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Interview: Co-Directors Josh Gordon & Will Speck Invite All to ‘Office Christmas Party’

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CHICAGO – The raucous party movie has become a reliable staple in movieland, and now a production tackles the holiday soiré, and all that can go wrong. “Office Christmas Party” is co-directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who also gave us “Blades of Glory” and “The Switch.”

The story features T.J. Miller and Jennifer Aniston as the brother and sister who has inherited their father’s computer business. Miller runs the Chicago office, which is under performing. Aniston’s character wants to shut the branch down, but Miller thinks an epic holiday party will convince a potential client (Courtney B. Vance) to sign on and save the company, and enlists the aide of officemates portrayed by Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn and Kate McKinnon. The movie is filled with wild and funny takes on celebrating the holiday ritual, and shows off the city of Chicago in all of its winter glory.

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Courtney B. Vance and T.J. Miller Whoop it Up in ‘Office Christmas Party’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Josh Gordon and Will Speck are graduates of the New York University Film School, where they met. Their first short film was “Culture” (1997), which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman, and was nominated for an Academy Award. After establishing themselves as top directors for commercials, they broke out with their first feature film in 2007 with the hilarious “Blades of Glory.” They first worked with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston in their next film, “The Switch” (2010), and have had some TV experience with “Cavemen,” “The Power Inside” and “Flaked.”

HollywoodChicago.com interviewed these two creative forces, with insights into the craft of comedy and the variations of show business.

HollywoodChicago.com: You both had to collect the consciousness of five writers to create a cohesion in this film. What was the biggest challenge of that assignment?

Will Speck: The challenge in finding the story became about how much plot do we have versus how much character in the roles. The one thing about this film is that we knew it was a relatable concept – that someone had direct experience with an office Christmas party or someone who had collected the tropes of such an event.

There was no specific model in that genre like a road or wedding or procedural movie. It could be anything, and took us a few rounds to find the balance between the kind of film we wanted to make – with the right ensemble – and featuring the pullout of what the party is, without dragging the whole story down.

HollywoodChicago.com: What were your standards for past party films that you studied, and did you include an homage for them in your film?

Josh Gordon: This is a little different than a straight party movie for us, because ultimately it was important that the audience invests in the characters, and be willing to go on the journey with them. We wanted the film to have heart and deliver the ‘holiday message’ in the midst of the mayhem.

Speck: We are fans of John Landis, and we loved the fact that ‘The Blues Brothers’ was done in downtown Chicago, and our chase sequence was influenced by the chase in that film. ‘Risky Business,’ also shot in Chicago, and was a seminal movie for us – Abbey Lee as the call girl in the film is our own Rebecca DeMornay. Also Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment,’ we used Jason Bateman as our Jack Lemmon. There was a lot that creeped in covertly.

HollywoodChicago.com: We native Chicagoans knew how you blended stuff in the film. How do you think you paid tribute to Chicago as a character in the midst of the mayhem?

Gordon: As Will said, we grew up loving so many films that were shot in Chicago. Besides the obvious titles, there are a lot of filmmakers who have an affinity for the actors who started in the ‘The Second City,’ and Chicago is just a great cinematic city. We hadn’t seen it as much recently in film, and so it was very important for us to put it front and center again.

It’s a great American city, but it also has a slight underdog quality to it, which represents the branch of the struggling company in the film. The town also has a soul that knows how to party and have a good time, and mostly don’t care what people think of that celebration. Those were the important flavors, when we decided to set the film in Chicago.

HollywoodChicago.com: Working with sharp tools like T.J. Miller and Jason Bateman, and improv artists in the rest of the cast, what percentage of improvisation ended up in the final cut, and what was the brightest moment for that kind of filmmaking?

Speck: Once we got our script shot and covered appropriately, we would let all of them go. There was one scene, that was specifically choreographed with T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman and Courtney Vance, where T.J. is doing a celebratory stage shout-out to the partygoers. The improvisational spirit for us was letting him get up there and letting all of them just go at it – it was about finding the performances, dance moves and staging to the crowd. We did the music live, for example, and that was one of our most exciting and high risk scenes in the whole film, and turned out to be extremely rewarding.

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Kate McKinnon, Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn Join Miller in ‘Office Christmas Party’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

HollywoodChicago.com: Courtney B. Vance has a breakout in this film. When casting Walter, what were you looking for, and how did Courtney fulfill the breakout that Walter had to become?

Gordon:Walter had to be a character who had gravitas, a person that you couldn’t quite read, and it was very important for Will and I that we didn’t hire a ‘comedian’ or someone who you’ve seen be funny a lot play that character. It’s because then the audience would know he wasn’t real, as they wait for them to break down.

