Tribute spoke to Mark Little from the comedy sensation Picnicface about their new movie Roller Town. The film recently won Best Film and also earned awards for best film writing and direction at the 2012 Canadian Comedy Awards. Their Comedy Network TV series Picnicface picked up nods for Best TV Show, Best Writing – Television Program or Series and Best Performance by an Ensemble – Television. Mark, who plays the lead role as Leo in Roller Town, also plays a recurring role on CBC’s new comedy series Mr. D, as Simon Hunt. Roller Town opens this Friday nationwide.
Tribute: How did the idea for Roller Town come about and more importantly, how did you decide that it was the one to run with for your first feature?
Mark Little: Well, we wanted to write a movie, period, so we just started brainstorming things that we’d never seen parodied. Jason Eisener – who directed Hobo With a Shotgun out in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia – showed us Roller Derby, or possibly Skate Town, U.S.A.; one of those late ’70s, roller skating movies from that weird, five-year sub-genre period when they started out being potentially big-business and then quickly fizzled. I think fizzled from the get-go; I don’t think any of them were successful. So we found one of these, and then found a group of them, and realized that we’d never seen them parodied before. That was the inception of the idea: just to do something we hadn’t seen yet.
There seems to be a real reverence for the ’70s and the disco era. Did you pull from the time period when it came to writing the script or acting in it, or did it all just come about because this was, like you said, something you hadn’t seen done before?
We wanted to lay close to those movies. So, the reverence for the period would be a reverence for the movies themselves, and obviously those movies were trying to be very cool, more than we would dare to be, I guess. [laughs] It all seems so silly now. So having things like the feathered haircuts and the black characters who all almost pull from exploitation movies – those movies all used a lot of weird stereotypes from the time, and it’s easy to push those just a little bit further into parody. Any reverence would have been in the service of making jokes.
This isn’t just Picnicface’s debut feature, it’s yours as well, as an actor. How was shooting it compared to projects you’ve been involved with in the past?
It certainly was my debut. [laughs] We made this before we even made the TV show; this was the first big project we’d ever attempted. The biggest thing prior to this would have been a 22-minute short film that Andrew [Bush] directed a few years ago that some of us were in [Backshift]. But by comparison: that was a five day shoot, this was a six week shoot. I mean, it was crazy, and totally the opposite of making an Internet video, in the sense that with the Internet videos, we had as much time as we wanted to make something, and if didn’t like what we’d made, we could cut it. But once we started rolling cameras, we weren’t really booked to anybody’s schedules but our own. As long as we weren’t renting a location, we had as much time as we wanted to improvise takes and try different angles. A movie is tightly structured, so there might be a couple of takes where you’ve allotted time for something like improv, but other than that, you’ve got 30 people on set who are keeping schedule and will be paid overtime, and you’ve got producers who are very aware of that and constantly reminding the director. There’s a mad rush to it, where a lot of the time you’ll look back at what you did and think, “Man, I really hope that was sufficient.” If we’d had our own time, our own schedule, we’d certainly still be rolling. It was an eye-opener to how things are done in the real world.
How much improvisation was there on set? As a comedy troupe you guys must do a lot of improv on other projects, but was this more scripted?
This would have been less improvised than most of what we do. There’s some improv beats in there, but a lot of what we did when we were planning the movie was that Andrew would say, “Let’s have rehearsals where we improvise, and then script that improvisation, because once we get in front of the camera, we’re not going to have a lot of time.” So, that’s what we did, more or less. There are still some parts where we just let the cameras roll and tried stuff, but less so than in anything I’ve worked in.
You’re one of the three writers credited to the screenplay. Seeing as this film is composed largely – or almost entirely – of members of Picnicface, I assume you must be pretty comfortable with the idea of collaborative writing. Was it different – working on a feature script – than things you’ve done in the past? What was your process like with Andrew and Scott [Vrooman]?
None of us had done this before. Andrew had written long short films before, but… The process was strange. I’ve been writing collaboratively since I began writing at all. I enjoy that process. I don’t trust myself to be able to come up with things on my own. I need that person to bounce ideas off of and to tell me when something I’ve written is crap, or when I’m on the right track and I just need to go further. In that sense, working on this movie and collaborating with the two guys was exactly what we’d been doing before. But there was a sense of – none of us had ever written a feature script. Scott and I had strictly written sketches; we weren’t even familiar with story structure. I remember Scott was just ordering book after book on story structure from Amazon, and loaning them to me when he was done. We were giving ourselves a crash course on how to write at all – and that is evident, I think, when you watch the movie. [laughs] I think the movie has some very positive qualities that I’m very proud of, but I think that people who are familiar with story structure will look at Act Two of this movie and ask, “Who wrote this and where did they learn to write?” [laughs]
What was your hardest scene, your hardest moment? Do you remember any one thing when you were writing the script that was really hard to nail, or there was a joke that just wasn’t working?
