Josh Greenbaum is a rising director and screenwriter with multiple accolades to his name, including recognition from the Emmys and major film festivals like SXSW. Having directed episodes of New Girl and Fresh Off the Boat, Greenbaum’s name didn’t reach the masses until making the hit documentaries The Short Game and Becoming Bond. Though Greenbaum has just begun his narrative feature career, and it’s all thanks to comedy queens Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. Selected by Wiig herself to come on board and direct their latest comedic adventure, Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar. With this being Wiig and Mumolo’s first screenwriting reunion since 2011’s Bridesmaids, Greenbaum was blessed with an incredibly fun and insane narrative feature debut.
“More than the traditional cliché rom-com”, the film follows best friends Barb and Star as they leave their mid-western lifestyle for a true Florida getaway, full of talking crustaceans, musical numbers, and evil plots to overtake a colorful resort. Ludicrous in all the right kind of ways, it was a pleasure to sit down with director Josh Greenbaum and discuss his creative vision for Barb and Star as well as collaborating with the queens of comedy.
To start off, could you tell us a bit about how you got into directing?
Josh Greenbaum: Sure! Let me think of a short version of that. I’ve always loved film and I think right after college, I started writing screenplays and I remember the moment I was like, “Okay, I want to do this for a living.” I watched a scene of mine be put up by a bunch of actors, professional actors in a screenwriting course, and seeing your words come to life like that I found rather addicting. That was 20 or so years ago, and since then, I went to film school and started directing documentaries as well as short films, commercials, and TV shows. This is my first narrative feature, but I have done 3 feature-length documentaries, one of which had a lot of narrative components to it, which is actually what Kristen Wiig saw and how I came on board this project. But yeah, it’s been a good 20 years now and I’ve always loved making films.
Moving on to Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar, could you elaborate more on how you joined the film?
Josh Greenbaum: As I was just alluding to, we did a screening of one of the films I made called Becoming Bond. I didn’t know it at the time, but Kristen Wiig was in the audience along with Jessica Elbaum, who’s the producer of Barb and Star. The film ended and I then discovered Kristen was in the audience because she walked up to me and said “I want to work with you, that film was amazing!” I was, of course, blown away because I’m such a massive fan of hers. But to be honest, I sort of wondered if that is just what people say in Hollywood, but that was that and it was very exciting.
A few days later, I got a call saying Kristen wanted to have lunch. So we went and had this amazing two-and-a-half-hour lunch where she pitched me the story of Barb and Star, which had already been written by her and Annie Mumalo, but hearing it from Kristen’s mouth as a pitch is better than reading the script because she’s acting out all the different parts and you just can see her passion. After that, I got to read the script and it was as funny, wild, and heartfelt as Kristen’s pitch. Then we were off and running as I came on board. We certainly did some more further work on the script and then a year or so later, we were off shooting together.
This film is quite a lighthearted comedy, what attracted you to this particular story for your narrative feature debut?
Josh Greenbaum: There were several things. First off, I’m always in love with stories about friendship. I think our friends in life become in many ways our surrogate families. Certainly throughout my life, while I have a wonderful family, I have leaned on my friends, especially when you’re far from home a lot of the time. So at its core, it was a very sweet story about best friends, but it’s also a really fun comedy that is very colorful. It’s just got a very optimistic, uplifting tone and it also really doesn’t take itself too seriously. The film is a return to silly which I think in a weird way, comedies have been very grounded for a while. We’ve been in a sort of dramedy space which has been amazing, but I’m excited by the return to silliness in films that don’t take themselves too seriously.
So that was a lot of it, but as a director, there were just so many wonderful sequences to play with, such as the big musical numbers. We have a big hotel musical number that I was very much excited to do like a Busby Berkeley musical. We have an insane sequence with Jamie Dornan singing and dancing incredibly emotionally on the beach, we have a talking crab named Morgan Freemond, and these were all incredible, exciting parts to the film. But the real answer to all of that was the opportunity to work with Kristen and Annie above it all. When you have the chance to work with talent like that, it’s just so thrilling because at the end of the day, it’s going to be something unique and special and I hope that’s what it is for most people when they see it.
Kristen Wigg and Annie Mumalo star in the film, but they also wrote it. I can imagine the three of you would have collaborated a lot, what was that process like?
Josh Greenbaum: It was fantastic. Kristen and Annie have has 20+ years of friendship, they met years ago at the Groundlings Comedy Troupe in Los Angeles. They just have this incredible shorthand and when I came into the picture, we all clicked instantly. We had the same sort of comedic tastes. So very early on, we were just spending weeks and weeks together, either at Kristen’s house or Annie’s house or my house, working on the script and coming up with fun ideas and filling in themes. It was just an incredibly joyful and creative process.
