Ben Garant and Tom Lennon, the writing/directing/acting team behind Balls of Fury — one of Comic-Con’s featured movies — are vets of the all-things-nerd fests. From comic-book panels to presenting the Eisner Awards, the duo behind Reno 911 and Night at the Museum have been coming to San Diego for years. This summer, they brought Dan Fogler, the star of Balls of Fury, who, in addition to portraying ping-pong champion Randy Daytona, will be seen alongside Dane Cook and Jessica Alba in Good Luck Chuck and in the comedy-adventure Fan Boys. EW’s Nicole Sperling sat down with Ben, Tom, and Dan to get their take on the Con, ping-pong, and Robert DeNiro’s career choices.
EW: Tell us how this new movie came to be.
Ben: It’s real dumb.
Tom: We had a lot of fun. It’s every 80s Jackie Chan/late-Bruce Lee karate-kung fu movie. But take out the karate and put in ping pong.
Ben: But it’s still about avenging a father’s death. And stopping the drug lord.
Tom: This movie is going to do for table tennis what Over the Top did for illegal arm wrestling.
EW: So, what exactly did Over the Top do for illegal arm wrestling?
Tom: It put it on the map. It made us know it existed at all—
Ben: —and was illegal, apparently.
Tom: I’m going to check that that wasn’t made up, and as soon as I check if that’s true or not, this movie is going to do for table tennis what Over the Top did for legal — or illegal — arm wrestling. I’m going to check that too, because I’m pretty sure arm wrestling is legal everywhere in the world.
Ben: I’m not sure how they could make it illegal.
Tom: I don’t know how you enforce that.
Dan: Break enough wrists…
Tom: So let’s say it’s going to do that, or more! And when you write this down, underline “or more.”
Dan: And add an exclamation point.
Tom: Yeah, definitely put an exclamation point, because now that I’m saying it out loud, it’s sounding really lame.
Ben: Yeah, it’s disappointing.
EW: So why didn’t you just stick to spoofing the kung fu movies. Why add table tennis?
Dan: Kung fu is not funny unless you slip and hurt yourself.
Tom: Good kung fu: not so hilarious.
Ben: Bad kung fu: also not hilarious
Tom: Also, there is no way to play table tennis and look really cool.
Ben: The champions of the world look really dorky. And they are the best of the best.
Dan: I’m the one person who is able to look cool.
EW: Is that why they hired you for this job?
Dan: No, I looked like a complete a–hole before, but then I started training, and now I’m, like, a master.
Dan: Yeah, with Wei Wang (who has a bronze medal in Olympic table tennis) and her amazing husband Diego Schaaf. They got me to the point where I can’t play anymore because I hurt somebody.
Tom: He hurt a kid.
EW: How old was the child?
Dan: Six or seven.
Tom: Let’s say eight, because it sounds better.
Dan: Let’s say “detached retina.” He made a big deal about it. He was a real crybaby.
Ben: I don’t think you hurt him real bad. He was cranky before you started playing.
Tom: Most of the audition was table tennis. Then we found out Dan had a Tony award. We were, like, Wow, what are the odds that the guy would both be this good at table tennis, and back at the mantle at home, a Tony award.
Dan: Quite a package.
EW: So is there some dancing in this movie too?
Tom: Yes. Yes, there is.
Ben: Dan improvised most of that dancing. Nowhere in the stage direction does it say Randy does sex robot dance.
Dan: I brought that in myself. It was a Walken-y kind of tribute.
EW: Did you get [Balls of Fury costar] Christopher Walken to dance too?
Tom: Yeah, he got him to dance a little
Dan: I got him to sway. He likes to sway.
EW: Is there a large contingent of ping-pong players here at the Con that you’re hoping to rally?
Ben: Guys who have stacks of manga in their basement also play ping-pong.
Tom: They tend to be masters of it.
Ben: Sports that you can play in your grandma’s basement go along with guys who, once in a while, dress up as Green Lantern.
Tom: Also in the movie we have Mr. James Hong. He’s huge down here from Blade Runner and Chinatown. He can’t walk the floor down here. And we have Patton Oswalt, who is the Leonardo DiCaprio of Comic-Con. And we have some people in our movie who write comic books. Tom, for one.
EW: You write comic books?
Tom: Yeah, I’ve written for The Goon: Noir, and coming out this year is Bongo’s Treehouse of Horror for The Simpsons.
EW: Was it comic books you loved first?
Tom: I was never into comic books. Ben was the comic-book guy. I’m learning about it, like, this year.
EW: What have you learned thus far?
Tom: That girls with a lot of cleavage and an ax seem to be very popular.
EW: You two have been together a long time.
Tom: We’ve written seven films that have been made.
Ben: Some were splendid.
