Despite the big name cast they were able to assemble for their new movie (including four Oscar winners) the upcoming comedy The Big Wedding is from the independent production team of childhood friends Justin Zackham and Clay Pecorin. After Zackham hit it big as the screenwriter of the comedy-drama The Bucket List (starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman), financial-minded Pecorin decided to join his friend in Hollywood and start their production company Two Ton Films. The Big Wedding was full of firsts for the pair; the first film for their company, Zackham’s first time in the directing chair, and it’s the first Hollywood project for Pecorin. Despite the daunting responsibilities they faced, they call making the film the “experience of a lifetime.” In an exclusive interview, the two friends discuss the origins of their professional partnership, their philosophies on work, filming in their hometown of Greenwich, and why it makes sense to appeal to the baby-boomer generation. But beware: Justin and Clay take great pleasure in mocking one another; reading with a satirical tone is highly recommended.
Filmoria: Before we talk about the movie, I wanted to get an idea of how your partnership actually came about. I know you guys formed a company a few years ago but have actually known each other since grade school. How did you go from being friends to creating a production company?
Justin: Well, Clay is going to tell you a story and what he’s basically going to say is, I established myself in Hollywood and he’s been riding my coattails ever since.
Clay: And then I can come up with the truth. You’re right, Justin and I have been friends since we were kids and now we have a production company and we’re no longer friends [laughs]. We’ve been friends for a long time and Justin was a guy who went out to LA to make it as a writer or director or whatever he was doing, for years. And I was in a business where I was raising capital for a number of industries. I was in LA on business a lot, so Justin and I would see each other all the time. And it was one of those things where, it was just sort of a natural progression. We were hanging out all the time, so that Justin and I just sort of decided on a whim…lets see if we could start this production company. Justin spent 15 years in Hollywood trying to establish himself, which meant I didn’t have to which makes this a good deal for me. I made 300 business cards, and went to Sundance, and was telling people “we’re going to be the biggest production company on the planet.” That is literally how it came about. We said, we’re going to put our friendship first and work really hard and since we have very different skill sets, it will work; Justin is a very, very creative guy and I can add a little bit in the finance department.
Justin: Our joke is, he can’t read and I can’t count. Unfortunately for both of us, it’s not much of a joke.
Clay: But we don’t really step on each other’s toes in the areas we’re good at. I mean he has opinions about finance and I have opinions about creative, and we’re both wrong. But it’s been working for us since, and this is a big movie for us that we worked for three or four years developing. Then we finally got an offer to (Robert) De Niro, and he said yes, and it went gang busters from there. I should say, Diane Keaton was the first one to get on board, but to get financing, we needed Bob to get on board.
Filmoria: How did you even approach Diane Keaton with the project and get the script into her hands?
Justin: Well, they wouldn’t let us even talk to her. When I wrote the script, the role of Sally was for Diane and Bebe was for Susan (Sarandon). Diane was the first person we approached and her agent said “look, she’s read it, she loves it, let us know when you can be big boys and offer her some money.” But she hung in there with us. They wouldn’t let us talk to her, but she stayed attached. You know, Diane has become a very good friend of both of ours. Even with Diane on board, but it took us a while to get the money that we needed to make an offer to De Niro. But the minute we had Bob on board, we went to Diane and she so was excited, and then everyone else fell into place, in what seems like the course of just a few weeks. And they got along so beautifully. We were very spoiled on this set because we just had great actors, top to bottom. So it ended up being the nicest summer.
Filmoria: Although based on a foreign film (2006’s Mon frère se marie), I understand you threw away most of the original narrative except for the basic premise.
Justin: Yeah, definitely. The other film had the notion that the husband and wife had an adopted son from Vietnam and his parents were coming, so they pretend to be married. But it was more like a conversation about them pretending to be married, which is what interested me. So I latched onto that idea. There is one scene in the film where everyone is sitting at the table and it starts to rain and they don’t get get up for a couple of minutes. I just loved that. The idea that no one was willing to acknowledge the fact that there is a downpour. But other than that, the characters in this movie (The Big Wedding) are completely new and the story is utterly reinvented.
Filmoria: Was the first step in production getting the rights to the script?
