Pablo Briganti describes the first week of filming “Please Do Not Destroy: Misty Mountain Treasure” as “a miserable nightmare.”
The film, which follows “Saturday Night Live” comedy trio John Higgins, Ben Marshall and Martin Herlihy on their search for hidden treasure, was filmed primarily in North Carolina state parks in the sweltering summer.
“There were ticks and snakes, it was over 100 degrees and very humid. He cried a lot,” says Briganti, who joined “SNL” as director in 2016. Variety. in a scene, the guys from Please Don’t Destroy are chased by a hawk while crossing rocks. But there was a more pressing danger on set: “No one realized that the entire lot was full of underground wasp nests.”
Still, Briganti wouldn’t have made the buddy comedy, produced by Judd Apatow and now streaming on Peacock, otherwise.
“There’s something about filming the elements that gets you in the mindset and pushes you,” he says. “Especially now, it feels like people are putting in things that are clearly filmed on a soundstage because it feels a little dead.”
Briganti called Variety to discuss the film’s most absurd moments, Conan O’Brien’s direction, and why theatrical comedy films could soon be experiencing a “new boom.”
The movie was written by the guys from Please Don’t Destroy, who obviously also star in it. How much room did you leave yourselves to improvise?
There was a lot of that, especially if you ask the handheld camera operators. Lots of long takes. The best thing about working with the guys from Please Don’t Destroy is that they know each other so well and they have this kind of magic when they’re together. They improvised a lot when it was just the three of them and found different paths. Obviously, when you film, you have to film the coverage. So we would shoot a wide shot and they would improvise and we would keep it deliberately long. We had a transcriber there to take notes while they improvised things, and we would include that in later coverage. When we did the last close-up, it was like an hour-long take, with reactions to everything.
Is it true that this is Conan O’Brien’s first film role in which he plays a character other than himself?
Yeah! He’s been in a lot of things as himself. I think it was the kind of thing that no one had thought of before. We were the first to ask him why he hadn’t played a character and he said, “I don’t know!” He was excited to do it and had a really special presence on set.
What was it like directing a comedy legend, especially considering you hadn’t done this kind of thing before?
He was very aware that he was new to this in a way that made him feel very humble. He wasn’t trying to bother me or the boys at all. He rather said, “How can we make this the best it can be? How can I do the best job for you? At that point I had already been on “SNL” for a while, so I don’t really feel intimidated by directing famous people, but he is on a different level: he is so accomplished, revered and intelligent that I had to be on my game and Don’t waste your time. But no one tells you that except yourself. No one was trying to get him out of there, he was wandering around. What I love about him is that he is very dry and sarcastic. He will tease you as a way to show that he loves you, toeing the line of being honest but funny and sweet. If the boompole appeared in the shot by accident, he’d be like, “I’m leaving, this is bullshit.” It makes everything so much more fun.
How much did you rely on audiences being familiar with Please Don’t Destroy and its “SNL” humor and dynamics, versus needing to develop their characters from the ground up?
I think it’s a better approach to assume that people don’t know who they are, really, for any movie. You’re making a story and the characters live alone. We had a table read for the script in February or March and it went very well, but there was a problem with the first act where we went into it too quickly. It originally started with them when they were kids and then moved on to Martin being baptized and John and Ben being angry that his friend is changing. We realized that we assumed people were too familiar with their dynamics and we wanted to show them. (So we added) that first sequence, which shows the audience their world and their perspective, which is: if things go wrong, they can always find a way to make it funny. And in real life, that’s how they are.
How did you shoot the wingsuit scenes?
The first one was half location and half blue screen, which is a trick I learned somewhere. The last one was all on a soundstage because it was at night and on top of a mountain, which made it impossible to actually film. That was our only day at Marvel: we had them on wires flying and the wind blowing in their faces. In fact, I think the outdoor stuff was less difficult for them than the blue screen stuff, because it takes forever to get there and they’re just hanging on wires.
Many Marvel actors have similarly spoken about how acting in front of green screens is quite difficult because you can’t imagine anything around you.