I’ve often described the feeling of being around them as being with very young children, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. They’re so full of energy, ideas, and creativity that is infectious. The 3 of us became The Three Amigos instantly, and then on set that just carried over. What I was really proud of is the energy and vibe that was created on set. It didn’t feel like a job every day because there was just that much fun, laughter, and joy. Obviously, I’m in an earlier stage of my narrative career, but I hope all films feel that way and I have the sinking suspicion that they may not. It was so unique and I felt so grateful to have my first narrative experience be with Kristen and Annie.
You can tell that you all had lots of fun on set and that’s also reflected in the sets themselves. How did you go about designing these locations with your crew and were you inspired by any other films?
Josh Greenbaum: That’s a great question. I give so much credit to our production designer who I met and hired immediately. At our very first meeting, I could tell that Steve Saklad got the film and he was incredibly inspired. He brought these images that were grand, beautiful, and colorful. He instantly started talking about these turquoise and bright magenta colors. One of the references we certainly talked about was Wes Anderson’s style, in that we wanted things to be very composed and deliberate in their design, but slightly different because we wanted it to feel a bit more loose and fun. Steve has a great body of work, he can go as fun and colorful as The Muppets, which he designed, to a film as grounded as Juno. His ability to walk both types of worlds was perfect for this film because we start the film in Nebraska, which is Barb and Star’s status quo when you meet them. I wanted it to feel warm, inviting, and not drab, but missing something. It’s a bit monochromatic and as they journey towards Vista Del Mar, it mirrors their emotional journey.
On top of that, we added in our incredible Director of Photography, Toby Oliver, and he was able to make the film feel cinematic. A lot of modern-day comedies focus so much on the dialogue and the jokes, which is great, but they sort of let go of that third big tool of movie-making, which is the camera and being cinematic. Very early on we said, “Let’s make this feel different.” So we used anamorphic lenses and it’s shot in an extra widescreen format. I hope that conveys the feeling of a cinema experience to audiences.
The comedy genre as a whole relies very heavily on performances from actors. How would you say directing a comedy is different from other genres?
Josh Greenbaum: It’s a delicate balance and a dance. It comes down to casting the right people and getting out of their way. Casting is so critical and we had the benefit of already having Kristen and Annie who knew these characters so well. With making the decision of going with Jamie Dornan to play this other role, who had thus far not been in a comedy, you have to trust your instincts. He and I had an hour-and-a-half Skype call while he was in London as we were casting, and I just loved him. I could see that he was incredibly funny.
He got the script, and what I think was exciting to me was that he was so willing to commit and if there’s ever any advice I give to actors, particularly drama actors who are now entering comedy, it’s don’t play the joke. Commit to the character. I’ve long held the belief that if you’re a very good comedic actor, you actually are inherently a good dramatic actor, because to pull off most comedy you have to be playing the drama real and it just so happens that the circumstances around your drama make people laugh, but often is not funny to your character. That’s what we often find with guys like Steve Carell or Jim Carrey, they’re able to move into the drama field so easily. I think it’s harder and not a given that a dramatic actor understands how to make a scene funny.
The release of the film was delayed due to the ongoing pandemic. What are your thoughts on it moving from a theatrical summer release to a PVOD release over Valentine’s Day?
Josh Greenbaum: Obviously, as my first feature film, I would be lying if didn’t say that I was so thrilled for it to be out in theaters all across the country and for people to see it on the big screen with a crowd. But on the flip side, I’m also so thrilled now to be giving the gift of this vacation to people because I think we all need it. We all need to laugh, it’s been a hard year and we’ve been cooped up. This is certainly the friendship we all want and is definitely the vacation we all need. So I’m excited, it took me a minute to come around to it, but I think it’s really wonderful that people can see it in the safety of their homes. I just ask everyone out there to put it on as big of a screen as you can and turn it up. It was made for the theaters, but it absolutely will still work in your home.
To wrap up, could you tell us why you think audiences should watch Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar?
Josh Greenbaum: This is the vacation that we all need and want and what better way to spend the Valentine’s season falling in love with these two women in Barb and Star? I really genuinely think it can lift your spirits and as I said earlier, we could all use a little bit more silly and a little bit more fun. If nothing else, you need to tune in just to see Jamie Dornan do a two-and-a-half-minute musical number on the beach. We are looking forward to people all over the world watching our movie!