The great thing about Courtney is that he recently was excellent in the O.J. Simpson miniseries [as Johnnie Cochran], and we also knew him from Broadway way back in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ We knew he was a properly trained actor, and we sensed comedy lurking under the surface, because he was so great as Johnnie Cochran. When he came in and formulated the character, it was everything we could hope for…he was incredibly funny.

HollywoodChicago.com: You had to corral a barn load of extras and have them represent the party gone bad. How did you control of the level of volume on the party atmosphere to get the desired result, and what represented “11” to you the most when it was turned up loudest?

Gordon: One of the hardest things to achieve in the movie was maintaining a party energy. We had a large ensemble cast, 400 extras and every day for two months you had to show up – whether you were in the mood for it or not – and be ready to party. It was long and physical work to make that happen, but that is what everyone signed up for, and that’s what they did. As the ball got rolling, the participants would carry it forward, the energy of the setting has a momentum all of its own.

The parts that went to ’11’ were the mayhem sequences that occurred toward the end of the party – Jesus riding a horse through the party, and the Rob Corddry character holding court as if he were in a [Hieronymus] Bosch Medieval painting. That was straight out of the imagination of Will and I, we just knew that every party has to have an ’11,’ a high water mark. It was fun to create our version of that mark.

HollywoodChicago.com: You both directed one of the funniest movies of the last ten years, ‘Blades of Glory.” What did that teach you about the chemistry of comedy, and at what point on set did you know you had something?

Speck: I think that sometimes chemistry can be created. Jon [Heder] was still early in his career and Will [Ferrell] was in mid-career. Will made it a commitment to spend as much time off the set with Jon as possible. They created their chemistry. We have a notion that chemistry is just chemical, and it can be sometimes. But there are other times you can create it, and give it a particular energy, and that’s what happened in ‘Blades of Glory.’ We learned a valuable lesson about chemistry when we worked with them.

HollywoodChicago.com: You followed up ‘Blades’ with ‘The Switch,’ which according to research, had to go into a re-shoot five months after the wrap. What did learn as filmmakers when that occurred, and is it a situation to be avoided when putting together a comedy?

Speck: It’s interesting, but people tend to think that ‘re-shoot’ is a bad thing. I think most comedies end up testing a lot, and gauging audience responses much more than dramas. Probably all the comedies of the last ten years, even with our colleagues like Judd Apatow, Nick Stoller and Paul Feig, do additional footage based on those screenings. ‘The Switch’ went through that as well.

We wanted in that film to see everyone come together in the end, because it was an ensemble. We originally ended with just Jen and Jason, and what we learned was that additional footage is valuable, as long as you get the film over the finish line. That’s the process of comedy, and the privilege of screening early enough to get that feedback.

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Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck on the Set of ‘Blades of Glory’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

HollywoodChicago.com: You also done some unusual TV projects – probably the weirdest set of circumstances in the medium’s history. When you finally are elected to the Television Hall of Fame in the future, what will be the first line in your acceptance speech, to sum up your experiences in TV so far?

Gordon: Make sure you sell your show to the right network. [laughs]

Speck: We’d done some iconic television commercials that had come out of our collective imaginations – ‘The Cavemen’ for Geico being the most well known, and we didn’t expect it to become the cultural phenomenon that it became. I think it’s because we protected the ‘tone’ of that world, and what the characters existed in.

Our ambition in the TV series was to protect that tone, and create the stories to tell in that world. It was a bit ahead of its time, not the show itself, but the idea of a riskier storyline – Hulu and Netflix are doing stuff like that now. We sold the concept to ABC at the time, they took the chance on us and we took a chance on them, and it was just the wrong chemical reaction. They wanted a different show than we wanted to make. It was a good and informed learning experience. You have to make sure, with your broadcast partner, that you’re sharing a sensibility.

HollywoodChicago.com: Finally, what is the most epic thing that has ever happened to you at a party, and how does it stand up to the the epic-ness of your Office Christmas party?

Gordon: I feel like we have to start making up some epic stories here. [laughs] Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck at some really lame parties over the years, and certainly we’ve embarrassed ourselves, but nothing on the level of this movie. I think we made this film so we could go to the party we always wanted to go to – vicariously, we’ve achieved that goal.

”Office Christmas Party” opens everywhere on December 9th. Featuring T.J. Miller, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Rob Corddry and Vanessa Bayer. Screenplay by Justin Malen, Laura Solon and Dan Mazer. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Writer, Editorial Coordinator
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2016 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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