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Hey everyone. Dan Milano here - I perform Warren and directed this week's episode, THE BLACK LOTUS. Like OUT WITH THE OLD, this was an episode that focused on the Warren / Cecil relationship, and also contained a ton of guest stars, all of whom appeared on the FOX version of "Greg the Bunny" back in 2001.
This is one of the few episodes not based on our original outlines. To help recall the process of creating the story I asked BILL FREIBERGER, our Consulting Producer and Writer, to recall the development as he remembered it. Most of you will recognize Bill as the Comic Book Store Owner / Dungeon Master from this and two of my other episodes...
"This one was a difficult birth but the end result was a great, character-driven episode. One of the original 12 story ideas that MTV approved at the beginning of the writing process was called "Vegas." That's all we had, "Vegas." Something would happen in Vegas. That's all we knew. When the time came to flesh out that notion, none of us wanted to do a typical Vegas episode (except the Network, but we'll get to that in a bit).
We broke a story wherein Warren needs money so his agent signs him up to appear at an Oktoberfest Keg Tapping in Las Vegas. The only condition being that he needs to bring other actors from his old series with him because he's not a big enough star. He begs Greg The Bunny, Seth Green, Eugene Levy and Sarah Silverman to appear with him but they all have reasons to say no (sound familiar). Eventually, Warren, Greg and Eugene head for Vegas. Once there, the episode becomes a disaster film as Warren accidentally dispatches Greg to a fiery death in an inflatable zeppelin.
The Network didn't care for the whole fiery death thing and asked us to rework the episode into a more traditional Las Vegas story. We felt we couldn't do that without gutting it. So we all decided it would be prudent to go in a different direction.
We kept the gambling theme, having Warren lose his rent money at the track. Then, not wanting to be wasteful, we transplanted the co-star begging scenes from the original story. We knew that none of Warren's friends would give him cash so it was decided that he'd get the money from Cecil.
For the sake of drama, we wanted it to be a tough decision for Cecil to give up the money. We needed a plot device to that would pull him in another direction. Since we'd already established Cecil as a D&D nerd, we figured it wouldn't be much of a stretch to make him a "Magic: the Gathering" nerd as well.
...We knew that the holy grail of Magic cards is the coveted Black Lotus, so we made that the object of Cecil's affection. Torn but loyal, Cecil gives his boss the needed rent money. The final conflict of the episode comes when Warren, once again takes his rent money to the track, but this time wins big.
Being a douchebag, Warren irresponsibly blows all the winnings before paying Cecil back. The two have a big fight and Warren (uncharacteristically) does the right thing in the end. If there is a season two, perhaps we'll get a chance to do the original episode which was called "Now or Lederhosen." ---BILL
I also recall that Magic: The Gathering was brought up at one point because I thought it would be funny if Cecil entered a huge Magic tournament in Vegas and Warren ended up betting money on him. It was another way of trying to conceive of a non-traditional Vegas story.
There was an odd amount of pressure to place cameos into the show, especially one that ALREADY contained obvious roles for Seth, Sarah and Eugene. A request was made to have Warren go to the race track with up to three celebrity guests. The problem with this is that although it's wonderful to have cameos, you want to make sure that you're not wasting the opportunity. There are precious minutes for each scene, so you don't want to go to the trouble of inviting celebrities to improvise with you and then end up cutting their performances down (or out) in editing.
So we decided to have two cameos - one from actor David Koechner, and the other from Count Blah, one of the most popular characters from our previous Greg the Bunny shows. David had appeared as a paintball instructor in the FOX Greg the Bunny series, and is a hilarious improvisational actor. We went to the HOLLYWOOD PARK RACETRACK (a brilliant get by our production team) and sat David down with Warren and Blah, who were performed by FOUR puppeteers, crammed at his feet. (Drew Massey & Alice Dinnean working Blah with myself and Paul McGuiness as Warren.)
