Ben Schwartz on Peep World, Parks and Recreation and Writing the Soapdish Remake
Ben Schwartz is that rare Hollywood up and comer, if only because in addition to working on everything from indie films to beloved television series to hot cable pilots to big-budget screenplays, he's also blessed with boundless enthusiasm. One conversation with the Peep World star (who you might also know as the hilariously douche-y Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation), and you can't help walk away with a sense of Hollywood's limitless possibilities. It's kinda contagious.
In Peep World, Schwartz stars as Nathan, the youngest of four siblings (Michael C. Hall, Sarah Silverman and Rainn Wilson play the others), who writes a tell-all novel about his family's indiscretions. Needless to say, chaos ensues. An excited Ben rang up Movieline to discuss the opening of his new indie film, what to expect from his return to Parks and Rec, the benefits of working on cable, and the reason why his remake of Soapdish should have you excited.
Last time we spoke, Peep World was just about to head up to Toronto. Now it's on the cusp of theatrical release. That's got to be pretty exciting.
It's totally exciting. I can't wait. It's on VOD now, but it comes out in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. So many good people are involved in it, I'm pretty excited for people to see it.
Do you think that more movies are going to use that pre-release VOD model that Peep World has taken advantage of? It's been available for the last month.
It's so interesting. I did a lot of short films online, so I come from that background where a lot of people see your stuff. I wonder how that model works -- I think it's on VOD up until the film comes out, then is taken off VOD once it's in theaters. I think it's pretty cool -- it's a cool way to get the word out there. It's new -- all this stuff is new. They just did it with The Other Woman, they're doing it with us. I think it's always super exciting to watch something before you can see it in theaters. By the way, it should be known that every time you rent it on VOD, I get $7 million. You know what I do now? I almost pay for people to rent it because it's such a profit for me. I'll give you the $10 to rent it -- fuck it, I'll give you $1,000 to rent it, and I'll still garner a $6,999,000 profit. (Laughs)
I'll take you up on that offer. Peep World has drawn a lot of comparisons to The Royal Tenenbaums and Arrested Development. Do you think those are fair?
I'm such a big Tenenbaums fan, I'm such a big Arrested Development fan, and some of the reviews have talked about that. That's so cool. For me, when I see it, I think it's -- in essence -- about a dysfunctional family; it's about me, Sarah Silverman, Michael C. Hall, Rainn Wilson. All of us are caricatures of things that people see in their family: The black sheep, the person who holds it together. I'm the overachiever and snobby one. Sarah's upset with what she's given in life. The idea of these people living together and trying to function and love each other, especially when there is so much hatred among the family. My character writes a book that puts out everybody's secrets and hurts the family. And we get to see how that affects everybody and how they deal with it.
How early did you get involved with this film?
Me and Mike were the first two people attached. Do you know that stuff?
Not off the top of my head, but I can look.
I don't know why I assume you would know that. (Laughs) I think that's what it was -- it was me and Mike from the beginning. I heard people were circling it. I remember when I went for the audition, Seth Green was in my audition room with me, and he was my boss a couple of months before when I was writing for Robot Chicken. I went in thinking, "This is gonna be fun!" and when I saw him, I was like, "I gotta get serious." There are good actors auditioning. Like, I love Seth! So, from the first audition I was getting excited about the project just to see the people who were as excited as I was about it.
It's really a tremendous cast. All those people you mentioned, Judy Greer, Ron Rifkin...
Stephen Tobolowsky! How could you not like Ned Ryerson? Taraji P. Henson had just been nominated for an Oscar when we started filming! I was like, "Oh my God." It was weird.
Were you nervous to be surrounded by such heavy hitters?
When I got in there, I auditioned a bunch of times because I was kinda the only unknown. I tested with a bunch of people who were up for Kate Mara's role. So I got to get comfortable with the material, and with the director and producer. And when it was time to film, the whole cast just clicked so hard. I'm still very, very close with Sarah and Michael. For some reason, we got along so well, and we were so comfortable with each other, that it alleviated any tension I may have felt.
