Bret McKenzie: “If you did kill someone, it would be a very stressful time."MATTSHEA Wednesday 14 Nov 2012 - 3:00 PM
Bret McKenzie’s debut starring role in a feature film is sweetly timed. After all, it was only in February that the New Zealander and one half of enormously successful comedy duo Flight of the Conchords picked up a Best Original Song Oscar for ‘Man or Muppet’.
But Two Little Boys has been some time coming. As long ago as 2009, McKenzie was being sent scripts by fraternal Kiwi writer-director team, Duncan and Robert Sarkies. In the film, McKenzie plays Nige, a put upon Invercargill bank teller with a best friend from hell. When Nige accidentally runs over a Norwegian backpacker, he has no one else to turn to other than mildly psychopathic bud, Deano (played by Australian comedian Hamish Blake). And so the two attempt to cover up the crime with an axe, a Ford Laser and a trip deep into the New Zealand wilderness.
Hilarity ensues, of course, but Two Little Boys is darkened around its edges by questions of mateship and the importance of personal self-determination. Duncan Sarkies’ script is funny, but brother Robert is best known this side of the Tasman as director of the stylish true-life drama, Out of the Blue. Anyone who has seen that film will have an idea of the kind of crystalline visual fluency that occasionally creeps into Two Little Boys.
With Two Little Boys set for release this Thursday, TheVine caught up with McKenzie over the phone from Los Angeles. We spoke at length about the film, the particular nature of Kiwi humour, life after the Oscar, and whether there ever will be a third season of the HBO Flight of the Conchords television show.
--Where are you, Bret?
I’m in Los Angeles at the moment.What keeps you there?
I’m working on a new Muppets film. Writing songs at the moment for Kermit. But yeah, it’s good.Where are you based at the moment. Or where do you consider home?
I guess I live in New Zealand, but I travel a lot for work.Two Little Boys: this is your first major role in a feature film. How long has it been on the cards for you?
I read the script a few years ago. I knew the writers from New Zealand. Duncan Sarkies in fact wrote a couple of Conchords episodes, and we’ve worked together a lot over the years. He and Robert sent me the script and I really loved it, because it was so twisted and unusual. Really funny, but quite dark as well. That’s what got me interested, and then it was just a matter of working out when we could get it made, and then when Hamish was available at the same time.
Read: TheVine's Top 10 Flight of the Conchords music clipsJemaine [Clement, McKenzie’s Conchords partner] already has a bunch of film credits up his sleeve. Did you feel overdue to do a feature film?
I guess I’ve always loved film. In a way, I’m more likely to watch film than I am TV. So I was pretty excited. I’m really happy to have been able to work in film over the last year or two.You were attached to the project in 2009. Was it frustrating that it took so long to come around?
Yeah. For me it was frustrating, because I’m so used to doing TV work, which happens so quickly. You make it, and it’s on TV literally days after you finish the edit, whereas with this, films really take years to make. It’s funny, because we filmed it last summer and I read the script three years ago – it’s definitely a slow process.A year after wrapping, you’re doing the promo.
Yeah! You have to think back and you sort of have vague memories of what you got up to. But yeah, it is frustrating having come from TV, but I’m definitely getting used to that pace.The guys sent you the script, but it was actually based on a Duncan Sarkies novel of the same name. Had you read that?
No, I hadn’t read the book, so I went straight to the script.When you’re working with Jemaine, it’s with characters and situations that you’ve created. What’s it like trying to inhabit this character you haven’t had a hand in putting on paper? Did that create unexpected pressure for you?
That’s exactly right. I’m used to doing jobs where I’ve been one of the creators and the writers. In Conchords we’re so lucky: if something didn’t work, we could just change it ourselves and there was no one else to say, “Hey, hang on, that’s not how it’s meant to go!” [laughs]. Hamish was in a pretty similar situation, having a history of working with Andy [Lee], playing himself. And with this, we had to bring to life someone else’s idea and you’re just hoping that you’re doing it the way they want it.Was there an element of being wary of crashing in on that brotherly connection – like you might be in danger of ruining a joke?
