DVDTalk Interview - Andrew Gurland
by Phillip Duncan
DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan recently had a chance to chat with writer / director Andrew Gurland about the upcoming DVD release of his feature directorial debut Cheats (formerly Cheaters). Gurland’s first achieved notoriety with his co-direction on the documentary Frat House. When screened at Sundance, it met with instant success and awards and was to be released in the U.S. by HBO. As its release neared, several of the Fraternity’s involved declared that many of the scenes were staged in order to avoid the repercussions that would have befallen them had their behavior been revealed.
Rather than take this as a defeat, Gurland realized that he had dealt with controversy all his life, starting in high school with a group of friends. They had essentially cheated their way through high school and when eventually caught, things did not end well. With that in mind, Gurland set about writing his first script which became the high school comedy / drama that Gurland himself likened to Goodfellas in high school.The film opens with a disclaimer stating that it’s based on a true story. How much truth is there to that?
We got everybody together. In fact, some of the guys hadn’t talked to each other since the actual incidents and there were some misunderstandings about what went down. So, we actually resolved some of those issues in the documentary, which was nice. Hear the Response...
Tell us a little more about that.
To talk about it briefly, there were some consequences of my high school cheating. When we did get busted, guys kind of turned on each other. It really did ruin some friendships. Hear the Response...
That’s what I was wondering. How much was really true and if you were an active participant.
Well, I mean you know, each character is kind of an amalgamation of several guys because there were many, many of us in my cheating group. All the actual stories are based on true stories and then they are shaped to fit the larger plot. Hear the Response...
I first heard your name a couple of years ago when the controversy surrounding your documentary “Frat House” came up. How big of a change was it to go from a controversial documentary to a high school comedy?
Well, I would say that after the Frat House controversy I was forced to really deal with the fact that I had gotten myself into ethical quandaries my whole life. The Frat House controversy made me reflect back on the trouble I got into in high school for cheating. Hear the Response...
It led to this film, in a way?
Yeah, actually writing Cheaters after that was therapeutic, because I had to deal with a lot of those ethical issues. Hear the Response...
Was it a difficult transition from documentary to feature film?
Directing feature films is much easier than directing documentaries. In feature films you have willing participants. Everyone wants to do it. When you’re making a documentary, you have got to convince people that somehow it’s a good idea for them to reveal, to expose themselves. You really have to convince that it’s in their best interest to expose themselves, really just for your end. That’s tough, because that’s not always what’s best for those people. Hear the Response...
Especially if it’s not painting a flattering portrait.
Yeah. As a filmmaker you have a much better understanding of the power of the medium than they do. They’re more likely to do something that might be good for your movie, but not so good for themselves. Really, that was the crux of the Frat House controversy. It wasn’t whether, at least in my mind, to participate in a movie that it really wasn’t in their best interest to participate in. By the time I got to Cheaters (Cheats), I had actors. Actors love to, any humiliation you can cook up, an actor is happy to participate in. Hear the Response...
What are some of your inspirations for comedy?
What I really set out to do was take kind of a gangster movie and bring it to high school. You know, the whole rise and fall element of it is taken from movies like Goodfellas, Scarface… Hear the Response...
Now that you mention that, I can see it in the narration.
Yeah, and kind of like the code, there are all these rules you have to follow. If you don’t follow your own code, you’re sure to bring about your own destruction. As far as they style of the movie, it was really patterned after a gangster movie. Hear the Response...
Was there any difficulty in getting the film produced since it was technically your first feature film?
I imagine, from what I’ve heard, this was a very easy movie to get made in comparison to other movies. The hard part was writing the script, for me. The movie getting made, that was out of my control. Someone else decided that. The challenge for me was this was my first script. So not having sat down and written something myself before, that part of it was my greatest challenge. Hear the Response...
Did you have trouble getting a PG-13 rating, because the movie seemed to push the boundaries of that rating?
Thank you for commenting on that, because I worked my ass off for that PG-13 rating! The thing is, there’s nothing that’s literally that vulgar in the movie but I take a lot of pride in being dirty without being direct. But they still ended up giving me an R for basically crude suggestion. Hear the Response...
The shot I’m referring to is the opening shot
Where they’re peeing on the grade book?
It’s a great point of view shot.
But it’s not like you’re seeing anything. But they didn’t have as big of a problem with that as they did all the references to hand sex. I ended up having to make an MPAA appeal because they gave me an R rating. We went before an appeals board and I had to argue my case in front of this board and explain why the use of the word hand-job was crucial to sending children a positive message about why cheating is wrong. Hear the Response...
What do you prefer the most, short films, documentary or feature films?
I have to say I enjoy short films the most, just because you can make them quicker and with fewer people. I have to say I loved making a feature film and I look forward to doing it again if I’m ever allowed to, but shorts are better. You turn the around quicker, it’s more like punk rock. You kind of make it quickly with fewer people and fewer distractions. Making a feature film, you have to deal with things like test screenings and market research and adjusting your material to what the audience is saying. Hear the Response...
Is that something you had to do a lot of?
Oh yeah, everybody does.
Is that something you enjoy?
I enjoyed it as having the experience of it, but did I literally enjoy it when it was happening? No. It was awful. It’s nerve racking. Hear the Response...
Any chance of any more documentaries?
Yes. I’m actually working a documentary right now. I’m working on it with Doug Lymon’s company. He shot The Bourne Identity and Go. So, I’m shooting a documentary on the mail order bride business. Hear the Response...
Here’s hoping that we’ll actually get to see this one.