On the second to last day of their July shoot, Henri, Sarah and I were lucky enough to visit the Veronica Mars set in Pasadena, California. It's kind of perfect that it was the three of us who made the trip together - one of our first friend dates was to watch the pilot of Veronica Mars as I housesat at a sprawling home not far from Westlake High School in Austin, where show creator Rob Thomas once taught and after which Neptune High was modeled. After that, we made it a weekly plan to get together and watch each episode. Henri hosted the Veronica Mars marathon at the Drafthouse after Season Two wrapped, and Sarah and I both attended, along with Thomas and the cast. We threw a premiere party for ourselves, complete with Snickerdoodles and champagne (only one of those ingredients is strictly canon). The show has been a big part of our friendship, and visiting the set together felt like both the luckiest dream ever and a natural progression at once. Today we'll also watch the movie together as it has its world premiere at SXSW, and I guess one or all of us is going to have to go ahead and die if we want this friendship to be perfectly bookended.
There are some mild-to-moderate spoilers below, so read at your own risk!
When we arrived, the cast was wrapping up a scene with James Franco, and everyone was crowding around to offer their cheerful goodbyes. Franco was meant to be a surprise cameo, but rumors of his inclusion were already cropping up before his day of filming, and then he posted an Instagram photo of himself and captioned it "On the set of Veronica Mars." One of the excited fans waiting to meet Franco was yet another surprise cameo, one that managed to stay under wraps until the trailer was posted, and even then only eagle-eyed viewers might have noticed: Ira Glass!
He's in the trailer for a few seconds around the .33 mark, and that scene (also screen-grabbed above) is one of the few we saw filmed that day. Take a look:
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We arrived just as the cast and crew were breaking for lunch, so we had a little time to visit with everyone as they relaxed. Many of the cast (Kristen Bell, Ryan Hansen, Percy Daggs III) have children, and we learned that it was a daily tradition for their spouses to show up toting toddlers who played together as the parents looked on. Bell talked later to us about how fun it was to make a big family playdate every day, and how right it seemed that so many of the castmembers became parents around the same time.
The cast and crewmembers without kids sat at the lunch table and chatted with us. Chris Lowell plays Piz, Veronica's much-maligned boyfriend, and boy, doesn't he know it. The big Veronica Mars panel at SDCC took place the day before the shoot, and Lowell said jokingly of the crowd, "Kristen walks in and everyone goes crazy. Jason [Dohring] walks in and everyone goes crazy. Ryan walks in and everyone goes crazy. I walk in and NOTHING." Thomas, who directed the film as well as the show, laughed him off. "He always says that. People were very excited to see him." Lowell's Piz and Dohring's Logan are of course the two men at odds for Veronica's heart in Season Three of the series, and fans may have held Piz responsible for breaking up the epic love story that is Logan and Veronica. The actors made a joke of it at SDCC, with Lowell wearing a "Team Logan" shirt and Dohring wearing a "Team Piz" shirt. Hansen, naturally, wore his "Team Dick shirt."
(Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
Lowell may not be a fan-favorite, but he was clearly treasured around the set. He carried a beautiful SLR camera and took photos of cast and crew; he's warm and funny and kind of amazingly friendly. When he heard we were visiting from the Alamo Drafthouse, he had a lot of questions. The biggest: "Do you guys have any 35mm projectors, or is it all digital?" When I told him that the theaters do have 35mm projectors, and that the Alamo Ritz actually has a 70mm projector initially procured for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, he replied, "I'm so jealous! I loved The Master; I would have killed to see that on 70. But that's great. You guys are legit." We argued enthusiastically about upcoming movies - he thought Elysium looked "pretty stupid," while I countered that we could trust Neill Blomkamp. It pains me to admit that he was right.
Ira Glass overheard the conversation and sat by us to interject, and we all silently freaked out because he was the star none of us was prepared to meet. Turns out, having a conversation with Ira Glass is a lot like being interviewed for This American Life. "Oh, you work for the Alamo Drafthouse. I think I've heard of that. You're a movie theater? What do you do there? You do more than show movies, right? Oh, you have events? And what are you guys doing here?" And later, as he gestured to my notes, "What are you writing down there? Are you getting everything you need? What's your angle going to be?" Being Ira Glass, he seemed genuinely interested in us, in all of our answers. When I asked him if he - and the many other members of the This American Life team who joined him - were there to record an episode, he joked, "Only if something dramatic happens. If someone falls in love, or dies, or someone's viewpoint on the world is changed irrevocably." I was overjoyed at being the recipient of such a cool joke, until I overheard him give the same answer to someone else a few hours later.
One more quick story from the lunch break, and then we'll get into the nitty-gritty: a documentary was being filmed of the Kickstarter campaign and the making of the film, and so we got to see a lot of great interviews with the cast and crew for the doc. At one point Ryan Hansen (who has spent a good deal of time at the Alamo thanks to the Party Down marathon and other events) and Chris Lowell were giving an interview when Lowell looked over at us and asked, "What do you think, Alamo Drafthouse?" Hansen cheered, "The Alamo Drafthouse is here? Awesome!" and the two guys jumped and gave each other a high-five midair. We asked later if we could get a copy of that footage, but it has so far eluded us.
We then took a short shuttle ride to the next scene's shooting location, a radio station in downtown Pasadena. So yeah, Ira Glass was onset, and we were filming at a radio station, and Piz was a DJ for Hearst's college radio in Season Three, so you can probably guess where this is going: Piz works for This American Life! He and Veronica reconnected about a year ago, several years after the events of the series finale, and he wears a lot of nice suits and WORKS FOR THIS AMERICAN LIFE, so seriously, Logan fans need to stop complaining.