There we sat, for what was probably about three hours - improvising together like old friends as ACTUAL HORSE RACES went on around us. This is a bit of magic, and a testament to David's abilities, because although he appeared on the FOX show, David barely knows us and had never worked directly with puppets before. And yet, he launched right into the scene and gave it his most earnest attempt, effortlessly interacting with the puppets in a genuine (and funny) way. Real people at the racetrack who looked over at him would not have seen the puppeteers at all. To them, he was just "that actor from that movie," talking the morning away with a couple of puppets. Magic.
I must admit, this scene really got away from me during shooting. It was very difficult to direct from my uncomfortable position and to be objective about the scene. All we really needed were two moments of Warren betting and losing, and another scene of him winning. Anything else would be sent by the improv Gods. So I really just let the three of us riff, probably for too long. We riffed SO long, that by the time the actual race began, I think we were all fairly exhausted. Still, we got what we needed and we did it on schedule, so the only real headaches were in post-production, where we had to dig through a large amount of footage to create a very brief scene.
For all the footage we shot, I was surprised how little was actually relevant to the story. Part of the director's job, especially in improv, is to keep things focused so that when tangents are taken, you never stray too far from the story. But as I said it was difficult on this day for me to be objective. I'm usually quite conscious of what we're getting as we shoot it. But in this instance, I was counting on quantity to save me. Fortunately, we had what we needed to tell the story. As you can imagine, there were lots of wonderful moments that had to be cut for time. One of my favorites was when the day's first race began and the track started playing THE NATIONAL ANTHEM. Not missing a beat, David and the puppets simply sang along. It was a great moment, perhaps one that will end up on DVD one day:
As will this:
So let's talk about Count Blah for a minute. In the "Characters" section of this website's forums, you'll see character breakdowns for all our shows over the years. And Blah is the character who has probably changed the most. I originated the character of Blah on our IFC show and played him for several years. Once we did the FOX series, easily our most recognizable, a brand new Blah puppet was built (at the request of the network) and I hired Drew Massey to play him. It was just too difficult for me to play three roles on the Fox series as well as perform my duties as a writer and EP. So Drew took on the role and did a wonderful job with it. When we returned to IFC in 2005, we went back to the old Blah puppet and I resumed the role once again.
FOX Blah: IFC Blah:
It was a subject of some debate as to which puppet would be used and who would play Blah if we brought the character back on Warren the Ape. This debate is part of the reason you didn't see more of Blah on the series. The producers all agreed that we preferred the original Blah puppet to the one used on Fox, but we still weren't sure who should play him. My preference was for Drew to resume the Blah role, since it would be difficult for me to attempt to play so many roles on this show. This is also why Greg does not appear very often and why The Wumpus and Pal Friendlies do not appear at all.
Besides, as a puppeteer I really like performing with OTHER puppeteers - I'd much rather be in a scene with someone else than with myself. What fun is an improv scene with one person? It can be interesting in a schizophrenic way, but is very limiting and a real energy drain. So I pushed for Drew to resume the role, claiming we could always re-record his dialogue if needed. And guess what? Of COURSE there was no need. Drew, assisted by the hands of Alice Dinnean, performed Blah wonderfully. More great dialogue was cut of course, including some about Blah's pet Shih-Tzu Mr. Mooney (A reference to "The Lucy Show," of all things. You gotta love Drew's mind.)
I am a HUGE fan of the HBO series, "BIG LOVE," especially its early seasons, and so I was very excited when SANDY MARTIN agreed to play Agnes, Warren's landlord. Sandy has an intense energy and a very strong physical presence - she's someone you're not likely to forget, and was perfect for the role. She's also hilariously funny, having appeared in comedies such as "IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA," and "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE." Sandy took the role and ran with it - all that hacking and coughing was her idea, and it was hard for the crew to keep quiet when she violently watered the bushes with a dirty milk jug.
