austin film festival
Rob Thomas on "shotgun friendships," the Party Down movie rumors and his new(Texas-based!) show, Little in Common
Most television showrunners are lucky to have a series make the air at all, let alone one that runs for multiple seasons and attracts an adoring audience whose fan-dom approaches religious fervor. Rob Thomas has had two such shows in his career: in 2004, he created the beloved high school dramedy-slash-neo-noir mystery series Veronica Mars, which ran for three seasons on UPN (and later The CW). Then, in 2009, he co-created (alongside John Enbom, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd) one of the finest comedies of the new millennium, Party Down, which ran a lamentably short two seasons on the Starz network.
In the time since then, the Texas native (and UT alum) has moved back to Austin, but he hasn't left Hollywood behind. We talked to Rob about his current projects, his upcoming appearance at the Austin Film Festival, the possibility of his past shows big screen future and what it's like working in showbiz two thousand miles away from the Pacific ocean.
I didn’t realize that you were still based in Austin. Then I saw that I’m calling an Austin area code phone for this interview, and somebody else told me, “Yeah, he lives here.”
Yeah, I moved back a couple of years ago. I was in LA for… 13 years? And then I moved back a couple of Halloweens ago, so almost exactly two years now.
And you've got a new TV project you're working on. Is that an Austin production?
It will be an LA production. We've already re-shot the pilot it and turned it in, and they’re supposed to give us an answer on it by next Friday. So we’re sort of sitting on the edge of our seats to see if that’s moving forward.
Something I’m experiencing now that I have kids is that you sort of spend your entire life making friends with people who share your aesthetic, your taste in pop culture and politics and religion and people who you have a lifetime of memories with. Then suddenly, you have kids and you’re thrown into situations where you’re not getting to choose your own friends anymore
The show is called Little in Common, and it’s about a couple who moves from California to Texas. As a native Texan who moved to California and then back again, do you have any ideas of what kind of thing you’ll be mining for comic potential in this type of story?
Well, the show is about Rob Corddry and Heather Graham, who play a fairly progressive couple and are not particularly sports-oriented, and their son, who decides he wants to play baseball though he has never shown any particular interest in sports. I wanted to throw them into a situation where, basically, the other parents were sports-obsessed, and I chose Austin because I know it—and, frankly, even though I’m from Austin, I’m going through a little bit of that culture shock of my own now. Having not been here since I was in my twenties, when I was a broke musician and then a broke aspiring writer and a broke high school teacher, I used to live in very specific neighborhoods in Austin. I lived over by Flightpath Coffee, and now that I’ve moved back I’m living in Tarrytown. This is a much different Austin than I experienced the first time.
But as much as there’s certainly fish-out-of-water comedy in dropping this particular couple into a new Texas sports-obsessed neighborhood, the comedy that I think I’m going to mine largely is sort of about “shotgun friendships.” You know, something I’m experiencing now that I have kids is that you sort of spend your entire life making friends with people who share your aesthetic, your taste in pop culture and politics and religion and people who you have a lifetime of memories with. Then suddenly, you have kids and you’re thrown into situations where you’re not getting to choose your own friends anymore. And you’re making friends with people that you might not otherwise have because your kids are in school together, they’re riding bikes in the neighborhood together, they’re in the same class in school. So I think the fish-out-of-water story will certainly be a part of it, but exploring these shotgun friendships is sort of where I’m ultimately going with it.
With your previous work on series likeParty DownandVeronica Mars, the strength of the character relationships were often those shows’ strengths, and a big part of why those shows resonated with people. It’s good to hear that character relationships seem to be what you still key-in on the most.
Yeah. And while that is something that I’m very comfortable with, I will say that it’s a very different beast writing it for a big network comedy. When we were doing Party Down on Starz, it was, “Write the show that you and your friends will like.” And you don’t quite have that luxury on a big network where it’s, “Write the show that AMERICA will like…”
And, oddly, that’s harder (laughs). But it’s also why I’ve talked to people about, when these two movies came out at about the same time, I remember having conversations about why I almost have more respect for the guy who wrote Galaxy Questthan Charlie Kaufman writing Being John Malkovich. Because I knew that writing Being John Malkovich, you’ve got a master of one. You spec that script and you’re pleasing only yourself, you hope that you win the lottery and somebody makes it. I think with a movie like Galaxy Quest, where you have to make a huge cross-section of America enjoy it, and you have six characters who all have to have heartwarming arcs, and you’re going to have a studio leaning on you because there’s a sizeable budget… I’ve come in my 13, 14-year career to really admire people who come out with a really good movie on the other side of that.
When we were doing Party Down on Starz, it was, “Write the show that you and your friends will like.” And you don’t quite have that luxury on a big network where it’s, “Write the show that AMERICA will like…”
AndGalaxy Questis a really good example that you picked there, because it’s not exactly like that was a low-concept idea. It isn’t like mainstream America was just clamoring for another Star Trek convention sci-fi action-adventure comedy, but to make that work for a mainstream audience is impressive.
There’s been some recent TV news that I have to ask you some obligatory questions about. At the New Yorker Festival we saw thebig announcement that Mitch Hurwitz wants to bring Arrested Development back for a limited series run and also a movie, and thenreports camethat Netflix and Hulu are bidding over it. And then, of course, the unfortunate news for your friend and collaborator John Enbom thatFree Agentswas cancelled by NBC, so it looks like he’ll have some more time free up on his schedule. Do these recent developments mean anything new for the future of a potentialParty Downmovie or a possibleVeronica Marsfilm?
