Director Isaac Rentz has been behind the camera for music videos for an impressive roster of musicians including Paramore, Tegan and Sara, 5 Seconds of Summer, Jazmine Sullivan, and Cage the Elephant. In 2011, he helmed an Atomic Tom music video for the ’80s-set romantic comedy Take Me Home Tonight starring Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Dan Fogler, and Teresa Palmer. Enriched with some of the most fulfilling and on-point homages to ’80s cinema, the music video connected him to Grace (read our interview with him here). The two had a really good time working on it. So much that the That ’70s Show said, “Hey, let’s do a movie together.” To which Rentz thought, “Yeah, sure. You know, if that works out that would be great — but I kind of took it with a grain of salt.”
Fast forward five years later, and their collaboration became a reality with Rentz’s feature film debut OPENING NIGHT in which Grace stars as Nick, a former Broadway star that ends up working as a production manager for a musical titled One-Hit Wonderland starring J.C. Chasez. Inspired by Grace’s time working on an Off-Broadway play and set to Rentz’s visual command of music videos, the movie follows the cast and crew of the musical and all the energy, excitement — and drama — that happens behind the scenes of a live theater performance.
We had the chance to talk to Rentz about the making of Opening Night, his novice experience in the world of musical theater and his love for MTV’s TRL.
Where did the premise for One-Hit Wonderland come from?
We kind of reverse engineered it. We knew we wanted to tell a story about Broadway. We then realized that we needed to see something on stage so we threw around a few ideas. We loved the idea of parodying jukebox musicals, like Mamma Mia, which is all the songs of ABBA, or the Love musical which is all the songs of the Beatles. We went through a list, and thought “is this going to be all the music of Queen or Billy Joel —what are we going to parody?” Because we wanted to make (the film) on an indie budget, we couldn’t afford those sorts of catalogs so we thought, “Well, why don’t we just make it a theme? Why don’t we go for one-hit wonders?” It kind of fit with the idea behind the main character of the movie. That he had his one chance and felt like he blew it so he felt like a one hit wonder. It just seemed like such a perfect way to bring all those things together.
A musical about one-hit wonders would probably do very well in real life. I know I would watch the hell out of a musical called One-Hit Wonderland. You must have had a field day in picking the music.
Well, you know it’s funny, because a lot of those songs are songs I remember from when I was growing up — like “Mambo No. 5” or something. I think I danced to that at my high school prom. It was fun to bring them back and put an orchestral spin on them. A lot of them we used them in comedic ways, but some of them are really beautiful too. When I first heard the arrangement for “Melt With You”, I thought, “Gosh. This really should be a Broadway musical. This sounds totally epic.” I think a lot of those songs at their core are really great top songs. It’s just that you hear them so much that you need to hear them in a fresh way for them to sound good again.
Picking music for the movie must have been fun.
I mean, it’s all over the place musically. We have stuff from as far back as the ’70s going all the way up to the digital age of one hit wonders. It was a really fun place to play. We had a great music supervisor, who was able to help us wade through all the one hit wonders floating out there.
Well, here’s one of the most interesting parts of this movie. We shot the whole thing in Mexico. We shot one pick up day in Time Square for the beginning of the movie to just set the stage — sorry about that pun. We got the financing from a company called Dark Factory, that is based in Mexico. We just loved their enthusiasm, and they said, “Because so much of the movie takes place behind the scenes, let’s go to Mexico and we can find a theater there.” We scouted in Mexico City and there’s so many beautiful theaters all over Mexico City, but the only thing is, the beautiful part of it is the stage. Backstage is really boring. It’s a bunch of white walls and tiny cramped rooms that you can’t even fit lighting into. I mean, actual Broadway doesn’t look half as beautiful and exciting as this movie does. We made the decision to rent an airplane hanger in the middle of Mexico City and build the entire stage from scratch.
That’s impressive. You would never be able to tell from watching this.
Everything that you see backstage is a set. The actual stage itself is a real theater in Mexico. Everything backstage is completely manufactured from the ground up. There isn’t a single wall that was already there. We had a great production designer named Alex Delgado. He does all of Lady Gaga’s tour stuff. He is just this really amazing guy who had a real vision for how to make this hybrid stage that feels real enough, but also has this fantastical quality to it. I guarantee you, we scouted so many stages and there isn’t a single stage — or backstage — in all of North America, that looks as nice as what we were shooting in. We kind of had to do that. I didn’t want to have a really funny comedy set in a really disgusting place that wasn’t fun to look at for an hour and a half.
Are you a big theater geek?
I am absolutely not a theater geek. I’ve only been to one Broadway musical in my entire life. I was eight years old. My parents took me to Les Miserables and it was before I found out that I needed glasses so I didn’t even really get to see it. I had almost no Broadway experience going into this, which I think was good in some ways for the movie because we wanted to use Broadway as a setting. I definitely did some research, but we also didn’t want to be overly reverential. I really feel like this movie is about Broadway the same way that Wet Hot American Summer is about summer camp. It’s a great setting, but it’s a place for us to tell jokes, have fun, and tell a fun story. I really grew up more in the world of pop music. I watched TRL every day growing up.
I enjoyed all the TRL-period music in the movie. Did you ever call in to vote for your favorite music video?
I never did vote, but I got really close. I just did not want LFO to win. I remember that was more important than any election in my lifetime. I just could not watch LFO get to number one. (laughs) I come from more of a pop side of things and I think that’s the cool part about this movie. We’re playing with the rich tradition of Broadway and how it’s so classic and beautiful, but we’re also combining it with this very disposable pop sensibility. I think that’s where the fun is. We’re right there on the razor’s edge between those two things.
When we had our final script put together, the thing that I was most excited about was the ensemble comedy nature of the movie. We had a great time casting this movie. It took a long time and a lot of effort to put it all together, but we really wanted to find a super diverse group of actors. The most important one, for me, was I think Taye Digg’s character, Malcolm. I don’t know if anyone else could have played that. I mean, he brought such a level of nuance to it. Such a cool take on it. There’s a version of that character that if it’s not handled carefully can be really stereotypical and over the top silly. He played it with such a cool, laid back vibe. I think it’s a character that you don’t often get to see on screen. It’s so much more about his confidence than his sexuality — even though on the page he gets to say some pretty vulgar stuff. His take on it was amazing.
It’s also exciting that you were able to mix in a lot of talented folks from the world of comedy.
I think every single day that Rob Riggle was on set we had to probably throw away half the takes because people kept breaking character. That guy is just so funny. Paul Scheer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Huskey — all have great improv comedy pedigrees. I think it really gives this film a really well rounded feeling.
As soon as I saw the cast, I thought it was a very assorted mix of actors which inclined me to see it. It’s a fun musical comedy with a lot of that “behind-the-scenes” action everyone likes seeing. It’s like two shows going on at once.
Well, you know, I’m so proud of this movie because I feel like a lot of times when we think of indie comedy it’s more subtle, smaller character studies — and those are great. I love a lot of indie comedies, but I think this is such an ambitious and weirdly big indie movie. I think the fact that it all takes place in one night, and we have all these huge stage productions that we’re pulling off while also telling a story that’s happening backstage. It was just such a fun challenge to put it all together.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer