Location scouting in Prague, the home of EuroTrip

Thursday July 14th 2011

In the summer of 2010, I went on my very own EuroTrip. Along with six old school friends (Joe, Katy, Tash, Anthony, Joe and Louis if you care), I set about fulfilling my middle class adolescent destiny by inter-railing across the continent. Over the course of two weeks we rode sixteen trains through nine countries, including five of the six visited in EuroTrip, as well as the one where it was all shot.

On the morning of August 14th 2010, we departed the overnight train from Budapest to Prague — a journey the duration of which I spent with my feet dangling off the end of a bed into a deluge of torrential Hungarian rain pouring in through the broken window. The weather was no better in the Czech capital, and as we plodded along the motorway at 8am in search of our hostel (the dubiously regal-sounding Sir Toby’s), we were treated to an unholy baptism of endless precipitation. Arriving at our destination, we found an inconspicuous building lodged in the middle of a blank, identikit European street. It turned out to be the best hostel we stayed in during the trip: cheap as fuck and complete with free breakfast, inexpensive beer and a complimentary barbeque that happened to be taking place the night we arrived. It might be the reason we didn’t do all that much sightseeing during our three-day stay.

When the clock struck midnight that same day I turned nineteen in what I hope, for the locals’ sake, is the worst club in Prague. I drunkenly asked the barman if I could have a free drink for my birthday and he look bemused. Eventually we all got bored of the place and ambled back to the comfort of Sir Toby’s.

The next morning, after I’d been presented with a Hey Prague! Czech Me Out! T-shirt by my fellow travellers, we set out for a day of birthday-based hi-jinx. We took a quick free sightseeing tour in the town centre before I insisted that we get straight to the heart of the matter and seek out some of the filming locations from EuroTrip. I’ll admit it might not have been the most cultural activity possible during our brief stay in an unfamiliar European city, but it was my birthday and I wanted to tread some of the same ground as Jacob Pitts, goddammit.

Finding little information about specific shooting locations online, I loaded up my reliable Twitter app and put out a request for any and all pertinent information. We were soon directed to all manner of spots around town, but upon arriving at them found it difficult to work out exactly which scenes, if any, had been shot there. There wasn’t a ‘Plage Nudiste’ or a ‘Fiesty Goat’ pub to be found, just some churches, a ‘Sex Museum’ and a statue of Franz Kafka.

We took a few photos on the off-chance that we could match them up to stills from the film later on, but sadly these efforts proved to be in vain. Maybe EuroTrip’s production design team did a better job than I’d previously imagined in transforming the Czech Republic’s capital city into those of its neighbouring European territories, rendering the actual locations themselves unrecognisable to even the most hardcore of the film’s fans. Or maybe I just need a more informed class of Twitter follower. Either way, the closest thing to a souvenir I managed to secure was a photo of my friend Anthony bending over seductively in Prague’s central train station, where Michelle Trachtenberg had so capably performed the manoeuvre six years earlier.

EuroTrip, a somewhat definitive review

Thursday July 14th 2011

Before we start, let’s make entirely clear what this is not. This is not an ironic aggrandisation of a trivial film, nor a satirical application of film academia to an unworthy subject. It is not a celebration of a ‘guilty pleasure’, and it is definitely not an example of the spurious but inescapably pervasive ‘so bad it’s good’ genre. Instead, this is a study of what I believe to be one of the greatest comedy movies ever made: the 2004 box-office flop EuroTrip. It’s a widely underrated film, but that’s not to say that its appeal is in any way niche. Rather, it’s a massively accessible laugh-out-loud comedy that for various reasons — a cast list lacking any real star power; promotional material that portrayed it as a kind of low-rent Boat Trip (if such a thing is even possible) — never really connected with an audience. It’s a mess for sure, but a glorious one, and one whose many misconceived elements serve only to heighten the brilliance of its successes.

It’s this dichotomy that makes EuroTrip such a fascinating film — a film in which razor-sharp dialogue and pitch-perfect visual comedy sit uncomfortably alongside an array of painfully tired (and in many cases, homophobic, misogynistic and xenophobic) stereotypes, all cloaked in varying degrees of irony. Even the film’s most devout supporters would have trouble justifying Fred Armisen’s predatory gay Italian, or the entirely satire-free Berlin scenes, in which a small boy goose-steps around a room wearing a Hitler moustache for reasons imperceptible to the human brain.

