While screenwriter Phil Johnston’s script for the comedy “Cedar Rapids” made the 2009 Black List (a list of the year’s most popular, unproduced scripts in Hollywood), the distinction should have come with an asterisk. The list, which included future Oscar favorites like “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech,” was released in the very early stages of the film’s actual production.
“It was a great honor and I’m really glad people enjoyed the script, but it was even better to have the movie in production,” Johnston told me during a phone interview last month. “There’s always that existential question: If you write a script and no one reads it or no one makes a movie from it, are you really a writer? It’s very complicated.”
In “Cedar Rapids,” Johnston’s very first feature film, small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is chosen to represent his company at a insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa after his boss dies from an autoerotic asphyxiation accident.
During our interview, Johnston discussed why insurance agents make good superheroes, why the film was not shot in the state of Iowa, and revealed his secret boyhood crush he didn’t even realize he had.
Out of all the cities in the entire United States, why write a movie set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?
I worked in Western Iowa for three years. I spent some time in Cedar Rapids and so I had some great affection for the Midwest. Physically, Cedar Rapids had those bad floods in 2008. I wanted something that an insurance agent might be able to look to as a place where they could be a hero. For Ed [Helms’] character, Tim Lippe, he saw these floods as a terrible thing, but he looked at insurance people working in the trenches like firefighters and police officers helping people out.
The idea that an insurance agent could be a heroic character had never crossed my mind, but it made complete sense when Tim explains it from his point of view.
Yeah, the idea started with this character living this very sheltered life and has never left his town or taken too many risks. Thinking about what that character would do, I settled on insurance because he’s a guy who sees people who have taken risks or whose lives have gone badly. For Tim, insurance is this noble calling. It’s like this safety net.
Death by autoerotic asphyxiation isn’t a common occurrence in most comedies these days. Were you disappointed when you saw it pop up in “World’s Greatest Dad” in 2009?
I really liked that movie. (Laughs) I really thought that was a gutsy move. I don’t think “Cedar Rapids” will be remembered as an autoerotic asphyxiation comedy – at least I would hope. (Laughs) I think there is still room to grow in the autoerotic asphyxiation genre. Dare to dream.
I know you had Ed Helms in mind all along for the lead role in this movie. What had you seen from him in the past that led you to write something specifically for him?
I had breakfast with Ed about three years ago and we talked about this idea I had. I had this outline and a sort of general idea. I pictured him in it because I knew he was funny from “The Daily Show.” But I knew him as a sweet guy, and on the “The Daily Show” his persona was more of a jerk. In real life he is a really nice person. I knew the character needed to be someone who had a Jack Lemmon or James Stewart quality to him; someone that always looks on the bright side. There’s something about Ed where I never feel any kind of cynicism coming from his persona. I was very fortunate that he liked the material a lot. When we were putting the movie together, “The Hangover” came out. His star really rose after that. I was sort of like a perfect storm.
Did you pull any of the scenarios that happen in this film from your own life? I’m wondering if you had a boyhood crush on one of your teachers like Tim does.
That particular one is not, but there are some scenes from the script that are directly pulled from my life. The scene in the swimming pool where John C. Reilly’s character has a trash can over his head and walks into the pool fully clothed happened to a friend at a party once. He didn’t end up masturbating in the pool though. That part I added. You know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, my first grade teacher was kind of hot. I’m just now remembering that.
Do you want to give a shout out?
(Laughs) Mrs. Ann Leonard. If you’re out there, give me a call.
Were you disappointed the film could not be shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?
Place is a huge part of my writing process, so it was a bummer. It was interesting from a moviemaking standpoint because we had a production office set up in Des Moines, Iowa and we were going to shoot exclusively in Iowa, but there was a scandal with the Iowa Film Commission where they stopped their rebate program. Tax incentives got shut down. We were four weeks away from principle photography and the producer had to find a new location. We moved the whole production from Iowa to Michigan in four weeks. While it would have been great to shoot the movie in Iowa, I think the fact that it got made at all is a minor miracle given that huge speed bump in front of production.
What’s going on with your next film “Reply All?”
I’ve turned in a draft. That’s the one I’m working on with Zach Galifianakis. It’s a DreamWorks movie. I’m in the very early stages of the script and making changes. I’m hoping that one goes into production later this year. It been a really fun process working with Zach.