Interview: Brett Heard

Toronto based actor, writer, and director Brett Heard has been working for over 20 years in various different aspects of the film and television industry. He’s worked as a touring stand-up comic for six years, as well, and that’s exactly the kind of observational style he brings to his latest directorial offering – and first full length feature – Stag.

Available On-Demand now in Canada, the recognizably Toronto shot screwball comedy tones down the Hangover styled shenanigans of a man’s last night as a bachelor. It’s more of a character study about a group of close friends about to watch the prankster of the group (Scrubs’ Donald Faison) get married. He’s paranoid that his BFF’s are planning a world of pain and debauchery for him after pulling some incredibly heinous stunts (ranging from the traditional “box up the groom and ship him to some remote location” to an incredibly misunderstood bit involving the top of a pineapple and someone’s butt). In reality, most his friends have enough problems of their own. One is a frustrated workaholic (John Dore), another’s an aspiring professional extra, and two of them are even struggling with their own sexuality in vastly different ways.

We caught up with Heard at a downtown Toronto office to talk about what sets his film apart from the over the top hijinks of The Hangover, writing an ensemble piece, and assembling a team of actors right for the roles.

Dork Shelf: You’ve assembled quite an interesting cast of familiar face from film, TV, and stand-up, and there were some really interesting choices that were made as to who played what role. What kind of decisions did you make when it came to the casting?

Brett Heard: I did a couple of read-throughs of an earlier version of the script, and a lot of the guys before hand. I knew Tony Nappo, who plays Paul. I had known Jefferson Brown, who plays Henry. To be honest, Jefferson wanted to play a different role, but I knew where I wanted him. They were hand picked. Pat Thornton, who plays Carl, came to a read-through replacing someone else, and he was so good in the read-through that it was almost like I had written every line for him. Every line that he read had people cracking up laughing, so he kind of won it in a sense from that.

Then we put the script out to some agents in LA and some names were submitted and Donald Faison was one of those names. I’m a big fan of his and I thought that his comedic timing would be perfect for this role, so we jumped at the fact that he wanted to do it.

DS: What was it like having someone like Donald come in and play the character the whole film has to be built around, but who isn’t necessarily the lead? Because this is kind of an ensemble piece…

BH: Totally. There is no lead.

DS: Well, let me backtrack for a minute, then. It starts with the set-up with his character, but the focus is more on everyone else in the group at times. Was there ever a point during the development where the film only focused on the plot behind one specific character?

BH: No. It was always intended to be a look at people at different points in their lives coming together for one event and how they changes over time. The reason it’s set up this way is because in your late teens, twenties, and early thirties you can still go: “Let’s go crazy!” Then responsibility and life starts to come in, and you have this shift in your outlook. It’s not that life isn’t fun anymore, but there’s this shift. So we laugh at the way it was, and how (Donald’s) character’s expectations are based on how things used to be without him taking into consideration that everyone’s kind of grown-up and moved on.

So to go back to your earlier question about Donald, he literally epitomizes fun. He just does. The first time he came into the room he had known some of us from having worked before together and he had such an energy to him. He’s so grateful and funny and welcoming, so he made the experience great for everybody, but it could have easily gone the other way had he come in and had “diva issues,” but he was someone who could make the whole experience great for everybody.

DS: His character isn’t only someone who has this pendulum of revenge hanging over his head, but he’s also seemingly the one of the very last of his group of friends to go through with marriage, with the exception of really only one guy who wants to still go through with getting payback on his buddy.

BH: You need to have one throughline that’s going to drive the intention of a payback, so I really only created one guy living in the past and the party days that hasn’t really caught up that still wants revenge and it’s why no one else really cares all that much, and that’s why that guy sticks out.

DS: You also have a lot of action at the start taking place outside the party and with some of the actors acting independently of the group before they come together, and in some case outside the party while it’s still going on. How hard was it to balance giving each of these characters equal time?

BH: From the writing standpoint and unlike other projects that I have worked on, I constructed it in such a way that I literally laid out the beats and points of each individual story line and I actually colour coded the layout so I knew exactly how much time everyone was getting. It’s an ensemble piece, so you might relate more to certain characters than you would to others, but really they have pretty much equal screen time.

DS: Which of those scenarios was the hardest to write for?

BH: You know, I think that there’s a little piece of me in all of them. I couldn’t personally relate to all the stories, but to all of the story arcs. I wish I had a better answer, but I didn’t have trouble finding myself stuck in any of these storylines. My DNA, I think, is in all of them. (laughs)

DS: So would you say that you had similar experiences to this at any such bachelor parties in the past?

BH: I’ve had similar experiences, both being a part of and being witness to some of these things. A lot of the time I did have to stretch my imagination in terms of what we could do. Actually, the pineapple gag in the movie, as outlandish as it is, is something that really happened. That was a real thing that I was witness to. Well, to be honest, I saw the photos of it after it happened and I talked to and knew the guys who did it. And I think a lot of guys have had experiences in this area. Like, the TV show Pranked is a more elaborate version of this kind of thing, and I think at stags they need something with a little less effort than what Pranked usually sets up. It’s gotta be something that’s pretty easy to pull off.

DS: What was it like trying to come up with the specific pranks that we see at the beginning of the film?

BH: It was fun. That was a lot of fun. The first one (with a groom getting shipped in a box) was the easiest one, but there was one with a blow-up doll and a boxer that actually ended up being a challenge because we lost the location we were looking to shoot in at the last minute, and we found we had access to a boxing ring. It was actually where Lennox Lewis used to train, but the building got torn down shortly after we shot there. So I had to quickly come up with what we were going to do, and it was really fun for the wardrobe people to figure out how we were going to pull that one off. I think it came up well.

DS: One of the things that sets the movie apart from a lot of its brethren like The Hangover or anything like that is that the actual party itself is pretty realistically low-key and not an outlandish beer bash. There are a lot of scenes with a lot of dialogue and people talking. What really led to that approach and was it more challenging to do it this way instead of just going over the top and let everyone riff on the action?

BH: I completely agree, and I think that’s where the heart of the film is, really. I think that from a directing standpoint it comes down to how amazingly talented the cast was to be able to convey that. Not that it was a challenge, but I’ve got five or six different actors who all have a different process. Some need to know their backstories, some don’t, some want to improvise, some don’t. So I had to service all of those needs in order to make everyone feel comfortable enough to make those long scenes of dialogue play out well. If you’re just rolling over and not listening to what they want – and a huge part of this is just listening – it just becomes talking heads instead of engagement. And, quite frankly, I have to give credit to these actors because they are all just so good.

With an ensemble where everyone is afforded equal screen time, you have to be respectful to all of them individually to give them all what they want and need. After we cast everybody I sat and met with everyone individually just to talk about their character with them and how we both saw it and made sure we were both on the same page. Then we had a bit of a social where I took everyone out for dinner, so the cast could get to know each other. Then from there I just kind of let them go when we were on set. For me, I never want to be too heavy handed, so we let these guys play with each other, and if something wasn’t playing quite right, I would come in with a suggestion. I would never get too much in the way.

I can actually tell you a quick, funny story. Leah Renee, who plays the stripper and blogger in the movie named Candy, is amazing. She’s originally Canadian, but she lives in LA, so she put herself on tape for us and she was the first person that came to us for the part and we thought she was perfect, but we went off and looked at other options because you can’t just look at one thing. In the casting session, no one was as good as she was, so we flew her to Toronto to do an in-person session and she nailed that and we booked her. In the original script, he character never exposes herself. Someone said it seemed “very Canadian” that a stripper wouldn’t actually strip, and that criticism made sense. So from there we had to find a funny way for this stripper to go about exposing herself, but then I called her and asked if she would mind changing things pretty drastically. And the way the timing worked out, I was actually dropping my daughter off at Brownies and sitting outside asking a woman about showing her nipples. It was a very odd, awkward situation, but it was the kind of decision we all worked together on.

And with regard to the party not being that over that top, it’s because that’s the reality of the situation. That’s why this was never meant to be The Hangover. The reality is that it’s eight guys thinking “This is going to be awesome!” When they start filing into the party here there are about four guys sitting around drinking beer and then it because a larger number doing the same. That’s what almost every stag is like. The one compliment I appreciate the most is when people say it’s the most authentic look at what stags are like. It’s totally never as glamorous as it looks.