The longest professional tennis match in history is 2010’s Wimbledon men’s first-round contest between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. Spanning 11 hours and five minutes across three days, the marathon encounter tested the physical stamina and emotional will of the two players and stunned tennis fans around the world. Five years later, the legendary standoff serves as the inspiration for the new HBO Sports documentary parody 7 Days in Hell, airing Saturday on HBO1 and starring Andy Samberg and Kit Harington. It takes the notion of a tennis match that just won’t end and warps it into a comedic bloodbath full of violence, sex, betrayal, and bad haircuts.
Or now, if you have HBO GO or HBO NOW.
Aaron Williams (Samberg) is an Andre Agassi–esque bad boy who finds himself locked in an interminable struggle with his English archrival, Charles Poole (Harington). It’s Isner/Mahut if Isner had just escaped from a Swedish prison and Mahut had the IQ of a potato. The film follows in the footsteps of classic Mel Brooks and Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker parodies — just the right amount of verisimilitude and commitment to genre authenticity to balance out the raunchy, ridiculous jokes that pepper the screenplay. Samberg, writer/producer Murray Miller, and director Jake Szymanski went to great pains to replicate the look and feel of classic sports documentaries, down to using vintage equipment to re-create stock footage from the past. Comic actors like Fred Armisen and Will Forte are joined by real sports pundits and athletes like Serena Williams, Chris Evert, and John McEnroe.
I spoke to Samberg by phone this week to discuss the film, the finer points of male nudity, and Game of Thrones.
Listen to the full podcast on the ESPN podcast player here. A condensed, edited version of the interview follows as a Q&A.
How did this come about? Because this is such a specific thing, a parody of sports documentaries about tennis. What was the genesis of this project for you?
The writer of this and my executive producing partner, Murray Miller — he’s my buddy from summer camp; we used to go to summer camp together and we’ve been friends for a long time, and we always used to talk about wanting to write a comedy set in the world of tennis. And he has since gone on to work at HBO. He’s a writer on the show Girls. And when the Isner-Mahut match happened a few years back, we were joking about how our movie should be about a match that never ends at Wimbledon, because they have that rule, you know, that you have to win by two.
So theoretically a match there could go for eternity. So we talked about it, and then it sort of went away because we were talking about trying to do it as a feature for theaters, and then he kept working at HBO and sort of had a relationship there, so I said why not do it as like a fake version of their, like, McEnroe/Borg Fire & Ice, or like a 30 for 30, so we could do it shorter and cheaper, and he liked that idea a lot so we pitched it to them. And they gave us the green light, and we shot it last summer.
That was one of the things I really appreciated the most about the piece — it obviously went to great pains to re-create the style of HBO Films or a 30 for 30, like you said. Do you have a lot of affection for that format? Do you have a favorite sports documentary that you watched over and over that you kind of took notes on for this?
Well, Fire & Ice was the biggest just because it was about tennis rivals and a lot of it at Wimbledon, so that was a big jump-off point for us, but Murray and I both do love the format. I mean, I watch as many of those 30 for 30s as I can. I just watched the Christian Laettner one again last night because it was on. And I’ve seen — I want to say all of them, but certainly a lot of them.
There’s a lot of nonactors in this film, and Jim Lampley is one of those who kind of steals the show. Did you find that there was a challenge in making sure that you get the tone right with those people, because obviously as nonactors they’re not quite as attuned to the subtleties of parody and comedy? Was that difficult to get them where you wanted them to go? Because the tone of the film is very, very specific.
It is. We found actually that the athletes — the athletes and Jim — were really good. You know, Serena, we told her the more straightforward and dry she played it, the funnier it would be, because the content of what she’s saying is so ridiculous, you know, talking about that my character was adopted by her family and that it was a reverse Blind Side and all this stuff. And she played it just so small and real that we didn’t need to give her too much direction. Chris Evert and John McEnroe are both on-air personalities at this point, as is Jim Lampley, so I think for them it came very easily. But yeah, we were very pleasantly surprised. I mean, I wasn’t surprised with McEnroe because I’ve worked with him before and he’s obviously hilarious, but we were very, very pleased with how quickly all of them took to it. And Lampley loved doing the lines about how he hates tennis.
I’m glad you brought up the fact that your character is the adopted brother of Serena Williams, because it made me think about The Jerk and how much I love that movie. And The Jerk, beyond the whole racial element of it, there was a certain humor to it where you think it’s impossible and it’s very absurd, but it also has that straight-faced parody element to it, where just like Airplane! and movies of that nature, everyone’s taking it seriously while also hitting the jokes really well. Was that something that you were really cognizant of when you were making the movie?
Yes, for sure. We wanted it to feel and look as much like it was something that happened as possible, and for everyone to treat it like that. So with the exception of a few little hyper-goofy moments, we thought, especially because it’s written so over-the-top and dirty and sort of cartoony, that, you know, we love the straight face on the insane thing. And you get away with a lot more that way, too. The mockumentary format always tickles us particularly because you can pretend it’s real, you know. Something like Serena very seriously talking about her adopted brother and then cutting to a very shoddy Photoshopped photo of their childhood. We wanted it to feel as much as possible like it was something that could’ve happened.
