Exclusive Interview: Tag director Jeff Tomsic pulls off insane action in short nights with an injured star

Those games of tag are actually very carefully directed

Tag is the kind of movie so crazy you couldn’t make it up. So they didn’t. There really is a group of friends who have been playing tag well into adulthood.

The movie is based on Russell Adams’ Wall Street Journal article. Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Burress play a group of childhood friends who conspire to finally tag their friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who has evaded them since childhood.

Jeff Tomsic makes his feature film debut directing Tag, although he has directed television and shorts since 2007. Tomsic spoke with Monsters and Critics about Tag, which opens Friday, June 15. Read our movie review here.

Jeff Tomsic (right) on the set of Tag

Monsters and Critics: How did Jerry get out of the phone booth?

Jeff Tomsic: [Laughs] You know, I’m not entirely sure I have a solution for that. I think it was just probably magic.

Monsters and Critics: It’s what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johansson, or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

JT: Yes, it’s the very same moment where it’s just a movie mystery. It doesn’t make really much sense but that’s exactly the point. You never know quite how Jerry accomplishes these things.

M&C: Did you film Tag like an action movie?

JT: The thing is, we shot a lot of those action sequences just in a couple days. Whereas on an action movie you’d have a week or two weeks to really go through every moment.

This was a schedule based on a comedy, not an action movie, so we had to do it very quickly. Like the first fight scene in the country club at night, we did that in about 14 hours because we were also shooting in July.

I don’t even know who’s butt that is that Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is dodging.

We had to shoot at night so the nights were only six or seven hours. It was just two nights. I remember the sun coming up while we were pulling pants down on Hannibal’s stunt double. It was a moment where I questioned my whole existence.

I’d been up all night for two nights. There was dawn breaking and I’m staring at the lighting on a man’s bare behind for about two hours.

M&C: Day for night butt shot.

JT: Exactly.

M&C: Were you using techniques you learned before you got into features, doing things on a short schedule and making it look professional?

JT: Yeah, I’ve done a bunch of stuff with stunts in TV. It’s always on a tight schedule. I actually brought the stunt coordinator, Eric Linden, a guy I’ve worked with for a decade in television into this because he just knew how to roll with the punches and move quickly and also plan very far in advance.

All those action sequences we shot together a couple months before we even got to Atlanta and edited them and cut things and changed things so that we knew every shot we needed. We did previs on everything.

Jeff Tomsic reviews the take with actors Jeremy Renner and Hannibal Burress.

Had we not known exactly what we needed we probably could’ve never finished any of those things. And then we had to revise some of it because Jeremy got injured on day three.

After all that previs work, we had to try to think about how we could do everything we wanted to with a man who’d broken both of his arms.

M&C: Everything he’s doing in the movie is with injuries?

JT: All that physicality, 99% of it he’s doing with a broken left wrist and fractured right elbow.

M&C: How did that happen?

JT: It was a pretty simple stunt. There’s a scene where he surfs these chairs down in that gym.

That was a mechanical chair. It was all welded together, that whole stack. He was on a wire that we removed later in visual effects. It was all safe. We tested it in a studio, sat there for hours and hours ad nauseum watching tests and everything was fine.

On a fluke, either the chairs went a little too late or he went a little too early. It’s hard to know, but a split second difference, he fell. The wire stopped him but for just a moment he touched ground with both his hands.

The rest of this scene led to trouble for Jeremy Renner.

No one knew that anything had happened. He didn’t know either. He got up and did the stunt again. He was like, “Oh, I can do that better.” Jumped right back up there. We shot it again.

It wasn’t until about an hour later where he realized that he’d hurt himself. And then he went and talked to the doctor, got two removable braces for his arms and came right back to work.

M&C: Did Jeremy come to you with his Bourne Legacy and Hawkeye moves?

JT: He certainly did. He is amazingly fast and he can do almost anything. It’s sort of incredible. The stunt team would show him a move, like a knee spin and I would look at it and be like, “There’s no way he can do this.”

With three months of training I couldn’t accomplish what they just did. He would just nod and then immediately take one, nail it. I think it probably was from so much stunt training over the years.

Jeff Tomsic directs a romantic scene in Tag.

M&C: Is the body rig where you attach the camera to Jake Johnston the same thing Spike Lee used to use?

JT: Spike Lee uses that but I think he also would attach a camera to a dolly and then put the actor on a dolly so that it’d be separate but you’d get this feeling where the actors are floating through spaces.

I think he would stand them on the dolly and put the camera there. It’s something that Darren Aronofsky used in Requiem for a Dream to make some of those drug sequences really intense.

I thought that’d be funny to apply to a stoner comedy. Jake hated it though. It weighs like 40 pounds. It’s a really ugly thing to be running up and down stairs wearing. We called it weed-vision when we were shooting.

M&C: What’s the camera that does the extreme slow motion?

JT: The Phantom camera. I have used it a bunch in TV and I really thought it’d be a great way to get into the minds of these guys and see how serious they take the game. It also requires a lot of lights so it’s very hot to shoot with. It was fun.

Just saying, she really captures my essence.

M&C: The actual Wall Street Journal article was written by a male journalist. So can Annabelle Wallis play me in the next movie?

