David Wain and Ken Marino have been working together for over fifteen years, and it shows. Interviewed together, the two play off each other both for their own entertainment and for the sake of the poor journalists assigned to pick their brains. Wain may respond to a question with a perfect deadpan that cracks up the room, but Marino: will follow up with an actual answer—just as funny, as course. The two co-wrote The Ten, a feature film consisting of ten shorts, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. Among the highlights, which are also important for understanding this interview: a man becomes a celebrity after becoming wedged in the ground during a skydiving accident, causing his distraught fiancee to leave him, take up with a news anchor, then eventually leave the anchor for a ventriloquist’s dummy. Two neighbors try to one-up each other by buying dozens of CAT scan machines. A doctor goes to jail for killing a patient—but, as he insists, “it was a goof!” A white woman explains to her black sons that their real father is, in fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger—and hires an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator to give them a feel for their real father. A man ditches church each Sunday to hang out in his house, naked, with dozens of other naked men, all dancing to Roberta Flack. And of course, at the end, all the characters of the film sing onstage together, while wearing sparkly costumes.
Did you ever think of adding new commandments?
Wain: No. we looked! We could not find any more commandments. We wanted to do an encore.
Can you think of any we need to add?
Wain: Someone suggested thou shalt not masturbate, and I quashed that one.
What’s your favorite commandment?
Wain: Thou shalt eat enough fiber and get enough sleep. And you know what happens? You feel better.
When you guys were working out these routines, each of these segments. Did you ever know when you were going to end?
Marino: In the earlier drafts, we would go on longer and longer with these weird tangents.
Wain: At Sundance we had an extender at the end of the first piece, going into the lives of the anchormen that were covering Adam Brody's character. We also figured, for example, in the prison one when Michael Ian Black does a soliloquy saying "All's well that ends well," we figured that was a good place to end.
Can you talk about the germ of these ideas?
Marino: All the stories are from the Bible. We just kind of modernized them.
Wain: We did a modern interpretation of the Ten Commandments. The titles com from the Bible, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’
Marino: We didn't make that up.
Wain: So when a doctor kills his patients as a goof, that's what we think of when you say ‘Thou shalt not murder.’
Marino: What everybody thinks of.
Wain: And "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's stuff": CAT scan machines. That's a real story, because I used to hoard CAT scan machines in my house. I had like 20 scattered around.
How did you decide which characters would carry over from scene to scene?
Wain: Basically to every actor we said "What days can you come?" and you'll be in those stories.
Marino: After we finished writing each of the pieces, we tried to figure out through lines for characters and how you can place them in other stories to intertwine the stories and make the movie a little more cohesive. Steven Motgomery got stuck in the ground, and we realized that could be Winona's character, and we realized she could be this fragile woman who goes through all these relationships and ends up with a dummy.
Were the commandments the idea for each vignette, or did you have ideas that then you applied to the commandments?
Wain: Mostly the commandment would spur the idea.
Marino: David and I have been writing together since we were writing on ‘The State’ together, and lots of times back then we would do these writing exercises where you write the title of a sketch and put it in a hat and someone would have to write a skit with that title. We basically used the Ten Commandments for the same purpose. We'd come up with five different pieces and we'd pick the one we thought was the funniest and we thought would work the best.
Did you have specific actors in mind to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator?
Wain: The mother in that sketch, that was the one character in the movie we wrote for a specific actor, and that was for Kerri Kenney-silver, who plays the part. All the rest of the characters, we had the finished script and we went to actors that we loved and said “Will you do this?’ and a shockingly high percentage of them said yes.
How does your cresative process work between the two fo you?
Wain: I do mostly the story and the dialogue and the jokes.
Marino: And I do most of the cooking. I'm not great at the cleaning, mostly the cooking.
Wain: His peanut butter and jelly is amazing
What's it like working on a sketch comedy movie rather than a more narrative movie like Wet Hot American Summer?
Wain: Obviously it was like doing 10 different movies. Each one had a different style to it. In some ways it was 10 times the work. For each one we had a different set of locations, different set of actors. It was a lot of work. We shot it in the same number of days as Wet Hot American Summer. Wet Hot was one location--this was over 40 locations.
Are there any jokes or storylines that you thought about including but thought it was just too far?
Wain: I don't think there was anything we thought was too far. There was stuff we cut because it wasn't funny or too expensive or too long.
Marino: Our guiding point at all points in our career has been, it's not too far if it's funny.
What it always the idea to have the Paul Rudd narrative connecting it all?
Marino: We connected it more and more as we went along. Believe it or not, it was more absurd and kind of pointless. Now it's like mediumly-absurd. He wasn't a commandment, he literally was just there to throw to each one. For budgetary reasons we cut one piece out and made adultery his story line, and we found out that would bring the whole movie together. I really like how at the end he breaks out of the black void.
Did you know that Paul Rudd would be playing a similar role in Knocked Up?
Wain: We weren't really familiar with Knocked Up. He was shooting it at the same time we shot The Ten. When Jessica Alba came on the only time we could shoot was three weeks before we were supposed to start. Just a few of us flew out to L.A. and shot with Jessica Alba as she was on her way to shoot The Fantastic Four.
Marino: He was supposed to play a different part in the movie, but as producer he realized the importance of shooting the scenes with Jessica, so he switched parts.
Did you think about the meta-comedy of things like Gretchen Mol going from Bettie Page to virginal librarian, or obviously Winona Ryder as a kleptomaniac?
Wain: All of it's coincidental, but because we cast high-profile actors it's fun to make those connections. I mean, don't forget, Ken Marino was in… something. He had a line in Gattaca..
Did you have a vast debate on who would be included in your “get naked” scene?
Wain: It was surprising how many did. A lot of those guys are our investors. It was important to us creatively that a lot of these guys weren't worked-out buff guys, that wasn't the point. Our investors and producers really fit in with that.
How much were you guys worried about marketing this and what mainstream distribution it would get?
Wain: Look it's show-business, right? This was designed to be a moneymaker.
Will it be one of those crossover things? Or will it be too niche or too edgy?
Marino: I don't know if we can predict that. We wanted to make a movie that we thought was funny, that was different that was fresh, so we tried to do that.
Wain: It's hard to write something if you're writing it with that in mind. We really just tried to please ourselves.
So you're not counting on this to be your Napoleon Dynamite?
Marino: We would love it to be. Were the people who did Napoleon Dynamite betting on Napoleon Dynamite to be their Napoleon Dynamite?
Wain: And if they were I think they would have made a very different film. If you're heading that direction, then you're going to make something closer to [I Now Pronounce You] Chuck and Larry. I think if you're going to make something that's more individual and personal and makes you laugh, then you're going to make The Ten.
I think it gets more twisted as it goes along, but you didn't shoot it in that order.
Marino: In our own way we think it has some kind of three-act structure. At the end of the second act you're at the lowest of the low with these characters, with Winona weeping, and the rhino is pretty dark. Then you come up and you have the happier, naked party ending with Roberta Flack, and the rock and roll concert.
Where does the rhino come from?
Marino: We were trying to figure out what to do for that commandment. We were writing at my house, and we didn't know what that one was. We had all the other ones at that point. So we took a walk around the block, and at some point we were like ‘How about we make it an animated piece?’ At that point it opened up, and we said we can go anywhere with it, and then someone said ‘lying rhino.’
There is definitely a requisite coprophilia scene in comedies these days. Is this something you've noticed?
Marino: Well I need to know what coprophilia means first… [the entire room jumps in to explain] Well, my dad was a cesspool cleaner when I grew up.
Wain: You have a license to make shit jokes.
Marino: I like shit jokes.
Wain: When you and your dad are cleaning out cesspools, do you put clothespins on your nose, or do you just say ‘Fuck it.’
Marino: No. You just go.
Wain: When I clean out my catbox, I'm going to like pass out.
What were some ideas you had that got changed?
Wain: We had a very ambitious piece, which was the original adultery piece. It was about a Nickels and May-type husband and wife comedy team back in the 50's that did a sketch about a nuclear bomb hitting. But coincidentally in the theater when they were performing a nuclear bomb did go off. Then you realize that actually what you're watching is a movie about the team doing the sketch and the bomb going off, but on the set where they're shooting the movie a real nuclear bomb hits, and it goes on and on on. It was obviously a very expensive, very meta, very weird piece.
It seems that if the vignettes all have a common theme it's that they're taking a genre and just tweaking it a little bit. The budding romance is with prison rape, etc. Is that something you were aiming for?
Marino: The thing that David is really good at is parodying something but not hitting it right on the head. He plays with those ideas.
Wai: We like to play with genre convention without saying ‘Hey this is a spoof of ‘Silver Spoons,’ or whatever the hot sitcom is today.
Why Roberta Flack?
Wain: Because it rhymes with something else in the song at the end.
Marino: It's a great name. actually, Originally it was supposed to be Sade.
Wain: We went to Sade and her response to our request was ‘At no price.’
Who do you like who's working right now?
Marino: ‘Little Britain’ is awesome. Ricky Gervais is incredible. The American ‘Office’ is great.
Wain: I just saw Superbad. That's one of the funniest, best movies I've seen in years.
If you had an opportunity to do another set of sketches like this, what would be the next set of actors you would ask? Would you have people repeat?
Wain: Absolutely. Our whole career has always been to keep bulding a core team. We've done that since we were 18 years old. All the people we were working with when we were freshmen in college are in The Ten, and everything in-between. We want to continue that, keep building it. Now I would work with all of the people who were in this movie again.
Would you ask Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Wain: He's been asking us.
Marino: He's calling us.
Wain: It's really annoying, like three in the morning he'll call, he's had a few, says (Arnold impression) "You've got something for me? Let me send you my head shot."
Did you know he could do an impression of Arnold?
Wain: Not only did he not do an impression of Arnold, he had never done one before and still has never done one. We said to him, we can give you tapes of Arnold Schwarzenegger to learn, he said ‘No, I'd rather do it badly.’
Wain: We're writing a movie right now with Paul Rudd that will supposedly start shooting in September. I'm directing, he's writing with me, and Paul's starring.
Do you have a distributor?
Wain: Yes, it's a group in L.A. called Universal. They did, uh, Jurassic Park.