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The Game of Writing the Ensemble Comedy: An Interview with ‘Gatlopp’ Screenwriter Jim Mahoney

Screenwriter and star Jim Mahoney speaks with Script about how this story idea came to be, his creative collaboration with director Alberto Belli and his approach to writing an ensemble of grounded characters with unique voices.

A group of old friends reunites for anostalgic evening of fun and games after a decade apart.After one too many, they decide to play a drinking game, but it’s quickly revealed that this gamecomes with supernatural stakes. Mischief leads to mayhem, and the group realizes that if theycan’t come together to win the game by sunrise, they will be forced to play for eternity-in hell.

Gatlopp is the game you never knew you wanted to not play (it's basically the adult version of Jumanji). It's also the game you didn't know you needed to play so that you could reconnect with your closest circle of friends, in the most chaotic hellbent way - but the end is well worth it. I had the great opportunity to speak with screenwriter and star Jim Mahoney about how this story idea came to be, his creative collaboration with director Alberto Belli and his approach to writing an ensemble of grounded characters with unique voices.

[L-R] Sarunas J. Jackson as Troy, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Sam, Jon Bass as Cliff, and Jim Mahoney as Paul in the supernatural comedy, GATLOPP, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

[L-R] Sarunas J. Jackson as Troy, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Sam, Jon Bass as Cliff, and Jim Mahoney as Paul in the supernatural comedy, GATLOPP, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: This question is kind of like which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, which came first for you, the board game idea or the cast of characters?

Jim Mahoney: I think it was a little bit of both. I've been reminiscing on how it came about 12 years ago, I was meeting four friends to go have drinks on the town. So, we met at my friend's place that was close to Bay Street, Santa Monica and we met there at his house and he was like, 'Before we go out, you guys want to play a game?' He's like, 'I got this weird game.' And so we're like, 'Sure.' So we started playing this game - made it a drinking game. It was four hours later and my friend's wife was like, ‘The whole point of this was for you to get out of the house.’ [laughs] And we were just having such a blast. Basically torturing each other that we ended up staying in just playing this game and my warped sense of story went to like, ‘This is a trick.’ [laughs] ‘What if this game, lured us in and now we have to somehow battle it out?’

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I was always a fan of the first Jumanji. And I thought basically if I were to take people that I consider to be close friends, people that have no business being in an extreme situation being thrust into an extreme situation, [laughs] and having to claw their way out. So, it was I think the game and this sort of conceit probably came first, but it came from being with a bunch of characters that are not too dissimilar from what became the characters in the movie.

Sadie: The concept of this game and interweaving it into the storyline, and creating rules for this game as well, which also structured your storyline how were you and director Alberto Belli approaching that throughline?

Jim: Alberto was helpful in passing drafts here and there and getting notes because I pitched the idea to him, but it was just me writing this. And this was sort of an experiment for me. I've been writing with a partner for a long time, Zach Lewis, we started writing web stuff initially and then got into features, we started working in animation, we wrote Klaus together, along with Sergio Pablos. But this was one where I kind of wanted to experiment with story a bit. So, I knew how I basically wanted this to end eventually, but I definitely knew I wanted to get into the story. And I had a few ideas of fun moments. And so then, I just kind of went into it. But as I got further into it, it was like I have to come up with rules to make these moments work, and hopefully all character-driven moments work.

I tried to keep the rules of the game kind of as loose as possible, or at least as simple as possible, but yet with enough mystery where we're not quite sure how it works, so that the characters don't know. The audience won't know. But it's starts to kind of really solidify halfway through the movie. I guess I found the rules as I went along, as long as it held to where I wanted the movie to kind of come to a conclusion and where I wanted the characters to end up.

Sadie: Alberto not only directed but was also the editor on this, each shot in this is so very specific to the colors in the room and transitions. How much time was spent going through the script with you and being like, ‘OK we need this transition from this game scene to this character’s dialogue’?

Jim: Yeah, he did a really good job of planning transitions. I mean, they're all pretty much scripted. From the very beginning when I first approached him with this idea, we kind of wax nostalgic on all the movies we grew up with in the 80s and 90s - Amblin being obviously kind of a North Star. And we would talk about music and other transitions. The Polaroids were all him because I had that picture wall that was in the script and he was like, ‘I love this idea. I want to see Polaroids and what do you think about polarizing transitions? That's what I'd love to do.’ And I was like, ‘Go for it. This sounds rad.’ And it really was.