Yeah [laughs]. Luckily they were really clear about what they wanted, but if Hamish and I made a film it would probably be pretty different to this film. Duncan and Robert have such a twisted sensibility, so that was definitely an unusual experience.Was Nige more of a challenge than you originally anticipated? He’s a character that I think on page would immediately make sense, but actually inhabiting that person might be much harder, particularly given the tone of the film.
Yeah, I wish I’d spoken to you before I did the job [laughs]. Reading it: “Oh yeah. It’s a guy who hits a backpacker, he’s trying to get rid of the body and it’s a bit of laugh.” And then when we started filming it, we realised that to make the film seem real and the world credible, we needed to treat the dead backpacker with a certain respect for that idea to exist – otherwise it was going to end up being Weekend at Bernie’s. So yeah: it was quite stressful. I spent a couple of months playing a guy who’s just killed someone and it makes me think that if you did kill someone, it would be a very stressful time [laughs].Were you sometimes in danger of losing the funny side of things?
Oh yeah. That’s the challenge of doing a comedy that’s also a drama, which a lot of comedies at the moment are. You’re walking that line: you can go too far the drama way or too far the comedy way, and you have to find that balance. That’s definitely a tricky thing, and doing Conchords we always went straight for the comedy. I don’t ever remember doing a scene in Conchords where we took a second take because we didn’t think it was believable [laughs]. We weren’t too worried about that. Whereas with this film, you have the audience for an hour and a half, and if it’s not believable – if it’s not real enough – it’ll end up becoming a sketch. It’s a tricky balance, for sure.How much freedom did Robert give you with the characters, in terms of adlibbing and so on?
We improvised quite a lot. Hamish, in particular, is really great at it. His character was in a situation where he could do a bit more, in a way. But Rob and Duncan did have a pretty clear idea of what they wanted, so 80 percent of the film, I’d say, is the original script.Being chained to this guy – to Deano. Some would argue that’s what’s become of you and Jemaine since Conchords took off – and the same with Hamish and Andy, I guess.
Yeah, it’s funny that the film was about these two guys that are basically married, and absolutely when you’re in a comedy duo, it’s a bit like a marriage.Regardless of how well or not you get on with your creative partner, there’s always going to be a degree of cabin fever.
Oh yeah. We work together so much. Making the TV show, in particular: we worked out at one point that we’d worked 100 days together consecutively. And you notice it, because you start finishing each other’s stories. And that’s the point where you go, “Hmmm. I think we might need to go and do something else. We’ll get back together when we’ve got something new to tell each other.” [laughs]Do you draw on that stuff when tying two characters together like Nige and Deano?
I guess you draw on everything you’ve got, really. But the relationships between the two characters is so intense – when people see the film, it’s quite dark, what’s going on. And what Duncan was trying to do – he wanted these friends who are breaking up, so it’s like a friendship, but how do you break up a friendship? You can’t get divorced from a friend. That’s where it all started. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.It feels like this was a project just a little bit out of both yours and Hamish’s comfort zones. Is that a fair comment?
Absolutely true, yeah [laughs]. The two of us were inexperienced at doing films in the first place. And then the characters and the world are just a little bit darker and a little bit more dramatic than anything else we’ve done. But Rob has a really strong dramatic background, and the idea was that we’d take care of the comedy and he’d make the dramatic side of it hold up.Rob’s background is interesting. I watched the film with someone who hasn’t seen Out of the Blue and they were really surprised with how much drama there is just in the way it’s shot.
I know! There are all these sweeping helicopter shots and beautiful, really remote New Zealand coastlines. We filmed in the middle of nowhere at the very bottom of New Zealand – as close to Antarctica as we could get. It’s a part of New Zealand that New Zealanders don’t even get to. So it really is remote. It’s hard to describe – I don’t know if Tasmania’s like that. I’ve lived in New Zealand all my life, and I’d never been to these places.The film makes this interesting point about mateship – two-on-two mateship, in particular – and I think perhaps implies that it’s a particularly Kiwi thing, or maybe an ANZAC thing – it even refers to that with the World War I battle scenes. Do you look at it that way?
