Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant wrote the book screenwriting in the Hollywood studio system — or at least a book (their 2012-published guide is titled Writing Movies for Fun and Profit). But the former "Reno 911" stars went ahead and threw away all their own hard-won insights and tips to make their new horror-comedy Hell Baby.
The movie marks the directorial debut of the long-time creative partners, who have assembled two incredibly eclectic — and quietly successful — TV and film careers over the last 20 years. In addition to penning the screenplays for Ben Stiller's Night at the Museum movies, the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Herbie Fully Loaded, and The Rock's greatest role: The Pacifier, Lennon and Garant have appeared in numerous mainstream sitcoms (like How I Met Your Mother and Friends) and big-budget features (like The Dark Knight Rises), making for very solid filmographies.
But the pair first earned notice on MTV's mid-'90s sketch series The State, which segued to their hard-hitting cop show Reno 911. Along with fellow star Kerri Kenney-Silver, Lennon and Garant co-created the Comedy Central hit, which featured Lennon in notoriously nut-hugging short shorts. And when left to their own devices — without boardroom suits to please or test audiences to anticipate — Lennon and Garant's only guiding principle seems to be make it weird. Hell Baby was born of the desire to do whatever the hell they wanted once again, the "one for me" reward for the writers-actors who've spent their careers jumping between family-filled multiplexes and college dorm rooms of stoners nationwide.
"We made a movie that's not for everybody," Lennon said, laughing at the understatement seeing as Hell Baby features a devil-possessed fetus and an absurd parade of would-be exorcists. "That's the fun of it. When you're working for the studios, the idea is to make a movie that appeals to every living person. To do that, you're not gonna end up having any weird stuff. When you don't have to appeal to every living human, it's gonna be pretty weird."
"There's a studio formula of making a movie that Betty White fans and Ice Cube fans are going to love, so it's a really broad brush," Garant added. "So it's really nice to go into it thinking, If you like weird comedy shows on cable late at night, you'll love this. If you don't, you're probably not going to love it. It's a nice feeling to stand by every joke."
Hell Baby features Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb), expectant parents of twins who move into a dump of a house in the ghetto of New Orleans, hoping to get a jump start on gentrification (they're really early on this one). They're greeted by their hilariously intrusive new neighbor F'resnel (Keegan Michael Key), who helpfully recounts the massive tally of murders that have gone down inside their new home. Even for the wrong side of town, it's a tad on the suspiciously serial side.
Soon enough, a pregnancy-chasing demon finds its way into Vanessa's womb, which leads to even more homicide and a very flustered Jack, who just can't figure out why his wife is acting possessed and why so many people are being violently murdered.
Shot on a shoestring budget, the whole film — from script to Sundance premiere — took about a year to complete.
"We wanted to do a movie with the same sort of theory behind Reno 911, which was, If we write something that is cheap, maybe someone will just let us do it without a ton of notes or vetting everything or test-screening everything," Garant said. "And it worked. We wrote a script that we knew we could shoot pretty quickly and it wouldn't have massive special effects."
"As you can tell," Lennon added, "we spared every expense."
He's not exaggerating: Hell Baby, which was produced by Darko Entertainment, takes place in just a few locations — mainly the house, a restaurant and a few cutaway shots on the street — and really, it looks a bit like the lo-fi sketches that won The State a cult following way before they could be passed around as viral videos. Lennon and Garant's characters could have come straight out of that series, too; the pair plays badass priests from Rome, sort of a Bad Boys-meets-Ghost Busters via The Vatican, cloaked in black suits and speaking with terrible Italian accents as they work to vanquish the evil fetus.
"There was a lot more backstory of the priests; you see how they meet in their Amazon basin, and a big sequence ended up getting cut out," Lennon explained. "We do a long backstory of a character that is just about to die. Almost any time someone tells you their backstory, it's so we can kill them three minutes later."
Attachment to characters in Hell Baby is established just because it'll piss an audience off to sever it so soon — and it represents one of the many screenwriting rules that Lennon and Garant decided to chuck out the window, basically disobeying their own commandments from Writing Movies For Fun and Profit.
"I would argue that we kind of skipped a couple," Lennon said with a laugh. "The protagonist who you get into a pickle and then out of a pickle, we didn't do that. Everyone is terrible at their jobs."
For example, fellow MTV sketch descendants Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel of Human Giant fame play really shitty cops and fantastic comedic foils for Lennon and Garant's characters.
The priests and cops have a relatively unremarkable back-and-forth over po' boy sandwiches, but the festive pig-out earns a bunch of call backs and replays throughout the entire movie. It's more or less insane and fundamentally bad filmmaking to keep returning to inconsequential scenes of orgiastic lunches, but Hell Baby thrives on the absurd and counterintuitive.
"What was strange was that, in studio movies, before you shoot, you've had 100 meetings about everything," Garant said. "In this, Tom and I were both looking at each other as we were moving toward production and we were thinking, Is that it? Are they really going to let us shoot this? We didn't believe it."
"It seemed like someone should have given us a note like, 'Hey guys, don't go eat po' boy sandwiches three times. People are going to think that's pointless,'" Lennon joked.
Then again, these are guys who originated on a sketch series with a recurring gag featuring a dude who exhaustively exclaimed, "I wanna dip my balls in it!"
Even Hell Baby's nudity went against the grain of your standard comedy. It is aggressively unsexy, working double time to counteract the natural appeal of Riki Lindhome, who plays Bibb's sexually-liberated sister; her character Marjorie strips down in the bathroom and asks a visibly uncomfortable Jack to apply some pre-shower octopus oil to her skin.
Lubing up has never been so awkward, though Lindhome didn't much mind; she had just come off an even more uncomfortable movie experience.
"She told the story of how she was naked in something else and it was a long shoot and so there was nipple continuity issues, so she had to have ice cubes on her nipples between takes to keep the continuity the same," Garant explained, laughing at the preposterous requirements of filmmaking.
All told, Hell Baby cost around $2 million to make — none of which was spent on nipple ice — and Garant and Lennon hope it will catch on with cult audiences via VOD. The big movies pay their bills, allowing for fun projects like Hell Baby, Garant noted.
"It's fun to go back and forth. Writing big, giant behemoth movies are really fun, too, but these are the kind of things that keep you sane."