But when the film works, it really works. At its best, EuroTrip is a remarkably good-natured satire about American complacency. Those who find themselves laughing at the film’s London-set scenes, with their improbably placed tube stations (Thamesbridge, anyone?) and gangs of meticulously uniformed hooligans, should be under no doubt that they’re laughing with the film, not at it. There’s an all-too-patronising assumption that such silliness must be unintentional—that EuroTrip’s makers might, at best, have made something of an accidental triumph, but can’t possibly be in on the joke themselves. Such a response requires an almost wilful misreading of the film.

And yet, sadly, it would be equally untrue to claim that the filmmakers are entirely aware of their genius. For each of EuroTrip’s intended punch lines (“Paris is practically a suburb of Berlin”), there’s an unintentional slip-up that puts into question just how sharp the film really is (“Cooper, England’s an island”).

After collaborating on fourteen episodes of Seinfeld and the screenplay for 2003’s childhood-pillaging adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, comedy trio Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg and David Mandel made their directorial debut on EuroTrip, though in the end only Schaffer was credited after the Director’s Guild of America failed to recognise them as a legitimate creative team. (Endearingly, he was selected to take the credit after his name was picked first out of a hat.) Since then, all three have written, directed and produced several episodes of hit HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm and are set to return to the big screen next year as co-writers with Sacha Baron Cohen on his political satire The Dictator. As a partnership twenty years in the making, Berg, Mandel and Schaffer undoubtedly have compatible writing styles. And yet the received wisdom about films written by large numbers of writers does ring at least partially true in EuroTrip, a film that for all its virtues has undeniable structural and tonal problems. Whether this was a direct result of schisms within the threesome or was brought on by studio intervention, however, is harder to ascertain.

In 2004, DreamWorks were keen to suck the final dregs from the teen comedy resurgence, which had begun a decade earlier with the box office success of Clueless. They scrapped EuroTrip’s original title Ugly Americans (which, though blunt, at least hints at satirical ambition) and instead came up with a list of alternatives to be reviewed by focus groups. Most of the rejected names were lazy riffs on recent teen hits (40 Days Abroad, What a Frau Wants) as was the title they eventually plumped for, a simple play on 2000’s Road Trip that might imply a connection without explicitly stating it, just as Boat Trip had done two years earlier. The film’s content was also subject to intense scrutiny during these sessions, which—while inevitably tightening the finished product — may have also weeded out some of the more subtle material. Nonetheless, it’s impressive that so much did make it through to the final cut: ninety minute teen comedies aren’t often known for their mix of biting satire and extreme gross-out humour. Full-frontal male and female nudity are both granted ample screen time (as is an extended sadomasochistic sequence) though ironically the word ‘cunt’ had to be excised from a scene in which one male character warns another that girls don’t like the word, as studio heads were concerned that the character was correct.

After a world premiere at Los Angeles’ iconic Mann’s Chinese Theatre, EuroTrip was released across the United States on February 20th 2004. It opened at number five at the box office, behind mainstream fare like 50 First Dates and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, as well as Hockey drama Miracle and Ray Romano vehicle Welcome to Mooseport. It was a similar story in the UK, where it opened in less than 100 screens and quickly dropped out of the top ten thanks to a June release date that put it in the vicinity of Mean Girls, Troy and the third Harry Potter movie. Critics weren’t much more favourable, writing it off as a formulaic, if occasionally successful, comedy in the red-text-on-a-white-background vein. Paramount’s marketing department were all too happy to concur, and later that year issued a DVD release that looked about as credible as one of those American Pie spin-offs that Eugene Levy keeps putting his name to.

Nonetheless, EuroTrip has proved a surprisingly enduring piece of pop cultural currency, and not only in the £3 bins of most surburban HMVs (though it inevitably does well there too). Sequences like the Parisian robot fight and Cooper’s hot tub subterfuge seem to be perennially familiar to anyone under the age of thirty, even if they don’t necessarily represent the film’s finest moments. The latter scene was originally conceived while Berg, Mandel and Schaffer were doing rewrites on snowboarding comedy Out Cold, but they liked it so much that they decided to save it for their own movie. That three professional screenwriters should be so precious about a sequence that’s essentially just an excuse to see an 18-year-old first-time actress from Ohio rubbing her tits for a bit, suggests they might not entirely be the modern-day Swifts I’m so eager to paint them as.

Also well known are the film’s many impressive cameos, from Lucy Lawless, Joanna Lumley and (most remarkably) a post-Bourne Matt Damon. All were friends of the filmmakers who agreed to lend themselves to the production for a day or two. Kevin Smith was also set to appear, but dropped out after it became apparent that filming a simple Ohio-set scene would require him to travel to Prague.