[L-R] Sarunas J. Jackson as Troy, Jon Bass as Cliff, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Sam, and Jim Mahoney as Paul in the supernatural comedy, GATLOPP, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

[L-R] Sarunas J. Jackson as Troy, Jon Bass as Cliff, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Sam, and Jim Mahoney as Paul in the supernatural comedy, GATLOPP, an XYZ Films release. Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

He did a really good job of keeping the visual language in his head, the kind of progression of color as it went about. But also, when we were shooting it he's all he's very much about the visual composition to kind of evoke an emotion and then the visual composition to then form a transition to the next sequence. And while it was super low budget, we lost ta day and a half from a false positive COVID test because we were shooting this in the fall of 2020; so, it was tricky and he had to kind of come up with stuff on the fly. How do you make this transition work? So, it was very helpful, and he cut the movie - he did a great job with that. We had a lot of discussions about the edit, but I was super happy with how he kept the ship on course.

Sadie: What was that process like for you in writing this ensemble of characters?

Jim: Well, for one, when we initially started working on this idea, the plan was to shoot this ourselves and so we're going to use essentially people that we knew to hopefully donate time. And so I started with my friends that are actors, what would be the most fun for them to portray, if they’re donating their time for however long it would take to film this? So, I started really thinking about the friends that I knew that represented these characters for the most part that would be the easiest character for them to slip into. Each character is a mix of me and a few other people that I know. I’d start pulling conversations from who I knew was the source material for each character – that was helping kind of guide their voice.

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Then as I was writing, I didn't write out outlines for each character - I had a starting point for each one. A flaw for each one for the most part and like a superpower for each one. And then based on the different events and how the story went along, how would they each navigate that. I kind of write and then vomit it out and then just revise, revise, revise like crazy, and then slowly, it's kind of like chipping away at the marble, and I let these people that started off as one thing kind of become another as I went along through the script. It'd be fun to find discoveries. And anytime there was a point where I was like, ‘This is probably where this character would go,’ or ‘What would I do to basically surprise the character and us in these moments?’ So that's kind of a messy way of explaining how I went along the journey with them. And, again, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I kind of let them guide me in a way as well. And then, as best I can surprise them in the moment.


Sadie: Was this the original cast you had in mind or was this the next iteration once you guys were going to production? Because I couldn't see anyone else in these roles. And I'm also curious, how much were they also helping you define those characters' voices?

Jim: Oh, absolutely. So, it's not who was originally intended, because when this was purchased, the producers took over and it went wide for casting. And first of all, we started casting in January and February of 2020, and March hit, and everything shut down; so, it went out to a lot of places and a lot of actors were very much responding to it. It was really fun to see the response, to see people excited about it, and bringing their own flavors to it, their own kind of funk here and there and then the shutdown happened. We had to go back into casting in the summer of 2020. And it really started with Emmy [Raver-Lampman] when she responded to the material and Alberto is a huge Umbrella fan, and I'm also an Umbrella Academy fan, as well, but Alberto was geeking out [laughs] she was interested. We met her and she was just so kind and gregarious, but also super smart. And we were having fun fast conversations, got into a repertoire And I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ She was she signed on and then Sarunas [Jackson] came in and offered some amazing takes on that character, Jon Bass as well.

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All these conversations were over Zoom, but it was really interesting when we're like, ‘We're never going to meet before we start shooting this,’ because we couldn't. However, once we got there, we immediately found a rhythm after day one, which Alberto smartly had us film the moment where we all reunite first, he's like, ‘It's supposed to be an awkward moment for the movie and since you guys don't know each other, this is going to work out perfectly.’ [laughs] And then after that, we kind of fell into a groove.

They really responded to the material, but they all added their own kind of twists and turns and kind of the phraseology of certain lines, they would make this make their own or ‘This is how I would say it,’ which we were welcome to. There's a lot of improv. There's a lot of times when Emmy or Sarunas or Jon would be like, 'This isn't how I or my character would approach this. Can I talk to you about a different way to go about this?’ And it was easy for me because everything they offered up as a pitch was so smart. So, I was like, 'Yeah, that seems great.' [laughs] ‘You're making me look great.’ But I would say like 80% of it was what was on the page, and then that 20% to up to 30% would be very much them.

GATLOPP Photo courtesy of XYZ Films.

Gatlopp is available on Demand and on Digital on June 23, 2022.

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