It’s hard to not have preconceived notions about people before interviewing them, especially when the people being interviewed are the stars of a found footage film where their characters host a party gone wildly out of control. One expects the three lead actors of the Todd Phillips produced party comedy Project X – Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, and Jonathan Daniel Brown – to show up late and look like they had a heck of a night before. After all, these guys are playing characters responsible for throwing a massive Southern California house party where over 1,500 people showed up.
Since the film uses mostly their real names to tell the story, one expects Thomas to be a put upon and bashful teenager, but in reality as the most experienced member of the cast, Mann is quite eloquent and thoughtful with his responses towards questions about a film featuring such debased behaviour. One expects Oliver (playing the role of Costa) to be a horny frat boy with a bunch of connections that can get you anything you need. In truth, Cooper shows up about 15 minutes early and spends time happily chatting away with members of the press over tea and cookies while waiting for everything to get underway. It’s even somewhat expected that the actor who plays JD in the film would have a deadpan sense of humour, but Brown is actually the most outwardly boisterous and jovial out of the bunch.
The three actors sat down to talk to Dork Shelf about what it’s like to film a party over the course of five weeks and why they wouldn’t recommend that anyone ever holds a five week party. They also discuss the intense casting process for the film, and just how much of a found footage film is written and how much is ad-libbed.
Project X is a bit of a strange breed. It’s this big event movie, mixed with a teen comedy, and it’s also a found footage film. What has the audience reaction to the film been like thus far from what you’ve seen?
Jonathan Daniel Brown: Well, it’s funny because this is an event film, but it’s also a smaller scale disaster movie. It all takes place on one block instead of this cataclysmic, Roland Emmerich type movie where the world blows up and John Cusak escapes in a plane type of thing. So, it’s as if you took this disaster and you mixed it with the found footage and teen genres and you just cranked it all up to 11. It’s an awesome experience to be a part of making something like that, and watching the experience from the audience is a little unnerving for me personally, but seeing them go nuts is really a vindication for all the hard work and effort
Oliver Cooper: But I also think it’s really hard to tell when you’re watching it, because last night was the second time I’d seen it, because it’s always hard to tell when they’re going to laugh. It’s not something I ever think about when I’m watching a different movie that’s close in tone to this one like The Hangover, but when I’m in it, I’m always wondering if they should be laughing at the whole thing or how they’re reacting…
Thomas Mann: I think all that really matters is that you can see people are having a good time watching it. We had such an amazing time making it and the energy level was just so high, so as long as people are really getting that feeling from the movie that’s great. Because it’s so fast paced that you have to keep that energy up the whole time. A lot of people have told me they feel exhausted after they watch it, which I think is kind of accurate just because so much happens in such a little amount of time.
OC: And a lot of that credit goes to (director) Nimah (Nourizadeh) for just having this great ability to make things feel alive and natural. I mean, a lot of movies you watch you see these extras in the background of a party, and you can just tell that they aren’t having any fun or they don’t know exactly what to do. A lot of people don’t concentrate on that, but he has such a great attention to detail. I remember he was concentrating on things like the number of red cups in a scene, and anything that would make the film feel as real as possible.
JDB: He also personally cast all 300 extras. He hand picked them and auditioned them just because he want to have interesting people who would surprise him on set and do cool, unexpected things that other people wouldn’t normally do.
TM: And we also did a lot of long takes, especially in the dancing scenes and to make footage that could go into the montages.
JDB: I can’t think of a film with more realistic dancing.
OC: Yeah, when they did the montages, those were cases where they would just turn on the music and just send us through the crowd and have us just go crazy. It was apple juice instead of beer. So we’re doing beer bongs of apple juice, which is kinda silly, but we were surrounded by people who could keep that illusion going, by keeping that energy up/
TM: I remember one of my favourite parts, and I think you feel the same way, is the part of the movie where the cops show up and everyone’s huddled in the backyard and all hushed. Then when you go back there and it’s all clear and you just shout “To the break of dawn!” At that point the crowd just erupts and the energy was just insane.
OC: Literally it was one of the last shots of the day, and we came up and all these people are so hyped to be a part of the movie. Because these extras are getting hand picked a lot of them are getting face time. I’m sure there’s some extra that’s visible clearly on the poster. You can’t even see our faces on the poster. (laughs) But when we did that scene, the kids just went nuts, and they really played (Kid Cudi’s) “Pursuit of Happiness.” A lot of the music in the film was really what was playing, too.
TM: And for that, we didn’t even know where the camera was. We just started dancing.
OC: People were jumping on me and picking me up. It was crazy.
TM: They were throwing drinks in the air and we were just drenched in whatever was in those cups.
When this movie was first being cast there was a huge nationwide casting call put out for the film. What was the casting and audition process like for this movie?
OC: I had never auditioned for anything before, but I had a friend who was Goldberg the goalie from The Mighty Ducks movies, and he was also in Heavyweights. His name is Shaun Weiss, and he knew Judd Apatow through Heavyweights, and he got me an audition kind of strangely. I didn’t know what I was doing and I hadn’t auditioned for anything before
JDB: I did an open call over the internet.
TM: I had this sent over to me by an agent, but it was a really, really long process. I think I went in seven times…
JDB: I went in nine.
TM: It was a lot, and it was over the span of several months. Then we would do a series of mix and matches where we would read with other Costa’s.
OC: I would never read with these guys. Mine was really more like two weeks. But I do know that they started casting in April last year and it went on well though June.
