John Cusack has made a lot of movies, and by and large, the best ones have been about the 80s. A few were set in that decade because it just so happened to be when they were filmed, like Say Anything and Better Off Dead, and some have used the 80s as a nostalgic thematic device, like Grosse Pointe Blank. With all due respect to Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity, Cusack belongs in the era of cassingles and shoulder pads. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Cusack’s new movie, Hot Tub Time Machine (opening everywhere today)—which has one of the most evocative love-it-or-hate-it titles since Snakes on a Plane—is about a bunch of middle-aged guys who travel back in time to the year 1986. Even if you’re one of those cynics who thinks it’s a one-joke premise barely deserving of a Saturday Night Live skit, there’s no way of hating a movie that combines John Cusack and the late 80s, unless you’ve got the cold, dark heart of Roy Stalin.
During our interview, Cusack spoke in a hushed, barely audible tone, somewhere between brooding and intense. It was as if he was standing in a rainstorm, talking on a pay phone in some nondescript city, his trench coat getting soaked but dammit, he doesn’t care because he’s going to finish this interview, even if it is 3 a.m., and he hopes you can tell by the searing intensity of his voice that he’s carefully considered every question, and what he’s telling you just might be the most important thing in the world, and it’s meant just for you, and by the way, he’s totally going to make you some amazing mix-tapes when you go away to college next fall, but again, O.K., O.K., he knows you’ve already been over this like a zillion times already, but he sure does wish you wouldn’t go.
Eric Spitznagel: Do you know what I love the most about Hot Tub Time Machine? It sounds like an idea somebody just made up on the spot in a studio pitch meeting. “O.K., it’s a time travel movie, and here’s the hook… it’s… it”s… in a hot tub! And it stars that guy! The guy from Con Air. What’s his name? John Cusack! He goes back in time! But in a hot tub!”
John Cusack: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s more or less how it happened. It was pretty wild. The writers only had maybe two-thirds of the script ironed out when they told me about it. It was all lined up to be a very gonzo production. They said, “We have to shoot this thing in a ski lodge, and because of MGM’s shooting schedule, we have to start in six weeks. It’s called Hot Tub Time Machine. Go!” (Laughs.) When they told me the title, I just started laughing. I thought they were kidding at first.
So this a movie that really can be judged by its title?
I guess so, yeah. When I heard the title, I though, “Well, why not? Let’s roll the dice.” You know what I mean? The title is so stupid, it’s actually kind of genius. It’ll either be the greatest disaster in the history of cinema or it’ll be funny. It won’t be somewhere in between.
Why a hot tub though? It seems so random.
That’s kinda why I liked it.
So it could’ve been anything at all? A pony ride? Carnival bumper cars? “A bunch of guys give each other high-fives and are instantly transported back to 1986!”
When I first read the script, what really appealed to me about the idea was, if we could get it right, it’d be a fascinating mix of smart and postmodern and really dumb, all mixed up into a blender. It’s about these four guys going back to the 80s, and more specifically, back to the 80s teen movies, which had very specific rules. I’ve actually been in a couple of those when I was younger.
I heard about that. It’s all over your Wikipedia page.
We also had a lot of great actors from that era, amazing icons from the 80s like Chevy Chase and Crispin Glover. We wanted the audience to be in on the joke, so we populated the film with actors from that period. It was a mixture of tones, where you have smart dialogue and then something post-modern and then you’re sorta thrown into a time warp and then there’s something bawdy and raucous. It can be a pleasing mix.
Is there any plausible science to explain how a time travel hot tub works? Or is it like the portal in Being John Malkovich? Can it essentially be explained with “Why don’t you just shut the hell up and enjoy the goddamn movie?”
Yeah, I think it’s the latter, the shut-up-and-don’t-ask-so-many-questions explanation. (Laughs.) I think we went with a hot tub just because it’s such an iconic thing from those ski sex romp movies in the 80s. But honestly, it could be anything. It’s just a circular porthole, water-consciousness, choose-your-portal type of time-travelling device.
There’s an equation on one of the posters for Hot Tub Time Machine, and if I’m reading it correctly, it suggests that an energy drink plus vodka plus a squirrel equals a hot tub time machine. I’m not sure I understand. Would you explain the math to me?
It’s common sense. Everyone knows that.
So the message of this movie is, drink a squirrel juice cocktail and you’ll be able to go back in time?
Pretty much, yeah. I don’t understand what your confusion is. Where have you been? All of this is common knowledge.
I just assumed that when you combine a rodent and hard alcohol, the answer is always gonna be “Richard Gere goes to the emergency room with an embarrassing rectal obstruction.”
(Laughs.) Could be, sure. It could be any of the great rodent myths. It could have something to do with the Pied Piper, or the Willard story.” In a weird coincidence, Crispin Glover did a remake of Willard a few years ago. And he also did an illustrated book called Rat Catching.
I’m not sure if I follow you. How does this all tie together?
If you combine Russian sports drinks, rodent myths and Crispin Glover, you will find a time portal.
I’m going to take your word on this.
It’s common knowledge!
