Michael Cera's Shorts: Toledo's Derek Westerman Aims High

Toledo Local Features  |  02/28/2011 7:00 am

Derek Westerman has wanted to make films since he was a kid. While he's been feverishly attacking the craft since he first began making horror movies in the back yard of his family's home in Sylvania, Ohio with the help of his brothers and friends, he's just now making his mark on a national stage.

Starting Wednesday, March 2, Westerman's project, dubbed Bad Dads, will begin airing on the popular website CollegeHumor.com. The project -- a series of five, three-minute shorts -- is drawing attention due to its lead actor, non-other than everyone's favorite awkward comedy star, Michael Cera.

How did a kid from the suburbs of Toledo wind up living in New York City and flying to LA to shoot a pet project with one of the biggest movie stars in the world? Well, as they say, in show business, it's all about who you know.

The Birth of Bad Dads
In his final year of graduate school, Westerman came to an important conclusion. Where he had entered his masters program studying media and culture at the prestigious New York University with the intent of perhaps delving into pedagogy, he discovered along the way that his original intent of making films was more in line with his passion. "When I had a philosophy paper or something to turn in, I'd make a film for it. And that just kind of secured for me that that's what I wanted to do with my life," he said. Looking forward to the proverbial light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel of his masters studies, he began writing a series of shorts which he gave the moniker, Bad Dads - "Every family has one," the tag line reads.

Following graduation, Westerman used his new-found free-time to turn his short, conceptual sketches into tangible films. "I began assembling small teams, people with equipment and cameras and stuff, because I don't have any," he said, laughing. This is a hint toward Westerman's persona, Midwesternly-laid-back and amusingly self-deprecating, but with a sharp, witty -- if not cynical -- learned intellect and sense of humor. As he speaks and describes people and situations, you get a sense of his director-tuned eye and his insightful, comically-curious way of processing the visual world around him.

Inspired by a tip from another filmmaker friend, Westerman began to seek improv comics to act the parts he'd written. In doing so, he convinced a number of comedians from the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe to play the roles. "[With] casting, you get a lot of weird people that want to be actors, and they're really awkward. Comedians are the best actors. They can do serious stuff, comedic stuff; they're so impressive. Especially improv comedians," he said. What came from these sessions was a series of shorts in which Westerman developed a small wealth of unreleased material, and honed his skills a little further, preparing for the bigger steps that would soon come.

"We ended up shooting about 20 of these little episodes, a minute to a minute-and-a-half each. They were these little conceptual comedies. Some of them didn't even have jokes, they were just deadly serious. But when you're watching this show, the characters are so earnest that it's pretty funny because they're so misguided," he said.

During the shooting of these abbreviated comedies, Westerman contacted his old friend from LA, where he attended film school in the early-aughts. The friend was Michael Cera. "I knew [Michael] when I lived in LA. We did some comedy stuff together, recording music and playing some shows and stuff. This was when he was on Arrested Development, so he wasn't quite in movies yet, but he was kind of known. It was fun. We were super good friends, but we hadn't hung out for a little bit. Then, when I was doing the Bad Dads stuff, I thought I should contact him and see if he was down, and he was down. Which was awesome," Westerman said.

Making the Re-connection
Armed with a favorite comedian of his from New York, Will Hines, Westerman flew to LA for a day-long shoot with Cera and a small crew. "I knew I wanted to do five vignettes. I wanted to pack a bunch of episodes into it, because he was the most well-known person we'd be working with up to this point," he said. Excited, there was still the slight, dwelling intimidation of working with his now-famous friend with whom he hadn't connected in quite some time.

"When we knew each other, like 2005, we were already writing together, so he already knew me like that. And he knew me as a filmmaker, [because] he acted in my senior thesis, which basically no one has seen because it's on my hard drive. It hasn't been released," Westerman said, adding that he planned to release the film online this year. "[The thesis] is a comedy with Clark Duke - who was in Hot Tub Time Machine - and the three of us were good friends back then. It's a comedy about pornographers in the 1920s. It's like a dry comedy. So, I'd worked with Mike before, but the difference was, I hadn't worked with Mike since after he's been in all these huge budget movies like Superbad, Juno, and Scott Pilgrim.

