Harold and Kumar - Kal Penn and John Cho
You wouldn't expect a comedy about two stoners on a quest for hamburgers to be a landmark film, but somehow Harold and Kumar go to White Castle just might be. Rather than your standard 'Abacrombie and Fitch' decked out white guys getting stoned and looking for burgers, Harold and Kumar takes an much more unique path following the exploits of Harold an Asian American (played by John Cho) and Kumar an Indian American (played by Kal Penn). John Cho and Kal Penn may not be your typical leading men, but that's the point, they are leading men. Harkening back to the days of Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar again challenge Hollywood's casting perceptions and show that the cinematic world is much more than just black and white. DVD Talk had the opportunity to talk to Kal and John just as the DVD for Harold and Kumar go to The White Castle was about to be released.
What was it like looking over the film again on DVD?
Kal: One word - 'erotic'.
So are we going to see a 'Harold and Kumar 2'?
John: Based on the 'financial performance of the DVD'...
John: We didn't do as well theatrically as we had hoped. I think everyone is under the belief that this is a movie that is really suited for DVD sales and rentals. If our predictions are true we'll squeeze another movie out of this baby.
Are these characters ones you'd love to do again?
Kal: Absolutely. The character itself and the writing was pretty dynamic. The opportunity that it provided us was great and so I'd love to go back and do a sequel. I enjoyed playing Kumar, he's a lot cooler than me in real life, so it was a chance for me to just be cooler than myself.
John: I like Harold and Kumar, the characters, I think they're fun to be and fun to hang out with. The second reason is - we had a good deal of fun making the first one. I imagine the second one, set as it would be in Amsterdam would be even funner.
Kal: Meaning more fun?
Kal: How about more funner... Be that guy.
John:: Oh no.
I can see the tag line now - 'more funner than the first one'.
Kal: Do you know what the tag line should be? I was on IMDB earlier and somebody posted a thing that said 'If you don't like this movie, you suck.'
John: I like that one, it's really chantable. I'm imagining throngs right now, like at an anti-war rally.
Kal: (chanting) 'If you don't like this movie, you suck!'
You two both do a fantastic job embodying these two characters and seem to have such a strong 'buddy' connection on screen, what did you do as actors to help create that on screen bond?
John: Kal and I didn't know each other before we made the movie and it was something that wasn't particularity funny or glamorous. I think we just worked at it during rehearsals. Wouldn't you say so Kal?
Kal: Yeah I think so. There three things were: we worked at it, there was a fair amount of good fortune in the fact that we liked each other legitimately, and the writing was so good that it really provided the framework for who these guys are. We just kind of worked at it on the weeks leading up to shooting.
Was there any 'Aha!' moment when everything clicked?
Kal: I think in real life I am more of a Harold and John is more of a Kumar and as we were shooting the film, we assumed the roles of the characters in our real life. Not completely...
John: That was more the Aha moment. For the longest time, I was coming on set and completely switching my personality 180 to play Harold and Kal was doing the same. At some point I was just Harold all the time... it was pretty much towards the end of the movie, Kal was suddenly Kumar off the set.
I think one of the things which works so well about the film is just how well the two of you embody the two characters..
Kal: Thank you, I think that there are parts of Kumar that I discovered were beneficial to living.
Kal: So maybe I've tried to adapt to some of those things. Just the carefree nature, the not needing to worry about every little thing. I don't know....
How much footage did you guys shoot for the Menu Screens on the DVD? Was it done while you were working on the movie or later on?
Kal: That was done later in Los Angeles.
John: We did shoot a lot...
Kal: Now I remember, and I'm curious to watch all of that. I remember waiting a long time, because they wanted us to do something, where we're looking straight ahead and the we continue talking, something like that. So if the kids leave the DVD on...Wait a second, did I just say 'the kids'! Let me rewind, if the audience left the DVD on and kept the loop going, towards the end of the loop there was something new.
John: I actually remember that being stranger than thinking about going back to Harold and Kumar now. After a movie as a matter of course, I just sort of shake the character off really firmly, because it's over. We shot those DVD menus not too long after we'd shot the movie - the movie wasn't out yet and that was really strange. I remember having to put those clothes on again... Kal remember that?
John: ...the hair and all the stuff. It was very odd and I think I'm going to look back and all I'll be able to think about was how strange it was for me that day.
So with all that you shot that day, are there any surprises hidden on the DVD?
Kal: There were a lot of things that we did that were towards the end of scenes that we shot in the film as well as the menu options. We were shooting the film on a really tight schedule, and most of the film takes place at night and we were shooting it in Canada over the summer. So there was only eight hours of darkness roughly every night, so we couldn't improvise as much in the middle of the scenes, so what we would do is add to the ends of it. It might just be a word or two, or it might be a riff. You might just have to stick around and watch the whole scene for it.
John: It's funny because on the set Danny was always saying 'Kal, please use improv we can use in an R-rated movie, which we don't have to fight the MPAA for'. It would just go right to vulgar town really fast. I bet Kal, now those are in.
Kal: I bet they're in on the DVD, I'm curious.
How much leeway were you given with some of the banter between the characters to let it organically grow beyond the script?
John: I think we worked more at it during rehearsals trying to get it. As an example, there are lots of scenes in the script we shot of them driving, from one place to the other, many of those scenes didn't have scripted dialog. So we worked at filling those up, just to make sure that each time you cut to Harold and Kumar in the car that there was something character reveling being said between them. We tried to put jokes in where we felt that there weren't any, we kind of did it mostly during rehearsal and to some degree on set but we tried to prepare before we went in.
What kind of impact has this film had on your careers going beyond Harold and Kumar?
John: I don't know.
Kal: I think the full impact of it has yet to be seen. There has definitely been a lot of really nice positive feedback from director's who have seen it or producers and casting people from within the industry which is nice. But I think it's still too soon to see the actual career impact of it.
John: What it could be - if you carry a movie and you're Asian American I think you get tossed into a very small club, both in the eyes of the public and the eye of the industry. We shall see if that really turns out to be true, but I suspect that's the case and things have been altered for us, maybe for the rest of our careers, having done it. I don't know if it's going to be particularly fruitful but that's what I hope.
I think there's been a sense that this movie has opened a door to being able to treat lead characters in movies independent of their ethnic background.
Kal: Absolutely, and I really hope that's one of the things that Hollywood at large takes away from this - whether it's independent filmmakers or studios themselves. This is the film that has basically deconstructed something that I think is an archaic model of film making, and that is that it's got to be predominantly white or black and white and that's it. It kind of shows that it can make money because the audience is sick of seeing the same thing over and over. It's accurately reflecting the American spectrum and I think that on both moral grounds as well as financial it makes sense to do that in the future.
John: Wow! Heavy.
So Kal, what was it like to be a vegetarian in a movie about two guys jonesing for a White Castle Hamburger?
Kal: It actually wasn't bad at all. I've not always been a vegetarian and while we were filming the movie there was some discussion about the scenes where I eat the burgers, and I was fine using a spit bucket. The producers and the studio went way out of their way to make sure they brought in veggie patties and had them cut up, and they were very delicious, so props to them for that. It wasn't really an acting challenge, when I remember eating burgers, they were definitely delicious.
What are some of your favorite DVDs.... Besides "Better Luck Tomorrow"?
Kal: I watch 'The Rules of Attraction' DVD from time to time.
John: The Royal Tenenbaums is another one I watch alot.
Kal: I have not seen that film!
John: I get into this thing, where I got The Godfather Trilogy and I don't know what it is, I can watch that over and over. I think it's partly that it's such a huge story, I feel like I can put it on at any time. I find myself putting that on with some regularity.
The Godfather DVD gets mentioned a lot when we do interviews, it seems that many people in the industry keep coming back to those films and watch them at least in part every six months, or several times a year.
John: I really feel that way, I watch it every few months, and I go 'there it is! I have it, I've got to see it'. It's weird. It is a superb DVD by the way, some great extras and the commentary is just fantastic.
Kal: Is this the one with the horses head in her bed?
John: (Sighs), yeah. God Kal.
Kal: Sorry, I'm cinematically retarded by the way, I think everybody should know that.
What did you guys do to prepare for your own audio commentary for the Harold and Kumar DVD?
Kal: I watch commentaries a lot, so I had a sense of what we could talk about, and once we got there, they had some things that they wanted us to talk about, some of the freeform stuff, just so we could cover all the bases of stuff we were forgetting and things they were forgetting that we wanted to add. It was fun, we just sort of sat there for the day and did it.
John: You know, my only concern coming in was I didn't want to be an asshole. This is particularly bad to me, you have that commentary when the movie is really awful and the director is like (impersonating a bad commentary) 'this shot was meant to symbolize the oppression that the main character is going through and notice the bars I've created with shadows across his face.' I hate that kind of commentary, it's justified when it's The Godfather... My goal was just to have a good time more than anything else.
- Geoffrey Kleinman
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