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On way to medical career, Chicago native detoured to ‘Super Troopers’

Director-star Jay Chandrasekhar arrives at a "Super Troopers 2" premiere Tuesday at AMC River East. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Five state troopers in full uniform stand side by side in front of a banner just outside the main “Windy City Live” studio at ABC-7 Chicago at State and Lake.

Wait a minute. They’re not Illinois State Troopers. They’re from … Vermont?

That’s right. These aren’t real coppers. They’re the “Super Troopers” — Jay Chandrasekhar, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske, Kevin Hefferman and Paul Soter — and they were in Chicago on Tuesday to promote the sequel (opening Friday) to the 2001 comedy that earned a modest profit at the box office and then went on to enduring DVD success.

Getting into costume to promote your movie — that’s the sign of some real, um, troupers. Just prior to the TV appearance, “Super Troopers 2” director, co-writer and star Jay Chandrasekhar joined me for lunch and conversation.

He was not yet in uniform. Dang it.

Born in Chicago and raised in Hinsdale, the son of Indian immigrants who were doctors, Chandrasekhar had designs on becoming a doctor as well — but his father could tell Jay’s heart wasn’t in it, and he encouraged his son to find something he loved and pursue it, because he’d be doing it for the rest of his life.

“That’s very unusual for a traditional Indian family,” he said. “My plan was to give comedy a try for three years and if it wasn’t happening, OK. I went to Colgate … started doing stand-up and making short films [with the troupe that would become known as Broken Lizard], and I was having just enough success to keep going.”

Chandrasekhar, 50, cites Monty Python as an influence (“I saw ‘Holy Grail’ when I was a kid and loved it”) but says when he started directing films, starting with the indie comedy “Puddle Cruiser” in 1996 and then “Super Troopers,” which was shot in 2000 and released in 2001, he was perhaps most inspired by the style of John Landis (“National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Trading Places,” “An American Werewolf in London.”)

“A lot of comedies in the 1980s and 1990s had all these colors and were so brightly lit,” says Chandrasekhar with a grimace. “But John Landis had this dark style, like a Scorsese film. … Look at the opening sequence of ‘The Blues Brothers,’ which starts at the prison. The way it was filmed, it does NOT look like a comedy. I thought that was great.”

The original “Super Troopers” was shot on a budget of about $1 million and made more than $20 million at the box office. It has pulled in another $60 million on home video, attracting a sizable cult of hardcore fans who can quote lines verbatim — much like previous generations did with films such as “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.”

Kevin Heffernan (from left), Steve Lemme, Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske star in “Super Troopers 2.” | FOX SEARCHLIGHT
Kevin Heffernan (from left), Steve Lemme, Jay Chandrasekhar, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske star in “Super Troopers 2.” | FOX SEARCHLIGHT

There’s a loose, almost chaotic feel to the ensemble comedy in the original as well as the sequel, but Chandrasekhar says he and the Broken Lizard team wrote more than 30 drafts of the first film, and took some three dozen passes at the screenplay for the sequel. There’s actually very little room for improv.

“It might look [unscripted], but there has to be a purpose to every joke, whether it’s something that seems to be a throwaway line, or something [designed] to get a big laugh,” he notes.

“The first thing I do in the editing room is the ‘radio edit,’ where you listen to the dialogue and don’t even look at the visuals. The rhythm, the music of the comedy, has to work.”

In addition to his film work, Chandrasekhar has directed episodes of TV shows ranging from “Arrested Development” to “Community” to “New Girl.” At times he’s worked with actors who are more experienced in drama, and he has to remind them they can’t take the long pauses they’re used to relying on: “If you’re not doing something or saying something in comedy, the camera is going to go somewhere else.”

Even with all of the home video success of “Troopers,” it was an uphill battle to get the sequel made.

“The studios these days are all about the capes and tights, the superhero movies,” says Chandrasekhar. “I had a conversation with an exec who asked me how much it would cost to make a comedy like ‘Super Troopers 2’ and what’s the highest expectation for the box-office gross for a movie like that. I said maybe $20 million to make it, and it could gross $100 million. And he said, ‘That’s a double. I need to hit grand slams.’ I understand that, but then what are we even doing here?”

Inspired by the success of the crowdfunding campaign to make a “Veronica Mars” movie, the Broken Lizard team went with Indiegogo as their platform to finance “Super Troopers 2” — and more than 50,000 fans contributed a total of nearly $4.5 million.

“This is an independent film,” says Chandrasekhar. “And if it does well, there will be a ‘Super Troopers 3.’ But who knows. It’s impossible to know how a film will do.”

Chandrasekhar realizes some of the humor in “Troopers 2” will no doubt offend some, especially in these sensitive times.

“There’s a way we all talk in public, and then there’s the way we talk in private,” he says. “With the movie, we tried to find the place somewhere in between.”