Interview with WU alumni writers of hit comedy ‘Fist Fight’
Washington University alumni Van Robichaux and Evan Susser recently had their names grace the big screen during the premiere of “Fist Fight,” a comedy released last month that follows two public high school teachers the day before an epic showdown. The film, starring talent like Charlie Day, Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan, has already grossed over $35 million internationally. The frenemy comedy writing duo, who met while at Wash. U. and reconnected after moving to Hollywood, are currently working on writing “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Wedding Crashers 2” and have carved a name for themselves in the film business. After the film’s premiere, Evan and Van connected with Student Life over the phone from Los Angeles to talk about “Fist Fight” and how Wash. U. brought them together.
Student Life: Obviously, we are so excited for your success. It’s kind of amazing. I actually went and saw it this weekend and was really excited to know that Wash. U. people were involved in it. Congrats to both of you!
Evan Susser: Thank you so much.
SL: How long have you two known each other? How did you meet?
Van Robichaux: We actually—we met at Wash. U. When I was an incoming freshman, I had done the pre-orientation that was hosted by WUTV. I had enjoyed doing that but hadn’t actually been involved in the television station. But then right before the semester started I got called from somebody running it that said…will you come help run this? And I said sure…So, I was running the pre-orientation when Evan was an incoming freshman. That’s how we met. It was sort of in a weird [place]; you haven’t actually started college yet.
SL: Did you keep in touch during college?
ES: Only a little bit. We had some classes together. We were like elevated acquaintances, almost.
VR: It was only after we moved to Los Angeles separately and reconnected that we started working together.
ES: But we did have two classes together including Richard Chapman and [William] Paul, who are both still at the film department.
SL: Can you take me through your experience at Wash. U.?
VR: I was an economics major and a film major. Actually, I entered Wash. U. as an engineer, but changed on the first day to the College of Arts & Sciences. I got my hard hat, even though I registered for no engineering classes. But, I ended up switching to liberal arts—studying economics and studying film—and gradually grew to realize I wanted to work in the entertainment industry.
ES: I double-majored in film and English. I actually did my thesis for the film department on R-rated comedies. I was involved with WUTV and became a general manager of the station. I also was one of the co-founders of the K.A.R.L. Improv! group.
VR: I was in the Theta Xi fraternity when I was at Wash. U. I was very involved in the Thurtene plays and productions—the writing of those and that kind of thing. That was actually one of my college experiences that was very educational for actually having a career in Hollywood. Because in a lot of ways Thurtene, [like] real Hollywood, is aimless. You aren’t even really sure why everything is happening, but everybody’s just doing it.
SL: When did both of you become interested in writing or screenwriting?
ES: I was interested in a very young age, probably like 12 or 13. I still kind of came to Wash. U. knowing that was what I wanted to do.
VR: For me, it came later. Still, after I graduated, I started working on sets as a production assistant. I knew I wanted to work somewhere in the entertainment business, but I didn’t really know if there was a job working at a movie studio—being a director, being a producer, being a camera person.
SL: When did the writing partnership start to come about?
ES: Van reached out to me, and we got a drink together. Pretty early on into reconnecting, Van suggested that we write a screenplay together, so we did. We wrote our first screenplay together within a year of moving out to LA.
SL: I was talking with professor Chapman, and he said you worked really well as a team because you’re very different. Why do you think you work so well together?
VR: We went to Japan to pitch a “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie, and we were told—after this whole thing had gone down—we were told from the Japanese that we reminded them of an old comedy trope called the “wise man and the fool.”
ES: Apparently the wise man is tall and lean, and the fool is shorter and heavier, and that also matches our description. It was very flattering, considering I fell into the category of the fool.
VR: That was probably internationally translated to us. I’m not sure if that’s really accurate to reality. But I like to use that as a reference point to kind of show our universal language.
SL: Can you tell me what your joint process of writing is like?
ES: It’s changed a lot over time. When we first starting working together, we literally wrote every word together, with someone sitting at the keyboard, and someone peering over their shoulder. Then we adjusted to working on things separately. And then, sometimes we’ll work on things together, like early stages of brainstorming or outlining.
VR: The process we’ve fallen into is that in the beginning of any process, we’re together in the room, and we’re figuring it out. And once we have a sense of what the movie is—what the beginning, middle and end are—and have a rough outline, then we break that up into chunks. I’ll work on one scene; Evan will work on another scene, and when we’ve both completed our chunks, we’ll exchange ideas and read the whole thing put together. That’s sort of something that evolved naturally from our routine.
SL: Are your writing voices naturally similar?
