Entertainment opens with its unnamed protagonist (Gregg Turkington) walking among the wreckage at an airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert. From the inside of one of the empty vessels, The Comedian stares at the disquieting absence of any seating arrangement, a signifier of normalcy or comfort, which is deprived of both the character and his audience for the ensuing 102 minute ride.
An episodic, anti-road trip, Entertainment is highly cinematic rumination on the plunging depths of desperation in solitude, and the flailing attempt of purveying the titular concept amid so much sorrow. As Alverson toggles back and forth between The Comedian’s aimless off-stage wanderings and his abrasive comedy routines, his hollow shell unravels, and the armor of performance collapses into something all too real.
I spoke to Alverson at Sundance, where Entertainment premiered, about the dangers of palatable critiques, addressing white male culture, and his aversion to dialogue as a plot device. Entertainment makes its New York premiere as the Closing Night selection of New Directors/New Films, on Sunday.
I wanted to start by asking about your choice to appropriate a pre-existing character for the film, and why you thought Neil Hamburger was best suited as a vehicle for this story.
I have a preoccupation with a bent for utopianism in American life and psyches, and I think it’s something that comes up over and over again in the movies I’ve done. I’m always on the look out for ways to explore it further, and I see what Tim [Heidecker] and Gregg and these comedians have done and—I don’t know much about comedy—but it feels like it’s approaching this kind of precipice. It’s contending with a lot of baggage with the aspirations of what comedy and entertainment offer us, and what they can do. And I like that end, that threshold, where the thing is sort of teetering. With Gregg’s character, there’s a lot of that going on. The idea that so much of the experience happens with the audience, and the evolution of their relationship with the audience over an hour’s performance, is really fascinating to me. Part of that is discomfort and part of that is moving through discomfort in these safe environments of living rooms, clubs, and theaters. That, I think, should be the playground of exploring the dangers of relating to or being repulsed by these dynamics.
Did you first come to know Gregg through his work as Neil Hamburger?
No, I knew his work as Neil, but I was casting for [Alverson’s previous film] The Comedy, and his name came up, and I reached out to him. I wanted to cast a group of people that knew each other and had a pre-existing chemistry. It was a natural result of casting Tim Heidecker, and I’m very glad we ended up working together on this.
You wrote the script with Tim and Gregg, and because it’s episodic in structure, I found that the run-ins that the character has, say with John C. Reilly’s character or the Tye Sheridan character, were expressing different modes of cynicism. With John C. Reilly’s character, everything is about brand and how to market yourself, and with the clown, I found it to signify people’s baseless, low class humor. How did you all construct these episodes?
The whole thing has a flirtation with tropes, even the formula of narrative, and what drives it. Traditional three act structures, I’ve always been suspicious of, because it’s more comforting than challenging. I come from a music background, so I always thought about structure in terms of repetition in structure and variation on theme to be really impactful. These variations and structural equivalencies, hitting the same beats in a different way, each time we revisit a relationship in the movie, or, formally, a place—like a hallway or another interior—all of those create the compositional elements of the film, and it’s exciting for me to work that way.
When I was watching it, I thought about it in the context of a road trip movie, and how it works in complete contrast to the genre. He’s losing himself instead of finding himself. Especially with the desert, there is a limbo element that you’re playing with. When you wrote The Comedy—it was a treatment, right?
Well, I kind of considered it a script. It was a much shorter one, it started at 16 pages, but I have never written traditional dialogue because I’m not interested in it as a facilitator of narrative. I’m interested in it as a tonal element. Inherently, the scripts are shorter, because a traditional script is page after page of spaces.
So is dialogue something you find on set or in rehearsals?
We don’t really do rehearsals so it happens during the shooting. We talk about the scene, and on the page, it says what’s going to be conveyed. If there’s an exchange, it says what that will be, it just doesn’t dictate the minutiae of what occurs. Ultimately, we’re looking for a tone, so a lot of things can work in the exchange. And the casting is huge because of that. We did flirt a little bit with scripted dialogue, and I’m doing some more of it now, because it’s interesting in a different way. But Michael Cera’s scene was scripted, which was fun and liberating for me since I’ve always been so opposed to it.
One of the things that I really like about the structure of the film is how it starts to mirror his sets. You don’t know where it’s going—in a good way—and you begin to cling to the reappearances of the performances for stability.
Sure. I toured with bands over the years and there is that sort of intoxication of the structure of the club and the stage and that exchange. It almost substitutes for traditional human interaction. It’s a very perverse situation, seeking the adulation of an audience, the effort at making them content or disrupting them. That power dynamic is an intoxication for any performer, and a very powerful substitution for a general exchange on the street.
Right. And for the character, his version of stability is leaving those ritualized voicemails.
Yeah. That started getting very interesting. We recorded a lot of those the last day of shooting, and I loved the one-sided nature of that and the absence of expectation of hearing from this girl. That was very exciting to me.
You always knew that his daughter wasn’t going to factor into it.
No. We shot things with her, that didn’t end up in the final cut.
You put her at the top of the special thanks list. Formally, this film feels different, you use a lot of wide shots to obviously emphasize his isolation. You worked with Lorenzo Hagerman, who shot Heli. How did that collaboration come about?
