Maureen: Bharoocha: ‘The Prank’

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Director Maureen Bharoocha. Photo by Bernd Reinhardt

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Maureen Bharoocha whose newest film is “The Prank,” starring Rita Moreno. Bharoocha is also the director of “Golden Arm,” an arm wrestling comedy. Bharoocha tells The Treatment she wanted to transcend movie genres with “The Prank” and not just stay in the comedy or thriller category. She says part of the fun of featuring the legendary Moreno in the film was having the actress play a strict teacher, a character she never played before. And Bharoocha says her characters may have been inspired by her stubborn and strong grandmothers. 

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment.  I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Maureen Bharoocha, did a feature called "Golden Arm," and her newest film as director is "The Prank." Describe for our audience what “The Prank” is about.

Maureen Bharoocha: "The Prank” is about Ben and his best friend Tanner, who decided to play a prank on their teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, played by Rita Moreno, after she fails the whole class. They decide to play this prank on her by framing her for a missing student, and they say that she's murdered him on social media.

KCRW: These are situations that could be played for drama and often would be, and you don't play them for drama.

Bharoocha: Here's the thing: I love movies. And I feel like we've seen so many iterations of straight up comedies or straight up thrillers. I think that the most exciting thing is this mashup that we've done in "The Prank” because I think taking something that can be a little bit ridiculous and playing it for laughs when you can is so exciting. The movie starts off in a comedy world, but there's always this threat of thriller coming, so we kind of straddled that line between comedy and thriller very carefully. That was something that I was really proud of, but also it was really challenging.

KCRW: Both of these movies are about people who take themselves very seriously and often are trying to figure out who they are.

Bharoocha: Yeah, I think so much of when you're in high school is kind of wrapped up in your identity. Ben in this movie thinks he knows who he is. He's a straight A student, so the idea that he could get an F or not get into college, that kind of throws his whole world out of control, and he's willing to do whatever to get back at Mrs. Wheeler, who's played by Rita Moreno.

To me, what was so interesting about the movie as well is: how far will you go? How far will you go to get revenge or play a silly prank on a teacher? I feel like we've all had those fantasies, so the idea is to be able to explore that in this movie in a funny way. Obviously we live in a world right now that is so filled with conspiracy theories, and you can damage someone's reputation online with a click of a button. It's like a modern day morality tale for the digital age.

KCRW: One of my favorite lines in the movie is that boomers are afraid of everything and will believe anything they see online.

Bharoocha: I mean, isn't that the truth? It's so funny after my mom saw this movie, she was like, Can this really happen? And I was like, Mom, that's what the internet is.

KCRW: Again, both of these movies are about, to some extent, characters who are trying to figure out who they are because they're kind of showbiz people and take themselves very seriously. 

Bharoocha: That's the thing I love about comedy. I come from UCB and always just grounding yourself and having one foot planted firmly on the ground. I think you're able to go places; you're able to explore comedy; you're able to go bigger if you have this real grounded base. TV is really doing a great job, but I think sometimes in film, comedy has gotten so crazy town, so that when you see something that is grounded and real and has truth in it, it feels so refreshing. 

With "Golden Arm," Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro, we really explored them and their friendship. That movie kind of evolved, based on us filming. And as we were making that movie, we were like, Oh, my gosh, we're finding the movie. This movie is about these women and their friendship. And it's a little bit like what happened in “The Prank.”

Originally, the movie was written for two boys. And, I was like, I think it is really important to explore the idea of platonic friendship that we don't get to see at all in movies, really. And so I had an open call for the Tanner character. And as soon as Ramona Young's tape came in, it was clear, she was the only one. Connor and Ramona got to explore this friendship. I had them make their song. That's how they first got to know each other by making the song together. Maybe that's what it is: it's finding this real organic friendship and having them go on this journey together.

KCRW: So much of comedy too, especially high school comedy, is so outré and outrageous. And it feels on some level, like sketches and having in this situation that is so real, and that Ben and Tanner are kind of like id and superego. He thinks these things, and then she'll do them. There is a level of unspoken trust in that relationship.

Bharoocha: Yeah, and that's the thing: I feel like they know each other so well, and they know how to push each other's buttons. That's also I think, why, when they do have their fight later in the movies that they're like brother and sister, they know exactly what buttons to push to hurt the other one, because they know exactly how the other one will react. And I think that they do kind of rely a little bit on each other to get each other through high school.

