February 7, 2002

A Lizard's Tale

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Yesterday afternoon, a tour bus carrying the writers, cast, and comedic brains behind the new Fox Searchlight production Super Troopers rolled into the lot behind Willard Straight Hall. The film is the work of Broken Lizard, a five man comedy team that member Erik Stolhanske describes as a comedic ensemble in the spirit of Monty Python. I followed four of the five members of the Broken Lizard around campus as they visited a film class, attended a screening of their new film, and hung around to answer audience questions after the show.

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe any of the members of Broken Lizard merely as actors. The group has been together since their days at Colgate University, about 7 years ago. Super Troopers is actually the team’s second feature film (their first film was also screened here at Cornell after it was produced). For Super Troopers, the cast and crew filmed for only 30 days in the summer of 2000. It was in post-production for around six months before finally premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2001.

When asked to describe the creative process the group engages in when making a film, Stolhanske was quick to point out that the script-writing is done by all members of the group.

“We all write collaboratively,” he says, “You know, we write in a round table, spending time together, coming up with skits and then throwing a main narrative into the structure.”

Stolhanske was similarly adept at dispelling any comparisons to what are generally seen as the slightly cheesy, slapstick “cop flicks” like the Police Academy films and Car 54, Where are you?

“That [comparison] is absolutely wrong … I would say it’s more like Smokey and the Bandit, or the 1970’s good old-fashioned R movies. We lifted weights, grew moustaches. We really tired to become cops, instead of imitating them like a bunch of goofballs.”

It wasn’t until after I had seen the film that I really understood what Stolhanskey was getting at. As opposed to the various antics of the Police Academy movies or a particular brand of cop-humor that seems to aim directly for the lowest common denominator (See: The Naked Gun series), Super Troopers has a script full of smart quips and witty exchanges. Granted, it has its raucous moments as well, but never bludgeons the audience over the head with the proverbial nightstick of characatured cop gags.

Super Troopers is the story of a Highway Patrol unit in a small town in Vermont called Spurbury. The five officers of the unit are portrayed by the Broken Lizard team, while the rest of the cast is fleshed out by some faces you might recognize. Brian Cox (Rushmore, For the Love of the Game) plays the unit commander, Captain O’Hagan, while Daniel Von Bargen (The General’s Daughter, Oh, Brother Where art Thou?) portrays the obnoxious City Police Commander, Chief Grady.

Though the film’s primary plot surrounds a drug ring working in their small Vermont town and a funding dilema that threatens the Highway Patrol officers’ careers, there are a few intriguing and amusing sub-plots that take place over the course of the film.

One character, known only as Foster, is hilariously portrayed as a love-struck romantic by Paul Stoler. Ever the mush, Foster falls head over heels for a beautiful young police officer named Ursula Hanson, played by actress Marisa Coughlan. Unfortunately for Foster, his beautiful cop works for the local police force – an entity diametrically opposed and in consistent competition with the Highway Patrol. On top of that, Ursula is emphatic when she states, “I don’t date cops.”

Kevin Hefferman plays officer Farva, the caustic bafoon of the Highway Patrol while the film’s director Jay Chandrasekhar plays “Thorny,” the lead Highway Patrol officer who at one point in the film poses the question, “Who wants a moustache ride?” Rabbit, the rookie of the group is played by Stolhanske and is consistently likable and interesting. Steve Lemme plays Mac, the unorthodox wildman of the group and even takes it upon himself to test bullet-proof jockstrap.

It would be nice to credit one actor or character with providing standout moments, but with a cast that is so evenly matched, it’s hard to give individual credit. One of the primary reasons the story works so well is that Thorny, Mac, Rabbit, Foster, and Farva are multi-dimensional. Though in many respects each character satisfies a particular archetype — Thorny the boss, Rabbit the innocent rookie, etc. — the writing stays away from harsh stereotypes.

Shortly after their arrival behind the Straight, the four members of Broken Lizard who were present headed over to the Center for Theatre Arts where they attended a Q & A session. In that session, students asked about the particulars of production, financing, writing, and even marketing.

During the session, Chandrasekhar told the aspiring filmmakers in the class, “My advice is to get a camera, shoot, learn how it works. Learn how to edit … learn all of the technical things first.”

He went on to comment about the group’s comedic style and their atypical audiences. “The top of the mountain you aspire to is Monty Python, and that’s what we’re hoping for. But … I don’t think we have a target audience. We’ve had people 75 [years old] who loved it, but I think Fox has placed a heavy emphasis on the college audience.”

As the film’s director, Chandrasekhar answered many of the questions directly, addressing the issues as they came. During this session, it came to light that the film wasn’t entirely finished until the day before it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

“We actually got the film in the can the day before the premier,” said Chandrasekhar, “Then, we sold it the day after that.”

Since then, it’s been a full year’s worth of post-production. The film’s initial release date was slated for November 30th. However, when several studios upped the release dates for their blockbuster films following the events of September 11th, Fox Spotlight put a hold on the film.

“They thought it’d get buried by the other films,” said Stoler of the delay, “It was tough, but it helped in the end, I think.”

After the film screening in the Straight, the members of Broken Lizard took more questions from another eager and enthusiastic audience. Addressing everything from cinematographic advice to the physical setting of the film, Chandrasekhar, Stolhanske, Stoler, and Hefferman were glad to answer questions and sign copies of their film’s poster. As they were headed for Boston shortly after the screening, a mere 6 hours after arriving, the group looked tired but still animated.

Broken Lizard’s college tour is nearing its end. With 17 schools already under their collective belt, the team has only 6 more stops before Super Troopers premiers nationally on February 15th.

“[We’re] unbelievably excited,” said Stolhanske, “but I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet. We didn’t expect anything like this. We thought, okay, well we sold the movie, we’ll hit a couple of cities, and then it became a bigger and bigger deal. So the guys are still all little freaked out about it. I think we won’t be able to really enjoy it until we’re through opening weekend and hopefully we’ll do all right. But it still feels too good to be true — like its going to get yanked away out from under us.”

Though the wait will be up and the tension of the pre-release will be gone, the members of Broken Lizard won’t be able to rest for long. Fox Spotlight has just given them the green light for a new film, Club Dread, which will begin filming this upcoming summer.

As the members of Broken Lizard prepared to leave campus and head off to Boston, it was hard n
ot to have the feeling that you’d seen something special, something interesting, something funny, something we haven’t heard the last of. If Stolhanske is right, we’ll be seeing the boys of Broken Lizard in feature films for years to come. Who knows, maybe our kids will cling to those films like we cling to Monty Python or Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Archived article by Nate Brown