Patrick Brammall on working with Will Ferrell and J.K. Simmons in ‘No Activity’
Tim Meadows, J.K. Simmons and Patrick Brammall in ‘No Activity.’ (© 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved)
Co-created by Patrick Brammall and Trent O’Donnell, the US remake of No Activity launches on Stan today after premiering in the US on CBS All Access.
Brammall co-stars with Tim Meadows and an ensemble cast including Will Ferrell, Amy Sedaris, Sunita Mani, J.K. Simmons and Jesse Plemons, while O’Donnell directs.
IF asked Brammall, who is editing the eight-part series in Los Angeles, about the differences between the original and the San Diego-set version, and working with some big stars.
US critics loved the show, typified by the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd, who hailed it as smart, odd and assured, while IndieWire’s Ben Travis said it’s consistently sharp and funny, buoyed by strong comedic performances and sharp dialogue. You and Trent must be chuffed?
Yes we are chuffed and we’re amazed we got to make it with this cast. But we know it’s a slow burn as CBS All Access is releasing it week by week, so it will sit there for a while and depend on word-of-mouth. It’s really funny and really good.
The set-up with two cops on a stake-out is similar to the original but you and Trent added a lot of new material. Did that arise partly from the improv style?
Yes and no. Trent and I scripted the entire series, something we did not do with the Australian ones. In the first Australian series there were seven or 10 pages of script, which was mainly for the actors to improvise. In the second there was a bit more scripting. But here the studio [CBS Television Studios] and network wanted to see the scripts so we had a couple of writers’ rooms with some great writers. By the time we got to the shoot we had the structure and the scenes but there was a similar amount of scope for the actors to jump off and riff and improvise.
We borrowed elements of the Australian show but we invented new ones. It’s set in San Diego next to the Mexican border and there is a Mexican drug cartel storyline so naturally it is different.
What were the main differences between shooting in the US and at home and with a US crew?
It was roughly the same because Trent and I are the showrunners and we get to set the culture and we keep it pretty low key. But there is more of everything, more people, executives and studio people coming and going. All the departments are heavily unionised so the grips don’t touch something from the lighting department and sound doesn’t touch something from props. It all soaks up more money. We did have a bit more time. At home we shot each season of six episodes in nine days. Here we shot eight episodes in 19 days with three cameras. We needed it to look bigger because we are competing with other big shows.
Was it hard to keep a straight face in that extended scene with J.K. Simmons as an unhappy Internal Affairs cop when he launches into a soliloquy?
No, not hard at all. I love playing a funny scene without breaking. On the flipside I love trying to make other actors laugh. J.K. is an Oscar winner [as best supporting actor for Whiplash] and he can be an intimidating presence so I was luckily able to play intimidated pretty well. He gave an incredible performance and it was a joy to be in the car with him. I felt the same with Bob Odenkirk, a comic master. I love being able to rise to the challenge of working with these guys and not feel bashful or starstruck.
If CBS All Access is smart they will renew the show. When do you expect a decision on that?
I agree. No idea.
What was it like collaborating with Will Ferrell as an executive producer and as a performer?
The real strength of Will and Adam [McKay] as EPs is they are lending their names to the show and that gets eyes on it, which is great. When he came on the set he could not have been more present, more professional, more open or more generous. He was happy to experiment and try things. It’s sad almost to see some of the stuff we are cutting in the edit which no one will ever see. There is a lot of stuff he did which he improvised, but it’s not just the Will Ferrell show, there are a lot of great performers.
Your turn as a drug pusher in The Letdown is a real hoot. I assume you’d be up for a second season?
[Co-creators] Alison Bell and Sarah Scheller are dear friends of mine and if I was lucky enough for them to want me for another go I’d do anything for them.
What’s next for you – more work in the US or back home?
No Activity has kept me very busy all year with pre-production, writing, shooting it, then post-production. So I will finish this then come home for Christmas to see family. I will be back in the US next year but I have no plans so it is an open book. I hope to keep working regularly in Australia. I don’t ever want to entirely leave projects in Australia because that’s where my heart is. I’m not going to be in America forever.