The plot is simple, yet far-fetched.
There’s this freshman college student who heads off to the stereotypical party atmosphere that many of us might associate with our days on a university campus. He sees a familiar face in a young woman with whom he shares a few classes and, well, one thing leads to another and they share a blissful evening.
Of course, plots need twists, and this plot has plenty of those. For starters, this freshman foolishly videotapes the encounter and then, somehow, a videotape of this encounter is inexplicably dropped in the mail and destined to reach, of all people, his high school sweetheart at her college a few thousand miles away.
What ensues is a race against time to intercept the delivery of the footage before the original girlfriend has a chance to see it. As you might expect, hijinks ensue.
That’s the story of Road Trip, a raucous and, at times, raunchy comedy set at a fictional college in upstate New York. To tell it, Dreamworks and The Montecito Picture Company looked south and turned to the small college town of Athens, Georgia
So, a little more than 20 years ago, Hollywood — complete with a crop of talented, attractive young actors and actresses, hordes of production crews and support staff, and one up-and-coming director — descended upon the University of Georgia campus with a vision of delivering the next great college-era comedy.
But there’s another fun story beyond what we see on screen, with area residents basking in a limelight that came to them through a mixture of chance and hard work.
The origins of Y’allywood
For years, Georgia resisted the overtures of Hollywood in lieu of certainty of the day-to-day student experience. The campus environment is catered to the education — and care — of 30,000-plus students, meaning any disruptions introduced into that reality have the possibility to negatively impact the pursuits of faculty, staff and students alike.
Most famously, this resulted in the university being passed over for perhaps the greatest college-era comedy of all time, Animal House. Initially, the producers for the film wanted to head to Athens and use the UGA campus as the backdrop for the now-iconic film, but the university’s administrators had different plans.
Pete McCommons, the longtime publisher of Flagpole, Athens’s weekly alternative newspaper, recalled this tension in a column in 2014:
This was, of course, back when nobody had ever made a film here, so the news (of filming Animal House in Athens) was huge. Pretty quickly, though, came the update that UGA President Fred Davison had vetoed the idea, because the script was dirty and would portray Athens and the university in a bad light. The company reluctantly took it to the University of Oregon, in Eugene, and the rest is history every time you watch the film. Whenever I see it, I think: “That could be Athens.” We could be seeing 1977 Athens preserved and enhanced. Athens could have made a lot of money, and we might have been in the cafeteria when (John) Belushi started the food fight.
Of course, if you were a university president, and Hollywood came calling to make a film that portrayed you and your administration as conniving tyrants and your students as either prigs or slobs, you’d be reluctant to allow that, too, wouldn’t you? Especially if it was true.
Today, film fanatics often make treks to the campus of the University of Oregon to retrace the steps of that movie’s production. The untimely and tragic death of its star, John Belusi, added to the film’s lore, making a visit to the various places the movie was shot tantamount to a pilgrimage for the most dedicated movie buffs.
Nearly 20 years later, this same tension would come to bear again in Athens in the months leading up to the filming of Road Trip. Once again, university administrators were concerned about how the shooting of a major film would impact the day-to-day life of the campus, to say nothing of the fact that another crass, college-themed comedy that pushed the creative envelope would raise those similar credibility questions.
Josh Hancher was a camera assistant on Road Trip and is a 1997 graduate of UGA’s Grady College of Mass Communications and Journalism. He got the opportunity to serve as the B Camera’s second assistant thanks to Grady Upchurch, a friend of his in the industry who decided to take a chance on a fresh-faced cameraman.
Hancher recalled discussions among the film’s crew around the fight to bring the movie to Athens.
“From what I remember, the university fought it, and (then-Governor) Roy Barnes had to get involved to make it happen,” Hanchjer said. “Movies bring money and jobs to Georgia. We think of it as a movie that is fun to watch, but the governor thinks of it as income to the state and jobs for people here. (Road Trip) wasn’t going to happen in Atlanta if they couldn’t do it in Athens, so there was a little bit of political wrangling that had to happen.”
A little push from the governor helped get the ball rolling, and the production crew had to adhere to various strict protocols designed to protect the integrity of the daily student experience. Logos of the university had to be obscured, which posed interesting filming challenges in 1999 given the fact that digital editing technology then isn’t what it is today.
Hancher, who today is an industry veteran who has worked on recent blockbusters like Rampage and Venom, as well as the acclaimed television series Atlanta, recalled a scene in Sanford Stadium where a faint outline of Georgia’s famous “Power G” is visible in the center of the field, requiring unique shooting angles and tight shots to reduce any editing work.