KCRW: I think one of the things that you've proven that you can do so well in these two films is that you have a real gift for chemistry casting because the protagonists in both of these movies really feel like there's a long term relationship without the movie struggling to explain what the relationship is.

Bharoocha: Really, casting is everything. It's so important to find people that are just talented actors. And so I feel like I've been very lucky in that sense. And the other thing, too, is just to explore and to be open to the ideas of what the actors are bringing to the table because so often, Ramona or Connor would pitch something, or Rita would pitch something about their characters. If that shines a light bulb, or that's a new idea, that's so exciting. Let's explore that; let's find that. And, these weren't movies that we had a long time to shoot, so it's not like we were taking a long time to do that. So I think that's why casting is so important. When you don't have a lot of time, and you do want to build that relationship, I think it is finding people that just instantly connect or can get on the same page quickly.

KCRW: In both these movies, there's somebody who's so committed and so serious about a lifestyle choice they've made--in "Golden Arm," it's Brenda, and here, it's the teacher-- that they throw off everything and the idea of that person who won't change direction. That's a really interesting idea to explore as a foil for people who are, in the case of these other characters, incredibly neurotic.

Bharoocha: I come from kind of a big, crazy family. My mom's Irish Catholic, and my dad's Indian-Pakistani Muslim, and so I come from a long line of stubborn women. Both of my grandmothers were very stubborn, which is great, because I look back on it now, and we always called them stubborn, and I'm like, Oh, you know what? They are who they are. And they were like, This is me. So maybe there's a thread in all of my characters that are like that, that are my grandmothers.

KCRW: In both these cases, these women who are so committed to this lifestyle and have this kind of unwavering, frightening, calm temperament, this fixation on doing what they think is right, and everybody else is sort of grays, but these are characters that live in these worlds that are incredibly black and white, which is such a fascinating idea for comedy. And again, neither of them are turned into archetypes, but are very real people.

Bharoocha: I think that's really important. You can have these kinds of classic characters, but without making them a trope. And I think that obviously comes from casting Rita Moreno as Mrs. Wheeler. Rita is just obviously the pinnacle. She's just incredible and breathes life into a character in a way that was just not on the page. But I think that's what made it so interesting for her is that she's never gotten to play a character like this. And she's never gotten to play a delicious character that is living this lifestyle and is so committed to this very tough as nails teacher. Talking with Rita, making sure that her character always knew that she's in the right and again, maybe that does go back to my grandmothers because they were both very religious, so they both were like "I'm right. Very right." 

Director Maureen Bharoocha on the set of The Prank with cast members Rita Moreno and Keith David. Credit Andrew P. Aguilar

KCRW: Rita Moreno is playing Mrs. Weaver as somebody who never raises her voice. She has the confidence of the institution, which is really fascinating.

Bharoocha: Again Rita was my number one. And I've wanted to work with her forever, so the fact that she said yes was mind blowing. You're right, she is this calculated, put together. She even said, This is the most covered up I've ever, ever been in a movie. So even the costuming was to keep her kind of buttoned up, so that when she unravels, you really get to see her fall from this high, mighty place.

KCRW: There's also the interesting schism between somebody who is dressed so eccentrically, but the voice doesn't give anything away. And in fact, if we were just to watch a minute of her in class, just from the confidence, you would think that not only is she right, but these kids are silly to not be listening to her. If you told the story from her point of view, as a matter of fact, without giving too much away, you would think, well, what's wrong with these kids? She is right. And she's also teaching physics in which the laws are inviolate. She is always right because it's not like English or creative writing class.

Bharoocha: You're right. There isn't really a gray in her world. That was another interesting thing that I did change in the script, as originally, she was a home ec teacher. But when I read the script, I thought, what a great opportunity to have a woman in STEM, also to have her use her class and her experiments to kind of scare the kids into listening. And I feel like again, we've had those teachers. My teacher was Mrs. Jordan, who was always so tough on me and thought that's what children need. They need to be tough on them, and that's how they'll learn. And I think that's such an old way of thinking. So that's why it's kind of fun to put the new age into this butting up against this old guard.