Originally, when Warren ran to hide in his apartment, he accidentally leaves one of his two cameramen behind, giving him away. Sandy looks at the camera and points out, "Ya got yer whole damn film crew here!" This moment was cut for time, but you can still hear Warren say, "Where's the other camera guy?" right before Sandy busts into his apartment. During one of our improvs, Sandy even pelted the camera with a water bottle.
This was another scene that we improvised several different ways. The offering of the PIZZA SUMMER poster as collateral for rent was written in the original outline, but Sandy improvised spitting on it. After she tried it in the first take, we had the effects department put a little glob of spit on the poster (and made it brown, to suggest nicotine-filled lungs) so that when the camera pans to the poster, it looks like she just hocked a big loogie on it. (I regret that when the poster appeared at Warren's garage sale in OUT WITH THE OLD, we did not keep the glob of spit on it...)
It's hard to do a "mean landlord wants rent" scene and not feel a bit cliche, but we needed to establish a clear need for Warren, and the threat of eviction. Sandy improvised some great lines, such as "Don't shit a shitter," but many of them had to be trimmed (or censored.) And of course we had some great interaction between her and the cameras, but with so much story and so many cameos to serve, we had to cut the scene down to something lean and efficient. My favorite line that got cut was something Sandy invented - "I've turned a blind eye to all the riff raff and wannabes comin' in and out of this place..."
The arguments with Sandy were so loud that we wore out our welcome at this particular location. We'd done several episodes in this real-life bungalow that enough neighbors finally complained. Someone even called the police while we were still shooting with Sandy. So if we get a season two, it's likely Warren will be moving. :)
Let's talk about Eugene Levy. Having grown up studying and obsessing over reruns of early SNL and SCTV, meeting Eugene was one of the best moments of my life. They say you should never meet your heroes, because ultimately they will disappoint you, but Eugene doesn't disappoint. He's a warm, funny and pensive man and was very supportive of us creators during our frustrating year at FOX. Since then, he has remained in touch and been a positive influence over the years. We never found a strong opportunity for him to appear on our IFC series but always wanted the chance to work with him again, especially since he'd always wanted to do the show in the style it was orignally intended.
Now after almost ten years, we finally had that chance. We conceived of a "Habitat for Humanity," locale in which Warren would pester Eugene for money, and the original outline contained quite a bit of scripted dialogue that remained pretty much in tact in the final product. There was of course a TON more dialogue that did not get used, especially about Warren not understanding the concept of charity, arguing that building houses for homeless people was a bad business model, some cheap shots at the "American Pie" sequels, etc.
Originally the scene was to end the moment Eugene nailed Warren to the post. But of course Josh kept the scene going and called out at Eugene, mispronouncing his name (by accident) as Mr. "Leevy." This was hilarious to me because in real life, Eugene can't stand people mispronouncing his name. So immediately, I knew how he was going to react. And sure enough, he came storming back into the scene to yell at Cecil. This was all of course, in fun - but for a moment Josh thought he might have really insulted Eugene, which of course he didn't. In fact, Eugene really liked Josh (it's impossible not to) and even cracked up a few times at Josh's improv, which to me is a very high honor.
Anyway, we shot the scene at a construction site in Sherman Oaks (it should be obvious to anyone who's ever built a house that this was a tear-down, not a newly constructed building) but it worked for our purposes. We lost the legal right to use the name "Habitat for Humanity," and so instead "Houses for Humans," became the replacement. Which in a world of puppets, seems kind of exclusive. :)
It was wonderful shooting with Eugene and one of the honors of my career to have directed him. I regretted that we did not have an entire episode's worth of plot for him, because we shot the scene so effortlessly that it actually took less time than we needed, and we ended up saying goodbye much too soon. But it was a cathartic experience to have finally worked with him in a way we'd always hoped to, which brings me to our next guest...
