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Surely They Can’t Be Serious?

The unlikely rise of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, Hollywood's majorly hated, hugely successful kings of the modern-day spoof

“Jason and Aaron don’t actually give interviews.” That’s what I was told when I attempted to connect with spoof-movie maestros Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

Their handlers weren’t joking. You may not have heard of Friedberg and Seltzer. Their lives have been shrouded in J.D. Salinger–like mystery. But somehow, some way, you’ve seen their movies. The writing-directing duo, best known as “two of the six writers of Scary Movie,” are among the most consistently successful in all of Hollywood. The movies in their bluntly titled filmography — Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, the 300-inspired Meet the Spartans, the Twilight parody Vampires Suck, and most recently The Starving Games (you can probably guess that one) — has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide. But a quick search unearths little connection between the comedic duo and their audience. Appearances, interviews, and general face time aren’t part of the equation for Friedberg and Seltzer. It’s hard to blame them.

What does show up when you Google “Friedberg and Seltzer” is a frightening level of Internet vitriol. There’s the routine hate: reviews and lists decrying their lowbrow humor with name-calling and “worst of” superlatives. And then there’s backlash only Friedberg and Seltzer seem to provoke. There are anti–Friedberg and Seltzer PSAs, petitions calling for the end of their careers, and forum threads with titles like “I HOPE THESE 2 GUYS DIE OF ANAL CANCER.” A video purporting to be a behind-the-scenes look at their writing process is itself satire, dreamed up by two comedians:

For the level of negativity directed at the two filmmakers whenever they dish out a new spoof, there’s also a substantial amount of effort spent keeping them in the crosshairs. “Lots of comedies are accused of insulting our intelligence, but their movies feel so cynically constructed that we literally feel insulted by them,” said Kenny Byerly, the writing-process video’s Friedberg proxy. “It actually is not any different than bad YouTube parodies or BuzzFeed’s recognizable-reference click bait, but YouTube parodies are by amateurs or underdogs, so they don’t merit the same scorn. Friedberg and Seltzer are guys who seemingly made it in Hollywood, yet seem content to churn out joyless, lazy trash. The big question to me, dramatized in the sketch, is whether they are really that unfunny, or whether they are really that cynical. Are they lucky idiots? Or trapped in a career that’s beneath them? I don’t know.”

Three months after The Starving Games, a new Friedberg and Seltzer picture was arriving in theaters and, finally, the mad scientists of pop-culture Frankenstein-ing were ready to talk. I couldn’t meet them (requests to do so are quietly dismissed) and follow-up communication would go unaddressed (“Did we mention they don’t do interviews?”). But the duo did break their own rule: one phone conversation, for one hour. Friedberg and Seltzer would speak.

Carefully, but willingly. They have a good reason: Their latest, Best Night Ever, isn’t a spoof. In the vein of Project X and a new breed of found-footage comedies, the film follows a quartet of young women blazing through the Las Vegas night for one epic bachelorette party. All the Friedberg and Seltzer tropes are there — slapstick injuries, bathroom humor, wisecracks at the expense of body types both big and small — but Best Night Ever leans hard on its R rating and is noticeably devoid of random pop-star impersonations. When Friedberg and Seltzer rang me, there was nothing but excitement in their voices. They seemed untouched by the dissenters. But if the world around them weren’t so vicious, there would be little logic in the duo sticking to the shadows.

“It felt so good to be in R-rated territory,” Friedberg, 42, said. “We’ve done only PG-13 since Scary Movie, and the comedy is completely outrageous. We went four, five rounds with the ratings board just to get an R rating. After Best Night Ever, no one will accuse us of not going for it.”

The complaints hurled at Friedberg and Seltzer’s efforts typically have little to do with whether they “go for it” or not. But even if Best Night Ever is once again annihilated critically, the two won’t hear it. They’ve achieved a Zen state as Hollywood’s purveyors of not giving a shit. As Seltzer put it: “We love writing, we love directing, we love the actors we work with. We have our own families that we raised. Jason has kids, I have kids, we have wives, so we don’t sit around [reading reactions]. Honestly, we don’t have a lot of ego that needs to be stroked. We don’t want to be condemned, but we don’t pay that much attention. We just kind of do our work.”

