Culture

Once More With Feeling: An Oral History of ‘American Pie’

Culture

Once More With Feeling: An Oral History of ‘American Pie’

(Clockwise from top left) Jennifer Coolidge, Tara Reid, Chris Klein, Craig Perry, Alyson Hannigan, Hayden Schlossberg, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Natasha Lyonne, Eugene Levy, Jon Hurwitz, Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Seann William Scott, Chris Owen, Mena Suvari, and John Cho.
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This one time, at band camp, I stuck a flute in my pussy.” It’s been 13 years since Alyson Hannigan first introduced audiences to Michelle, a plucky, perverted band geek who sent blood rushing from Jim Levenstein’s (Jason Biggs) virgin head. The line stands out for its unprecedented vulgarity and comedic weight, but also as a cheery, hopeful, and improbably salacious metaphor for American Pie, a teenage sex romp that, in 1999, swept the box office off its feet and helped redefine the studio comedy.

The film delivered a franchise to Universal Studios (seven sequels—three theatrical releases and four DVD spin-offs) worth well over half a billion dollars. It also thrust into the spotlight a new wave of actors whose surprisingly assured performances brought heft to what could have been disposable fluff. American Pie provided millennial Hollywood with potential new comedy stars (Biggs and John Cho), sex symbols (Tara Reid and Shannon Elizabeth), and leading men (Chris Klein and Seann William Scott). And yet the trajectories of those careers varied from exemplary to cautionary as the aughts wore on and the train of early success careened into the roadblocks provided by typecasting, substance abuse, and TMZ. More than a decade after Biggs first penetrated a piping-hot tart, American Pie returns this April with American Reunion, an attempt to elevate the franchise from the depths of direct-to-DVD mediocrity.

CRAIG PERRY (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF THE AMERICAN PIE FILMS): My old partner and I kept a list of random thoughts, and one of them was about four guys doing everything they can to get laid before they graduate. We gave it to Adam Herz [writer of the American Pie films]; he had only written a couple of scripts for TV pilots at that point, but we liked his voice. He wrote a draft and we ended up keeping the first 10 pages, which are the 10 pages where Jim’s parents catch him masturbating into a sock while watching scrambled porn. He rewrote the rest. It felt like it needed some punch, so we added the pie scene three days before the script went to market. It went out on a Friday and by that evening it sold for $650,000 or $750,000. Then we went in search of directors—we met about 70 people and wound up, luckily, with the Weitz brothers.

CHRIS WEITZ (DIRECTOR OF AMERICAN PIE): Initially, nobody else wanted to direct it—literally nobody. I think they’d approached a couple of music-video directors and a commercial director. [My brother] Paul and I hadn’t directed anything before. We’d just written Antz.

PAUL WEITZ (DIRECTOR OF AMERICAN PIE): I said I’d directed a lot of theater because I knew they weren’t going to be able to actually check up on that. craig perry: They were obviously extremely smart. They understood the movie we were trying to make and more importantly they understood the tone we were trying to achieve. A lot of people went for the jokes and they wanted to go for the heart.

CRAIG PERRY: They were obviously extremely smart. They understood the movie we were trying to make and more importantly they understood the tone we were trying to achieve. A lot of people went for the jokes and they wanted to go for the heart.

CHRIS WEITZ: We didn’t think we were going to get the job, which actually freed us up to say what we thought we could bring to it. We wanted to make it more palatable to girls. We started from the position that no one had ever done a sex comedy that wasn’t chauvinistic. In American Pie, the girls are in control of, and enjoying, having sex. They’re not just tools for the boys.

ALYSON HANNIGAN (ACTOR, “MICHELLE”): The script could have gone in a very wrong direction, but they handled it beautifully.

While the late ’90s was a fruitful time for independent comedies (Rushmore, The Big Lebowski, and Waiting For Guffman), most major studios were spending their money on PG-rated potential blockbusters with big-name stars like Doctor Dolittle, Practical Magic, Lost in Space, You’ve Got Mail, Wild Wild West, and Patch Adams. When Wes Craven’s Scream was released in 1996, its success ignited the studios’ collective passion for cheaply made effluvium targeted at teens (Disturbing Behavior, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and Idle Hands), which provided a surplus of opportunities for unknown young actors looking to break into film.

