AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2012
By Don Simpson | April 17, 2012
Admittedly, I caught onto the Party Down craze after the show had already been cancelled; but the benefit of being late to the ball was that I could plow through the two seasons via Netflix Instant (back when Starz productions were available on Netflix Instant). Party Down was addictive as crack — not that I have ever done crack — and I was crushed when there were no more new episodes to feed my cravings.
When friends first started recommending Party Down to me, no one ever mentioned Rob Thomas’ name in connection with it. If they had told me that the man behind Veronica Mars was co-creator and executive producer on Party Down, I would have paid attention. The thing is, most of my friends never understood my fascination with Veronica Mars (good thing I never admitted to watching the first couple of seasons of Dawson’s Creek!); they thought Veronica Mars was a television series about a teenage detective written for teenagers. Uh, wrong! Veronica Mars was a television series about a teenage detective written for an audience who was twenty-some years older than the titular character. In other words…ME.
I could go on about the genius of Veronica Mars and Party Down for hours on end, but I should probably proceed directly to my interview with Thomas. Oh, snap! There is one more very important thing I need to tell y’all. On April 18, the Austin Film Festival is hosting a Conversation with Rob Thomas to discuss developing a television pilot and series, using Party Down as a case study. Thomas will then present the first ever public screening of the unaired pilot for Party Down. So, who is ready to party down with Rob Thomas? I am! (Go to the Austin Film Festival website for more information.)
Don Simpson: Where did the idea for Party Down come from?
Rob Thomas: The deep background answer to that is… An ex-girlfriend of mine, who is English, told me that there was a television British series that I needed to start watching. I started to watch it in sort of a “Mikey likes it” mode. It was the British version of The Office. There’s that first scene where Ricky Gervais is hiring a forklift operator, and its just one static three-minute shot of him interviewing this guy. My jaw was on the floor by the end of it. It completely changed how I thought about comedy on television. I never thought of myself as a comedy writer. I actually watch a lot of television comedies, and I respect American comedies, but it is written in a rhythm that I don’t naturally write in. Some people can very effectively do set-ups and punchlines and big jokes, but that has never been my strong suit. I love 30 Rock, but I could never write 30 Rock.
But, while watching The Office, I had this revelation that I was watching the best show of all time. I just started calling my friends over to have that confirmed, to make sure I wasn’t crazy. John Enbom, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd all started coming over each week to watch the show. We would always watch the previous week’s episode as a warm up into the current week’s episode, back when it was originally airing on BBC America. We were just so blown away by it that we started riffing on ideas. Suddenly we wanted to write a comedy. The thought was that The Office is a show about people who have given themselves over to the rat race. They have accepted that they would be very 9-to-5 drudges. We wanted to do the flip-side of that — do a show about people who chase the dream; perhaps chase the dream for too long. That was sort of the beginning of the idea…
I had hosted a number of parties at my house in L.A. and I tended to always hire small catering companies, so I had a familiarity with them. All of them were actors, people who had come out to L.A. and were treading water, waiting for their moment, for their shot.
DS: Was Party Down a way for you to work through your frustrations with Hollywood — I mean, you’ve had some major successes but you have also had several frustrations and set-backs.
RT: [Laughs] I am trying to think of it now… I am sure that there were some shots in there… Jon Enbom actually wrote more of the series than I did. I don’t think Jon or I would naturally agree with Roman (Martin Starr), the writer on the show; but I do feel like Roman has gotten to say some things that we’ve wanted to say. Except, whenever Roman has issues with Hollywood I typically think that Hollywood is right. But, yes, the fact that all of us who were making Party Down had a myriad of failures to go along with our sporadic successes certainly informed the show.
DS: How did you approach casting for Party Down?
