Everyone finds success in different places. For Scot Armstrong, it appeared when he teamed up with Todd Phillips for their hit comedy Road Trip. He paid his dues, was prepared when opportunity knocked, and subsequently has been able to achieve longevity in a business obsessed with the next new thing. Now, Armstrong is the creator and showrunner of Showtime’s Dice and producing project upon project, including his most recent movie, Search Party in theaters and VOD now. In this interview, Armstrong talks about how he garnered power and praise in Hollywood, and how you can too.
When did you first become interested in film?
When I was really young I liked writing cartoons. I liked The Far Side, Herman, stuff like that I used to imitate. I had notebooks full of cartoons and I thought I was going to be a cartoonist, maybe. I just liked thinking of ideas. My whole family is kind of funny—my family is [made up of] a bunch of storytellers. When I got to high school, we had a career day. I met an executive who was in advertising—a Creative Director. He was explaining that he got paid to just think of ideas and I was really blown away by that. I was like, that’s the one thing I thought I could do…
I started out in advertising, but when I was in Chicago—I had always been a fan of Second City. I ended up taking classes at Second City and Improv Olympic. It wasn’t because I thought I was going to be some big comedian, I just thought studying that stuff could be fun. But then I got really sucked into it and I started doing more stuff at Improv Olympic in Chicago. I always wanted to get paid to write. Writing commercials was a good way to start and then I started writing a movie on my own. I think you’ve got to get your first really bad movie out of the way before you can move onto something that’s going to really work better. Then, I met Todd Phillips; we ended up coming up for the idea for Road Trip.
What was it like getting your start in the smaller market that is Chicago where not everyone is trying to work in entertainment? Was that beneficial?
Definitely. I was able to work on my stuff without being judged too harshly. I was in a really supportive environment in Chicago. Even though Second City and Improv Olympic were big, it really was a small, supportive community. It was also before smart phones where people are filming you and judging you, or commenting on your stuff. I also lived in Portland, Oregon for a couple of years and did some improvising there in the basement of this restaurant where nobody was. It was really good to work on your stuff before you’re in a city where people want you to be fine-tuned—made for TV or whatever…
I would say to anybody in a small market, don’t be discouraged: use it as an opportunity to really work on stuff. If you live in Minnesota, be in a play in Minnesota, write in Minnesota, or wherever you are. It’s good to be able to fail and find a place to fail.
How did your improv training help set you up for success?
It’s really hard to answer that because it really does affect everything in my life. First of all, I love it as an art form and I love doing it. I never made a dime doing it—I’ve never been considered that great of a performer—I just love doing it. It does infiltrate everything in your life really; you can really roll with the punches and go with flow of life, you know? It gives you good instincts I think. But also it helps you with your writing. When I’m writing I’m just improvising with multiple characters in my head at the same time and I can write at a pretty good pace. It builds up your brain mussels in a way where you can think a few steps ahead while your trying to say something entertaining…It’s just good training for everything, I think. And I think it has definitely helped me with directing—being able to relate to actors and help them get them where they want to be. You know, when you’re working with an actor on set you just want them to feel as funny and honest as possible. I think that having been onstage and having gone through that myself helps a little bit.
My favorite thing about all of it is just the camaraderie and the friends—going out for a drink after the shows. I’ve been performing with some of the same people for years and years, some of my favorite people in life.
Speaking of friends, how have you been able to spice up the classic buddy comedy, like you did for your new movie Search Party?
Well, I don’t know—hopefully I am. I like to think of each character as a unique character in each story. It’s basically just trying to make your characters specific and unusual as possible. One of the things that helps me is that I try to make my characters intelligent, even if they have major flaws and do really dumb stuff. I try, I don’t always succeed…That always helps me keep things fresh. I feel like they’re always up on what’s happening in the world…I don’t know. Who knows? Hopefully it works. [Scot laughs]
Film is the director’s medium, but I imagine as the showrunner and creator of Dice on Showtime you get to maintain a lot of creative freedom. What’s your approach to running the show?
It’s definitely unusual. In movies the directors have all of the power. And then in TV the showrunner has all the power. But everyone’s still kind of doing the same jobs…In TV the directors are more of a hired hand that comes in and tries to almost connect to what the DP—Director of Photography—is doing: scouting the right shots and making sure everything comes to life. But story wise and character wise, that’s really the responsibility of the showrunner and the writers.
For me, none of it matters. It’s all sort of a bureaucratic argument. To me, it’s like, you’re all a bunch of funny people and you’re on the camera making something. That’s sort of why for Dice I directed while I was showrunning. It makes it easier. I don’t want to have to explain what I’m thinking to everyone else: trying to keep it small and simple. It was just me and Dice [Andrew Dice Clay] trying to figure everything out and I’ll take ideas from everywhere else. But that’s just basically what we’re doing.
Through your years, you’ve gained so much power in the business. What are you doing to help underrepresented voices—from women to minorities—get more opportunities in the industry?
Well, I think the best thing you could do is give opportunities to up and coming talent that has a voice. I had a production company that was trying to get things going with all different kinds of people. It’s never easy. I was trying to get Playing House made, which is a great show run by two smart women. I don’t know, that’s one thing I did. And then today I took a pitchout with Santa Sierra, a really talented woman from the Dominican Republic. Rachel Goldenberg’s a great up and coming talent, female director, who I have attached to a project. And for that one, I don’t stand to make a large amount of money…I don’t get that much out of it, it’s just me trying to give them an opportunity to make something important. It’s a dramatic movie about some kids from El Salvador. I can’t say that I’m solving anything, but I try here and there when I have time, to help people out.
What’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters?
Get your ass in a chair and type. Try not to complain so much about not having access to the right people or right places. There’s so much improvement you can probably do in your own work. Someone said a long time ago, “Keep your nose in your notebook.” That’s what I always try to do. Keep working hard and creating things. At the same time, it’s good to make yourself available to new experiences. Being ready for a break is as important as getting a break. If you try so hard to work on your networking—suddenly, say you get to meet somebody—it’s nice to have paid your dues before that moment. That’s one thing I’ll say on my own part. People have told me, “Hey, you’re so lucky that you met Todd Phillips in 1998. And yeah, I agree with that. But I also have to acknowledge I had already trained in Second City and Improv Olympic, and written up a movie that that didn’t work out well. I just had been a hard worker and was ready to meet somebody at that time. I was able to capitalize on that.
My other advice is, just know what you love to do and go for that. Doing what you do is great experience. If you want to film things, film a lot of things. If you want to write things, write a lot of things. I think sometimes people get too much paralysis and get caught up in, “Hey, this guy won’t read my screenplay,” when they should be typing. That’s a little bit of a generalization—it’s not that simple. But I do think if something is great—there is a shortage of great people, great work, and great scripts. So if you can make one, then you have a really good shot. ♦