And our director, Jake Szymanski, who I think also did a great job and made some really great decisions in terms of, like, we shot on actual old cameras for the tennis broadcast and on really old cameras for the stuff with Michael Sheen, you know, talk show, things like that to make it feel really dated and like it might actually be from BBC. Stuff like that, where we kind of just jumped in with both feet and were not worried about, like, “What if you can’t see it good enough?” or “What if it looks like it’s cheaper because it’s old?” And we were really — when we started cutting it together, it gave it that real sort of vintage nostalgic feel that we wanted.
One thing I think is going to be fun for repeat viewing is doing a drinking game every time male genitals show up onscreen. I saw so many, you know, penises in this. It was really — I was braced a little bit every time I saw one. And there are long ones, there are small ones, there’s every variety, every flavor that you could think of.
Well, look, you gotta utilize the fact that you’re on HBO, that’s how we looked at it.
Even Oz didn’t have that much male nudity in it. But I’m glad that you got to do it for HBO because it would’ve been such a hard sell, I would imagine, for a studio to be like, Yeah, there’s just going to be a bunch of wieners in this.
Yeah, well, we were also laughing about, you know, obviously there’s tons of nudity on HBO but so much of it is female, and we felt like, you know, we have some female nudity, but we wanted to be equal-opportunity nudists with our project and maybe even tip the scale in the opposite direction. We felt like it was time.
Yeah, there’s a scene — I won’t spoil it, but it’s during the match — and there’s female nudity and in the back of my mind I was like, Oh, this is the requirement that HBO is going to have, like you gotta have a naked lady, and then it goes to another level and then there’s a naked man, and it’s like, Oh, this is very refreshing that this is happening. I was really pleased that that happened because I could see so many people commenting about that when the movie came out, but you neutralized that very well.
Yeah, that was actually where that joke came from, was me not wanting to have it seem like it was just because, like I genuinely wanted it to be an equal playing field with that. And then it just started making us laugh so hard and it became something else. But yeah, you know, there is that thing where we always joke about how on Entourage nobody ever has sex in any position but reverse cowgirl.
Because it’s the perfect shot of a girl’s boobs and you never see the dude at all. You see the head really low in the corner, of the guy.
There are definitely more sexual positions in this movie than there are in any other HBO production.
Yes. And no reverse cowgirl.
Because no one has sex that way. No one on earth has sex that way.
Kit Harington, speaking of other HBO properties, this is his first post–Game of Thrones project. How was it working with him and yanking him out of fantasy world and into a more realistic comedy setting?
It was fantastic. He’s a really smart and nice guy, and when I first met him to talk about it, he told me he actually used to do sketch stuff in college.
And he had read the script and was like, Oh, this part is actually really perfect for me because when I would do comedy stuff when I was younger, I would always kind of play the thick one, as he put it. Which I then looked up and found out meant the dumb one. I’m just kidding, I knew what it meant. But, so he was just psyched and onboard to do it, and it was just very strange to see him without a beard. And he genuinely looked like a 16-year-old child. But, yeah, he kind of just fully went for it and jumped in and had a lot of fun. And we had a lot of fun hanging in Palm Desert.
Really, he aged through the film. Because you follow him through teen years and his adult years. And in the Michael Sheen BBC talk show clip, he looks very, very young. It’s amazing how he can go and then seem appreciably older. And he seems smarter, like he’s gained a couple IQ points in those years — not many, but he’s got more vocabulary at that point.
Yes. And he’s learning about the world sort of as it’s happening.
I really enjoyed his relationship with June Squibb as the Queen of England. I won’t spoil that much more, but it’s a very abusive relationship that they have.
It is. And June Squibb just has a spot-on British accent.
So the last thing I have to ask you, and this is a ridiculous question, but bear with me. There’s been a lot of Kit Harington/Jon Snow questions on the Internet and such, and him appearing at Wimbledon, and people being like, Oh, he’s got a beard again. Did you ever feel — this was last summer, of course, that you filmed this — but did you ever feel like, “I just gotta ask him, like what’s going on with his character and what’s going on with this show — just spoil it all for me”?
I went out of my way to not ask him for two reasons. The first being I didn’t want to spoil it because I was not a reader of the books. And the second was that I wanted to be the one friend he had who doesn’t ask him.
You don’t want to be that guy who puts your friend out on Front Street and is like, Just give me the answers, man.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. But you know, I had it ruined for me by HBO before it happened.
Well because of 7 Days in Hell, they sent us a press email talking about when we were going to release the trailer. And we had originally talked about releasing it with the finale of Thrones, and so we got an email saying, “Hey, because we already think there’s going to be so much press around Kit, and there’s potential fan vitriol for what happens to him … ” And I was like, No! No!
Couldn’t even get a spoiler alert on that, huh?
No spoiler alert, and Murray, who was also on the email, texted me and was like, “Don’t read that email!” And I was like, “I already read it!”
They’re just so jaded at HBO. Aww, Game of Thrones, whatever.
They assumed that I somehow already would’ve known and that he already would’ve known, so I did have it kind of spoiled. It didn’t make it any less sad. I was very sad to see Jon Snow get stabbed multiple times. He was one of my favorites.
Well, he might be back. I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows. He might be back.
Well, Melisandre showed up, you never know.
It’s all on the table.
The Lord of Light works in mysterious ways.