The FOX experience was probably frustrating for Sarah Silverman in a number of ways, though of course all things being considered it was likely a really fun gig for her overall. For one, like the other actors Sarah thought the show would be more like what she'd seen us do on IFC, mostly because that's what she was promised when she was hired. But instead, the FOX show was much more tightly scripted as a workplace sitcom. And for another, she was given what was essentially a straight role. For a comedian, that's gotta be tough. Sarah's character on FOX (Alison, the network executive) was very different from her real life personality. Worse, she was someone who was not well-liked by the other characters, was made the butt of their jokes, etc. She was also wedged into a potential love relationship with Seth Green's character that both actors found strange, inorganic and unnecessary. So while we all had a lot of laughs on the FOX show and I hope Sarah is proud of her work, I know it was still a very difficult process for her.
On the plus side, many have said the role of Alison was a good one for Sarah because it tested her range as an actor and forced her to play a role very unlike herself. But I think she often felt that she was missing out on a lot of the fun. This is not the first time we've reunited with Sarah. She did us a huge favor by appearing in our 2005 Reunion Special, in Warren's "Supper with Friends," a parody of Jon Favreau's show "Dinner for Five."
In the years since, Sarah of course had great success with her "Jesus is Magic," tour and "The Sarah Silverman Program." I was a huge fan of her show from day one and will forever regret not writing for it when she'd offered me the chance to. Of course the scene in this episode was meant to take place in the offices of her show, but the harsh reality was that on this day of filming Sarah confided to us that it looked like she was about to be canceled. Since then the show has indeed gone off the air. It's hard when shows dare to be different. Networks desperately want shows with strong perspectives and unique voices but so often these shows can't seem to survive in the traditional marketplace. Sarah's show was so uniquely her own, with an amazing cast and plenty of irreverent, silly and inspired ideas. I hearted it. At least when shows like hers (and ours) get put out to pasture, they can live forever on DVD. If you haven't seen her show, check it out.
Back on FOX I'd always thought that Alison's character would have been more interesting if you found out that secretly she was attracted to puppets, or at least to Warren. Rather than have sexual tension with Seth Green, I'd always thought it would have been funny to see Warren suspiciously exit a broom closet with lipstick on his helmet, to be followed moments later by Alison, who adjusted her blouse.
Well, we never did that. So I thought now was the chance to show a little inter-species intercourse. We'd discussed from the beginning an idea that Warren shows up to borrow money but ends up fooling around with Sarah in her office. (The line, "What Money?" after Warren gets back in Cecil's car was Bill's and it made the journey from script to screen.)
I'd really wanted to try and accomplish this entire scene in one take, and I knew that desire made everyone a little nervous. So I rehearsed it physically for everyone, cameras and all. Warren would start outside, enter the building, confront Sarah, follow her to her office, enter and close the door, thereby forcing the camera to exit the building to try and peek through the office window.
Peter Smokler operated the main camera, the actors marks were rehearsed and we even set up a little movie magic by using TWO WARRENS in the scene. One, performed by me, entered the building and confronted Sarah, while another, performed by Victor Yerrid, waited to knock on Sarah's office door. As the camera exited the building, I would run into Sarah's office with my Warren, where we would improv the rest of the scene behind the window. Simple, right?
Well, actually it was. We shot about five takes and every one of them worked pretty well. We ended up using the very first take, because frankly I just loved Sarah's awkward silence. It was very tempting of us to want to do a lot of dialogue (and in one take, we did) between Sarah and Warren, but I really felt, and I think Sarah agreed, that the tension, and the things NOT said, were what made the scene great.
Technically the entire scene as shown in the episode is not one complete take, because we start cutting once we get to the window, in order to rescue all the best bits. That little lamb was really on the desk, so I shoved it through the blinds. I had Warren on my arm as I shoved him through the blinds and Sarah made noises. Someone pointed out that Warren and Sarah would probably stop what they were doing if they noticed the cameras watching them. So I decided to have Warren point it out, and actually get off on it. "The cameras are watching! That's so hot!" And of course the rest of the dialogue was improvised insanity, all but the "I need Seltzer!" line, which was in the original outline. I absolutely love that the extras playing her writers actually spring into action to get her some.