You guys have to act like you’ve been friends for a long time. What did you guys do to build up the chemistry there?
TM: Before we started shooting we had about three straight weeks of rehearsals.
JDB: And during that time it was when we were re-writing scenes and trying to find what worked and what didn’t work for our voices. We had a script written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall which was awesome, but we also had an on set writer that worked with all of us, and with Nima and Todd Phillips. Basically it was cool because they molded the script to us as actors, and they just let us play and have fun while we were setting it all up. That’s something rare and unique.
So did a lot of improvising come out of that?
OC: Improvising was something that came mostly in rehearsal and not as much on set. They gave a lot more freedom there, and on the day what was supposed to be shot and what I would go to the set with always changed on a daily basis like these things do, but mostly everything was pretty well set going in. But when you go in and start shooting, it’s different. But I know with Todd Phillips on The Hangover it was a different thing.
JDB: I think it’s a tough question because I would say yes and no. We all disagree on this question, but I think it was more like 70% scripted and 30% improv.
TM: I think that’s about right for the scenes outside the party. Because in my scenes with the Kirby character (the film’s love interest), we were allowed to improv in rehearsals, someone would write it down and then it would become a scene in the movie. So I guess that’s sort of a form of improvisation.
Did you guys particularly draw from any personal party experiences for the film?
TM: A little bit, but a lot of it was totally from the atmosphere and the energy on set all the time, which really let us think we were at a party a lot of the time. We had a DJ on set, and he would even be playing between takes, so the extras were dancing all the time, anyway. It’s really easy to get into it by being there, which made it harder for me to play all the scenes where I had to sort of act as the party pooper.
Are there any scenes that stand out from the party that were the most memorable to film?
JDB: The scene where we were all on the roof of the house was pretty fun.
TM: Which is great because that’s kind of like the turning point in the film.
JDB: That’s kind of the part where the third act begins to kick in and things get crazy. I should also add that I didn’t do my own stunts in that scene where I have to jump off the roof. There aren’t a lot of young stunt guys who look like me. (laughs) So I had this really great double who was a lot older who told me he worked on the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre back in the 70s. So he’s up there dressed as me with a wig on dressed as a kid jumping off a roof.
OC: I really liked the scene where the neighbour gets tazered. I think you guys are crazy. (laughs) Anything with the two young kids our characters hire as security guard, I think are my favourite scenes. To be around those guys was the favourite part of the movie for me.
JDB: Yeah, Nick Nervies and Brady Hendler, the kids who played Tyler and Everett, are really funny kids. Really cool, funny kids.
Jonathan, despite not doing your own stunts, Oliver busted your head open on accident in one of the scenes. Could you expand on that?
JDB: Oh yeah! Well, we were filming this scene and Oliver has this giant pimp cup, this chalice. One night on set, he was shaking it over my head and the bottom of the cup sliced my head. (laughs) I required medical attention. There was a lot of blood…
OC: It was a cut. A minor cut…
TM: I think you actually yelled “Cut! Cut!”
JDB: Yeah, but it was actually about my head and not the scene.
OC: It’s just a little scene that made it into one of the montages, but you can kinda see when it happens. It was this crazy part where there were so many people and they were shaking this truck that we were on..
JDB: And they were throwing things.
OC: It was like a real riot scene. I couldn’t believe it. The energy of these people were so intense that I was believing it.
JDB: So intense that you felt like cutting me on the top of the head.
One of the things that I think sets it apart from a lot of other teenage party films is that throughout the film, it makes getting absolutely hammered look as ugly as it really is. You were talking about the energy level on set. Did it get a lot more difficult to shoot the later scenes in the film where you guys have to start looking rundown and sickly?
TM: That was actually one of the toughest things because you’re in this environment where everyone is having a good time. We shot this over five weeks of night shoots with the same extras who’ve been there the entire time, and it’s starting to feel like an actual party. It was harder to play stressed out in that kind of situation. It’s even harder because we didn’t shoot everything chronologically. For the most part we did, though.
OC: For Tom it was harder because he’s carrying most of the story and his character comes with the most consequences. For my character, it was really just one note the whole time. (laughs)
JDB: Ah, you’re selling yourself short.
OC: But it did really help, like you were saying, that we looked so terrible towards the end of the movie. Because the house is getting as destroyed as we are. We shot mostly in order, but not necessarily in sequence, if that makes sense. And that does get exhausting when you have to shoot over the course of five weeks. I mean, the make-up got more intense as the filming went on, but I actually LOOKED like crap by the end of it, anyway. On top of all that, they had to wet us down, and they had this make-up, I don’t know what it was, but it was something like baby oil or something like that.
JDB: I would not recommend throwing a five week party of your own. (laughs)
So on the set of a movie where you guys shot a five week party, did you guys have any parties of your own away from the set?
JDB: Well, the extras sometimes threw parties of their own.
TM: There was really only one big one in particular…
JDB: Yeah, the original extras’ party.
TM: They got this really clever idea from being at a party all day to start handing out invitations on set to their own party on the weekend when we weren’t shooting.
JDB: We went and it was pretty awesome. It’s funny because when I went there, there was this girl who whenever we were in a scene together would constantly be grinding against me all the time. So I saw her at the extras party and she actually formally introduces herself to me, and I’m like “Oh, hey, I remember you, you’re the girl that’s constantly grinding against me.” Then she just says “I’m an actress.” And she just walked off. People take this gig very seriously.