The writers and stars take the cult series to the big screen
July 10th, 2006
After an extremely large cult following on Comedy Central, Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris, and Stephen Colbert decided to make a Strangers with Candy feature film. The only problem with that - getting a studio to pick it up.
Already associated with David Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, the trio took the Strangers with Candy film to Sundance in 2005; Warner Independent picked it up, wanted to change the film. Paul did not want to change the film, so WIP dropped the film.
A year later, they tried again - ThinkFilm picked up the flick and let the film stay as it is. Amy also noted it helped that Stephen became a nationwide phenomenon this past year. "Yeah, so; it worked out great because now Colbert's got a huge head, I mean a huge show. But it's better too then maybe more people will go see it because of him."
The show and film is a little out of the ordinary - Amy plays Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old woman who dropped out of high school 30 years ago, became a drug addict, a prostitute, and got thrown into jail. Her only regret is dropping out of school, so she decides to go back and finish her education - yeah, as I said, a little out of the ordinary.
When the Strangers with Candy TV show ended, all the fans wanted more Jerri. However, there were no plans to continue the series - and especially not make a film. But, no one ever really wanted Jerri to end. Amy said, "We're not a group; we were working on a book called Wigfield that Paul and Steve wrote that I contributed about six words to. And we were working on it - we were always talking about Jerri Blank or think about funny things that she would say. So Paul would always keep it in a folder on the computer and then at the end of the book - a digital folder - on his HD. And at the end he opened it and just thought, 'Oh, we have enough here to write a movie; we'll just write a movie.' So that's how it happened."
Paul joked, "We never decide anything; it was a short period of time that we gathered that material in. After the show wrapped, we sort of made a conscious effort to move as far away from Jerri Blank as we could. There was talk initially; I think if we had been aggressive, we could have done a studio version after the show. And there seemed to be that kind of enthusiasm in Los Angeles, but we weren't really interested in pursuing that. I don't think that - we had just done 30 episodes and we never really wrote with the thought that it's television. We did write them as short films because that was sort of the inspiration with after-school specials. Not sort of, that was a large part of the inspiration. So it was like we had written 30 short films of it, so we were sort of burned out. Besides, Stephen was having a moral collapse at the time."
Making a television show and making a movie are really starting to become one in the same. But Amy says the Strangers with Candy movie was a little different, "We didn't get to improvise as much as we did on the TV show, so that was a little harder. We had a script, but on the TV show I found we got to play around a little bit more. There were nights and days when you and Steve weren't even around, like the blind episode. It was just revealing like, 'Oh, they're not around. I can get bigger."
Paul jumped in with , "We shot on digital video, so that freed us up to improvise when you could just let it roll; the budget was actually tighter on the movie relatively speaking than it was on the TV show, so we had to be more careful sort of. And really after the first 10 episodes of the TV show, for some reason, people stopped paying attention at Comedy Central, so it was really like no adults around. We weren't around because we were writing the next episode."
In all my life, I've never thought a 46-year-old could return to high school. So with a vague title like Strangers with Candy, I had to know where they came up with Jerri's character. Amy said her alter-ego is from a friend; "I had the facial expression and the voice already. I used her in a lot of plays that my brother and I would write together, so she would be the actress and would have different backgrounds. Like an actress who's not versatile or she thinks she's versatile, but that look - how can you be that versatile when you look like Mike Dukakus? And then Dinello found that documentary of Florrie Fisher which is on the new DVD of a woman who had the past that Jerri has now. So we used part of that and part of this book I read every year about a schizophrenic girl, so I took some of that and what we already had."
Paul not only helped write the script for Strangers with Candy, he also directs the film, and he plays the art teacher in the school - the funny thing is he's not an artist, "Yeah, I don't think any of us think of ourselves as artists or actors - clowns we'll accept that label. Plus, you don't want to put yourself in - because you go, 'Picasso's an artist and oh wait. I can't be in that category,' or Norman Mailer is a writer. It's hard to put yourself into any of those categories, so I don't know."
Amy actually admitted to having a good artist eye. "Yeah, I'm good with coming up with the idea; I just don't know how to do it. But I have this book coming out in October; it's like an art book. I put a team together and art directed it - told them how I wanted it, how I wanted the eyes and very specific. We're all visual and pay attention to details."
Wondering if the success of this film will mean more Strangers with Candy? Well, according to Paul, nothing has been decided yet. "The thing about us is we've never planned any move; we have no strategy. We just do stuff on a whim, mostly so we can hang out together. We love the character, we love doing it and we love working together."
Amy has a good idea for a return of Jerri, "I want to do a Christmas movie for Jerri." In her best Jerri impression, she added, "To me, from me. What did I get? What did I get me from? I don't know."
When you become such an iconic character, it's hard to pick one favorite scene. But Amy did pick; "My favorite scenes are the Colbert and Dinello scenes; they're my favorite. My favorite scene was the table one; one day, I had one day off and I asked Paul if I could be an extra in the teacher's lounge. I'm the bartender in that."
For Paul, "It's the dinner scene because it seems closest to what we're familiar with, like suburban family having dinner, but then it's so weird and dysfunctional. I kind of like that."
If you're a fan of the Strangers with Candy TV series, you'll definitely be a fan of Strangers with Candy in theaters. It's currently open in Los Angeles and New York, and look for it to open nationwide in the coming weeks; it's rated R.