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14 Pretty Far Out Facts About Flight of the Conchords

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HBO

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie make up the Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand's self-proclaimed "fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo," who starred in their own HBO series for two critically-acclaimed seasons. The beloved show was a one-of-a-kind comedy about two guys trying to make it as a musical group in New York City, even though they only seem to have one fan (albeit a very devoted one). On the tenth anniversary of its debut, we're taking a look behind the scenes of Flight of the Conchords.

1. IT WAS A RADIO SERIES BEFORE IT WAS A TV SERIES.

Rhys Darby played Brian Nesbitt, Jemaine and Bret's manager, in the BBC Radio 2 six-part series, like he would later do on HBO (but this time with the name Murray Hewitt). Rob Brydon was the narrator/presenter. Comedian Jimmy Carr played the band's stalker. Some plot points made it to the TV series.

2. NEW ZEALAND TELEVISION TURNED THEM DOWN.

In 2014, Clement recalled that television producers in his home country weren't interested in a TV series with him and McKenzie. “They’d say, ‘Middle New Zealand won’t get it.’ Idiots! I’d go, ‘What are you talking about? I’m from middle New Zealand, and you’re not.’ I always have a working-class chip on my shoulder about those people. Not being too clever is a concern in New Zealand TV. It does really annoy me.” Fortunately, an HBO talent scout discovered their live show in Montreal in 2004.

3. KRISTEN SCHAAL WAS CAST AS MEL BASED ON HER STANDUP.

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HBO sent Clement and McKenzie a tape of Schaal's standup and they decided, after "about 30 seconds," that she would be perfect for the role of the band's obsessive fan, Mel. Schaal later said the guys pitched the concept of her character as accurately as possible—though "They never pitched that she was a stalker, but she's ... obviously a stalker."

4. DAVE WAS A CARICATURE OF ARJ BARKER'S ACTUAL PERSONALITY.

Comedian Arj Barker admitted to The Guardian that when he met Clement and McKenzie at an Auckland comedy festival in the early 2000s, it was during a period of his life when he was "partying a lot and drinking" and "chasing girls as much as I could." Clement and McKenzie's first impression of Barker led directly to the creation of Barker's character Dave, the aspiring ladies man.

5. THE FIRST SEASON BUDGET WAS MINUSCULE.

David Costabile (Doug) described the first season budget as "insane," "shoestring," and "so crappy." On his first day, they shot in an abandoned Lower East Side apartment with no running water or electricity. The breakfast catering was one box with 10 sandwiches. By season two, there was more food.

6. MEL'S PICTURE OF JEMAINE'S LIPS DIDN'T COME FROM THE WRITERS' IMAGINATION.

The 2006 documentary Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey documented Clement and McKenzie's time at the SXSW festival, pre-HBO fame. In the doc, a big fan of theirs revealed that she kept a picture of Jemaine's lips in her wallet (the other two pictures were normal ones of her kids). In the show's first episode, "Sally," Mel shows Bret the picture of Jemaine's lips she keeps in her wallet.

7. BOTH JEMAINE AND BRET WERE PHYSICALLY SICK OVER THE NEW YORK WEATHER AND THE SUDDEN WORKLOAD.

Clement got pneumonia during the first season, and due to the overwhelming workload they both lost a lot of weight. "We looked like skeletons," McKenzie said.

8. DAVID BOWIE DECLINED PLAYING HIMSELF, BECAUSE HE HAD JUST DONE SO ON RICKY GERVAIS' EXTRAS.

After considering Noel Fielding and John Cameron Mitchell, they opted to cast British comedian Dan Antopolski to play Bowie. Technical difficulties caused Antopolski's performance from London to be dropped entirely, so director Troy Miller suggested Clement himself to play the famous musician.

9. CLEMENT HAD TO BE CUT OUT OF ONE OF THE BOWIE COSTUMES.

"My silver jumpsuit was so tight—my legs swelling from the accumulated blood no longer allowed to circulate—I had to be cut out of it. I didn’t care. I was David Bowie and this was art," Clement recalled.

On the last day of shooting the Bowie scenes, Clement was given permission by the makeup and costume departments to walk the Lower East Side in his costume. He ran into Schaal, who not only did not recognize her co-star, she looked frightened.

10. THE SONGS CAME FIRST IN SEASON ONE. IN SEASON TWO, THEY WROTE THE SCRIPTS FIRST.

The show's first season consisted of tunes Clement and McKenzie had written and developed from stage shows, in some cases for almost a decade. In season two, they worked the opposite way. "Well, by the second series it got quite chaotic because when you’re recording TV shows during the week and then going in the studio on the weekend to write the songs for the next week so it was really high-speed songwriting," McKenzie elaborated. "The second season, we started writing songs more for videos so the songs had visual ideas within them that the punch line may not be so much in the lyric, but in the visual of the music video."

11. THE "TOO MANY D*CKS ON THE DANCE FLOOR" WERE CANADIAN.

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The song from "Unnatural Love" came about after McKenzie, Clement, and two other New Zealand guys went to a nightclub. "These Canadian guys were like 'Hey, too many d*cks! Too many d*cks! Spread out the d*cks!.' So we just used that and put it into the script to sort of make fun of them," McKenzie admitted to The Sun.

12. MICHEL GONDRY DIRECTED "UNNATURAL LOVE."

Gondry and the Conchords met through a costume designer. Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was one of McKenzie and Clement's idols. Gondry was particularly interested in drumming; he kept asking McKenzie when he was going to come in the studio and drum on the songs.

13. FAMOUS MUSICIANS LOVED THE SHOW.

Daryl Hall claimed he knew the show was going to be "big" after seeing the pilot, and agreed to appear as the World Music Jam Host in "New Fans." Art Garfunkel played himself in "Prime Minister." "I love the deadpan, off-the-wall, let's-play-against-predictability style," Garfunkel told TV Guide after his episode aired. Mick Fleetwood didn't appear in an episode, but he did admit to hearing and appreciating the Rumours joke in "Sally."

14. MCKENZIE SAID THERE ARE PLANS FOR A MOVIE.

In 2012, McKenzie admitted that the movie was just in a "throwing ideas around" stage with Clement. They still needed a story at the time. In 2015, Clement confirmed this, before saying the movie is “definitely a couple of years away, at least."

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
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Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


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Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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