What are you setting up by calling this film The Comedy?
Rick Alverson: The title, for me, is a blatant sarcasm that feels consistent with the voice of the protagonist of the film. It functions very much like his antagonisms, and even his flirtations with sincerity.
I’m glad we’re doing this interview because I think it’s good to give this film context. It was really interesting to see a screening of the film, after watching a screener, and see the audience start to laugh, and then suppress it… because it’s not a comedy.
It’s a frightening and exciting thing to watch. You're always curious about the effect your film will have on an audience anyway, but this is a really weird experience. There are some screenings where no one's laughing and some where everyone's laughing.
It will be interesting to see it at the BAMcinemaFest’s outdoor screening.
Well, I think that will be the one of the most interesting, because of the casual atmosphere implicit in that sort of thing, relaxed and on a nice summer night. It seems like [with this film] the temperature of the room and different environments really have a lot to do with an individual’s experiences watching the movie. So I imagine that will be different outdoors, the acoustic response to laughter, or lack thereof… it’s interesting.
How was it at the first screening when people had less context for it?
At Sundance? Well, I think it had a particular kind of potency. Some people were very angry, and I think that anger comes less from the subject matter—in the 21st century the subject of provocation is nothing new—but I think the thing that irked people, and made the film feel like it had some potency for some people but was also engaging for people was that it was destabilizing. I think there’s an emotional response and an intellectual response to not just the content but also the framing of it. I think that the text is a little bit in flux; it isn’t safely tucked away inside a particular category or genre or something. It deals with a little bit of uncertainty in a person’s belief in the sincerity of it being a drama or a comedy or something like that. All of that is in flux, and I think that’s kind of exciting. And I think that worked when there was less context, but it also closed some doors.
I think people become very uncomfortable with feeling as though they’re being fucked with. They take it as a kind of offense, but the very responsibility of art is an intellectual or emotional provocation of some sort, right? And I think we’re just not used to seeing that.
I was very aware of how the reaction shots in your movie—in contrast to comedy—are of characters not reacting. That dynamic came up again and again in this film. Could you discuss that choice and its relationship to the way that comedy is traditionally shot?
That is a very important and repetitive event in the film for me. The passivity of everyone and the collective indifference and desensitization of a progressive culture. The American dream is a dream of uselessness, of complete passivity and inertness, arrived at indifference through a disproportionate well-being. Our protagonist is in some ways desperately attempting to initiate a meaningful interaction between himself and those around him or those at the mercy of his antagonism, whether that interaction is forced to an inevitable violence or an inevitable compassion. He achieves neither.
The polite sadness of impotence (of masculinity) combined with limitless creativity in cruelty produced a new emotion in me. Like impotence, unresolved. Was pushing audiences towards new emotions your intention?
I am constantly troubled by the way media teaches us mass compartmentalization, efficiency in that part of ourselves that learns to cope by ordering into caches. We experience movies and television (if that is still a term) in that way more than ever before. Our emotions named and tagged, even our ideas. It is not an experience anymore because we are no a player in the event. We look for our entertainment to think for us and often ignore, tolerate or condemn those works that refuse to pacify us in that regard. I like the idea of new emotions, even though that ambition seems full of conceit. The protagonist in The Comedy is impotent to manage an impression in the world.
But I don’t know what you did to produce those new reactions, in the framing of it. Usually I can kind of figure it out! But while I can see what you did in individual scenes, with the response shots for instance, or the mixing of straight and comedic tones, but I don’t know what you did in the film overall to produce these new responses in me…
I don’t want to push that there’s a completely intentional architecture to the entire thing. That’s the not the way that I work. It’s more being influenced by the environments and the individuals and the initial movements of the thing. And I learn to speculate on and think about some of these things, and then hopefully as we all move forward… I’m certainly against a prefabricated design. I think it produces a dead entity of sorts, [and it’s only one film] which a person can’t learn from; it’s didactic.
Maybe you answered my question. Maybe I’m looking to figure out what you did, but it’s not there. Maybe there’s not a specific answer about structure that I’m used to being able to find. And maybe that’s what I find both unnerving and refreshing.
Well that’s good! That’s a good thing. That means something is working. This happened at various times during the process. In writing, taking into question the way films are made, the muscle-memory of how we respond to them and how narrative is supposed to function and how sympathy is supposed to function. There are these rules, and you try to break them or think of them in a way that it feels like there’s some sort of evolution of the thing, and then you get into the production and start having conversations with people in their environments, and then you get into the edit and start asking questions about why am I making these decisions. And it turns out you’re not even making the decisions; it’s muscle memory. You’re taught to see movies this way. And if you have any interest in the way the world works and not just the way movies are supposed to work, then here are a lot of opportunities for things to get messy. Which I think should be the primary interest of contemporary filmmakers, is to make the thing messy in some way. But then of course there’s an interest in leaving the thing partially intact so that it functions as something that we can conceive of a film. It’s a really thin line from something that everyone considers experimental, certainly, that blocks the access to a more populist thing.
There is something eerie, familiar and unfamiliar,about the contrast of the man-on-the-ocean boat scenes next to the New York skyline. And there must have been some production challenges in shooting a NY movie this way. Can you tell me why this was important to the film?
I spent a good amount of time during a difficult summer before filming on a boat that belonged to my close friend Champ Bennett, sailing around Manhattan with him and into the Long Island Sound. We used the boat as Swanson's in the movie. It is a very strange sensation being in such a populous environment but essentially alone in the water, almost absurd. It's like a quiet, empty road out there.