Over a decade since it first appeared on Funny or Die, Between Two Ferns is finally getting the full cinematic treatment with an all-star cast that includes Lauren Lapkus and David Letterman. Between Two Ferns: The Movie will premiere on Netflix on September 20, and we here at Vulture.com are proud to announce we’ve been given a long-awaited exclusive first look at the titular ferns themselves. The film’s director, Scott Aukerman, even hopped on the phone with us to put the ferns in a greater context, discuss what making a fully improvised movie is like, and share just how much the Ferns cinematic universe (or FCU, if you will) could grow from here. Pun extremely intended.
How did you go about selecting the ferns?
So we first started doing the show 11 years ago. We did our first episode with Michael Cera, and we got the ferns, and we got the chairs and the tables. And I had a very specific look in mind of the type of public-access chair and table that would be on this show. And so we rented the chairs and tables from this Hollywood prop house, and then we bought the ferns. And so we kept the ferns — I think our editor Dan Strange kept them in his place — but we had to return the furniture. And we never thought we were gonna do another episode again.
But when we started doing more episodes, I would find myself having to borrow a pickup truck from someone and drive down to this Hollywood prop house in Century City and spend $80 to re-rent these chairs and this table. Meanwhile, our editor had these ferns at his place, and they’re slowly dying because he’s not taking care of them. So you can actually see in the first, I think it’s five, episodes of the show, you can see the ferns slowly start to die, until the Bradley Cooper episode, where they’re really dying, and he comments about it and says, “Water your fucking ferns.” And we filmed that one in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, where all the Hangover people were doing press for it because it was just about to come out, and so our editor Dan Strange literally drove the ferns from Los Angeles in the backseat of his car instead of taking a plane. It was then, after all of this and me having to shell out $80 every time we did an episode, that I didn’t want to shell out, that I kind of asked everyone, “Do they even care if we use the same chairs or the same ferns every episode?” And no one cared. I was the only one who was, like, holding onto it. So, um, that was when we just started getting ferns for the occasion.
But I will say on the movie we had a regular pair of ferns that was kind of our “show” ferns — our “camera” ferns — and then we had our stunt ferns as well that were slightly different. So when people watch the movie, I hope that they will really keep a keen eye on those ferns and try to figure out when they’re the regular ferns or the stunt ferns.
Why ferns? Why not spider plants or parlor palms?
When the show started, Zach and I were talking about making a video together, and he said he had one idea, which was he’d always wanted to do a talk show. He had worked in public access and really wanted to call it Between Two Ferns. And I had worked in public access as well; I had a talk show when I was in high school. And that really made me laugh because both of us, having done public-access television, knew that in public access they can’t afford any kind of production design elements. So all they have are … you have like a black cyc in the background, occasionally there’d be a sparkle curtain you could pull in front of that, and there’d be two chairs, a table, and then most of the frame would be taken up by these giant plants, these ferns. So it made both of us laugh, the specificity of it. So that’s why. I mean, they’re a public-television staple.
What drew you to the idea of turning Between Two Ferns into a film?
We had not really thought about it until we made a Comedy Central special a few years back, where there were three interviews but there was also a lot of just bits that we filmed on the streets of New York. And it was really, really fun — we were just like running around New York improvising, and we would see something and we’d say, “Hey, let’s shoot this joke.” And we’d set up a camera really quick, and Zach would improvise with people on the street. And when we did that, Zach and I were talking and I said, “You know, I think it would be really fun to do a movie like that,” where it was just fun [and] we were just improvising. So we really wanted to set out to make an improvised movie really influenced by This Is Spinal Tap. And so that’s why we chose a movie. To be able to do a movie with that kind of energy really appealed to us.
How much of this film is improvised? All of it?
The movie is an improvised movie. The script was basically I would write paragraphs describing what was going to happen with some sample dialogue. It wasn’t even really in an order, so the scenes weren’t written in the order that they would be put together in editing because I wanted the freedom and flexibility just to put it in later in an order that made sense. So the script looked insane, and all of our crew kind of had trouble deciphering it and figuring out, but I kind of explained to them, “No, we want to kind of film it like a documentary itself, where here are a bunch of things we’re gonna film, and we’ll do it at some point and we’ll figure out how to put it together later.” So we shot it like an actual documentary, where we built a public-access station and we shot at it. And if something came up where one of the actors would improvise something, we would then get with our production designers and production team and go shoot that scene that just came up in the improvising. So it was really a fun, cool way to do a movie.
I know David Letterman will be appearing. Any chance Bradley Cooper is going to return?
I think the only person I’m allowed to say is in the movie is David Letterman because he talked about it at an event and said that he was in it. But that was a big thrill for me because my public-access show that I had when I was a high-schooler was just a shameless David Letterman rip-off. And I think David Letterman’s appearance in it really ties into the plot and ties into the themes that we’re working with in the movie in a really neat way. So as a person who idolizes him, it was really cool to work with him and to get him in the movie — and to have the set photographer sneak a picture with me and him while I was standing next to him.
Would you do a sequel? Would you make this a trilogy?
I think it’s more of a nine-part: three separate trilogies like a Star Wars, where I think we’ll end up having to do prequels with Zach as a young man. So if there are any, you know, 8-year-old boys out there with full Greek beards, please contact us because there’s a casting opportunity coming your way. But yeah, I think the great part about the world that we’ve set up is, yeah, it could continue if we wanted it to. And honestly, some of the ideas we originally went into thinking we were going to do on this movie we were unable to pull off quite yet, so it sort of cries out for a sequel just so we could use some of those ideas.
Was there anybody you couldn’t get for this that you really wish you could have?
Honestly, the only person that I really had my heart set on was David Letterman. Weirdly enough, it was a thing where our producer Corinne Eckart told Funny or Die, without my knowledge, “Scott’s going to quit this movie if you don’t land David Letterman.” That was the one person that I really had my heart set on. I think when you see the movie, it’s not only for the cool aspect of him being in the movie and me wanting always to meet him and to work with him, but it really had a lot to do with the plot and what Zach is shooting for in the movie. So I think the two people who appear in the movie that really tie into the plot are David Letterman and Will Ferrell, so both of them agreeing to do it really saved our bacon.