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.