Here we are recording a pickup of the "I NEED SELTZER!" line. You'll see that although we never got to see inside the office, we had this cool Warhol painting of a Chihuahua dog, which was supposed to be a shout out to Sarah's real-life dog Duck, who plays "Doug" on her TV show. :)
It's probably obvious that Seth Green's scene was filmed at the same time as when we shot the hospital scene for the "Amends" episode. Again, it would be very tempting to give Seth dialogue, but the scene arguably plays funnier by just having him silently give Warren the finger. I imagine this scene might be confusing to someone who never saw the "Amends" episode, but that's the kind of absurdity we like. For more on Seth, check out the production blog for that episode!
When Cecil purchases the Black Lotus card at a comic book shop we decided once again to shoot at Meltdown Comics on Sunset Blvd, where we had filmed the Dungeons & Dragons scene from "Abstinence." (Funny, how three out of four episodes I directed have scenes in this store.)
Bill Freiberger once again jumped at the chance to make an AFTRA day rate, suggesting that in "Abstinence," Greg the Bunny clearly states that the Dungeon Master he played "Owns the store." So we had Nancy Fisher re-attach that fake ponytail and once again Bill would play our version of "Comic Book Guy," who was eventually named "Billy Hayes" in the "Out With the Old" episode.
This was yet another scene I tried to choreograph as one take. I know in the edit we will end up cutting, using coverage from our two cameras, but for the sake of the actors and a flow of real-life conversation I hate the idea of interrupting the scene. So Peter Smokler pans up from the glass case at the top of the scene and the actors go from there. We cut some great dialogue about Cecil asking for a payment plan, the two of them arguing about Bruce Wayne, and more details on Nathan Chang, Cecil's "nemesis." Ultimately what ended up in the episode is arguably all we really needed.
Bill probably chomped on about ten hamburgers, spitting the bites out between takes. The BLACK LOTUS is a real rare card that has been discontinued from the Magic The Gathering game, and worth a great deal more than we say in the episode. We came up with $1000 as a number in the show because it's an easy one to remember, but the real card is worth upwards of three grand.
Wizards of the Coast sent us a card encased in plastic which we were told was a copy, but they also told us if we lost it we'd have to pay something in the neighborhood of ten grand. I think they might have just said that to ensure one of the nerds on our crew didn't get wise and make off with it. Whatever the reason, we treated the card like a live grenade and sent it back unharmed.
Notice here in this next photo that Warren is holding a remote control unit. The original outline for this scene described Warren as surrounded by stuff he bought with his winnings, including a remote control helicopter that he crashes into the wall. On the day of shooting, we did not have a remote control copter that we could control, nor (in my opinion) the time to rig a special effect. Fearing a safety issue and a ton of time wasted on trying to make a sight gag work, I scrapped the entire concept and instead we gave Warren a vibrating chair. How? By me shaking my arm as hard as I could so that Warren vibrated. Boom - instant production value!
So this brings us, as all my blogs eventually do, to the scene-stealing Josh Sussman. Even though this episode is chock full of guests, Josh is the real star. The episode is absolutely about his relationship with Warren, and all the heart comes from his gesture of lending Warren the money. I've spoken about Josh so much in these blogs I'm hesitant to feed his ego much more, but once again I have to say that he is an extremely good actor in that he can emotionally commit to just about any situation.
When Cecil confronts Warren about not paying him back, there is such an honest sense of betrayal and frustration coming from him. This scene had to be cut down slightly for time and it was one of the hardest cuts to take, because there were so many small nuances here. I know Josh is prouder of this scene than any in the series and I think he should be. He plays the scene like he was just sucker-punched by his best friend and can't understand why. There was some dialogue in the outline in which we argue about the vacuum cleaner and a beat of Cecil mistaking Warren's dry cleaning ticket for the Black Lotus, but the rest of it was pure Josh.
