After experiencing incredible success writing for television, Dan Gregor and co-writer Doug Mand decided to make their partnership feature-length.
Going home for the holidays can be a dreadful experience, especially when your parents live across the street from a social outcast who may have just killed his own mother. Dan Gregor's Most Likely to Murder, a comedy about a former "high school legend" who comes home for Thanksgiving only to witness, Rear Window-style, a former classmate's heinous crime, dives head-on into this conundrum with hilarity, charm, and a "who's who" of the current American comedy scene.
As played by Adam Pally, Billy is well-meaning but dopey, a loudmouth who used to have it all: sexual escapades with female classmates (he has the VHS tapes to prove it), reefer binges in his upstairs bedroom, and the respect of Kara (Rachel Bloom), the one girl he still has feelings for. Now he works as a custodian in a Las Vegas nightclub, taking out the trash while being bossed around by co-workers. So it's a good thing he's getting a few days off to head back home and see old friends, right?
Not so fast: After a night of heavy drinking at an impromptu high school reunion, Billy witnesses what appears to be his neighbor, the nerdy high school outcast, Lowell, murdering his sickly mother. At least, that's what he thinks he sees. Throughout the film, the murder mystery is taken seriously while simultaneously maintaining the good-natured humor its on-and-behind-the-camera team is known for.
Frequently praised for their work as part of the writing teams for How I Met Your Mother and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, director Dan Gregor and co-writer Doug Mand (who also plays Billy's best friend, Duane, in the film) spoke with No Film School about the differences between writing for TV and feature-films, how shooting horror is different than shooting comedy, and how being location-dependent pushes you to make last-minute adjustments. Most Likely to Murder is available On Demand and across digital platforms on Tuesday, May 1st.
No Film School: I was wondering if you could speak about how you both met it in college and how you formed a professional working relationship?
Dan Gregor: Doug and I were in a sitcom-writing class writing class together at NYU, a truly terrible class. As a group, the class had to write an episode of I Love Lucy, guest-starring Alicia Keys. Think about that for a second.
NFS: You were told to brainstorm celebrities to include in the episode you were writing?
Gregor: No, our suspicion was that the teacher had some sort of personal connection to Alicia Keys. She was farming the class for ideas, and Doug and I seemed like the only people in the class that recognized what an insane, futile activity it was. We connected over this and became friendly. I was starting a sketch group called Hammerkatz (maybe a semester or two later) and ran into Doug, telling him, "you have to get into this group."
We joined up and sort of started Hammerkatz together, and it's still around as a sketch comedy group at NYU. We became sketch writing partners through that experience, and then simultaneously Doug and Adam Pally were roommates. They were best friends, and then when we all graduated, I was too mortified to move back in with my parents and so I moved onto their couch and became their burden.
"We start with a 'vomit draft,' which means we just force ourselves to sit down and spit out the biggest piece of garbage you can imagine without stopping."
NFS: How did Most Likely to Murder come about? What was your co-writing process like?
Doug Mand: We've been trying to get this movie made for a very long time, having written it for Adam a long time ago. Once we got Rachel Bloom on board, things moved a lot faster. Rachel was obviously a close friend of ours and she's married to Dan. We were able to get the script to Lionsgate, but we almost went with Sony at one point. Anyway, Lionsgate read about it and got excited, and after years of trying to get this made, things started moving very quickly.
In terms of writing, our writing process didn't really change for this movie; it's always the same with the two of us. It has to be an idea that we both feel strongly about. We then outline in great detail together, and once the story is fully broken out, we feel confident that the plot makes sense, holds water, and can be sustainable.
We write each scene separately and send them to one another after we finish, going back-and-forth providing [additional details]. At that point, we feel like we have a draft that we're happy with and usually come back to write the final draft together. We'll go through the whole thing to polish it, and that's basically our process.
On the front-end, we start with a "vomit draft," which means we just force ourselves to sit down and spit out the biggest piece of garbage you can imagine without stopping. Literally, the rule is "just don't stop typing". Usually, that piece of shit draft is valuable because you really do get an almost immediate sense of where the holes are.
Gregor: The Burbs is a big one for us. That film does a great job of feeling scary—even if it's a little campy—while also being really funny. It's hard to find good comparisons in the horror-comedy genre, and so we felt like we were in semi-new territory. I think the biggest thing for us was taking apart Most Likely to Murder's two major elements: 1.) the Home for the Holidays and Beautiful Girls kind of movie that we love—Hannah and Her Sisters is a great Thanksgiving movie—those sort of movies that are about seeing your past and reconnecting with people; and 2.) the kind of 'noir/mystery' genre, like Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, which was enormously influential for us and a really good example of how to pull off [comedy and mystery], and Hitchcok's Rear Window. [These films] helped us feel like we had a good handle on what we wanted to accomplish.
NFS: Combing comedy with thrills is hard, and in your film, the tone often shifts between the two within a single scene. Did you have discussions with your cinematographer about how a scene's tone should influences how it's shot?
Gregor: Oh yeah, 100%. Doug and I both have comedy backgrounds, and so my inclination for shooting is to mostly accentuate the naturalism and let the comedy stand on its own. But honestly, once the story started becoming more of a murder mystery with a horror feel to it, it had to have a different stylistic tone. One of the most enjoyable challenges of [the production] was getting to figure out how to do this with our DP, and it really worked for the sequences of Lowell sneaking around the pharmacy and the sequence where Billy sneaks around Lowell's house.