JASON BIGGS (ACTOR, “JIM”): It was the perfect time to be a teen actor. I was 19 years old and I’d just moved to Los Angeles. I had come out to do a TV show that was rather promptly canceled, and I was auditioning for every teen movie under the sun, including this crazy sex comedy.

CHRIS KLEIN (ACTOR, “OZ”): I was fresh out of high school and I’d just finished shooting Election, which was the first film in my career. That summer, I went through a swirl of auditions to hopefully get a job. American Pie happened to be that job.

EDDIE KAYE THOMAS (ACTOR, “FINCH”): I was in North Carolina shooting The Rage: Carrie 2. We shut down production for two weeks, so I went back to New York, where I auditioned for American Pie. I remember showing off the script to a lot of people. I laughed out loud reading it.

JASON BIGGS: Eddie and I grew up auditioning together in New York when we were kids, but we never really knew each other. I was the kid from Jersey who drove to auditions in his mother’s minivan, and he was the city kid who would leave the audition and go hang out with his buddies.

Most of the cast of American Pie grew up in the entertainment industry: Mena Suvari modeled and did Rice-A-Roni ads, Natasha Lyonne was on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and Thomas Ian Nicholas was in Rookie of the Year, with Gary Busey. (“Gary was really nice to me and really crazy with everyone else,” he says. “Although one day he gave me a supreme wedgie, and carried me by my underwear across the lunchroom in front of the entire 75-person crew. I was 12.”) Lyonne became somewhat of an indie darling, winning well-deserved attention for her starring roles in Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader. (“Man, did I have terrific tits back then,” she says. “If I had only known what a piece I was, I would’ve done a lot more nudity.”) Nothing, however, could prepare them for the acclaim they’d receive for performing some of the filthiest hijinks in Hollywood history.

PAUL WEITZ: The only big star was Eugene Levy, who we knew was a genius from growing up watching SCTV. Some comedians are drawn to mean characters, and that’s what makes them funny, but Eugene’s were always full of heart. He was a massive star to us. We were just trying to woo him.

EUGENE LEVY (ACTOR “JIM’S DAD”): I really had no interest in doing it. I read the script, which was a little too gross for me. My manager at the time kept saying, “Take a meeting!” I said, Why would I want to be in a movie I wouldn’t go and see? Finally I said, Okay, I’ll go and talk to them, but I don’t see the point. I met with Paul and Chris Weitz, and I was so impressed by them, but I said, I’m not really enamored with the part. They said, “What do you want to change?” I said, Mostly everything.

CHRIS WEITZ: We couldn’t afford a big star, which may have seemed like a problem but it was great, because it meant we could cast people who had never done films before, just based on their potential.

PAUL WEITZ: It was the humor of the movie itself that became the star, and the sensationalism.

The sensationalism came down to sex: Stifler drank semen-sodden beer, Nadia masturbated, and Jim masturbated with baked goods. There was frank sex talk and franker sex. Young women were initiating, and, god forbid, enjoying sex. With such ribald material, there was bound to be some awkwardness on set.

THOMAS IAN NICHOLS (ACTOR “KEVIN MYERS”): They call it a “closed set” when there’s a sex scene going on, which still means that there’s at least 25 people watching you. It’s a bit uncomfortable when you’re 18 and you’ve got your clothes off, but not as uncomfortable as it was sitting in a movie theater next to my mom while watching the final cut of it on-screen.

PAUL WEITZ: We hired a body double for a scene where Jason and Alyson get it on. But the body double showed up and when he stripped down we saw, like, an 8-inch-long scar across his stomach. Jason ended up doing it in the end.

ALYSON HANNIGAN: It was a lot of fun taking Jim’s virginity! On the day of the shoot, I started improvising: What’s my name? Say my name! Say my name, bitch! There was no dialogue in the script, just quick shots of us basically tearing the room apart.

