Director Dan Mazer has been many things; a writer, a director, a frequent collaborator of Sacha Baron Cohen. Now, he’s directing Robert De Niro in the raunchy, outrageous sex-comedy Dirty Grandpa, and OnScreen got the chance to ask him about the experience.
Dan, with Dirty Grandpa, there seems to have been a genuine effort to move certain actors out of their comfort zones; De Niro as the comedian, Efron as the straight-man. Was that a conscious decision in casting?
“Everything I like to do, I like to challenge conventions, and not settle into comfortable, familiar, traditional, conventional tropes. It was very interesting when I got the script because it already had Zac and ‘Bob’- as I now call Robert De Niro – attached. And I read it, and I just went ‘are you sure they’ve read this script?‘ Yes, yeah, no, they’ve definitely read it they want to do it. ‘This script?‘ Yes. ‘And you’re sure it’s Robert De Niro? Not, like, Robert Niro or Robert Donald Niro?‘ No, no. So they were really signed on to do something different, immediately, and read it, and were up for the challenge. And I think that, along with a really funny script, is what attracted me to the idea of doing this. Y’know, obviously, Robert De Niro’s done a hundred-plus films in his life – some of which are better than others – and I think that lots of people assume that in this point in his career that he’s not as committed, and that’s a worry and a danger. But I met him, and he absolutely understood what this movie was, from day one on set he was completely committed to pushing it as far as possible.
And likewise with Zac, who is this screen god, who you’d imagine would be sort of vain and worried about his self-image, completely puts everything out there and exposes himself, and shows a complete lack of vanity or ego in this role. And that to me was sort of amazing, and it’s about creating that atmosphere of trust on set, of ‘trust me, this is going to be funny enough, and compelling enough, that nobody is going to look silly doing this‘. Because the commitment is total and intense.
And likewise with Aubrey (Plaza), who I was a big fan of from Parks and Rec, and The To-Do List, and y’know I think will soon be, hopefully, this global superstar because she’s just funny, and beautiful, and brave, and all those sorts of things. Initially we sent her the script with the part that Zoey Deutch plays in mind, the more traditional love-interest. But Aubrey saw the part of Lenore, which is who she plays, and fell in love with it, and frankly just had so much bravery. She took it as a personal challenge to see how far she could push it with Robert De Niro, and she just wanted to be as brave as humanly possible. Because you can imagine lots of actors in that role just being petrified of having to push the greatest screen actor of his generation into the places where he gets pushed, but Aubrey sort of took it as a personal challenge to see how far she could go.”
Aubrey does push the boundaries of taste and decency within the movie – was there anything she improvised that was so outrageous you couldn’t leave in?
“No, not really, but I mean I think she has the most extraordinary line of the film – which she ad-libbed – when she says (to De Niro) ‘I want your last breath to be inside me’. But she’d always be coming up with suggestions, and cornering me after the days shooting, and saying ‘what do you think of this and what do you think of this?’ And the very last scene of the movie, which I won’t spoil for people, was something that we completely came up with together, that wasn’t in the script originally, but she built towards that, and to her that was going to be her big ‘moment’. And she became very focused on making that as extreme, on one level, and then not so on the other hand so that it made you feel a bit ‘icky’. Which is possible when you see a younger girl with an older man? And we sat down, Aubrey, myself, and the writer, and kind of came up with that scene from scratch together, to tailor that scene to her, which was a really sort of interesting departure. And sort of how I think films should work, it should feel organic, and be tailored to the actors you have. It’s better for the script to bend to the actor than the actor to bend to the script.”
There does seem to be a genuine culture of improvisation on set with comedy films, as opposed to just rigidly sticking to the script. How do you gauge that balance as a director?
“It’s interesting, I love doing it to keep things fresh. Especially with comedy, you can get bored on set with certain lines, you can over think them, you can over do them – and also, honestly, sometimes what you think is the funniest line on Earth can fall on deaf ears when you test it. And there’s nothing worse than a joke than no one in an audience laughs at, because then you’re just completely killing momentum. So you have to come up with alternatives on the day, on set, so if a line fails you have something you can slip in that hopefully won’t fail. Previously when I’ve made films, and cast films, and done stuff with Sacha or done stuff on my own, I’ve always placed a high-premium on actors themselves being funny in their own right. So when I audition people it’s less about how they act, because I know how they act, I’ve seen them act many times before. I don’t come to see, say, Rose Byrne with fresh eyes.
But to me, it’s important that we share a sense of humour, or at least that they have a sense of humour themselves and aren’t just empty vessels. So, particularly in this film, obviously Bob and Zac were unknown quantities to me in terms of their improvisational skills. And they were both, I have to say, absolutely brilliant, and much more comedically intuitive than you might imagine. And then what I did, also, was surround all of them with legitimately funny performers. So whether it’s Aubrey Plaza who is hilarious in her own right, and such a good stand-up and a brilliant comedienne, Adam Pally who is an incredible improviser, or Jason Mantzoukas who is the absolute god of improvisation and really funny, and I think is absolutely brilliant, and Henry Zebrowski who plays one of the cops. Essentially, in my auditioning process, I do a lot of improvisation to see if they are on-their-feet funny people with good comic energy, and that hopefully comes across on-screen.”
Some of the lengths Robert De Niro goes to some extraordinary lengths for laughs in Dirty Grandpa, so what was it like pushing an actor whom you consider to be “the greatest screen actor of his generation” to the kinds of places he gets pushed?
“It was extraordinary, and he (De Niro) never said no to anything. He was always saying ‘Do you want me to do more? Do you want me to push it further?’ And I think that comes from a position of trust that we built up throughout the process of filming, that I think he realised that I wouldn’t sell him down the river and I was very protective of him in making sure he was funny. But it’s surreal, for a boy from Ruislip to go and be on set with the greatest actor of his generation, genuinely do things that – in the hundred-odd films he’s ever done – he’s never done before. And do them, really, brilliant. I think it’s genuinely, truly, really a brilliant performance for him. And you may or may not like the film, and you may or may not like the tone of the film, but I don’t think you could ever accuse De Niro of not committing, of not absolutely pushing himself to the limit, and challenging himself or doing something he’s never done before. So the whole thing for me was just an absolute privilege to see, as I say, the greatest actor of his generation – at 72 – trying new things, doing new things, and committing absolutely to this character.
The film’s called Dirty Grandpa, he is the Dirty Grandpa. He is the comic heart of the movie, and Zac to a certain extent plays his foil – although he has lots of funny moments himself – essentially the comic heartbeat and the tone of the movie is really set by Bob. And the movie really takes off once he has his transformation, which again I won’t spoil for people in terms of a reveal, but there’s a very kind of shocking reveal of Dirty Grandpa in his full glory. And from then on, this 72-year-old man drives the energy, and craziness, and rambunctiousness of this journey all the way through, and you’re completely with him through the outrageous moments, and equally I think through some really poignant moments as well. And I think you’d expect the poignant moments, and he does them brilliantly as you imagine and know that he will, but he also nails the comedy in a way that I think is even more intense than in Meet the Fockers or Meet the Parents.”
Dirty Grandpa is in cinemas now, rated 15. You can check out the trailer below.