Good question. The hardest part would have just been Act Two. [laughs] I feel like I don’t want to draw attention to that, just because it’s so clear that we didn’t resolve that, but we wanted to get our hero out of town to show something. Initially it was to show that there were other towns that these roller skate hating mafiosos had brought to their knees – ghosts towns, former disco havens that had been turned into ghost towns. We wanted to work that in and then we started thinking it wasn’t possible with our budget. So slowly it just got compromised until we were like, “Let’s just get him into the forest and he’ll meet a hobo.” [laughs] And then we wrote this whole long narrative with this hobo, and we showed it at the first screening at the Atlantic Film Festival – and the energy in the room, the laughter just died down. So we went back into the editing room and we cut that sequence way down. Fortunately, it’s not the kind of movie where the story is the reason you go watch it. It’s so silly. When we were writing it, we were consciously trying to emulate heroes of ours who wrote movies like Airplane!, or Monty Python’s work on The Holy Grail, or the people who wrote Wet Hot American Summer; just these really silly romps. That being said, it’s always nice to have a story that doesn’t go crazy in the middle. [laughs]
What was it like to spend almost an entire shoot on roller skates? Can you talk about the logistics of having everybody on roller skates all the time?
It was strange. I think in a bigger city, it might not have been as hard in terms of background performers. But we had a lot of people who were coming out and volunteering their time to do background, and there was a very small amount who knew how to roller skate. A lot of the time we had to say, “Are you competent, or will you hurt yourself?” [laughs] And if the answer was “No,” they were in the movie. There are a lot of sequences where we had to cheat it, so that just the movement of the camera would hopefully trick you into thinking that this was a room full of people who had been roller skating their entire lives. In terms of the main actors: we did most of our training for the fake trailer that we shot a couple of years ago and at that point we were just learning from scratch. I thought it would be like rollerblading, and it was not at all. Rollerblading I find very intuitive – the way your legs move, pushing out side-to-side. Roller skating is bizarre. The movement is not natural to a human body. [laughs] You’re just doomed to fail with roller skating. But by the end, I loved it, and I was almost too cocky on those roller skates.
When I was watching the film, the one running gag that completely jumped out to me was the fruit phone motif. Can you talk to me about where that came from?
Being sketch writers, we have these documents where we list ideas that we find funny that don’t necessarily have a home right away. I think, when we were writing this movie, that was a large part of what we wanted to do – introduce a lot of running gags. So we’d just go through these documents, watch movies and chat, and silly ideas would come out. The inception was probably just noticing a banana and thinking about how funny it would be if it was a phone. It’s pretty dumb. [laughs] We liked the idea of having a world of characters who take very silly phones incredibly seriously.
You guys just released your first book – “Picnicface’s Canada.” Did you find writing for print to be challenging after spending so much time being able to verbalize your jokes for an audience?
The last couple of years have been strange. It’s like you own the thing you’re good at, or that you’re competent at – for us, that was sketch comedy, specifically online sketch comedy and live sketch comedy – and then in a two year span, you start getting these offers that are totally outside your comfort zone, but you don’t want to say “No” to them. So when we started writing the movie – as when we started writing the book – it was like, “Here we go. We have no idea how to do this.” That’s what I discovered when writing the book: it’s not as simple as transcribing jokes you might say on stage onto a page. I know that’s such an obvious thing to say, but it bears repeating for someone whose only comedy background is spoken. It was just learning how to translate our jokes into text. Scott Vrooman wrote probably the majority of that book, and he certainly is the one whose most adept at that style of comedy. But for a lot of us, it was just – try. Try this, and then try again, and let’s see what happens.
How did you like playing a recurring role on Mr. D? How did it differ from your work on the Picnicface show, besides the format?
Well, especially that first year, it was just a relief, mostly. My responsibilities on Mr. D are so few. In our first year, we were filming Mr. D at the same time as I was flying back and forth from Toronto to edit Picnicface. To go from a project where it feels like six years of your life are culminating in this editing room and also trying to find a way to replace the sketches that just didn’t work – to go from that kind of stress to something like Mr. D where all I’m asked to do is perform in half of the episodes in a very minor role, where I just learn some lines and say them on a couch; that’s a huge relief. This year was a little different – the second season, I didn’t have any other commitments, so I spent two months in Halifax with my only obligation being to Mr. D.
Lastly, what do you guys have coming up next?
I’m not sure what’s up for the troupe. For the movie, it’s opening in Toronto on September 21, so I’ll be there for that. And then I don’t know where it goes from there. It’s on American iTunes right now, and hopefully something like that happens in Canada. The main thing is just hoping that tons of people get to see it on their own, at their leisure. And I’m doing Just For Laughs 42 in Toronto right after the movie opens, I believe – the 21st, 22nd and 23rd at The Rivoli. So I’ll just be doing some stand-up and writing.