With the exception of a few brief insert shots, the entirety of the film was shot in the Czech capital. Locations around the city doubled for London, Berlin, Paris and the rest of the gang’s European tour, as well as the United States, and tax incentives helped to keep production costs down. The blatant inauthenticity of these stand-in streets and composited skylines (almost certainly not intentionally bad — Mandel & co. are quick to praise the VFX team at any opportunity) may require some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but they also bring into sharp focus the entire point of the movie: this is not Europe, this is what four naïve American teenagers imagine Europe to be. And even when the goofs are entirely accidental, there’s an ironic brilliance to them that only adds to the overall effect. Upon arriving in London, the teens visit a pub called the ‘Fiesty Goat’ — a misspelling that was mindlessly carried across from script to set design, and shot for two days before anyone noticed the mistake.

As casting purely in the States was considered prohibitively expensive, a large number of actors were brought on board in the Czech Republic, with less-than-convincing results. Scott’s younger brother Bert is portrayed by Czech teen Nial Iskhakov, who’s perfectly funny in the role but couldn’t look much less Ohioan if he had three arms and a detachable head. Add to that the large number of Americans playing Europeans characters (Fred Armisen, J.P. Manoux, Diedrich Bader) and you’re left with the impression that the filmmakers were actively trying to cast against logic. Such choices further illustrate the insanity of taking any of the film’s apparently xenophobic attitudes at face value: this is a film in which the vast majority of American characters are portrayed by the very Europeans they’re so quick to deride.

The film’s lead quartet of Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Michelle Trachtenberg and Travis Wester, on the other hand, are the all-American real deal. With the exception of Trachtenberg, who became a child star with the 1996 Nickelodeon comedy Harriet the Spy and was later a recurring character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they were all picked from relative obscurity to appear in the film. Only Trachtenberg was still a teenager at the time of production, shooting most of the film aged 17. Her male co-stars ranged between 24 and 26. Sadly, all four have since slipped out of the spotlight, moving onto independent films (Mechlowicz), appearing on cable TV (Wester) or in the case of Pitts and Trachtenberg, continuing to accept minor teen roles into their late-twenties (in heist drama 21 and body-swap comedy 17 Again respectively).

Nonetheless, their performances in EuroTrip are remarkably assured, in particular that of Jacob Pitts as the remarkably endearing oversexed bastard Cooper. His delivery of the line “Dude, Mieke’s hideous, run!” is without a doubt one of the great comedy readings of all time. Mechlowicz too seemed destined for success after the impressive one-two punch of this film and indie drama Mean Creek, both released in 2004 but offering wildly different performances from a young actor whose only prior role was playing Smee in an obscure Wil Wheaton-starring take on Peter Pan (try eBay). His easily overlooked performance here is actually deceptively complex, and (ironically) his straight-man routine gives rise to one of the film’s most distinctive attributes: its all-encompassing obsession with homosexuality.

Homophobia is shifting in the contemporary comedy landscape. Today’s mainstream comedies are falling over themselves to have their cake and eat it where gay issues are concerned. Obviously, the joke is no longer explicitly at the expense of the flamboyant queen or the rugged bear; now the attention has shifted to the straight protagonist(s) and the possibility that they might be thought of as gay. There’s a spurious notion that this shift allows us to laugh at homophobia rather than with it, on the basis that it’s the dumb redneck stereotype saying ‘faggot’ instead of the action hero. But essentially, we’re still being presented with heterosexual characters who are amused and/or horrified by the innately ‘icky’ idea of homosexuality, and all the token quirky gay roommates in the world can’t change that.

While it might not be immediately apparent, EuroTrip takes a considerably more thoughtful look at homophobia, and specifically gay anxiety. As Maryann Johanson pointed out in her criticism of the film (see ‘Critical Reaction’), Scott’s entire character arc, and therefore the eponymous trip itself, is motivated by a desire to prove his heterosexuality, firstly by dedicating himself solely to the pursuit of German pen pal Mieke (the fact that he fell in love with her while under the impression that she was a man isn’t given much consideration) and finally by fucking her silly. Brilliantly, he screams ‘Mike!’ mid-coitus, a read-into-it-if-you-like joke that’s precisely indicative of the film’s treatment of this issue: it’s prepared to be complex, but only if the jokes work on a more basic level as well. The scene in which Scott has a sexual fantasy about Mieke only to find himself being licked by a male train passenger in his sleep works perfectly well as a simple bit of gross-out humour, but on another level (and this really isn’t much of a stretch) we’re also witnessing a confused teenage male convincing himself that a homosexual activity is in fact heterosexual, before screaming in horror when the illusion shatters before him. Elsewhere, Scott runs in terror from a hoard of naked men on a nude beach and has ’Nam-style flashbacks to the time he ‘saw a gay porno once’. It’s not hard to read between such wide lines.

