Many surprises await in Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the new comedy starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who also co-wrote the film, their first as a team since Bridesmaids) as best friends who leave their Midwestern comfort zone for the first time to go to Vista Del Mar, Florida. The premise may sound straightforward, but it’s everything that the trailers leave out that makes the movie such a delightful and often deeply strange ride.
To take one example, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar’s opening sequence reveals that the film also involves a Bond-villain type (also played by Wiig) who plots to wipe out the population of Vista Del Mar via genetically enhanced mosquito. In other words, the movie is unpredictable from its first scene to its last, and one of its wildest sequences is an all-out musical number in which Jamie Dornan—best known for playing the central thirst object of the Fifty Shades of Grey movies and now playing Edgar, an insecure henchman being strung along by his boss—breaks into song about his frustration at not being in an “official relationship,” pirouetting and pouring his heart out to an audience of seagulls. We asked the film’s director, Josh Greenbaum, what it was like to put together such a stunning cinematic achievement. (The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Karen Han: I’ll start with a very important question: What can you tell me about the seagulls?
Josh Greenbaum: “Let’s talk about the seagulls.” There are a couple of thoughts. One is the origination of the lyrics. Obviously, our chorus is all about the seagulls. They really embody his loneliness. I mean, when you’re singing and begging seagulls on a tire or seagulls in the sky or seagulls eating trash, “Can you hear my prayer?,” that is a lonely moment. That’s all you’ve got—the seagulls around you—to sing to? Kristen and Annie came up with this hilarious song, and the chorus was referencing seagulls, and then we talked a lot about, “Well, are we getting real seagulls? How are we doing it?” It was actually quite a lot of scrambling to figure out how do we pull that off. And at one point we wound up getting a couple of fake seagulls, which are the ones [you see] eating trash. You can’t quite tell, but it’s me holding these two fake seagulls and wiggling them back and forth. I’m holding them just out of frame.
We animated them ever so slightly where they do a little bit of blinking. But it embodies the film. It’s always one or two clicks away from full reality. We did have some moments where there were some real seagulls on the beach and it was like, “Oh, my god, go shoot those, go grab those!” Then we used some stock footage and doctored it up to get our seagull on a tire, because we were unable to acquire an animal trainer who was able to put a seagull on a tire for us.
Are the fake ones a specific type of gull? Were you doing intense bird research for this?
I wouldn’t call it intense research. I think it was more like, “OK, what’s your traditional seagull look like?” One of the funny things we discovered is, we were out on a beach in Mexico, and where we happened to be did not have the type of seagull we’re looking at. They’re a much darker, gray-looking bird. They don’t look like our traditional gull that you picture when you think of a seagull.
I think it started with our couple of fake ones and then finding the stock footage where there were a thousand seagulls. I wish I could say that we actually got a thousand seagulls together for our movie, but in fact someone else had already captured it and we just paid for the licensing rights.
Did Jamie Dornan audition for this, or did you specifically ask for him to be in this movie?
We very early on thought that he would be such an amazing get for this. The question always lingers: Is he going to be game? And of course, the big question as director is, can he be funny? What sold me on him right away is we had a call—I think a two-hour Skype video call—and I just instantly realized, “Oh, he’s very, very funny. He gets it.”
And when we were shooting the movie, I remember his wife came up to me and told me: “This is really Jamie. This is really what he loves to do and what he, early on in his acting career, wanted to do.” And then of course he was cast in one of his earliest roles [in The Fall] as a serial killer, and then it goes from there. But he did such an incredible job.
I think what you need to do as any dramatic actor entering into comedy is commit. And I think you see that, particularly in the number you are focusing on. The way to make that funny is to fully commit. You’re not playing a joke. For your character, you’re playing the real stakes of it. And for him, in this moment, he’s really feeling anguish, and he’s feeling lovelorn, and he’s desperate to be loved. And you just play that very straight. I think really great dramatic actors put in the right role can be incredibly funny, and Jamie killed it.
In terms of his singing and dancing, how much of that is actually him, and how much of that did you have to double?
It’s almost all him other than when we make it obvious that it’s not. All the singing is him. He’s got a pretty incredible voice, which I think, when we wrote it and cast it, I didn’t even know. I figured, “Oh, we’ll probably have someone else sing.” I didn’t know he had a wonderful voice. But we started talking more and more, and he was in a band in high school, and it was like, “Oh, he can really pull this off.”