Anyone blaming Friedberg and Seltzer for the oversaturation of spoof comedies should take it up with Hollywood. These are the movies it wants. They are merely vessels for an industry’s desires.

♦♦♦

“I, at one time, wanted to be an artist,” Seltzer, 40, recalled of his stint at UC Santa Barbara, the roseate state school where as an art history major he first crossed paths with Friedberg, a history major. The two were kindred spirits: focused on their studies, harboring a love for movies, and working like madmen to pay their way through college. Film school was off their radar. “We caught on too late,” Friedberg said. “I think it was in the last semester I took Scorsese 101. I was like, ‘So you can just watch Goodfellas and cool movies? That’s what you can do in college?’ I felt really stupid.”

Friedberg and Seltzer’s comedy diet was riddled with all the staples: Caddyshack, Airplane!, The Simpsons, The Naked Gun. They were children of the late ’70s with fathers obsessed with movie comedy. They arrived to UCSB well educated in the art of silliness and bonded over a shared sense of humor. Scorsese was the revelation that put them on the filmmaking path.

Goodfellas was amazing to us,” Friedberg said. “I remember one day we said it could be funny if there was a spoof movie where, ‘Funny how? Like I’m a clown? I’m here to amuse you?’ — and then you cut to the guy and he’s wearing full clown makeup.” Instead of pining for the film school experience, Friedberg and Seltzer took a proactive approach and began work on their first screenplay. As Friedberg put it, “That dumb-ass joke started it all.”

But Friedberg and Seltzer were also hustling to pay tuition, comfortable taking on unglamorous jobs that put cash in their pockets. The two were entrepreneurs at heart. They sold homemade T-shirts, started their own food delivery service, and when graduation rolled around, they went into the Seltzer family business: shoes. Just 22 years old, Friedberg and Seltzer — convinced by the latter’s salesman father — opened two shoe stores in Los Angeles. By day, they sold espadrilles. By night, they toiled away at screenplays.

Any honest Hollywood success story begins with a “someone you know.” For the writing partners, it was Friedberg’s father, Rick, who had directed an assortment of TV commercials and music videos, including Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s “Brother for Sale,” and Kenny G’s “Against Doctor’s Orders,” which paired the jazz saxophonist with Dudley Moore. The elder Friedberg had made the jump to features earlier in his career, with the 1980 TV movie Pray TV and 1983’s Off the Wall, a goofball comedy starring Paul Sorvino that Roger Ebert called “one of the most lame-brained movies of recent years.” When his son came to him with the first draft of a secret-agent spoof called Spy Hard, Rick was shooting Bad Golf Made Easier, a series of golf instruction parody videos starring Leslie Nielsen. Sculpted in the mold of Zucker brothers and Mel Brooks comedies, Spy Hard appealed directly to the heart of its future star.

“We just wrote what we thought would be funny and we never really thought it would go anywhere,” Seltzer said of the James Bond riff. “Like all kids, you’re sort of fearless — [you] just kind of write it and you don’t ever think anyone will really read it or get it. Or read it and laugh.”

Spy Hard made Nielsen, then the Cary Grant of spoofs, laugh — and that was everything. In the pre–Austin Powers world, the project quickly found a home at Disney’s Buena Vista Pictures with Rick Friedberg in the director’s chair. The sale of the script and the film’s modest success imbued the younger Friedberg and Seltzer with confidence. “Leslie Nielsen liked it, and we assumed that he had good taste,” joked Seltzer. Good enough taste to close shop on the shoe stores and pursue screenwriting full time.

♦♦♦

Friedberg and Seltzer arrived in Hollywood ready to keep the momentum of Spy Hard going with completed scripts and honed pitches. But the process was … slow. “I think we thought once you have a movie made, that the world opens up to you, but it really doesn’t,” Seltzer said. “You have to kind of keep creating your own opportunities.”

