SXSW: Race, Politics, And Drugs - A Harold And Kumar Panel

When Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg first wrote their burger-pursuit stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, they had no way to know if anyone would ever make it, let alone turn the whole thing into a legitimate comedy franchise. Now it’s happened though, and Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanamo Bay is headed to theaters. The movie premiered this weekend at SXSW, and before they walked the red carpet for their film’s debut, the film’s writer/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg piled into a South By conference room with cast members John Cho, Kal Penn, and Neil Patrick Harris to discuss not only their film, but some of the surprisingly heavy issues it raises. It does have Guantanamo Bay in the name after all.

The five of them had only just arrived in Austin, but they were in good spirits. The cast joked around with each other, and seemed determined not to take this whole race and politics thing too seriously. Here’s what Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, Kal Penn, John Cho, and Neil Patrick Harris had to say:

On how the sequel happened:

Hurwitz: We started writing that before White Castle came out, and it didn’t exactly take America by storm. We were asked to halt the writing on that. There were a lot of questions there as to whether we’d have the opportunity to do a sequel. What ended up happening was the fans ended up speaking, and there was such a huge groundswell of support over this. All we could do was thank everybody who supports the first movie. A couple of years had gone by and we decided to make a few changes.

Schlossberg: In the years between this movie and the first movie, there had been the movie Eurotrip, which was sort of very similar to what we were planning for the sequel. And so we were thinking that’s not exactly the most original idea anymore. Yet at the same time it was really important for us to continue the story from the first movie, cause Jon and I were always huge fans of sequels in the 80s. Like Back to the Future II and the Rockys and the Karate III all took place like literally that next day. So we were really into that idea, and we were presented with a challenge. Continuing this story which was at the end of the first movie they were going off to Amsterdam. So if we’re not going to do a movie about Europe, then what is the story? And we started thinking, hey, maybe when Harold and Kumar go to the airport they have some racial profiling issues. Suddenly all the ideas came in and the next thing we knew they were in Guantanamo Bay. So it was really a blessing because I think this story is far more original and different and funny than it could have would have been if they’d run around Europe causing trouble with the guards outside Buckingham Palace.

Penn: Yeah I think we had such a great time making the first one, that yeah absolutely I was looking forward to the second one. It kept getting delayed whether the second one was going to get written, whether we were going to get to make it, whether the second one was going to come out.

Cho: Mostly I was just concerned that the second one be as interesting and as smart as the first one. I feel like that was what took people by surprise with the first movie and it’s what separated our movie from other movies in the genre and I felt that since there’s politics in the movie it’s going to be difficult to replicate that, but I felt this one did something further.”

Harris: I was very excited to finally cash in and get some money on a sequel. So I asked for tons of cash and they told me Anthony Michael Hall was on the other line.

Schlossberg: This time the expectations would be high, it’s not going to be like the first movie where it takes people by surprise.

Hurwitz: We figured what was so fun and unique about the first movie was there was really nothing at stake… For Harold and Kumar, worst case scenario they have to eat a burger somewhere else at the end. And the challenge of that movie and the fun of that movie was actually getting the audience to care about their adventure, and for the audience to be fulfilled when they end up at White Castle at the end. And that was the fun of that movie. In doing the sequel we didn’t want to do the same thing, like having them go to a different fast food place or something like that. We figured we’d go in exactly the opposite direction which is have everything at stake, have their freedom at stake and I think that it allowed the characters to be thrust into a pretty different set of circumstances and actually up the drama and up the tension, and actually be able to up the comedy.

On whether politics are an important part of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay:

Penn: I think it’s great that the film is politically relevant, but I think our job as actors is to live as realistically in these situations as possible and I think we all trust Jon and Hayden to create this world. The stakes are higher which means there’s a lot more fun to have, and a lot more to play with. The backdrop happens to be what’s happening politically in this country, but it certainly wasn’t important to me to have that.

Cho: I liked it more as a conceit, but I felt it was a device to amp up the stakes more than anything else. I don’t really feel like the movie has... anything… worthwhile to say politically? Race and whatevs! That’s what struck me about it. It just uses the current political climate to make vagina jokes, really.

Penn: The first one was talked about as being a movie about weed and this one is being talked about as being a political movie. I don’t think the case in either film. I think it’s a movie about two friends and the journey they go on. And in the first case getting food in the middle of the night was what brought them closer together. And in this case, struggling for their freedom is brings them closer together.

