James Bobin Fan Q&A March 2009
Flight of The Conchords co creator, co writer, producer and director James Bobin took some time out after finishing editing the second season of the Conchords hit HBO TV series to answer fan questions here on What The Folk! The response to my posting the news about the Q&A was good and had many emails from people submitting questions for James. Alas I could not send them all along but I picked a fair selection and here they are now with replies from James on everything from favourite episodes, how they write and film epsiodes and who makes the best cup of tea. Yes, all this and a mention of DVD extras can be read below.
Many thanks to James for taking the time to write such detailed insightful replies to you all. Its much appreciated by myself and everyone else. Its great that someone so involved in the Conchords show has been able to share with the fans like this.
Anyways, without further ado......
James Bobin Fan Q&A
Kelly asks - Do you start with an idea of what songs you want to shoot and then write the episode around it - or do you come up with a concept for a show and pick which songs might fit?
Both. The first thing we have done both seasons is write down all the ideas all 3 of us have, and they can be song ideas or story ideas, and then stick them on boards. You may have seen the New York Times article with the photo of us at work and noticed all the index cards. That is a fairly late stage in the process where we have 10 ‘favourite’ episodes – 3 or 4 ‘possible’ episodes and a bunch of spare ideas on different boards. These all come together from our initial ideas stage – which takes a while – at least a couple of months of just brainstorming. Last season was slightly different in that we were in the middle of the writers’ strike when we were supposed to start – so we worked on songs to begin with. Some of the earliest ideas we had were Stick Around, Hurt Feelings, Jemaine You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute – some of which obviously lead to storylines and some of which we put into other storylines we had already…
How much of the show is improvised versus scripted? I know Rhys tends to improvise a lot - how much of that do you keep? Or does most of it end up on the cutting room floor?
I like to keep improvisation where it improves on the script. It can give scenes a certain sense of ‘life’ and freshness but I am not totally enamoured with it. You have to be careful not to use and prefer an improvised line just because you’ve heard the scripted one many times over….but as you say, Rhys is fantastic at it – so his scenes can be up to 50% improvised (our highest percentage probably) – especially since Bret and Jemaine are usually both in them and usually I’m directing it or am on set – so you have all the writers within 5 feet – so we are effectively all writing all the time. But I suppose that’s also true of most scenes – as either Bret or Jemaine are in nearly all of them – we do improvise quite a bit. But we don’t always use it. As a director I always like to get takes from the script that I’m happy with before we move on into improvisation as I think a lot of the scripts have some nice phrases or wording that are only going to be funny if they are said in a certain way and exactly as written – Keitha’s speech about her parentage in Unnatural Love being a good example – as with Dave’s description of a puppy being born from Sally Returns last season – and with Murrays dick Medicine line to Jemaine from Murray Next Level– they were all written so well they don’t need any ‘help’ with improv.
Leah asks - What is your favorite of their songs? Episodes?
Hmmm. Good question. Bus Driver. Bret You’ve Got It Going On. Stick Around (Carol Brown I think James is meaning here). Prince of Parties. Ladies of the World. Stana. I like to rock the Party (joking). Episodes wise I like Sally Returns, Prime Minister, New Cup and Bret Gives Up the Dream…
Which song did you have the most influence on?
‘Stick Around’ was actually an idea I had of doing a ’50 ways…my lover has left me’ sort of song (Paul Simon tribute) with girls names etc. But that’s as far as I go with songs as I’m not really musical…so it tends to be thoughts/ideas or lyrics - ‘Hurt Feelings’ I helped out with in terms of having a rapper tough guy who was very sensitive to slightly awkward social situations i.e. meeting someone you’ve met before at a party and you remembering them but them not remembering you and being hurt by it. ‘Inner City Pressure’ was originally a Grand Master Flash style song but I had the idea of Pet Shop Boys style English rap as it felt very apt and I knew they were both very good at doing English accents. I’m still not sure a lot of people who watch that one get they are both doing excellent English accents as the NZ/English singing voice can sound very similar.
Val asks - How often did they have to do multiple takes because someone just couldn't stop laughing? And who's worse at laughing and flubbing up lines, Bret or Jemaine?
Erm. Yep. All the time. And b.Without doubt Jemaine. He laughs and ruins multiple takes so much so that I often have to frame him out of shots as he cannot stop laughing – especially when Rhys is involved. Bret is far more professional…
Do Bret and Jemaine get involved with the specifics for the look of the videos on the show or do they just come up with general ideas/references from other songs or videos and let the production team do the rest?