A good example of one actor feeding another is when Josh asks me "Do you really need a robotic dinosaur?" In that quick second, the brain has only one second to respond in character. I figured that Warren was so thoughtless with Cecil's money, so disrespectful of his friend, that he probably spent it all without thinking, in a moment of passion and therefore wouldn't even know or care what it was he'd bought. So I pretty much said, "What dinosaur?" Which then served the ball back to Josh to completely freak out. It escalated his performance from wounded and confused to full-blown angry, or at least as angry as Cecil gets. It was not something we'd discussed or planned ahead, it was just two people in character passing this little ball back and forth. Sometimes the ball fumbles, sometimes you get a good volley going. But like anything, you get better the more you practice with it. Anyway, hope none of that sounds pretentious. I find it fascinating, but on the page it might sound to a reader like me using a line about a robot dinosaur on my cheap-ass cable puppet show as a shining example of improvisational acting. Hmmm. Maybe we're both right. ;)
The final scene was a tense one to shoot. Josh was really driving the Buick, and there really was a jetski hooked to the back, though we never used a take where you could see it from inside the car. Because we were towing the jetski, we had a police escort following us around as we filmed, and they were not very friendly to Josh.
It's hard enough to act and drive at the same time, and the cops were making Josh nervous. We had a very specific route we were supposed to take, very little time in which to get the scene, and as a result we were all tense, including me --- who had to direct the scene, while the car was moving, from something similar to this lovely position:
Anyway, the scene came out great - we finally got a moment of Josh joyously discovering the Black Lotus card. But of course we needed an ending where our heroes continue to argue, often called the RESET BUTTON, where characters revert to type no matter how much progress they might make in a particular episode. (Star Trek Voyager was notorious for this)
As scripted in the outline, Cecil was to appear ungrateful for the card, because he wanted the cash back. This was a hard thing to sell after having seen Cecil desire the card so badly in the previous scene. Bill Freiberger often compared this attitude to something Larry David would do in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld --- the argument about a gift not being the same as getting the cash value, etc. And though he had a point, Cecil is no Larry David. So both Josh and I had a hard time with the idea that Cecil would be this ungrateful.
But you know, sometimes these conventions just work. The reset button is kind of a cliche, audiences are used to it, and nobody really questions a moment like this. You just go with it. So we just said the lines, tried to have an amusing argument, and with a little music the scene just ties up the episode and we all go to commercial feeling good.
Speaking of feeling good, I feel great about this episode. It's silly, full of character, and has a ton of heart, which in my opinion is always a good thing. There's often temptation when making an "edgy" show to want to abandon "heart" at all costs. And while I agree that there can be nothing more boring than saccharine and cliched scenes of lessons learned and love conquering all, you still need to care about your characters. So it's a tightrope walk. I might sometimes lean too far in a traditional direction, but that's what makes this episode mine and not someone else's. For whatever it's worth, I had fun and I hope you did too.
Thanks to all of you for your continued support of our show and its characters. At this point I should say that as I write my last blog of the season we do not know if we have been picked up for more episodes. We probably should have been told by now, which might be an answer in itself, but honestly you never know. There are a lot of people at MTV who like us and want the show to continue, it's really a matter of marketing and business and the potential for growth. As MTV looks forward in their development schedule they will determine if we have a place on that horizon.
But no matter what I can tell you that as one of the owners of the copyright to Warren and his friends, you will be seeing them again. This is our fifth show after as many cancellations, and if cats have nine lives then it's possible that bunnies and apes might have at least four more left in them. :)
And as for DVD, I'm confident there will be one eventually, either with MTV or an outside company such as SHOUT FACTORY. So write to MTV, demand season two, demand DVDs and dolls and continue the fight for Fabricated Americans.