Not arriving in theaters, but instead now on digital, DVD and On Demand is the comedy/murder-mystery Most Likely To Murder from director/co-writer Dan Gregor. Gregor is probably best known for his writing and producing credits on “How I Met Your Mother” and the current “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which stars Gregor’s real-life wife Rachel Bloom. Bloom co-stars in Most Likely To Murder alongside Adam Pally and Vincent Kartheiser.
Gregor and his regular writing partner Doug Mand have crafted a Thanksgiving story of a about a former high-school big shot (Pally) who returns to his hometown for the first time in many years, thinking the world is his oyster and that all of his old buddies are going to be thrilled to see him. In fact, they all have families and kids of their own and have little time for him, including his ex-girlfriend (Bloom), who is now dating the one-time class outcast (Kartheiser). Naturally, Pally sets his sights on breaking them up, which seems all the more feasible when he believes he witnesses through a window Kartheiser’s character killing his own mother.
Since Pally’s character is something of a douche, not even the police believe him, and he sets out to prove that he’s right while also attempting to figure out where his life went wrong after high school. Pally is a comic actor who has appeared in such TV series as “Happy Endings,” “The Mindy Project,” and “Making History,” as well as in films like Iron Man 3, The Little Hours, Dirty Grandpa, Night Owls, and Band Aid.
Not long after the movie debuted at the SXSW Film Festival last month, I had a chance to sit down with Gregor and Pally in Chicago to talk about the movie’s genesis, its inspirations, and who among the creative team is responsible for the film’s numerous Ace Ventura references.
(I should also mention that Pally and I did talk a bit about his recent appearance as a less-than-enthusiastic presenter at The Shorty Awards, which honors social media monetization and the brands that do it best. Seek the clip out; it’s one of the most honest and hilarious take downs of award shows I’ve ever seen.)
Please enjoy my talk with Dan Gregor and Adam Pally…
I know you wrote this with you usual writing partner, Doug Mand. Where did this silliness begin?
Dan Gregor: We really were obsessed with that weekend of Thanksgiving, especially that night before Thanksgiving. To us, that always felt like a very particular moment in time that everyone could relate to and has this visceral feeling about it. You go home, you go to that bar near your old high school, and you see all the old people—there’s so much judgement—we’re calling it Facebook before Facebook. “That person got old. That person’s pregnant. That’s person’s fat now.” That whole weekend felt like a microcosm of that feeling of wanting to hold onto the past and being unable to. We wanted to tell a story about that but it felt important to us for it to feel very active and make some real stakes to that emotion. So, what better way to do that than to make it a murder mystery?
Well, there probably are better ways, but this is certainly the most unusual approach.
DG: Exactly. That’s why we took that feeling when you feel yourself aging, losing track of who you used to be. It is a mortal fear when you’re living it internally, so we asked ourselves “How do you make that internal fear an external fear?” So we said, “Let’s make this something that is literally a mortal danger about proving that the past is something that doesn’t change versus maybe it does.
One of the most relatable things about the film is the eternal search for a working VCR. And it turns out, a great deal hinges on finding one.
DG: “I have all of these tapes, and they’re useless.” Very oversharing: that part of the story came from when I was 12 or 13, I had a TV in my bedroom that had scrambled, late-night Skin-emax.
I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.
DG: I’m sure. I would stay up until all hours watching this this scrambled TV trying to make out body parts. And when I thought I could perceive sex, I would sprint to the family room where we had the one actual cable box and throw in this VHS tape and try to record it. And I would end up recording, basically, the last five seconds of multiple sex scenes and I created quite the montage of the ends of sex scenes through that. That VHS tape was priceless to me.
Adam Pally: Boys are so dumb.
DG: And so gross. Eventually, I dumped it in the back of my closet, but as an adult, I found the tape, and all of these memories came rushing back, and I said, “I’ve got to go watch this tape. I can’t believe this exits still.” Then of course, I couldn’t because it was impossible to find a VHS player.
This idea of being a guy that piqued in high school, going out into the world to conquer it but coming back defeated, we’ve seen versions of this before. Is that something either of you could relate to, or did you know people like that?
AP: For me, we’re all like that a little bit. High school is this bubble where you’re mentally conceived in a lot of ways—this is the type of person I am and the type of person I’m going to be. Then you go off, and everyone discovers that they’re a different type of person. You become an amalgamation of the high school version of you. That’s how you grow and change and evolve, and this guy never did. It was easy to zero in on that and say, “If you never change, what else is going on with this guy?” And how does that influence how he walks and talks? That was my way in.
DG: My writing partner and I have the benefit of knowing Adam since he was 19, so we’ve gotten to experience Adam at pique confidence [laughs].