More than you bargained for
Road Trip’s story is told through the perspective of Barry, a tour guide at the fictional Ithaca College set in upstate New York. Played by Tom Green, Barry shares the story of his college friends several years earlier racing across the country to prevent the delivery of the aforementioned sordid videotape. It’s these various scenes of the tour group that most prominently feature the Georgia campus.
To ensure the campus looked as bustling as a normal college, student extras were cast on a day-to-day basis to repeatedly walk from one building to another, filling the background with steady foot traffic. Relton McBurrows, then a junior at the University of Georgia, joined one of his roommates on a Monday to see if he could garner a spot as one of those backpack-carrying students in the background.
“The casting director came on stage and said ‘where are my African-American students’ and there were, like, three of us who raised our hands because, you know, diversity at Georgia,” he laughed. “So it was me and two others who followed him out to the lobby, and one was a taller guy with some dreadlocks, who looked a little older, and another one was a woman. What they needed was a male that could play the high school senior son of a guy they already had cast as an older African-American, so I fit the bill.”
Unbeknownst to McBurrows, his agreement to help out with what he thought was the simple role of an extra in the background was something much bigger. All of a sudden, he had been cast as the final part of the ensemble tour group that would be featured prominently throughout the movie.
The tour group was a cast of established actors, whose resumes ranged from work in commercials to screen veterans like Ethan Suplee, who had credits in Mallrats, Chasing Amy and American History X. The actor who played McBurrows’s father, Al Higgins, had been a regular character on Matlock, serving as one of the rotating judges that Andy Griffith would win over with his folksy charm by episode’s end.
McBurrows, who had absolutely no acting experience, was welcomed into the fold by his new colleagues, who patiently worked with him to make sure he could understand industry lingo, know where to stand and get a handle on the other tricks of the trade that he would need to master.
While most of it was primarily following instructions and responding to the actions of the professional actors, there still were basic things that were easy to understand in theory but harder to put into practice. For instance, in one of the opening scenes of the movie, a tight shot of McBurrows reveals that his eyes briefly dart to the left.
“‘The eyeline is off’ is what they would say,” he joked. “We’d go through and watch the dailies with the casting director, and his comment was ‘nice Relton.’ It was me getting distracted by watching a student in the background.”
Distraction wasn’t easy to overcome, particularly given Green’s role with the tour group.
Interacting with the stars
At the time, Green was the hottest star to sign on to the project. He was hosting the wildly popular Tom Green Show on MTV, dating actress Drew Barrymore and just a few months away from being featured in the remake of Charlie’s Angels.
He wasn’t, however, a veteran, trained actor. Instead, his improvisational style made for great comedy but some challenges from a filming standpoint.
Hancher recalled how Green was ideal for stage settings, where his physical style of comedy played well. Translating that to camera wasn’t as easy.
“There’s a technical craft to being an actor,” he said. “Even if you’re an advanced moviegoer but you’ve never been on a set, you really can’t tell the difference between a really great actor and someone who looks pretty and can say lines, but it’s there.”
Hancher said the scene where Green is attacked by the pet snake of the character played by Paulo Costanzo was funny for everyone in the room, but difficult to film because Green couldn’t quite play it to the camera.
“He’s playing it to a stage, and that’s the technical side of acting for a camera that is hard,” Hancher said. “That’s what makes someone like Will Ferrell so good.”
McBurrows said Green’s improvisational style could be a bit too funny, often resulting in more takes because the tour group would crack up during them, but such a big personality belied the actor’s surprisingly timid nature. He said Green was much more reserved off camera than he expected, which was something that ran true throughout the cast.
Both Hancher and McBurrows said Seann William Scott, who famously portrayed the raunchy Stifler character in the American Pie movies, was one of the friendliest, kindest people on set. McBurrows recalled the group grabbing dinner with Scott and some other members of the crew, and Scott talking about the yet-to-be released horror movie Final Destination … except that, according to Scott, it wasn’t a horror movie at all, but rather a dark comedy.
“The way they talked about it at the table was a comedy, but when marketing got a hold of it, they turned it around and made it a thriller,” McBurrows said. “That always stood out to me, but you can see in the movie where it’s supposed to be a comedy because it’s so embedded in some of those scenes. I go back and watch it, and I’m laughing at everything!”