Tom: And some sucked so bad we couldn’t sit through them.
EW: How do you two write together?
Ben: We’ve been doing it since college, since 1988. And we had an MTV show [the sketch-comedy series The State] in 1993.
Tom: We’ve done three tv shows together and seven films
Ben: We very much work like a weird married couple. We split a script up and leapfrog and write various sections. And we’ll very often write the same joke. Like, word for word — exactly the same joke.
Tom: Our collaboration has lasted longer then most real relationships — in Hollywood, especially.
EW: Yesterday, Dan, you were compared to Jack Black. And there were even a few references to John Candy during the panel that featured Good Luck Chuck.
Dan: Really? Great!
Tom: We talking Uncle Buck? Or Stripes?
Dan: Give me time, man.
Tom: What do you mean?
EW: Next year, you might not be able to walk the show floor after your three movies come out.
Dan: I dig all these references. Eventually, I hope people see me for me. But these are awesome people.
Tom: How are you going to handle the fame?
Dan: I had a good upbringing. I’m a pretty humble person. We’ll see what happens. I’d like to surprise people and not do the expected thing. Like become an a–hole and die in my own vomit. But my main goal is to just keep working.
EW: Did you audition for this role?
Tom: No, we saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in New York [in which Dan won his Tony award] and we thought, Wow. We had the script floating around for five years.
Ben: A lot of different people had different ideas on what the Randy character should be.
Tom: We met with a lot of people There was a certain kind of movie we didn’t want to make. If you’re making a kung fu/ping-pong movie, certain aspects of it have to be really smart, because the whole package is so overwhelmingly stupid and fun. Our big break was in the casting. It’s the most incredibly classy cast ever for a ping-pong movie. It’s got a Tony award winner and an Academy award winner [in Walken]. People who are our heroes. Jason Scott Lee played Bruce Lee in Dragon and he’s the second villain in this movie. Every bit of casting is the iconic person for the role, which is cool. We kept waiting. They had us look at every funny Hollywood guy
Ben: Cute, good looking guys who would make fart jokes.
Tom: We thought, let’s do something completely crazy. What about getting a really good actor?
Ben: And people looked at us like we were nuts.
Tom: You would think that would be obvious, but sometimes decisions aren’t that obvious. So we just waited and waited and waited.
Ben: We waited through three studios.
EW: What got it going again?
Tom: Rogue [Pictures] had liked it for a long time. And then some people at Spyglass [Entertainment] saw Putnam County and told us to go see Dan.
EW: Tell me more about Putnam County.
Ben: It’s a musical. And it’s great.
Dan: Created as an improv by a bunch of friends. It was very special. It opened up many doors for me. I played a 12-year-old uber-nerd drowning in his own mucus.
Tom: It was a truly brilliant performance.
EW: So what’s next for all of you?
Dan: I’m hoping I have a full spectrum of a career. I don’t just want to do John Candy stuff.
Tom: So you’re passing on our Uncle Buck 2: Bucked Down Under?
Dan: I’m thinking about it…
Ben: Bucked Down Under?! Come on, he fights a kangaroo!
Tom: That’s all we’ve got right now.
Dan: Listen, DeNiro did Bullwinkle.
Tom: And look what it did for him.
Dan: Right, it put him on the map. Listen, you’ve got to have a Bullwinkle if you’re going to have a Deer Hunter.
Ben: I don’t think that’s good advice.
Tom: Do not print that. With your Deer Hunters come your Bullwinkles. Do not print that under any circumstances.
Dan: There’s always ups and downs. Just finished editing my own production, Hysterical Psycho. Mel Brooks does Psycho. People are talking about it. Directing a show I wrote in a fringe festival in New York. Things percolating for the fall…something called Spanky Johnson: Monster Hunter. which is being developed. And 13, in which I a young Alfred Hitchcock.
Tom: Oh, I thought that was a prequel to the Number 23. It’s, like, ten numbers earlier.
Dan: Yeah, I play Jim Carrey as a young boy.
Tom: Yeah, that wasn’t as good as I thought. I really thought that was going to go places. Sometimes you just have to throw a joke out there and see if it sticks. And we just finished the 5th season of Reno 911, which won’t air until fall or spring. And Reno’s going into syndication the same weekend Balls comes out. We’re writing Night at the Museum 2.
EW: So that’s moving forward?
Ben: Oh yeah, those people aren’t crazy over there.
EW: Is everyone coming back for the sequel?
Tom: Not supposed to say, but, yeah, they are. With some interesting new additions.
EW: How is it working with Ben Stiller?
Ben: You pitch him jokes and he tells you what he loves. But you don’t sit over the computer with him.
Tom: He’s very involved, but in a good way. He’s involved in the very early stages.