Well I tend to do a fairly comprehensive video reference document - in terms of style/era/specific videos from the past (thank god for YouTube – this show would be impossible to make without it) for every song in the season which I share with B and J and which guest directors can choose to use or not. With Bret and Jemaine I also tend to tell them my thoughts about what I’m going to do video-wise with each song when we write so at that point they tend to tell me if they like it or not and I adapt it accordingly. They have a lot of other stuff to do so generally they leave the videos up to me.
Zap asks - Have any elements from the series come out of your personal history? Which ones?
Um. Not really. Most of the band stuff is from B and J, and pretty much everything else is quite surreal…thinking about its probably good news for me that I haven’t ever been in situations we regularly put the cast in…
Lori AKA SheWolf asks - Which episode from season 2 was the most logistically difficult in terms of writing or filming and why?
Hmm. Difficult to say really. It’s always hard doing a second round of anything – especially if expectation is high or you’ve set yourself a certain standard you are determined to maintain. The natural inclination of all comedy fans (or in fact of most fans of anything) is that ‘it’s not as good as it used to be’ or ‘I preferred it before it became popular’ – and we’re all guilty of it – to an extent it’s inherent within human nature – the first time you see or experience something ‘new’ always maintains something special about it. So it’s always going to be harder second time around as people are looking for you to fall a bit, hence many early reviews for this season I think were probably written with that angle in mind and concentrated on the downside rather than appreciation the good things about each episode (to be fair that has changed a bit as the season has gone on). I totally expected it and so wasn’t surprised when ‘A Good Opportunity’ got a bit of a hammering and I get the sense from the internet that it’s a lot of people’s least favourite episode. I actually like it and think people look on it unfairly because of the context in which it was put out rather than the actual show itself which I think has some of our best dialogue – the scenes in Murray's new office and when he’s living in his car have always made me laugh. But there you go…other than that one therefore, the other hard ones were the last one (always hard to know how to finish something which doesn’t really have a series arc) and the PM episode because of the US elections – we wrote it early but couldn’t shoot it until later – so that was tricky.
Any bloopers/behind the scenes stuff in the S2 DVD?
Yes. I’m going to put on the gag reel we showed at our wrap party in December – HBO approval pending. But we’re trying. Am very conscious that the last DVD had nothing on it because of its rush release for the Christmas market so this time we are trying to do more – we are also including deleted scenes. We’re not sure about a commentary as B and J are too busy finishing the album. We’ll see.
Of Bret & Jemaine who is the most likely to horde biscuits?
Jemaine. Bret’s more of a toast man.
Suzanne (a.k.a. SuzyBatt) asks - Taking into account that everything on the show is done in an extreme tongue-in-cheek fashion, how much of their increasing sex appeal among female fans informs the writing of the show? In season two I've noticed several more instances where Jemaine is practically objectified, the best one being in in New Cup. I wonder if this kind of scenario is purely poking fun at Jemaine's growing sex appeal, or if somewhere in the background the network is actually pushing for this to help increase viewership? Or it is just that Jemaine is really comfortable with his body, and just likes putting it out there!?!
That’s a long question! With a pretty short answer….certainly it wasn’t a conscious decision to increase the ‘sexual’ nature of the character of Jemaine. I think it’s just that some of the ideas we had for the second season were slightly darker than those of the first. Certainly doesn’t come from HBO who are incredibly hands off when it comes to the show and who only really pass comment at each stage of writing/shooting/editing with suggestions rather than directives.
A Small Turnip asks - Duncan Sarkies was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, and was asked about his work writing for the HBO series. Sarkies laughingly mentioned that he suspected he was asked to write episodes involving awkward group sex and male prostitution because of his particular....erm....literary interest in these areas. Silliness aside, it made me wonder how you decide to allocate the writing and directing responsibilities for the show. Is it a essentially a practical decision, based on who's available, cheap, and reliable? Or do you consciously try to fit certain episodes to certain talents and individuals? How does that delegation of responsibility work?
Allocating the writing and directing is a very natural and fairly fluid process: we just use our friends. Taika has obviously known J and B for a long time, Iain is a very old friend of mine, and Paul Simms we met when we wanted to put the first season together. Director-wise Troy is one of our executive producers and has been with us since the pilot. We (me, B and J) come up with the storylines and song ideas – we then give out whichever ones are probably in the best state by a certain time in our schedule for our other writers to write up – but of course we do to try and give out ideas we think are best suited to each particular writer as best we can. We tend to use fairly detailed scene breakdowns which can be up to 10-15 pages long and include scene descriptions, where the songs could go and some dialogue etc. They’re supposed to be a guide rather than something that’s set in stone. Sometimes they have inherent problems in them that don’t crop up until our writers produce the first draft – but luckily in Paul and Duncan we have very good ‘structural’ writers who can often solve our narrative problems – or in Iain and Damon great gag writers who improve our boring scenes. They then send us back their drafts which we (me, B and J) work on a bit. We then have cast read throughs and then we work on them some more. And then, as I’ve mentioned before, we work on them at weekends when we’re shooting – and of course on set. That way we can try to maintain the tone of the scripts and remain consistent with the voice of the show through B and J. It’s a lot of writing. Which I hope shows.