RT: Originally, we sold it to HBO and Paul Rudd would have played the Henry role. At the time, Paul was doing Anchorman with Steve Carell, so the plan was to have Paul play Henry and Steve to play Ron Donald. Who knows if it would have survived at HBO. Paul and Steve both became movie stars as we were fooling around, but what really derailed the project is that HBO really hated our outline. It was one of the worst meetings I’ve ever had. I think they bought it because they had a lot of success doing “inside Hollywood” stuff. They thought they were buying another thing that would take place “inside Hollywood”; that the team would be catering Hollywood premieres and in the homes of famous people. When we handed them our outline for a Sherman Oaks neighborhood homeowners’ association annual potluck, it was very far away from what HBO thought they were getting. That meeting opened with one of the HBO executives saying “We all know that outlines aren’t supposed to be funny,” but we all thought that our outline was hilarious. It just wasn’t HBO’s cup of tea…
Then it moved over to FX and we had a great experience there. The development executives were really nice to work with. They really liked the script and they treated us very well, but they didn’t think it blended well with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and they needed something for that slot. So, they let us go…
That script existed for another two to three years… Then, when the last season of Veronica Mars was cut back from 22 to 20 episodes, we suddenly we had a month gap in our schedules and we decided to shoot the pilot in my house.
The casting for the pilot, to a large degree, was people we knew and liked. I met Adam Scott on the same night that I met Paul Rudd, actually. How many years ago? Probably 16 years ago, in a shitty bar on Sixth Street [Austin, Texas]. I just happened to meet them that one night and we remained friends all of these years. Adam had been in Veronica Mars, and I was already a big Adam Scott fan. He and Paul have very similar vibes, very similar senses of humor. Ken Marino had done a bunch of Veronica Mars episodes — he was supposed to be a one-off role in Veronica Mars and we just loved him so much that we kept bringing him back.
Jane Lynch had done one episode of Veronica Mars, but I barely knew her. Paul had done Anchorman with Jane and slipped her the script. It was a miracle that Jane said yes. Everyone got paid $100 per day. The actors all got dressed in my bedroom. Jon, Dan and I co-directed the pilot; and even though Jane started off on a totally different path than we wanted for Constance, none of us would correct her. We were just too in awe of Jane. Finally we worked up our nerve to say, “We want Constance to be sort of soft and daffy.” God, Jane was just so great.
Ryan Hansen was someone whom we loved on Veronica Mars. Paul didn’t know Ryan, so Paul kept suggesting other people. Paul eventually agreed with us, which was great. Andrea Savage, who played Casey in the pilot — when the show was picked up two years later, she was eight months pregnant. For the Roman role, we cast James Jordan (who played Tim Foyle and Lucky in Veronica Mars) — but we had always wanted to work with Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr’s character in Freaks and Geeks) so Martin Starr was always the prototype for that role.
DS: Did you ever have any intentions for the pilot to be broadcast?
RT: No. We knew it could never be broadcast. We had a whole neighborhood Oscars scene in which we used plastic Oscar statues — just that scene alone meant it could never be aired because there is no one more protective of their brand than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We also used music that we didn’t pay for. The actors were not paid for something that would be broadcast. We didn’t clear anything that we used, so we knew that it would just serve as a demo to get the show picked up.
DS: Did you remain involved in the day-to-day production of Party Down?
RT: Not very. I would have loved to! I was having the most miserable year of my career doing Cupid for ABC. It was a crazy, crazy year. It was the year we describe as spinning gold into straw… I got four pilots picked up that year. 90210 was picked up — and who knew that it would be the cash cow?! I’ve never seen an episode of that show but I get paychecks every week. Then, I got two ABC pilots picked up — Cupid and Good Behavior. Then, Party Down too. Jon primary was overseeing the fantastic, critically-acclaimed, wonderful show where the network [Starz] was letting them do their own thing. I was doing the big network show and being crushed…crushed. I would see scripts for and edits of Party Down, but I was not on set. I co-wrote the pilot and then I wrote one episode for the first season. They were having much more fun than I was.
DS: Any updates on the Party Down film?
RT: We’ve been hired to write a script and we’ve had various conflicts in schedules. The script is being written and we are remaining hopeful. That’s all I can say…