I’m not even sure I could identify where it happens in the film, but we do start to feel for him a little bit and stop despising him. The more honest he is, the sadder he becomes. Was his progression something you had to measure as you shot things out of order?
AP: We always wanted him to be sympathetic, because that’s what keeps you watching. Anytime you have a character doing things that may not be morally acceptable, there needs to be a reason you like him too.
DG: We had to keep tinkering and balancing in the edit at every stage. It was like, we’re going to put one brick in the wall of “This guys’ the worst,” then put one brick in the wall of “I sympathize with this guy. I get where he’s coming from, and maybe he’s right—this is something scary and bad that’s happening.” It was super important to us to have that balance be in the middle.
AP: “Maybe he’s right [about the murder]” is the thing we made sure was there throughout the entire movie. Because if you ever for a second think that he’s definitely wrong, then you stop watching. But it’s there throughout that he could be right, and you want to see how that plays out.
DG: When we started writing the movie, we thought that Lowell had to be played by a comedian, because that’s where we come from and those are our friends. But once we started casting the movie, it became very clear that if you wanted the audience to not completely shut out Adam and think he’s the worst because you’re watching, like Bobby Moynihan be a murderer…
AP: No offense!
DG: No offense. But nobody’s going to buy it.
They come with baggage.
DG: Exactly. And Bobby Moynihan is the funniest person in the world, but there’s not a part of you that’s worried about him.
That’s what’s great about Vincent—outside of “Mad Men,” he doesn’t come with a lot of baggage, so you don’t know what to expect from him. That being said, I assumed for most of the film that Adam was the most unreliable witness to whatever he thought he saw. But the twist that actually happens, I did not see coming.
DG: That was our goal: to keep the audience guessing. Obviously, we’re very aware of the tropes of these movies, so it was important for us to stay ahead of those tropes.
When you conceived of this murder-mystery idea, why did you think that was the direction to go in?
DG: We knew from the conception that we needed to find a way to humanize the Lowell character. We didn’t want to have him be a pure villain and archly scary. It comes from the genesis of the heart of the movie, which is going back and seeing the relationships you had with people when you were younger, everyone was more complicated and had more humanity than you give them credit for, especially the kids who were picked on. As adults, we can hopefully look at people as more fully-formed humans. That was a big part of it, finding a way to humanize him without letting him off the hook.
There are these little jokes that you throw in that have nothing to do with anything, like the fact that Adam can’t think of the word “investigation” for some reason. Who amongst you has the Ace Ventura obsession?
AP: All of us. Those first three Jim Carrey movies…first four…
Are you including The Mask in this?
AP: Yeah. I always forget it, but I will include it. Those first four Jim Carrey movies…nope, I’m going to five, because his Batman [Forever] villain was hilarious [laughs]. That’s Joel Schumacher’s mess of a Blue Man Group production. But comedically, those first five movies are some of my favorites. They’re outlandish, but they are so inherently funny. There’s something unabashed about that, and I feel like we don’t get to do that much anymore. Everybody is consistently worried about, who’s it going to play for? Is it cool?
Ace Ventura was so uncool; that’s fundamentally the joke. I feel like you’re not allowed to do that anymore; everything has to appeal to everybody. And when you’re appealing to everyone, you’re appealing to no one. It was fun [that my character] got to wear Zumba pants. It reminded me of Ace Ventura and Billy Madison—this unabashed comedic movies that I love.
DG: That was the biggest get, when our production designer told us we’d gotten the rights to use the [Ace Ventura] poster.
Those movies wouldn’t play today because people would dismiss them. Those films are almost made for kids, for naughty kids.
AP: That’s a great way to put it.
DG: They’re for bad boys.
AP: And we’re the bad boys who grew up, and this is the movie that we made.
DG: They’re for the kids who had the “No Farting” poster on their bedroom door.
AP: That was me.
Speaking of naughty, Rachel has some of the most vulgar lines in the movie, which I’m guessing is something she can’t do on TV.
DG: No, it was fun for her.
Did you deliberately give her those lines for her so she could cut loose and say them without fear of network censors?
DG: Yeah, that was the joy of it. In the best way, Rachel is not the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” character of Rebecca Bunch. Rachel is a brilliantly talented actress, capable of many things, and this was something exciting for her to do, playing something that is not that character. She describes the Kara character in this movie as the “Crazy Ex-“ character five years in the future. Once she’s figured out how manic and dysfunctional her life is, she’s actually piecing together a much better life.
Speaking of talented actresses, in going through your credits, Adam, you have really great track record of working alongside some wonderful actresses and creative people for your whole career. Is that something you set out to do deliberately?