There are equal parts comedy and drama in Peep World; do you have a preference?
I love doing comedy. One of my favorite things in the world is to do Parks and Recreation; a big fun character. Literally one of my favorite things to do. This movie, there's a lot of drama in it, and it's the first time I was really able to flex those muscles. So I'd love to do a comedy, but I'm really open to anything. If the script is good -- as a writer and an actor, if you read the script and go, "Oh, that's hilarious. I want to be a part of it," that's good. There's this funny thing that comedians and some writers do. If someone says a movie idea that they're doing, you get really jealous. Like, "Oh my God, I wish I thought of that!" I have that all the time. "I wish I thought of [pauses] The Goonies" I'm like, "Oh, man!" When I read scripts that I love, those are the ones I can't wait to do. It can run the gamut, be a dark comedy. Even TV shows. I read the pilot for Showtime's House of Lies, and I was like, "This is so much fun, I really want to be involved in some way."
As a writer yourself, do you get a script and immediately try to think of ways you can change the material? Or maybe improvise with it?
When I do the roles, when I'm in the room and auditioning, I'll ask the director if they're cool with me adding stuff, or just improvising while we're doing it. And I would say like 90 percent of the time, they say absolutely. Maybe they know my background, that I've done UCB for ten years. When I'm acting, I've been very fortunate with the people I've worked with that they're very free to let me improvise. That's an amazing thing from the director and the other actors that trust me enough that if I go off on something, they're going to be right there having fun. With Peep World, because it's a little bit more dramatic, there's not a ton. There is some improvising, but there is not a lot. It's easier for me to improvise in comedic moments -- like when I'm Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation, or in the UBC show. This film, you had to hit the dramatic beats when they come. I still feel very fortunate that the directors and writers have been cool letting me do it. I think that's almost a new thing. I feel like it really helps with actors; I think they look for people that are able to really stay with the words. Like I'm sure Robert Downey Jr. is unbelievable at it.
Do you that's a growing trend because improvisation leads to a more natural performance?
That's interesting. I'm not quite sure what it is -- it may be that. When you're improvising you're really in the moment, and you're really in character. Don't you feel like there's really been more of it?
The Hangover was a perfect example. Zach Galifianakis was unbelievably funny. And, by the way, I thought Due Date was really good, and Galifianakis crushed it again. You could tell when he was going off book.
You mentioned Jean-Ralphio as a source of improvisation. What can you say about any upcoming returns to Pawnee and the parks department?
I talked to Michael Schur, and I was like, "What can I tell people when they ask about Parks and Rec?" I'm going to be in three episodes this season, which is great because I was filming Undercovers while that show was going o
n. It was hard to get me in, but luckily we got some time at the end. They're so cool over there. Jean-Ralphio is in three episodes this season, and one of them is the finale. And the finale is so good, I can't wait for people to see it. I'm so anxious for people to see it. We were playing around and watching clips for it the other day, and it's just so funny. I can't say what happens, obviously, but I will say that the finale is unbelievable.
I would imagine that it's cool to be part of a television show that is so beloved. Parks and Recreation feels like the cool show of the moment. The one with the most cache, so to speak.
It's so wonderful. For me, before I was on, it was my favorite show on television. I was a huge fan of The Office, and then Parks and Rec came on, and I was liking it. Then the second season came on, and I was falling in love with it. I had a meeting with Mike Schur about a different role a while back, and then they offered me Jean-Ralphio. It was just a couple of lines, that first thing. It was so much fun to do. After that, they obviously wrote me in. It's such a cool feeling to be on it, and I think it's so cool for those guys. The people who should get a ton of credit are the writers. People like Alan Yang, Harris Wittels, Katie Dippold, they are just unbelievable writers, and they wrote like season-long arcs that are so great because you care about the characters. And they're hilarious. They have a very special show. I think it starts with Mike Schur and Greg Daniels. And it just goes all the way through. Amy Poehler, being producer and prominently featured in the show, she has a great attitude, and that trickles down to everybody. You just want to do well, and want to have fun. It's a special, special show.
