Holy DNA: "Evolution: The Musical" traces its genes to San Francisco. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF51: On the Breeding Behind "Evolution: The Musical!"

Robert Avila April 22, 2008

You can think of it as The Sound of Music meets Quest for Fire, or Jesus Christ Superstar rocks Land of the Lost. However you slice it, Evolution: the Musical! amounts to some pungent cross-breeding. The most ambitious project to date from Bay Area comedians, impresarios and filmmakers Andrew Bancroft and Kenny Taylor, a.k.a. Illbilly Productions, Evolution is the strikingly contemporary story of a sort of missing-link Romeo (Bancroft, decked out in a few fig-leafs worth of fur and underbrush) and his pent-up, tightly bonneted Juliet (Tonya Glanz, cannily evoking the fervid Amish nymphet). The forbidden romance between Wog Wog and Mary, to give them their proper names, blossoms amid a rap-inflected survival-of-the-freakest showdown between their respective homies: a tribe of Beasties (backed by Darwin himself) and a church-load of Blesseds (playing on Jesus’ team). Gleefully puerile in its comic exuberance, on the politically fraught subject of human origins Evolution: The Musical! manages a wry send-up of religious and secular pretensions. The 38-minute featurette—packed with local comedic talent including the lion’s share of the sketch troupe Killing My Lobster—will enjoy its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival, in a combination screening and live performance at Mezzanine for SF360 Film+Club on May 6.

SF360.org sat down for a round table discussion with Bancroft and Taylor, as well as actors and KML veterans Glanz and Jon Wolanske (who plays the petulant head of the Blesseds). This took place over email, which meant there wasn’t really a table. In fact, Taylor was apparently in the woods at the time.

SF360.org: Can someone tell me, briefly, about the evolution of Evolution?

Andrew Bancroft: Kenny and I had been doing a number of live ‘shock theater’ shows in the Bay Area, like our monthly pseudo-religious hip-hop comedy variety show called ‘Late Night with God.’ We’d also made a number of short films—four installments of ‘Gabriel: Angel of the Lord’ and a couple ‘Jelly Donut’ pieces [editor’s note: These latter feature a large rapping donut]. We’d decided that we wanted to take a break from the live shows and explore making a more ambitious film (of course, at that point we were aiming for a 15-minute $4,000 film rather than the 37.5-minute $6.7 million tour-de-freaks that Evolution grew into). I was really into this film being a musical and I remember Kenny and I talking on the phone saying, ‘Let’s just think of the last thing someone would make a musical about…’ Well, Kansas School Board was in the news and we’ve always been drawn to topics with religious implications, so when we hit upon Evolution: The Musical! it resonated with both of us. We both wanted a topic that could open an exploration of some deeper themes (spirituality, political power plays, monkey sex), even if we were going to shit all over it with our obsession with childish humor. I think one of the best things about humor is its ability to comment on a serious (and potentially heated) topic from a place of joy. Comedy inherently has its priorities straight, no matter what it addresses.

Kenny Taylor (jumping in via iPhone): Hey all! Its true that my monkey-ass is in the woods, but thanks to Steve Jobs, I can still join you all in the fun.

Andrew came up with the concept and wrote out the first draft with very little influence from me. He is really the creator of the material. But that is how it has always been with us. Andrew has a dozen brilliant ideas a day, so our issue was usually trying to narrow it down to one or two that we thought had the most potential. I suppose the reason that I felt it was right to go with this particular idea was that it had a lot of the elements we had had success with on previous projects (religion, music, fart jokes) and because Andrew seemed really fired up about it. I think it’s good to trust passion and instincts.

This was our dream cast. Andrew had been working closely with most of the actors in the Killing My Lobster shows. And Andrew and I had both been watching all of them, Tonya, Mel, Shaye, Paco, Andy Alabran, the whole crew, for a long time. Tonya was 25, and she had been cracking us up for years. We were thrilled to have such a kick-ass cast.

SF360.org: What was the writing and shooting process like? The outtakes during the closing credits suggest there was quite a bit of improv. Was this the case?

Tonya Glanz: ‘Sup, fellas! Lady in the house!

