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Daniel Waters on “Sex and Death 101”

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04022008_sexanddeath101.jpgBy Stephen Saito

For once, timing is in the favor of Daniel Waters, the prodigiously talented writer behind “Heathers” who admits to “taking forever to write a script.” Waters’s latest film, “Sex and Death 101,” opens in theaters April 4th, but the dark comedy actually begins on April 2nd, when a playboy (Simon Baker) is accidentally e-mailed a list of all his future sexual conquests before dying. While a life of musical lap dances and “an embarrassment of bitches” await Baker’s Mr. Roderick Blank, so does a sense of mortality and ennui.

It’s a bit reassuring to see Waters’s second directorial effort arrive in theaters a week after many pondered the disappearance of John Hughes, whose earnest ’80s teen classics were redefined by Waters’s sardonic satire of high school life. In the years since “Heathers” was released in 1989, Waters turned a development deal with producer Joel Silver in the early 1990s into perhaps the strangest and most subversive run of studio action movies ever (“Hudson Hawk,” “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” and “Demolition Man”) before returning to teen territory with the underrated “Happy Campers” in 2002, a film he never intended to direct. That isn’t the case with “Sex and Death 101,” a film that bears Waters’s trademark wit as well as his “Heathers” star Winona Ryder as a feminist death dealer named Death Nell. I recently sat down to Waters to discuss his reunion with Ryder, his writing process and how originality became a dirty word.

When you get a clever line in your head, is that something that lingers in your head long before it finds its way into the script?

I’ll do anything to not write — like I won’t open up my computer. I have to write everything by hand. I call it collecting acorns, writing these scribbles…”embarrassment of bitches!” It ends up collecting over time, and then when I sit down to actually start to put my little scraps of paper in order, I have this dialogue. To me, it’s worth cooking the chili that much slower in order to get that extra flavor. I think it’s funny that a lot of books about how to write a screenplay [teach] the importance of structure. That’s like a book about horseback riding that says you need a horse. You shouldn’t even start anything until you have the structure down. But these little individual bits [are] what’s fun for me to write and makes [my movies] unique.

But unique can be used as a pejorative too. “It was unique. It was original.” I find that people, especially in the world of independent film, like originality as long as it’s an originality they’re comfortable and familiar with. “What’s this real originality thing going on?” “Wait, you have like five different tones. That’s against the law.”

04022008_danielwaters.jpgHow did this movie come together?

Obviously, it’s a long journey, this 15 years away I call the “island of misfit toys” part of my life — I was working on bigger movies doing rewrites, and I ended up inadvertently being hired to put giraffes’ heads on rhinoceroses’ bodies. I had to force myself to break away from the studio films, which are kind of like having sex wearing 50 condoms. “Sex and Death 101” is this conscious thing of going back to the basics, to my Ralph Nader side where I open up the newspaper and say, well, as a consumer advocate, what movie’s not out there that I’m not seeing? With “Heathers,” it was like a high school movie that didn’t end with them saying when you grow older, your heart dies… because your heart dies way before then. (laughs)

I wanted to do a movie about sexuality, because there was a realm in the ’70s that I think is missing now. Independent films seem to be very punishing about sexuality — nobody seems to be enjoying themselves, it’s like “Oh my God, I’ve had sex with my daughter!” or something like that. On the other end of the scale, you’ve got these immature ejaculation movies about boobies that have nothing to do with actual sex. Mainstream comedies don’t even have sex. They just run after a cab at the end and the sex happens during the closing credits.

I wanted to go back to “Shampoo” and “Carnal Knowledge” and “Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice,” popular movies that dealt with sexuality, but in a way that was still humorous. I liked the idea of that kind of movie, but it was important that I update the zeitgeist of it all. Back in the ’60s and the ’70s, the men were still playing offense and now, I think we’re playing defense. The world has overwhelmed the typical male. The one realm of sexuality I didn’t mention [is] Judd Apatow’s. I think they’re terrific films, but he’s got a very comforting thesis that men are these sex-obsessed beasts, but if you just scratch the surface, they’re warm and fuzzy inside. I’ve got a less popular dictum in my film that a man can be well-adjusted, mature, and remembers Valentine’s Day and to complement your haircut, but you scratch the surface and he’s still a sex-obsessed beast.

You have a great foil for your leading man in the character of Death Nell. Did you write the part for Winona Ryder?

When I started writing the script, she was going through her troubles, so I did think it was a great idea because people didn’t know where she was coming from and I liked that. It dovetailed into the character quite nicely because it’s a character that you think is one way, but is really another. I didn’t want the man-eating Angelina Jolie femme fatale that would eat you up and spit you out. I wanted to have that threat out there looming, but then when you actually meet the character and there’s this sweet wobbly human being playing it, you know there’s no more femme fatale out there. It’s like a role she’s feebly trying to take on, just like he tries to take on his role of the guy that’s got it all together.

04022008_sexanddeath101a.jpgBesides Ryder, how did you attract such a strong supporting cast?

It didn’t hit me until I was actually filming that, except for Mindy [Cohn], there are no supporting characters in the movie. When an actress shows up on the set, she’s the lead of the movie — it is almost like ten different movies, [each] with a new female lead, so they bring their A-game because they don’t feel that they’re scenery. Obviously, I made the movie before “Good Luck Chuck” [which has a similar premise about a womanizer] came out, but I knew there was going to be a movie like that, and I didn’t want to make it. I didn’t want that montage sequence, the dreary cavalcade of Maxim whores. I wanted it not to be a movie about a guy who just bam, bam, bam, fucks a lot of women, that the women are fucking him as much as he’s fucking them.

Was it actually a conscious decision on your part to direct your own scripts at a certain point or did it just work out that way?

I was very obstinate about [it] — “Oh, don’t worry. I’m not the guy that wants to direct” — when I was starting out, and it was great because I’d been so prepared that they always ignored the writer. But “Heathers” is one of the few movies where they put a spotlight on me and taped sparklers to me, so I was getting credit. It’s funny that what you think is the most simple, littlest detail that you put in a script — and my scripts are very thick and dense — gets lost in translation, and it can be one stroke if the writer is also the director. I’m never going to be quite comfortable directing — I think I did a good job this time around. I had a $12 million film school course called “Happy Campers,” but I still think the writing process and the editing process are the warm cave, and that directing is like me with a spear trying to kill a woolly mammoth. But it’s exciting, and it is where the movie gets made, and so if you really want to be a filmmaker, you can’t kid yourself that you’re going to have this pristine [experience], because nothing goes through a gang bang more than a script, so it’s just good to be there.

[Photos: Winona Ryder in “Sex and Death 101”; Daniel Waters, Simon Baker and Sophie Monk; Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2007]

“Sex and Death 101” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 4th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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