For the follow-up to 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in which the title characters embarked on a hilarious and often surreal all-night quest for White Castle hamburgers, writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (screenwriters of the original film) decided to work on an exponentially grander scale - Harold and Kumar's cross-country race against time to avoid life behind bars.
Hurwitz and Schlossberg's original inspiration for Harold & Kumar can partially be credited to that old chestnut, "write what you know." Before there were screenplays, there was a Harold Lee, who both Hurwitz and Schlossberg refer to as "one of our favorite people on the planet." Hurwitz went to junior high with Lee, then moved during high school and became good friends with Schlossberg. All three linked up again in college at University of Pennsylvania. Schlossberg fondly remembers one summer during which they all lived and worked together in Philadelphia and "bonded over 'Saved by the Bell' and 'Conan O'Brien.'" During the same time, Hurwitz & Schlossberg began writing together.
After a number of scripts with Harold and Kumar as "friend characters" - Harold based on the real-life Harold Lee, Kumar "an amalgamation of several Indian friends," Hurwitz and Schlossberg decided to write a script where the pair took center stage. "And it turned out to be our first script to be made into movie," recalls Hurwitz.
When it came to casting Harold for the first film, John Cho was the obvious choice because "wherever we'd go with Harold," says Schlossberg, "people would shout 'MILF!'" (a reference to a saying by Cho's character in the original American Pie.) "People would ask him if he was in American Pie a lot," says Hurwitz.
"I started to reply 'no,' but then I thought, 'why not?' Lee confirms. "So I ultimately just agreed."
The three are still very close. After Schlossberg and Hurwitz relocated to Los Angeles, Lee quickly followed. "I moved to L.A. to clear my name," Lee jokes, "'because my life is not just about marijuana and eating burgers."
Lee has also spent time on the set of both movies. He says seeing himself portrayed on screen is "the weirdest thing one could ever go through." He admits to sharing some of Harold's neurotic tendencies, but that he's not "the wuss that Harold's often portrayed to be." Though seeing his on-screen depiction is a little scary to him, "it's simultaneously awesome," he says.
Writer-director Jon Hurwitz sees the sequel as an extension of the maturation that he, his writing partner Hayden Schlossberg and the leads, John Cho & Kal Penn (who portrays Kumar in both films), have undergone in the four years since the first film. "As Hayden and I get older, and as John and Kal get older, even though this movie takes place a day later, we feel like this one's a little bit more mature, while being significantly more immature," says Hurwitz. "This movie validates John and Kal not just as youth comedy stars, but as this generation's Odd Couple."
John Cho articulates the contrast between first and second films: "Harold and Kumar get lost going to a hamburger place in the first one, and we get thrown into Guantanamo Bay in this one. It's a little more intense. And that's where you get the comedy."
Eddie Kaye Thomas and David Krumholtz, back to reprise their roles as Harold and Kumar's neighbors, Rosenberg and Goldstein concur. "This one's more epic," says Krumholtz. "It's more advanced than your typical Hollywood fare. This is really something special for the audience."
To Eddie Kaye Thomas, Hurwitz and Schlossberg have succeeded in staying true to the spirit of the what makes the original film great while making the new film even bigger and better "without hitting the old stuff too dead on, and without ever veering off course."
"In the first one, we had the munchies," says Kal Penn. "In this film, we're accused of being terrorists. The stakes are much higher the second time around. Infinitely higher."
Penn also observes that along with higher stakes comes a deepening of character: "You learn a lot about Kumar that you didn't see the first time around. You didn't know that Kumar is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa. You learn that he really has a sensitive side to him, that he's not just a player, that he's got this soft spot for the woman that he loves."
As the creators of the world of Harold and Kumar, there was no question about Hurwitz and Schlossberg returning as writers for Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Getting the job as directors, however, was not a lock. "In terms of landing the job, it was something we had to fight for like any other director," says Hurwitz. Though confessing that he and Schlossberg had directed "literally zero footage before the first day of shooting," the pair had gained some exposure to the demands of the job during production of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle."
Danny Leiner, the director of the first film, "is an awesome, awesome guy," enthuses Hurwitz. "He took us under his wing and allowed us to work with the actors. Danny really kept us involved, and it was just an incredible experience."
