Admit it: As much as you want to hate on the once-huge franchise’s seemingly gratuitous fourth installment, there’s something about American Reunion (in theaters today) that’s making it difficult to complain. In fact, you’ve already made plans to see it this weekend, preferably with the same group of friends you laughed your ass off with back in 1999, when the raunchy teen comedy classic American Pie debuted to box office glory.
Well, you’re in luck: American Reunion is, thankfully for us nostalgic heads, very funny. Written and directed by Pie first-timers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the vibrant sequel brings the whole now-30-year-old gang—namely Jim (Jason Biggs), Stifler (Sean William Scott), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas)—back together for their 13-year high school reunion. Some of them have wives, one (Jim) has a kid, another (Oz) is a shamed reality TV star, and others (Stifler and Finch) aren’t exactly where they’d like to be in their lives, and their trip through memory lane brings with it R-rated hijinx (i.e., naked, drunk, and horny teenage girls), old faces, new love interests, and the same comedic spirit that made American Pie work so well.
For Hurwitz and Schlossberg, previously known as the screenwriters behind all three Harold And Kumar movies, the chance to explore the current lives of the American Pie characters represented the “ultimate fan fiction experience.” Complex recently chatted with the filmmakers about the challenges of stretching the American Pie appeal to audiences of all ages, why Stifler has become a leading man, and their search for American Reunion’s topless eye candy (mission greatly accomplished, we should add).
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Watching American Reunion, I had this rather bizarre and profound sense of nostalgia for my high school years, probably because I saw American Pie during my senior year. That seems like a reaction many others will have, too—is that one of the things that attracted you to the project?
Hayden Schlossberg: Yeah, definitely. When we were approached about writing and directing this movie, we were in our early 30s, so one of the main reasons we jumped on-board was because we thought this could be a movie where we can draw from our personal experiences. When you hit your early 30s, you’re at that age when you start wondering what happened to certain people in your high school, and where you’re at in life versus where you thought you’d be in life.
So, beyond it being a successful franchise and a movie that we really liked, it was an opportunity for us to draw on our own experiences and the experiences of our friends. I think that’s really what made the original American Pie so successful—it was an ensemble that had different characters going through different types of teen experiences with sex, whether it was just the horny teenager, or the girls who were nervous about their first time. We wanted to capture that with an ensemble of characters in their 30s. it’s thinking about, what are those experiences that a lot of people can relate to?
When you’re in your 30s, people are married, people have kids, and some people aren’t married yet—they’re single, and they’re thinking about lost loves. People deal with different work situations, too.
Was there a challenge in making American Reunion work on that level while not alienating viewers who are younger than 30 and haven’t reached all of those places and conflicts yet?
Jon Hurwitz: You know, we weren’t too worried about that. We felt that, even though the characters are in their 30s, the situations that they’re getting into and the brand of comedy would work really well with audiences of all ages. You look at a movie like The Hangover, where the characters are all in their 40s, or Bridesmaids, with characters who are in their late 30s—those movies connect with people of all ages.
Just because you’re a teenager, that doesn’t mean you can only relate to movies starring teenagers. You like movies that have just the right sensibility for you, and we felt confident that we could bring the laughs that kids today can enjoy, but also ones that parents today can enjoy.
That’s why expanded upon the storylines of Jim’s dad (played by Eugene Levy) and Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge), and the relationship between Jim and his father. When writing and directing the movie, it was important for us to explore all of the characters in ways that would bring laughs to as many people as possible.
With so many characters coming back for this one, and working with that mission of exploring all of them, was the first draft of your script 300-or-so pages long?
Schlossberg: [Laughs.] It’s funny, because, yeah, you have length issues when you’re dealing with such a huge ensemble. And then you meet the actors and you incorporate their thoughts. It definitely gets long, and Jon and I tried our best to give everybody a storyline; it wasn’t just, OK, let’s bring them all back just to have everyone back. In some of the sequels, they had characters who didn’t really have anything that was juicy or relatable going on in their lives.
We tried our best to give everybody something; obviously, there’s a lot of characters, so everybody can’t get the same amount of pie, so to speak. [Laughs.] We tried to find that rhythm, and then you watch it with an audience to see how they’re dealing with it, in terms of the pace. From our very first screening, we had no issues with the pace; according to our test screenings, everybody was laughing from beginning to end. They seemed to be happy that everybody was back.
Hurwitz: Yeah, that was part of our job, as well. We had indications that a lot of the key players were interested in returning if it was the right scenario. Then, it was our job to write a script that would attract everybody and give everybody something to do, and a reason to be back. So, we took meetings and lunches with different actors, and we spoke to some on the phone. Once people saw what we were going for in this movie, and that our goal was to bring back what worked so much about that first American Pie, everybody was ready to jump on-board.
In recent interviews, and just now, you guys refer back to the first movie, but not as much to two sequels, American Pie 2 and American Wedding. Why was the first American Pie the primary source of inspiration and direction, as opposed to the sequels?
Hurwitz: Well, I think, because this is a high school reunion movie, you’re really drawing back on your high school days, and those memories, more so than the wedding or the college years. That being said, we stayed true to all of the major incidents that happened in parts two and three—Jim is still married to Michelle, for instance.
There was no effort to change anything that had already been one or undone. Our focus, though, was to recapture the magic of that first movie. We didn’t watch any of the straight-to-DVD movies, because what we liked about the American Pie movies are the characters from the first movie, so we just re-watched that first movie and tried to capture the essence of that, while still keeping true to the franchise.
You did yourselves a favor by avoiding those straight-to-DVD movies, believe me.
Schlossberg: [Laughs.] So we’ve heard.
Once all of the actors were on-board, did any of them want to change anything with their characters in the script? At this point, they all must take ownership of these characters.
Hurwitz: Everybody loved the script to start, but, for us, no matter what movie you’re making, it’s all about collaboration with the actors. These are people who’ve played these characters several times before, they know the ins and outs of their characters, and they’re able to help out with what we have there, whether it’s through improv on set or whether it’s through a discussion beforehand, where they say, “Maybe we can explore this a little deeper,” or, “Can we explore that?” They’ll bring up things like that to us, and we’re always eager to hear it.
When making a movie, you just want to make the best movie possible, so it’s always great to get feedback from the actors, the producers, and the studio, and then take it all in and use everything that we think works best for the film. The actors brought a lot to the table on this—it was a lot of fun to work with all of them.
Were any of the primary characters more difficult to figure out than others, in terms of where they’d be at this point in their lives?
Schlossberg: Well, I wouldn’t describe it as “difficult,” really. I think for Jon and I, part of the fun of being able to take on the franchise was that you get to determine the fate of everybody. This was the ultimate fan fiction experience; we've always loved this franchise, just as viewers. With certain characters, there’s a little bit more set up about them that determined how you’re going to frame them; for instance, the Jim character, we knew, was married already, so it made sense that he’d be the first one to have children. Characters like Kevin and Finch, there was more freedom to figure out what was going on in their lives.
Again, we just drew on our own experiences. We felt that everyone could relate to the idea of having some friend in high school who they don’t know what happened to—they just fell off the map. So, for us, that was the Finch character.
With Stifler, we knew, obviously, that was he was the big party guy in high school. Our thought was, Well, there are two ways to approach him: He’s either still having a great time in his life, or he’s a guy who’s still clinging onto the past. We thought that latter way was the better way to go, because it actually gives Stifler some sympathy early on in the movie. You’re kind of rooting for him, in the end, to have a good time, which is a little bit different spin on what you’re used to from these movies.
Speaking of Stifler, it’s interesting how, over the course of the franchise, he’s evolved from a minor player to, essentially, the lead protagonist. The change really hit its stride in American Wedding, which was basically the Stifler show. Why do you think he’s become such a major character?
Hurwitz: Well, in that first film, he was a scene-stealer. He wasn’t a major character in the movie—he was that asshole jock in high school that you kind of love to hate. His popularity in that first film really led to his character becoming more and more prominent as the franchise has gone on.
