drawn to it. You'd be repulsed.
You'd find it repellant. Right. I think mostly we find that trait in humans hilarious. All the characters in the movie share that quality. I mean, they're not as cold as Noblet, but they're all self-serving.
Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick) is just as bad, like there's something about science teachers that inflates their egos.
And I love the idea that this local high school science teacher thinks of himself as this big celebrity. In his own little world, he is.
He did make the cover of Regional High School Teacher Weekly.
That's right, he did.
Part of it is the Afterschool Specials themselves, which are such a rich goldmine of comedy. There's something about being so self-serious...
Well, anything that tries to teach morals really opens itself up to mockery. You have to get up on a pedestal to teach people morals, and you've got to take yourself so seriously.
When I was younger, I would watch He-Man, and at the end of every episode, they would have a moral that would have nothing to do with the rest of the episode.
That's like something they use to justify its existence. I went to go see... I can't think of it, it was that exhibit where that guy - he does some process to human corpses. He flays the skin off and then he shows the central nervous system. [Gunther von Hagens.] It's right out of Hannibal Lecter's playbook. It's beautiful, but it's really creepy. They'll have a guy on a cross with his skin flayed open with a hideous screaming skull, and on a little display it'll have: "This is how the endochryne system works." He doesn't give a shit about how the endochryne system works. Immediately, I'm going, "Oh, he's trying to package this like it's trying to teach you something." But you don't flay open a human - there's no scientific value besides, "That sure is cool-looking. Or hideous-looking." That's the same thing as sticking the moral on the end of He-Man. It looks like that part in Silence of the Lambs when he flays open that cop. Even in that, there was sort of something beautiful about it.
One thing in the movie - it rides kind of a fine edge - there is sort of a moral about racism.
There is? Yes. I mean, yes! Of course there is! That it's bad? Right, bad!
That it exists. As Jerri Blank says at the end, "You know what? You're a racist."
Oh right, at the end, "The point is, you're a racist. Think about it, I haven't." The film, after its run, ought to be shown in schools.
Which reminds me of Megawatti Sucarnaputri (Carlo Alban). He refers to the fact that, well, there's a famous Megawatti Sucarnaputri?
That was the President of Indonesia. I think she's since retired, but when we were writing, we would be reading stories and Indonesia kept popping up, and that was the President, Megawati Sucarnaputri. We were trying to think of a nationality to give the character that you don't hear about that much that would be kind of hard to insult because we don't really know that much about. Like, Stephen and I will always insult Laplanders because nobody really knows anything about them, really. But anyway, we picked Indonesia and we had been reading stories. We thought he was a man and that name stuck. To our uncultured ears, to our Neanderthal ears, Megawati Sucarnaputri sounds funny. So that's where that came from.
Have you been surprised by the reception of the TV show and the movie?
Yeah. It's a weird thing because when we were working on it - because we wrote, performed in it, produced it - we were really sort of squirreled away in this office, just writing all the time. And Comedy Central wasn't knocking on our door saying, "It's great. The fans love it." So we really didn't have any connection with the fans. It wasn't until we wrote a book and did this tour called Wigfield, that all these people who were Strangers fans were coming out. That was really the first time that we realized that we had fans. And then they released it on DVD and it has this whole new life, because I don't think that many people watched it when it was on the air. So yeah, it's incredibly flattering. I love it. I could go to a screening every night. I love to hear people laugh, and I love meeting the fans.
How has the movie changed in the last year and a half?
It was great going to Sundance. I made a lot of editing choices based on how it played. I went to all the screenings; it screened, like, seven times. You could just feel it, and it's great. The audience will tell you everything. I've cut out about 20 minutes since then.
I've seen it three times now, and each time it's gotten funnier.
Oh, that's good. We'll see how that works as it plays out in real life. Maybe it'll be like Titanic. I'd read stories about Titanic where 14-year-old girls would see it 18 times, or something.
That's your market.
[Laughs] I was really young when Rocky came out. I think I saw that probably 12 times. I mean, it's incomprehensible now. I can't sit through a movie twice, but I guess at that age... So we were smart to have it rated R so 14-year-old kids are barred, the people who would actually give us money.
What are you working on now?
I'm finishing a script, a feature, that I'm writing.
Yeah, I'd be really afraid to try and write a drama. There's that line from an old M*A*S*H - I was a kid and I remember that line because it's kind of my life - where Hot Lips says, "Can't you ever be serious?" And Hawkeye responds, "I tried to be serious once and everybody laughed." And that's my fear of writing drama, that people would laugh. I know I would. Whenever I hear myself trying to be sincere or serious, I think, "My god, shut up." That seems like the scariest thing in the world. I mean, you don't really know if it's good. If you wrote a great drama or a really shitty drama, the response would be the same: the audience would be silent. Unless it was bad enough where they hissed and were booing. But if it was just sort of bad or great, people would just be silent. With a comedy, you know if it fails. If there's no response, then you blew it.
I'm guessing you get that from stage work first, and now from going to screenings.
Right. That was the hardest thing, but I'm getting used to it now. I haven't really done theater in, I don't know, 12 years or something. That was the hardest thing. One is honing material in front of an audience. At Second City, you put up a scene, you might do it 30 times before it's actually technically in the show and you open it. It's always a work in progress, and you're just building it off the response. But it was really frightening to throw something out to an audience in its finished state for the first time without any reaction, and then not getting a reaction, which is why I like coming to festivals.
So you're finishing a script. Is there a title yet?
Right now it's called The Exorcists. It's about two young, renegade exorcist priests who are trying to break away from the fold. They're sort of hotshots, their egos get inflated, and they have a falling out like Lewis and Martin. Then they have to come back together and save the day.
So that'll keep you busy.
And I'm writing a book with Stephen. It's gonna be based on his show. We just started on that. And I'm sure I'll collaborate with Amy on her next thing.
When she finishes the hospitality book.
I think she's going to maybe try and do a hospitality show. She wants it to be on a small cable channel, I think, not that a large network would want to do it. So I think we're going to collaborate. I'll help her out with that.
And you mentioned that you're directing somebody else's script?
That was actually a script that Craig Kilborn brought me that he wants to do. It's a funny script. I was surprised, because I don't know how much experience he has. He wrote it with somebody else, but it was funny, so I'm going down to LA and we're going to work on the script. He's trying to get Luke Wilson involved. We'll see if he's interested. We're looking to shoot that towards the end of summer. It's called Spa Boys.
Like cabana boys, but -
- but spa. Exactly.