With Leiner unavailable to direct the follow-up, Hurwitz and Schlossberg "put together a huge presentation for studio executives of what the movie would look like," says Hurwitz. "We hired a storyboard artist ourselves. We had a strong grasp of the characters, and we figured there's no one better to direct this movie and no better first directing project for us."
Executive producer Carsten Lorenz agrees that the duo's familiarity with the material gave Mandate Pictures and New Line Cinema confidence in the first-time directors. "When they approached us about directing this one," he says, "everybody felt pretty good about giving them this opportunity. They did a great job."
The cast heartily agrees with Lorenz's assessment of Hurwitz and Schlossberg's freshman turn behind the camera.
"This is not just any comedy, but a comedy that is really smartly written," says Kal Penn.
Beverly D'Angelo, who plays a Texas whorehouse madam, concurs. "I think it's the funniest thing I've ever read," she says. "I laughed out loud many, many times."
For the first film, Neil Patrick Harris approached reading the script with some trepidation. Though his role - Neil Patrick Harris - might seem deceptively simple, he says, "this is not really me. This is me playing the version that they wrote of me." Harris was initially hesitant about taking part in the first film, unsure of "…what their motives were. Are these guys writing the jokes making fun of you, or being reverential?" One meeting with Hurwitz and Schlossberg was all it took to reassure him. "I met with them and they were super nice. I thought, 'what the hell?' When else do you get a chance to play yourself, but hopped up on all kinds of ecstasy and doing lines of coke off strippers' asses? When in your life do you get to do that? For me, never."
When Harris heard about Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, he was thrilled to learn his character was back. "I was hoping I would be in it, that they wouldn't just get someone else to play themself. These guys are great writers."
The chance that Harris took on the first film has paid off in spades. He credits getting his starring role as Barney in the hit CBS series "How I Met Your Mother" to his portrayal of Neil Patrick Harris in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. "I owe a lot to these guys for this role. The legs that the first film has had has been crazy."
Cheetah rides, rabid raccoons, a drug-addled Neil Patrick Harris: all components that added up to the success of the first film. But most importantly, you have to have sympathetic characters.
Creating the kind of characters audiences can relate to was at the heart of Hurwitz and Schlossberg's ambition when they sat down to write both Harold & Kumar films.
"I think what people like most about Harold and Kumar is the relatability of the characters and the friendship of these two main characters. We wanted to write something that people of all ages, both men and women, would be able to connect to," Hurwitz says. They realized they'd accomplished their mission during the early test screenings of Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle when women liked the movie as much as men did."
Danneel Harris, who plays Kumar's ex-girlfriend Vanessa, the key female in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, appreciates Hurwitz and Schlossberg's handling of her character. "I think it's really neat, as an actor and a fan of the first movie, that they've decided Kumar learns to smoke pot from a chick. It makes me feel good. Girl power."
Hurwitz also believes the new film will resonate with women as well as men because of
John Cho and Kal Penn. "It's a real testament to the friendship that the two guys have."
"Their friendship feels real to people," agrees John Cho. "It's not ridiculous cardboard cut-outs going through crazy adventures."
Kal Penn says that the believable friendship is what keeps audiences hooked, and elaborates on the realistic and dynamic nature of that friendship. "These two are good for each other. Kumar goes off on his tangents, and Harold pulls him back in. Without Harold, they would never find Vanessa's fiancé. But without Kumar, Harold would probably freak out."
Audiences crave believable characters, but Cho also observes, "people root for underdogs, and Harold and Kumar are great underdogs."
Executive producer Carsten Lorenz agrees that everyone in the audience can relate to being the little guy. "I think there's a bit of Harold and Kumar in all of us. We've all been in situations where you don't quite get where you want."
Lorenz adds that the indomitable spirit of the two leads appeals to audiences as well. "Everybody's pummeling you, but you have a dream and don't take no for an answer. These two keep going and ultimately succeed, and that's where it becomes a very pleasing film with admirable characters."
For actor Ed Helms, who plays an interpreter brought in by the racist Ron Fox (played by Rob Corddry), Harold and Kumar's underdog status is central to his love of them. "In both scripts, everything's stacked up against them, and those are the people you like to root for. Kal and John play these characters so sympathetically, you're going to root for them."