Wondering how your collective writing process works. Can you tell us about how the three of you work together, especially in the earlier stages of brainstorming? How thoroughly do you sketch out storylines before you pass them on to the other writers? Out of the three of you, who procrastinates the most? And who makes the best cup of tea?
See above. For me, B and J it’s mostly watching YouTube videos and trying to make each other laugh. The ‘brainstorming’ is a very random process of literally coming up with everything you can think of. It involves a lot of walking around, having long tea breaks and thinking at home etc. It’s not really a day job at all – more like a part of your brain which is permanently switched to ‘on’. We all procrastinate to a certain degree but I’m the one most aware of our time table so I suppose I do it the least…Bret makes the best tea.
What are the parts of the show that you most enjoy directing? Do you have a tender soft spot for any particular scenes or gags that didn't make it to the final edit (or even the final script)? And what bits do you dread directing? Is it the parts where Bret has to dance and sing at the same time? It is, isn't it? Go on, you can tell us. We're very discreet.
There’s no particular part of the show I like shooting more than others. They all have different appeal to me…most scenes that didn’t make it don’t make it because they’re not as good as the scenes we put in the final cut (as you’ll hear every director say on every DVD commentary of everything you ever see..) but there are genuinely times when there is no room for a scene which we then cut purely because we have too much story. In season 2 there is a scene between Bret and Eddie his boss at the sign company that I really liked in TOUGH BRETS but we didn’t have time to include it. It will be on the DVD though I think. In fact most of the deleted scenes on the DVD have an element of that time pressure to them.
What's up next for you? Are there any particular projects that you'd like to get the chance to do now? Where should we be keeping an eye out for our favourite Third Conchord?
My wife is having our second child in 2 weeks. I’ve nothing planned after that for a while other than helping out at home. I need some time off…
Dougald Lamont asks - FOTC never laugh on the show. What actually makes them laugh?
Rhys. Eugene. Kristen. Arj. Blackadder. The Young Ones. John Clarke. (not in that order)
Who came up with the idea of mirror-ball codpieces? Where can I get one? Will they be releasing a line of them? Are the originals for sale?
Michel did. I don’t think HBO have any plans to mass produce them. I suspect Dan Butts our production designer still has them. He may well be using them at home. I don’t know.
Whambi (aka Christina) asks - Whose decision was it to use New York City as the location of the characters, Bret and Jemaine? With the lack of many landmarks that out-of-towners are familiar with in NYC, it seems like the setting could be set the Chinatown district of any major city in the USA. Was that intentional?
Ours. New York just because it felt like a realistic place people from NZ would move to. And because we could base the whole show around a couple of blocks. You bump into people, and walk a lot. Both of which we thought we could use in the show.
KA asks - Are there any differences in producing a television show in the US compared to Britain?
I can only speak of working with HBO who from what I understand are a little different than working with a network. But from that perspective there isn’t much difference at all. Broadcasters in the UK and HBO both share the idea of letting the creators get on with it themselves. A very good idea all round I think.
How has producing the second season changed in terms of both writing and directing?
Not very much surprisingly. It was a very similar process for all of us.
Roxy Paz asks - Do you work closely with the editor in regards to choosing improvised sequences to fit in the final cut? As with writing, do you test the cut with others or go with a gut feeling?
I pretty much watch all the footage as I tend to cut all the shows, even the ones I haven’t directed. Our guest directors send in notes, and of course have very specific ideas about the videos they shoot so I try and encourage collaboration in the process whenever possible, but sometimes schedules, geography etc mean they cannot actually come into the edit in LA. Generally our 2 editors (one per show, but alternating) have a first pass whilst I’m shooting or on set but I always like to watch everything when I get back to LA as I would hate to think I had missed something – especially given our use of improv. Bret and Jemaine then get involved in the edit when we have a tighter cut available. First cuts are often quite long. Up to 38 mins or so…We don’t test the cuts with anyone but ourselves really. I show my wife. Suppose that counts as testing of sorts...
