Frank Coraci is one of the Happy Madison stable of directors, breaking through with the Adam Sandler comedies The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy, reteaming with Sandler on Click and now partnering with Kevin James on The Zookeeper and Here Comes the Boom. We spoke with Coraci about the MMA comedy and the state of comedy in general.
CraveOnline: We know Kevin James likes pratfalls. Is an MMA takedown the ultimate pratfall?
Frank Coraci: [Laughs] I suppose it is. It just hurts a lot more. Yeah, we wanted to do a movie that was a little bit more grounded in reality but still had comedy, so we did approach it probably a little bit differently than we both have in some of our movies in the past. Yeah, I would say they were harder and tougher pratfalls.
What did you want to accomplish shooting MMA scenes?
Again, a grounded movie more in reality but it’s such an amazing sport and we wanted to make it on some level believable what would happen if a 42-year-old biology teacher got in the room. And the design on purpose was the first fights are more fun and more funny but by the time he gets to the UFC, we wanted it to be one of the coolest fights that’s been captured on film. I feel like with technology and everything now, I went to a bunch of UFC events and it’s a sport like no other. It’s like a modern day Roman coliseum. Even the whole pomp and circumstance before with the music cranked and the audiences with the lights and the smoke, they just figure out how to make it like a rock concert so that by the time the fight starts, people are so pumped up. After I saw a bunch of live events, I’m like I have to figure out a way to capture this. It definitely lends itself to cinema and the big screen. So it was really important to me to capture that whole room, to have the audience a part of the fight because that’s how it is when you go. I watched so many fight movies that I love, Raging Bull, Rocky and what I noticed is even when the fights are great, the experience is you’re in this weird limbo space because three rows back it drops off into black. It worked amazingly on movies like Raging Bull but for this movie I wanted to capture a more realistic version of it and a very firsthand experience of what it’s like to get in the ring. I feel like no movie’s really quite done that so that was my challenge. So it was a matter of shooting real events using real crowds having thousands of people when we shot and using some CG magic to put us in the ring in the middle of 20,000 fans really into it. It was a fun, exciting challenge for me in that way to make the fights really cool.
The sport is still new enough that there’ve only been a few movies about it. Were the real guys in the MMA welcoming, or skeptical about what you were going to do?
Well, you know we were the first movie that was given the blessing of the UFC. The UFC is the NFL to MMA so it really made us sort of legitimate so the fighters that are in the movie, we have a slew. I know not everybody knows these personalities. They will eventually, but some of the famous stars like Chael Sonnen to Mark Munoz to Wanderlei Silva. We have some of the best champs over the years so it was sort of to get their stamp of approval, we felt A, really lucky and B, obligated to make sure our fighting was better than anybody’s seen in an MMA movie. The fighters themselves, now that I’ve gotten to know them, it’s one of the most dedicated sports. These guys just train, they’re dedicated, they’re super athletes. It’s not like people think oh, MMA cage fighting is crazy tattooed derelicts. They do have the tattoos a lot of the times but they’re really super athletes. They’re probably in better shape than any other athlete. So I felt a sort of duty to do them a justice and make sure we showed the sport for what it is, which is just amazingly competitive.
Did the UFC insist that Joe Rogan come in like a hero?
[Laughs] You know, I worked with Joe Rogan before on Zookeeper. Kevin James is good friends with him. It’s like the equivalent of Brent Musburger or somebody for an NFL movie. We wanted him to do it and he wanted to do it. He adds so much amazing color. He’s a guy that when he screams you actually hear his uvula. I think he’s the perfect color guy. Him and Goldberg calling the last fight in the movie made it totally legitimate and they’re the best at it so it was cool. I love Joe. He’s an awesome guy.
What did you want to say about the education system with this movie?
Well, in general we wanted to make the movie about real stuff going on. It’s a tough time in general as we all know in this economy. I grew up in a tough blue collar town, Shirley, Long Island. So it was stuff I could relate to when I was a kid and we really just wanted to make it a story about a guy who’s sort of phoning it in. The difference between a great teacher, Henry Winkler in the movie, who can inspire people and make people better people and make kids excited to go to school and be their best selves, and Kevin’s character in the beginning, Scott Voss is a phoning it in sh*tty teacher, kids aren’t paying attention. We wanted to make a movie about the potential of a person to become their better selves. I like movies where the lead character has a big arc and has to earn it and deserve it. Even reluctantly when he starts to stand up for Henry Winkler, it’s less about helping Henry’s character and more just him having it out with the principal. We thought that was a great way to start. Kevin wrote the script and we thought it was a great way that he’s not just sticking up for Henry, he’s actually more selfish and that’s part of his journey, to become a less selfish guy. And as he starts to help people and help the school, and sees how he starts to become almost a hero for the kids and an inspiration, it’s almost like it’s contagious. He becomes a better guy the more he becomes a better guy. That was the most important thing.