Their post–Spy Hard break came when they sold The Bridge to Columbia Pictures, eyed as a vehicle for Jackie Chan. It was a departure from their spoof debut, a martial arts movie that solidified Friedberg and Seltzer as competent action writers. But in what would become a common refrain for the writers, Chan’s asking price kept the movie from being realized. Luckily, Columbia had other work for the team. They were tasked with a page-one rewrite of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1996 film Maximum Risk. Producer Moshe Diamant hoped Friedberg and Seltzer could inject the story with the same action they’d displayed in The Bridge. The writing partners delivered what they call a “hard-core cop movie,” a script that quickly earned a green light. But as is commonplace in Hollywood, it also earned a full-blown rewrite from “million-dollar-a-week writers” who churned out another “chop-sock sort of Van Damme movie.”

More jobs came along — after Maximum Risk, Friedberg and Seltzer sold an animated movie to Disney that “turned into Cars” and later an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s Little Green Men — but they were still just that: jobs. The duo still think of one stalled project as “the one that got away”: Liberace, a biopic of the closeted pianist-singer that gestated for more than a decade before Steven Soderbergh realized his version for HBO. Written on spec in the late ’90s, the script attracted the attention of Peter Safran, who would go on to become Friedberg and Seltzer’s steady producer. In 2000, the movie found a home at producer Cary Woods’s Independent Pictures, with Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) set to direct and the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt) producing. The script attracted A-list stars: Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, and Nicolas Cage were each attached to the project at one point. Friedberg and Seltzer said they spent two years flying back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco tinkering with the script under Kaufman’s watch. And then, nothing.

“There’s a reason why the Steven Soderbergh one ended up being on HBO,” Safran said. “It was a tough one to get done as a theatrical picture. You needed to have enough money to really make it look great, and that era and the glitz and glam of Vegas. The way any movie comes together, I guess … There are a million reasons.”

Concurrent with the progress of Liberace, Friedberg and Seltzer prepped another spec, a horror spoof called Scream If You Know What I Did Last Summer, which would become Scary Movie. It was a pitch they loved — and no one in Hollywood would touch it. “Imagine us pitching, ‘He pulls her panties down and her giant bush fills the entire frame and he grabs a weed whacker to whack it down,’” recalled Friedberg. “It actually made the movie, but in pitch form it sounds ridiculous.”

“We pitched it because we believed in it so much,” Seltzer added.

Friedberg and Seltzer returned from their failed pitch tour still high on the idea. With a mix of recklessness and fearlessness, they decided to write the script anyway. When the spec was complete, Safran shopped Scary Movie around a second time. Nearly every studio showed them the door, until they got to Dimension Films, which snatched up the crude-humored draft in 1998. When the deal was announced in Variety, Dimension founder Bob Weinstein commented, “This is a hilarious script.”

Before Friedberg and Seltzer became “two of the six writers of Scary Movie,” they were “two of the two writers of Scary Movie.” Bob and Harvey Weinstein courted the legendary David Zucker (Airplane!, the Naked Gun franchise) for the director’s chair. When the film became a Wayans brothers production, Friedberg and Seltzer stepped aside to continue developing Liberace and penning other projects for the Weinsteins, including an unproduced talking-animal spoof in the vein of Babe.1

Seltzer estimates that throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he and Friedberg sold upward of 40 scripts, a majority based on original ideas, with a few book adaptations and work-for-hire jobs scattered throughout. Their names were all over Scary Movie when it earned $157 million in the summer of 2000. It brought in a swell of new work: a Looney Tunes movie for Ivan Reitman; Happy Place, a Groundhog Day–esque comedy about a man who finds himself trapped in his mental safe zone only to discover it’s a living hell; a debauched mockumentary called The Bachelor Party; and an adaptation of Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf, a project again shepherded by Alexander and Karaszewski. Those seasoned screenwriters would often go to bat for Friedberg and Seltzer as the less experienced pair grew as writers, even responding in comments to those who wrote off the Liberace script because of their work on Scary Movie. Responding to Internet skepticism, Karaszewski once wrote: “Aaron and Jason are trying to change like we did by following Problem Child with Ed Wood. It can happen.”

