"Tag" is a new comedy based on the real-life story of a group of friends who play a month-long game of tag each year. The friends' unorthodox method of staying in touch came to light in a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal.
The film is out in theaters Thursday in Bradenton.
"Tag" is a comedy that plays like an action movie, full of chase scenes and madcap set-ups as the players try to avoid getting tagged and becoming "it." Actor Jeremy Renner even broke both arms during a freak accident early on in the filming, according to Business Insider.
Rob McKittrick, a Florida native who grew up in Bradenton, is the co-writer. McKittrick is probably most famous for "Waiting ..." a 2005 film based off of his real-life experiences waiting tables in Florida which he wrote and directed.
McKittrick spoke with Bradenton Herald about how he got to Hollywood, the new movie and his writing process.
Here are some of the highlights.
How long did you live in Bradenton?
I was either 4 or 5 when we moved there, and I lived there until I was about 24. Basically all of my childhood. I went to Bayshore High School, and then at the time what was Manatee Community College (now State College of Florida). I treated community college like a university so I went there for four years as opposed to the usual two. And then I moved up to Orlando. That's when I wrote "Waiting ..." and got discovered and then moved out to Los Angeles in January of 2000.
How did your time in Florida shape you?
Well, it's less specific to Florida and more specific to me. I was a really nerdy kid, and no one was more aware of that than me. I looked like your stereotypical little chubby kid with glasses. I was so painfully aware of myself that it forced me to be funny. I had to counter people's initial reaction. I was also was a studious nerd, but yeah. That's my biggest memory of my upbringing.
Is there anything you miss about Florida?
My mom lives in Lakeland now and I have a handful of friends there that are scattered. Whenever I do go back it's just that immediate comfort. It's in my DNA. It's a slower pace for sure, a more relaxing pace, but that's a good thing sometimes.
How did you break into the film industry?
The truth is, when I was in my early 20s I got involved in the whole rave scene and I started selling ecstasy. Then I got set up by a friend who wore a wire for the police. This was in Bradenton. So obviously that was a really, really troubling, hard time. After that I moved up to Orlando with the intent of getting into UCF film school, but also, if I was being honest with myself, to sort of run away from that area. I didn't want to be in that environment, because I was afraid of slipping back into that kind of lifestyle. That's not where I wanted my life to go.
As soon as I got up to Orlando I got a job waiting tables. I'd waited tables at — is there still a Steak and Ale in Bradenton? That was the name of the restaurant. In Orlando I worked at a Roadhouse Grill and that's where I was inspired to write "Waiting ..." I had now worked at three different restaurants and started to pick up on the consistency of the experience. It struck me as a fun idea for a screenplay. So I wrote that with the intention of directing it. Through these weird degrees of separation I managed to get the script discovered by a producer in Hollywood. That began the journey. Getting the script option and moving out to California was a massive new chapter in my life.
Did you ever want to give up?
When I was writing "Waiting ..." I didn't know anybody out in Hollywood, and I grew up poor. It didn't seem realistic to try to chase a Hollywood dream. But in the '90s, when I was waiting tables, that was when independent film really started to explode. Movies like "Clerks,""In the Company of Men,""El Mariachi." These were all made on a shoestring budget. That was the goal. While I was sort of pursuing that, I was trying to find people who would give me money. I raised about $20,000.
Once I moved to Hollywood it was a whole new world. Learning the ins and outs of going to meetings and being impressive in the meetings and pitching yourself. I kind of had to learn as I went along.
There was definitely a time at the end of my first year in L.A. that was scary. I got a little bit of money for the option and to rewrite the ("Waiting ...") script, but it wasn't a ton of money. It started to get to a point where I had this real fear. I was going out on jobs, I was trying to get rewriting gigs, really going out on the town. I would spend weeks sometimes on a project and go in and pitch it and I wouldn't get the job. On the street that I lived on, about three blocks down, there was a T.G.I. Friday's. And I was so perilously close to having to go in and get an application. You want to talk about something that just kicks you in the groin. There is no worse feeling.
So, you've written, directed and dabbled in acting. Do you have a preference?
Writing is what I'm probably best at. It's also the hardest and the most torturous. I have a very hard time writing, the process has never been easy for me. It's an endless stress test. Whenever I book a new gig, I have anxiety, I have trouble sleeping, my brain goes into a constant mode of fear and worry. It sucks. I always say I have kind of a hate/hate relationship with writing.
How has your writing process developed over the years?
I definitely outline a lot more. In the case of "Waiting ..." I don't think I did too much outlining. The structure of "Waiting..." was more of a day in the life movie. It didn't adhere as closely to a traditional three act structure. As I learn the craft of screen writing, I've become more comfortable and aware of the format. At around page 15, you want to be hooked in, and around page 30 you want to be off to the races. I just better prepare now with a really strong plan of attack.
Acting is the most fun. I gave myself a cameo in "Still Waiting...," I've got one line in this movie "The Brothers Solomon." I only got it because I was friends with the producer and asked if I could be in it. Acting is the most fun but it's what I'm the least qualified for.
I directed "Waiting ..." and a web series. I hope to direct again. After "Waiting ..." came out I was offered a few things that I turned down because I didn't respond to the material. Directing is a lot of plate spinning. You have a million different things at once that you have to be cognizant of. Directing "Waiting..." was an absolute gift and I relished every second of it.
Let's talk about "Tag" a little bit. You co-wrote it?