THOMAS IAN NICHOLAS: No one in the cast ever really hooked up off camera, which is strange. You would think, like, Here we are, making a sex comedy—someone must’ve hooked up, but no.

Instead, many of them formed lasting friendships.

CHRIS KLEIN: The friendships that I made with the guys on set in the first film were immediate.

TARA REID (ACTOR, “VICKY”): The only two I really keep in touch with and talk to all the time are Jason and Eddie.

EDDIE KAYE THOMAS: From the first movie until now, Jason and I have maintained a very close friendship. There aren’t many people with whom you can really talk about what it’s like to go through this specific thing. We’re not Leonardo DiCaprio, and we’re not The Breakfast Club—our experience is unique.

JASON BIGGS: Eddie is one of my best friends. He was in my wedding party. We’ve traveled to every continent together except Antarctica. The best stories I have with Eddie are X-rated—not that he and I were alone in a room doing kinky things with each other. But we’ve had some funny, funny nights out.

The cast’s chemistry, talent, and the risks they and their directors were willing to take were synthesized into a film that legitimately excited the producers, the studio, and the critics.

CRAIG PERRY: When we finished, we were like, Wow this is kind of funny! Wouldn’t it be amazing if it made $30 million? Then the studio went on the auction block. Amid a lot of turmoil, the film was pulled from the release schedule. Between that date and the date of its actual release, we’d been given 14 different release dates. We bounced all over the schedule that summer. At one point we were going up against Star Wars Episode I. I wouldn’t even be talking to you now if that had happened.

Because American Pie’s release schedule had moved around so much, most influential critics had gotten a chance to see it long before it hit theaters, allowing it to build up solid buzz. When the movie finally hit, it hit big. Word of mouth had taken the studio’s $11 million investment and sent it back with $235 million in worldwide box office.

CHRIS WEITZ: When the first one came out, theaters were actually cracking down on kids going to see R-rated movies. Disney’s Tarzan had a box office spike that weekend—just goes to show you that kids find a way.

CRAIG PERRY: [Producer] Chris Moore and I rented a party bus and drove everyone around to all of the theaters on opening night. We wound up at the midnight screening at the Avco in Westwood, and there was a line around the block to get into it. We were like, Holy crap! When the kids got out of the bus, all the people leaving the theater were like, “Hey that’s them! That’s them!” We were mobbed.

JASON BIGGS: The morning after the movie opened, my buddy and I decided to walk to a bagel shop to get some breakfast. We were crossing at an intersection and there was a car of young people, who looked at me and started screaming, “Do the dance! Do the dance [the striptease he does for Shannon Elizabeth’s Nadia]!” I was like, What the fuck? It was mind-boggling. My buddy just looked at me and he was like, “Well, that’s it, man—that’s your life now.”

SEAN WILLIAM SCOTT (ACTOR, “STIFLER”): My parents loved American Pie! Even after I hinted at some of the film’s naughtier moments, my mom went to the movie on opening weekend after church with her friends.

JOHN CHO (ACTOR, “MILF GUY # 2″): I was out of the country when the movie came out. When I came home, people were shouting “MILF” at me in the street. It took me a second to realize what had happened.

EDDIE KAYE THOMAS: When we were shooting the first one, Jason and I got invited to the MTV Movie Awards or some shit. But since it was while we were shooting the movie, nobody knew who the hell we were. We were total wallflowers. We didn’t talk to anybody. A year or two later, we were at some other MTV party and we were talking to people, meeting people. We were able to recognize: It’s amazing what one movie can do.

The film’s mega-success turned all of the actors, even those with smaller parts, into overnight celebrities. Seann William Scott became a major comedy star; Jason Biggs became a comic lead in films like Loser and Woody Allen’s Anything Else; Tara Reid and Shannon Elizabeth became sex icons.

ALYSON HANNIGAN: It was crazy. People were blowing up into these huge deals.

SEANN WILLIAM SCOTT: I wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for American Pie.

