Writer/directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul say that their films always start with a character–someone they come across who sparks an idea or a trait that lends itself to a comic situation.
“Delusion seems to always be a fun quality we’re drawn to,” says Mogel. “Someone who just has no sense of themselves and who kind of doesn’t get it. We always like that idea.”
Delusion is at the heart of the pair’s new film (and their directorial debut), The D Train, which stars Jack Black as a schlumpy, suburban dad obsessed with redefining his image by showing up at his high school reunion with the coolest guy in the class–an actor and star of a Banana Boat commercial played by James Marsden. The film is both dark and hilarious, as well as a showcase for Black, who plays Dan Landsman with a perfect mix of sly energy and craven physicality.
The D Train generated buzz at Sundance earlier this year, especially for a sex scene between Marsden and Black, though the filmmakers insist that what the movie is really about is what happens after that encounter. “These two guys just treat this experience so differently,” says Paul. “Jack completely unravels post that scene–that’s what we were really interested in. But, yes, it was enjoyable, the reaction that it got.”
The pair recently spoke to Co.Create about how The D Train almost fell apart before cameras rolled, and how they work together as writer-director collaborators.
Paul, a former actor who had a recurring role on Monk, and Mogel have been writing together for years, mainly on studio movies, such as 2008’s Yes Man. They turned to independent film in order to have more control over their work.
“We kind of fell into this place where we were writing these studio comedies and we felt like we wanted to do something different,” says Paul. “We wanted to see something through from start to finish and we wanted to write something that, you know, was in the realm of possibility (to make), because we knew we wouldn’t get that much money. So we wanted to do something achievable.”
The D Train took just a few months to write, although tweaking was going on “up until the last second,” says Mogel. But neither he nor Paul can explain exactly how it happened.
“We honestly don’t know how we write–people always ask us that,” says Paul. “I guess we don’t overthink it. We don’t compartmentalize our stuff, we really just do it all together.”
Mogel describes the pair’s writing style as perhaps a little unconventional compared other writing teams. “We talk it all out and we do it all in the same room,” he says. “I think that lends itself to directing, too, because we’re just so used to how the other person thinks.”
While Mogel jokes about working from noon to one every day (“we get like one hour of productivity”) the reality is, they writers treat it like a 9-to-5 office job.
“We go to an office and we hammer it out,” says Paul. “It’s kind of a bare bones office, there’s nothing to do, so it forces us to focus. It’s brutal.”
Once Black and Marsden–and Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Landsman’s boss–signed on for the film, Paul and Mogel assumed the rest would be easy. They started pre-production in New Orleans and were all set to shoot when suddenly the rug was pulled out from beneath them.
“It was a full-on nightmare,” says Paul. “We’d found these great guys in the U.K. who said they’d pay for the movie. So the producer and us headed down to New Orleans and started prepping. We started hiring people, we had a full office with people working. And then we found out that we had no money. We were basically going to go home and pack it all up and then at the last minute we got saved by Sony Worldwide and started shooting the next day.”
Morgen says the production was also up against a hard deadline because Black had to be on the set of his next movie on a certain day. “So we had a specific window that we had to get it done in,” he says. “We knew we had this great cast, so the idea of it slipping through our fingers was just … We knew we would never get this group together again.
What started as a setback ended up as a creative boon. “Because we had a long pre-production and those financial mishaps going into the movie, it gave us a lot of extra time to think about the film, to map it out,” says Paul.
The writers say that they didn’t draw on their own lives for The D Train (“we were both really cool in high school,” jokes Paul); instead they just went for what was funny, for instance in scenes of a rag-tag alumni group that sets up an impromptu call-center where they cold call old classmates to invite them to their upcoming reunion.
“We had a few of those characters in mind,” says Paul. Henry Zebrowski was someone we thought was so funny. And Kyle Bornheimer, too. The women were local, New Orleans actresses. There we just lucked out, they were amazing.”
The only regret, says Mogel, is that those scenes weren’t longer. “We had another alumni scene that we had to cut. Those scenes were so much fun, if anything we thought they were underused. They were just all so funny.
“I worked in a ton of marketing jobs in my early days and so the scenes kind of reminded me of sitting in a room with phones and everyone working like that. But it was kind of ridiculous that all those phones were set up” in the middle of a high school gym. “When we were on set we were like, ‘Where are these phones even plugging into?'”