How 'Dicks: The Musical' Screenwriters Adapted the Basement Sketch for the Silver Screen
Writers and actors Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp chat with No Film School about their A24 musical comedy, Dicks: The Musical.
Directed by Larry Charles, Dicks: The Musical was adapted by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp from a sketch show they performed at Upright Citizens Brigade in the mid-2010s. The writers also play identical twins Trevor and Craig, who were raised separately after their parents (played by Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally) split up, à la The Parent Trap.
The film is deliberate in its absurdity and becomes a whirlwind of chaos that leaves you breathless. It's hard to believe that a risky film like Dicks was made for the silver screen. Jackson and Sharp have a hard time believing that this isn't a dream, too. Both writers are quick, riffing off each other constantly, and discovering the humor in each moment. It's no surprise that their goal to create a runaway train of a movie did just that and more.
Jackson and Sharp sat down with No Film School over Zoom to talk about adapting their movie for the screen, working with comedy legends, shooting their first feature in 20 days, and the consistency of ham in their work.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I'm so interested in how this entire project started and how you two became collaborators with each other.
Aaron Jackson: We met at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater about one billion years ago, in the Jurassic period.
Josh Sharp: Was it Triassic or Jurassic? I forget-
Jackson: Triassic, Cretaceous.
Sharp: Yeah, Cretaceous. Yeah, we definitely had some Stegosauruses around.
Jackson: We started doing improv together, and we just really clicked and really liked our chemistry. So we started hosting a variety show together, and then we said, "Let's write a sketch show together." We came up with this. This was our baby. That's how we started.
Sharp: Then it became a movie, and that's the normal development process. Nomadland was made the same way. It was done as a UCB show and then became a feature film.
No, actually we were doing it, never thinking of it as a movie. Then our producers, Chernin and Kori Adelson saw it and wanted to pitch it to Fox, who miraculously paid us to write a feature script. But then was like, "This is not a Fox movie." We were like, "Totally agree, nice knowing you." Then, that script ended up at A24. It’s an indie film that took forever and her journey was a beautiful journey.Jackson: Beautiful journey.
'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: The original sketch show, Fucking Identical Twins, was a very long-running sketch show. I was wondering if the natural process for you two was like, "We should turn this into a movie."
Sharp: A thousand percent, no. We never once thought of it as a movie. We really were two guys doing it in the basement of a grocery store just for ourselves and for fun. Then, the UCB model was like, "If you're lucky, you might get a meeting with Comedy Central to pitch a pilot for a cable show that won't go." That's all we were thinking of.Jackson: But I do think we wanted to make a musical, so I think we found the plot of The Parent Trap was easy to do with two people because one could play the mom, one could play the dad, and it's mostly just two-person scenes, the whole movie. We were like, "Oh, that would really work." And then I think when it was like, "Do you want to make this a movie?" It kind of already... I mean, it's based on an existing movie that was successful in both versions. So that was nice to have as your sketch. It wasn't like there was just loose sketch variety. "Oh, here's our sensibility." It was like, "There is a plot, things happen." So it was kind of a blessing. It's like we kind of already have our, saved grace moment.Sharp: And then, I think we feel like the blessing too is, now the movie feels very unique and unlike other things, because I think it has the DNA of the stage show that was never intended to be a film. So a lot of what is still in the roots of this thing, do come from this basement theater where we were never once really trying to make it movie-friendly.
NFS: How did you think about making it movie-friendly when you sat down to write that original screenplay?
Jackson: The stage show was only 30 minutes, so it felt very much like a runaway train. When we were trying to expand that, we really, really wanted to keep that like, "Oh my God, will they stick the landing? How will this keep afloat?" It was just letting moments breathe a little longer, but still packing in-joke a line, always trying to surprise the audience with the absurdity. So that was more of our thought, was just in the stage show, the first song the twins meet and realize they're twins in the movie that's over the course of two songs.Sharp: And, of course, it's like the other thing was so plot compressed to a half hour with this, it was like, "Oh, it's got to take a bunch of left turns, it can't just be The Parent Trap, the whole movie." Because so much of it's just using that as a launchpad to string a bunch of crazy jokes rather than parody it. It's not really a parody. We keep joking. It's more using The Parent Trap as if it's The Odyssey or Romeo and Juliet. It's just one of those story structures.