First of all, let me just say it was an absolute hoot working on Evolution with these gents. We did use a lot of the script, but just like sketch will naturally evolve away from the script to find new moments, so did Evolution. Personally, those weird little bits tend to be my favorites. I think we all trusted each other enough, and Kenny and Drew had enough faith in us to let us play, but to not let it get out of hand. The crowd scenes in the church and woods had openings for a lot of play and ridiculous interactions. And lucky for us, we’re all hell of talented.

Taylor: The cast definitely did a lot of improvising and made huge contributions to the writing in general. People came up with great ideas in rehearsals. We were working with Sean Hayes (who plays Jesus) and he started messing around with different voices, including a southern accent, which Andrew really liked, so we kept going in that direction. Later on, I thought about it. It was interesting to me because the character of Jesus has been co-opted by American Christians who talk with a drawl and see Jesus as a familiar white guy rather that the dark Jewish peasant that he probably was. That seems like a cool aspect of the character now, but at the time we were really just making a choice based on what felt right to Sean and Andrew and the rest of us.

There were a lot of moments where I let other people make directorial choices because I felt they were in a better position to do so. The project was big enough that no one person was going to be able to make it happen alone.

There was a line of Jon’s in the church that he just gave to Shaye because both of them felt it was better coming from her. That was an interesting lesson for me, because Andrew had pushed very hard to have it be Shaye’s line in the script in the first place and I had been very resistant, obviously too resistant.

There was another moment, where Tonya goes back for another bite of soup after finding an eyeball in her bowl. It turned out to be one of the funniest moments in the movie, but I never wanted it in there because I didn’t feel it was in line with her character. I was wrong of course, but the reason we ended up shooting it that way is that Andrew basically took a stand for it and said, ‘Look, I know Tonya and I know she can make this moment work.’ He was so adamant about it that I had to trust him.

It also happened on the technical side with Brian Relph, who shot the film. There would be times when it was 4 am and people had to go to work the next day and we had to get a shot and I wanted to just toss out the storyboards and shoot it in the most simple way we could think of. But Brian would come up with an idea. Inevitably, if I just trusted Brian’s instincts and experience, it would all work out for the best.

[I] probably sound like a horrible director who really doesn’t know what he’s doing, but the truth is that I think my biggest strength as a director is trusting people. If you have actors like Tonya and Jon, the best thing you can do is just let them play. And if you are working with a writer like Andrew you would be a fool not to get his opinion on everything.

SF360.org: Killing My Lobster has curated a short film festival, the Hi/Lo Film Festival (for high concept, low budget), for a decade now. Did that association play any role in the production of Evolution: The Musical!?

Bancroft: The Hi/Lo festival was probably a more indirect inspiration to Kenny and I, although we found our fantastic DP, Brian Relph, through Hi/Lo folks.

I’ll speak to the music stuff because it was one of my favorite parts of the process. I was trying to come up with songs that would be both crazy/funny and move the plot along at least an inch or two. I also wanted to hit a lot of different genres, which is why you see some hip hop in there, some metal, a Disney-style love ballad. I would pitch ideas to Kenny for songs and he would give great feedback on concepts and lyrics, and then I’d either put them to a guitar riff or a track I produced on Garage Band. Then I took them to our buddy Olive Mitra (also a Beastie), who is a musical powerhouse. He and I met regularly to make the songs full and unique, and then added choir members (a potpouri of vocally gifted homies) to the mix. Finally, when we were recording at Hyde Street Studios (maybe my favorite weekend of the experience), our musician friends and the lead actors brought so much more to the table. Watching Jon take ‘Who Begat’ and really make this gangsta song fit with the uptight, religious patriarch he had created… It was Cathol-icious.

Jon Wolanske: First, let me say that I think there is a ton of mutual love for one another among this group of collaborators. I think the whole process—pun intended or not—has been blessed by that fact. I’d seen Andrew and Kenny a few times in the years before really working with them on comedy stuff and thought to myself, ‘Who the hell are these guys? How are they getting away with what they are joking about so fluidly? Why are my pants tingling?’ There is a phenomenal spirit of love and collaboration that courses through everything they do. They encouraged the performers to take chances both in rehearsal and in front of the camera and they were not at all territorial about their roles. Other than Kenny’s daily sponge baths, there was no prima donna shit going on.