Which episode proved the most challenging to create and what were the obstacles you and the team had to overcome?
See above…obstacles are the schedule we put ourselves under and the amount of work we have to do considering we are basically a 3 man team…
Beth Thrutchley asks - Is there any silliness in the scripts that Bret and Jemaine have refused to do? They commit to their parts so ferociously that I am curious if there is some line they have not been willing to cross.
Not really. I don’t think it would be funny if it even began to make either of them uncomfortable as they are so easy going - so we’ve never really come across this.
Sugar asks - What exactly from Season 2 was inspired by experiences with fans?
The cookies from MNL, the dolls from AGO, the EVICTED Mel storyline, um…probably other bits and pieces of Mel dialogue but cannot remember off hand.
Sam asks - I'd love to know how Michel Gondry came on board this season and what it was like to work with him.
Michel is friends with our Costume Designer, Rahel Afiley – who works with him on his feature work. And so he asked us if he could do one and being a fan of his– particularly of his video work for Daft Punk and his film “Eternal Sunshine etc” – I was pleased to accept. He was great to work with. A lot of visual ideas – especially for the videos as you’d expect but he also lit the show slightly differently to how we normally do it which was interesting for me. Otherwise he fitted in very easily as I think we share similar taste in visual style and comedy so it worked out well I think.
KC asks - I wonder if you've ever considered acting in an episode yourself?
I haven’t acted since a short 3 night spell at the Kings Theatre, Southsea as Mr. Sowerbury in a school production of Oliver! back in 1989, which - whilst being an unqualified triumph (!) – I think will be the first and last time I will tread the boards…
dandy asks - Who comes up with all the New Zealand Tourism posters? The ones this season are great! I look forward to spotting the new one each episode.
Me, B and J. We asked for submissions from some of our writers this year and so I think we may have used a couple of those. And I think Dan, our designer, came up with one this year but I forget which one. Sorry…
Did you have certain people in mind for parts while writing (ie. Jim Gaffigan, Brian Sergent) or were they cast later?
We tend to know who we like in advance for those bigger roles. They tend to be people we’ve seen at stand up gigs – or who we find funny from TV. Luckily for us people have pretty much always said yes when we’ve asked. With Art Garfunkel we took a bit of a gamble as we wrote him in before I asked him. But luckily he was a gent and despite not having seen the show agreed to do it after I spoke to him about it on the phone….Smaller parts I cast in NYC.
Nancy H asks - Unlike last season, most of this season's music was written to fit the story line. Was there a set process of writing involved, (such as deciding which style of music would be used) before certain songs were written?
Not really. We had a very long list of ideas for songs for S2– some were style based because the style itself is amusing – but generally the style part comes later, if at all – and sometimes just for the video– For me anyway, a song idea starts with a central joke/idea and then grows from there. I think the guys have a similar way of working. I prefer not to do too much ‘musical parody’ as I think B and J write songs that are above and beyond that…
In Episode One, who sang the operatic tenor part to Murray's song, "Rejected"
To be honest I don’t know the guys name (I think this is on the web somewhere) but it was someone who was a friend of a friend on the crew who is apparently an up and coming tenor in New York. I was really pleased as to how he sounded though as you could almost imagine it was Rhys. PS. For people who think it is Rhys – yes it is Rhys. Don’t stop believin’.
Was the talk of a possible FOTC Christmas special just talk, or a real possibility?
A jest methinks.
Asked by any number of people - Will there be a Season 3?
moi asks - How much of the supporting cast are their own creations? Or did you, Bret and Jemaine have a very definite angle on how you wanted them to develop.
We had a very particular character idea(s) for each one and cast them accordingly. We were lucky in that some we knew – Rhys, Arj – but Kristen we found and Eugene we cast…But as actors they always bring other stuff with them which I love to see and use as it gives them a real third dimension.
Who comes up with the tee designs Mel wears?
The writers. And Rahel. And then Kristen chooses the one she likes. A powerful combination. She has her favourites – I like the FOTC in the style of John Denver ‘Back Home Again’ font myself. That was an early idea for a font for the show.
Murray mints or Polos?
I’d take either here in LA. Impossible to find. But in London I think Murray Mints are the winter mint of choice and Polos for those summer months.
If you had to do it all again, would you?
Of course. Yep. I’m incredibly proud of the show and everyone who has helped make it what it is.
Oh, and I’d just like to thank everyone for their questions and their support. We don’t get much time to meet people who really know the show as well as people here do and so it’s great to have a chance to interact a little bit. Thanks also to Sherry for all her hard work on the site.
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