“Based on a true story. We’re not kidding.” That’s the apt tagline for Tag, the action comedy in theaters June 15 taken from a real-life story almost too crazy to believe. Several friends from Spokane, Washington, in the 1980s devised a game of tag, which has now lasted for decades. In February each year, the friends concoct devious intricate plots and fly all over the country attempting to tag each other, with no instantaneous “tag backs” allowed. The friend who’s “it” at February’s end retains that humiliating status for the next 11 months, until the game starts anew. They’ve tagged each other everywhere—in the shower and at funeral.
Jeff Tomsic directs the film from Warner Bros. and New Line, starring Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner (The Avengers and Arrival), Emmy winner Jon Hamm (from television’s Mad Men), and Ed Helms (The Hangover and We’re the Millers). Tomsic spoke to Boxoffice about directing his first-ever feature movie, injuries on the set from stunts gone wrong, and how his love of filmmaking started at age nine after his father accidentally rented the wrong movie.
When you were officially hired to direct Tag, did the studio do so by quickly touching you on the shoulder and saying, “You’re it”?
My short answer: yes. [Laughs.]
Seriously though, this is your first feature film; so how did this project come to you?
I had been working in television for a while. My childhood dream was to direct a feature. For a long time, I just couldn’t find a script that I felt was really funny and struck me emotionally. To be honest, when I got a script called Tag, I figured it would just be terrible. They would just be chasing around after each other with no real human quality.
I read it and was surprised. I remembered the article [by Russell Adams in the Wall Street Journal in 2013]. The thing about the script for the movie is that, as silly as it all is, the sweet and lovable thing about it is these guys—despite the obstacles of adulthood, having jobs and families, people getting sick, parents aging—have figured out a way to stay connected to each other.
Reading the script, along with all the jokes and action, it just seemed like such a fun thing to work on, with such a great message. We live in this age where there are all these sorts of cheats to stay connected to your friends: online, social media. They don’t really live up to seeing people who you love and care about. It just felt like a great fun message, in a silly comedy. That’s what struck me about it when I first read it.
What were the biggest challenges or surprises with directing your first feature film?
The challenge of this movie—and I’m so happy with the outcome—but there are 10 actors in most of these scenes. Putting together an ensemble, just finding people who would have great chemistry together, who believed in both the message of the movie and the comedy of the movie. It took a little while, but once we had all these guys, I was thrilled with how much they clicked both on-screen and offscreen. You know, they’ve all remained friends afterwards. That was particularly rewarding to me.
What’s your funniest story or anecdote from the set?
I don’t know if this is necessarily funny, but maybe you heard that Jeremy broke his arms on set while we were shooting. [Renner fractured his right elbow and left wrist.] That was on day three of our shoot! I saw my whole life flash before my eyes at that moment. The cool thing was Jeremy calls me from the doctor’s office, then came back to the set right after lunch and kept shooting. To everyone’s amazement, he just jumped right back in like an actual superhero. He just kept going and was still really funny. That was incredible. He made such a commitment to all of his other actors. He didn’t miss a beat and kept moving. He was lovely despite being injured.
What was the stunt that he was doing?
There’s a moment in the movie where he literally surfs a stack of chairs that are stacked like 10 or 12 feet high. He surfs it down. It’s a pretty simple thing because he was on a wire, which is why I don’t think anybody thought that he would get hurt. There was a lot of safety in it, but it was just sort of a trick of bad luck. The balance of the thing was wrong, he went down, the wire stopped him but he still just hit a little bit on the ground. I didn’t even know that he’d been hurt for a while after. He looked ready to go. He went down to his trailer for a bit and said, “Uh oh, something doesn’t feel right.”
How many of the tags or tag attempts in the movie were based on real life, versus how many were made up for the film?
