The Return of Harold & Kumar

High Times heads down to Hollywood South for an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit to the set of the highly anticipated stoner sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

There was only one reason I ever imagined I’d find myself in Louisiana—to drown in the delirious melee of beads, booze, bare breasts and brass bands that calls itself Mardi Gras. But rather than spending Fat Tuesday cruising down Bourbon Street in search of my own personal Girls Gone Wild episode, I was hundreds of miles north in the rundown riverboat town of Shreveport, dragging along Red River in the back of an old taxi. So why am I in the Atlantic City of the bayou, you ask? Because it also happens to be one of the country’s cinematic capitals, and the place where New Line Cinema has chosen to shoot the new Harold and Kumar movie.

The parking lot of Louisiana State University is cluttered with trucks and trailers, and I nearly take a nosedive navigating the snake pit of cables leading up into the school’s library. At the top of the stairs, I’m welcomed to the set by H&K writers John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who this time around have also assumed the directorial duties. These two high-school chums from Randolph, NJ, started out on very different career paths—Hurwitz majoring in finance at Penn State, and Schlossberg studying pre-law at the University of Chicago. But they shared such a love of movies and comedy that halfway through college they started writing scripts together. They sold their first screenplay during senior year, moved to L.A. and never looked back.

“In every script we wrote, no matter what the story was, there was always an Asian guy named Harold and an Indian guy named Kumar,” Schlossberg tells me. “For us they were staples—almost like our Jay and Silent Bob.”

“See, where we grew up, there were a ton of Indian and Asian kids,” explains Hurwitz. “And the thing that struck us was, whenever we saw Asian characters in movies, they always had thick accents and were exchange students—they weren’t real. We wanted to write a youth comedy where the Asian and Indian characters were just like any other American kids—like the guys we knew. That’s how we came up with the idea for H&K.”

Once the guys shifted the focus of their storytelling to what had until then been two peripheral characters, it made all the difference—resulting in the 2004 cult classic Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. While the film’s gross at the box office was less than spectacular, it’s since earned a whopping $30 million in DVD sales—all but guaranteeing the green light for a sequel.

“We purposely wrote the last script where it left off on a cliffhanger,” says Schlossberg. “We wanted to give it a to-be-continued feel, so we could say to the execs at New Line: ‘If you put some money into this movie, you could end up with a franchise—it could be the next Cheech and Chong.’”

“So you see Harold and Kumar as a modern-day Cheech and Chong?” I ask.

“No … I think the big difference is, with Cheech and Chong, weed was their whole lives, whereas Harold and Kumar have regular jobs—Kumar is a talented med student, and Harold’s an investment banker. But at home on a Friday night, they want to chill out, and that’s just how they take a load off—they get high.”

“Are Harold and Kumar based on real people?”

“Not exactly,” says Hurwitz. “The name Kumar is totally made up, but Hayden and I do have a real friend named Harold, and John [Cho] actually looks a lot like him—in college, people would come up to him all the time and ask if he was the MILF guy from American Pie. So we wrote the Harold part with John in mind.”

“Kumar is the person who says what you wish you could say, and Harold is the one who does what the everyman usually does in most situations. We purposely exaggerate them to create that classic odd-couple relationship, but both characters represent different elements of ourselves, our friends and the audience. I think there’s a little bit of Harold and Kumar in everybody.”

As if on cue, we’re suddenly joined by Harold and Kumar themselves—actors John Cho and Kal Penn.

“Okay, guys—before we talk about the movie, there’s one thing I need to clear up,” I say. “Is it true that neither of you actually smoke weed?”

“That’s correct,” answers Penn.

Wow—so much for being invited back to their trailer after the interview for a smoke. “So let me ask you… how can two guys who’ve never gotten high portray one of the funniest stoner duos of our generation?

“Well, I’ve never ridden a cheetah before either, so… ” says Penn.

