Austin Film Festival doesn't only show movies, but also includes a screenwriters' conference. This year, the lineup included Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who wrote Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and have written and directed the upcoming sequel, currently known as Harold and Kumar 2. (First they were going to Amsterdam, then they were escaping from Guantanamo Bay. Maybe next they'll be searching for a crystal skull bong.)
Hurwitz and Schlossberg sat down with moderator Josh Weiner and an audience of conference attendees to discuss both the Harold and Kumar movies, and used clips from the first movie to share various lessons they learned in screenwriting.
The first clip shown was the scene in which Harold (John Cho) encounters Maria (Paula Garces) in the elevator, both in his fantasy world and in reality. Hurwitz said the scene was pivotal to the movie because it introduced Maria as a romantic interest, which provided something for the audience to connect with in a movie that otherwise has a fairly slight storyline. In fact, the impact of the scene ultimately caused the ending to be reshot. "In our original cut, Harold came home and knocked on Maria's door at the end, and her brother's there, but she's gone to Amsterdam. What we found out at the first test screening was that people loved the movie, but they were let down at the end. Even though you barely saw Maria in the film and the movie wasn't seemingly about the love story, people felt invested in it and it has everything to do with that first scene."
Schlossberg added that the scene also set up Harold's character, whose idea of a fantasy is simply asking a girl out on an informal date: "You're laughing, but you're also learning about Harold, and you're setting up this dynamic of Harold as the uptight guy who's got to speak up. It's always good to get laughs and do something that's helping your story."
The scene in which Harold and Kumar (Kal Penn) watch the White Castle ad on TV and realize what they really want also provided a platform for discussing the inclusion of specific elements in a script, like named restaurant chains or certain celebrities.
"We had White Castle in our original script," Schlossberg told the audience. "That was a big bold thing -- were we going to be able to get White Castle, or was it going to have to be some fictitious place. White Castle was perfect because they're spread out enough where if one is closed or not there, you're really p*ssed off, and probably the next one is hours away."
The audience was particularly interested in hearing about Neil Patrick Harris playing an amped-up version of himself. The writers had written Harris into their original script. Hurwitz said they wanted a twist on the usual road-movie scary hitchhikers, and thought a celebrity would be great. They knew Harris was a good actor, plus, Hurwitz noted, "Kumar has this med school thing going on, and he [Harris] played Doogie Howser, MD. So it tied into the story -- we we wanted to pick someone who would help inform Kumar's story, even if it was in such a ridiculous way."
"Don't get too nervous or paranoid about 'Am I going to get that actor?' or 'Can I get that location?'" advised Schlossberg. "Because it doesn't matter, you're just trying to sell the screenplay and have people enjoy reading it. We hoped Neil Patrick Harris would do it, if not ... maybe Ralph Macchio?" The audience laughed. "We didn't want to think about it. But he [Harris] did it, and it was awesome." (He's also in the sequel ... he's even on the poster.)
Even a short scene with Harold and Kumar's stereotypically Jewish neighbors provided a tip for aspiring screenwriters: "If you're trying to go for the big laugh, you have to do things that sometimes loved ones and family members aren't necessarily going to be proud of," Hurwitz said. He noted that "there are elements of that scene that our parents are horrified by ... but we're establishing Harold and Kumar's friends."
A panel on the Harold and Kumar movies wouldn't be complete without a look at the notorious scene -- well, let's just call it the scene with the two young women in the bathroom. Hurwitz said they wanted to write "a sh*t scene that you'd never seen before, that had something clever going on. Just the fact that these two British girls would have some creepy disgusting game that they've been playing for years is a new twist ... it would be funnier if two people you didn't necessarily expect, would play a game like that."
The scene near the end of the movie where Kumar finds the hang glider and delivers his stirring "American dream" speech, inspired a talk about layers of meaning in the film. "As Kumar says, it's not just about the burgers, it's about the American dream," Hurwitz said. "So what seems like a stupid stoner comedy has another layer to it that we feel helps it connect with audiences, which is why it's grown in popularity since its release."
The last clip was the trailer from Harold and Kumar 2, which is available on the movie's website. I liked the opening line of "Flight 420 to Amsterdam now boarding." The bit about "It's going to be just like Eurotrip, but it's not going to suck" was funnier once Schlossberg explained that the original script for the sequel was a lot like Eurotrip ... and then that movie came out, and they realized they needed to change around the plot.
"I think we ended up with a much better story as a result," Schlossberg said. "We were thinking -- if they go on a plane, what kind of stereotypes are they going to deal with there. It's very balls-out crass, offensive, shocking, gross -- there's that type of comedy in the movie, but another layer with it that we hope connects the same way the first one did."
Hurwitz added: "The movie isn't overly political ... but it's about taking these guys and examining another thing that's been going on in our society for the past few years. We put them in this mistaken identity situation, they're mistaken as terrorists, thrown into Guantanamo Bay. The second act of this movie is that Harold and Kumar have escaped and they're on the run like The Fugitive. So it's exploring America in a different kind of way and hopefully provides the laughs the first one did."
Harold and Kumar 2 is currently slated for an April 4, 2008 release.