Clay: [laughs] We wish
Justin: [laughs] The rights we can’t talk too much about, but that aspect ended up being a little more complicated than it had to be. We were led to believe that the rights were sewn up and I wrote the script on spec, which as a professional writer, is not something you want to do. But I wrote the script and then found out that the rights to the script were not what they represented. So that’s why we’re laughing, because to call it an oddity would be an understatement.
Clay: The rights literally closed WHILE we were filming the movie. It was that kind of back and forth.
Justin: And the thing is, because we divide what we do so naturally, that was Clay’s stress. I knew what was going on, but I would try to ignore it, but Clay would come in my office…and I can just tell when things are bothering him. I just remember him coming in and his face was literally the reddest I’ve ever scene, it was not a fun part of the experience. But it was probably the only bad part of of the entire experience. And it ended up working out fine.
Clay: And it worked out really well for the rights holders. Really well for them.
Filmoria: With everything that has been changed and added to the film from the original, what is the inspiration for the characters in the film?
Justin: It sounds disingenuous, but there really are no similarities to the characters, other than the whole idea of this couple pretending to still be married. I can’t even remember if they had another daughter in the film, they’re just completely different. Growing up in Greenwich, my family members were like the token poor Jews in town, but I spent my life mooching off my friends, like Clay, who belonged to country clubs and had cars to drive to school. The idea of this movie for me was, this is a world I know that needs to be made fun of of a little bit. The Griffin family is loosely based on a family, whose daughter Clay and I grew up with, and they’re functioning alcoholics and hilarious and irreverent and the language in this movie is nothing like the language we actually heard growing up. What really made me jump at this was the whole notion of family in this day and age, and the idea that there is no such thing as the nuclear family anymore. Here is a family so screwed up in so many ways, but they love each other more than anything. Even Bob and Diane’s characters, have one scene of them sitting on the couch and he says to her, “Still family right?” And she says, “Still family.”
Clay: And I also think that there is an under-served audience in and around their 50s, the 45-60 plus age range, and this film really reaches that audience in a very funny way.
Justin: I mean, you can look at how much money The Bucket List made, and how the audience supported it. That movie had the most amazing legs.
Filmoria. And you have perfect timing with this movie, because we know from last year’s box-office results that the age group you mentioned are going to the movies.
Justin: Well, the thing is…they’re under-served, so they’ll go out and see material made for them. And the other thing is-someone told me this last weekend and I hadn’t thought of it before-this is the generation which grew up going to the movies as their primary form of entertainment. Clay and I grew up with video games and were more TV oriented, but for these folks, they don’t want to sit around and watch TV, they want to go to the movies.
Clay: To be fair, I read too. Just to add to this TV vs film thing.
Justin: To be fair, you don’t read at all. And reading screenplays doesn’t count. Other than reading to his daughter, Clay hasn’t read in decades. Anyway, back to what this is about. If this works, we’re going to keep making movies for this kind of audience because based on The Bucket List, I’ve had a lot of people say, “Oh, please write more stuff. There is nothing else and I can only watch so many reruns on TV.”
Filmoria: You make populist entertainment, which is occasionally dismissed as “easy” or “unimportant” by critics. Was it ever hard to get this kind of movie made?
Clay: That’s an interesting question. I think that both Justin and I wanted to make a smart comedy, a dramatic comedy, and I think that the general theme of higher ups in film companies is that they want to make these big, huge, popular comedies. Those obviously have a place and they obviously work. I think our goal was to make a movie that not only did well opening weekend, but also second weekend, third weekend, and had legs for 10 weeks the way The Bucket List did. Our goal is not to be concerned with reaching the popular mass, but getting every 50 or 60 year old to go and tell their friends the next weekend to go. I mean the interesting thing about The Bucket List is, it didn’t drop off in terms of moviegoer attendance. If you look at the box office results, it built up over a span of weeks. Then you look at a movie like Olympus has Fallen, which had a huge opening weekend, but then dropped 50 or 60% by its second. The Bucket List never did that. So we really believe that a very smart movie is going to get the audience we want. I think that Justin made, a really smart movie and we’re excited about it.