And then the dancing, obviously he’s fully committed. There are a couple of sequences, like when he’s spinning like a baby ballerina and digging himself into the sand, that are obviously doubled. Again, I hope it comes across as clear that part of the joke is it’s clearly not him, but if so, I’m sorry for ruining it for people that’s not him. He’s clearly doing the bulk of the funny tumbling and jumping. But when there’s beautiful, full-split ballet moves, I hate to tell the world, but that’s actually not Jamie.
The dancing is primarily very balletic. How did you settle on that style?
I think it all started with the lyrics. We knew the lyrics were going to be leading what our visuals were, and part of the fun of the joke of it all is we’re actually seeing him do exactly what he’s saying. As he’s singing, he’s literally running to the left and he’s literally running to the right, and then of course climbing. When you listen to the lyrics, that he’s climbing up a tree “like a cat who’s decided to go up a palm tree,” well, let’s have him climb as though he were a cat, and that’s how he did it. In the literalness came the humor.
But when it was open for interpretation, it felt like we wanted it to feel as emotional as possible, in maybe an unexpected way. I think seeing ballet as … ballet is beautiful, and certainly very evocative and emotional. But pairing that with a very physical man is not … I guess it’s not the norm. I think one of the touchstones that we often talked about early on in the script was we always loved the Kevin Bacon Footloose emotional dance. That was always a big reference. Because obviously in that film it’s done earnestly, but there’s something so funny about him doing these really huge ballet and gymnastics moves. The idea was, “Well, what would be the most emotionally evocative of the dance styles?” And we landed on ballet for much of it.
Speaking of the palm tree, I assume that was done horizontally and then flipped vertically?
Good guess, but actually we did do it practically. He’s rigged up. Again, I’m ruining it all. I wish I could say that Jamie Dornan … let’s just put that “Jamie Dornan trained for months at how to climb a palm tree like a cat.” But no, he was rigged up by our incredible stunt team, and he climbed it, and we shot. I’m a big fan of just shooting as much practically as possible. When the ladies float down in their culottes, that was all shot practically. We strung up Kristen and Annie, literally lifted them over 100 feet in the air, and we flew them down. So yeah, Jamie was rigged up, he climbed up the palm tree, and then we just painted out the wire later on.
I guess this is also a practical effects question: When Jamie Dornan tears his T-shirt off, is that a special, rippable T-shirt, or literally him being so strong that he can rip through cloth with his bare hands?
Again, I want to tell you he’s just that strong. The actual behind-the-scenes story is I think he did do a take or two where we didn’t rip it. Because I was like, “Look, it might be funny if you’re struggling to rip it,” because I think we’ve all seen the tear-off. In our movie, maybe because he’s having such a hard time, even his shirt won’t rip off properly. Nothing’s going his way. So I think he actually did do a take or two where he just ripped it himself, and that is actually I believe what’s in the movie.
But we did other takes where you pre-score [the shirt], and you just put a little rip at the bottom or the top, and it helps out a little bit. Look, he’s a very strong man, if you didn’t know that and can’t tell from his body. I have full faith that if he ever had to rip his shirt off without any help, he can do it.
Did either of you have any say in the choreography beyond what’s written in the lyrics, as you mentioned, or did you have a choreographer plan it out for you?
We had a fantastic choreographer on the film who helped with this number as well as our big musical number in the hotel. You should know that this entire 2½-minute sequence, in the original script—and I believe even the script Jamie read when he signed on—it literally was one line. It said, “Edgar does an emotional dance,” and that was it.
So he showed up and it was like, “OK, now let’s actually talk about that.” A lot of it was working through, “How do you kick your toes up in the sand emotionally?”
One last big question: Are there any plans to push this for Best Original Song, and if not, why not?
It’s a very good question. There were plans, and it absolutely deserves it. We were originally going to be a theatrical release, and then all of the dates shifted, and we sadly missed the deadline, which is kind of a heartbreaker for all of us. So I wish. I absolutely wish. Because it’s such a great number. People who have seen it and have written about it have been like, “Oh, my god, this is a fantastic song, let alone performance by Jamie visually.” We did get in under the deadline for a couple other numbers, for the hotel musical number and for Richard Cheese’s song about boobies, which, there is a longer version. It’s called “I Love Boobies.” But it’s unfortunate, because I think this would have been fantastic as well.