Well I didn't write it with anybody. Mark Steilen, the other writer, got the rights to the story because he knew some of the real people involved with the game of tag. He secured their rights, so when he sold the project he was attached as a screen writer. So he did a draft and the studio read it and wanted to go in a different direction. They hired me to do what's called a page one rewrite. I started from scratch. I did keep some of the story elements, the notion of this one player named Jerry who's never been tagged before. His DNA is still in there. But the rewrite is what got the movie made.
The fact that it's based on a true story makes it more interesting too. A lot of the tags and the situations for the tags and thematic idea behind the game is rooted 100 percent in truth.
So, "Waiting ..." and this new movie are both partially based in real-life stories. Are you drawn to that kind of project?
There are definitely kernels of truth to them. They are both ensemble comedies. When I wrote "Waiting ..." I completely related to the material because that was my life every day. It's certainly realistic that all of the things in that movie could happen on any given day. With "Tag," maybe it's coming from a similar place of where I'm at in my life. When you're 45 it's hard to stay in contact with your old friends. Sometimes you go months or years without talking to a friend. The thing that's absolutely true is that these guys have figured out an active way to stay friends with each other. That was the thing that really drew me to it. I used to be a big video gamer, and that was my way of playing with my old friends from Florida. We'd get on the headset and play "World of Warcraft" or whatever. It gave us a way to hang out and (catch up).
My marching orders were to try to make it consistently funny from start to finish, and hopefully on top of that make you care about the characters. In a perfect world, you watch the move and it makes you want to reach out to those friends that you lost touch with.
"Tag" has a really strong cast. Do you write with people in mind?
Our cast is insane. Really strong comedic actors. Even if I could personally decide who went in the movie I don’t think I could have picked a better cast. In my mind I write to kind of a nebulous type. When I came on, Will Ferrell and Jack Black were attached so I thought a little bit about that. I tried to write to what I thought their strengths were.
Originally there is a character named Sable in the script. When I wrote this character in my mind I had this little nebbish-y white guy. Then for a while Tracy Morgan was attached, and I couldn’t think of a more polar opposite. So when I rewrote it, I definitely rewrote it with his voice to try to hit those notes. But then his TV show "The Last O.G." was going into production and he wasn't able to do it. Then Hannibal Buress took over, so I refined it a little because those actors have very different voices. I try to nuance it to play to actors strengths.
And then sometimes the actors change things up a little bit on set. So a line I had originally intended for Jon Hamm to get, now Hannibal was getting or Jake Johnson was getting. I've seen the movie a few times now. Some of the stuff I end up laughing at a lot is the stuff that the actors ad-libbed. Certainly it's very fun and ego-gratifying to see a line that I wrote alone on my computer performed by an amazing actor. But what probably makes me laugh more is seeing a line that I didn't write. I laid the groundwork and gave them a jumping off point, but because Hannibal Buress or Jake Johnson or Isla Fisher are genius comedic actors they took something and blew it out and made it even funnier.
Sometimes spontaneous stuff winds up being the funniest.
Oh absolutely. That was certainly my experience when I made "Waiting ...". We didn't have a ton of time for ad-libbing, but whenever I did it always paid dividends. As a writer you spend so much time toiling over every word and comma. You get so close to the material that it's hard to laugh at it. Any time they are able to take it and make something funny with your springboard it's endlessly entertaining.
What are some of your influences?
The two single largest influences for me to write "Waiting ..." and to try to make it independently way back when, were Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez. Robert wrote and directed "El Mariachi" for $7,000 and then he wrote this book called "Rebel Without a Crew." And it was just him in very plain English completely demystifying the process of making a movie. He made it seem doable. And then couple that with Kevin Smith writing "Clerks." "Clerks" is one of my favorite comedies of all time. It was made for $30,000, it's shot in black and white. It doesn't look particularly great and the acting is a little spotty, but you don't care at all because it's hysterical. I became obsessed with that movie. He was just a regular guy who had a good ear for dialogue and wrote a script that was feasible to make without a lot of money.
Who would you recommend "Tag" to?
If you are cool with irreverent, R-rated comedy, I think you're going to love the movie. There is a lot of bad language and some envelope-pushing scenes. A lot of times comedies are kind of flat visually. "Tag," because of the nature of it, it ends up being like a quasi-action movie. They're always chasing after Jeremy Renner's character. As soon as you see Jeremy Renner, he evokes Hawkeye and "The Avengers" and all that stuff. He has a natural superhero-esque quality. There are a lot of cool comedy action set pieces that you don't see that often. And then separately, it has a good heart. Go there to laugh and hopefully you'll be surprised that it's actually a kind of sweet movie underneath it all. It's a very sort of sweet-natured movie about a bunch of guys wanting to remain friends.
Do you think that's a more relevant theme because with all of social media in people's lives now?
Yes, definitely. It's so easy just to check a Facebook update and as a result you don't call and actually talk to the person. It's so easy to fall in those traps and I think everybody does that.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to do what you do?
It's so simple that it borders on condescending, and I don't mean it that way. If you want to break in as a screenwriter, you should move out to Los Angeles and then write a really good script. That's it. You have to meet somebody. If you move out to L.A., that is going to happen naturally. Throw a rock, you are going to hit somebody in the industry. Somebody is looking for that next great undiscovered talent.
I got very lucky getting discovered while I was still in Florida. I was volunteering at this local film festival in Orlando and giving my script to anybody. I met somebody who quote-unquote "knew somebody." And I had an engaging script.
Any last words?
Try to go see "Tag" on a weekend night with a crowd if you can. I find nothing better than watching a comedy with a crowd. Laughter is infectious. It makes the overall experience that much funnier.