"The D Train" stars Jack Black as an unpopular guy who, desperately trying to prove himself, invites the most popular person in his class to come back for their high school reunion in hopes of riding his coattails. It's also a movie about something else, with a big secret that made it the talk of Sundance.
Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel co-wrote and co-directed the movie — their first feature that they've directed. The two talked a lot about that secret scene, alluded to in the trailer, considering how it would affect the experience of viewers if they either knew or didn't know.
"I think that there is something cool about going into the movie not knowing, and thinking that it's one thing, and being surprised by what happens," Paul says, "but it's still kind of surprising even if you kind of know it's coming."
"There's something about the movie, the way it unfolds, that you don't know when it's going to happen, and there's a couple moments where you could think it's going to happen and it doesn't," Mogel says. "It's not 'The Crying Game.' It's not like it ruins the movie if you know what happens."
That big twist — possible spoiler alert — required Black and co-star James Marsden, who plays his good-looking actor classmate, to get physical with each other.
"The guys were very curious with what our plan was in shooting that scene, and how extensive the coverage was," Mogel says.
"And we were always just very vague about it. We're all, 'Ahhh, we'll just get in there and get the bare minimum!" Paul says.
"And in the script it was very vague too. So we just kept that mystery going and just implied that we were going to shoot it for three days with 30 angles," Mogel says.
Ultimately, the actors ended up being very comfortable with the scene. Paul notes that they were aided by taking shots of alcohol.
The writer/directors didn't go to their own high school reunions but say they know what it's all about.
"If you didn't have the perfect high school experience, like most of us didn't, I think it brings back that part of you that wants to go back and impress everybody with what you did. And no matter what you did, it doesn't stop you from feeling like you did when you were back in high school," Mogel says.
"High school makes or breaks you. As a person," Paul says. (Warning: This clip contains strong language.)
Paul and Mogel landed Jack Black in the lead even though he doesn't usually work with first-time directors. They got him thanks to Mike White, a producer on the film who had a longtime relationship with the actor, including writing "School of Rock" and "Nacho Libre."
"He gave it to Jack, and Jack liked the script, and Mike kind of vouched for us to him as directors. I don't know why — he didn't know we could direct a movie any better than Jack did," Paul says.
The writer/director team met with Black and say they gelled with him and that he saw the film the same way. Black's busy schedule meant they had a tight window to shoot — just 21 days.
Marsden, for his part, was reportedly excited about the movie.
"We heard that James really had read it, and really liked it, and wanted to meet us, and so it came from his reading it and really responding to it and connecting with that guy," Paul says.
"The second we sat down with [Marsden], we were like, oh my god, he's perfect. He gets it. He was talking about tiny details, like of wardrobe and things, in the first meeting," Mogel says.
"And he knows a lot of guys like this, and you could tell by him talking about them, those details," Paul says.
While Marsden plays a guy who seems like a big deal to the people at this high school, the character's one big credit is a Banana Boat commercial. (Warning: This clip contains strong language.)
"When you take a small piece of celebrity and you take it to a small town, or you take it out of L.A., it expands. To that town, he's a huge celebrity, because he's on TV," Mogel says. "In L.A., he's a dime a dozen — and we know hundreds of guys like that."
Paul and Mogel say the movie is really about how far you'll go to be accepted, and how you handle rejection, which they delve into after the big twist. The movie is like the darker side of a John Hughes film, but despite the darkness, they say you can still feel uplifted and hopeful at the end.
"One of our friends came to us at the end of the premiere the other night, and goes, 'Why do I feel good at the end of that movie?'" Paul says.
"You get the sense that this guy went through hell, but it's going to be brighter on the other side," Mogel says.
The movie almost didn't happen — they had last-minute financial problems in pre-production.
"We were dead, they told us to pack up and go home," Mogel says.
"And we were honestly packing up and going home from New Orleans, and then [Sony] stepped in the day before," Paul says — Sony picked it up with the idea of selling it at a festival.
They also didn't have their actors on set — the Screen Actors Guild keeps them from showing up until the money is in. They'd been working on the movie for three years.
"We were dying. We were saying, I cannot believe... if we go back to L.A., we didn't know what we were going to do," Mogel says.
The lesson: "Make sure the person who's paying for the movie has money," Mogel says.
Paul and Mogel have been a writing team for a long time, with similar sensibilities. They say that directing together felt like an extension of that.
"It was basically us again — what do we need, what do we want, what do we think it should be?" Mogel says.
They say it was a big transition going from writers to directors in the film world.
"When we're just writing, we got walked all over and just treated like s---, because that's what happens with movies with the writer. The writer's just the least important person. Whereas the director, you're in control of the whole thing," Paul says.
Directing taught them a lot, Paul says.
"You learn a lot about problem-solving, and you learn a lot about what you need to do to get what you want. A lot of people, I think, tried to take advantage of our first-timeness. And they were testing us, like, 'Oh no no no no no, because if you go too late this day, you're not going to be able to light the second floor on the next day.'"
Mogel says a lot of times they gave in to people telling them what they couldn't do, but looking back, they realize times they could have said no to certain people. Still, they said they were proud that they'd managed to stretch their budget pretty far.
"Inevitably, you have smart people around you telling you things. And they're not wrong — at some point it becomes a taste thing, also, where you just have to figure out how important it is to you," Mogel says.
They thought of the script as something they could direct while they were writing it. Rather than leaving certain stage direction for the director to figure out, they wrote more specifically, writing it how they'd want to shoot it and figuring that out on the front end.
The lesson they took about directing from other projects that they brought into this one: How to treat people.
"For us, it's [not] treating people with anything less than respect and courtesy. We've seen people being treated like s---," Paul says.
"And we never understand why it has to be that way. Making a movie or a TV show, it doesn't seem worth it," Mogel says. Their mission statement for this movie: "To not be a-------. Especially on a movie like this, we had so many people working really hard and not making a lot of money, including the actors. Everybody's just kind of buying into this movie."
They'd worked together on a TV show before, which helped give them the hunger for directing.
"We're control freaks," Paul says, and "the writer kind of controls the show in a lot of ways, in TV. And so we had done a show where we were directors, in a way, of that show."
"When you write, you write it, and the chances of it getting made are tiny...and the chances of you being involved in it at that point are probably tiny, so we were just like, we want to see it through," Mogel says.
The hope for Paul and Mogel now: that they get to make another movie — though hopefully with a little more time and a little more money.
"We went in thinking, if anyone saw this and let us make another one, that would be a victory right there," Mogel says.
They've bought the rights to a Wired article about beating a video poker machine thanks to a glitch in the machine, with Jonah Hill attached, so that could end up being on the docket. They'll be watching the box office results on "The D Train" closely, hoping that helps secure them their next step.
The movie opens Friday, May 8.