In the comedy of errors Death at a Funeral, a straight-laced, responsible son (Matthew MacFadyen) tries to give his recently deceased father a proper send off. But as more relatives arrive for the proceedings, including his hotshot novelist brother flying in from New York (Rupert Graves), things become increasingly frantic, culminating in full-blown chaos when a mysterious stranger (Peter Dinklage) shows up with extortion on his mind.
For this film, we had the opportunity to speak with director Frank Oz and cast members Andy Nyman and Alan Tudyk. Nyman, who was recently seen in the horror comedy Severance, plays a downtrodden hypochondriac stuck with the unenviable task of chauffeuring the family's curmudgeonly uncle (Peter Vaughan), while Tudyk portrays a soon-to-be-in-law who spends most of the movie high and spaced out after accidentally taking some potent designer drugs.
On TV's short-lived but beloved science fiction/action comedy series Firefly (and its subsequent feature film Serenity), Tudyk's comedy was based on sarcasm and fast talking. By contrast, Death at a Funeral, which sees his character Simon tripping on hallucinogens for almost its entire duration, asked him to be funny without the benefit of coherent words. Also challenging was sticking to what was essentially a single joke and keeping it from getting old and redundant in short order.
"I was concerned about it while we were shooting it," Tudyk says. "Because a lot of it, especially in the writing of it, would be, 'Cut to Simon: he's high and enjoying himself.' And then cut back to what's going on with Peter Dinklage's character and that plot, and cut back to Simon: 'He's high and enjoying [himself].' It's like, 'This is the same joke. How many times can we ring this bell?' They've got to build on themselves, they can't get stale, they have to be new. So it was a challenge in that way. But it becomes very physical, and I love that kind of humor, so I embraced it."
Tudyk also facetiously points out that it would have been easier to do a character who was high on marijuana, or simply drunk--"A laid back high, where it's all about clumsy sleepiness." But with his character hopped up on stimulants, he found himself having to be constantly on. "No matter how casual the scene is, you have to be vibrating at a certain level," he laughs. "It was exhausting."
But a healthy dose of real life exhaustion helped to bolster his performance. The actor experienced a quick turnaround between being officially cast and shooting his scenes. Immediately upon arriving on location in London, he was shuttled off to the set, introduced to his co-workers, and put to work. "I still had airplane nuts stuck in my teeth while we were in rehearsals," he jokes. And Tudyk credits that jet lag for getting him into the proper frame of mind for one of his first scenes shot, in which Simon is laughing during the delivery of the eulogy.
Co-star Peter Dinklage, who provides some of the biggest laughs, plays the part of the film's central antagonist when he shows up at the funeral threatening to expose a few well-kept secrets. As proof of his threats, his character shows a set of incriminating photos to those of Matthew MacFadyen and Rupert Graves, eliciting expressions of utter disbelief. Director Frank Oz shares the secret behind that scene, revealing what the actors were really looking at when they delivered such priceless facial reactions. "The truth is, I wanted them to be shocked. And so I asked my production designer Michael Howells [to] get some real strong gay porn. And so every time we would do a take, we slipped in a new gay porn thing." MacFadyen and Graves were unprepared for the visuals, and their genuine shock was caught on film.
But the scene that elicits the most raucous reaction from audiences belongs to Andy Nyman, who gets caught up in a messy bathroom scene with co-star Peter Vaughan. On the subject of acting in such a riotously intimate scene with someone he has idolized since childhood, he reflects, "I was super excited to work with Peter. He was amazing. And there he is, an 82-year-old man, who's an amazing actor, who is happy to have his trousers and underpants pulled down again and again and again. Wants it real, does it real. So you've got all that going on. So there is that weird thing of 'This is one of my heroes, and I'm pulling [his pants] down.'" But the hardest part of that scene, Nyman explains, was simply the logistics of cramming the actors, cameras, and lighting equipment into a tiny bathroom on a hot summer day.
Also amongst the physical challenges on this project was Alan Tudyk scaling a rooftop in the nude for a very extended period time. Spending an entire day in the sun in such a state of undress presented the danger of parts getting snagged, parts getting scratched, and parts getting sunburned. Alternately, he could have just fallen off the roof entirely.
"There was a lot of concern for my safety," Tudyk says. "And then not only is there moss up there, but there's...Oh, what is it called? It looks almost like coral, but it's very rough. So there was a danger of scratching myself. And then if you scratch yourself on your naked butt, and then you've got a shot of your naked butt with scratches, you start to become insecure. So that was a concern. And then also jumping around the roof...They did not want me to do that. They had ropes on me that were covered in this nude pantyhose that were obvious. It looked bad. And I finally convinced them, 'Could we please just remove this rope? I can make this.' There's a jump that I do--it's a small jump--from the balcony to another part of the roof. And they would not let me do it without a rope, until finally they broke down, and on the last two takes, I got to do it. But Frank was very concerned about my safety."
But the effectiveness of the precautions taken is still anyone's guess (fortunately, they were never put to the test). "When I am on the peak of the roof, my foot was tied to something, so if I fell over backwards, I would have only fallen a certain distance," Tudyk laughs. "That would have been funny."