"So, I thought, 'This is like a whole different game. He's legit now. He's worked on these $60 million dollar movies,' and I was worried our cameras weren't as good, our lights wouldn't be as good. There's no make-up. But, he's one of the best people I know. He's smart, very smart. And he knows that's the case. When he came in, there was no presumption. He was just down. Right from the get-go, it was pretty easy." After ruminating for a second, Westerman reflected, "It was great, it was definitely my favorite day of the year."

Creating the Mood
Though he came to this Bad Dads project with a good amount of experience under him -- from his education at Loyola Marymount University in LA, to his time working for the Salt Lake Film Society in Utah, to his escapades in Brooklyn and Manhattan -- Westerman says he learned a lot from this project, and put to use his unique vision of creating a mood on set.

Inspired by and aspiring eventually to match the achievement heights of the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, among many others, Westerman is careful to note that he's "not trying to mislead, I'm nowhere near what those guys are doing," but that he has been continually inspired by these director's use of natural acting and dialogue to build unrivaled comedic scenes. "I was obsessed with Boogie Nights growing up. I've probably seen it over 50 times. For me its the funniest movie in the world. It's really cynical, and all the jokes are really character based," he begins, trying to explain the inspiration. He continues with a comment on the off-kilter comedy, Eastbound and Down, "The jokes are coming straight from the characters. This is pretty specific satire of these very specific people. They mean everything they are saying, they are very truthful about what they're saying. But, as an audience, you're laughing at their grand comedy."

Ever protective of over-hype, he again offers, "This Bad Dads with Michael Cera, it's nowhere near that level. It's more boyish, or bro'd-out or something. Like the silliness of Step Brothers." Even as a young filmmaker, though, Westerman has a sense of how to get that level of comfort and natural comedy to come across on screen.

"As a director, one of the key jobs is creating a certain mood on set. If you're super tweaked out and nervous, you're going to kill the vibe, and [the actors] can't trust you. The best thing you can do is make everyone feel comfortable." He offers an example, "The first thing we did was, when we got to LA, Will Hines was really tired, so he went to take a nap in the back bedroom before. When Michael Cera got there, we talked for 20 minutes and caught up. Then, I said, 'I want you to meet Will, he's sleeping right now, but I want us to crawl into bed with him and wake him up in intimate proximity.' So, we went in there, crawled into bed and slowly woke him up by petting him and stuff. It was good. It was funny. Little things like that are better than Will waking up and doing the 'This is Michael Cera,' and shaking hands. Things can get really weird really quickly if not the right mood is created.

The result? "The process has been that I would write a two-page script - a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I have the comedians read the lines for about a half hour, and then we move into improving off of it. It's cool, because the improv ends up leading to a much more naturalistic reading of what I wrote, and a much funnier one too, because they are just much funnier than I am. They are professional funny people. [This] was an intense three-person collaboration, probably the best I've had yet. All three of us definitely respected [each other]. Once we got into a sketch, it was basically the three of us brainstorming."

The Results, and The Past as Future
By now, you're probably wondering what the contents of this odd little series might be. Westerman describes it as so, "What we came up with were these little sketches where Michael Cera is trying to connect with his father, who's played by Will Hines. They are sort of estranged from each other. It's these episodes of them trying to connect and Michael is very earnest about wanting to have his dad in his life. But the dad is reciprocating this with just the worst behavior possible. Every possible thing he could do, he's doing to ruin his relationship with his son. It goes pretty poorly until it all falls apart at the end. There's no happy ending with this one. Well, sort of. When you see it, you'll see. There's a little reconciliation."