People who write movies want to see those movies made. So when New Regency still hadn’t found an established comedy director for Friedberg and Seltzer’s rom-com spoof Date Movie, the duo decided not to sit back and let this one languish in limbo. Friedberg and Seltzer threw themselves into an elaborate presentation of storyboards and visual gags to sell themselves to the company. It worked. “For us, who had only been writers for years and years, to actually hear actors saying our lines and see our characters living and breathing, and seeing what you’ve created on a blank page is thrilling and still is thrilling,” Friedberg said.

Friedberg (left) and Seltzer with their spouses in 2006.

Friedberg (left) and Seltzer with their spouses in 2006.

Budgeted between $15 million and $20 million and parodying everything imaginable, including Bridget Jones’s Diary, Hitch, Meet the Parents, Kill Bill, and King Kong, Date Movie was a hit for Team Friedberg-Seltzer. It was also a gateway drug. In an unforgiving industry, the spoof was a profitable, viable format that could be tapped for endless possibilities.

“We like to work,” Seltzer said. “And [we] know how difficult it is to get a movie made. So if you have a movie that worked financially, then the studios are much more apt to do that again than something more original.”

After Date Movie and its spiritual sequel, Epic Movie, the two set up a holiday comedy at New Regency, a twist on A Christmas Carol, that was touted as Rainn Wilson’s first big starring role after breaking out on The Office. Days before production was to begin, the studio pulled the plug over budget concerns. “So they don’t do it, and you’re disappointed for a beat, and then you go, ‘Well, OK, what about this?’” Seltzer said. “And then we sold them Meet the Spartans, [which] was a little bit more digestible, and it was something we could have a lot of fun with. They liked the script and they go, ‘OK, yeah, we could feel financially secure about that and you guys could do what you need to do.’”

♦♦♦

Friedberg and Seltzer’s spoof-writing process is like the refining of crude oil. Safran, who has produced each of the duo’s films since Scary Movie, said the most divisive conversations take place early on, when the team is considering the target. The genre or franchise needs to be “sufficiently iconic” and “so earnest that it’s basically begging to be lampooned.” With a blueprint of the plot in hand, the writers go to town on jokes. Imagine a typical night in a freshman dorm, a couple of 18-year-old boys hopped up on Mountain Dew, playing video games, and trying to make each other laugh, and you have a Friedberg and Seltzer writing session.

“It’s just like being with your oldest, best friend all the time, every day,” Friedberg said. “You don’t know why, you just brainstorm dialogue. The stuff that comes out between you, for better or worse, is just your creation. And I think Aaron and I never set limits or rules. Our process … is just much more free-form.”

The Naked Gun team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams is well known for abiding by a list of comedy rules that dictate whether a joke will play or test an audience’s tolerance (e.g., “A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground”). Friedberg and Seltzer don’t approach material with rigid standards. In the end, it’s about hitting the beat, eliciting the laugh. Seltzer insists their scripts are forged with time, energy, and attention to story coherence. More topical jokes are penned in the days leading up to the shoot or completely devised on set. In the years since Date Movie, there have been vague allusions to Friedberg and Seltzer productions enlisting outside comedians to pen jokes for their films, but Safran says this isn’t the case, at least not of late. “Generally, they don’t hear joke pitches from anyone else,” he said. So what we see onscreen is the brainchild of Friedberg and Seltzer, weeks of holing up in an office, bouncing ideas around, and seeing what sticks.

The men are only moderately concerned about shelf life; Meet the Spartans contains multiple references to shaved-head, mental-breakdown-era Britney Spears — once, when she’s kicked down the bottomless pit by King Leonidas, another when Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney alone!” YouTube video appears on the video monitor chest of a Transformer robot. The actual impersonation, by MADtv alum Nicole Parker, was nearly cut from the film. “We thought that actually might be on the edge of being too old,” Seltzer admitted. But in the end, that bit of pop-culture schadenfreude played like gangbusters in test screenings. It became a keystone of Meet the Spartans’ trailers.