Schlossberg: One of the things we loved about the first movie, was that it had different layers to it and people talked about how it broke through stereotypes We knew that was something that the audience really liked about the movie. And if we just did a sequel, created a story, that was really funny but didn’t have those other things then people would be disappointed. That’s one of the things we liked about this idea. But like Jon said, it’s really about the vagina jokes.

Harris: There’s a great deal of vagina in the film.

Cho: I’m not sure if you would have written a sequel right after you wrote the first movie that it would have been as political. But it seemed as though it’s the characteristic of the movie that people most identified with.

Hurwitz: When the first movie came out, Jon and Kal did a publicity tour. Kal can speak to this, but his experiences at the airport weren’t always the best during that tour. We were having all of these pieces of information and life experiences and truths that exist out there. When we were taking them to the airport it was natural for us to think about what types of things could go on there, but at the same time looking for ways to telling the story in a completely ridiculous, outrageous way that comedy comes first.

Cho: Kal and I just remembered, we just arrived here about an hour ago. And the last time we were here Kal got asked to step side by the TSA guard and was searched. And he was traveling with a buddy of his, who unbeknownst to us apparently had a hunting knife in his backpack.

Penn: I’m going to let you tell the story, but just demographically we’re roughly the same age, the same height. He was right behind me in line so…

Cho: He’s pinker.

Penn: So I was the big distraction for these TSA guys. I was the brown dude that they were so excitedly pulling out of line.

Cho: Apparently he had come from a camping trip, and we didn’t know this. And he revealed this to me. “Don’t tell Kal he’ll be pissed, but I have a large hunting knife!” But he got through.

Penn: He got through, because nobody was looking a him, because they were all too busy looking at me. So you sort of see how racial profiling makes us all less safe. And it’s a reality. It’s nice to poke fun at it on a movie like this, but yeah these things absolutely happen in real life.

What would Neil Patrick Harris do?

Harris: I was just super stoked to be a part of it. I had so much fun on the first one. I just worked two… three days. I was just in and out on the first one. It had legs for people, it sort of revitalized a whole aspect of my career. Without this movie I wouldn’t have got cast in this How I Met Your Mother series that I’m on now. I was reticent for the first film, because I just didn’t want the jokes directed at my expense. When I heard about it I was just concerned that I wasn’t disrespecting the previous jobs that I’d done. It was sort of, I was making fun along with as opposed to just jokes at me. And they were really keen on that concern, and ran jokes by me. So the second time around I just trusted Jon and Hayden and I was excited and kind of anxious to see what they were going to put me through.

Harris: I just didn’t want to disrespect Steven Bochco, so I didn’t want to seem like that was ashamed of my past and was, you know, flipping it off. So you know, I didn’t want improvy day to day scenes where the script changes on set for those lines to be thrown in that seem disparaging and disrespectful.

Schlossberg: I could just say that like, some of the best days working on a Harold and Kumar movie are when Neil shows up, and everybody gets excited and it just pumps everybody up. You know, working on the first movie, the moment he said yes, because it was a big if, we wrote it into the script didn’t know if he’d agree, when he said yes our first reaction was to write a line in the script that he snorted cocaine off a stripper’s ass. Because he’s already agreed, now we got him to do everything! With this movie, it’s like, he’s willing to do that so wow… what are we going to do this time? It’s gotta be something that’s disturbing. So, uh, it was great. It was a blast.

On how Hurwitz and Schlossberg first approached Cho and Penn about White Castle:

Cho: It was odd. I was almost suspicious. It’s gonna be a ninja movie!

Schlossberg: I was very excited, I was like, we’ve written this movie. I remember going over to him and the look of confusion. You definitely were very nervous about what I was going to say. Afterwards I was like I don’t know if that went well or…

Cho: To be honest with you I had, uh, you know, that hadn’t happened to me in person with a writer coming up to me. But I’d had my agent call many times over the years and say, you know, oh these producers love you. They love you! I’m sending over a script, they have this role. And I read it, and the buck teeth are coming out of the script. You see a cone shaped hat. This happened so many times over the years, it’s hard not to be suspicious.

On how they reacted the first time they read the original White Castle script:

Cho: I was paralyzed with gratitude. It was weird. It was weird that essentially they were fans across the country who had written this script. I remember, you know when I was in college, I remember looking around at the entertainment. I went to UC Berkley, and it was a really multicultural campus. At the time I felt like I was watching so many dramas and comedies on television that were set on campus and people who were my age and, but it didn’t match the coloring of my world. And I thought, what’s going on? Is it that the writers are older or what? I thought, as soon as my generation starts to write it will be different. Because as long as you’re ten percent honest about who’s around you and who the people are then I think change will come naturally. But that didn’t happen immediately. Whatever I thought but maybe that day has come.

