Anthony Wood on ‘The Great Outdoors,’ timeless comedy, and smoking monkeys

In 2011, Anthony Wood and his Smoking Monkey Productions team took home six awards for their 48 Hour Film Project, “Baden Krunk,” a mix of off-beat humor, stylish production design, and expressive character acting. Anthony’s audience favorite entry this year, a mock how-to video on camping called “The Great Outdoors,” draws from those same affinities albeit with a smaller crew: Wood, his wife (Claudia Looze), and a pooch.

For the final interview in LakeFrontRow’s 2014 48 Hour Filmmaker series, I talked with Anthony about the benefits of a two-person production crew, the timelessness of screwball comedy, and yes, smoking monkeys. (Don’t worry. No animals were harmed.)

I’ll be honest, I couldn’t find a lot about you or Smoking Monkey Productions. How long have you been in Wisconsin making movies?

Tony Wood: Since I got into the witness protection program [laughs]. My wife and I had been living in Milwaukee and had our own business there in commercial-corporate doing a lot of work for PBS TV until about 2005. Then we bought this farm property in the Dodgeville area and I ended up taking a job teaching at Madison Media [Institute]. And so I taught there for three years, and for the first two years, she stayed in Milwaukee working on a big documentary project. We became official Madisonians in 2006, and my wife now works for WisconsinEye which is basically the C-SPAN of state cable television. She’s a production manager there and I still do freelance production, direction, camerawork, and stuff like that.

It sounds like your work is steeped in media.

TW: Yeah and I actually did the film school thing back in the 80s but I’ve also done a lot of theater and live performance. In Milwaukee, I still do a lot of theater festivals and I’ve written something like 42 plays since 2000 and some full-length musicals. There’s a Christmas musical called A Cudahy Caroler Christmas that’s been running for the last eight or nine years there. A lot of live stage stuff, too.

Does live stage stuff include acting?

TW: Yeah. Actually last year in the winter of 2013, I commuted to Milwaukee because I was playing the John Cleese part in a series of Fawlty Towers episodes live on stage. So I had to dye my hair and grow a mustache, but it was like a once in a lifetime thing.

Those are some big shoes to fill.

TW: I didn’t realize until later but it was like three or four episodes and I was on stage 99% of the time. It was completely physically exhausting, but really fun. Really fun. We got good reviews and we got extended a few weeks and had a good house for it.

You mentioned doing the “film school thing.” Is that where your interest in filmmaking started?

TW: Yeah. I was involved in theater when I got out of high school with friends who started a community theater in Waukesha, but there comes that point where you’ve got to get serious and go to school. I was all set to go to Milwaukee Area Technical College to take illustration, because I also do artwork, but they had started a new film program that year so I just signed up for it. [Classes] like “Motion Picture Tech” teach you how to take apart a camera and you learn how to use the film developing lab. Then I got out and of course everyone was learning video, so then I had to relearn, retake a lot of classes, do that kind of thing.

That’s where it all started, and I mean, I like doing theater but I also love having something I’ve written and worked on last forever. I can take the DVD back out and go “Oh, well that was a fond memory.” You know, you’re only on stage for a month and then it disappears.

Do you think there’s an appeal to the level of control in film that you don’t get with theater?

TW: Yeah, and I’m really fascinated with all aspects of filmmaking. I like to write. I love doing camerawork and lighting. I’m interested in sound and sound design. I taught myself 2D and 3D animation and ended up getting a job in New Zealand for a children’s show. It was like a rip-off of A Bug’s Life but I ended up being a 3D animator for about four months.

Tell me about Smoking Monkey. Specifically the name.

TW: We started Smoking Monkey, LLC back in the early 90s. There’s this little novelty toy called the smoking monkey. It was this little plastic monkey that you’d buy these paper cigarettes for and somehow it would blow these little smoke rings, and I remember these as a little kid. Well when my wife and I were first dating, she took a trip out to New Jersey and on the way back, she wanted to buy me something and couldn’t think of anything to get me. She stopped at like a gas station and it had a vending machine with a smoking monkey in it. She said “Ah, that’s the perfect gift for him.” I loved it, so we just decided if we’re going to call our company anything we’ll call it “Smoking Monkey” and then explain to people we’re not like abusing animals or anything.