VR: If you’re reading or watching something carefully, you can say ‘Oh, that’s Van’ or ‘Oh, that’s Evan.’ It’s interesting. I can probably write something in a very Evan way if I wanted to. We’re at the point where we’re so close to each other’s point of view that they kind of are completely distinct but also fit together in pieces.
ES: And we also do like being different in backgrounds or skillsets, we do have very similar tastes. You have to find that right balance of being very self-critical but also having enough confidence to keep putting yourself out there and getting your work out there, so having two people definitely helps with walking that line.
SL: What was the process like of people being interested in your script?
ES: We kind of heard out of nowhere one day, “Hey, Charlie Day read your script and he loved it and he wants to do it.” And then we got a call a few weeks later that Ice Cube had read the script, and Ice Cube wanted to do it, which was very surreal.
VR: It kind of felt like a movie character had wanted to be in our movie.
ES: Kind of like Tony Stark wanted to be in our movie. As a writer, I don’t think the feeling of someone reading your script who likes it ever gets old. And that can be a friend who reads it or a big movie star like Ice Cube or Charlie Day, but it’s much better if it’s Ice Cube or Charlie Day. I went to a theater on a Friday night after I saw the movie at the premiere, and I just went to a normal movie theater in LA. And people were laughing, and that was a cool feeling. This person doesn’t know me; they didn’t go out of obligation. They went to see it because they liked it.
SL: Though the movie is a comedy, there are a couple more serious things within the film I wanted to talk to you about. The first is the issue of the public school system and how it’s letting students and teachers down. How did that theme develop as you were writing it?
ES: That was important to us. It’s a very simple premise, and we saw early on that it had to be something more to the movie than two teachers get into a fight.
VR: Early on when we were talking, we interviewed a lot of teachers to kind of get into what it’s like to be a teacher right now, so lot of the situations that are expressed in the movie about how hard it can be to be a high school teacher come from or are inspired by real stories. We tried to capture the spirit of that frustration.
SL: In some ways, the school was kind of a dystopian setting, where the teachers and the students felt that they didn’t really have power anymore, so I was wondering where that came from.
VR: If you’re asking if that’s a metaphor for modern society, the answer is yes.
ES: That was a feeling that even transcended public school. What hopefully comes through in “Fist Fight” is there’s so much frustration. Who do you even blame? The students are out of control, but also the school’s out of control and the principal—as much as he is in some ways the bad guy—he’s just in a tough situation with the school board. It almost becomes an impossible situation to deal with. The question for us is how could this irrational act of a fist fight be satisfying, and hopefully that’s kind of what it achieved is that, in the end, all this pent-up frustration without really one person and one way to take it out on. And so the fight becomes a catharsis and the solution for all of those issues. On the most fundamental level, if you call the movie “Fist Fight” and don’t have a fist fight, it’s going to be the biggest let down in history. The premise of two teachers getting into a fist fight at the beginning of the movie seems completely irrational and crazy, but if we were able to get to a point where at the end it actually seems inevitable and deserved and potentially a good thing to happen, then it would be a really satisfying and interesting story.
VR: I think one of the reasons why this fight is so satisfying is that they make a commitment to fight until one of them is unconscious, and it’s one of the first commitments in the film that actually gets held. The full movie is not honoring commitments all throughout. I think what really makes it satisfying is that they took a stance on something.
ES: And I think we also realized that was kind of a metaphor for the school system. There’s never going to be a stop because ultimately this is a problem without a solution. There are people that are better equipped, especially at Wash. U., to talk about the specific public education system, but I think that there’s a feeling of the whole thing being a mess and throwing your hands up in the air. But we were hoping that it’s kind of a metaphor. For even though it’s hard—even though there aren’t many solutions—you have to keep fighting, even if it’s just an individual teacher in front of a class. You don’t have enough books; you’re underfunded. But you have to keep fighting—metaphorically. Not literally.
SL: I really liked the setting of the senior prank day. How did that get written in?
ES: It kind of build up the anticipation and then the release, which is what the fight would be. Van actually had done one of the pranks.
VR: Yeah, there’s a prank in the movie involving a teacher, and as a fifth grader I had done that. There was a TV remote, and we watched Radio Shack. I had asked for one for Christmas. I would use it to change the channels and turn things off, and it drove the teacher mad. It was fantastic. No one pulled an ax, though. There was another kid who he thought was doing. He picked the kid up in his desk and moved him outside of the class and put him down. And so that outrageous burst of strength from the teacher is sort of slightly based on what Ice Cube’s rage becomes in the movie.