CHRIS WEITZ: It was amazing to have the first thing we directed be such a success. It helped me immeasurably just in terms of, rightly or wrongly, people assuming that if you’ve done something which reached a hundred million, you have some sort of mojo.

MENA SUVARI: I worked on American Pie and American Beauty back- to-back. It completely changed my life. I honestly thought that every movie made $100 million.

EUGENE LEVY: It gave my career a gigantic boost and I certainly picked up a much younger audience I don’t think I had before. It’s not like my career wasn’t successful at that time, but I’d never had a mega-hit like that before.

NATASHA LYONNE: The terrific thing about American Pie for me was that my name was able to suddenly finance movies that otherwise wouldn’t get made.

Not surprisingly, American Pie was followed up in 2001 by American Pie 2. Knowing that they had a winner on their hands, they loosened up a little while filming the sequel.

JASON BIGGS: On American Pie 2, we got a kick out of trying to light our farts on fire. I was so excited when I did it the first time! When Eugene came in for work one day, I was like, Eugene! Eugene! You gotta check this out!

CRAIG PERRY: I’m in the process right now of digitizing the last four of the original casting tapes for American Pie 2. I was just watching John C. McGinley audition to play Stifler’s dad. Adam Brody and Ashlee Simpson auditioned. Ashlee was auditioning for the girl who wound up pouring the champagne, which was actually pee, on Stifler’s head.

The cast came together again for American Wedding in 2003—minus Chris Klein.

CHRIS KLEIN: I’m not really sure how that went down. It was a casting issue, a writing issue, a story issue, and a scheduling issue. There were a lot of things that happened in that third one. It was justone of those things where the story that they were making was taking a different direction.

The second and third installments in the franchise didn’t fare as well as their primogenitor among critics, but they brought in comparable box office revenue. Beginning in 2005, Universal released a series of direct- to-DVD films under the heading American Pie Presents—Band Camp (2005), The Naked Mile (2006), Beta House (2007), and The Book of Love (2009)—featuring a number of Stifler’s relatives as protagonists and only one member of the original cast: Eugene Levy.

CRAIG PERRY: Full disclosure, I’ve never seen a single one of them. Those were purely born out of Universal. They were trying to turn— and to some degree were very successful in turning—American Pie into a National Lampoon–like brand by saying “American Pie Presents… ”

EUGENE LEVY: To be honest, it was a pretty incredible offer for me, in terms of the amount of money you can make for very little working time. I had some stipulations: I really want to control what I’m doing. I want to control what my character says. I want to have input into reworking my scenes if I feel like I have to. I want to basically make sure my character is protected.

THOMAS IAN NICHOLAS: Originally I was jealous that Eugene was the only one who got to be in them. Then I went to this festival in New Jersey called The Bamboozle, which was filled with 14- and 15-year- old kids who didn’t even know what American Pie was. A lot of them weren’t yet in kindergarten when the first one came out. But when I got on stage and mentioned that I was doing American Reunion, they all went crazy. Those straight-to-video films actually introduced American Pie to the next generation.

While copies of American Pie Presents: Band Camp were flying off the shelves, the actors from the original films were striving to move on in their careers. Typecasting plagued some of the franchise’s most bankable stars. Of the original group, Seann William Scott has best been able to sidestep this dilemma, earning top billing in big-budget comedies like Road Trip, Role Models, and The Dukes of Hazzard. Alyson Hannigan has worked steadily, and is now entering the seventh season of CBS’s hugely successful sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. Eddie Kaye Thomas has been working on stage and TV, and was a series regular on HBO’s How to Make It in America until the show was canceled in late 2011. Thomas Ian Nicholas works regularly on smaller films, both in front of and behind the camera; tours as a musician with his band, TNB; and runs a fashion company called Revolution 5ive.

Not everyone has fared so well. Chris Klein followed American Pie with some marked roles in big films that went nowhere, such as Rollerball and We Were Soldiers; the later aughts saw him taking parts in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and The Valley of Light, a made-for-television film. Tara Reid’s script choices (Josie and the Pussycats, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder) also landed her in the realm of made-for-TV movies as well as reality television. Shannon Elizabeth managed to parlay her American Pie pinup status into spreads for Maxim and Playboy, lots of camera time at televised poker tournaments, and a spot on the sixth season of Dancing With the Stars. Even Jason Biggs, the series’ star, has had trouble escaping the role that made him famous.

