Behind the Camera with Lawrence Sher

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Photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage

Comedy movie directors may not get as much credit as they deserve. Yes, there is Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips, but how many people could name the director of Tommy Boy (Peter Segal) or Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin) or Superbad (Greg Mottola)? And how does one even become a comedy film director to begin with? For Lawrence Sher, who made his directorial debut with the Ed Helms-Owen Wilson movie Father Figures, which opens on Friday, it began with spending a lot of years next to some of those greats as a cinematographer, including Phillips.

Sher has worked as a director of photography for roughly 25 years, including on all three Hangover movies, Broken Lizard’s Club Dread, Garden State, Paul, and The Dictator. That means working alongside Phillips, Jay Chandrasekhar, Mottola, Zach Braff, and Larry Charles. He’s had countless hours working with some of the best and most well-reviewed directors of the 2000s and Father Figures – a film about two brothers who begin searching for their dad after finding out their mother had been lying about who their real father was for their whole lives – is his first submission to be counted among them.

Not just as a “comedy director” but as a film director who happens to be making a comedy.

You started working on films in the early-to-mid nineties and have had a ton of credits in the 2000s as a director of photography on some huge productions, but this is your directorial debut. Have you been wanting to direct that whole time, and why was this the project to be your first?

I had been wanting to direct from early on in shooting but didn’t really want to pursue it yet because I had a lot of things I wanted to do as a shooter. I hadn’t accomplished nearly enough things as a DP that I wanted to. So I was really just trying to build up both my experiences as a DP but also become better at it, and it took the time it took to do that. It wasn’t until I worked on The Dictator with Sacha Baron Cohen that I finally felt like – it’s not that I was even repeating myself, but I had done three Hangover movies, or I had done the second one at least, and I was in a place where I thought, “Okay, I’m doing a lot of comedies in a row – now might be the timing to have the opportunity.”

Because it’s hard to get the opportunity. I knew there was enough of an opportunity because of the movies that I had shot and the success of those movies, to get myself in the room to try to fight for those jobs to direct. If I didn’t strike somewhat while the iron was hot, that opportunity might pass me by. And so that’s when I started really pursuing the opportunity to direct, and like any movie, even the ones that seemingly are going on all cylinders, it takes time. So even this one took four or five years of pushing that rock up the hill.

Immediately in Father Figures I feel like there’s a certain tone to it that harkens back to some of those great comedies of the nineties and 2000s, including The Hangover movies that you did with Todd Phillips. Was that what we you going with for the opening and general tone of this movie?

I’m happy you brought that up, because how you open a movie is super important. Frankly, this movie actually has a little bit of a quiet opening in the sense that it doesn’t open with a huge bang of a thing. There were people on the other side of that who were arguing that it was too slow. The first couple minutes of every movie to me is the most important time of the movie because it’s in that time that you’re telling the audience what the tone of the movie is, and you’re establishing the parameters that all the comedy for the rest of the movie will fall into. It was important to me to have something grounded, something real. It was something that felt emotionally real. One of the things that I learned from Todd Phillips and some other filmmakers I’ve worked with is that comedy doesn’t have to be bright and candy-colored and it doesn’t have to be the things that I think sometimes we approach comedy as, and that making something feel authentic or real doesn’t make it less funny. In fact, to me those are the things that make it feel funnier, because you’re sort of in a place that feels familiar and real and suddenly when something outrageous happens, you can allow yourself to have more outrageous things happen – as opposed to something that already feels fantastical, well you expect those things.

How did Ed Helms and Owen Wilson, both of whom you’ve worked with on projects in the past, come to be your dad-seeking brothers in the movie?

Once we sort of landed at Alcon to make the movie it was pretty quick. Ed was on before Owen and once I sat down with Owen it was pretty immediate. I think Owen was also interested in telling something that was about family, brothers, and he was also interested in telling something that felt more real and grounded. Owen and Ed have both been in movies with all kinds of tones, but when I sat with Owen he was really interested in telling something that could have funny, outrageous things, which do exist in this movie, but also had real moments. The tone can really shift in this movie a lot, and I think he was interested in that the same way that I was.

On the non-traditional acting side, former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw plays himself in Father Figures and seems to hold his own alongside Wilson, Helms, and Ving Rhames.

I grew up a Steelers fan in the seventies, in the heart of the Terry Bradshaw era, so he was already godlike to me as a child. Initially in the script it was a guy named Jack Tibbs and it was a fictitious NFL player, but he was basically Terry Bradshaw. Once we talked about it we said “Why not really get Terry Bradshaw?” I think Alcon was the one that initially said “Why not consider it?” because he was great in Failure to Launch, and I thought “You know, of course!” From a pure storytelling standpoint, it already puts you more in that reality place because if you start with a fictitious player and that same tone thing, here it’s a real human being. It’s a real guy.

Once I met with him I knew he could do it, but the thing that’s remarkable about Terry is that, like a lot of comedies, there was always room for a little bit of improv. And improv is extremely difficult to do when you have other actors in the scene because it’s like a dance in which everybody has to be, more important than anything, listening. Instead of sort of waiting for your moment to jump in and say something funny, mostly you just have to really be listening and reacting, and I think what was so amazing about Terry is that he was remarkable about that. It didn’t matter what the take was – he was always engaged, always listening, and it made him really, really good in any scene. Much better than maybe I would have even expected, because I knew he could deliver the lines and be great onscreen, but that part of it surprised me and I think it surprised Ed and Owen as well. I’ve seen really, really good actors not do it as well.

You worked as DP on all three Hangover movies, and I think that first one was truly a milestone for how comedies looked and felt. What was the intention on “the look” going into the first Hangover movie?

For me, as a cinematographer, it was something that I had always sort of believed in – a little bit about my own personal aesthetic but it was also something that I believed – which is that I didn’t believe comedies had to look like what “comedies” were looking like or what they were supposed to look like, and that making a comedy that feels a little bit real, or grittier, or just a little more aggressive, didn’t make it less funny. I didn’t shoot Old School but I was a big fan, and watching that, there were elements of that that made me think “Oh man.” I remember thinking Todd, as a filmmaker, probably had the same theory and sensibility that you could have it look a little more authentic and real and even in a fantastical story like Old School, wouldn’t hurt it. In fact it would make it better. So we really approached The Hangover with that in mind.

Was there ever a sense on set that you had such a massive hit on your hands?

You can never predict the success that movie had. That was lightning in a bottle. But I do remember, thankfully we started that movie in Vegas and you take these three disparate guys who, at the time, none of them were big stars, and I remember a couple weeks into the shoot, maybe ten days in, having a very clear sense that the movie was going to be much better than the sum of its parts. Suddenly it was like “This movie is gonna be really good” and then you don’t know what its success will be, if it’ll make any money, but it feels like we’re making something in which the chemistry of these three guys and the style and feel of what we’re doing is just working and that was real and tangible: “I know we’re gonna make something good.” The first time I saw it with an audience I went “Man, this movie is funny as hell and really working with an audience,” but even still, nobody could’ve predicted the actual breakout success of it.

This may not end up as the movie you’re most known for, but it is a comedy that I hold very near and dear to my heart so I have to ask about it; what do you remember most about shooting Club Dread with the Broken Lizard guys?

That came together because I had done this movie Kissing Jessica Stein and the makeup artist recommended me. She had done Super Troopers. I came at it like “This person recommended me to Jay Chandrasekhar” and “Would you meet with this guy?” I was lucky enough that Jay and I got on and then the rest of the guys, and we made that movie and the making of that movie should have been a movie in itself. We were down at this resort and it was a 40-minute drive down there, all of which was covered in marijuana. It was like a drug lord’s marijuana field resort and we didn’t know that. They had just made Super Troopers which was a big hit, a cult movie, but this was like everyone’s first kind of “studio movie” even though it was a $6 million budget – but it was for Fox Searchlight. So there was a lot of pressure, but then this experience of making this movie down in this resort where we were almost living the same experience that those characters in the movie were. Isolated, all on our own, and trying to make this weird horror comedy. It is one of my most fond memories and also a very challenging movie. It was hard for me because I didn’t speak Spanish, all of my crew didn’t speak English, and it was fraught with all kinds of obstacles and hilarity.

Any specific memories of partying with those guys?

We would go swimming every single day when we wrapped, in the ocean – it was five feet from where we were shooting. We’d have these great parties on the beach. One story I will say: My first day on the movie, I knew Jay because we were prepping the movie but didn’t really know the rest of the guys. Those guys, if you get to know them, are super competitive. We all had these little sponge pools – we’d stay in the exact resorts we were shooting in the movie, those were all the places we lived – they all had these little sponge pools in front. And the first day we all wound up in this sponge pool, getting really drunk, and having a contest on who could hold their breath the longest underwater, and Steve Lemme is like a fighter. He will never lose on anything to anybody. He’ll die before he loses. And I just remember I quit at like 50 seconds and it would go to like a minute, minute and a half, and there was a guy working on the movie who was a UCLA water polo athlete. He had huge lungs, really fit, and he could go two minutes, 2:10, and Steve would not let this guy win. All I kept thinking was “We are all so drunk, somebody for sure is gonna die tonight. And this is how the movie is starting?” With a bunch of drunk people that are responsible for making this movie – dying. One of them dying because he won’t lose. I think he literally went 2:50 or something. It was a remarkable amount of time.

Photo by Daniel McFadden.

Behind the Camera with Lawrence Sher