Q&A: ‘Harold and Kumar’ director shares challenges of 3D debut

Alex Williams

In “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas,” the eponymous duo reunite for more slapstick, raunchy stoner humor and encounters with a satirical Neil Patrick Harris. The Daily Texan spoke with Todd Strauss-Schulson, who directed the third film in the franchise as his first feature project.

Daily Texan: So how did you get involved with this project?

Todd Strauss-Schulson: I’ve never made a movie before. This is my first movie. But I’ve wanted to make a movie my whole life, and I made short films in high school obsessively, and went to film school in Boston and came to L.A. to make music videos thinking if I could make music videos, I’d be able to get into features. Music videos had died two years before I moved to Los Angeles. There was no more money in it, and it was a disaster. I spent three and a half years trying to become a successful music video director so I could transition into film like Michael Bay or David Fincher or one of those guys, and it never worked out. I quit music videos and had three years of super odd stuff. I shot virals for chewing tobacco companies and behind-the-scenes footage for things, and I was in Asia for a while doing a reality show for MTV.

DT: Were there any challenges coming onto an established franchise?

Strauss-Schulson: You wanted it to be good for the fans because it has such an intense fanbase. I’m part of the fanbase! The first movie, I found in college, stoned with my friends. The second movie I saw opening night in theaters. I really wanted to book and make the movie because all I could picture myself opening night not wanting to be bummed out by the third movie in the franchise. I very much had the idea of an audience member in mind while making it. Like, what would happen if I’m bored while I’m watching it? How crazy do I want this to get? How much shit do I want coming out at my face in 3D? I wanted to please an audience member.

DT: Well, in the sequel, you have them escaping from Guantanamo Bay, but in this one, they have to find a Christmas tree. But this one got way crazier.

Strauss-Schulson: It’s like a romantic comedy, where they’re not friends anymore, they have to learn how to become friends again, so even if the stakes aren’t as high because they’re not going to Guantanamo and having to eat a cock-meat sandwich, there are stakes. And so there was a lot of attention paid, and John [Cho] and Kal [Penn] wanted to talk a lot about that stuff and make that stuff really work. Some of what we’ve heard from our test views is that people who have grown up with the characters like that.

DT: Tell me about the Claymation sequence.

Strauss-Schulson: We hired this company LAIKA who did “Coraline” and “Nightmare Before Christmas” out of Portland and they did it, which is also crazy. The idea was, could you make a really gory, blood, action-packed, aggressive spectacle with cotton balls and adorable characters? It’s cute, but it’s also aggressive. That kind of friction was something that was in the whole movie. Can it be festive and cheery and Christmasy but also godless and raunchy and disgusting simultaneously?

DT: Were you ever worried the movie would go too far in either direction?

Strauss-Schulson: Not really. I wanted it to be sentimental at the end. The original concept, at least for me, was, besides Harold and Kumar hijack a Christmas movie, is can you make a Trojan Horse movie? On the outside, it is beautiful and feels elegant and looks like “Miracle on 34th Street.” The music is sentimental and sounds like a John Williams “Home Alone” score. Really, on the inside, it’s disgusting and raunchy.

DT: What were some of the challenges and benefits of working in 3D?

Strauss-Schulson: I loved the idea of doing the movie in 3D. That was part of the original script. I didn’t realize that when I first read it, but they told me when I went in and I was like, “What a gimmick. That sucks.” And then I thought, “What a gimmick! That could be awesome!” It became really exciting to think of ways to do jokes in 3D and ways to rachet up ridiculous scenes using that technology, ways to do really raunchy, dirty stuff, but in technically sophisticated ways. Shooting in 3D takes a little longer. The cameras are massive, they don’t do great in the cold. It limits the amount that you can really move a camera around. You can’t do snap-zooms, you can’t whip things around. It was cumbersome. It was also hard for comedy. I like to shoot with two or three cameras. They can improv and you can capture reactions to hilarious things when they only happen once. You can catch lightning in a bottle.

DT: What’s your favorite use of 3D?

Strauss-Schulson: I really love the dildo in “Jackass 3D.” Pretty great 3D moment. My favorite 3D gag in “Harold and Kumar?” That’s the first time I’ve been asked that. I love the egg-tion. I made a short, an egg-tion short instead of an action short, and I pilfered that to put in the movie.

DT: I love the cameos from small character actors. You have Elias Koteas, and Danny Trejo.

Strauss-Schulson: Those were the best. They were the most fun guys to deal with. I love Robert Rodriguez the most. I know he’s local. Ever since high school, I’ve wanted to be him.

DT: With Neil Patrick Harris, are you worried to go too meta or too crazy, or is that the point of his character?

Strauss-Schulson: It’s the point of his character. They can do anything. The movie is already bipolar. It fits and starts and is big and small, but then Neil shows up and it really can open it up. The musical number became a showstopper, I loved the idea of having Neil singing and dancing in 3D, which seemed like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you do a complete showstopper, and the movie just stops for two minutes. So that was something that was fun to do with him. He can do anything in these movies, and he loves it.

DT: I feel like the first two movies had more of a focus on Harold and Kumar’s race. This one didn’t as much.

Strauss-Schulson: That’s a Jon and Hayden thing. The first one is all about race. The second one is about race but also gets political. Guantanamo and George Bush and all that stuff. They didn’t want to repeat themselves, so I think this one was really more going after religion a little bit, Christmas especially. Each movie has its own little world.

DT: Is there gonna be a fourth one?

Strauss-Schulson: I don’t know. I have no idea. But I hope there is. I wanna see it!