JT: [Laughs] You should talk to her about that. I think she’d be willing. I haven’t talked to Russell about how flattered he is or not about that particular choice. I imagine he’s okay with it.

M&C: You had the real guys on the set with you, right?

JT: Mm-hmm. We had almost all of them with the exception of maybe one guy. They had a great time.

It was so fun to watch them giggling in headphones sitting at the monitor. There was a moment where we were shooting the interview scene in the basement where it’s all about Jon Hamm sh*tting his pants in high school, which was not the most flattering moment for all the real guys to come see what we were doing with their lives.

So I called cut and ran over to them and asked them how they were doing and they were laughing hysterically. They said, “This is us. This is exactly us.” I took that as total license to do everything I wanted for the rest of the movie.

The real tag crew with Ed Helms.

M&C: You weren’t shooting in May. Were they playing tag on the set?

JT: They actually play in February. Their month is February but we shifted it so we weren’t shooting in the middle of winter, and for a wedding and because the actors were only available in the summer and we couldn’t make it winter in Atlanta then.

A few of them came down when we were in additional photography and I remember having dinner with Mike Konesky, who’s one of the guys, during February in Atlanta. He was there on a business trip and he demanded to sit facing the door with his back to a wall.

The whole time, we’re having a regular conversation and he would occasionally be glancing around and ask me, “Do you know if Joey T. is in Atlanta? I think maybe he’s in Atlanta. Do you know where Patrick is? Is he it? Do you know?”

I got so nervous sitting across from this guy because he felt so imperiled but they’re that intense about the game. He couldn’t focus on an actual conversation. Now I’m on a group text chain with them.

In February they were constantly asking me who’s it because they won’t tell each other. I had suddenly got stuck in the role of being the rat for this group of guys.

Just a reminder, Tag is based on a true story.

M&C: How many of their real tricks were incorporated into the movie? We see at the end one of them really dressed up as an old woman.

JT: That actually happened. The funeral thing actually happened at Patrick Schultze’s father’s funeral. I think Mike tagged him.

The truth of that matter, I guess hearing from Mike, is that Pat’s dad was a real big fan of all the guys and actually did love the game. So what Jake says there is almost the truth. “I think your father would really want you to be it right now.” That’s true.

It’s tough. There are so many stories that have gone through this myth engine, even with them because they all argue about what actually happened and who’s the hero. It’s hard to tell but there’s shades of all of it in there. There’s certainly stuff that’s even crazier that we didn’t put in.

Jeff Tomsic directs a scene with Jake Johnson and Isla Fisher

M&C: It is rated R and they say f*** like adults casually say when they talk to each other, but it’s not dirty comedy, is it?

JT: No, I guess I’m pretty wholesome. I went into this being sort of a hopeless optimist myself and really adoring their love for each other. I wanted that to be the pre-eminent takeaway out of the movie.

So anything that felt mean-spirited or just pointlessly dirty, I tried to remove. I mean, there’s still a fair amount of dick jokes in there.

M&C: Were there any alternate music tracks to the scenes with “Mother,” “Crazy Train” or Crash Test Dummies?

JT: It’s funny, I went to Atlanta to shoot with almost all of the songs that are in the movie on a playlist. It’s surprising to me that so many of them we actually used.

“Crazy Train” was actually Jeremy’s idea. We were shooting in the woods and Jeremy started playing that on his phone and thought it was hysterical if he had put a boom box out in the woods to get in these guys’ heads.

I actually had the sound department piping it in while we were shooting into the background, while Jake was running around and while they were spinning. It was obnoxiously loud speakers playing “Crazy Train” through that whole scene. That all came from Jeremy.

Vehicular tag

The Danzig song came much later but we were thinking about it. We actually had scored that scene and we looked back at the “Crazy Train” scene and said, “Well, it feels like Jeremy’s character is all about metal. Probably his mother’s basement in high school was covered in Danzig posters and Ozzy posters so we should make this a little more fun and put that song in.”

I also just love, that song is hilarious to me. It’s so ridiculous. The fact that Ed is dressed as a grandmother, it seemed to all fit. Yeah, a lot of that music has always been there even from the first cut. Crash Test Dummies was there. Of course, you saw the credits.

M&C: When did you shoot that “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmmm” video?

JT: We shot that much later, only like a few weeks ago. Jeremy’s a great musician. He’s doing a soundtrack to this animated film. I was over at his house and we were just talking about we’d love for him to have a song in the movie.

Then we just started giggling about how ridiculous that Crash Test Dummies “Mmm Mmm Mmm” is. We started reading the lyrics and they’re so bad. Then he started singing it and we were like we have to record it.

He has a studio in his house so over that weekend we recorded that version of the song, then dragged all the guys into it and it’s the last thing that went into the movie. It’s like something I would’ve done with my buddies in high school. I can’t believe it’s with this level of actor in a major motion picture.

Jeff Tomsic reviews a take with Jeremy Renner and Leslie Bibb.

M&C: Did your prop department buy ‘90s era Bud Lite cans or did they make those?

JT: [Laughs] I will tell them that you noticed that because they’ll be so happy. they did a lot of research about what if there were beers in that fridge from 1993 and those are the exact beer cans from 1993.

M&C: Yeah, they’re blue now.

JT: Yeah, it’s great. They were very proud of themselves about that so the fact that you noticed that, I will tell them immediately.

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