Interview: Kevin Heffernan Cooks Up The Slammin’ Salmon

By  · Published on December 14th, 2009

You won’t find Broken Lizard on many of the ubiquitous decade wrap-ups that have begun to permeate the blogosphere, but in Super Troopers and Beerfest the troupe made their mark on comedies in the ’00s. Both films have become cult classics with significant re-watch value, each a fine rendition of the art of big, broad, stupid frat boy humor.

In The Slammin’ Salmon, their latest, the boys (Kevin Heffernan, Jay Chandrasekhar, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske) play waiters engaged in a Glengarry Glen Ross like competition over one night at a restaurant owned by “Slammin” Cleon Salmon (Michael Clarke Duncan), an ex-boxing champ.

It’s out in theaters this weekend in the following markets: Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, Washington D.C. and Seattle. Should it perform well expect a relatively quick expansion. Film School Rejects spoke with Kevin Heffernan, aka Farva, about the inspiration for the project, the challenges in stepping in for Chandrasekhar as director and more.

What’s your process for developing scripts that get made?

A lot of it is where you end up being able to get the money from. Honestly, we have stacks of scripts and we have tons of idea and some of them can happen and some won’t. When we wrote the script for The Slammin’ Salmon, Club Dread had come out, it didn’t do that well and we were like, “We need to have some ideas at various levels in order to nail something.” So Beerfest [was] at one budget level and this one at another budget level and we just kept it in our back pocket until the time came. … When this movie happened it was because the writer’s strike was going on, and nobody was making any movies. We had to find independent money and then we could make this movie, because it’s one night in a restaurant without a lot of money. Certainly as you get older you know what has a chance of being made more than others. … It’s all momentum.

The film’s a lot more theatrical than your others. Was that something you’d been planning, or done for more budgetary reasons?

[It] probably [had] a little bit more to do with the budget. The intention was to try to do a Glengarry Glen Ross comedy meets the Marx Brothers. It was always our intention to try to have a funny one night kind of movie. A lot of it was a function of budget. We wanted to have a script you could make for anything.

What’s the biggest challenge in directing a film with one location?

You don’t want people to say, “Oh that movie’s too small.” And when you put it in one place, it’s “Oh, that’s 12 Angry Men,” whatever it is. So the intention was to try to make it feel like it had a little action in it, so let’s put a horse in there, we put a horse in, let’s put a live fish in there. … The idea was to make it feel a little bigger. Ultimately, it’s going to be claustrophobic when you’re in one place. And then we tried to move the camera a little bit more, [and give it some] choppy editing. I think that was the approach to this one, [to] try to make you not feel claustrophobic.

How else was The Slammin’ Salmon different for you guys?

Compared to the other movies there were a couple [differences]. One was shooting in L.A. This was the first movie we shot in L.A. Usually you’re on location, which is very much like summer camp. This was more like going to work. It has its plusses and minuses. One plus is the cameos we could get for the movie were better. You’ve got Morgan Fairchild, Lance Henrisken, Will Forte, Vivica Fox [etc.]. You had the ability call someone up two days before and say, “Hey man, we’re up in Van Nuys, can you pop up and do a day with us?”… We didn’t have that in our other movies. … Just because you’re in [one] room, you had to map things out a little more.

How does directing your good friends compare with directing other actors, and what was the biggest challenge in stepping behind the camera while also acting?

The nice thing is we all kind of check each other a little bit. Certainly, the interesting thing [for me] was acting and directing at the same time. … It was kind of weird because Chandresekhar’s done it and we’d make fun of him. In Super Troopers his character’s very grim and really the reason was because he was angry at times about directing and he was fucking pissed off. So when we did Club Dread, the joke was let’s make him a really silly character. … When I did it I didn’t appreciate, I don’t think, what he had to go through. It’s kind of like you’re there, and you’re doing you’re lines [and] at the same time I’m watching you, I’m watching the lights, I’m watching to make sure your shirt’s right. … We’ve worked together so long, the communication’s very [familiar]. It’s like, “Hey Soter, we need you to be drunker.” Actors you haven’t worked with you have to be a little more diplomatic.

Are you playing the straight man here because you’re the director?

I think maybe a little bit. We like to mix it up anyway. Actually, what it comes down to is it’s fun to play the wilder characters. For example, in Beerfest, Erik played a very straight guy and in this he got to be the dick who has the asshole lines and I think he really loved the change, so you’ve got to mix it up a little bit. When we split up the parts I was like, “Maybe I’ll play this part” because also logistically most of my scenes are with Michael, so I could direct the other guys in their restaurant stuff and not have to worry about the acting stuff.

Casting him was such a coup.

He’s awesome. It’s weird because we wrote this thing and you don’t think about somebody’s gotta play that part. It was a whimsical, “What if your boss was Mike Tyson and he owned a restaurant?” That was what it came from, right? So then [we] started writing in Mike Tyson’s voice like, “Hey, how ya doin’ can I get some salmon? My name’s Cleon Salmon.” We’d do that voice and we’d just write these page long scenes of dialogue in that voice. And it’s funny because if you go back and watch the movie again you’ll see that a lot of words begin with S in his dialogue. You write that and you’re like, “That’s really funny” and you come to the realization that somebody’s gotta play that part. For a little while there was debate that Lemme would put a muscle suit on. And then all of a sudden it’s like Saturday Night Live or something. So we needed to go find somebody. There’s a very limited [list] who can be believable as a champ and terrifying, yet lovable, yet comic and [also] do these monologues. Who knows? I don’t know. We got the script to Michael and he hadn’t really done a lot of comedies. He did Talladega Nights and that’s about it. We didn’t know. So Jay emailed [Adam McKay and said], “How’s Michael’s comedy skills” and Adam said, “Don’t worry about it, he’s awesome.” … He came in and he drilled it. He’s prepared and then he would do his lines and improvise and keep going. I was afraid to stop him.

What else, in retrospect, made him right for the part?

He likes to play on people’s perceived fear of him. … He has all these stories about terrifying people and not breaking. We went and talked to a couple networks about this as a TV show and he’s like, “About two minutes into this thing, you’re gonna say something to me, Ima get pissed at you, Ima yell at you and Ima slam the door and walk out.” And you’re like, “I don’t know if that’s the best way to do this thing.” I can’t remember where we were and he did it. I said something to him and he said, “What’d you say to me?” … He stood up, starts yelling at me and then he walked out and slammed the door [so hard the walls shook]. … And the executives were like [terrified]. And you hope he comes back in and he didn’t come back [until] five minutes later he comes in laughing. That’s the way the guy is in real life. It works.

What’s it like to have made two films that are cult hits? How do you feel about the term?

I think it’s great. It’s a weird kind of success. Success in the movie business is opening weekend, it’s so based on that and even in the studio system, Super Troopers has made more money for Fox than most of their movies based on what they paid for it and what they made off it. [Yet] you’re not viewed that way because it’s not theatrical success. So it’s a kind of a weird area we have. But in terms of the relationship to the fans it’s awesome.

I have a friend who says Beerfest is the greatest movie ever made and he’s seen it about 15 times.

Yeah, that’s awesome. Then it can live forever. It’s not like a movie you make a single time. People own it and they want it and they love it. We’re going around and doing these live [comedy] shows and you feel that and you love it. That was the goal of this movie. Whatever the budget was,P let’s try to make a movie that people want to watch multiple times.

The Slammin’ Salmon is in limited release now. For more, visit the homepage of Broken Lizard.