Meet the Spartans

Meet the Spartans

“We do our best and try to foresee what will last — and 10 years from now, probably a lot of the references seem dated,” Seltzer said. Friedberg finishes the thought: “So maybe we don’t have the same shelf life for that joke, but it’s a movie filled with hundreds of jokes, so if one feels a little old or dated, it doesn’t take down the whole value of the movie. You still throw Spartans on [and] it’s still goofy and funny and makes fun of 300.”

Channeling their 18-year-old selves serves the business side, too. When they pitch an idea or describe the method to their madness, it sounds like gold. And they’re still entrepreneurs, capable of mimicking $150 million production value with only $15 million in their pockets. The duo suggest that’s the real challenge they face each time they pen a script. They want the movies to feel big, with major guest stars and lavish production values. “Ambition is the thing that gives us the most anxiety,” Seltzer said. So they shoot and shoot and shoot, maximizing every dollar spent.

Friedberg and Seltzer were able to attract a steady cast and crew that have returned for each of their movies. Oscar-nominated production designer William Elliott (The Untouchables) has been onboard since Date Movie, tasked with re-creating such elaborate sets as Willy Wonka’s factory, the temples of Sparta, and Disaster Movie’s apocalypse-torn metropolis. Diedrich Bader, Tony Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, and Fred Willard have been recurring players in the Friedberg and Seltzer troupe. Seltzer says Carmen Electra, who has appeared in four of their films, is only paid scale because when she’s on their set, “she wants to work and she works really hard at it.” Safran is ebullient about Friedberg and Seltzer’s tightly run ship, an operation he attributes to their deep bond. “They’ll kill for each other,” he said of the directors, cast, and crew.

♦♦♦

Friedberg and Seltzer with the cast of Best Night Ever.

Friedberg and Seltzer with the cast of Best Night Ever.

Still, critics have not been kind to the Friedberg and Seltzer oeuvre. Of the films they wrote and directed, Date Movie peaks on Rotten Tomatoes with a 7 percent fresh score. Last year, critic and author Nathan Rabin wrote that Friedberg and Seltzer are “comic terrorists who cavalierly destroy what others create for their own ugly self-interest.”

“I think the first movie, you’re always surprised, like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re not getting a 100 Rotten Tomatoes score?’” Seltzer said. “And then you go, ‘It’s not a critic’s cup of tea,’ and some people don’t like it and then you move on. Otherwise, you go crazy.”

Though they’ve shut out the criticism, Friedberg and Seltzer are aware their movies aren’t playing well to a vocal community. They don’t resent the assault. Occasionally, they embrace it. For the Date Movie DVD, the directors invited L.A. Weekly film critic Scott Foundas (who hated the movie) and Los Angeles Daily News film critic Bob Strauss (who landed somewhere in the middle) to participate in an audio commentary. In the session, Foundas and Strauss were free to critique the work. They happily obliged. “If you went to a dinner theater in Florida and saw some kind of road-show company doing a movie [spoof], this is what it might look like,” Foundas says on the track.

Is sophomoric humor allowed to target actual sophomores without contaminating culture? Everyone involved seems to think so. “Their movies are obviously not made for a very broad audience,” Safran said. “It’s mostly that teen demographic, but that teen demographic seems to really enjoy it. When you sit in the theater and watch Meet the Spartans or Vampires Suck with a group of teens, they are absolutely loving it.”

Testing the movies in front of audiences is a huge part of Friedberg, Seltzer, and Safran’s process. Reviews and Cinemascores (a letter-grade rating based on audience reactions) be damned — the spoof team knows their movies are working when they hear the reactions of the audiences they’re hoping to reach. When they compile a test audience reaction, they don’t reach for huge swaths of the public: Safran says they don’t even bother testing for viewers over 25 years old, and that many early screenings are tested for predominantly Latino and African American audiences, for whom the parody films generally play well.