We each knew of one another or worked with one another in these really contained 10 or 5-minute boxes. So to break out of that and work on something longer form, for a greater duration of time, with people you love and trust and want to help break through in a new arena (commercial filmmaking for a wider audience than just Bay Area underground comedygoers) was an exciting opportunity.

Kenny and Andrew don’t wait for the folks from L.A. to see their talent and bankroll them, they do it all themselves. And in that way, they share what Hi/Lo is all about—that as long as you have some equipment, some kind of budget and some friends willing to join the cause, you can make a really kick-ass film. Money has very little to do with how great it can be—in fact, that may be the least important thing. That said, these guys produced the hell out of Evolution, raised the money themselves and really made something that looks amazing, by stretching every dollar. But they did it on their own terms, without waiting around for someone to discover the project.

SF360.org: What do you want to say in advance about the Mezzanine show, and what else is on the horizon for you? Another film? If so, would you do anything differently next time around?

Taylor: We don’t want to give too much away about the live performance but you can expect to see me and Andrew in silly costumes, prancing about, singing, etc. In terms of the future, I think you can expect a number of things from the group. Watch for a new Jelly Donut video this year for sure, as well as a full musical album from Andrew in the near future. Tonya has been working a bunch in NYC and is up for some pretty sweet roles out there. I like to think we’ll be able to get her back out here when the group is ready to make its first feature film. Maybe in 2014. Right now I need a break. Although if we found a script we really liked I would start tomorrow. I would love to make a Western with Wolanske as a tenacious Kansas lawman who doesn’t back down from anything, including a relentless brood of flesh eating zombies, led by an evil zombie queen. What do you think guys?

We did so much of it right, but there are still a million things I wish we had done differently. I would love to plan so that we had more time and money. Tonya was very patient with me, but there were so many moments where she really only had time for one or two takes in certain set-ups. And this was often while she was laying half-naked on a giant grill for hours at a time in the middle of the night. We could have made things easier on the actors. It would be awesome to have bigger roles for folks like Andy Alabran and Sarah Mitchell, whose talent was woefully under-represented in the picture. I would definitely be more aware of final runtime. You would be surprised at how few movie people are interested in showing or distributing a 35-minute musical comedy. Okay, you wouldn’t be surprised, but let’s put it this way, you can count them all on your thumb.

Bancroft: I think Kenny and I really learned the importance of having a strong, fully involved producer. Because we didn’t really have one. We had some great people helping out. At the same time, he and I (among others) were spread very thin with tons of additional tasks on top of directing, writing, acting—things that could have taken 100 percent of our focus. But hey, we learned a lot the hard way and maybe that helps it stick in our slippery brains better. I think if we were to jump in Bill & Ted’s phone booth and go back to do it over, we would have simplified things. I honestly don’t know what we were smoking to make an odd-length comedy-musical that required complex costumes, remote locations, animation and three monkey/Christian fight scenes. But it must have been some good shit. And I’m glad we did it. I feel like we mushed together two years of film school, Woodstock and team trust exercises into one project.

Wolanske: There’s no question if any one of us had a project tomorrow, we’d enlist one another to be a part of it. We love encouraging and publicly embarrassing one another with these creative projects, so I’m sure it will happen again soon. We live in a really fertile place for filmmaking, comedy and original work in general—and I think a lot of the best young artists in the area are in this film.

Glanz: Kenny and Andrew are very hands on as a creative team, and as an actor, I loved and appreciated that. I think that approach encouraged us actors to take risks, communicate ideas, play—without the fear of judgment. It was all around a very supportive environment, and that kind of love and openness really created the warmest uterus for us all to nest in together.

I am not sure if Hi/Lo specifically played a role in their process or influenced any ideas on the film, but I will say I think there is something very encouraging about the film/theater/art/dance scene in San Francisco that Hi/Lo pretty much epitomizes. I mean, it’s not L.A., and it’s not New York; there just aren’t the same opportunities. However, when you are provided a city with stunning scenery, crazy talented and attractive people, and pretty much no government, what do you do? You make it happen yourself. Who knows what kinds of projects Ken and Andrew would get pulled into if they were in L.A.? But I like seeing what happens when they are left to roam free. I think that is where true creativity blossoms, and I think the uniqueness and energy behind this film more than proves that.