Interview: The “Human Nature” of Patton Oswalt, Todd Rohal and Rob Riggle
by Luke Y. Thompson on November 8, 2012
Patton Oswalt is a Boy Scout. Really. In the new movie Nature Calls, at least. As a troop leader looking to take his senile dad on one last camping trip – along with a group of kids who think they’re too jaded for this sort of thing – he finds himself at odds with older brother Johnny Knoxville and his rowdy pal Rob Riggle. In this new movie directed by Todd Rohal (The Catechism Cataclysm), the cast may be populated with comics – Darrell Hammond and the late Patrice O’ Neal also appear – but the humor gets periodically quite dark. When you’re in a room talking to Oswalt, Rohal and Riggle all at once, however, it’s a lively affair to say the least. Here’s our “scouting” report:
Nerdist: Okay, so, obvious question first. Were any of you guys actual Boy Scouts?
Patton Oswalt: I was very briefly a Boy Scout; I wanted to be, it wasn’t for me, so I stopped. You [pointing at Riggle]!
Rob Riggle: I was a Cub Scout: made it to Webelos – the bridge between Cub Scout and Boy Scout; it’s a little tiny phase – and then… I had to make a choice, because my parents were like, “You’re gonna play sports or you’re gonna be a Scout – you can’t do both.” So I stopped at being a Cub Scout.
PO: So you had your wolf and bear.
RR: Bobcat, wolf and bear.
PO: I had bobcat. Wolf was the first one you get, right?
RR: Bobcat’s first.
PO: So I had bobcat and wolf, and then when I was doing bear badge I just realized, I don’t wanna learn about American folklore. I just kinda stopped, so that’s all I had.
RR: I can tie my shoes; I don’t need to know all those knots. I got enough.
Todd Rohal: Yeah, I was late coming to it. When these guys had figured it out, I joined up late. I was in there for a few years until it got dirty, with, like, what this story’s based on, ’till we started fighting with these adults.
N: It seems like the stereotype of Scouts that’s out there is that they’re very traditional, rigid and conservative. Was there a concerted effort to undermine that and say, “No, it’s actually kinda weird”?
TR: Our Scout Leader was a fix-it man, so he did it professionally in Columbus, Ohio, if that say anything. I don’t think any fix-it man has ever been called conservative. He drove a dirty van, he fit the profile of “Do not leave your children with…”
PO: Potential serial killer.
TR: And yeah, he was the one that pulled this first-aid test where they faked the death of a Scout Master to us and we thought it was real. That’s where this whole thing was sparked from. It was from a guy that was a total fuck-up.
N: So that part was real. Were the other scenes drawn from reality as well?
TR: That was the basis of it, yeah, and so we riffed on that, and had little things come from other places, but that was the genesis of the idea.
N: I wouldn’t normally ask this, but given the actor in question… Did Johnny Knoxville actually set himself on fire?
TR: He couldn’t! He’s got so many… I don’t think there’s an insurance company in the world that’ll let him anywhere near a flame that’s bigger than a butane lighter.
RR: He wanted to.
PO: He was game to do anything, but they were like, NOPE, that’s done. Not doing that any more.
N: Let me ask all of you about the tone, because there’s some broad comedy, some drama, some dark stuff, and that feels a lot more like real life, but it also feels like it might have been something more difficult to market. How tricky was it to maintain that balance?
TR: Well, when I’m writing a movie, I don’t think about the marketing plan that’s gonna be coming down the pipe, certainly. That’s for everybody else, all 55 producers working on the movie can talk about marketing plans forever. But I think what’s interesting in movies is when you have tones that can go for something that’s really funny, or really dark, or a weird messed-up image… like [SPOILER WARNING] having Johnny Knoxville show up on a cross was a big accomplishment for me, just to put that in a movie, and have a guy who gets crucified but that’s a happy ending. Like if we can pull that off in a movie, that’s what I wanna shoot for. [END SPOILER] Something that’s messed up, something that’s funny, something that’s strange and tonally different.
N: And for you guys playing the characters, how tricky was the tonal balance, or was it at all?
PO: It was more scene for scene with us, and the tonal balance, that’s up to the director and the editor later. you just try to be true to each scene, as true as you can. It’s like a director thinking about marketing; if I’m thinking, “What’s the tone?” – you’re gonna see that in my performance and it’ll mess up the performance. I just went with each scene and how it had to be.
N: In terms of playing it broadly comedic versus more serious, would you approach it the same way?
PO: Ahhh…I just try to make every role human. I mean, I don’t think anyone in this movie was even being all that broad. I’ve seen people like Rob’s character. I’ve seen people like Johnny Knoxville’s character. Those didn’t seem all that broad to me; I’ve seen those extremes. You always look for the antics, but humanity lives in those extremes. That’s there.
N: We’ve seen, certainly, in your recent movies – Young Adult was one of our favorite movies of last year; we gave it the “Golden Geek” award for best geek actor…
PO: I was never sent a statue. [Rohal and Riggle applaud]
N: It’s like the Marvel No-Prize, I think.
PO: [laughs loudly, knowingly] The No-Prize. Wow!
N: You seem really comfortable in these movies that mix drama and comedy. Are you looking to transition into full-fledged drama, or is this a good comfort zone for you?