I would like to believe that there is a subconscious element that you are in a strange space. When you see someone in that world, there is a mental disconnection. That’s why Tom Cruise tries to commit suicide all the time. There’s an extra element of “shit” to watching someone do something. So, we tried to do that as much as possible. Ben was actually positioned 30 feet above the ground in 100 degree weather when he flew. Judd Apatow told us from the beginning: “That’s why I love making movies that have never been made before, because they don’t know what they don’t know. “They are not tired.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be fed up. I really liked the difficulty.
What was Judd’s involvement like? Was there any other advice he gave you as someone who’s made comedy films for three decades?
He was involved before me. The Please Don’t Destroy guys wrote the first draft of the script before “SNL,” and Judd agreed to work as a producer before they were hired at “SNL.” Judd was very involved throughout the writing. He is not intimidating, his presence is very disarming. This movie came together very quickly and I thought, “I don’t know how this is going to work.” Fear and anxiety took over him. And I asked Judd if any other movie he’d produced felt like that, and he said “Anchorman,” which surprised me: It’s a huge movie and it was very successful. But Judd said he didn’t know how it would turn out. The script was all over the place and Will (Ferrell) and Adam (McKay) were still untested. There was a Judd story for every stage of this movie and he gave me perspective.
The “misty mountain” was originally scheduled to be released in theaters and then NBCUniversal moved it to Peacock. How important was it for you to bring this film to the big screen? Is it frustrating in today’s industry to have very little control over how studios distribute your film?
Ultimately, for me, it all comes down to reach and how many people see what I worked so hard on. Peacock is doing some interesting things with comedy – they’re slowly building this corner of edgy, interesting and original comedy. There’s Rian Johnson’s “Poker Face,” the Pete Davidson show, “MacGruber,” all of Lorne’s (Michaels) stuff. They are making very interesting and strong changes, and I think people are starting to realize it now. Hopefully the movie fits into that corner. I think our film would have an audience anywhere because I really believe in it. But in terms of the streamer, I’m very excited about Peacock and the things they’re doing that no one else is doing.
It is interesting to contextualize this film within Judd’s filmography. There used to be a very strong theatrical market for R-rated comedy. And Judd’s most recent film, “The Bubble,” also came straight to Netflix. Why do you think there’s not necessarily a strong desire for these films to be shown in theaters anymore?
I think about this a lot. It’s a long cycle, right? What happened to comedies is what people say is happening to Marvel right now. There was a big explosion of theatrical comedy movies in the early 2000s: “Anchorman,” “Bridesmaids,” “Zoolander,” “Superbad,” “Meet the Parents,” huge, huge movies. When a big explosion happens in entertainment, over the next 10 to 15 years the same type of thing is produced, but it slowly becomes more commercialized and commoditized. The quality starts to go down because naturally you can’t maintain it. The public gets bored and moves elsewhere. But what you’re seeing now is people coming out of the cave or seeing the sun again, with new, interesting and unique comedies that have a perspective. They don’t come from a studio head or an actor who wants to make a comedy: there’s blood pumping in them. You look at “Bottoms,” which did well theatrically and is doing very well on demand; “Dicks: The Musical,” the first A24 comedy my wife produced, full disclosure; and our movie too. People are starting to get interested in comedy movies again. I think we’re on the verge of a new boom for that kind of thing.
Soulja Boy’s dance is one of the funniest moments in the movie. How did that come to be part of the film?
They didn’t plan to do the dance until the morning of. I think it was John who was really enthusiastic about dancing and taught the other kids. You can tell that he is clearly the best. I don’t think he cares, I’m telling you this, but when he was like 10 he won a Soulja Boy dance contest, which is crazy. Another musical track that comes to mind is the Franz Ferdinand song. We had to write a letter to Franz Ferdinand because at first they refused or didn’t let us use it. They thought we were making fun of it, so we had to write them a very heartfelt letter like, “We love your song, it’s about friendship and this and that.” So they agreed to that.
Is the goal to continue making Please Don’t Destroy movies? The format seems ripe for sequels.
Yes, like Ernest’s movies. Ernest is our north star! We have a lot of additional ideas and we’ve talked to Judd about it and all that. That is hope, and I hope hope becomes reality.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.