Seltzer described the test-screening process, where jokes live and die by reactions. “You have Arnon Milchan there, who runs New Regency, and the audience has to tell you the truth, right? So they have to laugh their asses off to justify the joke. And if not, we’re going to cut it, or we’re going to edit something else. So I think that’s the sort of barometer. People have to laugh, they have to like it, and if we throw a lot of jokes in there, and if they work, great, and if not, we’ll take things out and leave in the one great joke that did work.”

As purveyors of silly comedy, Friedberg and Seltzer are employed to keep the laughs coming rapid-fire. But certain jokes are shown the door — the two said their biggest fights are over “back-of-the-room” jokes that often fly over audiences’ heads. A few will creep into the final cut, but in the end, the goal is to craft popular entertainment. “The studio sort of expects that brand of humor,” Seltzer said. “Spoof movies, they have a lot of jokes per minute, much more than a normal comedy that has to have maybe a richer narrative. You have to have big belly laughs; you have to have people screech at some things. We just go for it.”

♦♦♦

Friedberg and Seltzer are deep in postproduction on their latest film, SuperFast! — a parody of the Fast & Furious franchise they say is light on random pop-culture references thanks to the abundance of opportunities Vin Diesel’s auto-racing cash cow affords them. It’s still unclear what company will distribute the movie. After Vampires Suck, which earned $80.5 million worldwide, Friedberg, Seltzer, and Safran walked away from their relationship with New Regency to produce their films independently. This enabled Safran’s company to presell their next endeavor, The Starving Games, to foreign markets and distributors to pay for the production, putting less pressure on the end product and, theoretically, giving Friedberg and Seltzer more creative control.

The Starving Games was released by distribution start-up Ketchup Entertainment simultaneously in theaters and on VOD mere weeks before The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — a first for a Friedberg-Seltzer spoof. Safran is unsure if the new business model will help The Starving Games turn a profit, but in the case of Best Night Ever, released by Magnolia Pictures in a similar VOD-to-theatrical slow-build, the producer sees it as only an asset to his creative partners.

“You know, [Friedberg and Seltzer] had a real desire to broaden their horizons,” he said. “They’ve been making spoof movies for the last six, seven years, and obviously they have creative desires beyond making spoof movies. We felt that if we made something at this kind of price, we can do it with complete freedom. That we would be able to make exactly the movie they want to make, cast whoever they want to cast … it would be the purest form of creation. You don’t have to reach as wide an audience.”

They’ve been sitting on the Best Night Ever script for a few years — both men acknowledge that it was born in the wake of The Hangover and Bridesmaids, but that doesn’t dampen their excitement. Safran calls the movie “raunchy” and “balls to the wall,” but his most accurate descriptor might be “niche.” It’s a reasonable description for his two collaborators. Friedberg and Seltzer can deliver a movie fit for 2,500 screens, comedy with all the delicacy of an automatic shotgun. They drive children into fits of laughter and well-read adults into depression. Friedberg and Seltzer can deliver those movies and will. Even Kenny Byerly, that vocal critic of the duo, simply can’t help but sympathize with their standing in an unforgiving Hollywood environment: “Many of their haters would probably take the same deal.”

But the requirements of their job seem to be loosening. They’re taking chances. They’re injecting more personality into their scripts, however boorish. They’re continuing to tune out the faceless protestors who demand their heads on stakes. They’re sticking to their guns, and not taking anything too seriously. They’re coming out of the woodwork and finally talking to people. Carefully.

During our conversation, I told tell them it’s a brave choice, particularly in the caustic landscape they’re likely to encounter. Maybe a little dangerous.

“The two adjectives they never ascribe to two Jewish screenwriters are ‘brave’ and ‘dangerous,’” Friedberg responded.

Now that’s funny.

♦♦♦

Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.

Filed Under: Movies, Scary Movie, EPIC MOVIE, Date Movie, Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, peter safran, dimension