Helm's character can't believe that Harold's parents speak English, which of course, they do. Of his character, Helms notes, "I'm so good at my job as an interpreter, that when they don't speak the language that I'm expecting, I can't understand it." Though Helms doesn't speak Korean, he did his best to learn some for his lines. "The frustrating thing for me is that I prepared more for this part, trying to learn those Korean lines, than I would for "Hamlet." And I still kept screwing it up. If someone who spoke Korean watched me saying the lines, I'd be amazed and very curious what it actually might mean in Korean, because I've butchered it so horribly."
"The culture and race of Harold and Kumar is incidental," says Hayden Schlossberg.
"These are Asian American characters who are just like the white character that you would see on the big screen," Jon Hurwitz agrees. However, what is incidental to character is instrumental to story. "The characters they encounter do notice this aspect of them."
As it happened in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, often when other characters in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay take note of Harold and Kumar's ethnicity, the writers take the opportunity to exploit these moments to depict comedically what Stephen Holden of The New York Times called "a politically savvy universe where the title characters, 22-year-old New Jersey roommates who are Korean-American and Indian-American, puncture ethnic stereotypes."
John Cho identifies other characters' clinging to stereotypes as the root of much of the comedy of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. "It provides so much material for the jokes. The plot is after all based on us being mistaken for terrorists."
The project appealed to Cho not just as an actor, but also as an Asian American. "Politically, of course, as an Asian American, I think it's just wonderful that we get to play specifically Asian and Indian characters without the stereotypes, but who are also very specific in terms of how they're being characterized. It's a great kind of political leap in the movies."
Kal Penn agrees. "Jon and Hayden's interest is in the human nature of these characters, not in anything exterior. On one hand, it's sad to see it hasn't happened before. On the other, I'm so proud that New Line Cinema and Mandate Pictures and everyone has come together to make these films."
In actor Christopher Meloni's view, even though the leads are people of color, Hurwitz and Schlossberg have crafted a tale that is color-blind. "Regardless of your skin color or your ethnicity, your religious background, we are all a bunch of immigrants here, and we're all feeling the same thing. I think that's a very strong, encouraging, necessary message."
Kal Penn elaborates. "Harold and Kumar are Americans first. Before they're guys, before they're New Jersians, and certainly before they're Asian or Indian. Before any of that, they're American. Something you find in this movie is how much they love America, and how ridiculous they find it when they run into people who are scared of them."
Though "political commentary" is not the first thing that leaps into fan's minds at the mention of Harold and Kumar, both Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay have political threads woven throughout their narratives. While the first film deals chiefly in exploring the difficulties two Asian Americans encounter in a quotidian way, the new film couches its racial and political commentary in a broader, post-9/11 context.
What makes the satirical elements of the film a stand-out is that Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg manage to send up the country without meanness or partisan bias, even with an appearance by none other than George Bush at the film's climax.
As Kal Penn says, "This is a very pro-American film. The Bush character says that you don't have to agree with your government to be a good American. You just have to believe in your country. And that's the message of the movie."
"Agenda-less" political satire was very much part of Hurwitz and Schlossberg's agenda. "We feel that most Americans are in the middle of the road," says Hurwitz. "In the script, we don't make it out that everyone in the government is a moron."
Schlossberg adds, "It's clear that Ron Fox is the villain, and he's not the guy we're rooting for."
But as they've done with all their characters, Hurwitz and Schlossberg create a complex character in Ron Fox. "Ron Fox believes that he's doing exactly what needs to be doing to save the United States," Kal Penn says.
Schlossberg elaborates on their treatment of Ron Fox. "We told Rob Corddry, 'You are the hero of this movie. Act as if you're Harrison Ford confronting the biggest terrorist situation possible."
Hurwitz adds, "That's what his character needs to believe for him to be a credible threat." But in the spirit of representing a government not overrun with "morons," Hurwitz and Schlossberg have surrounded Fox with a team that questions him. "They're not all crazy," Hurwitz adds.