JASON BIGGS: It got me actual working opportunities, but a lot of those jobs were, and still are, similar to the American Pie films. It’s harder for people to imagine me as something else, I suppose. Some filmmakers have seen something else in my performance, something more complicated and layered, but maybe I’ll just play this guy for the rest of my life.

TARA REID: That didn’t affect me. I could do comedy and drama. If you really look at the roles in the movie, mine is one of the most serious ones. It was never hard for me to go in either direction.

EDDIE KAYE THOMAS: There are things in my life that I can control and things in my life that I cannot control. Until the day I die, I think there will be a certain group of people who will always see me as Finch. But in terms of that seriously affecting my work, I think it’s up to me.

CHRIS OWEN (ACTOR, “THE SHERMINATOR”): I always tell people that American Pie was a blessing and a curse. I definitely got typecast. There’s still a stigma that’s never really left. For a very long time, if not the rest of my life, I will be the Sherminator. I hope I can do other things on top of that.

EDDIE KAYE THOMAS: I think the work that, say, Seann has done in other films has been Stifler-esque, but I don’t think that’s bad acting. Woody Allen constantly calls himself a bad actor but he’s a great actor. A good actor tells a story effectively. Seann doesn’t have to be the opposite of Stifler to be a good actor.

JOHN CHO: A lot of those people have very good careers, but it’s difficult to characterize it as such when American Pie was so massive. It’s really a crazy measuring stick.

For some cast members, fighting typecasting has been the least of their worries. Many of the film’s stars struggled with DUIs, rehab visits, career suicide missions, and run-ins with the police, making their collective story a cautionary tale the severity of which hasn’t been seen since the unraveling of the Brat Pack. The list ranges from Seann William Scott and Chris Klein’s enrollment in rehab (Klein checked himself in after being convicted of two DUIs) to Natasha Lyonne’s troubles with hard drugs, which led to an arrest for breaking into a neighbor’s apartment and threatening to “sexually molest” their dog. The most public of these downturns was Tara Reid’s, whose party-girl antics landed her an E! reality series called Taradise (which lasted eight episodes), followed by discussions of her disastrous plastic surgeries, including a botched breast augmentation, liposuction, and something called a “doughnut mastoplexy.”

NATASHA LYONNE: Tara Reid is certainly one of a kind. On some level, that probably accounts for the media’s fascination with her. There are certain consistencies of character that can become compulsive to watch. She is a very bright, self-made woman. I remember as a young girl, I’d get so miffed by how professional she was. She had a Rolex that she bought with money from her career. She was this self-made girl from Jersey.

TARA REID: I’m definitely a girl who likes to have fun. Some people call me a party girl, but at the end of the day, is that really going to affect me? I feel fantastic! Everyone goes through their ups and downs, but I’m in a really good place right now.

CHRIS KLEIN:These guys are my friends. What do friends do? They respect you, they help you if you need help, and they’re with you. They’re rooting for you.

NATASBA LYONNE: I think it was really important for me to take a break. There were definitely times that I thought I’d never act again, and that I wasn’t good enough to. But that whole concept was retarded. I still don’t watch myself in movies because I don’t need the head trip, but I really enjoy acting now.

EDDIE KAYE THOMAS: If anything, it’s got to be joked about. Seann and Chris work hard and they’ve never seemed like they had any sort of problems.

EUGENE LEVY: I can’t say I’m totally up on what everybody went through, but I do remember reading stories about it and feeling badly at the time. So when I first got to the reunion, it was so heartwarming to see the entire cast sitting there and looking so incredibly good. It really looked like no time had passed. It was actually kind of an emotional moment for me.

NATASHA LYONNE: I know how strangely the years have passed for me, so to see the way those people had been hit by life on some level, well, I just realized that’s what life is. Everybody experiences life. Nobody is immune.