The backdrop of the school just organically lends itself to a place where there are, we felt, people that are sort of tuned out, and at the same time there are people that are great. I think back to high school and growing up, still some of my best teachers I think still affect me because they just had a way of being there and being inspiring. One of those things me and Kevin both talked about was that’s a really important job and that’s a job where if you do it good, you really, really have an exponential effect on the world. And if you do it badly, the same thing. So it just felt like the perfect backdrop.
What role do movies have to inspire people and raise the bar?
A movie can do a lot of things. It can entertain and that’s fine. It can be an extremely powerful message. I feel like if I can make a movie that’s entertaining but at the same time, I hate heavy-handed messages. If organically you can tell a story that says positive things, I think that’s not a bad thing. I’m blessed to be a director in which I feel like I get to be a storyteller. So if I’m going to take people’s hour and a half, hour 45 minutes, a year and a half of my life and lots of money from a studio, it wouldn’t be bad if I can slip in a little message without being heavy handed. If it can organically get in there and not feel forced, I feel like it makes me really happy at the end of the movie.
What is the state of comedy these days?
It’s interesting, the really big badly shot, badly photographed comedy, I feel like that was a thing of the ‘70s and had a great place because it was a good year. Who knows? It might come back around on some level. I think in general comedies have it rough because the nature of the DVD market going away, movies all have to have a very big foreign appeal where studios want to make them. So in a way, it’s been tougher and tougher to make comedies. It’s tougher to make movies now because they have to be very wide appeal to get a theatrical release with a big note on having a foreign draw. Look, I love to make a movie that the whole world can see, that can translate across the ocean.
Is product placement something you always have to deal with on studio movies? Even on Here Comes the Boom it’s cross-promoted with the UFC.
I want to address the product placement thing too because this is something I feel like is so misconstrued. In the movies, when you’re writing them, you write that a guy goes to a restaurant. You write he goes to T.G.I. Fridays like in Zookeeper. Then all of a sudden people go, “Oh, product placement. They did it for the money.” The irony is you don’t get anything really from a place. You’re just excited that you’re actually able to use a real location. In Click we had Bed Bath & Beyond because it was written into the story and it was funny. We were so happy when they said yes because for a while they said no because they said, “Well, there’s no employee when he walks in.” It’s never about getting money. It’s usually about getting something that validates you. In the case of Here Comes the Boom, it’s like if we did a football movie that was about pro football and if we didn’t have the NFL we wouldn’t be legitimate. In this case, to get the UFC, we’re the first UFC supported movie, we got all the real players, it’s the big show at the end of the movie. It would not be the same without the Joe Rogans, the Stitch, the Herb Dean, Bruce Buffer. It just made our movie much more valid and realistic and we wanted to root it in reality, so this was a great opportunity to make it the real thing.
Do companies like Coke and Pepsi not pay movies to use them instead of other sodas?
It’s not like you really get money. I mean, they might give you free soda when you’re shooting, but unless it’s an oddball product, I’ve never had an experience where the product we used gave us money. Occasionally, if there’s a fast food place there’ll be a tie-in, but I think people’s perception going back to Ridley Scott with Coke in Blade Runner, I don't know if back then it was a big deal. You don’t really get money. Most of the time, if a guy drinks a soda in a movie, you don’t want him to drink some fake cola brand because it pulls you out of the movie, some fake cola brand that you’ve never seen. So there’s this weird internet thing with “Oh my God, product placement!” It’s not real. You just put stuff that’s real that’s in everyday life and people sometimes I think it pops out, but whatever. I can’t do anything about that other than we need the real thing in the movie and most of the audience I don't think is thinking that. They’re just going to the movie to watch the movie and we’re just trying to make it more of a seamless thing where they’re not pulled out of the movie experience.
So is Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold wrong?
I’m sorry, I don’t know that.
He did a movie about product placement.