Ed Helms confirms that the writers have been true to their goal of creating a satire without an agenda. "Does the film tackle homeland security and the War on Terror? I think this movie might tickle them. There's not a strident political message here. You can deconstruct hypocrisy, and that's always funny. But if you take a strident position on either side, as soon as that's infused into content, it's hard to be funny. There's some political satire in here, for sure, but it's pretty cool the way they slip it in with the kooky humor."
"What's great in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is that it's quote unquote political, and it could very easily seem like they're making points about racism, and homeland security, and Bush, but it's none of that. It's making fun of stuff without having an agenda," says actor Eddie Kaye Thomas.
Actor Roger Bart, who plays Dr. Beecher, the Vice Chairman of the NSA and a voice-of-reason to Rob Corddry's Ron Fox, puts it another way. "It runs the risk of offending everybody. It's audacious, but it's not a mean-spirited movie. It sends up America in a loving way that's hilarious."
Rob Corddry describes the film as "technically, a satirical slap farce. But I think the directors are calling it ironic farcical shtick. These guys are definitely not afraid of offending anybody, of allowing themselves to go to a ridiculous level that enables them to find more comedy, whether it be offensive or disgusting. I wipe poo on the Bill of Rights in this movie. My parents are very proud of me."
My character believes that Harold and Kumar are terrorists of the Osama Bin Laden strata, and so he applies that sort of intensity to his attempt to capture them," continues Corrdry. "He doesn't like them, or anyone off-white. He might be the most racist character in film history, and he's hunting Harold and Kumar down as the number one most-wanted people in America."
This range from high to low is indicative of the directors' influences. Hayden Schlossberg notes, "Jon and I are fans of every type of comedy."
Jon Hurwitz adds, "Throughout the script, you see different elements of influences - Woody Allen, Larry David, Conan O'Brien, the Farrelly Brothers, the Zucker Brothers and Mel Brooks. You can see all the different comic minds we're fans of."
Hurwitz explains that what all of the influences add up to is that there's something for every type of comedy connoisseur. "Not everyone's into the stoner element, but they might connect with the gross-out comedy, or they might connect with the satire or the youth comedy vibe."
In the hands of other filmmakers, a War on Terror-themed road comedy might indict the current administration, or reek of partisan bias. Aware of this, Hurwitz and Schlossberg wrote accordingly. They have George W. Bush step in. "Having George W. Bush save the day was something we thought would be a great statement about this movie. The whole point of this movie is not to be a Republican movie or a Democrat movie. This is just a movie that is a satire of things going on here. And it's nice to see a fun side of George W.," Hurwitz explains.
Though executive producer Carsten Lorenz was confident in the script's quality and its ability to attract talent, one casting decision had him taken aback. "I don't know what happened with that guy, but he was game, and now he's in the movie."
Lorenz is speaking of perhaps the best known person in the world, President Bush (played by James Adomian in his first feature film role). Lorenz enjoyed working with the President. "It was fun to work with him and find out things we didn't know about him. He seems to be a good sport," Lorenz observes, and adds, "I really appreciate the White House and everybody cooperating to make this happen."
The President was not the only one who had a high time on the set of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
JON HURWITZ AND HAYDEN SCHLOSSBERG are the writing team that brought you Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. They first met and became friends in high-school in New Jersey, selling their first script, Filthy, to MGM while seniors in college. Hurwitz was studying finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and Schlossberg a history major at the University of Chicago with plans of attending law school. Upon selling Filthy, they moved to Hollywood to begin a career in the entertainment industry.
Their first taste of success came in 2004 with New Line Cinema's uproarious comedy, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a film hailed as "an instant stoner classic" by Richard Roeper of The Chicago Sun Times. The film garnered critical acclaim and a legion of fans, launching Harold & Kumar to immediate cult status. The New York Times said that it's "one of the few recent comedies that persuasively, and intelligently, engage the social realities of contemporary multicultural America.
On April 25th, 2008 Hurwitz & Schlossberg make their feature film directorial debut on the highly anticipated sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, a film they also wrote and co-produced with Mandate Pictures.
Hurwitz & Schlossberg have several projects in development at various studios and production companies.
Hurwitz and Schlossberg currently reside in the Los Angeles area.