The famous stoner duo Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are back! They return to theaters this weekend with their 3D holiday extravaganza “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” which reunites the estranged friends for a night of holiday hijinx, after Kumar accidentally burns down the prized Christmas tree belonging to Harold’s father-in-law (Danny Trejo).
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with the film’s director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, who is making his feature length directing debut with this comedy. I sat down with the Emerson College alum at a local Boston bar, on a nice sunny afternoon to discuss his experience directing, his close ties to Emerson classmates, and the origins of the waffle making robot in the film.
Evan Crean: I thought one of the things the film does really well, is the 3D in relation to parodying the 3D craze, kind of poking fun at it. There’s a lot of great stuff, but particularly the egging scene where Bobby Lee gets nailed with the really dramatic music. Were there any special tricks that you used to get that pop off the screen?
Todd Strauss-Schulson: There’s a couple of different things. The 3D I didn’t know about when I first went in to the movie, and then they told me they wanted to do it. I had just been watching all these William Castle movies. William Castle was this director who made all these gimmicky horror movies in the 50s and 60s. He was a genius. He was like a low rent Hitchcock. He was in all his trailers and he was really a showman of movies….
I loved the idea of becoming a showman with this movie, so Harold and Kumar 3D is almost more like a three ring circus than even just a regular movie. And you’re right, there’s all of this stuff, you’re throwing the kitchen sink at the movie, like a big extravaganza…Every 10 minutes you have something popping in your face. Danny Trejo ejaculates on you in this movie. We’re very aware that it’s sort of stupid and gimmicky. But that’s kinda cool. That’s what I want to see when I go to a 3D movie. And for this to be the first stoner movie ever shot in 3D, is like a cinematic event.
EC: Speaking of Danny Trejo, I interviewed him a couple of months ago and he seemed like a really fun-loving, jovial guy, not at all like the characters he seems to play. What was your experience like working with him?
TSS: I just wanted to put as many people in the movie as I was geek fans of when I was a kid. Trejo was one of them. All of those Rodriguez movies and all of it. He was very excited about playing against type. He got the joke immediately that he would be playing the father-in-law like ‘Meet the Fockers’ or something. He’d have a disgusting wool sweater on the entire time, and holding a three-year-old child, being very sweet, and very racist. He just thought it was great and he was the easiest guy. He told me this was the movie that he had the most amount of dialogue in of his entire career. Two monologues, and I think he killed it.
EC: Yeah. He does. (Laughing). One of the things I appreciate about him is that acting is a job for him. He just loves working as much as possible.
TSS: He does. He doesn’t go to his trailer. This was so cool. There was a moment where we had to move Santa’s sleigh around on the front lawn, at the end of the movie. But it was really heavy, and we were running out of time, and it was really hot. We had a couple of guys moving the sleigh that needed an extra hand. Trejo was just there. He wasn’t even in the scene anymore. He was just hanging out and he jumped in there and started moving stuff around. It felt like we were making a student film with Danny Trejo as the Grip. A topless, Mexican Grip.
EC: You went to Emerson here in Boston. I’m actually a fellow Emerson person as well. We jokingly call it the Emerson Mafia, but we know Emerson people help each other out. Have there been Emerson people that you’ve bumped into in the industry that really helped you out? Or really helped you catch that break?
TSS: It wasn’t so much that. I haven’t had that experience. But the experience that I did have is that I moved out to Los Angeles with 35 really good friends, who all did different things. They’re writers, actors, editors, DP (director of photography)’s and producers. And we all stayed really close. The 02-03 year was insane. A lot of comedy troupes got started, and those kids all moved out to LA and kept those things going. All of these shorts that I made in my 20s were with Evan and Gareth, who were guys from Swollen Monkey. Not sure if that comedy troupe still exists.
EC: Yeah it does.
TSS: But we would write together and we did punch up on this script. They’re in the movie as Heaven’s bartenders. We’re writing another script now. Ken Franchi, who’s my producing partner, and I just sold a pitch, and started a company together called Ulterior Productions. Dan Levy, who was in Jimmy’s Traveling All-Stars, part of the original gang, he was the paparazzi guy in the hallway.
We’ve made a thousand short films together. We’ve all tried to help each other out. If he got a job, he’d hire me to direct it. If I got a job, I’d put Evan and Gareth in it. And there was a ton of that. The special effects, all of the 3D gags were done by Dave Lebensfeld and Matt Poliquin who own a company called Ingenuity Engine. I sat in the LB (Little Building dorm) and watched Harold and Kumar with them. That’s the mafia for us. I don’t go to the Emerson Mafia things. I don’t know what that’s all about, but we have our own little thing.
EC: I feel like that’s something unique about Emerson. The people I’m friends with now, like all of them I’ve been friends with them since the first week of school.
TSS: I feel like my life would be significantly different if I didn’t meet those people there for sure. Almost every single short that helped me to build a reel that was big enough to book this movie, was because of my collaborations with Emerson guys.
EC: There was one element of the film I thought was particularly silly: the wafflebot. Where did that whole idea come from?
TSS: It was always in the script. It was in the script the first time that I read it. This Christmas toy of the season, this Tickle Me Elmo style robot chef that makes waffles and hates pancakes with a passion, was always part of the script. Then I think a sort of additional idea was that he would also fall in love with Kumar, and that would keep the sort of Christmas sentimentality going that he was really just in love with Kumar. He just wanted a friend, and that was really motivating him. That made the bizarre, weird character incredibly sweet.
But it was always part of it, and in fact, Greg Nicotero who does all of the zombie stuff on ‘The Walking Dead’ and all of the Tarantino stuff and Rodriguez movies, and ‘Predator,’ he designed that. He did all of the prosthetics for the movie. I had read every article and watched every DVD featurette of those guys when I was in high school. When he came in and pitched the design of the wafflebot, I was like ‘I can’t believe I’m even talking to you, this is unbelievable.’
EC: There’s a running gag in the film about a baby doing all sorts of drugs. Were you worried you might get any backlash or that people might be offended by that kind of thing?
TSS: I have no barometer for that. I don’t have children. They seem very resilient to me. That was always in the script. The ecstasy was additional when we were shooting, but in the script that made me laugh so hard that I just felt like a joke that was going to just kill. I hadn’t seen it before really. I felt like we were trying to one up the Hangover and I just thought it was hilarious. If we offend people, that’s kind of the point. Equal opportunity offenders. There are lesbian nuns in the movie…but no I wasn’t worried about that.
EC: Thank you very much for your time.
“A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas” is now playing in theaters.