Justin: I’m also part British, so I had to watch all these Masterpiece theater shows like Upstairs Downstairs with my mom when we were little, when we just wanted to watch cartoons. Now that I’m grown up, I recognize that what the British know is that they can make comedies which vacillate between comedy and drama at the drop of a hat. In American comedies, you’re much more restricted. Movies have to fit into specific boxes. In Europe, you don’t have that. It’s my sensibility, and Clay’s as well, there is no reason you can’t open a movie with Robert De Niro going down on Susan Sarrandon in the kitchen. People are going to have a reaction to that sure, but if they were in their thirties, no one would say anything. I’m kind of tickled by that because you’re turning conventions on their head in a way. And in the same way you can have a serious story arc, like that between Robert De Niro and Katherine Heigl have, which it turned out to be my favorite part of the film because it’s so real and honest. And THEN, in the same film, you can have a silly storyline, like that about Topher Grace’s character losing his virginity. Our hunch is that our audience, is fed up of being talked down to in the way that they have been for the past several generations. Our goal is to make more of a pastiche of genres where people start to recognize themselves and their lives-in the film-a little bit more than they typically would.
Filmoria: When approaching studios with the project, did you ever run into people telling you to make changes; make it funnier, make it darker, for example?
Clay: We didn’t really allow that. This is a smart movie, and we believed in it, and we knew it was going to get made. Both Justin and I, or at least I, have a confidence in his writing which I don’t think a financier like myself would dare think they know more about the creative process than Justin. I think everyone just loved Justin’s writing so we didn’t really come up against that. It was more coming up with the money to get the people we wanted and thinking of ways we could make the movie finance-able.
Justin: We also approached this movie a little differently. We went out and we raised the money to make this movie on our own. and when that happens, you have control over the creative process. It wasn’t until the last minute that we went to Millennium, who were amazing partners on this project. They were terrific. Also, once actors sign off on a script, that kind of locks that in. I had a breakfast with an actor, I won’t say who, but he’s an Oscar winning actor, one of the most respected actors in the world. And he was talking to me about how he did a comic book movie and he said “I signed onto this thing, and three months later I come to shoot and the script has been completely changed. And I called the director in and said, the pages are very nice, but this is not what I signed onto, so I need you to run out and get me the original pages I agreed to.” Producers who know their stuff know that once you get cast signed on, you don’t monkey around with the script too much, because you don’t want Robert De Niro calling you up saying “I’m walking off the movie because you changed the script.” So once we had Bob and Diane, that became our protection.
Filmoria: You mentioned that Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton helped you get the rest of the cast to sign on. But how did you make those casting decisions?
Justin: I’ve known Katherine for years and years, so one we had Bob and Diane, we went to Katie. And Topher was at the top of my list for his part. The great thing was, Katie and Topher both grew up in towns within 15 minutes of where Clay and I grew up, so that sense of humor and language were second nature to them. We didn’t think we could get Amanda Seyfried because its not the biggest role, but she read it and just said, okay. A very funny story, and Topher tells this story too because we both grew up in Connecticut and he is as irreverent as we are. We were shooting this scene with all the actors and Robin Williams was there too and Topher came up to me probably three times and said “That’s Robert De Niro” and I said “I know”. And he’d say, “That’s Diane Keaton, that’s Robin Williams, that’s Susan Sarandon” and I just said “I know, what the fuck are WE doing here”. I just kept thinking, how did we get so lucky to work with these people.
Filmoria: This being your first time producing and directing, was there a moment y0u found to be most challenging?
Justin: Oh, this one is easy. I called up a bunch of directors, some I knew, some I didn’t-just people whose work I really respected-and I asked for advice. I took a lot of people out to lunch. People like Nancy Myers, Jame Mangold, Peter Farrelly, and Kevin Lima. And I would just ask them, “if you were going to direct your first big movie, what do you wish people had told you?” And they all gave me unbelievable advice, but the best piece of advice was…that actors like the kind I got…and no one could believe who I got…they WANT to be directed. And listen, we had no time for rehearsal, we had three hours during one afternoon, so I could only pick one scene to rehearse just to break the ice. So I picked one with Bob, Diane and Susan, and did the scene of Bob going down on Susan in the kitchen, because that was going to take some pretty intricate blocking. So I have the three of them there, and there is a line Susan’s character is supposed to say, where her character says “that’s heretical” and Susan says, “there is nothing heretical about this”, and she preceded to go at me. And it was my first chance to have these three legends there and I just see Diane and Bob walking away and Susan is going on about my script making no sense and this and that being wrong, and I was just like, “oh my God, I’m failing at this.” And then I just said, “Susan, stop. I hear everything you’re saying, but I can’t do anything about this right now. So for now, if we could put a pin in it, rehearse the scene like we’re here to do, I will go home and rewrite this scene 10 different ways. I’ll even let you rewrite the scene. But for now, I just need you to get through this rehearsal if you’ll let me.” And that was it, and she said, “Okay.” That day, I went home and rewrote the scene, and afterwards, she said, “it’s fine.” I’d talked to people who worked with Susan, who is one of the best actress out there and doesn’t even need to try hard, but she wanted to know, is this a guy I can push around or is this the kind of guy who will stand up for himself? And I’d heard that she tests people out. But there is difference between knowing it, and experiencing it. It’s surreal…I’m standing there with Susan Sarandon yelling at me, and because she’s Susan Sarandon, I’m inclined to believe her! But it worked out and while that was tough, after that, it was literally smooth sailing.
