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Old School's Scot Armstrong

Working with director Todd Phillips, Scot Armstrong has written comedy blockbusters such as Starsky & Hutch, Road Trip and Old School. He recently sat down with us to talk about dressing up in Will Ferrell’s clothes, his upcoming basketball movie and who was originally supposed to play Frank the Tank.

How does the writing process work between you and Todd?
I don’t think it’s the way you’re supposed to do it, but the first thing we talk about is cast. Even when we first started brainstorming on Old School, our very first thing was, “Fucking Vince Vaughn.” At that point he hadn’t really been used in a big comedy. Swingers was great, but it wasn’t a blockbuster, even though it probably deserved to be.

Do you ever not get the guy you had originally intended for a role? For instance, at one point, wasn’t Jack Black being considered for Old School?
That was Frank the Tank. Will Ferrell was filming SNL and we didn’t know if we could get him, so other people were getting the script. Jack Black actually left the script on a plane by accident. Some guy from Idaho found it and returned it to DreamWorks with a note saying he thought it was “poorly conceived.” [Laughs] But, obviously, once we got Will Ferrell to commit, the whole character started to take off. We loved rewriting it for him, tailoring the voice.

Besides the movies your name is on, you’ve come in and done uncredited rewrites on films like Bad Santa and Elf. Is it easier to write a complete script, or to come in and add a joke as a hired gun?
I hate to say it, but it’s way easier to come in and add to someone else’s work. Everyone, instinctually, when they see something or read a script, will automatically see things they would change. And for me, I’m actually allowed to change it.

What are you personally working on right now?
The Farrelly Brothers are shooting a movie I co-wrote with Ben Stiller and Rob Corddry. They keep changing the title, so right now I think the studio is calling it Untitled Hilarious Farrelly Brothers.

What’s that one about?
I think the title explains it pretty clearly.

What about your other script, Semi Pro?
Semi Pro is the first script I’ve ever written completely alone. It’s kind of my dream project. We’re shooting with Will Ferrell in February. It’s based on the ABA, the American Basketball Association. I was a huge sports fan growing up. Semi Pro is like a 10-person unit on the road, in this shitty school bus. And they’re all too tall to fit in the seats. Everyone’s just trying to dunk and get laid. It’s inspired by true events that happened in the ABA in the ’70s. Unfortunately, the people reading this right now won’t see it for another year. That’s another thing about the movie business, you work so hard on something and then you’ve got to wait.

Is that the most frustrating aspect of making movies for you? The hurry-up-and-wait?
For me, the most frustrating thing is the battle between PG-13 versus an R rating.

I know the MPAA set certain standards and guidelines for PG-13.
I can’t remember all the rules, but I think you can say “fuck” two times and a certain number of “shits.” You can’t say “hand job,” but you can say “ass.”

You can say “jerk off” but you can’t say “hand job?”
No. Well, yes. I mean, you can say “jerk-off” if you’re talking about somebody, but you can’t say “jerk off” when you’re talking about actually masturbating. And you can’t show masturbating on film either, unless you are a priest. That’s a rule, I’m pretty sure.

It’s not like I prefer R because I want to make things as dirty and crude as possible. It’s because the dialogue never sounds right to me. When Snoop Doggy Dogg has to use a word like “crud,” it just doesn’t make sense. Or “eff-ing.” Who the fuck says “eff-ing?”

Were there any movies where you felt you could just let loose?
Well, in Old School we have Frank the Tank get divorced and start dating a blow-up doll. So that was kind of solid. And I did an uncredited rewrite on Bad Santa, which was crazy. I felt almost guilty, like I was doing something wrong when I was typing some of the stuff. I just pushed this character that Billy Bob and the other writers created, which was so brilliant. And nothing ever got cut. They shot everything. Not my mom’s favorite movie.

Do you have go-to actors, as far as being able to nail down what you think a scene should look like?
I’ve always said I’ve got two favorite people to write for. There’s nobody like Vince Vaughn. Something about him is so backwards and forwards at the same time. As a writer, you have to understand that Vince is a… linguist, for lack of a better word. He really loves the English language and tweaks it and fucks with it.

My other favorite is Will Ferrell. As a creative person, I think I have the most in common with Will. He can lash out angry at someone and the next second be very playful and sensitive. He can give you a full spectrum of emotions to play with. There’s an innocence about him that is so unique. Elf was one of my favorite things to work on. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell were doing a lot of great rewrites on it and they brought me in and I ended up adding a lot of physical stuff. Buddy [the Elf] is funny because he’s adorable. One of my favorite moments is when he gets hit by a cab. It’s really violent and he just pops up and goes, “Sorry! Your car’s pretty.” It’s so stupid, but I love that shit.

Did you dress up as Buddy the Elf for Christmas?
Every night. I prefer it to pajamas. The studio doesn’t know that I have all of his costumes. I have some of Will Ferrell’s casual clothes too. And I carry his mustache around in my toiletry kit.

You could pass for Ferrell. You’re both tall guys.
I could never pass for Ferrell. And I can’t take too much credit for how brilliant he is on set. Those characters are his, I just get to help out.

5 Screenwriting Tips From Scot

1. Inspiration is overrated. Waiting for “the perfect idea” is a form of procrastination. Consistency is the key. Write every day.

2. Shorten everything. Especially the descriptions. Otherwise, readers will just skip down the page to all of the dialogue.

3. Put a monkey in it. A monkey is almost always funny. And if the monkey lives in Vancouver, it will be cheaper to shoot.

4. If you’re using Final Draft screenwriting software, select a Cole & Haag template. It will make your script look shorter without having to take anything out.

5. Rewrite.

 

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