Matt Besser’s new product is a film version of their popular musical “Freakdance” which has run for the last two years at UCB’s LA theater. The movie is now available On Demand, on iTunes and Besser himself is on tour publicizing the movie with showings across the country.
Matt stopped by to talk about the movie, UCB training and all things imrov!
NB: Reviews of the movie have suggested that it really transcends the kind of derivative parody seen in Scary Movie and others of that ilk. Many of us start off imitating in order to cultivate our own voice. How did you avoid the pitfalls of parody and create something with a life of its own?
MB: When I was in Chicago we developed a form with Del Close called “The Movie.” When we first started working on it in rehearsals, we were all very frustrated including Del because everything seemed really silly and not that funny. Del stepped back from it and said: “I think you guys are looking down on the movie. The way you are performing these movies it’s like you are making fun of the genre. Rather than elevating the genre, rather than putting the genre up on a pedestal and showing how much you enjoy the different elements of it, you’re saying all these elements are lame. And if you have a different mind-set and put it up on a pedestal, it will come off really differently.”
The other epiphany [of the form] was: it’s not about the story. We already know the story of a western or a film noire. You are not going to come up with in 30 minutes some great plot that’s complex and worthy of being a movie.
Let’s just follow the story that we all know. Let’s hit these archetypes and within those scenes of each archetype, find the game of the scene.
That’s how I was trained.
When it comes to comedy movies, I’m just so not interested in the plot. In a great comedy movie like Bridesmaids was I really surprised at the end? Did I walk out of there saying: “What a great story?” No.
I didn’t think of the movie as a whole. I thought of it as a bunch of individual scenes and that’s really how I believe all great comedy movies are.
That is how we teach UCB. We say: “We are not up here improvising a narrative. We’re trying to find the game of the scene.”
I took that attitude with the movie. I didn’t say: “How am I going to make a story that makes fun of dance movies?” I was more interested with how every dance movie has the exact same plot. I parodied it and then I exaggerated that parody. I put absurdity on top of it.
That’s exactly what Rocky Horror Picture Show does. It follows the structure of the Frankenstein movie but you aren’t thinking when you are laughing: “Oh that really is what they do in the Frankenstein movie!”
They took the archetype of the haunted house and the Frankenstein monster that everyone is very familiar with. They used that as the basic story and did a bunch of weird absurd musical stuff on top of that. That’s how you do it: you create your own world instead of just making fun of your subject.
NB: How does something like this come together? I would assume you have a number of things you are working on, does one just feel right and you push it farther or are you just watching to see which pot boils first? How do you decide which ideas to follow?
MB: I always have a lot of things working at once, but you do kind of have to have one that you are focused on or it just never gets done.
Even now, I’m percolating other projects because when something occurs to you you don’t want to let it die, but you’ve got to focus one thing. That’s something I have learned over time.
When I first wrote Freakdance, I did actually write it as a movie. Then we did a reading of it and I realized I needed an education in how to make a musical. So we put it up on stage and it lasted for two years at UCB Los Angeles. A lot of rewriting happened in those two years. The movie never could have happened without putting it on stage and having that sort of workshop experience with it.
If the script I had written originally had been made into a movie, it would not have worked.
We did it once a week for two years. I feel sorry for people in real musicals; doing the same thing night after night 7 days a week. When you take people from an improv background, whether you ask them to or not, they are going to start improvising. And if the joke isn’t working, they are going to put their own spin on it. If the line didn’t work it was going to be changed. That was very, very helpful.
NB: How does improv fit into your career at this point? How do you consider Improv? Is it a creative tool? A starting place for comedians? A relationship builder?
MB: I improvise every Saturday and Sunday at ASSSSCAT. And we have been working on an improv book for like 5 years, which is almost done. And then I do the podcast improv4humans. It’s a big part of my life. It’s probably what I do best.
As far as my process goes: a lot of our sketches from UCB’s 2nd and 3rd season came from our shows. We taped all our shows and if something worked we would write that scene down and flesh it out. Now that I’m developing stuff that isn’t sketch, I don’t necessarily pull stuff from ASSSSCAT anymore.
NB: Looking forward you have succeeded at a lot of things people starting out in Chicago aspire to do, what do you still want to do? How has your vision of what’s next changed since you were younger?.
MB: When I moved to Chicago I was doing standup. And then I discovered improv at iO. By that point I was a huge “Kids in the Hall” fan. I started meeting all these other guys like Adam McKay and Ian Roberts and we just started telling one another, Let’s be the next “Kids in the Hall.” So that was an early goal: to be a great sketch group.
Nowadays, just like every other actor there are ideas I want to develop. Currently my career is doing single role on a sitcom kind of thing. Like anyone else I would like one of my sitcom ideas to make it past pilot.
NB: The idea from the movie came from raising money to keep UCB open and I know you turned down financing from major studios. What then is the process like of raising money for a project like this?
MB: It is expensive to make a film but we did it relatively cheaply; for about half a million, which is really cheap especially considering the number of actors we had in the movie. The cast was the biggest cost of the film. We shot it in 13 days and did everything on the production side ourselves.
Not many people know this but we don’t take any money from UCB schools and put it into our own pockets. All the money goes into creative projects. When we first started it we decided that if we ever got into the black we would use the money for creative endeavors. And it took us many years to get to that point but that’s what we do with it.
And it’s great because there are no notes. I mean there are from other UCB people but none from the kind of people that turn a funny movie into a mediocre one.
NB: What is considered success for a film like this? When is it over? When do you say, “We did it!”?
MB: I would say the first time we screened it. I only just saw it a real movie theater with Dolby surround sound system in Portland and then again in Atlanta. So I feel like only just now am I getting to see it on the big screen sounding how it’s supposed to sound and looking like it’s supposed to look.
NB: Can you talk a little about Improv4humans. There are remarkably few podcasts with actual improv on them. What’s your goal or interest here?
MB: We are around the 25th episode. I’m surprised there are not more improvised podcasts though it is a little difficult to do. It’s not like improvising on stage. You don’t have the crowd. It does throw the improvisers off just a little bit. We had to develop a way to edit and tag out with our eyes. So it did take a little getting used to. But now that it’s found its rhythm, I think we’re doing a pretty solid job with it.
One nice difference is the different sources of inspiration for the scene versus doing it on stage. Like we will do a man on the street interview or Ill read a letter from my dad. Or the main thing we do is get suggestions from tweets. So it’s cool to incorporate all those different platforms.
We originally started the podcast after Scott Aukerman from earwolf.com pretty much just asked me to do it. I had it in the back of my mind for a while. We had done ASScat as a podcast, but we weren’t really happy with the audio quality of recording live so there was always that thing of how do we do an improv podcast. And once he asked me that gave me the challenge to try to figure it out.
NB: How can you see the movie and support it?
MB: The movie is “On Demand” on your cable system and available on iTunes. So is the soundtrack. The DVD release will be in July so you can keep an eye out for that too.
To get general info on it get to freakdancemovie.com.
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