In Let’s Be Cops, the new film from The Girl Next Door director Luke Greenfield, Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson pretend to be LAPD police officers and find themselves in the the craziest adventure of their lives. In this exclusive interview with Greenfield, we talk about the possibility of the film being PG-13, whether or not it was difficult for him to shoot action considering his comedy background, and how much he let his actors improvise while making the film.
Nerdist: Let’s Be Cops has a pretty outrageous premise. Did you run into any hesitation from the studio when making this movie?
Luke Greenfield: Believe it or not, no. [Laughs] I think because the script is so pro-police they intelligently felt that it wouldn’t be a problem.
N: It’s also an R-rated film. Was there discussion at any point about making it PG-13?
LG: There was in the beginning when we first set the movie up at Fox. But then clearly, I’m the biggest believer in rated R comedies or rated R comedy action movies, because our whole goal with this movie from day one was to recapture what we loved growing up with 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run. For me, “Rated R” is so important. Not for violence, not for anything but just capturing realism and capturing how people really talk. It’s crucially important to me. I think people can smell it. I think people can smell what does not feel real in dialogue or content.
N: Speaking of that realness, Jake and Damon have such a palpable chemistry. I’m curious if their existing chemistry from New Girl was a factor in casting.
LG: When we first began the movie and started casting, Damon was on a show called Happy Endings. Jake was on New Girl. In casting them, I didn’t even know that Damon was on the pilot of New Girl. I was having separate conversations with Jake and Damon, and then I found out that they had worked together on the pilot and they really loved each other. Then it was very clear to me… because that was one of the most important aspects of the film for me, the friendship between them. I was trying to capture what I loved from Bill Murray and Harold Ramus and what I’ve currently loved that Favreau and Vince Vaughn have done in the past.
Jake and Damon have that in real life. It was a no-brainer. Not only are these guys extremely talented, but even off-screen that’s what those guys are in real life. So it was a no-brainer. It was very easy casting.
N: I’ve also heard they’re also great improvisers! Was there much improvising on set?
LG: Oh, yes. Totally. We looked at the movie and, for a lot of scenes, I believe in letting them add as much as they possibly can. For me, the more natural and the real it is the better. It’s a hard skill set and they have it. Not all actors or even comedians can do realistic improvisation and just kinda run with it and be in character. They have great skill sets in that department.
N: Speaking of skill sets — action is a little out of your wheelhouse. Was that a big challenge for you? What were some of your inspirations?
LG: I’ve never really done action before, but I’ve always loved action. More importantly, I’ve loved realistic action, not really the glamorous stuff, but more like what does it really look like when someone gets shot? What does it really look like when someone gets shotgunned out a window?
It wasn’t a challenge at all for me, to be honest with you. It was an absolute pleasure. I plan on doing a lot more… I wouldn’t say action movies, but I like combining genres. So whether it’s a comedy/action/suspense movie… or some materials that I’m working on now that are in movies and cable TV is much more dramatic and much more suspenseful with realistic action. I think Michael Bay and a lot of those directors really have it covered out there. I’m looking more towards character, meaning like I don’t really like the glamorization of violence, and I don’t really like unrealistic action. I just love…you know, our favorite movies, like Heat, American Gangster, even The Wire. The Wire is one of my biggest inspirations for this movie actually.
N: You mentioned the realism of the film… but it gets insane, especially towards the end. Was there ever a line that you wouldn’t cross in order to preserve that realism?
LG: That was one of our goals throughout. It was crucially important to us to keep as much realism as we could in regards to the danger and to the villains in the movie. My writing partner on this movie, Nick Thomas and I, we were always setting the mandate that the danger and the people they go against have to be incredibly real. They cannot be funny. They cannot be entertaining.
Again, a lot of our inspiration was Breaking Bad, and The Wire, and 48 Hours, and even Beverly Hills Cop. For me, the movies growing up, that was always the way to work, is that the comedy came out of situations. And a lot of this movie was based on real-life experience, unfortunately. So when you are in these experiences, it’s fucking terrifying and there’s nothing funny about it. But when you look back on it and you talk about it with your friends, you start laughing. You are like, “How the fuck did I get into a situation like that?”
As far as a line, yeah, we were always cognizant of that, more so about the realism of these two characters getting into situations that they get in, in the movie and making it real that they would continue to be in them and not just flee the country.
N: Switching gears a bit — this movie is very clearly set in Los Angeles. Why did you choose to tell this story here?
LG: It was completely purposeful to be LA and it had to be LA. The reason why was, through character, we wanted to make it relatable about two guys who had come to LA to achieve their dreams. Now, their dreams weren’t supposedly in the entertainment business, but LA is a place… I’ve lived here now 25 years even though I grew up in Connecticut. This is a place where people all over the world come to for different arenas to achieve their dream and to become the person that they’ve always wanted to be.
Really, that’s what this movie is about. It’s really not about two guys pretending to be cops. This movie is about, it’s never too late to become that person you want to be. Jake and Damon, their characters hit 30 and they’ve always had this kind of understanding—they are from Ohio in the movie—that if they didn’t hit it in their careers or didn’t become what they wanted to be that they’d just move back to Ohio. That’s what the movie is about, they’re about to give up and quit and conclude that you really can never actually become the person you want to be in real life. And then, impersonating police officers helps them kind of confront their challenges and personal fears that have been preventing them from being the guys they want to be.
So LA was a huge factor in that. [laughs] The challenge was we had to shoot the movie in Atlanta. That was about the biggest challenge of the whole movie.
Let’s Be Cops hits theaters August 13th.