Where do you stand on the rules of time travel fiction? Are we allowed to change the future by tweaking with the past, Mr. Peabody-style? Or are you more of a Lost kinda guy, who thinks the past is inalterable and at best, time travel is just a spectator sport?
I always liked it when people go back in time to discover things about themselves, like with A Christmas Carol and you’re getting a tour of your life by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. In Hot Tub Time Machine, they’re sort of trying to figure out the rules of the time travel as they go along, in the same way that Bill Murray does in Groundhog Day. At first, it’s “How do we get out of here?” Some of them, like the character played by Rob Corddry, just thinks it’s great to be back. He can get drunk again without becoming totally depressed and hung-over, his libido works, he’s got hair. But then it becomes “Wait, are we here because we’re supposed to change something? Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to do things differently this time.” But what kind of real change can you make to what’s already happened? It’s a question of the butterfly effect.
What about for you personally? Would you travel back in time if it meant you could alter the past? You could warn your pal Jeremy Piven about mercury poisoning!
(Long pause, laughs.) I try not to dwell on the past. I’m not a big go-back-and-try-to-relive-your-past kinda person. I’m looking to plan some stunts for the future, but that’s about it.
That’s an odd thing for a guy who stars in an 80s nostalgia movie to say. You’re not even slightly sentimental for the 80s?
I don’t know. Not really. I personally remember it being a kind of dark decade.
Why? Because John Mahoney wouldn’t let you date his daughter?
I remember the 80s being about the Cold War and Reagan and the homeless problem and AIDS. To me, it was kind of a dark, depressing time. I thought those “Morning in America” commercials were fucking scary.
But what about the fun, non-depressing stuff? What about Flock of Seagulls haircuts, Atari consoles and parachute pants?
I think of all that stuff too. But I’m not as nostalgic about it as some people are. When I think about the 80s, I think about the explosion that happens when you’re 18, 19 years old and you feel immortal and like you could conquer the world. And less than the mainstream stuff, I feel nostalgic for the counterculture of the 80s. I’m definitely nostalgic about the music of my youth; The Clash and Fishbone and that whole music scene. I still have all that music to this day. There was some great music going on in the late 70s and 80s.
The Clash was great, but they never did anything as funky or timeless as the Super Bowl Shuffle.
(Laughs.) Maybe so. I remember going to Super Bowl in ’86, when the Bears played the Patriots, and watching the “Up With People” halftime show and feeling completely schizophrenic by it. It was dark, crazy, weird shit. The fact that I was on mushrooms at the time probably didn’t help. But yeah, that’s what the 80s were to me. It was just Ronald Reagan and JumboTrons and Dr. Pepper patriotic shit. There were people doing the Dr. Pepper dance everywhere. But then you had the ’85 Bears, you know? I guess it was a compromise.
There are some great bits in Hot Tub Time Machine about how technology has changed the way we interact. How exactly did people hook up before Facebook and Twitter?
I honestly don’t know. That’s a great line in the film, where Jacob (played by Clark Duke) is hitting on a girl in the 80s and he says to her, “How can I get in touch with you later?” And she says, “Well, you’re going to have to come out and find me.” It sounds so…
Exactly. It’s exhausting.
Is sexting the modern equivalent of standing on somebody’s lawn with a boombox, blaring a Peter Gabriel song?
I guess it is. Either that or Twittering. As long as you can tell somebody how you feel in 140 characters or less.
That might be enough. (Sings.) “In your eyes, the light the heat, in your eyes, I am complete….”
I don’t know, I don’t think any of that really counts, you know? Sometimes I say to my friends, “We have to go out and have coffee together or something, because I’m tired of just talking in email and texts. I want to make sure it’s really you.” You know what I mean? I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don’t trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen.
It seems like R-rated comedies are getting increasingly raunchy. A Bill Murray smirk isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to fuck a pie or shave your pubes or unleash a naked and maniacal Ken Jeong from a car trunk. Do you have any desire to keep up with that?
I don’t, but I can certainly feel those pressures from the studio, and I guess from the market in a way. Movie audiences now are expecting every film to have some really raucous, crazy stuff. I don’t mind if it’s done in the right way.
What’s the right way?
For me, it comes down to story. What’s it juxtaposed with? If there’s something outrageous in a script that comes after something really smart, it can be interesting. But if it’s just something dumb, and then something dumb, and then something dumb, you’ll get bored really quickly. But it’s all pretty subjective. It’s about your personal taste.
Here’s a hypothetical: You’re acting in a film and the director says, “O.K. John, for this scene I need you to dunk your balls into that jar of mayonnaise. Trust me, it’s gonna play smart in the final cut.” Do you play along?
Uh… (long pause.) I don’t think I’d ever get into a situation where I was on a set with a director who’d ask me to do something like that. I try to be careful. But you never know. The night’s young. (Laughs.) Up until this point, when I’ve done something outrageous, it’s usually been driven by my own instincts. But I haven’t done that particular thing in a film.
Tea-bagging a condiment?
Yeah, yeah. But it’s gotten close. We get pretty stupid in Hot Tub Time Machine.
So you’re not ruling out using your genitals for a cheap laugh at some point in the future?
Well, you never know. I gotta save something for my old age. I hope to still be making movies as a geriatric. I want to have a few surprises left.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)