Thursday, June 21, 2012

BAMcinemaFest 2012: Rick Alverson, Director of The Comedy

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 12:15 PM

In The Comedy, from writer-director Rick Alverson, Tim Heidecker (of the Tim and Eric comedy duo) plays Swanson, an idly rich Williamsburger who lives on a boat and bides his time until he inherits his legacy. In the absence of anything better to do, he behaves abhorrently to a vivid cross-section of fellow-New Yorkers, trying to engage or enrage any reaction to break through his dulled malaise. He has a close group of similarly useless aging hipster friends (including the other half of the comedy duo, Eric Wareham, as well as Neil Hamburger and James Murphy) who all behave alternately in ways naive, crude, joyous, jaded and hilarious. It also features a small role by Kate Lyn Sheil, and was shot by Larry Charles/Borat veteran DP Mark Schwartzbard. Screens Saturday, June 23 at 9:30pm; and outdoors, in the parking lot on Lafayette Ave and Ashland Pl, on at 9pm on Wednesday, June 27.

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.

Is it significant that the people who Swanson is trying to get to react, who remain still, are often working class, trying to do their jobs (or not lose their jobs)?
It is, for me, ultimately a movie about a loss of utility and sense. A literal loss of the body's meaning in the world. When one no longer has to farm or hunt or, in the case of Swanson, even work, what is the sense to one's body or the personality that co-exists with it? This is something indicative of first-world western culture, or what I have known or seen of it, but it is not modern. It seems in concert historically with every empire's unbalanced prosperity, every unsustainable utopia on its eve of something awful.

What qualities about Tim (besides his very expressive stomach) made him seem like the right choice for the lead, Swanson? There is a truly unmoored sadness to his scenes where he's alone or with women, very much in contrast to the joyful or resigned chaos in the scenes with his friends.
Part of the complexity of Tim & Eric’s work is a dynamic of discomfort, whether physical, emotional and psychological. Both the movie as a whole and the character of Swanson needed to be saturated in that kind of thing. Tim's work, whether with T&E or his stand-up, is so straight that it seemed a natural leap to reframe it in a dramatic sense. I could see a bit of the character of Swanson in him, as I see it in myself. I'm not speaking of the cruelty, that's a particular manifestation of the fiction of the character, but the curiosity and even some of the disgust; a boredom with a lot of contemporary entertainment and the increasing irrelevance of certain norms. I think we both share that with Swanson.

Where did you intend audience’s sympathies to fall? With the lead character?
I am increasingly uninterested in sympathy in the arts. It is a saturated mechanism in movies that fuels an interest only in one's immediate, personal sympathies at the expense of a larger world that is at discord with our narrow view. We are taught by movies, media, and tailored-to-the-individual internet advertising to believe in the superiority of our own perspective. It seems consistent with this construct of manifest destiny, and a kind of capitalist credo of satisfaction of one’s desires at the expense of comprehension of the larger community or environment.

I think a lot of films are designed in a way to induce sympathy in the viewer, as a way to let the viewer in. It’s a mechanism that’s outdated to me. Because we see hundreds of people every day, that we don’t feel anything about. But we feel more sympathy for we people that we recognize, that are like us. I don’t know, I think it’s interesting to play with a construct that plays around with that, that maybe works against it a little bit.

How did you work with the unique talents of Tim (and the other cast) to shape the script?
I work from scripts with no scripted dialog. I'm interested in a kind of naturalism in the projects and believe it most efficient to utilize what is innate and most immediate in the voices of the people I work with. There is specific subject matter, and conveyances in the scripted scenes that contain conversation. But also there are tonal objectives, when I could care less what is said, when I work with and rely on the cast to achieve an atmosphere. They bring a lot of themselves to the project and become vulnerable in a way that I have tremendous respect for.

The messy camaraderie of Swanson’s group of friends reminded me of Husbands. But it's a more extreme case since they don't have wives to return to. Were you thinking of that film at all in making this?
I am a fan of Husbands, it's a wonderfully messy examination of male friendship and loneliness and ineptitude. I have no problem believing it was one of many influences on me and this work. The Comedy is certainly a continuation of that kind of examination of patriarchy and fraternal relationships.

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.

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