VIDEO INTERVIEW PhD movie cast and crew discuss film, tour
The Tech talks with Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics, on his film about life in academia
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Host: Joanna Kao
Editors: Quentin Smith, Joanna Kao, Lourdes D. Bobbio
Camera: Aislyn Schalck, Quentin Smith
Production Assistant: Ryan Normandin
This is a transcript from an interview with Jorge Cham (creator of PhD comics), Margaret “Meg” A. Rosenburg ’07 (producer of the PhD movie), Evans T. Boney ’06 (actor playing Mike Slackenerny), and Scott Elmegreen (composer). The full transcript is at http://tech.mit.edu/V131/N51/phdmovie.html and the video is at http://tech.mit.edu/V131/N51/phdmovie/video.html.
The Tech: Hi! Thanks for watching The Tech’s exclusive interview with members from the PhD movie. Today we have Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD comics; Meg Rosenburg, producer of the PhD movie; Evans Boney, one of the cast members who plays Mike Slackenerny; and Scott Elmegreen, one of the composers for the film. Thanks for joining us today!
TT: The PhD movie — you guys are all over the world, and I know that at least you have been traveling quite a bit to Switzerland, London, Sweden. How did it all start?
Jorge Cham: I’ve been doing these comics for a long time, and people have always asked me, “Hey, when is there going to be a movie, when is there going to be a TV show about the comics?” So last year, I just kind of decided to do it — to do something. It seemed like it’s becoming more possible with production costs the way they are now. The way you can distribute things on your own nowadays with the internet — things like that. It just seemed like a good time to do something independently, do it on our own — I can make it stay true to the comic strip.
So I approached Meg, who is a part of the theater group at Caltech, and that’s kind of how the ball got started rolling.
TT: So how did you guys get involved?
Meg Rosenburg: Like Jorge said, he approached the theater groups, and I was the only grad student on that email so I was the one that said, “This is really important, this has to happen.”
JC: No one else knew who I was.
MR: That’s right.
JC: Who is that guy emailing us?
MR: Well, the theater director and the undergrads didn’t know who you were, so they didn’t know how important it was that it should happen, and happen to us. It was a huge deal that it would be our movie. We felt chosen, I guess, in a way. It was a great opportunity, so we didn’t let it pass by.
Evans Boney: And I just found out about the auditions — they put up a poster for a casting call — [I] came out because I thought I looked like Mike and I kind of wanted to act, so it worked out.
TT: Scott, you composed some of the music for the film. How did you get involved with the film?
Scott Elmegreen: I came on through Meg. Meg is a childhood friend, and she came up to me about a year ago this time, and she said, “Hey, are you interested in ever composing anything for PhD comics?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, yes. I’ve known about that comic for years; I’ve been a fan of it.” And I was like, “How did you get involved?” She was like, “Well, he’s sort of around campus, and he’s interested in working with the theater group there.” And then it was radio silence for six months, and I was like, well, that opportunity came and went. I guess I’ll go on and do something else. But then Meg wrote to me on Facebook, and she said, “Sorry I haven’t contacted you in a little while, but instead of doing a music video or something like that, we made a whole movie, so are you interested in getting involved in that?” [I said,] “yes.”
JC: Facebook saved the day.
SE: Facebook did save the day.
TT: So in the beginning, was it supposed to be just a music video?
SE: I don’t know. It was very up in the air in the beginning.
MR: Actually, we had this idea that it would be more episodic than it was, and that it would be broken up into little web episodes or something. One of them was going to be a musical theater — just a whole episode that was going to be one big musical theater song-and-dance. And that’s why I talked to Scott — because Scott has written new musicals that are very successful that you should go see.
JC: College the Musical.
SE: Incidentally, College the Musical.
JC: We’re now talking about doing Grad School, the Musical.
MR: So that’s why I got in touch with Scott. That didn’t really come together because we had to start filming a lot sooner than we could marshal all the resources to put together that musical big song-and-dance.
SE: It was easier to do a movie.
MR: It sort of hung together like a movie.
JC: Just have people talk, no singing. It was kind of an organic process when I approached Meg and the theater group there. We didn’t set out to make a movie per se, but we just wanted to work on some project, which sort of became a movie in the end.
TT: How did you guys put together all the different scenes for the movie? I believe that some of the scenes are actually taken directly from the comics. How did you choose out of all of the comics that you’ve drawn already?
JC: I committed to doing this movie with Meg and Caltech before I had written it, so suddenly I had to write a movie. I knew I wanted it to be kind of — to use a lot of stuff from the comics, and so I knew that it had to have some sort of plotline, some character development, some resolutions at the end. So I just went through all my comics and kind of picked ones that I could put together in a scene, and make that scene about some sort of plot that would advance the plot or movie character in some way.