Speaking of special shows, I know you're excited about the Showtime pilot House of Lies.
It was Don Cheadle, and it got greenlit for a pilot. I lucked out and got cast. The cast is unreal. Dude, it's like, the quality of work in the cast is amazing. Don Cheadle, who everybody will find out, is one of the funniest people I've ever met in my entire life. And I'm around actors and comedians all day. Any stupid bit that I start, he says yes to it, and he'll joke around with it forever. And the dude was nominated for an Oscar! He's gonna waste time with me? He's attainable and he's great. Then you have Kristen Bell, who is like your sister. She's the nicest, prettiest girl in the universe. She's so funny. The show has great, great characters. We work in a pod -- me, Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, and this Australian comedian that everyone is going to know, Josh Lawson. He did a bunch of shows and improv, so when he came over he and I just clicked really hard and worked well together. My fingers are crossed that it's going to get picked up. The script is so tight and well-written, and lets people shine comedically and dramatically. Like, Don is hilarious, and then he has this amazing speech that makes everyone go, "Oh my God."
It's the luckiest thing for me -- I've done network TV, which I really love. But the idea of Showtime -- this guy David Nevins who runs Showtime -- has been around. He's been around! He's had meetings with me, he's showed an interest and really cared. It's really cool to talk with the person who runs the network, and for him to be supportive. Or if you have questions for him. It's an unbelievable freedom that Showtime can do because there's not a zillion different people up the ladder.
I'm sure being on cable offers a lot of creative freedom as well.
Oh, yeah. The best thing -- Stephen Hopkins, who directed the pilot, and Matthew Carnahan who wrote it -- from the beginning were like, "We love when you improvise, dude. And you can curse now. Say whatever the fuck you want." I love this show! I'm superstitious, but I really hope it gets picked up. It could be such an amazing show. I wanna be in this series. Like, I can't wait to read what the next episode is. And the freedom of the 12 or 13 episodes, let's you concentrate on the work -- and for me, who I write and act in movies, it gives you time to do that stuff. Showtime has been very cool. At some point in my life, I wanted to work with one of these premiere channels -- HBO, Showtime. And I feel so fortunate to be able to do it so early in my career.
I wanted to talk to you about Soapdish. I remember when I first read that Paramount was remaking it, I thought, "Eh." Then I found out you were doing the writing, and I was like, "That's a great idea!"
Print that. Whatever you just said, print that.
I know you can't say much, but were you a fan of the original?
I'll tell you this -- I can't say what the movie is about, which is great. I feel like it's a J.J. Abrams thing. But here you go: I'm going to write the Soapdish script, which is a remake of the 1991 film -- which is a very funny and well-written film. Paramount wanted a remake, and I'm very fortunate is that they chose me to write it. One of the reasons I'm really excited is that the original producer from the original Soapdish is on it, and we've been working together since I sold Paramount on my vision to do it. And the people at Paramount are so cool about it; they've been very supportive and positive and they like where we're going with it. Rob Reiner is one of the producers! I get to sit down and talk to Rob Reiner about comedy. Are you kidding me? It's funny -- they made the big announcement, and people were like, "Oh, I don't know." But I think people are going to dig it. This idea, I think, is new and fun and good -- it's going to be fun.
Can you say anything about where you're planning on taking the script?
I will say that Paramount has been letting me do all these ideas and fun things that I have -- which may have made you excited that I was writing it in the first place. They're allowing me to do that. Which is great, because a lot of times when you have a big entity like that, you know they're like, "No, no, we have to do it this way." But when I made my pitch, Paramount was totally cool, they totally got it. I'm writing it right now, which is fun. I'm also writing a movie for Universal, which is fun. So it's exciting. I haven't slept in fucking months.