PO: I’m always looking to do whatever is really, really good. And “good and interesting,” is, I think, outside of genre. It can be drama, it can be science fiction, it can be animated. I just read the script and if there’s something there that I haven’t seen somewhere before or if it harkens back to something that I’m into, I think that’s what I wanna do. So in other words, I’m never going, “Okay, I’ve done two dramas, so I should probably do three comedies and then….” I think that’s a really artificial way to proceed in your career and it makes you ignore a lot of what could be really great stuff. What if the next ten movies I do just happen to be these ten horror movie scripts that are the best-written, best character – and I would do them. And I wouldn’t go, “I’m a horror-movie actor!”, I’d just be like, those are the best scripts I was given. I’m gonna go with this.
N: Rob, same question – we mostly see you in comedies. Are you looking to branch out into other genres?
RR: I’m kinda the same thing as Patton. As described, I would love to work on things that excite me, whatever form that takes. And if it takes drama, comedy, horror films, whatever it is, if it’s something that turns me on, something I find unique and interesting, I’d love a shot at it. And then you asked a question earlier with regard to this character for this movie: it was pretty broad, in one sense. But like Patton said, I’ve met people in my life who are like this guy and whenever I run into these people, I study them and I try to remember them so that later on I can do things like I do in this movie.
PO: To anyone who thinks Rob is being too broad, all I can say is go on YouTube. Spend five minutes, and you’ll be saying that was actually subtle compared to some of the people that are out there.
PO: Ohh! Exactly.
TR: Winnebago Man.
RR: I saw the clips of that guy. That was gold. That was really gold.
N: You mentioned earlier the restrictions on Johnny Knoxville. Are there also restrictions working with kids on an R-rated movie like this, like people telling you not to swear on set and stuff?
TR: No, they were, “Just go for it.” This is my advice to filmmakers: if you want to cuss in front of little kids, get into movies.
PO: That’s why most people get into movies. It’s a weird high. It’s a really cool high.
RR: Of a very specific nature.
TR: There were a lot of discussions before with parents, that cover everything you’re gonna do and they read the script so there’s no surprises. But otherwise, yeah, it was really like those kids were psyched every time.
RR: They loved it.
PO: And those scenes were funny, and the parents liked seeing their kids get to do something funny, so you just work out. It was great.
N: Was it hard getting this great cast together, or was it just as easy as getting the script around?
TR: Patton was the first one we wanted, and Riggle was next, so it was just like, let’s go do this. In that case it’s easy, but it’s not easy to put a movie together.
RR: I liked Todd’s passion for it. I was shooting something, and I got done at midnight. And that’s when he went, “Okay, so I’m ready to meet.” So we went and met, like, at midnight at a Mexican restaurant, had nachos and beer and talked about the thing, and just hearing him talk about it passionately, and the fact that he was ready to meet at midnight was like oh, well this guy’s dedicated to this movie and he’s passionate about it. I dig that. That’s what makes me want to get involved.
TR: You know the funny thing – I talked to his wife about this – was that in the movie Patrice has one outfit, and every time he was on set, he showed up in that outfit. So I know Patrice as that guy who sat and did stand-up for two and a half hours with me on the couch when we talked about the role; one of the funniest personal performances I’ve ever had – I said three things in that entire time. Then he was on set in this outfit, and he left on the last day, shot the last thing with you two, and you guys got in the car and drove off, and that’s the last time I saw Patrice. Then I get in the editing room and I’m watching him every day in that same outfit, and the news came in as things were happening with him, but he’s still right there and it’s just as real. I mean, it was a really surreal thing; I couldn’t disconnect from, “this is the guy I know, and he’s on the screen,” and there’s this other person who’s out there going through this struggle that has a separate life, or is a separate being, and it’s a really strange thing to just know someone as a role. And that’s my relationship with him, and it’s funny to miss somebody as that role just to know him as that, but it was his heart. When I got the call about him I was working on a scene near the end and it was a weird moment. But then you get to hear all these stories about what happened on set; we were just talking about some in here.
RR: When you put me in the car that night, when we said goodbye to you on the last day of shooting, Patrice and I spent an hour rolling back to the city, same routine as always – he talks, I listen, hilarious – then we went back to town and had dinner, because it was the end of the movie, wrap. Had a great night. Really just talked, very, I don’t want to say intimately, but we had just a wonderful conversation, it was so enjoyable. And that was the last time I ever saw him. And it was really sad, because he had just done the Charlie Sheen roast and was kinda on a high from that, just feeling good, and I was happy to see him feeling good. It was sad.
PO: It’s not difficult for me to watch him in this movie because he’s working and he’s having fun – he was funny on the set. What’s difficult for me, like when any comedian dies, Greg Giraldo or Mitch Hedberg, is that this guy’s not gonna be around to comment on THIS… the crazier our world gets, “Oh, so they’re not going to be around to talk about this?” That sucks. That’s what sucks for me.
N: Real quick – Pixar’s been making a lot of sequels lately. Are they talking Ratatouille 2?
PO: I will be the last to know. If that happens, I’ll be the last person they tell. But Brad Bird is very anti-sequel, so we’ll see.
Nature Calls opens Friday in theaters. If you enjoyed this article, consider signing up for Nerdist News to get more like it first thing every weekday morning.