TT: Actually, both of you are grad students at Caltech, right? Both of you are MIT alums. You graduated in ’07 and Evans, you were in ’06? Being grad students now, how did you find the time to do this on top of all the work that you normally do?
MR: I should say that when we started, I did not know how much time it was actually going to take. It kind of ate my life a little bit for a while there. But it was good; it was worth it. My advisor was actually very supportive the whole time, He actually gave us permission to film in his lab, which was on the roof, so we actually stretched that, since we didn’t film in a lab, we filmed on the roof. He was very supportive of the whole thing. He thought it was really cool. He came out to the filming to check it out. He was an extra, but that ended up on the cutting room floor, which I feel bad about. I maybe should have used an executive order to keep that in there.
JC: Make a special edition just for him.
SE: Director’s cut.
JC: Professor’s cut. The Best Professor’s Cut.
MR: So there’s a scene in the movie where the grad student has to play squash with his advisor, and we went to the squash court to film that episode and when we were there, my advisor was playing squash in the next little cubicle thing, so I managed to — I don’t know how I actually managed — but I didn’t actually have to play squash with my advisor while we were filming that scene. But there was a moment there when everyone was like, “It would be a really fun idea; you should go play squash with him,” and I had never played squash in my life.
JC: I actually had no idea how to play squash.
MR: Nobody knew how to play squash. It’s hard. I tried it.
JC: We showed up that morning to film that squash scene, and we’re like, “Who knows how to play squash?”
MR: I quick looked at Wikipedia for the rules.
EB: Is that how you guys found that there are multiple rules?
JC: So basically Wikipedia saved the day.
TT: Talking more about how you guys made the movie. How was the production process in comparison to Hollywood movies?
JC: You have a lot more money in Hollywood productions — like by a factor of 10, at least. We didn’t know — Meg has a lot of experience in theater — do you want to talk a little about that?
MR: Sure. I did a lot of theater here at MIT. I was in the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble and also Dramashop a little bit. And at Caltech, I got involved in the theater group there, and we founded a student group to do other different kinds of shows. So I had a lot of experience as a stage manager and producer of theater shows, and I thought that that could translate to film. I was sort of not entirely right about that, so I learned a lot of things the hard way. But it worked out pretty well, I think.
I don’t think it was very much like a professional film in a lot of ways. One was just that we had a lot of people doing multiple jobs, where in a real movie, you’d have a person for every job. And probably things actually work a lot smoother. But there were a couple of roles in the production crew that we actually had to hire someone for, because we couldn’t get somebody who was a student who wanted to learn to commit to the kind of hours that it would require to be there consistently at every weekend, filming for 12 hours a day. So we hired a gaffer, and we hired an assistant cameraman for every shoot. And I talked to them on the film set, because I was kind of curious how this all looked to them — we’re like this freak show doing a movie, doing what they do every day but [they do it] more professionally — and actually they said it was a nice environment. They said that everyone was really nice to each other, and nobody got all mad. I think it was just that we all knew how much everyone else was doing and sacrificing to make this all work. So it’s really hard to be mad at someone when you know how much effort and time they’re putting into it. So I think that was a good way we were different.
JC: I think I remember you said you looked up some things on Wikipedia on how to produce a movie?
MR: Oh, I did. Yeah, I was like, what does a producer do? Well, I found out there are all different types of producers. I was trying to figure out which type I was, and it turns out I was a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and then other people were covering other aspects of jobs. It was kind of nontraditional.
TT: How was it from an acting standpoint?
EB: I had never acted in anything before, so it helped that there were no expectations. I had no idea what was different from a normal set or whatever, but it also didn’t help in the sense that I wasn’t really prepared for the professional way they were doing things. So the call sheet was very complicated, and I’m sure it takes a long time to put everything together. I never really got any training in reading call sheets so there were a couple of times where I showed up for a particular day with the wrong half of a scene memorized because I thought it meant X instead of pages or something stupid like that. So there were plus sides and minuses.
JC: I think if we knew what it would take to make a movie, we might not have made this movie.
MR: I’ve used this analogy before, but I think it was a little like landing on the moon. We just did this, and we had to finish it, and whatever it took, people did it. And now, if we were to go back and do a movie that way again, it just wouldn’t work. We’d be trying to think everything through carefully, and would get all bureaucratic, and nothing would happen.
TT: So how many hours did you guys actually spend per week or over the whole project?
JC: So filming took place over eight weekends. The idea was to film without interrupting normal academic activities on campus at Caltech. So we filmed on just the weekends, so Saturdays, usually pretty long days … Saturday then Sunday. And then our off-time, during the week, was planning for these scenes.
MR: Trying to arrange locations, all of which happened for the most part last minute because it was a complicated process interfacing with Caltech and getting the right permissions. Finding a lab to film in was problematic because several scenes are in lab, so we ended up finding one that wasn’t being used, and we used it for two weekends, and that was all of the lab stuff. Couldn’t do any more after that because we didn’t have the building.
JC: We caught this lab when it was being renovated.
MR: It was about to be renovated.
JC: It just cleared out, and it was about to be gutted, So we had these two weekends when we could film in it.
MR: Yeah, and in one of them, there was a jazz festival happening all day on the Saturday when we were trying to film — like right outside the window — it was so loud.
TT: How many people did you have working on the movie, and how did you find all these people to help out?
MR: Well, how we found people — we had a giant casting call in November of a year ago, which is what Evans responded to. And it wasn’t really just for cast. We were pretty much just interviewing anyone who had any interest in doing anything for the movie at all. And then I had a giant Google Doc spreadsheet with the tags that people had circled on their forms we had them fill out, and then we basically just gave everyone a role — like everybody.
TT: So now that you guys have done this all once, are you guys planning on doing this again in the future? Maybe like a sequel to the PhD movie?
JC: Yeah, yeah. We were thinking it would be called the Postdoc movie … an even smaller demographic. Or PhD Movie 2: Still in Grad School. Possibly.
TT: We actually have a couple questions from people at MIT who want to know a couple things. One of them is: Now that this movie has been showing all around the world — you guys have been showing in Israel, Australia, all over the U.S. …
JC: And Antarctica.
MR: Yeah, Dec. 30. Yeah, they picked a date. The guy’s leaving on the twelfth though, so we have to mail it to him before then.
TT: Are any of you guys going to Antarctica?
JC: No, but that would be pretty cool. I already saw the movie.
TT: Now that you guys have been to all these places, what’s the funniest or craziest thing a fan has ever done?
MR: Somebody said that they had you sign their laptop.
JC: Yeah, over the years I’ve signed many different items, body parts, articles of clothing. People know now that I sometimes write about my experiences on the road, so they try to up one another. Like in Texas at A&M, they picked me up from the airport in a horse. They were thinking, how can we get included in his comic? So there I get off the plane, and I get there and see this woman and a horse walk by with another horse — an empty horse — and she says, “Hop on, we’re riding out of the airport.” And so I rode a horse out of the airport.
MR: Where’d you put your suitcase?
JC: The horse bit it. They also had a car to put the suitcases in, but they put me on a horse.
TT: I guess we can go around. But what other comics, other than PhD comics, do you guys really like reading?
SE: I do read a lot of web comics. I like Perry Bible Fellowship, I love xkcd, Married to the Sea, Hark! A Vagrant is good. Dinosaur Comics or Quantz, I really like. Yeah, there are a lot of good ones.
JC: Yeah, xkcd, Hark! A Vagrant, SinFest.net — .net — be careful about that one. Growing up I read a lot of Archie Comics, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury.
MR: I actually don’t read that many web comics. Mostly read PhD comics, but sometimes Pearls Before Swine, I like the Dinosaur Comics.
EB: I really like Quantz, too. It’s got to be, aside from PhD comics, my favorite one.
JC: If I had known 10 years ago that you could just draw stick figures or use the same dinosaur over and over again — I feel like I wasted so many years of my life … learning how to draw.
SE: Missed the boat on that.
JC: Missed the boat on that. What about dinosaur stick figures? Just draw one.
TT: Wrapping up … How would you describe the film in one sentence, and what do you hope people will come away from the film with?
EB: Oh, one sentence, not one word. Inspirational was going to be my one word. But probably about 50 percent inspirational, and about 50 percent accurate would be my longer sentence.
MR: I feel like I should have been prepared and done some homework. I think the movie is really made by grad students, it’s for grad students, and I think that’s really clear when you see the movie.
JC: For me, it’s really about making people laugh. At the heart of it, it’s about young people trying to figure out what to do with their lives. I try to also make it a little about truth. If you’re going to aim for a higher cause, then it’s a little about truth and how do you find academia’s role, finding out about truth, and how do you decide if something’s true or not. How that all fits into what’s truth for you, what’s true for other people.
SE: It’s a comedy from honesty is what it is. It’s a very honest movie, and it’s funny because of that.
JC: It’s tragic comedy.
SE: Yeah, it’s a dramedy.
JC: It’s a tragic comedy.
TT: Does anyone have any final words?
JC: You may have heard that there’s a rumor that the movie has a quip about MIT, to which I can only say too bad, we filmed it at Caltech. It’s all in good fun.
TT: Well then, I think we can wrap up then. Thanks for joining us.
All: Thanks for having us.