Filmoria: And how about you Clay? What was your biggest challenge for you on the film?
Clay: I had a very different experience than Justin because we’re doing such different things. For me, the most daunting experience on the film was when I thought we were going to lose the rights to the foreign property and thought all our plans were just going to explode. A film’s bonding is based on its chain of title, and without those rights, you lose the chain of title, and if you lose that, the bonding goes away, the banking goes away, the equity goes away. And Justin never got deep into it, but there were a a couple of days when we were shooting and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to shoot the next day. So that was a little bit more disconcerting. But my interaction with the actors was very different that Justin’s because his is on a very creative level, and mine is on a logistical level. My most challenging experience with the actors was when De Niro would have me into his trailer to have drinks, and I was too afraid to tell him that I don’t like gin, which of course is his drink of choice. Overall, it was just a pretty spectacular and surreal experience for both of us. This really was a case of the two of us coming together after having built this company (Two Ton), and we were just sort of pinching ourselves. Everyone just showed up with their A game, from the top down. Because when Bob, and Susan, and Diane show up with there A game, everyone else sort of falls in line.
Justin: And also, between the three of them, they wanted to be prepared for each other. Bob said to me before starting, “I’ve got to be ready for this one, with those two.” There was so much respect between the three of them, all the other actors wanted to see what they were going to do, and they were such professionals every minute. To have Robert De Niro improvising with Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon, to see that happen and see them being so free about it and yet so serious. They take direction beautifully. You don’t even need to finish a sentence because they just know where you’re going. I kept saying when they would throw out ideas, “So long as I can take credit for it, go ahead!” And that was the running joke, especially with Bob.
Filmoria: Given that this a movie about a family and you two being so close, did your relationship on set help the atmosphere during the production?
Justin: With the exception of our kids, there is nothing we enjoy more than making fun of one another.
Clay: The thing I say all the time is, in the best of both worlds, friends and family are one in the same. And Justin and I sort of live by that.
Justin: Yeah. If my wife and I go, Clay gets my kids.
Clay: But I also get the house.
Justin: We need to talk about that [laughs]. The thing Clay and I know better than anything is, our friendship comes first. A lot of people go into business together and say that, but it quickly becomes about the business. But our friendship is so important to each of us, we’re like each other’s second wife, so we know we’re going to have fun, even if the people around us aren’t Clay and I just amuse each other. There is an episode of Cake Boss with Clay and I having a frosting fight. We shut down production for half and hour and got into a massive pie fight. Truthfully, we aren’t that interested in if people don’t like it, because there are so many easier ways to make money, but if you can actually make a living in this business and do what you really love, its worth it. I hate to say this out loud, but during our last lunch, Clay got up and made me get up, and I just burst into tears in front of about 500 people because of the experience. The number of people who came up to me and said this was the best experience I ever had on a movie. And these were teamsters who normally hate everything and we had them driving out to Conneticut everyday. We told ourselves, “we need to make this a downhill drive for them. We need to make them want to come to set so it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like work summer camp.” And I was having a wonderful time on set, and as much as it was a byproduct of having wonderful people on set, for us it was just as much about us wanting to have fun with this experience, so it was all just part of the business plan.
Filmoria: I know you guys are busy working on another film now right?
Clay: About four…and two TV shows.
Filmoria: Well then you are definitely busy and I need to let you get back to work.
The Big Wedding will hit US Theatres from 26 April 2013 and is scheduled to land in the UK 29 May 2013