When it came to do the third film, there were a number of things that we enjoyed about that movie, but, at the same time, we started to feel like the character was, in some ways, becoming a caricature of himself. He didn’t feel as grounded as, say, the Stifler we knew in the first two films. So when tackling this one, we really wanted to explore further, Who is Stifler? Who is that guy who was the popular kid in high school and threw all the parties, who got all the girls? What’s that guy like today? What’s that guy like when he reaches his 30s? Is he still living the incredible life that he had in the past, or did he peak in high school?
The idea of taking that character, Stifler, who was riding on top in that first movie, and make it where he’s an underdog and you’re rooting for him. Where, when the gang’s all getting together, they don’t call him. We thought that would be a different take on Stifler while still allowing him to dive headfirst into this reunion weekend really excited.
Stifler was definitely a bit too heightened in American Wedding; at times, he was even manic.
Schlossberg: Part of the challenge of this movie is you’re taking some of the supporting characters from the first movie, like Stifler and Michelle, who are now… As actors, Seann William Scott and Alyson Hannigan are two of the most well-known actors in the franchise, and also as characters they became really popular after the first movie.
So you feel the need to have more of them in this movie, but in the first one they’re not fully fleshed-out characters. Michelle, in the first movie, is basically saying, “This one time, at band camp,” throughout the whole movie and then there’s the great twist at the end. So it was important for us, when we worked with Alyson on this movie, to make that character feel real beyond that joke, because obviously everybody knows the joke. We tried to take the supporting characters and give them a real sense of who they are in their 30s.
Schlossberg: One of the things that made American Pie great was also the sexiness of it. The Jim/Nadia scene was famous for being hysterical and sexy, and it made Shannon Elizabeth a household name, and we wanted to kind of capture that again, but it was important for us to not just have a random nude scene. You want to care about the character—that’s what makes these sexual comedy scenes so famous.
We just thought, OK, in the first movie they dealt with the foreign exchange student fantasy; in this movie, if you’re going back home and you’re in your 30s, there’s the new high school girls, which is sort of a taboo thing, and the girl you used to babysit is now a young adult, she’s thinking about sex, and it’s like, “Oh my god!” On one hand, you’re thinking, “I used to babysit this girl,” and on the other hand, you’re thinking, “She’s clearly the hottest girl in school, and she has a huge crush on me.” So we thought that’s a great scenario to put Jason Biggs in, because you have both the sexiness of the hot high school girl coming onto you and you have the comedy of Jim being married, having a kid, and having to deal with those sexual advances.
Was it easy to find Ali Cobrin?
Hurwitz: We scoured the earth for Ali Cobrin. [Laughs.] It was really important that, not only did we have somebody who’s beautiful, sexy, and able to give you the eye candy that you’re looking for in that nude scene, but we wanted a really great actress. Playing “drunk” is not easy; we’ve seen a lot of audition over the years of people who just can’t pull it off. When people are playing “drunk” badly, it’s a disaster. Ali was just so natural with everything she did, and she was just so fearless, which was key. When you see the scenes that she’s in in this movie, there were a lot of days on set where she was shooting topless, or wearing next to nothing, and she embraced the role. She did everything she could to elevate it, and I think that really shows on screen.
Another character who has an interesting storyline in American Reunion is Oz (Chris Klein), who’s back at the forefront after sitting American Wedding out. What made you think that Oz would become the famous one in the crew, and take the reality-TV plunge on a Dancing With The Stars-like show?
Schlossberg: There were two reasons why we went with that. On the one hand, again, we’re trying to think of relatable storylines for an audience in their 30s, and we felt like, well, somebody needs to come back to their hometown with a little bit of success or some amount of fame. The other reason was, one of the things we loved about Chris Klein in the first movie was that he was in the choir, and he’s singing… Chris can be really funny when he’s doing cheesy, corny stuff. If you watch Election, he’s really damn funny, just in his earnestness.