It sounds funny enough, and apparently was. After shopping it around, Westerman arranged a deal with CollegeHumor.com to release the series over the course of five consecutive weeks. He's pleased with the outcome. "I'm really proud of this. It makes me laugh, and it makes my dad laugh, which is a good thing. But, there's no pretension on my part about it being easy to get notorious people. That's definitely not the case." Instead, Westerman compares this achievement to that of a painter, "This is like selling your first painting. Well, mine is like selling your first painting if your first painting had like dick jokes in it," he says, laughing.

Before he could go live with the project, however, Westerman still sought to set the mood for the film. In short, he needed music. Luckily, his past had come back to haunt him in the best possible way. He needed to look no further than his former high school acquaintance and recent Brooklyn roommate, popular Toledo musician Ben Cohen (singer-songwriter for The Antivillains and mastermind behind the Pop Explosion phenomenon).

"Ben is just the best. He's very trustworthy, responsible and pretty detailed. He's done music for three of my projects and he's just really good at collaborating. I think I'm going to use him almost exclusively from now on," Westerman said.

With Cohen's skillful musicianship, Westerman was able to capture the mood of the film he wanted to set in the film's theme music. "I sent him some examples of the kind of tone I wanted, and he came up with these themes of various lengths and just nailed it. He was able to condense that sound down to ten seconds, which you hear in the trailer, and it was great," he said.

Westerman says he's found Cohen's creative company comforting as they've both embarked on carving out their respective niches in New York, "Ben and I are both, right now, are pretty outside any art systems. We'd love to get in, but we're both outsiders. It's a nice collaboration because we're both the same age, pretty ambitious and we both work pretty hard."

Looking Forward
While Westerman is focused right now on pushing this series of Bad Dads, and eager about potential increased viewership based on Cera's role in the project ("Even if its not well received, more people will see it than anything I've done, just because of the celebrity, which I'm totally OK with," he jokes), he's also got his eyes on the future.

In the midst of planning to shoot more Bad Dads episodes, and hopeful to attract bigger names and personas to the project -- he's got another 50 or so scripts written -- he's also shopping around some pilots he's already shot.

"I directed a pilot called This is Fashion, a comedy about two guys who move in with six models and they all share a huge bed. Its run around town, through the fashion world. We tried to sell it, but haven't had success yet. That's kind of been the story with my other projects. It's pretty hard," he says, but he remains optimistic and inspired.

At 27, he's got plenty of time to work, but hopes to carving a trench toward success soon. He also hopes to return home, perhaps next year, and shoot a film here in his native land.

"Toledo is the best town ever. Rudy's Chili dogs are the best!," he exclaims, "I want to do a feature film next year. I was debating doing it in LA. But I've -- over the past six years -- had a fantasy about doing a show shot in the Toledo-Michigan area. That's a huge priority. The technology is so good now, you can shoot anywhere - a lot of filmmakers are thinking about shooting in their hometown and shooting outside LA. I would love to shoot in Toledo, all the locations are there. I grew up with these places, so I know that if I needed a copy center or restaurant or kitchen, I can get exactly what I need," he says, adding, "It's just the way everything looks there, and up in Michigan, these derelict barns and stuff."

As we discuss the Rust Belt aesthetics ripe for film, Westerman says, "There's so much cool stuff in the Midwest, photographically, and so many interesting stories and people. I'd love to come home and shoot there." I detect a hint of nostalgia in his voice as he perhaps reminisces briefly on his exploits as a kid running around his back yard, camera in hand. And I think of what a nice bookend to the first phase of his creative journey it'd be to have him back here, running around the back yard of our city, putting it on a pedestal that, no doubt, would be funny as hell.

Bad Dads debuts on CollegeHumor.com starting Wednesday, March 2, and continues over a series of five consecutive weeks, one episode per week. For info, contact [email protected]

The entire series will also be screened consecutively on Saturday, April 9 in Toledo as a feature at Artomatic 419! www.artomatic419.com


1. Bad Dads Movie Poster
2. Michael Cera
3. L to R: Derek Westerman, Michael Cera, Maria Blasucci
4. Will Hines
5. Ben Cohen


Michael Cera and Will Hines in BAD DADS (trailer) from Derek Westerman on Vimeo.