Jeremy Konner talks about Johnny Depp and how he struggled to keep the film a secret
Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal surprisingly arrived Wednesday morning and immediately ranked as one of Funny or Die’s most ambitious projects yet. The 50-minute video goes all in lampooning the Republican frontrunner for president, with Johnny Depp playing his most outregaeous character yet.
The faux “lost movie” pits Trump against TV mogul Merv Griffin (Patton Oswalt), who owns Trump’s childhood Rosebud, the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. He lectures a young boy — whose ethnicity changes until he’s white (Jacob Tremblay) — about how he became the shrewd businessman he was in 1988, frequently referencing tenets from his book Trump: The Art of the Deal.
The rollicking satire comes from Funny or Die co-creator and Oscar nominee Adam McKay, FOD’s editor-in-chief Owen Burke,; former editor of The Onion Joe Randazzo (writer),; and Drunk History co-creator Jeremy Konner (director). In what might be the drunkest of Drunk History-like programs, Konner helmed the frantic four-day shoot. Though proud of the result, he wishes Art of the Deal doesn’t resonate as much as it has. Trump ran away with the New Hampshire Republican primary on Feb. 9 and leads the field in South Carolina polls as well.
“When we set out to make this, my biggest concern was that by the time it came out, it would be completely irrelevant. I thought, ‘Oh, [Trump is] going to go away,'” he says. “This thing is too relevant. I wish it was less relevant.”
EW chatted with Konner about making the short film, Depp’s performance, and Trump’s current presidential campaign.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Art of the Deal came out of nowhere. Owen Burke had this idea back in September. What was his exact pitch?
JEREMY KONNER: Initially, [Owen and Adam McKay] were tossing around whether it would be a five-minute thing or a fake trailer or a feature-length thing. I think it was going to be shorter until they got Johnny Depp involved, and then decided: “F–k it, we got Johnny Depp! Let’s make a real movie.”
Depp’s Trump is pretty outrageous, but spot on. What attributes did you want Depp to focus on to amplify his Trumpiness?
Johnny is his own man. We initially assumed we were just slapping a wig on, and he would make a funny face. We got a call a few days before we started shooting saying, “Johnny is bringing on his full special effects, hair, and makeup team that he uses on all his movies. He will be doing full prosthetics.” It was a complete surprise to us. He showed up with this incredible team of Hollywood’s greatest effects wizards, and then spent two-to-four hours turning him into Trump.
What was your initial reaction to seeing Depp in full Trump regalia?
Honestly, it was a lot easier. When I first met Johnny, he came out in his giant pants and his scarves and jewelry, I was very intimidated and nervous and, “Oh s–t, I can’t believe I’m working with Johnny Depp right now.” He wasn’t in makeup. He comes back out, I was not scared of him anymore. He was a new human, and it was this crazy, plastic Trump character.
People wouldn’t think of him as an ideal Trump. How did he join the project, and what did he bring to the role (save prosthetics) that another actor might not have?
Owen pitched the idea [to Depp], and he agreed right there and then in the room; they made a deal, if you will. He’s Depp, so when he comes into a role, he fully embodies it. He brought a darkness that I don’t think we would have gotten if Adam Sandler had played him. There was some real, meaty, dark depths in there. There was a little bit of Whitey Bulger sticking out at points, a little bit of Hunter [S. Thompson] sticking out at times. At the very end, when he had to talk like a kid and they switch places, he went full Ed Wood. It was a potpourri of Depp.
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What one moment encapsulated the darkness?
Definitely the ending monologue. That ending monologue is dark and terrifying. That was great, because I think when people do Trump impressions, I think it’s often very light and sweet and kind of goofy. Johnny brought out more Trump’s inner anger. He’s ruthless, and he’s done a lot of terrible things to a lot of people, and he has no remorse. I think he does have a lot of darkness in him, and Depp really brought that out.
It’s so weird to be talking about this like it’s an actual movie. Four days of goofing around with your friends, and all of a sudden, I’m talking about Johnny Depp’s performance as if we spent seven months in the Congo.
How did the cast come together? I was surprised to see Alfred Molina walk into Trump’s office.
Molina, I had worked with before on Drunk History. Pretty much all the people other than Jacob [Tremblay] from Room, I had worked with before in some capacity. I definitely felt very comfortable around those people, which was good, because I was uncomfortable, initially, around Johnny. We surrounded him with the greatest improvisers and the greatest comedic actors; I think it made everything so much easier. They all are so much fun to work with. He’s not used to improvising with a bunch of comedians, so it was good to have the best around.
How much of the final product was written versus improvved?
In the end, it was mostly written. The improvved stuff was on the cutting room floor at the end. Not because it was not funny, but it’s already 50 minutes. I don’t know if anybody wanted to watch any more of it. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people do want to watch more.
How was the shoot itself?
It was extremely difficult. Four days is not enough time to shoot 65 pages, but those are the days we had with Johnny, and that’s what you do in this situation. This is very much the world I’m used to and very much the world Funny or Die is used to. We know how to get scrappy and make do with what we’ve got and get creative and figure out ways and bend rules if we need to.
When we set out to make this, my biggest concern was that by the time it came out, it would be completely irrelevant. I thought, “Oh, he’s going to go away.” This thing is too relevant. I wish it was less relevant. This is kind of a “watch what you wish for.” I was like, “I really hope this is still relevant in a few months.” I’m like, “Oh f–k, now that I’m here, I wish it was irrelevant. I would rather this not be topical.”
What has been your reaction to the Trump campaign?
I’m horrified by all of it, to be honest. I did feel like the coincidence of this coming the day after the primaries was this was the lemonade to the primaries’ lemons. I was like, “Well, at least let’s have a funny laugh about what’s happening.”
How did you keep the movie a secret?
I have no idea; I told everyone I knew. I wasn’t supposed to — but come on. Honestly, I couldn’t keep my goddamn mouth shut.
Did you or writer Joe Randazzo read The Art of the Deal?
Joe and Owen read it cover to cover. I didn’t have the patience. I have read most of it, but we only had a couple weeks to prep, and it’s really not The Art of the Deal word for word or anything. We’re not beholden to the book, we did not license the book: this is our fictional, funny version of the book.
I haven’t read the book, but imagine there’s not a chapter called “The Art of Marrying a Gorgeous Immigrant.”
There is not a chapter called that. But there are things that are very true which are hilarious. The owner of Le Club actually did say, “Donald, you can be a member as long as you don’t sleep with other members’ wives.” He writes that in his book in a showy, showboating bravado, showing, “I’m such a hotshot. Watch out: I’m going to f–k everyone’s wives if they don’t make a rule against it.”
The reaction has been very positive to the film. Were you expecting that?
No, I was not expecting anything more than, “Funny or Die did a funny video, I can’t believe they got Johnny Depp, ha ha ha, that’s so funny — the end.” But people have really been taking to it and writing very serious reviews and talking about it extremely positively. I’ve never done anything that’s gotten this much press in my whole life.
Watch the 50-minute movie below.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.