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OPENING NIGHT interview w/ Director Isaac Rentz

Isaac Rentz's body of work includes music videos for groups such as Cage The Elephant, Paramore, Tegan and Sara, Eminem and Linkin Park, as well as promotional campaigns for Red Stripe, Xbox, and Nintendo. In 2011, Rentz directed a promotional music video for the feature film Take Me Home Tonight. The video featured actors Topher Grace, Anna Faris, and Demetri Martin reenacting iconic scenes from classic 80s films. He recently directed the acclaimed feature film OPENING NIGHT, an independent musical comedy starring Topher Grace, Taye Diggs, Anne Heche, Rob Riggle, Alona Tal, and Lauren Lapkus. It debuted at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. The film is a film about a failed Broadway singer (Grace) who now works as a production manager and must save opening night on his new production by wrangling his eccentric cast and crew.

How are you today?

I’m great! I’m sitting in a warm bath.

Well thank you for taking time out of... or extending your bath time to answer my questions. The music in OPENING NIGHT is critical and as most of us know the rights to music can be incredibly expensive. I'm assuming you didn't have a BABY DRIVER like budget, so how did you pull off such an impressive soundtrack?

Topher and I tried to come up with a musical theme that would work on an indie budget. We thought ‘one hit wonders’ was perfect because it matched the theme of the movie and there are so many songs to choose from. We made a huge list-probably a couple hundred- and then begged every record label in town. It was a lot of favors. I think at one point, Topher had to show up at someone’s birthday party to get the rights to To Be With You.

The ATOMIC TOM video for DON'T YOU WANT ME that you directed feels like a prequel for OPENING NIGHT. Both the video and film are pop-culture pastiches featuring Topher Grace. How did you find out about his spot on Marty McFly impersonation and whose choice was it to incorporate that into the video? Was the experience of directing that video what led you to cast him in OPENING NIGHT?

Topher does the best Michael J. Fox impression on the planet. He did it as a joke on set, and it was so good it made the final edit. That video was really difficult- we did every 80s homage imaginable in 12 hours- but we had so much fun making it. After that Topher and I started talking about movies, and trying to figure out the musical comedy idea we could pull off on an indie budget. He had just done an off-Broadway production and loved the comedic possibilities of that world.

For a film that's as bat shit crazy as OPENING NIGHT, it definitely wears its heart on its sleeve. How important was striking the balance between comedy and humanity for you in approaching this material?

I love comedies that aren’t afraid to be sincere. Our movie is such a balancing act, because it’s raunchy and irreverent, but it also makes the case for not letting cynicism define you. It’s like, ‘here’s a dick joke’, but also ‘don’t give up, you’ve got the music in you!.’ It’s really hard to make both of those things work simultaneously, and I’m so proud of the way the cast pulls it off.

Taye Diggs is wonderful in the film. His character could have easily been played as a cliche that we've seen countless times before, but I felt like he brought a depth and acumen to the role that was completely original. He's one of those actors who elevates pretty much everything he touches. How did you go about getting him for the role?

Taye’s character, Malcom, was by far the hardest too cast. If it’s read too broadly, the character becomes obnoxious. We auditioned a lot of talented comedic actors who went full Birdcage, and it felt all wrong. I begged our casting director for some unconventional ideas, and he suggested Taye. Taye’s perfect because he’s the handsomest, most charismatic guy, but there’s a subtlety to how he carries himself. We talked on the phone and I knew right away that he had the perfect take on the character. His role was really demanding- there’s singing, dancing, physical gags- but he makes it all seem so effortless.

As ridiculous as ONE HIT WONDERLAND appears to be, there is a part of me that really wants to see that musical. If there was a special feature on the DVD where I could watch the entire performance, I'd be all over it. How much of the musical is in the film? Are there additional scenes from the performance that didn't make the cut?

Thanks! We cut a scene where JC Chasez’s character ends up at a hollywood orgy where everyone is dressed up like a dog. The music was going to be an orchestral version of ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’, sung in the style of a Meatloaf ballad. The dogs were going to be in Eyes Wide Shut masks, and everyone was going to be on drugs. It was supposed to be the moment his character hits rock bottom, but we thought maybe it went too far.

JC Chasez seems to have a self-deprecating sense of humor that was necessary for the role. Was it written for him or did you just need to find a former pop star who was willing and capable?

That part was hard to cast because the actor needed to be a person who could play themselves, was willing to joke about their career, and was able to sing and dance. There are maybe 10 people in Hollywood who fit that description. JC was perfect because he was so willing to put himself out there. In the movie he plays a creepy version of himself, but in real life he’s a very thoughtful, down-to-earth guy. It was so surreal to direct musical sequences starring someone I used to watch on TRL when I was a kid.

Rob Riggle is brilliant in the film. How much of what he was doing was in the screenplay vs. how much of it was improv?

Every day that we shot with Rob I’d end up behind schedule because I didn’t ever want to cut. It was so tempting in the edit to just string together all of the different alt lines he gave us into really long sequences, but it would have ruined the pacing of the movie. We were lucky to have a lot great improvisers in the cast- Paul Scheer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Huskey, Zach Cregger. They gave us so much great material, the movie could have been twice as long.

Your film goes a long way to capture the insanity that is theater. In fact, anyone who hasn't worked a show might not understand that in many ways your film is understated in its portrayal. Do you have a background in theater? 

I actually don’t know much about Broadway. Most of my earliest musical memories came from Simpsons episodes where they lampooned Broadway songs. I tried to approach the movie with a comedy-first mindset. I didn’t want to get bogged down in details about the minutiae of theater, because it was important to me that audiences who were unfamiliar with Broadway would still find it engaging. Every now and then I’d ask Taye if certain things felt authentic, and he’d always say, “yeah, close enough.”

There is a long tradition of films about putting on a show. Do you have a favorite film about the subject? Or is there one that you feel really captures what it's like?

I watched All That Jazz while we were prepping the movie and it blew my mind. It’s 100% different from our film tonally, and it’s really dark, but I loved it. I think the original version of The Producers is fantastic. To Be Or Not To Be is a great Ernst Lubitsch comedy about Broadway that I think is perfect. Broadway such a cinematic setting, I think there’s room for a lot more movies that take place

OPENING NIGHT will be released on DVD via Wolfe Video on August 1.