Whenever we writing for specific characters, we were trying to find whatever it is those actors are great at—what are the things we really like those actors doing? We thought, OK, if Chris can do something cheesy or corny, like being famous but famous for something that’s funny, like a Dancing With The Stars type of show, that could provide added comedy. And I think that’s something that was definitely missing from the sequels, because, you know, Chris was only in American Pie 2, and not in American Wedding, so it was about bringing back a little bit of that magic from the first movie. Having the Oz character caught up in some situations you wouldn’t think a jocky guy like him would be.
You mentioned earlier that one of the goals in American Reunion was to reach an even older audience, which is where the character of Jim’s dad comes into play. And, I must say, Eugene Levy really is the movie’s M.V.P. Why was it important to expand upon that character so much?
Hurwitz: Well, Jim’s dad is a classic character, and Eugene Levy is a massive comedy talent, so it was with great pleasure that we tackled Jim’s dad’s storyline. The first decision that we made literally was to kill off Jim’s mom. [Laughs.] And we liked that for two reasons. One, we liked how that matured the franchise in a certain way, where it’s not just about sex and losing your virginity and the smaller things in life you see in the earlier films; when you get to be in your 30s, some serious things can happen to you, and we wanted to explore that with a relationship that you know and love.
Jim and his father have always had this relationship where his dad is giving him advice and helping him along in life, and when you reach your 30s, you no longer see your parents as just “mom” and “dad”—you see them as actual, real people. You start giving them advice, and we loved that role reversal.
The second thing we loved about it was the ability to, by making Jim’s dad single, unleash him into the world in a whole different kind of way. Instead of just staying inside the house, he’s able to go to the party and mix it up. We were able to pair Jim’s dad with Stifler’s mom; Eugene Levy and Jennifer Coolidge are two actors who’ve obviously worked together a number of times over the years in the Christopher Guest films, but they’ve never shared screen time in the American Pie movies. It was too tempting not to have Jim’s dad and Stifler’s mom get together on screen and see what kind of magic we could have.
And it was an equally great call to pair Jim’s dad with Stifler himself for a bunch of scenes. Eugene Levy and Seann William Scott need to get their own buddy-comedy going as soon as possible—they’re hilarious together.
Schlossberg: [Laughs.] I totally agree. With those two together, it was fun to see Stifler take Jim’s dad under his wing, to great comedic effect.
Did that pairing already exist in the script, or did it grow out of seeing the two of them interact on set?
Schlossberg: It was one of those things that was in the script, but it was something that we expanded upon… Actually, it wasn’t even seeing the chemistry between them that led us to expand upon it even further.
One of the big challenges of making this movie was the fact that, because there are so many characters, the script can get really long; from a studio’s standpoint, they hate a long script. [Laughs.] They get really nervous because longer scripts means more money, so we were constantly trying to find way to take scenes that were only two-to-four lines in the script and, a few days before shooting, write much longer versions of the scene so we could play around and build moments up.
We would come up with stuff, and we’d talk to both Seann and Eugene. We would always try to find ways to expand upon what’s on the page.
Even though the earlier sequels have their flaws, they’re still really funny and, ultimately, successful. The American Pie franchise is one of the rare movie brands that has remained consistently funny and effective over more than two films—not including the straight-to-DVD movies, of course. What do you think it is about the franchise that has enabled it to remain so consistent?
Hurwitz: Well, I think it really stems from the care and consideration of the filmmakers involved in all of the movies to making a product that captures the essence of what the first movie had, which was special: that outrageous comedy paired with character moments that feel real and provide the heart that makes a movie not just offensive and outrageous. You can certainly argue that certain films in the franchise do it better than others, but I think a large part of it also has to go to the actors, who also care so much about these characters. When you care so much about the characters, inevitably there’s something worth caring about for the audience, as well.
You can look at American Pie 2 and American Wedding and pick apart things that might not work in those movies, but they also have great comedic scenes that make audiences roar. Beyond that, they have characters that you can connect with. Everybody has their own subjective opinions on stuff, but, clearly, the movies continue to do well for a reason, and I think it’s because there’s something about seeing Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott and all these talented comedy actors in thesecharacters—it just fits like a glove. It was catching lightning in a bottle with that first movie, and I think people just enjoy seeing these characters grow up.