Of course, like the rest of the film, any intellectualising is slightly at odds with the movie’s pervasively juvenile tone. On paper it’s very easy to attribute intelligence and nuance to the film’s writers, but when a Behind the Scenes featurette clearly shows one of them warning an actor not to ‘drop the soap’ during the filming of the nude beach scene, it gets that little bit harder to champion them as heroes of Queer Cinema.

Perhaps it’s this conflict that makes the film a tough one to truly love. It’s often unfairly presented as a film that audiences might enjoy ‘in spite of themselves’, which massively underestimates a team of filmmakers who are all too capable of moments of satirical clarity. But the adolescent thoughtlessness that penetrates (*snigger*) so much of their work sits ill at ease with such ambitions and leaves a lot of the film feeling misconceived. When, on the film’s commentary track, Schaffer and co. take it upon themselves to cheer every appearance of a black person on screen, it is of course done with a knowing irony, but that doesn’t really make it any less idiotic.

Nowadays you’re probably most likely to hear the film mentioned in relation to Eli Roth’s Hostel, to which it is often compared. In his 2006 review of Roth’s film, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘humourless, soft-porn’ remake of EuroTrip, which he in turn dismissed as a ‘moderate frat-boy comedy’. The comparison is understandable: both films feature highly-stereotyped versions of Europe designed to satirise American ignorance. But where Roth wore his intentions on his sleeve, desperately shouting ‘SATIRE!’ at you every five minutes just in case you suspected that Hostel was nothing more than exploitation, EuroTrip seems positively allergic to the word. Its directors make no mention whatsoever of ‘satire’ or ‘irony’ on the film’s 90-minute commentary track, instead describing it as a movie ‘made for fraternities’.

From this you could choose to conclude that any satirical achievement is accidental – that an infinite number of monkeys writing an infinite number of teen films will eventually add a self-aware edge to the proceedings – but instead I put forward the hypothesis that EuroTrip is entirely more conscious than it is often given credit for. Yes, first and foremost it’s an accessible, broad, consistent teen comedy. But it also tackles ideas way beyond its remit as a piece of frothy adolescent titillation. Mocking frat boy ignorance with one hand and applauding it with the other, EuroTrip is satire at its most brazenly self-loathing and audaciously entertaining.

An interview with Nial Iskhakov, a.k.a. EuroTrip’s Bert Thomas

Thursday July 14th 2011

Nial Iskhakov was born in Uzbekistan, grew up in Prague and now lives in Amsterdam. He played Scotty’s younger brother Bert in EuroTrip.

How did you get the part of Bert?
Before EuroTrip I had a part as an extra in the BBC TV series Young Arthur that didn’t air unfortunately. I got that part (and the part in EuroTrip) thanks to Nancy Bishop and her casting agency. I was introduced to her by my drama teacher when I was in middle school. I considered myself lucky to have got the part in EuroTrip, but I think it was also my own experiences with my older brother that helped me play Bert.

How old were you at the time?
If I remember correctly, I was around twelve when we filmed.

What was the atmosphere like on set?
It was electric: everyone walking around with a purpose, a specific function. I always had someone who was watching over me, keeping me company, making sure I didn’t run into any trouble. I was also fascinated by how they built the sets, and the different methods they used to give the movie authenticity. I got along really well with Jacob Pitts and we’d talk about comics and he even leant me some to read while we were on set. Scott Mechlowicz was great too and treated me like a little brother throughout the shoot, which really helped me feel like part of the group.

Is acting something you’re still pursuing?
I still keep an eye out for the occasional casting opportunity, but acting isn’t as easy as many people seem to think and the chances of being picked for a major role aren’t good.

You live in Amsterdam now – how does it compare to the version featured in EuroTrip?
It does sort of look like it does in the movie, but the streets are usually smaller and the architecture is different. There are a lot more trees too.

Have you seen the movie recently?
Not recently, no, but I have seen it plenty of times — enough to still remember my lines.

Do you ever get recognised?
It has happened a few times, and my first reaction is always surprise that somebody’s actually recognized me, followed by happiness that my performance left an impression.

An interview with Jessica Boehrs, a.k.a. Mieke from EuroTrip

Thursday July 14th 2011

31-year-old Jessica Boehrs is a successful singer and television actress in her native Germany. She has two film credits including EuroTrip, in which she plays Scott’s German pen pal Mieke.

How did you get the part of Mieke?
It was my first American production. They wanted a genuine German girl so they set up the auditions in Berlin and Munich. I got the part after one callback and still can’t put in words how excited I was!

What was the shoot like?
Since we filmed in Prague for a total of 51 days we all got to know each other pretty well and had so much fun both on and off set. Beer was cheap and Prague is such a cool city to hang out in. I’m still friends with the director Jeff Schaffer and the producer Jackie Marcus and just met them recently in New York. Such grounded, honest, creative people with smart senses of humour!

A lot of critics accused the film of being xenophobic. Were you ever uncomfortable with the depiction of Germany in the movie?
Really? I’ve never heard anything like that. The film makes fun of every nation it depicts, including America – for example when Cooper says that you can walk from London to Paris. Originally they wanted to name the film Ugly Americans but there was a copyright on that title because of some movie from the 60s or 70s. Every country in the world has their typical manners, customs and flaws – this movie is like a caricature when it comes to depicting them. Even then, they actually cut out some scenes that were a little too far over the top. Myself, I never felt uncomfortable with any of it. I love it when people don’t take stuff like that too personally and instead understand irony and smart sarcasm.

Did the crew have trouble getting Prague to double for six different European cities?
I guess that’s a question for the post production department. :-) Of course, sometimes it’s difficult to stand in front of a green screen and pretend to be swimming in tomato sauce (no kidding, been there done that) but I think if you have a fabulous director who you can trust and who explains all the details, then it shouldn’t be a problem to make it look authentic.

Have you kept in contact with any of the other cast members?
I’m Facebook friends with Michelle, Scott and Travis. :-)

When did you last watch EuroTrip?
I’ve only seen the movie twice. The first time was at the premiere in Los Angeles (biiig thing for me!) and the second was just a week ago at a screening in Berlin for 30 students from Minnesota.
Very weird.

An interview with J. P. Manoux, a.k.a. EuroTrip’s Robot Man

Thursday July 14th 2011

J. P. Manoux is best known for playing Dr. Dustin Crenshaw on ER. He has also appeared in films such as Knocked Up and The Island and played the iconic ‘Robot Man’ in EuroTrip.

How did you get the part of Robot Man?
I remember auditioning in a Hollywood casting office, as I would for most other projects. Somebody said that the film’s producers had already auditioned street performers from all over Europe (the casting of whom would have been more affordable), but that they all seemed to take their… um, craft… too seriously. Whereas I just did a few robot moves and whatever nonsense was described in the few pages provided. Didn’t get a chance to read the full hilarious script until I was on a plane to Prague a couple of days later. I suspect the unwarranted mime pedigree that goes with a name like ‘Jean-Paul Manoux’ may have had something to do with my landing the role.

How was Prague?
I only worked one day, but was there for a full week, which was wonderful. Without question, one of the most beautiful, romantic cities in the world. Can’t wait to return.

How did you get so good at being a robot? Was their a sense of competition between you and Scott Mechlowicz on set?
As a kid in the ’70s, I used to watch Shields and Yarnell’s variety show [pictured right] and try to imitate their ‘Robots at Breakfast’ routine. I also have three surgical staples in my right shoulder, which technically makes me a cyborg, which is almost the same thing as a robot. And yes, there was some real competition! Scott surprised us all when he brought his robot “A” game to set. The sweat you see on my brow is not entirely heavy makeup and layered tights related.

You also had a small part as a mime on ER years before you became a recurring character. Why are you being typecast as a street performer?
I was doing a little show called To Kill a Mime when that part came up. A buddy and I produced the play as a goof, but Noah Wyle saw it and then recommended me when the next ER script called for a mime. Here’s hoping EuroTrip marked the end of this casting pattern.

Your scene is probably the most well-known in the film. Do people every recognise you from it?
They do sometimes, which is remarkable to me. Tom Lennon (from Reno 911!) reports that he is often mistakenly credited with the performance. He is more than welcome to take all praise/beatings on my behalf.

When did you last watch EuroTrip?
Years ago. Wish I could watch it with you guys tonight! Cheers.

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