“I actually got high and rode a cheetah,” jokes Cho, “because I’m dedicated to my craft. No, but seriously… Harold was only stoned for 15 minutes of the last movie, so I didn’t even have to act stoned, really.”

“This is probably going to sound ridiculous to you, but I don’t really see Harold or Kumar as ‘stoners’ necessarily,” admits Penn. “I think it’s more of a buddy comedy than a stoner comedy.”

Though Cho and Penn don’t inhale themselves, they do seem to support decriminalization.

“My big problem with pot prohibition is the needless overcrowding of the prison system,” states Penn. “Marijuana is essentially being used as an excuse to fill prisons that are growing increasingly privatized—to increase jobs in the justice system. I think there are far better ways of creating jobs.”

“Yeah,” says Cho, “like build a Wal-Mart!”

“Getting back to the movie,” I say, “tell me a little about it.”

“I want you to know, we purposely turned in our first draft of the script on April 20th,” confesses Hurwitz with a grin.

This next installment of the saga picks up exactly where the last one left off: with our pothead protagonists setting off for Amsterdam in pursuit of Harold’s love, Maria. Their noble quest is derailed, however, when Kumar attempts to join the mile-“high” club by toking up in the airplane’s bathroom.

“Just like the first movie was about the process of going to White Castle and getting sidetracked,” explains Penn, “this movie is about going to Amsterdam but getting sidetracked.”

Sidetracked is an understatement: When his bong is mistaken for a bomb, the plane is rerouted back to Jersey and the two end up in the custody of maniacal Homeland Security agent Ron Fox—played by former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry.

“Rob is playing one of the most racist characters in cinematic history,” jokes Penn. “He’s like Archie Bunker with a SWAT team.”

“Corddry is absolutely hysterical,” says Hurwitz. “He’s a superstar in this movie.”

After being shipped off to Gitmo, the boys manage to escape Corddry’s clutches and hitch a ride to Florida with some illegal immigrants. The two fugitives then embark on a madcap adventure across the South in hopes of finding an old friend in Texas who can clear their names. Along the way, they’ll crash a provocative party at a mansion in Miami, get chased by a crazy-eyed Klan Wizard (played by actor Christopher Meloni—see the interview on page 72), get taken in by a hillbilly hunter with a humidor full of herb, and even smoke some “Alabama Kush” at the Crawford ranch of G-Dub himself.

And then, of course, there’s Neil Patrick Harris.

“We’re very excited that Neil is coming back,” Hurwitz says. “We wrote him into the first script kind of randomly. Even though we wrote him in as himself, we made it clear that he was playing a fictionalized character. We thought, ‘If he read this script, would he be flattered—think we’re doing something fun and different for him—or would he be offended?’ We figured: Worst-case scenario, he does the lines, and they’re funny because it’s him doing them. Best-case scenario, he’s able to elevate it—make it something better than it was. He totally did that.”

The early promotional posters for H&K2 show Harris aglow atop a unicorn, with the question “What would NPH do?” emblazoned above him. After seeing the film, I’d say the more appropriate question is: “What wouldn’t NPH do?”

“Neil’s so up for anything… he just goes for it,” says Schlossberg.  “So this time, we wrote the part knowing he’s going to go for it. What he did in the last movie is nothing—the idea of Doogie Howser stealing your car and snorting cocaine off a stripper’s ass isn’t nearly as surreal as what happens with him in this one.”
As the title might suggest, this film—as opposed to the last—wears its politics more visibly on its sleeve, tackling issues like bigotry, illegal immigration and civil-rights abuses with absurdist humor.

“All the Guantánamo stuff is satire—commenting on racism by making fun of it. We like putting all different elements into the movie—whether it’s outrageous, edgy comedy like South Park and Chappelle Show, crazy Farrelly Brothers–type physical gags, scatological humor… even dorky little romantic moments like the one we’re filming today.”