For American Reunion, the producers enlisted Harold & Kumar directors and creators Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz, who were in college when the first film debuted.

JON HURWITZ (DIRECTOR, AMERICAN REUNION): Hayden and I were friends from high school. We started writing when we were in college. We’d written the first draft of our first screenplay in college with the goal of making the first R-rated youth comedy in ages, since the ’80s, really. That’s when we saw the trailer for American Pie.

HAYDEN SCHLOSSBERG: (DIRECTOR, AMERICAN REUNION): Immediately, we were like, This movie is going to be huge! This feels exactly like what we think everybody wants to see right now. It was a bittersweet feeling for us because we were like, Why couldn’t it have been us?

ALYSON HANNIGAN: By the third movie, we needed the Weitz brothers back. Luckily, with American Reunion, the directors were so great and we really did feel like we had gone back to the first film. tara reid: We all felt like little kids again. It was just like sleep- away camp.

CHRIS KLEIN: The amount of fun that we had was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. A couple of these guys have grown into incredible comedians.

JASON BIGGS: One thing that was really popular on set was to punch each other in the balls. Right as “Action!” was called, you’d just give them a little flick, right at the tip.

HAYDEN SCHLOSSBERG: They would hit each other in the balls. Jon and I escaped. jon hurwitz: We view our balls as sacred and unique. The actors, however, liked to challenge themselves to give a good performance while in severe pain from getting hit in the testicles.

NATASHA LYONNE: Those guys have dick jokes for days.

SEANN WILLIAM SCOTT: On the last day of shooting, one of the assistant directors handed Biggs a coffee. After he finished it, the assistant showed Biggs a photo he’d taken on his phone of him dipping his testicles in the coffee.

JON HURWITZ: In the opening scene, Jim, who’s still masturbating in his 30s, catches his wife masturbating. That’s something that could happen in real life.

HARDEN SCHLOSSBERG: In your 30s, you find yourself in a whole different set of perverted circumstances that, when you’re a kid, you figure, When I’m in my 30s I won’t still be doing weird shit like that. But it stays weird for the rest of your life.

JON HURWITZ: It’s almost edgier when you’re that age and you’re supposed to be more mature. You’re supposed to be an adult, yet most people haven’t changed that much.

HAYDEN SCHLOSSBERG: The tagline says, “Save the best piece for last,” but you know that if the movie is a huge hit they’ll want to do another one.

While American Reunion may not be a true bookend to American Pie, the idea of a reunion is a chance to reflect: What effect did American Pie really have?

EUGENE LEVY: Animal House was important to young people because it was about hitting back at the establishment and being outrageous. The next big one was Porky’s and, about 15 years after that, American Pie, which had the same kind of intelligence behind it.

TARA REID: I owe my career to this franchise.

CHRIS WEITZ: Sex is really stigmatized in American culture. Violence is much less taboo, so in some small way, American Pie might besubversive. The narrative is innocent while also being really raunchy.

JON HURWITZ: I wouldn’t necessarily say American Pie allowed Judd Apatow to do anything. What I will say is that American Pie was the Animal House of our generation in terms of an R-rated movie with young characters who acted in a real way.

JOHN CHO: I was in a video store and I saw one of the sequels—I think it was Band Camp—and there was this Asian kid on the cover [of the DVD]. I thought, I had one line in American Pie and now they figure, “Boy, if we’re going to make a DVD sequel we need an Asian guy, don’t we?” At that moment I said, This is my greatest triumph as an actor.

EUGENE LEVY: It’s opened the door for a more explicit kind of sex scene. When I first read the script, I kept thinking, Boy, if they’re opening the door for this kind of language, where do we go from here?

Raunchy but heartfelt, shocking but resonant—if that’s the alchemy underlying American Pie, perhaps it’s best encapsulated by Ms. Hannigan’s magical bit of dialogue, the one about the flute in her pussy.

ALYSON HANNIGAN: I don’t think I’ll ever live that line down. But I wouldn’t want to.

Illustration by Crystal Nicole.