I didn’t know that.
But in writing, it’s about the details?
Yeah, going to a movie you don’t want to pull people out of the scene. You want to make them not think about it. That’s really what it always comes down to. Believe me, I have a lot more things I’d like in movies if they were paying. I’d have more Aston Martins in my movie so I got a free Aston Martin.
A lot of the comedies we see lately sort of celebrate the manchildren. Mr. Voss’s issue in Here Comes the Boom is a little bit different, but why do you think the manchild has been such a popular trend in comedies?
I’ve got to say that theme has sort of, I think since the ‘70s and the ‘80s particularly, there’s just something funny about a grown-up not acting like a grown-up. I kind of feel like we’re moving a little bit away from that. Movies from the ‘80s like Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield, that was the era to me of the manchildren.
Obviously since you’re part of Happy Madison, that’s something that Adam Sandler does very well. Do you feel like the company is moving away from that too?
I kind of feel like it’s not a conscious choice to do that kind of movie or not do that kind of movie. I feel like I know Adam for years, we went to NYU together, he’s in my student films and we’ve obviously done a bunch of movies together. I think Adam is always inspired by something new he feels like he can do to make people laugh. I know he did Jack & Jill because he wanted to make a PG comedy for his kids to see. I know he did That’s My Boy because he wanted to make a movie that was more for the adults to see that was more R-rated and closer to sort of his album humor. Then things like Grown-Ups he can get together with all his buddies and give everybody a chance to be in a movie together and be funny. So I think Adam is an amazing creative force and since I’ve known him has always just wanted to entertain people. He just can’t stop working. He loves to do what he does, so I don't think there’s one theme he tries to play. I do think he wants to make movies that have a good message but ultimately that are just entertaining and funny. That’s always been what he wanted to do from when he was doing standup, as far back as I knew him. We were 18 years old hanging out. I don’t want to say how many more years later we are but quite a long time I’ve known him.
You and I first spoke for Around the World in 80 Days which was different for you and for a Jackie Chan movie. For some reason it didn’t play and you’ve been working in Happy Madison pretty consistently ever since. Obviously not a bad place to be, but has it been hard to get other projects off the ground outside the Happy Madison world?
It’s funny, I get constantly approached with scripts as if I’m a director who works in Hollywood so I can get anything I want made. As most people in the business know, it’s really tough to get a movie going. You need to have a movie star, you need to have a studio behind you. Ironically, I love small movies. I’ve had a harder time getting small movies made because people are like, “Well, you don’t do that. You do the big entertaining movies.” It’s just always a challenge. I take it project by project. When a project comes across my desk or if I talk to an actor that wants to do something, I do that movie. That’s what happened with Kevin. We hit it off, he came by when I was doing Click and I thought, “Oh, here’s a guy I really think is talented and is a really good actor and a good comedian.” So then we ended up doing Zookeeper together and while we did that, we hit it off so he mentioned this movie and this one really got me excited. It sort of just happens. I think it’s proximity of what you end up doing and what’s available. So I’m open to all different things. Yeah, 80 Days, I feel like now that people have seen it they really like it. It’s all about box office sometimes with some of these bigger movies which is always really hard. That’s a movie I’m proud of. I think the movies are like your kids. You’re proud of them all and that one always has a near and dear place in my heart. I feel really good about that movie and what that was about.
Did you cast Salma Hayek as the school nurse because she played one in The Faculty?
No, when we were talking about who could be the nurse, I thought it was every man’s fantasy to have Salma Hayek as the school nurse so we just went with that and she’s so awesome in the movie. She’s so much fun to work with. We may have another project together because we had such a good time doing this movie.
So she’s not playing the same nurse?
No, no, different character, different character.
What are you doing next?
I’ve got two or three projects I’m putting together. One’s with Christoph Waltz who wanted to do a comedy. A lot of the things I’m looking at are a little bit smaller, a little bit edgier and I’m excited to do that. I feel like Boom was a step in that direction to do something more grounded in reality and I really had a good time doing that. I’m willing to go more in that direction.
What would the Christoph Waltz comedy be?
He wants to do a comedy so I started talking to him and I have a script that he really likes. We’re in the middle of casting that. I don’t want to announce anything yet just because nothing’s definite. You know how movies take a little while to get rolling so I have a couple interesting ones on the horizon and I’d be glad to talk to you about them when I know they’re definitely going.