For all of the star power that graced the screen coming out of that movie, perhaps the most famous figure to emerge from film was Todd Phillips, its writer and director. This was Phillips’ first lead directorial job. Today, he’s a Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning director thanks to his work on The Hangover and Joker.
Even though this was a college-era comedy that wasn’t going to garner award consideration, Hancher remembered how focused the young director was on getting the best out of his cast.
“He was intense,” Hancher said. “But he knew what was funny, and he was confident in how to tell a story and how to make it funny.”
Phillips and the rest of the film’s creative leadership also were willing to take a chance on the locals who were helping make the production go.
Reshoots and royalties
By becoming an extra who had the camera focus on him from time to time, McBurrows had moved up the acting ranks rather quickly. Rather than earning $50 a day for walking in the background, he was making $110 a day for a shoot that figured to stretch on for two or three weeks. That was no chump change for a struggling college student.
But his fortunes would continue to improve, thanks to some prodding from a castmate and the graceful humor of the show’s producer. During filming at Georgia Tech, Rhoda Griffis, who portrayed a mother in the tour group and herself was a veteran actor, encouraged McBurrows to ask for a line.
Ivan Reitman, the movie’s producer, was on-hand that day handling the directorial responsibilities for a scene in which Green led the tour group through a building. Before shooting began, McBurrows pondered approaching Reitman, an acclaimed producer and director responsible for Ghostbusters, Stripes, Kindergarten Cop, Dave and more.
“I got a little ballsy because, you know, it’s Ivan Reitman,” McBurrows laughed. “I said, ‘Hey Ivan can you throw me a line?’ … like we’re friends or something. He didn’t respond. He looked at me, but he didn’t respond. Then a few scenes later, he said, ‘You’re going to walk through and say this.’ Well, all of a sudden, I’m like ‘oh no.’”
“How big are the cocoons?”
Those simple — and nonsensical — five words forever changed McBurrows’s fate with Road Trip. Even though they never made their way to the theatrical version of the film, instead finding a home on the deleted scenes segment of the DVD release, he suddenly was afforded all of the union rights that come with being in a major motion picture.
This included a near-seven-fold boost in his daily wages, a daily per diem for food and entertainment, an opportunity to join the Screen Actors Guild and a chance to collect royalties for the rest of his life.
“I remember Rhoda saying to me, ‘This is big, this is like Jodie Foster big,’” McBurrows said. “There are actors who spend their whole career trying to get this point where they can join SAG and have that opportunity.”
Still, McBurrows passed on the chance to change his course in life, which was headed for teaching at the time. Though Wiggins offered him the chance to head up to Dacula for a casting opportunity with Remember The Titans, McBurrows declined that role and the opportunity to join SAG.
He simply didn’t want to be an actor (despite the urging of not merely his castmates, but also his proud and well-meaning parents).
Aside from not being the career he had long trained for, those technical skills that Hancher referenced didn’t come naturally to McBurrows. He said it took him multiple takes to get that one line down, and even then it wasn’t included in the final version of the film.
He did, however, take advantage of various perks associated with being part of the production of a major movie. For instance, he joined his castmates in Los Angeles for reshoots just a few months after filming in Georgia wrapped.
“That was more of a star experience than Athens was because they were really taking care of you,” McBurrows said. “That was fun because me and the other group members got really close, so being together again after wrapping up shooting was a big surprise, and it was cool to see each other again.”
An investment that was worth making
Today, the film industry generates more than $9 billion annually for Georgia, and more movies are filmed in the state each year than in California or New York. While Georgia has a lengthy relationship with movie-making, playing host to famous films like Smokey and the Bandit and Driving Miss Daisy, the explosion of productions in the past 20 years has made it the industry leader.
The bulk of the Marvel movies were shot in locations around the state, while The Walking Dead franchise has set up shop in Senoia. A generous tax incentive, coupled with varied locations throughout the state that can mimic the look and feel of other places around the country and world (see Athens = upstate New York), have helped to drive continued growth and sustained interest.
And while Road Trip certainly wasn’t the main driver of this surge of interest, it does play an important role in proving to both studio executives and state leaders that investing in the growth of the film industry was the right strategic movie.
For those who played some role in the film, it was a special time they were proud to be a part of.
“I was a poor student — I was not Greek and there was no extra money or anything — so my days in Athens were pretty humble,” Hancher said. “To be able to go back there and be able to relive that experience as a professional and be young, it was a blast.”