Biggest Spoof Ever? ‘Epic Movie’ Skewers ‘Borat,’ ‘Pirates,’ ‘Potter’

Filmmakers behind 'Scary Movie' and 'Date Movie' reveal what makes parody work.

PARK CITY, Utah — What’s the new spoof flick from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer? It’s a type of comedy that’s heavy on parody, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is that the “Date Movie” and “Scary Movie” scribes have directed “Epic Movie,” a light-hearted look at big-budget blockbusters like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Harry Potter.”

The pair recently talked to MTV News about what makes a great parody film and why playing for a joke kills it. Surely, I can’t be serious, you say. I am, and stop calling me Shirley …

MTV: Most writers say the key to writing a good movie is writing a good story. Is it the same for a spoof, or is it all about making something funny?

Jason Friedberg: Maybe a combination of both. Certainly, funny is obviously important — the goal is to make people laugh. But a through line is way important because otherwise it’s a collection of skits. Some of the [lesser-liked] spoofs are just a collection of scenes. Maybe some of the jokes were funny, but you don’t care about going on the whole ride without the characters.

Aaron Seltzer: We always have different ideas and different scenes for a movie we want to spoof, but we have to couch it in a story, with a hero or a villain. It still has to fit in the parameters of a traditional movie. When you leave the theater, you actually give a sh– about the characters involved. That’s half the battle.

MTV: So how did you start thinking about “Epic Movie”?

Friedberg: We wanted the spine to be “The Chronicles of Narnia,” we liked the idea of four kids going on a magical journey. Then we thought it would be funny if the four kids weren’t actually little kids. From there it kind of snowballed to, well, who do they meet on their magical journey? They meet Harry Potter, Captain Jack. Cracking the spine of “Narnia” really enabled us to tell a good story, because the real “Narnia” has been around for a while.

Seltzer: As silly and as funny as the movie aspires to be, if you stripped away all the jokes it still follows a strong template of a fantasy, action/adventure picture. These four kids go on this journey, have to take down the villain and at the end of the day are our heroes. That could be anything other than “Narnia.”

MTV: So there’s no template for a spoof? You don’t go back to “Airplane!” every time you do one of these things?

Friedberg: Obviously “Airplane!” is looked upon as the groundbreaking parody movie, but comedy is so broad. You know what’s weird? Even if you look at Monty Python’s “Holy Grail,” that was a spoof. “Austin Powers” is a spoof. The definition of a spoof has sort of broadened so, yeah, all those things have influenced us. We’re a fan of all those great, broad, slap-sticky movies. We’d like to think that we have our own voice or our own spin on it.

MTV: The term spoof may be broader than most people realize.

Seltzer: “Zoolander” or “Dodgeball” — all those jokes that are in those movies could be in our trailer or vice versa.

MTV: How did you guys start specializing in these spoof movies?

Seltzer: I don’t know how we ended up doing spoof. We’ve written a lot of other things. We’ve written action movies … I think Jason and I have sold 25 different movies. But spoof movies were the things that always got made. I don’t know what that says about studios or what that says about us. After “Scary Movie,” I think people felt like the spoof business could be profitable, they liked our writing.

Friedberg: I think spoof movies are sometimes easier to make because you don’t have to land a big star to make them. The comedy is the star, so traditionally that helps them along the pipeline a little faster.

MTV: Speaking of actors, how did you guys go about casting? Whose genius idea was it to cast Crispin Glover as Willy Wonka?

Friedberg: I think the good thing about spoof movies is that if you have a sense of humor and you want to be a part of something silly, and the script is good, you’ll get the Jennifer Coolidges and the Crispin Glovers of the world. The whole movie isn’t resting on one actor’s back. It’s an ensemble.

Seltzer: I think for Kal [Penn], when he read the script he laughed his ass off. It’s hard to find scripts that you can laugh at. We love Kal, he was actually our first choice. Crispin didn’t really address it like a spoof movie or a spoof character, he really played Willy Wonka. I think that’s what was interesting about it. He’s never in on the joke, he’s not trying to get laughs. It’s a lot to say for a spoof movie, that an actor is truly playing a character. He worked with a choreographer for, like, three weeks, three or four days a week. It’s something you could dismiss as a light, little movie but he really put the work into it.

Friedberg: What’s really cool about Crispin particularly, is that in our version, he’s not benevolent at all. He wants to use these kids to make candy out of their body parts. Crispin is as creepy as it gets in terms of casting.

MTV: That seems to be a hallmark of good spoof acting: playing it straight.

Seltzer: Before we shoot, we meet with each actor individually, so they know what the tone is. I think the second you play a joke, it sucks. Not every joke is going to work completely, but if you play the character, you’re not going to lose that way.

Friedberg: In our movies, if you turn off the sound and watch, you genuinely believe that they’re going on this mission, [that] the villain is really evil and all those things. I think the more you ground it in that seriousness, the more ridiculous you can go.

MTV: Having said that, how rigid is the script? You spoof “Borat” and that only came out a few months ago.

Seltzer: We shot that in the summer. We love Sacha Baron Cohen and we love ["Da Ali G Show"], and we really believed that “Borat” would be a big movie and an iconic character. And the studio didn’t know what the hell we were talking about, and so when we shot that we just shot a lot of different things. We didn’t know what was going to stick. We have a rigid idea of what we want out of the characters and the dialogue, especially if it’s going to further the plot. But after we get that, we have fun, or if the actors have something they want to do we’ll never say no.

Friedberg: We encourage Jennifer Coolidge especially, with her background in improv. We always encourage people to bring something to the table, because invariably their ideas are better than ours.

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