AP: I’m very fortunate to be able to work as much as I have been, and luckily, I enjoy working with women a great deal, probably more. I grew up in a household with two sisters and a very strong mother. In fact, Band Aid was one of the greatest working experiences of my whole life because the entire crew was women. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best, funniest women around. When I think of the comedy show you could put up with the leading ladies that I’ve had, it would be amazing. They’re the funniest people on the planet…except Jenny Slate—she’s a little stinker. [Everybody laughs] I’m kidding, I love Jenny.
I feel like there’s a bit of a cautionary tale going on in this film, about coming home and the trappings of that especially if you were popular in high school. Did anything like this happen to either of you?
AP: I’m dealing with it a little right now, actually, because I just moved back to New York. I romanticized it so much and thought it would be the prodigal son returning home. And when I got there, the city had changed, I didn’t have any friends there, it was freezing, I was getting arrested [laughs]. It was an onslaught of the worst parts of New York hitting you in the face, and then you slowly have to humble yourself and realize you’re just a cog in the New York City working machine. So I dealt with that a little last year, when I thought it would be this grand return. Maybe they’d put my face up during the Knicks game all the time, and then you realize there are like a million Jews that look like me.
DG: More here than Israel [laughs]. Yeah, I went to a very small, private school growing up through eighth grade. I was a bit of a bully, not nice to kids. I was the hot shit on campus. I didn’t know any better. Then I left and went to a big public school in ninth grade, and overnight I got picked on, I was eating lunch alone in the bathroom, I was getting made fun of. And there was a realization of “Oh my god, was I making people feel like this? I don’t to ever want to let myself be that bad person again.” That’s the cautionary tale for me.
We haven’t even brought up the Rear Window aspect of this story.
AP: Dan calls it Disturbia influence.
DG: I’m pretty sure that’s where Hitchcock got the idea from. We 100 percent ripped it off. Hitchcock is the master. When we jumped into trying to write an homage to the mystery-noir world, we’d gone hard into Hitchcock and watched everything. Rear Window was it, but Manhattan Murder Mystery was also an important one. So we began to look at ours as the comedy version of that idea. That was the biggest challenge and the most fun—how do you include the tropes of a mystery but keep it comedic.
The ending is very unusual—and let’s talk about it without talking about it. It does not tie everything up. Not everyone comes out where we think they will. What was the thinking there?
DG: I feel very passionate about those things, but I don’t want to spoil them. One of the things that infuriates me about movies period is the way that the heroes who often start as these flawed characters and are generally jerks and have issues, by whatever the process of the movies is, they end up redeeming themselves to everyone. That to me is such nonsense. The action of the movie takes place over a couple of days, and they did one good thing in their whole goddamn lives, and all of the sudden, every relationship you have is fixed? It’s nonsense. It was really important for us to have a character arc where there is growth and change, but not have it change in such a way that felt false.
AP: And that’s reflected with the whole package of the movie and the way it’s being distributed and the way the studio dealt with us. We knew we were putting it directly in front of people’s eyes. You are digitally getting this movie, and we wanted people to sit on their couch with their friends and see it, so we were able to say “Maybe the ending of the movie should be questionable.” You want people to think about it. We didn’t have to think about return ticket sales; we were able to only think about getting it to people directly. That was really freeing.
DG: We’ve done things like this for TV. My writing partner and I have done enough projects for studios to know that the first note you get is “Let’s have a happy ending.” And it’s very hard to fight that; it invariably worms it’s way into every writing process with a studio. But this was not the case with this film, and we’re super thankful.
AP: There aren’t any rules anymore about what a movie can be. We were able to create a nice world of cool, funny characters. There’s no reason we couldn’t do 12 episodes of this over two years for some network. And because we chose to end it the way we did, you would know what that looked like. That is of interest to me, and that new paradigm and the new way everything is made would make it easier to do another investigation, and we can because these are the same people and this is the way we chose to end it.
I wanted to ask you about The Shorty Awards, which I was obsessively watching until they took it down. I have to ask, what happened there?
AP: Nothing, I was just having fun. I knew what I signed up for, and I was being funny. They were like, “Go be funny,” and that’s what I did. I was reading the room, heightening my bits and being funny.
I loved that at one point you declared that you were killing. That’s a bold move by any comic. And you were.
AP: I was [laughs]. It was just me goofing around.
The way it’s being written up is that you had some sort of career meltdown, which it not how it seemed to me.
AP: I would say that those who know me, know that’s me. That’s how I joke around. I was just doing a bit. As a comic, you have a personality. I saw an opportunity to do what I do, and I took it. I had no motive or meltdown about branding; I was just goofing around. I had a bunch of friends at a table, and they were all laughing.
DG: I didn’t know what was happening, but I was cracking up.
Thank you both so much.