Penn: We met at a friend’s birthday party. And Jon and Hayden came up to me and we were introduced and the first thing out of Jon’s mouth was: “Whoa you don’t have an accent!” I was a combination of insulted and confused. My friends said these are two brilliant writers. There’s some Asian script that they would love to talk to you about, and then that was the first thing out of his mouth. So I put up my wall and I go, “yeah no I don’t, it’s called acting.”

Penn: We got to talking and I read the script and they told me the concept and the plotline and I thought well wow, this sounds amazing and you’re never going to get it financed. Similar to John’s experience, my only experiences up until that point had been people sending in scripts or going out on auditions where I was told that I should go home, put on a turban and come back, and you know, that I needed to do a quote unquote authentic accent which of course only meant an anglo-sized version of what an Indian accent is supposed to sound like. So these weird conversations that you have with people about very limiting roles. So when I read the script I completely loved the idea. After having actually read it I called them and said, I’m confident that you’re never going to get this financed because there’s no producer in town that’s that open minded at this point. But let’s talk about getting some venture capitalists privately or independently to finance this movie and Jon sent me this email back saying, no you don’t understand what I’m saying. We’re going to sell this movie in the next month to a real producer. And I said I wish you luck with that but… We were both equal parts confident. I was completely confident that it was never gonna happen and he was completely confident that it was. And thanks to Greg and Nathan you see that come to fruition.

On whether there was pressure to change the characters ethnicity the first time around:

Schlossberg: Can they be black? Yeah uh, for us it was very important to lace in some specific cultural Indian and Korean things so that we couldn’t change it.

Hurwitz: When the script when out it was important to us that they didn’t change the movie to be David and Jason go to McDonalds. Our producers Greg Shapiro and Nathan Kahane, when uh, when Hayden and I had our initial meetings with those guys, the first thing they said to us was, we love this script, we know, we feel like we know what you guys like about it and we don’t want to change it.

On clips from Sixteen Candles which were cut from White Castle:

Schlossberg: We had a great laugh in our first preview for Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, one of the biggest laughs in the movie was Kumar and Harold on the couch at the beginning and they’re flipping through the channels and Kumar is like, “Hey! Look! It’s you.” And we cut to a clip of 16 Candles and it’s Long Duk Dong there, and there’d be like that gong sound. So different from what the Harold character was and it just played so well. We didn’t get the rights to do that.

Hurwitz: We actually never had a conversation with him [John Hughes] about that. We don’t know what his motives are.

Schlossberg: I understand, he’s not getting anything out of that. I’d be nervous to give up our footage from Harold & Kumar for some other movie. I don’t blame him for it. It’s just an unfortunate thing. That for us was almost the inspiration for this movie. Movies like Sixteen Candles, we also had a version where it was Breakfast at Tiffanys and you saw Mickey Rooney in the buck teeth playing an Asian guy. It was just like, seeing those representations out there, versus what our friends who were Korean and Indian were like, that was why we did this movie.

Hurwitz: We wanted to show contrast early on. We wanted Harold and Kumar to kind of be at ease in the world. That they have all these forces around them and sometimes they get picked on here or there, but even though it frustrates them they know they’re better than that in some ways, that they don’t have to worry about what a bunch of idiots are going to say.

On whether race and political issues made it difficult to get distribution:

Schlossberg: One of the best things about these movies is that, they’re done on a certain budget that I think the studios are like, “alright just let em do what they wanna do”. And, so we’ve had the luxury of really being able to get away with a lot of things. This sequel has just a tremendous amount of frontal nudity and…

Hurwitz: We played by the rules, at least in our minds.

Penn: I’m amazed that this is not an NC-17.

Schlossberg: Jon and I, we grew up loving these types of movies. Those R-rated comedies that had nudity in them. We knew very well having seen those movies would you could and can’t get away with. And what people have gotten away with before. So when I see Revenge of the Nerds and they’re talking about a woman’s bush and you see it, it’s like, oh my god, ok I guess you’re allowed to show female frontal nudity in a movie, so let’s take advantage of that.

Harris: Did they ever!

Penn and Cho on how they felt about doing the second movie:

Cho: I was thrilled. I thought this whole torture business was… good fortune… for us!

Penn: I have no part in that comment.

Cho: I thought it was a great idea, but I remember being enthusiastic, but beyond that I couldn’t give you more specifics.