Our favorite thing was to play the sequences as straight as possible and then puncture it as a joke. For us, that was the best version of this movie, to feel like you're in a mystery or something adjacent to horror, and then find a moment to let the audience breathe and laugh again. We wanted them to remember, "Oh yeah, it's a comedy," so that they don't go too far down the rabbit hole of thinking it's strictly a horror film. Those are the most challenging things to film and we [respected both genres]. We wanted it to be as faithfully-tuned a mystery/horror genre film as we could. It was really important to not bullshit our way out of that.
"You could say that we're using the Steadicam to mislead the importance of the character."
NFS: From the opening of the film onward, you employ some inspired Steadicam camerawork. What did those choices bring to the feel of the film?
Gregor: A Steadicam shot is often a very fluid motion that feels really glossy and cool, and so we wanted to start the movie with a sort of emotional mislead, that you think you're watching a movie about this cool guy that thinks he's a hotshot working at this big club in Las Vegas.
We start in the club on the back of a guy's head as we follow him around, and then (through a sequence of events in the scene) the Steadicam keeps "downgrading" to who it's following; it goes from the club manager to the promoter, to the bartender, to the bouncer, to the line cook, and then finally, to Billy. You could say that we're using the Steadicam to mislead the importance of the character, and hopefully, when we get to that final coda moment where we're finally letting Billy be the hero of the Steadicam shot, it's because, after an entire movie, he's finally earned that place in the shot.
NFS: There are moments in the film where the tension comes from emphasizing the foreground and background of a scene, where Lowell is getting into his car or is obscured by an aisle in the pharmacy, for example. Is that a choice you're thinking about while writing the screenplay, or do those discoveries come while you're on set in production?
Gregor: It's definitely something we're aware of throughout, as we try to think of every scene like, "How is this going to be tense? What movie references are we quoting from?," and stuff like that. But obviously that's a very specific stylistic choice, and honestly, so much of it pertains to location-dependency.
We have a backyard sequence in the movie where Billy's hiding under the porch and he disappears at the last second before Lowell can find him. We didn't have that sequence scripted, because we didn't even have a location! The location was a totally different location in our minds, and then when we started pre-production there was another location that felt like it was going to be the location and then that location fell out at the last minute. The idea of having a porch like [what you see in the film] was an enormous change and we had to conceive that, not-on-the-fly, but like days before pre-production started.
"In Most Likely to Murder, we wanted to find satisfying endings for all of our characters whose stories we opened up with. You don't always have to do that in TV."
NFS: And regarding the locations, the film has a real location specificity to it. Being from Queens, I know Valley Stream pretty well, and there's a running joke involving Billy being called the "King of Valley Stream" by all of his high school classmates. How did you play around with the story in regard to making it "hyper-local?"
Gregor: I'm from Woodmere in Nassau County, and I grew up with high school friends from Valley Stream and Gibson and all of those places, and it was always important for us to just be super real with the locations, to have an actual place rather than some generic town. Every single scene is based on either Doug or I's hometown (Doug is from a pretty similar kind of suburb outside of Philadelphia). That's a necessity for us. If you write generically, it will feel generic. If you write specifically, it will be much more relatable. We actually tried to shoot in Queens and outside of Long Island at one point but found out that it's too close to the airport and it ruins the sound and so we had to move up to Westchester.
NFS: Did you work with your production designer to create the interior of the characters' childhood homes? They feel very lived in, analog-reliant, and like they haven't been touched since the 1990s.
Gregor: Honestly, the house that I grew up in remains basically untouched on Long Island and so I went and took every single picture of my childhood bedroom and my childhood house and gave it to my production manager to run with. Doug and I had a ton of specific things that really hammered home what we wanted, like all of those old band and movie posters....we probably spent more on that Ace Ventura: Pet Detective poster then literally anything else in the movie, including our actors.
NFS: What differences did you discover between writing a series and writing a feature-length film, juggling concurrent plots and characters that have to build to a conclusion within two hours?
Mand: Well, for Dan and I, story is still story. If you're writing a television episode or writing a movie, hopefully, you're telling the story with a beginning, middle, and end. With a feature, however, you really have to put a button on everyone's story, as it's the only thing you have to work with. In Most Likely to Murder, we wanted to find satisfying endings for all of our characters whose stories we opened up with. You don't always have to do that in TV.
So, the differences regarding the writing techniques don't change that much other than knowing that we have to finish the story [faster] and hopefully make it satisfying by throwing some twists in along the way. But it was very important that this wasn't just Billy's story, but also Duane's story and Lowell's story and Perkins' story; they all affect one another.
A character's actions affect all of the people all around them, and so we wanted their stories to matter just as much [as Billy's], and if not, to at least be part of the movie's fabric. It's what ultimately makes Billy realize that he's been a complete shitface, that there's a ripple effect in his actions and his lying and inability to let go of the past. He's bringing others down with him. For us, it's very important for the other characters to have full stories of their own.
NFS: The film had its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year and will be available on digital platforms this week. While making the film, did you ever have a specific release strategy in mind? Are you thinking about that while in production?
Gregor: It was our dream and our goal from the outset of making this movie to get to premiere at SXSW. It's the best place to premiere a comedy and so we were super pumped and ecstatic when we got in. We're not super savvy on the business side [of the industry] and so in terms of where (and how) the film goes from here, we needed a partner to help us figure this new world out. Going the route of digital distribution is very exciting (and it's a very real thing) and it's how people watch movies now. We're really pumped that the film is being released via Studio L, the new digital platform they're launching at Lionsgate.
This is really just how movies are going to work [going forward]. It's a bummer, believe me, and it's not the future I wanted when I went to film school, but it's the reality and that's not a bad thing. Everyone has these wonderful TVs in their homes now, so unless you're going to see a Marvel movie in a big multiplex, the reality is that these are the types of movies that people will watch with their friends at home. We're proud of that and we're excited.