KCRW: You're talking about the casting here; perhaps the team up that should have been in movies forever, but now we finally get a chance to see, involves two of my favorite actors, Keith David, and Rita Moreno, both playing against type in really, really wonderful ways. It's also funny to me because they're both playing, in their way, such incredibly vain characters, but the vanity comes across in very different ways, doesn't it?

Bharoocha: Yeah, and what you're saying about playing against type, I think, as a director, that's what's so exciting is the principal, again, was written differently on paper. But as soon as Keith came into the mixture, this is going to be such a different character. Talking with him and with Rita and then coming up with their chemistry, he was like, Oh, I love it if she gets under my skin, and I get under her skin. And it just changed the dynamic, and it made it a more unique principal character. We've seen a lot of the kind of principals that are meek and mild, but Keith just brings a presence and then Rita, playing against her type, it was like gangbusters.

KCRW: It helps to have two people like that, who have such long stage careers, so they bring a wealth of experience and just being able to do things not only with a line, but with a pause, with the silence. I mean, that showdown in his office, when he's trying to make this offer of generosity and trying to be polite with the war over the barrels is maybe one of my favorite scenes in movies this year.

Bharoocha: Keith, just with an eyebrow raised says it all. I feel like in that scene, just the smugness that he knows he has one over on her is just incredible. I'm such a fan. "The Thing" is one of my favorite movies.

KCRW: It's so funny that you mentioned "The Thing" because in some ways this movie reminds me of that, in that what do you trust and what do you believe and what information is right?  This idea of information being the disease and the infection rather than the disease. 

Bharoocha: Yes. Oh my gosh, I love that you said that. There are some sprinkles of "The Thing" in here and other movies with that same kind of: who can you trust? A bunch of Hitchcock movies like "Shadow of a Doubt," or even "Lifeboat." And then there's little sprinklings of "All about Eve," just nods to movies that I love. And I love that you see that throughline.

KCRW: In both "Golden Arm" and "The Prank," by the end, we find out why these characters don't trust themselves because they're not being honest with themselves or with those who are close to them. 

Bharoocha: Again, I guess ultimately, both of these movies are kind of about finding yourself and being true to who you are, and then uncovering what's true about other people because I think the more you can be truthful with yourself, is when you actually learn about others as well. And like you're saying, so much of the comedy does come from the paranoia of being afraid. So what do you hide when you're afraid?

KCRW: In both of these arenas, both the world of armwrestling, and "The Prank," there's something performative about both these worlds. In the case of the kids, they're kind of showboating to some extent. Ben and Tanner take some pride in not being a part of that although, I think they both want to be seen for something. Performance and being seen, and having a persona is definitely a big part of "Golden Arm."

Bharoocha: So many times in my life, I'm like, it's like high school. You know what? Maybe that is just what life is like: putting on a persona in each stage of your life until you figure out actually who you are. With "Golden Arm" and with "The Prank," like you're saying, it's posturing, like with Tanner being like, I don't care about the world. And it's more that she's just afraid that she's gonna fail. And so if I say I don't care, then I'm protected. But really I do. 

KCRW: Both these movies are about pecking order, and that kind of paranoia, getting deeper as we go further and further down the pecking order.

Bharoocha: I think the best comedians have such a vulnerability to them, that when you can bring that out, it feels so authentic. And one thing that I really love about comedies in particular, and that I find in the comedies that I gravitate toward, is that when people are watching dramas, they know what they're gonna get, right? Or they're expecting to laugh, to cry. They're expecting to be moved. When you're watching a comedy, you're more open for laughs so that when something that feels more authentic and real, it can touch you deeper inside, and so it's almost surprising, so not only are you more open for the feelings, but you're more open for the laugh and then the surprise of something real.

KCRW: For us as the audience, I think it's the fun of the new: getting to see actors like Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro in "Golden Arm" and then seeing Connor and Ramona here in "The Prank.” It's really, as an audience, a thrill because we get to be surprised, watching these characters figure themselves out, and then also get lost in the fact that they're really ace performers as well.

Bharoocha: That's what I think is so exciting and what I love about movies is that it really is a team sport. And when everybody feels like they own a piece of the movie, whether it's the actors, or the crew, I think it just makes things come alive more, and people get more excited. And you're just trying more things. And what I think is so fun about "The Prank" is that everybody contributed to their character, or even added to other characters like Kate Flannery, as the lunch lady, was so great. She had so many fun pitches. And the thing is you don't hire great comedians and great actors and not expect them to bring something new and to listen, if they have great ideas.