The scene Schlossberg is referring to—the one I’ve been invited here specifically to see, and which the guys are now being summoned to shoot—is a flashback sequence in which a younger, nerdier Kumar smokes weed for the first time.

The first shot takes place in the main room of the library, where we find Kumar attempting to study, but unable to concentrate due to the antics of some potheads at the table behind him. (As a side note: I’m excited to see that the directors are using one of the copies of High Times I’d brought with me in the scene!) Soon he becomes so aggravated by the noise that he gets up and storms off.

“And… cut. Okay, take five, guys.”

“Is there as much pot humor as in the last movie?” I inquire as the crew breaks down and prepares for the next shot.

“There’s actually more pot smoking in this one,” says Cho. “More weed plus more boobies … equals happiness!”

“Sure, weed plays a huge role in the plot,” admits Hurwitz, “but it’s really secondary. It’s different than say Half Baked, where everything in the movie is about weed culture and different types of stoners. Our movie is about two characters who just happen to be stoners.”

“Even the word ‘stoner’… that’s their word for us,” says Schlossberg. “I think a lot of people who smoke weed feel it’s derogatory. Our attitude has always been that getting high is something a lot of people do, but it shouldn’t define who you are. Although I must admit that’s what I love most about High Times—how in-your-face you are about the whole subject. Its literally sticking a middle finger up at the law, and I just love that.”

“Of course, we don’t use real weed in the movie,” laughs Hurwitz. “We’re Hollywood—we have no integrity.” Instead, they’ve procured a pound or so of a legal, herbal smoking blend—much of which will later be used to create Weedie, the living bag of herb that Kumar fantasizes about making love to.

I follow the guys through the maze of director chairs, lighting rigs and ladders into the psychology section in the back stacks, where just between “War” and “Witchcraft” the crew is setting up around a sexy young actress dressed in fishnets, a camouflage miniskirt and a sparkly pink belt. It seems that Harold isn’t the only character with a love interest this time around: Kumar, it turns out, was introduced to herb by his college girlfriend Vanessa—played by Louisiana native Danneel Harris.

“In the beginning of the film, I’m kind of a punky, pot-smoking party girl,” Harris tells me. This isn’t the first time the 28-year-old actress has played a stoner—her character Rachel on TV’s One Tree Hill is something of a bad girl who has smoked weed on the show. And unlike her co-stars, Harris actually gets high.

“It’s been weird smoking this fake stuff,” she giggles. “We were shooting a scene earlier—I took a big hit of it, and my brain literally came out of my head and fell on the ground. It’s not like being high; it’s just like feeling really weird for about 10 seconds… much like a whippit.”

“Quiet on the set! Roll sound… and… action!”

I step back, slip on my headphones and peer through a crack in the wall of books as Penn and Harris film the big scene: After being driven from the main room, a frustrated Kumar lands at a secluded desk in the back, where he encounters Vanessa struggling with a tricky calculus problem. After he helps her solve the equation, she drags him into an empty aisle and shows her gratitude by lighting up a pink joint and giving him a juicy, smoke-filled kiss—the fateful kiss that turns Kumar onto the joys of cannabis and transforms him into the troublemaker we all know and love.

When the scene wraps, the directors give me one of the canvas chair backs with the H&K2 logo as a souvenir, and I give them a big nug of NYC Diesel. “It’s no Alabama Kush,” I tell them, “but it’ll do the trick.” As the crew begins to pack it up, we step out into the fog for a quick puff before calling it a day. As I head back up the river towards my hotel/casino, I ponder what the future holds for these two budding stoner characters. Will there be a Harold & Kumar 3? And if so, where will they be headed next? We stop at a red light, and I look up and notice that we’re at the intersection of Stoner and Highland avenues. Then, suddenly, Neil Patrick Harris emerges from the mist astride his unicorn, looks me dead in the eye, and echoes his parting words from White Castle:

“Wherever God takes them.”

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