There’s a particular kind of default and grammar to a lot of American cinematographers, maybe because of what we’re raised on. It’s not a bad thing, but there’s a voice to the visual element in American movies. So many of the films I’ve loved in the past have been European films, and old Hollywood films are highly composed, too. Because you used to see everything in the theater, everything was wider. We’ve gone tighter and tighter with our framing as the devices on which we watch film get smaller and smaller. It makes perfect sense in a way. We wanted to play with these classic representations of cinema, and Lorenzo is amazing, I’m definitely going to work with him again.
During production, were you decamping and moving around a lot, or were you cheating locations?
It was a really challenging production. It should’ve cost a lot more than it did. Ryan Zacarias and Ryan Lough and my other producers were in the trenches, we were traveling all over the place, from town to town in the desert. We would stayed in one town in the Mojave and take day trips. I can see how people would be smarter to recycle these things, but frankly, I don’t think we wouldn’t have been able to capture what we did.
Did you spend a lot of time scouting?
Yeah. Me and Gregg and Tim went to some of these places and stayed in these motels and did the initial treatment.
I wanted to ask about the female characters in the film. With the chromotherapist, there’s an enlightenment, kind of savior element, but the two other women are the whores. Not for you, necessarily, but for the character.
[Laughs] Yes. And then there’s the daughter who hovers over everything.
I noticed The Comedian has three different voices: his normal voice, his on-stage voice, and his voice when he talks to his daughter. It shifts when he’s playing to a different audience.
Totally. I think most of us kind of do. I have a lot of problems with men and masculinity and how it’s both depicted or glorified, or even experienced. There’s an obvious absence of female presence in his life and part of the imbalance of his experience is because of that.
Society places a premium on masculinity, and you’re not allowed to show emotions in the same way women do, and that definitely comes through with the character. He’s incredibly sad and just barely keeping it together.
Yes, and very frail too. On the stage, there is the certainty of bravado and strength in a way, and other clichés of masculinity. But off stage, we see absolute fragility. It’s like a pendulum, but it’s not functional for him as a man in the world. The exaggerated persona of the on stage character exist to right that disorientation.
I thought the scene with the pregnant woman was a nice companion to the scene in The Comedy, when Kate Lyn Sheil’s character has a seizure. But this time, he does the right thing.
[Laughs] Yeah, it is. That’s interesting. You know, the scene in The Comedy is probably the scene that most people have problems with—
I thought that was a great scene. It was really important for the character.
I loved how in that scene, passivity could be a violence, which is sort of akin to the way we watch movies. But yeah, he does do the right thing in Entertainment.
Did you devise that scene as a character trial?
Initially, it was just a formal image of seeing a character in a tuxedo holding a stillborn child on the bathroom floor.
I feel like a lot of people regard your work as provocative, or reduce it to that. But when you’re writing, and making this stuff, are you aiming to challenge a viewer, or does that not occur to you?
Sure, I think the challenge is there, but it’s also about what I’m used to seeing. I may be disenchanted or bitter or cynical in ways that are problematic for me as an individual, so I’m trying to resuscitate things myself. But there is this threshold with this cat and mouse game that occurs that I’m learning more about. I’m not interested in repulsion. There were moments in the reception of The Comedy where people seemed hurt and angry, and while that can be constructive, it was certainly upsetting to me. We experience these things in very safe, luxurious conditions in a larger, global sense, so it shouldn’t be damaging to us. They should be exercises.
I wonder how much of that is misinterpretation. Some people, for some reason, seemed to think The Comedy was a glorification of a lifestyle.
Well, I can see where they got that from, because I was intent on not writing myself into the movie as a moral arbiter. This is what we’re used to seeing, that the author needs to state his or her relationship to the subject matter. So it’s a slippery thing, because we read movies. People who have had exposure to art films and understand the potential of challenging cinema and what it’s doing, get it, but mainstream audiences maybe haven’t experienced anything beyond a one-dimensional morality play.
But that’s what was clever about it. It was taking a premise of something that’s so prevalent in independent film, that’s not satirical, you know, the white man gone wild in Williamsburg, and turning it on its head.
Just like with all the men in my movies so far—and I’m hoping to change this soon—there are a lot of white people. I grew up in, for lack of a better word, that cloister, of white American suburbia. There was a cultural protectionism that scarred me.
Well, there just aren’t enough creators of color. I don’t think it’s necessarily anyone’s responsibility to relay a voice because they feel obligated to.
Right, well it was important to show a New America in Entertainment. Statistically, white European America is going to be a minority in the future, and that’s really exciting to me. We sort of dealt with that in the film in his relationship with the Mexican immigrants. I felt an opportunity to show that fragile side of this person that wants to give way to something else. There’s this absolute weariness with the white American male culture that has exploited these worldviews for centuries in America. There’s an exhaustion with that, I have it, and I think we all do, except for the stubborn white American males in power. [Laughs]
It definitely comes through in your films that while you’re occasionally portraying this aggressive male behavior, you’re not applauding it or glorifying it.
You know, I hope especially in the scene with Amy Seimetz’s character, that it’s evident it’s not a promotion of his behavior, but I do feel that something like that can be, when it’s comfortable. It was a responsibility for me to not make it not at all pleasing. It’s the same thing with violence or cruelty in films, when it’s palatable in some way, it desensitizes us.
That’s why you really went for broke with that scene.
Yes. We threw in a few exclamations at the end just to really land it. I will say though that it’s exciting that so much of the movie deals with him as a sensitive character, while The Comedy was the inverse of that, with this repulsive character at the center. It’s interesting to see what that difference does to an audience.