'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: That's definitely the launching pad. There's a definite end to the whole Parent Trap plot line, but I was wondering while watching, "Where else could it go?" Then, you showed us where it could go.
Sharp: Yeah, at about 40 minutes in we've done The Parent Trap, and then it's a runaway train going opposite directions.
NFS: Working on a stage in a basement, you're very limited in what you can do as a visual gag.
Sharp: Well, not when you have the kind of physical acting that we do.
NFS: When you're thinking of creating these visual gags to unlock another layer of the story, what is that process like?Sharp: Well, luckily Larry Charles was such a brilliant collaborator and is just such a king of comedy. So it was always very fun to just sort of feel like we have this new playbook of like... We all sort of knew the DNA and the tone of this thing, and now it just felt like, "Oh my God, if..." Again, The Sewer Boys were just sort of mentioned as a one-off joke in the show, you never saw them and we breezed by them, and in this, it was like, "They should be puppets, they should be alive. You should feed them a ham." It felt more like you could riff on stuff and not have as many limits because you could float a crazy idea and a line producer would be like, "All right, fine, we can afford it."
Jackson: Or The Vagina, which was in the stage show, but it was a bag of ham, that is how we portrayed it, which is how ham always makes its way into this piece. But that was really funny. It was like, "Oh, we could actually... We have a little tiny budget. We could make this thing happen and it could truly have a beautiful flight moment, takeaway."
NFS: There's this level of deliberate absurdity to it that I think is just so delightful to see on screen, which I think this is the summer of comedy, and I want to know, is there ever a moment where you go, "Is this too much?” Or do you just keep pushing those boundaries of the joke?
Jackson: What's so great about writing in a duo is because sometimes you're like... We love absurdity, so you can be like, "Is this something?" Then, make a sound, and they're either like, "No. Actually, there's something there." But I do think it's that same thing as when you go shopping with your one friend who loves to buy shit, and you both keep encouraging each other to like, "Oh, you should buy it, you should buy it." I think we do that to each other, be terrible influences where it's like, "What about this?" It's like, "Well, what about a little more?" So I think it's good that someone could tell you, "I think you're on the wrong track." But also they could be really naughty and push you a little bit farther.
Sharp: Obviously there were a lot of conversations of like, "How do we make it a movie?" I think the music really helps because the music sounds so fucking good that even when things are totally absurd and wacky and crazy, that has always been the connective tissue that really holds it together.
Then we're more thinking about just pacing. "How does this thing be paced right? How do we make sure every moment sort of matters?" But there was never a, "You got to hold back for this movie to work."
Larry Charles was very big on, "If this movie doubts itself, at any point the audience will clock it." So even if they don't know something was cut, they'll feel that something was cut. So I think he was always pushing us like, "Those things we should push." And then more just like we should be thinking about how to visually make this movie work and make the performances sing and then also make the music slap.
'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: What does that collaboration process with Larry look like?
Jackson: Because of COVID-19, Larry was already on. We did a lot of the writing in pre-production, working, beating the script out forever and ever and ever, like countless drafts. So that's where a lot of it's done. On set, though of course, [COVID was] still happening, but on set it's more... I think we were treated more like actors on set, even though sometimes it would be like, "Come in here, can we get a joke?"
Sharp: The thing was pretty set. Yeah, I was going to say, and part of that was production limitations. It's like we shot it in 20 days, we did a lot of stuff in two takes. You needed to come in with a game plan. That's why we loved working with Nathan [Lane] and [Megan] Mullally, who were such pros. It felt like all of us came in knowing exactly what we were doing. Larry would often just do a take and we'd get it and he'd be like, "All right, do another where you fuck with each other." Because he wanted to have some of that energy, and then we would move on. So it did feel like a thing where you couldn't come in and figure out the script in the room.
Jackson: We were mostly in every scene together. But when I'm with Nathan or when Josh is with Megan, we are there on set. That was when you really had your writer hat on-
Sharp: Yeah, you could pitch jokes.
Jackson: But everybody is just being brilliant, so you don't really... you could come in and be like, "Oh, wouldn't it be funny if Megan said this?" Or like, "Oh, Nathan should say this."
Sharp: But we were all doing that all the time, too. That's what working with Nathan, Mullally and some of them were like, is you would do these brief rehearsals, and they would come up with an idea of, "Would it be funny if I had a giant menu and Megan's going back and forth and I don't see her?" And we'd be like, "Totally, do it."
Sharp: That was very much-
Jackson: We love it.
Sharp: The vibes on set were like, if somebody had a funny idea, you were all like, "We got to do it, right?"
NFS: Oh, I love that so much. Then the music, This is A24’s first musical, and that's kind of a badge of honor.Sharp: Well, we'll make sure it's their last.
NFS: How many songs were written for the movie that weren't in the original stage play?
Jackson: I think there were, what was there, five or six songs?
Sharp: I think there were five in the original stage show. Three of them exist as they were, two were sort of adapted, and then we basically wrote another seven songs that were new.
Jackson: Yeah, there's 12 in the movie. Yeah. So like I said-Sharp: It is almost like reprises, but still…
Jackson: The twins had a song where they met and realized they were twins. So we kind of took the meeting part and made that its own song. Then, when they realize they are twins, that becomes their own song.
Sharp: Our composer, Karl Saint Lucy, who's fabulous, is the one who did the songs with us in this basement years ago. Similar to us, we felt like we were getting this cool opportunity to make this movie, and then got to work with this legend, and Larry Charles. Karl was working with Marius De Vries, who's done La La Land,Moulin Rouge, and Bjork’s albums, who's a full legend. He was very instrumental in just the arrangements and fleshing it out and making it work in a movie. Karl just wrote these incredible songs, so the music came together so wonderfully. I do really believe it holds the movie together.Jackson: Totally.
'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: I am not someone who's ever composed any music for anything. I've never written, so what does that process look like? Do you normally write out the scene and then sit with your composer and kind of map out the lyrics?
Sharp: They always happen in different ways. With this, we were almost always coming in with lyrics and then being like, "It's a patter song." Then, Karl would write beautiful music to it, and then it sort of goes back and forth. Well, once you find the music, you're like, "Oh, I need to change this lyric to fit it."
Jackson: We would write the scene. Josh and I would write the scene. Then we'd get to the song, and it's so funny how you're really flying, and then you get to the song and you're like, "Oh, cool. Now it's the song." You'd be like, "F*ck, now we have to write a song." It just really takes a lot of time. We'd write the lyrics and bring it to Karl and sometimes have a little hook, but mostly it was all just Karl's genius.
NFS: I know that you wrote an original song for Megan Thee Stallion for this movie, and I heard of the process behind that at TIFF, but I can't believe you wrote a whole song for her in a day that fits her style so beautifully. What do you think of when you're writing these lyrics? Do you think of the style and how you see it in the script fitting perfectly?
Sharp: Well, this one needed to feel a bit more like a Megan Thee Stallion song. I do think it is a little bit of an outlier with the other songs, and it's just sort of like a charm song that's fun in the middle like “Time Warp.” But we were like, "It's got to be our voice."
Jackson: Totally.Sharp: Megan Thee Stallion is still rapping things like calling men, "Scummy sacks of cum." which I don't know is exactly a Megan Thee Stallion, but it overlaps weirdly with Josh, Aaron, and Megan Thee Stallion
Jackson: But yeah, Marius was instrumental in that because we had a song, but it was just like, "This is a placeholder forever we get for this role." Then when it was her, it was so exciting, but it was like, "Okay, that was not going to work for her." So that was a wild collaborative... I mean, that was fucking cool. It was just like–
Sharp: A fever dream, honestly.Jackson: And you had to just get into the room and, "OK, let's bring it." But we all have to be like, "But how?" I don't know, that was really cool. That was one of the coolest process moments I thought.
'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: I think when everyone's talking about Dicks, it seems like this was a wild ride that nobody thought would ever happen. The whole thing is a fever dream, but in the best way where you wake up and you're like, "Damn, that was fun."
Jackson: I know. When Toronto was happening, we kept having to remind ourselves of mundane things that were happening in real life to make sure it wasn't a dream. It'd be like, "Oh, the flight was delayed. The air conditioning in my hotel room wouldn't work." I wouldn't have dreamt this–
Sharp: This must be real life. Right?Jackson: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
NFS: It's those humbling moments that keep you grounded.
Jackson: Yeah. Then we were like, "This is real."
NFS: But did you think of who you wanted to play these characters as you were writing out the dialogue and the screenplay?
Sharp: We told Nathan when we first met him, when I was doing it on stage in my twenties, I was very much doing a sh*tty Nathan Lane impression while dressed like Charles Nelson Reilly. So Nathan was always there, and then Mullally, when we were fleshing that character out, we were like, "She's the funniest person in the world, she can sing." We needed a person who would get our vibe. There are very few who get this sort of crazy style of humor, and she is like a hundred percent down.Jackson: Her character, Evelyn, is like full dada, full absurd, non-sequitur joke machine. There are very few people who can successfully do that kind of character, and she is one of them. We wanted her so badly. I think she just far exceeded our expectations.
'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: Every production has its challenges, but is there one challenge that stands out to you that you learned from and will take that lesson with you into the next project that you guys take on?
Jackson: Oh my God, everything was such a learning experience. I mean, the time crunch was... I guess what I would take from it is that you can do a lot with a little. We didn't have a big budget, we did not have a long luxurious shoot, but we got it done and we had a good time and we worked really fucking hard.
Sharp: It's very liberating. You're like, "It's just a movie. Let's do our best. Let's be scrappy. Let's be creative." I think that's a much more fun vibe to do it than when you feel the weight of $200 million on your back.
Jackson: Yeah, I was going to say. You got $200 million You'd be like, "Well, this isn't the best possible take we can maybe ever have gotten." We just didn't have that luxury. I think though, that is what really has a little bit of sparkle in the movie like, this is a bit raw. The audience responds to that, that it's not trying to be super slick. It's trying to be authentic to itself.
NFS: Is there any moment from your guys' entire experience from pre-production to the premiere, that stands out to you as like, "Oh my gosh, this is actually happening?"
Jackson: This is recency bias, but seeing in Toronto, The Sewer Boys on the red carpet and all the photographers going crazy for The Sewer Boys, I was like, "We've done it. My God we've done it." That was really–
Sharp: And that whole screening, just seeing it for the first time in an organic like, these are just people who bought tickets and especially at midnight, where they were primed for this type of movie. We hadn't seen it like that before. We'd only seen it once at that point with a more curated audience who also ate it up, thankfully, and felt affirming. But this was fun to be like, "These are just 2000 crazy people."
The Sewer Boys in 'Dicks: The Musical'
NFS: Is there anything else you'd like to add that I didn't touch on in our discussion?
Jackson: Bowen is also a dream. We brush him aside sometimes when we're talking about the legends. But Bowen's one of our old friends and we love him, and it was amazing having him in the production.
Sharp: And he's so fucking funny in the movie.
Dicks: The Musical is now playing in select theaters in the U.S.