Well, the trick of making a movie about tag is the game itself is very simple. You just run and tag someone. That’s basically it. So there’s millions of these guys’ real stories. We took some of these tags to outlandish heights; we sort of turned them into superheroes in their own minds through the game, which is a pretty funny way to look at it. Some of these guys are doing backflips, spinning around, throwing each other to the ground. They were much more reasonable in life.
There are sequences in the movie with things that happened in real life that are sort of hard to believe. There’s one moment where Jake Johnson tags Ed Helms at his father’s funeral, which is a real story that actually happened between two of the guys. There’s a scene in which Ed Helms is dressed up like an old woman in a shawl and a wig, which actually happened in real life. We actually have footage at the end of the movie of the real tags that these guys shot themselves.
There was a lot of stuff that they did in life that we chose to omit because it seemed crazier than we could justify, even in a film as crazy as Tag. They have tagged each other in the shower. They have tagged each other in intimate moments that we didn’t want to put in the movie.
The real tag game took place in February each year. In the movie, you changed it. Why?
We changed it to May, purely because we were shooting in the summer to line up with all the actors’ schedules. We didn’t want to be pumping snow into all the locations and making everyone freeze to death. It was by design to make everyone a little more comfortable. It was more convenience than anything.
Did you consider keeping it as February?
We did. But the actors did not have a problem with our fictionalization! [Laughs.]
Did you see any of the real-life tags?
No, I have never witnessed in human form them tagging each other. But I did kind of get into a mess where I was talking to them all about the movie, and they started to ask me for intel. Because they often don’t know where everyone is. So in casual conversation over text and email and on the phone, I started to realize they were trying to get information out of me, like where the other guys were in the world, who was “it,” what the plans coming up were for February. I can’t get involved! I don’t want to upset anyone!
A couple of the real tag guys came down during filming and one of them happened to be there during tag month. I went out dinner with Mike Konesky and he demanded to sit with his back to the wall, facing the door. In casual conversation, he kept plying me for information, because I’d been talking to some of the other guys over email. “Do you know if so-and-so is in town?” He honestly wondered if our dinner together was just a setup for him getting tagged. It really is that serious.
Besides changing the setting from February to May, you also changed the male Wall Street Journal reporter who originally wrote about the story to a character now played by Annabelle Wallis.
That’s true. I thought Russell would like to see himself through a different lens in the movie. [Laughs.]
It’s a story about 10 guys, really, but it was important to me to have female characters in the mix. I’ve directed episodes of a lot of female-led shows with female-led characters like Broad City or Idiotsitter [both on Comedy Central]. We had tried really hard on those shows to have female directors and department heads. I was in the middle of a movie about boys and I didn’t want it to feel monotone.
So having Annabelle and Isla Fisher and Leslie Bibb and Rashida [Jones] in the movie, having them be funny and ruthless and smarter than most of the guys, was really important. Particularly with Isla and Leslie; they both have really strong parts and they help play the game. That does shift the tenor a little bit. As much as it was a true story about 10 guys, I think this idea applies to everyone regardless of gender. It’s just a great way to maintain these friendships. I don’t think it’s particularly a “male” message. I wanted to, as much as I could—without straying too far away from the real story—make it a movie for everybody.
AT THE MOVIES WITH JEFF TOMSIC
I think my all-time most memorable moment in watching a movie was when I was nine years old. My father rented The Thing, thinking it was the 1951 Howard Hawks version of the movie The Thing from Another World, then realizing it was a terrifying R-rated movie. We watched the whole thing; he never stopped it! [Laughs.] I had nightmares for three straight weeks, but I think that series of nightmares made me want to make movies forever after. It was so obvious, even as a kid, that I wanted to do this myself. I think watching John Carpenter’s The Thing as a nine-year-old made an indelible impression on my mind. I never stopped wanting to direct movies after that, despite the nightmares. It’s still one of my favorite movies of all time.
That’s easy: peanut M&M’s, 100 percent. I eat them very strangely. I always break them in half, because otherwise I feel like there’s too much peanut and I want a little bit more M&M.