Written by Dylan Callaghan
Michael McCullers was just another freshly-minted Yale grad with no purpose when Mike Myers changed his life. No, this isn't an early plug for the impending Myers' pic The Love Guru -- it's the true tale of how McCullers, the screenwriter and first-time helmer of the new comedy Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, chanced into his start in show biz.
After earning his English Lit degree among the ivy, he moved to L.A. in the early '90s to “hang out” with his best friend from high school, who was then attending USC. He had no intention of becoming a scripter, but when a friend he'd made among his high school pal's crew decided to leave a gig as Myers' writing assistant, opportunity came all but shagging. “He kinda disappeared into the rave culture and just didn't want to do it anymore,” he says of Myers' then-assistant, whose name he omits, “so he asked me if I wanted the job... Oh, and I said yes.”
He started with Myers just before the writing of the first Austin Powers film. “It was a little bit of research, a little bit of Final Draft, and a little bit of putting up index cards on a board,” he says. “But mainly it boiled down to, 'Hey do you want to watch this Woody Allen movie with Mike Myers and then talk about why it's funny?' It was a pretty good deal.”
“Eventually, [Myers] started to trust my sense of humor,” he says. “I didn't jump in there and start pitching jokes on day one by any means. I kept my mouth shut for a long, long time.” He would eventually earn enough trust to get a written by credit on the second and third of the Powers series and score a coveted spot as a writer on Saturday Night Live.
McCullers spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about Baby Mama, his unique collaboration with Fey and Poehler, and the key lesson he learned from working with Myers.
How did this idea come to you?
Tina and I were first-year writers on Saturday Night Live together. We were the new kids back in '98 or something like that. We got to know each other that way, which is a pretty good bonding experience...
Photo: © 2008 Universal Studios
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Baby Mama.
The idea started with the talent, as it so often does in comedy. Somebody said, “Hey, would you like to make a movie with Amy [Poehler] and Tina?” And I said, “Wow! If someone will make such a movie, I will do it.”
The three of us got together in New York a few times when I was out there and just talked about ideas. As comedy writers will do, we came up with a lot of jokey, not-so-serious pitches, and then we hit on this idea. Tina had her baby Alice, so motherhood was a big thing that had just happened to her. We talked about having her adopt a baby, and then we thought about surrogacy. The key sentence was: “What if Amy had Tina's baby?” Boom! That was funny and had a lot of inherent conflict.
So that was the core of the story, the comedic engine?
Yes, it's a classic odd couple match up obviously, but what made it interesting for me is that it's a new way to get into that situation. The stakes are high and so is the conflict. There are only so many times an angry police captain can pair up two people, you know? But if someone is having your baby, there's no getting away. It's an even bigger metaphor for parenthood. Once you wade into that decision, you are really stuck together. It was a lot of fun because we could really ramp up what Amy does, and Tina can't go anywhere. She's trapped in that situation.
Did you play with class, as well?
Yeah, I did a lot of research and promptly ignored 80 percent of it when it suited me comedically. What is undeniably true about surrogacy is that it's mostly fairly wealthy women that hire other women to have their babies, and it's mainly lower middle-class women who are paid to carry a baby because it's hard work. So as far as the business relationship goes, it's usually between an upper-class woman and a working-class woman. There are a lot of Web sites and message boards about surrogacy and my research showed that there are areas of conflict that show up over and over again.
One that came up all the time was soda. Upper-class, educated, health-conscious women don't drink soda in their normal lives much less when they're pregnant -- it's like doing a shot of vodka. But in the real world, guess what? People are gonna have their Dr. Pepper.
Was there a lot of improv with Poehler and Fey?
There was. It's funny because Amy, Tina, and I are all comedy writers as well as those two being performers, so while we did improv a lot, we also weren't afraid of writing. We would improv, improv again, and then write it down. We would joke that, when you do that, that's also called writing
Having said that, they still did a ton of improv. Like I said, they've been working together for 15 years, so they have an amazing chemistry.
What's a key lesson you took for your time working with Mike Myers?
Mike is very nerdy about his index cards and outlining, and I've definitely adopted that wholesale. I have this enormous corkboard, it's really a gorgeous corkboard, I had it custom-made, I wish you could see it. I don't like the white [eraser boards], I like the corkboards...
But it's all index cards.
Index cards and outlines, yeah. It's just throwing down every notion or joke or snippet of a thought that might pop into your head and getting it down somewhere. So I would say writing everything down would be the big lesson, because it might come up in another movie or another part. You never know with these things.