I think something happens in countries that are isolated and smaller. Maybe not in the big cities, but definitely in the smaller towns – you don’t have that many options for friends [laughs]. In a big city you can meet someone else, but in a small town you’re with your mates, whether you like them or not, I think. So it’s probably fairly true of smaller places.The whole Invercargill thing – it’s very much a Kiwi in-joke – are you worried at all about that being lost on international audiences?
No. In New Zealand that was a strong part of it. The film’s set in 1991 and we literally didn’t have to change anything in that town. Like, we had to maybe put a couple of signs up to make it look more futuristic [laughs], to bring it into the 90s. I guess an element of that will be lost on an Australian and overseas audience, but I think you still get a sense of it being quite remote.Maybe there’s a flipside to that question, that perhaps international audiences are now a bit more familiar with New Zealand and New Zealand humour – that something like this becomes viable. Perhaps the Conchords illustrated that it can translate.
Yeah, that dryness. It’ll be curious to see what Australian audiences connect to in this film, and then American audiences. There’s a lot of swearing in the film, which is funny: I work in America quite a lot now, and Americans don’t really swear nearly as much as Australians and New Zealanders do. I think the first 25 words in the film are f-bombs. Yeah, I don’t know how it will play in the States.I think Kiwis are self-reflective enough to know they’re a bit odd – but being away so much, has that really driven home how distinctive and quirky New Zealand is as a place?
Yeah. I guess I don’t see it as quirky – I still find Americans weird. But I’m much more aware of the qualities that make New Zealanders different. You just start to see it, and the more time I’ve spent in the States, the more I’ve realised it would take a lifetime to completely assimilate. There are just all these little things that we do that are different. I think it takes a generation for that stuff to move on.I understand. I’m a New Zealander and I’ve lived in Australia over half my life, but people still laugh at me when I say ‘fizzy drink’.
[laughs] Yeah. It’s the little things. They pop up and you don’t even notice them. I call documentaries ‘docos’ and a friend who writes on The Simpsons will say, “Oh, I love that about you. Let’s get together and talk about docos!” [laughs] It’s those things that crack foreigners up. You become really aware of them.What are your plans looking ahead? You have a role in the Hobbit films, as I understand it.
I do a cameo as an elf. I’m pretty sure it’s in the first one. But now that they’ve made three, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s the first one. I don’t think they can bring my character back, because it wouldn’t make sense. I’d have to show up later in the journey. “Hey Bilbo. I’ve just popped by to check how you’re going.” Maybe if Peter Jackson finds himself short of material he’ll give me a call [laughs].I was going to say that Two Little Boys finally clears the slate – that you’ll no longer be known as the elf out of Lord of the Rings – but The Hobbit will just bring that right back.
Yeah, it’s coming back to the surface [laughs]. But it’s great: it’s just such a great project to be involved in. I’m lucky, really.You’re working on music for a second Muppets film. Has life changed much for you since the Oscar?
I guess I’m busier. But it hasn’t changed too much, really. I’ve been lucky: I’ve been busy for quite a while now. One thing that has changed – an agent said to me: “If there’s anyone in Hollywood you want to talk to, or you’ve ever wanted to work with, now’s a good time to have a meeting.” Because with an Oscar, you can pretty much meet anyone [laughs]. I should really take them up on that and go and have lunch with some legends.Well I hope it’s packed – that you brought it with you so you can put it on the restaurant table.
Yeah, that’s a good idea. I left it at home but a friend gave me a little souvenir one – I’ve got a miniature one. A travel Oscar [laughs]. I’ve got my pocket Oscar with me.I think a few people I talked to before this interview wanted to know if you’d ever consider doing a third season of Flight of the Conchords. Any thoughts?
I can’t imagine we’d do a third season, no. That seems highly unlikely. Yeah, I’m not quite sure what more there is to do with those characters.