Well, I will say that Free Agents going down helps the chances of a Party Down movie considerably. If John and I both had shows on the air, it was just going to be really difficult to find the time to write the Party Down movie. We’re hopeful that… I’ll say that I am optimistic about the chances of a Party Down movie. There is interest and we control that.
The chances for a Veronica Mars movie are much slimmer. My interest in that has never waned, but Warner Bros controls that, and they have not, to this point, seemed interested in making that movie, and I can’t make that movie without them. Interestingly, I just met with the writer who is writing
t with Mitch Hurwitz. We just had this conversation about all this “beloved tv shows being made into movies” stuff, and it’s been both flattering and rewarding, but I know that it’s also been frustrating for the cast of Arrested Development as they do new things to always be asked about it. And certainly I get asked about Party Down and Veronica Mars all the time. Then I read an article headline recently that was, “Will Rob Thomas shut up about a Veronica Mars movie?” And I swear, my answer’s always the same! There was a glimmer of hope a couple years ago when Joel Silver thought that we could get it made, but that kind of faded. But other than that, I always fear that when I talk about it I’m leading people on in a way that I don’t want to. Yet at the same time I know that fans feel frustrated if I don’t seem enthusiastic about it. I would be totally enthusiastic about it in a world where Warner Bros said, “Let’s go make it!”
And just ten years ago, this would never have been a conceivable possibility that a show could come back from the dead like that. And it does seem that you’re in a much better position with Party Down just in terms of controlling the property. Do you have any idea of how the landscape might change if, for example,Arrested Developmentcomes back on Netflix and they make a movie that does well? Would that mean a greater likelihood for these old projects finding new life?
Oh, absolutely. It would do Party Down a world of good, I’m sure, if an Arrested Development movie comes and makes money. Nobody was rooting harder for Serenity [the feature film sequel to Joss Whedon’s cult TV series Firefly] to be a success than me. That certainly would help a Veronica Mars movie's chance. But, you know, what I really want is for Kristen Bell to star in a $100 million movie. That would really improve our chances. I just keep hoping they find the right role for her, because if suddenly Kristen Bell was getting movies made, that would be a big help for us.
Well, she’s so talented that’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
The reason that we got in touch is that you’ll be at the Austin Film Festival next week. What do you have going on at AFF?
Well, they asked me to introduce and moderate the discussion with Hart Hanson, who is the TV writer that they’re honoring this year, and Hart is one of my favorite writers in LA. I hired him thirteen years ago for his first American TV job, and he’s a few years older than me and had run his own TV shows in Canada, and this was on Cupid with Jeremy Piven—my first time running things, and Hart was just the best right-hand guy. He was so huge in getting us through it and a great writer and just could not have been better to a young guy learning how to do it. And now Hart’s had Bones on for, what, year five of that show? So now I’ll have to ask Hart what it’s like to have a hit show on the air. What it’s like to be able to go to work and unpack your boxes. That’s an experience that I would love to have in my career (laughter).
So I’ll be moderating that panel, and I’m also on two other things. I’m doing the “Script-to-Screen” session, which is a two-hour one, where I will take the Veronica Mars pilot script and talk about it from the germ of the idea to when it was completed as a project. And I’m on another panel called “Showrunners,” and that’s with Rodrigo Garcia, Kyle Killen, Donald Todd and me.
It’s interesting that the Austin Film Festival is devoting so much time to television production discussion. More and more we’ve seen Austin hosting productions, and I think the city fancies itself as sort of an Hollywood franchise or maybe a Hollywood alternative, but so far only Friday Night Lights was based here full-time. Why aren't more TV shows being made in Austin?
There are very specific reasons. And trust me, I’d love to be making a show in Austin. When I moved back here two years ago I actually thought I was going to be doing a show in Austin. This is when we had Party Down on Starz and we were certain we’d be doing a third season of that, and I’d just sold the network a show about an Austin rock band, sort of tracking them from formation through stardom, and we were going to use South by Southwest as the big season finale episode each year. And it was a script I loved and I thought we were making it and we’d film that here, so I could have written and shot it and edited the whole show here. And then the new network president took over and they had a big hit with Sparticus... Suddenly Party Down was killed and my project was killed and they’ve gone with the sort of epic, violent, bloody stuff that’s been their franchise ever since.
So that was my plan, and when I wrote Little in Common, I wrote it for Austin with some thought that maybe we could do it here. But the problem is when you’re casting forty-year-olds… with the Austin rock band show, I could totally do that. I could convince twenty-five-year old actors to move to Austin.
People without kids...
Yeah, that'd be no problem. But convincing stars to pick up their families and move? The cast that I have I am really happy about, but I don’t think I’d have had any of them. I don’t think Rob Corddry or Heather Graham or Gabrielle Union… and Kevin Hart is just going to be enormous. So he’s still flying out every week to do shows and he needs to be in a hub. So I just wouldn’t have the cast. It was either, I fly every Monday and Friday or I force everybody else to fly. And this is just going to be the better show for it. Particularly with comedies, where you spend 80% of your time on soundstages, you don’t get the same feel for a city as you do a drama, so moving this show to Austin just wasn’t the right circumstance. But trust me when I say that I keep writing and pitching shows to be here. My life would be much better if I wasn’t leaving my family every week to be in L.A.!
Well certainly we can root for the success of a show that’s at least set in Austin if it means helping the town get that attention, anyway.
(Laughs) That’s right!