KCRW: There's this thing that you do, which is to create a world and in doing that, you can't really emphasize or overemphasize the leads because then when they're not on screen, we miss them. And by that point, we're so interested in what's happening in the rest of that city, that it's good to see the lunch lady and the janitor, both of whom were these kind of socialist complainers.

Bharoocha: I think the unsung heroes of the movie too are Baron Vaughn and Lauren Knutti who played the reporter and the newscaster. I feel like their color commentary throughout it is some of my favorite stuff in the movie because it's buried, and so it got some of the biggest laughs in the theater because when you thought this scene was done, they would throw in a joke, or they'd say something funny. And the idea that everybody in this town has had Mrs. Wheeler, so they all think that she deserves being framed for murder.

KCRW: I would highly recommend for people watching the movie to watch the end credits because he gets a great bit over the end credit.

Bharoocha: Yes.  Baron came in, and again, there was some short stuff scripted. I tossed him ideas and he just came up with some incredible improv. And I just tried to jam pack the movie full of all the funny stuff he said. He kind of did just a solid and came in, and I think really, it's some of my favorite stuff. It was like, again, a nod to [what] I love in Willy Wonka. That news reporter tells the story in Willy Wonka, and so I was like, Oh, I want him to be this character that if you watch the movie, you're like, what's up with this guy's life? He's really funny.

KCRW: Is that one of the things you like doing in these two films, too, in effect that they are both in such small worlds that everybody, if they don't know each other, they know of each other?

Bharoocha: Yeah, I think that that's sometimes what can be so fun about a smaller world is that to make it so rich and feel like a bigger world, it doesn't necessarily have to be bigger in scope, but just bigger in the network and the tangibility of textures and people that live in the space, that it feels like real spaces that people live in, and that you would know. And maybe it's not your hometown, but you can imagine a hometown that would be like this.

KCRW: In addition to thinking about "The Thing," and of course "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," I did find myself thinking about "Shadow of a Doubt" and also "Rear Window." The world gets smaller and smaller as the movie goes on in both of these cases, doesn't it?

Bharoocha: Yeah. And there's even a little nod to "Vertigo" as well, when Ben follows Mrs. Wheeler, and even a movie like "To Die For." That was another movie that I think at the time did such a great job of: what's happening on the TV and what's happening in this high school? There's also a nod to "Silence of the Lambs" in here. If you're older, you know the reference. And if you're young, you just think it's fun and fresh.

KCRW: Dealing with these platonic friendships in both “Golden Arm” but more specifically here in "The Prank, this idea that even though it's what we see in movies about high school, it still rings mostly true that kids will be thinking about sex, but they're not trying to have sex with everybody they know. It felt like a real breath of fresh air to see kids with concerns, just trying to get through a day, which is a big part of what goes on in "The Prank."

Bharoocha: I think it's so important to, again, even with indie movies, move the needle when you can. I did film studies growing up; I was such a movie fan. It's kind of weird to think like, Oh, there aren't that many platonic best friends throughout movie history. I have so many guy friends, and so I'm like, Oh, yeah, I want to see those friendships blossom, and you just get more layers and different iterations. And, it feels fresh. You can see the same movie that we've seen a million times, but if you put new people and new perspectives into those situations, instantly, you have a fresh take, or just a new angle on something that we've seen before. So that's what I think is really exciting. 

KCRW: What's also interesting, too, to see the perspective that a female director, bringing in and flipping tropes, as you've done in these two films, the high school film, and the sports film, saying, Well, you think this is what this is. And maybe it is what it is for a moment. But then let's pay attention to everybody in this and not just make this about these archetypal stereotypical concerns.

Bharoocha: Yeah. Another thing that we did that was really important to me with the music is that on the surface, you'd be like, this is a high school movie. It's like a comedy thriller, so we could play it safe. Our composer Darren Johnson, who's just incredible, had a live 18 string orchestra do the score. So I was like, I want "There will be Blood," I want "Vertigo." I wanted the really dramatic, real orchestra feel because I feel like you've never gotten to see that in a high school movie. And it added an extra layer, just with the sound, which is so important. And I think when you watch the movie, especially in a theater, you can feel it in your gut. 



Rebecca Mooney