The scene goes thusly: he and Veronica walk into the TAL newsroom, as she's updating him on her interview with Jamie Lee Curtis (seen in the opening moments of the above trailer). She was asked about several embarrassing events from her past, and Veronica says sarcastically that she's keeping her fingers crossed that a discussion of STDs is next on the agenda, offering a quick and subtle callback. She then gets a text from Wallace (Wallace! My only disappointment is that Percy Daggs III was not on set the day of our visit), and groans that he's still trying to convince her to attend Neptune High's ten-year-reunion. "Not bloody likely," she says as she texts him back.
Enter Ira Glass! He asks Piz about a segment he's been working on, and mutters, "You're killing me" when Piz tells him how long it's running. Veronica introduces herself nervously, and Ira seems thrilled to meet her - apparently she's never around and the TAL staff teases Piz that she doesn't exist. Veronica blames law school and then offers to do her Ira Glass impersonation to Ira Glass, but Piz quickly cuts her off. Piz gives a little exposition to Ira about his and Veronica's past, while her attention is diverted by a news report saying a famous pop star named Bonnie De Ville has been murdered. When Glass asks a stricken Veronica if she was a fan, she replies that she knew the girl in high school. SPOILER: "Back then she was Carrie Bishop."
Watching them film this scene over and over, a few things became very clear: first, Ira Glass is really nervous on camera. Bell and Lowell and Thomas all did their best to assure him he was doing great, and he was really sweet about the whole thing, but very uncomfortable. Later, when he filmed a scene where he's recording a radio show, he was a natural. Naturally. The funny thing is that Chris Lowell, who is a natural onscreen, was really nervous during the scenes where he was supposed to be doing a radio show. He told me, "I hated all the radio stuff in Season Three, too. I feel so weird doing it." Glass repaid Lowell by giving radio voice tips, while admitting that many fans complain he himself doesn't have a voice for radio. He thinks it's more important to sound natural and conversational, even if that means cutting off some of his words or running them together.
The other thing that we couldn't help but notice is that Kristen Bell and Chris Lowell are great friends. They never failed to crack each other up in between takes - a particular point of hilarity was when Piz cuts off Veronica's Ira Glass impersonation, and with each take Lowell offered a different weird series of noises to get her to shut up. Every single take was gold; I can't wait to see which they chose. Bell is as goofily charming and funny on set as anyone who follows her on Twitter or sees an interview with her might expect, while remaining completely professional and focused.
It was really something of a perfect scene to see filmed, if one were there to mine for information, which of course I was. As you can now see, I waited to publish my set visit report until the day the movie hit theaters (well, at least one theater - Friday it will be released worldwide in theaters and on VOD simultaneously, an unprecedented distribution model) because I didn't want to spoil things for anyone else, but I loved getting the inside scoop on the case, and on Piz and Veronica's careers and relationship.
We got even more information in the last scene we saw filmed for the day, in an alley outside the radio station. It was decorated to look like the area just outside the venue where the reunion is being held, and because Sarah was dressed for it (Sarah, being very stylish, is always dressed for a reunion), she was asked to be an extra!
(That's Sarah in the background, facing the shadowy guy)
Here's how the scene played out: Logan has apparently arrived at the reunion to beat the hell out of Sean Friedrich (remember the butler's son? Played by Kevin Sheridan, not present that day) for selling some compromising pictures of Bonnie De Ville/Carrie Bishop to the press. We learned (and this has since been confirmed in the trailer) that Bishop was Logan's girlfriend, and now he's suspected of her murder. They start talking about a recent boat party and either clues or red herrings are revealed, and I'll leave all that alone because I'm not trying to spoil the mystery for myself or for anyone else. But Veronica chastises Logan for showing up to the reunion throwing punches when he's suspected for murder, although she grudgingly admires his overzealous sense of chivalry. That always did seem to work on her, didn't it? Then Mac, played by the great Tina Majorino, runs from the reunion and tells Veronica rather urgently that Piz is looking for her, and Veronica takes off, with Logan staring soulfully after her. Meanwhile, Neptune High Class of '06 student Sarah Pitre stands stoically in the background with her arms crossed.
In between takes, Bell and Majorino had several jokey exchanges, while Dohring paced intently, keeping himself in the zone. He seemed friendly and appeared to get along with everyone, but he definitely employs a more intense method of performance than the rest of the cast. By this point, everyone seemed tired, and we felt we'd worn out Rob's wonderful, incredibly warm hospitality long enough, so we sneaked out.
On our way back through the radio station to the shuttle, we spied Lowell taking pictures of the entire This American Life staff, who seemed thrilled to pose for him (except Ira Glass, who was, as before, a little adorably awkward.) Someone accidentally knocked Lowell's very nice, expensive camera off the table and everyone gasped, but Lowell, after blanching a bit, laughed it off. We each grabbed a veggie corndog from the craft services table and headed out, waiting until we were out of earshot to rehash every detail of the day.
And rehashing it here with you has been nothing short of a joy. I'm about to see Veronica Mars, and I'm nervous and excited to learn if the film can live up to the experience. It's nearly impossible to gauge the quality of a movie from a set visit - we loved what we saw, but it's such a small piece of what will be a very large puzzle. But as a forever fan of the show, getting to watch Veronica snark and suss out clues in person was unbelievably fun.
Also, Ira Glass asked me a bunch of questions. And I'll always have that.