Cedar Rapids Q&A
The writer and producer of the new comedy share their thoughts on small towns, making movies, and taking chances.
Insurance salesman Tim Lippe has never flown in an airplane. He’s never slept in a hotel. Heck, he’s never even left the small Wisconsin town he calls home. But that’s all about to change. Sent to represent his company at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lippe arrives with his money band in place and traveler’s checks ready to go, unaware that his naivety will soon be replaced with reality, and his innocence with common sense. Starring Ed Helms (Tim Lippe), John C. Reilly (Dean Ziegler), Anne Heche (Joan Ostrowski-Fox), and Isiah Whitlock, Jr (Ronald Wilkes), Cedar Rapids is a tale of one small-town man forced to face reality and grow up—all in the course of a weekend.
Minnesota Monthly sat down with the writer, Phil Johnston, and producer, Jim Burke, of Cedar Rapids—both Midwest natives—to talk about small-town Midwesterners, making movies, and the darker side of comedy.
Phil, you went to the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Jim, you went to the University of Minnesota. Did your Midwest ties provide inspiration for Cedar Rapids?
Phil: Definitely. As someone who’s lived in New York for ten years, the first 30 years of my life were in the Midwest. My brain still lives here when I’m thinking about stories and characters. These are the people I know and these are the stories I want to tell at this point in my life. Having the idea of a guy in a tiny town in Wisconsin and going to what he thinks to be a big city—which is actually a city of about 100,000—is kind of silly, but I know people like that; plenty of them. I know people who have never left the state or have just been to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and maybe Michigan. So while it’s kind of funny as a concept—which I’m hoping the movie was funny, it was supposed to be—it’s also something that’s rooted in a certain truth.
Jim: We had heard people say, “There’s no such thing as people who are that sheltered.” And I told them, “I can introduce you to them. I’ll make sure you meet them.” I mean, my mom’s cousins had never seen an escalator until it was in a very advanced stage—they grew up in North Dakota. Anyway, we know that those people exist.
Do you think some audiences will still think Ed Helms’s character is a stretch?
Phil: I don’t think so—I hope not. We tried to be so specific with the details of the characters and the place that I hope it feels authentic. Again, it’s a comedy so it definitely stretches a bit, but ultimately I believe it to be truthful. I just go back to the fact that I know these people—if I were to go to the mall with my mom today we would meet these people. My dad has the sweater Tim wears. If people from the coast say, “That doesn’t exist,” I’ll say, “You’ve never been here then.”
Jim: We were sort of afraid people might think that, but we’ve screened it enough times to know the odd person might say that, but by and large everybody accepts that the premise and the characters and everything are authentic. It’s been really, really well received.
How did you decide to work in the darker aspects of the movie—the drugs, the prostitution, the infidelity?
Phil: It wasn’t a decision, it just sort of came. I trafficked in that kind of thing for years (laughing). I mean, I don’t know, I’m just attracted to the darker side of comedy—always have been. There are versions of this script—early drafts—that were really much darker.
Jim: Waaayyy darker.
Phil: Tim kidnapped someone and ended up in jail. Actually, that was a funny scene; I miss that scene. It’s fun to put people in uncomfortable situations—it’s part of the key to drama, comedy, entertainment. You don’t want an easy road for your protagonist. Your protagonist is the one who suffers the most. I like putting them in situations that are not pleasant because you give them something to do and you get the most juice out of it, be it a comedy or a drama.
Jim: He’s dark. (laughter)
Phil: So are you, you’re worse than I am!
Jim: That’s true.
How did you get into screen writing? You started as a news reporter and then what?
Phil: My first job out of school was in Rochester, Minnesota, then Omaha and western Iowa, then Minneapolis at KARE-11. And at a certain point, I realized the kind of stories I liked to do were about small towns, strange people—it wasn’t necessarily news. I realized the kind of storytelling I was really passionate about was film. If I was honest with myself, I would have known that I always secretly wanted to get into film, but I didn’t have the guts to do it right out of undergrad. My wife and I were sitting on the couch one night and I said, “I think I want to go to film school.” She said, “Great!” And we moved to New York. She supported me and I went to Columbia’s MFA program for directing and screenwriting, and that’s how it all happened. If I had thought it through it at the time, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So I didn’t think it through, and I couldn’t be happier.
Jim: I had the same experience. I did not spend a lot of time analyzing the decision. Unlike you (Phil), I graduated and jumped right in my car and drove to L.A. to get into the film business. I didn’t think it would be hard, and no body told me it would be hard.
Was it hard?
Phil: Liar! You are such a liar!
Jim: No, here’s the thing: Getting into show business is not hard. It’s actually making something that’s any good—that’s hard.
Phil: That’s true.
Jim: Anybody—okay, not anybody—but if you have a good attitude that you’re going to get your foot in the door and work your way up, you can make it. But to get proficient and good at making movies, that’s the hard part. And the actual thing—making a movie?—everyone says, “Oh, I love it! I would love it!” I just think it’s hard. Long, long hours; you’re sleep deprived and you’re trying to make decisions…it’s hard.
Phil: I was thinking about it, and truly? If you’re talking about fun? This week is probably the only actual fun I have had on this thing.
Jim: Well, and Sundance.
Phil: That’s what I mean: Once it’s done, you can kind of celebrate it.
Jim: I had fun, too, when we first started talking about it, figuring out who the cast would be, coming up with different shades of the script—that was really fun.
Jim: So the very beginning and the very end are always the most fun parts. All of it in the middle? It’s tough sledding. (laughter)
Were there any surprises that came up you didn’t anticipate and just had to roll with?
Phil: As you’re rewriting and developing the script, it always changes in ways you don’t expect or anticipate. But the best thing in terms of things that were surprising were these great moments of improv that all the actors did to some extent, but mostly would be from John. What’s so cool was he knew his character (Dean) so well—really lived in his character’s skin and inhabited that guy—that when he went off the book, it wasn’t like he was just doing that to make people laugh, he was doing it because that’s something Dean would say.
Jim: He is just a really great actor. He is. Everybody sort of knows that, but I don’t think he’s appreciated enough.
When you wrote that character, did you know that John C. Reilly would draw out so many aspects of Dean?
Phil: I hoped that the audience would see this loud mouth who ultimately had deep undertones of sadness and regret—obviously his divorce and relationship with his kids is all there. So yea, I dreamed that would all come across. But I couldn’t have asked for more than what John did. He took the material and elevated it so much more than I could ever have hoped for. That’s truly what all the actors did.
It felt like they were comfortable in their characters.
Jim: Everybody was really excited about working on this movie. Everybody was pumped up.
Were you heavily involved in the casting? Did you have them in mind?
Phil: It was written for Ed. He was on it from the time I had the idea; he’s the first person I gave the script to. We had lots of conversations about casting.
Jim: Almost everybody—except Sigourney Weaver, Ed, and John C. Reilly—auditioned for their part. There were hundreds of people. And it worked much better—we were able to find out who really worked well together.
Cedar Rapids debuted last month at the Sundance Film Festival and opened in a limited release February 11. It opens February 18 at the Uptown Theatre.