So what goes under that label?

TW: [My wife and I] were doing all of our corporate and PBS production under that name, and then when I came to Madison I was also an editor-producer at John Roach Projects. So Smoking Monkey was kind of on the back-burner, and then when I left there to go into production again we just sort of revived it. Every personal [project] we do always has the Smoking Monkey logo on it

“Baden Krunk” was a personal project then, right? You guys cleaned house at the 48 Hour Film Festival in 2011.

TW: That was shocker. Oh my God. We went to the awards ceremony, and [producer Sierra Shea] showed two films. There were like one or two awards we didn’t win. It was one of those years where it fell together really well. My friend Patrick Holland, who was the lead, was just great. The stars aligned for that moment.

For this year’s 48 Hour, you drew “fish out of water” as a genre and your “fish” W.B. Pennywinkle, whom you also play in the film, is such a fantastic personality to watch. Where did the idea for this character come from?

TW: I completely ripped him off. [laughs] No, it’s from old material so you can call it an homage. Years and years ago, there was a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. If you know his work, he was tall, lanky, smokes a pipe, and leads with the pipe when we walks. He’s very expressive with his hands, and he made these films where there was little or no dialogue. They were sort of modern silents.

There’s an expressiveness to your character, too.

TW: You know my wife really saved “The Great Outdoors” because I have a bad habit when we start the 48. Like a week before, I start coming up with ideas before we even get to pick [our genre] which is really really bad. So I had this one idea in my head. It was like a kooky silent movie but with a serial killer, like if you mixed Charlie Chaplin with Saw. And then we got fish out of water, and I was like “That’s not really going to work.” I was actually up the night before trying to see if I could somehow leverage this idea in, and my wife gets a good night’s sleep and she wakes up and looks at me and goes “What if we get a character that just tries to go camping but he’s a city slicker and doesn’t know how?” We wrote it in like an hour.

We always set limitations for ourselves for 48 Hours. For this particular one, I would only do it if only her and I worked on it. No sound people. No other actors. Two years ago, we missed the deadline. We did a film called “The Wonderful World of Romance” and we missed the deadline by like an hour. A friend of mine flew up from North Carolina and another from Chicago. We had a sound guy and two lighting guys. Everyone wanted to get involved and it just got away from us. So then I said if we’re going to do it it’s going to be her and I. We work fantastically well together. Then we realized it’s going to have to be like a silent movie or a narrated movie because we can’t shoot and do sound and everything at the same time.

It’s just too much to do.

TW: It’s too much to do and it was so dang windy out that weekend, everybody’s film who tried to do audio was like [makes whooshing noises].

You noticed it, too.

TW: Yeah, and I thought let’s stick with some voiceover and not have to worry about it. I’m a huge fan of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati. I think physical humor is kind of timeless.

There’s also an austerity to the character’s style. You don’t see a lot of people smoking pipe tobacco and wearing bowler hats these days. And “Baden Krunk” has a retro feel to it as well. Is there something that attracts you to that period of fashion?

TW: Well, I’m old. [laughs]

Not that old.

TW: I have a real sense of history, especially film history. I love modern films, but a lot of times people don’t understand you wouldn’t have Jim Carrey without Tati. I love watching the old school screwball comedies because they were able to be laugh out loud funny without being timely. When you watch Saturday Night Live, if you’re doing jokes about Miley Cyrus, that’s got a shelf life of about six months. I watched an Austin Powers the other day where he does a little dance-off with Britney Spears in the opening credits. Britney Spears? She’s gone. You can’t even watch the film because it’s got this weird nostalgia. You can watch a screwball comedy from the 40s and, besides the clothes, it’s all genuinely funny. You get the jokes. They’re not making jokes about the kaiser or Walter Winchell. Those are the kinds of performances I really like.

It gives the film a stylistic texture. It’s pretty easy to do something in a modern setting.

TW: Right, and I don’t want to get into specifics, but I do see films now that get into screenings and they don’t have any style up front. It’s just people in their apartments, people on the street in Madison. I love to push that style. With “Baden Krunk,” we said “Let’s make a fake foreign film, black and white with fake German.” That’s why we did that. It’s like giving it a little adrenaline stylistically.