Penn: I remember thinking yeah. People who know me know that Kumar is infinitely cooler than I would ever be in real life, we’re complete polar opposites in so many ways. But I was really thrilled to go back and play his character when the stakes were that much higher. And that, it’s in the trailer so I’m not giving anything away, but the scene with the George Bush lookalike… I remember being first of all amazed that we were going to try and do that, and then I was sure that it was going to be cut out at some point in this movie. And then the day that we shot that scene I remember being really proud that, it’s not a slam or an applaud of the character it’s just a satire. But how wonderful, the majority of countries in the world, if you satirized the president or the prime minister you’d probably be going to jail. I thought it was so nice, where you could actually, as the Brits say, take the piss, with folks really knowing it’s just a satire it’s really fun. I felt this new pride with these new increased stakes.

Cho: I was worried that they were going to open an FBI file on us.

Penn: We’re all going to get audited for the rest of our lives.

The cast talks about how they researched for the film:

Cho: We did a lot of blow. Then I was told that was incorrect.

Penn: There was no actual cheetah that we rode. I don’t smoke in real life. I was a vegetarian when we shot the first movie. I hate to destroy this world that a lot of people… but I mean since you asked the question, for me researching the character was based on a lot more than just the physicality. It was based on relationships. Like I said, I think this is more of a buddy movie. Both the first and the second. So for me that authenticity went way beyond race, or the riding the cheetah or being hungry for burgers. It actually went into the backstory between Harold and Kumar. Kumar’s childhood fascination with the TV show Doogie Hauser.

Harris: You did research on Doogie Hauser?

Penn: Yeah. Is that weird? I think I watched the entire series.

On the possibility of a third Harold & Kumar movie:

Schlossberg: Harold and Kumar is… we’ve planned a 12-part dodecology.

Hurwitz: White Castle and Guantanamo are actually episode 4 and 5.

Schlossberg: There is a crazy large, George Lucas master plan going on behind the scenes. We’re obsessed with these movies, we think about them all the time. But we take them one at a time because like, this experience, you know, you never know what’s going to happen. We obviously thought they were going Amsterdam, things changed so we had to come up with a new idea. So we’re open minded to things, but we definitely, we love working on comedy movies. We want to do other things, everybody talking here… but it would be a thrill to be able to do it again.

Hurwitz: The idea of a spin-off movie is still extremely appealing to us. Can’t say if it’ll be Rosenberg and Goldstein go to Hot Dog Heaven, I think, uh, a lot of time has gone by and uh, it would be a challenge to go back to that period of time. There are characters in this franchise that we’re in love with writing, and hopefully….

Neil Patrick Harris on a possible NPH spin-off:

Harris: Hell yeah!

Hurwitz on the temptation to do direct-to-dvd sequels:

Hurwitz: We had opportunities to do straight-to-dvd sequels almost immediately after the first movie came out in theaters. We had no interest in that. We felt that the first movie was good enough, and people love it enough, that if we were going to do a sequel, it should at least have the level of support that the first film had so that we could deliver something…

Penn and Cho on how Harold & Kumar has changed things for them:

Cho: It’s such a hard thing to judge from where I am. It’s my calling card, you know? I’m not sure how much it has changed. Business-wise I feel it’s changed my street profile a lot more than it’s changed by business profile. So, I don’t know.

Penn: I don’t know entirely in terms of the overall picture but I’ll give you one very clear example which was a movie I did a year and a half ago called The Namesake. That movie is based on an amazing novel that John introduced me to. And we had talked about trying to get the rights to turn it into a film. And we called our lawyers and they said, well, a woman named Mira Nair already has the rights. And we kind of breathed a sigh of relief because we’d mentioned her name as somebody who we thought could direct it. We didn’t know very many directors who could capture family and loss and things like that. Then I started this really aggressive approach of trying to get in to audition for her. I had my manager call, I wrote her a letter, and there were no phone calls returned and this went on for about three months. I said, you don’t understand, this is sort of my Catcher in the Rye. I want to play this part. And, she finally called my manager back only because apparently for those three months her 14-year-old son was saying “Mom can you audition the guy from Harold & Kumar?” Her agent’s son was saying the same thing to his dad. And they both when they were on a family vacation together, they both dragger her over to a computer and showed her clips from Harold & Kumar, which if course just hurt my case even more. And so, she just looked at them and went, “you’ve got to be kidding me right?” So I think I was brought in initially just to placate those two kids. But honestly without them being fans of Harold & Kumar I never would have had the opportunity to audition for The Namesake.

Cho: I’ve got to say I’ve had that happen a couple of times, unsuccessfully, but I’ve been in auditions where the director’s told me my kid said I have to see you… I don’t know who you are.

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Josh Tyler