In “The Great Outdoors,” there’s this instructional thrust to it. Like a how-to video.

TW: And that comes from that 50s aesthetic.

It’s like something you’d see on a classroom projector.

TW: We should have put a projector noise in the background. Even the opening title cards are basically influenced by Warner Bros. cartoons with those cartoony trees and the kooky letters. That’s a huge influence on me, too.

Can we talk about Gretel and your feature-length film experience?

TW: I personally don’t have any feature-length projects, but I acted as co-director and cinematographer for a feature film called Gretel, which was an updated retelling of Hansel and Gretel. A friend of mine, Tom Muschitz, approached me and said “How hard is it to make a film?” I said “If you know what you’re doing, it’s not that hard” and then two and half years later, we were done. After all this intense production shooting and editing, and me falling off a rock ledge and breaking four ribs. It’s sort of a feature-length suspense horror film. It’s not the kind of thing I would have written but I respected his work and script enough that I thought this could be worth working on.

Was the opportunity to work on a feature length film enough incentive?

TW: Yeah, I mean I got to contribute my ideas as we went. Had I known it was going to go two years, I may have thought twice about it. I was experimenting with the new DSLR shooting and I wanted to get some new lenses and see what that was all about.

Any future projects?

TW: I was hired as a screenwriter by a filmmaker in Milwaukee named Tate Bunker — he did this film called Little Red.

Yeah, that played last year at the Wisconsin Film Fest.

TW: Yeah, he took Little Red to Cannes, met a production company from LA there who are now distributing it and said “What else have you got?” He had this other idea and realized he needed help writing it, so he contacted me last August, and I sort of contributed my creative work to it. Again, it’s a really interesting film I never would’ve written but it was really kind of fun to give my input to it. And I also put together a little audition thing for him, because I’m lobbying to have one of the larger parts in the film.

Can you give an idea of what it’s about?

TW: It has to do with how the media manipulates us politically, and how we think we’re taking strong stances on the right or the left when really we’re just sort of being pulled around by larger powers that be. It kind of deals with that whole “Joe the Plumber” thing from a few years back. I think there are larger powers that want us to get into huge arguments and fights online so they can go off and do whatever they want behind-the-scenes.

So that we miss the forest for the trees.

TW: Exactly. It’s very well-rounded, very midwestern. It’s going to take place up north in the north woods, and Tate’s going to use Milwaukee crews as far as I know. They’re looking to get a “named” actor for the lead role, too which is pretty cool.

In terms of subject matter, it sounds like the type of project that would get a lot of interest in a city that’s so political already.

TW: Right. With my wife working at WisconsinEye and having to work through that whole union protest with the teachers, she saw both sides of everything.

My wife and I actually developed a sitcom, too. When we worked as freelancers at the local Milwaukee public TV station, we were just taking mental notes over the years. The show has a whole host of wacky knucklehead characters: managers, union people, all that stuff. I ended up writing a pilot and three episodes and went to a pitch in the fall out in Los Angeles and we had real good response, but not enough that it’s actually gotten off the ground. We’re working on another pitch for it, kind of an open call thing for NBC TV. It’s called Public TV. We invite people to look at it, download the scripts, give them a read, and tell us what they think.

I wrote it last year, and it’s one of those things where I look at the script again and I still kind of laugh at the stuff in there. If you know these local programs that public TV comes up with — yoga, quilting — each episode has this young woman who’s graduated from college and gets her first job at a public TV station in Milwaukee, and each episode has her working on a different show. So it’s like antique trains, pet care, and whatever things are happening, whatever fires she has to put out behind the scenes with these different characters revolving around these different shows. What we want to do is produce the sitcom and then produce the fictional shows, so you’d be able to watch the whole fake yoga show as well as the actual episode.

That whole rotating format reminds me of Ricky Gervais’ Extras

TW: That’s a really good analogy because you have the same faces of the core cast and then you have these new faces that are involved with the next production. You could bring on guest stars. I know Kate Winslet did that on Extras. It’s a “pie in the sky” idea, but if it were picked up, you could get actors that liked the show just to be on for one episode and be, I don’t know, like a cowboy chef.

Other 2014 interviews with Madison 48 Hour filmmakers: