Rick Alverson's not-comedy, The Comedy, is currently one of my favorite films of the year. It haunts me. It is, and I quote myself, "hilarious, transgressive, brilliant, and most people will find it unwatchable." But that doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a shot.
For the unaware, it is a character study about an aging hipster douche named Swanson, played with unnerving commitment by comedian Tim Heidecker. I am a fan of Heidecker's work, and let me assure you-- The Comedy is some of his best. So I made a quick foray to the reRun theater in Brooklyn to meet the man and his director for a chat.
I'm led up a dark stairwell with the other writers, like cattle. The killing floor is an open office space with numerous desks and chairs. I'm chosen to go first, which makes me the Judas cow. The others are taken to a far corner of the room to give the illusion of privacy, to prevent them from hearing what's next. Rick and Tim take a seat on a pleather couch as I pull up a matching chair. This, all under the watchful eye of Roger Ebert (who gave Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie a 1/2 star rating; I don't think he's reviewed The Comedy yet, but something tells me he's not going to like it). Tim demands that the framed photo be covered, which someone actually attempts. After a quick exchange about Todd Haynes' Safe, a poster of which is also on the wall, the interview begins.
ScreenAnarchy: Thanks for taking the time to sit with me, guys. My name's Josh, I write for ScreenAnarchy.com...
Tim Heidecker: What does that mean, ScreenAnarchy?
I... don't know. I probably should.
TH: It's a film blog?
Yeah. We cover a lot of international and independent. But basically everything.
Rick Alverson: I remember you guys being kind to us during Sundance.
RA: No? You don't think so?
I should know this, too.
RA: I think we premiered some exclusive something on there. [He's right. HERE and HERE.]
I reviewed the film on the site not too long ago [HERE], and I was very kind to it because I liked it a lot.
TH: Cool. Thank you.
RA: Alright, then we'll do the interview.
TH: Yeah, we're only taking those types of interviews at this point.
[Laughs all around]
The film recently opened in LA and New York, and it's available on demand. How's the reception been so far, and how has it compared to the reception on the festival circuit?
RA: It's difficult to tell what is press, what is critical and what isn't anymore. It seems like everybody, for better or worse, has a voice. There are some similarities to all that chaos- well, not all that chaos-- but there was a dynamic at Sundance that we experienced... I think that's kind of back in a way, isn't it?
RA: It's a love it or hate it sort of thing.
TH: Well, I think it's a case of-- no offense-- but journalists in general have to find an angle on everything, and the angle on this film seems to be that it's a "controversial" film that people are offended by.
RA: So then you're seeing a lot of people sort of riffing off of other people and getting pissed off at the idea of the audacity of it...
TH: Like we're trying to prove something.
RA: Right. And it leaves the whole realm of dealing with the formal aspects of the film.
TH: It's mischaracterized.
RA: I mean, not entirely. There have been very good, intelligent reviews.
TH: Yeah. We went to South by Southwest with it and were met with nothing but nice things, from what I can remember, as far as the audience reaction. Certain reviews as well. The reaction from my audience has been overwhelmingly positive. People are excited about it without being judgmental about it.
Quotes from the negative reviews were used in the trailer. Do you look at that stuff as a selling point?
TH: I think that was a joke.
RA: The funny thing about it is, the majority of the negative reviews aren't even criticism.
TH: One woman from the Huffington Post, in the midst of her review, admits that she left halfway through...
RA: ...and wrote that maybe it was brilliant...
TH: ...and she's writing the review on her way out the door, literally, into her phone.
RA: She had this conflicted emotional state.
TH: We're generally not going to have a lot of respect for people like that, or their opinions. I'll laugh at them and call them fools, and use it in the trailer.
It definitely seems like a film where you'd be more concerned with the audience reaction as opposed to the critical reaction. How has the reception been in the "hipster" community?
RA: I wouldn't know anything about that, really.
TH: I imagine that they love it.
I saw the film at BAMcinemaFest earlier this year, and the crowd was full of people who I thought could easily be in the film, and they were eating it up.
RA: It's a bit rewarding to have people who are of a certain generation go into the film and be moved by it or feel conflicted, because it speaks to them about their generation. That's really pleasing and touching for us.
TH: I've had a lot of people write me and say, if anything, it made me examine the way we talk, the way we communicate. Which was one of the things that Rick had in mind.
RA: But I think they also appreciate that it's not some sort of blanket condemnation. It isn't some preachy, pulpit grandstanding where we're like, you're all a bunch of shallow assholes. That's not the responsibility of the film. It's just an examination of a particular modern engagement of the world.
TH: It's not a strict satire.
Should we be afraid of people who identify with Swanson?
TH: There are certainly people who find the movie a lot funnier than it's intended to be.
Are those people missing the point?
RA: I think that maybe it's also keeping them up at night, so I think we're safe there, right?
TH: Well, I'm not afraid of anything, so... [both laugh]
Tell me a little bit about how the project came about. What kind of script was there? It seems like there was a lot of improv.
RA: The scripts for all three of my movies were around something like twenty pages. There's no scripted dialog. Who you cast becomes very important. You try to utilize people's native way of speaking and their voices, and have them contribute some of their character-- their actual character-- to the film, and then we contextualize that. Tim and Eric and Greg and James and Jeff and so many people came on board with a lot of generosity and a lot of trust, which I'm really grateful for, and understood that it was, to some degree, an experiment for them. It was an experiment with a kind of naturalism, as well as a fictionalizing of certain behaviors.
We have a way of making movies, or whatever it is that we do, that is kind of immediate. The film was very low budget, so I think what is accessible to us, as opposed to it being something we have to tolerate, I think we embraced it. Not only is it incredibly useful, it is a more practical and efficient and meaningful way of working.
When did you decide you wanted Tim for the role, as opposed to, say... Ryan Gosling?
RA: Well, Ryan said he couldn't do it, so...
Tim was your second choice?
RA: We had a mutual friend who put us in touch.
You know, I wonder if it would be more convenient to script dialog, because, to some degree, leaving it open, it's the most exciting thing to me, but it's dangerous because you're in a chaotic state. The thing changes, and it can be troubling to a production. These guys came on board and the thing started to reframe itself. We all talked about how it could be challenging and worrisome and confusing for an audience, but then we all realized that was a positive attribute.
Tim, how did you approach the role? Was it from a dramatic angle, a comedic one...
TH: I don't see things through that lens. We talked about some broad stroke things in terms of... there was a story and there was an agreement on what type of guy this was. Certain biographical things. The way he dressed, the way he looked. Then it was like, let's not pile anything more on... huh, moron... let's just let me be me and we'll place it in a different context. Because that's going to be the most genuine representation of the character. Let me be me, but turn off all the governors and regulators, and turn up the asshole quotient. Stop worrying about what people think and say whatever you want, be provocative. That's what drove us. And to play it real, play it straight. I think even in comedy, that's important to do. It's important to commit to an idea, commit to a character. The more real it is, the more whole it is, and the funnier it's going to be. The more whole [The Comedy] is, the more impactful and dramatic it's going to be.
RA: It's how it's framed.
Do you see this as a branching out for you?
TH: It certainly is a branching out. It's different from anything I've ever done. And I think it demonstrates a different skill that I have. Some people knew that already; Rick could see that from my comedy. He clearly saw a capability for dramatic work. He saw something in the way I did my standup, in whatever else I was doing, that there was a commitment there.
So are you the next Tom Hanks? Billion Dollar Movie is your Bachelor Party and The Comedy is your Philadelphia?
RA: This interview is over!
Some reviewers found Swanson one dimensional. They didn't see anything under the surface and they saw that as a weakness in the film. Is there more to him than just provocation?
RA: Those people aren't really watching. They're looking for the film to be on their terms, because they are used to and have been conditioned to film as entertainment. When something doesn't play by their rules, they want to be done with it and say, this is what this is. Because there's all kinds of details and dynamics in there. It's not one dimensional. There's a lot going on in the character. The problem is that it's subtle. Unfortunately there's a certain contingent of American audiences that have no tolerance for that whatsoever.
TH: Some woman who was at one of the Q&As who obviously didn't like the movie was like, this movie is about absolutely nothing.
RA: You can't really have a conversation with people like that.
Did you give Swanson an interior? Is there a human under there crying out for help or is he just a complete sociopath?
TH: That's such a hypothetical question. That's for the audience to interpret. It wasn't something that we talked about too much. We were playing him as a human being, and it was a very small period in the life of that character, so it wasn't meant to be a This Is Your Life kind of film. I think the evidence suggests that he has some serious problems.
RA: It's patently obvious that he's a human being, it's just that he isn't a human being whose presentation we normally imbibe in movies. That human being often has too much dynamic. That human being explores too wide a range of emotions, too profound an array of feelings.
TH: The one famous scene... well, in our world the famous scene... of the seizure is probably the only scene where you say, okay, what's Rick trying to say here? Is this character truly soulless? Is this a moment of sociopathic behavior? Because it certainly seems to be. Then again, he was smoking a bowl 2 minutes ago, so I don't know. The intention there isn't necessarily to suggest he's a sociopath, but the audience could very easily interpret it that way.
Up until that scene, I was laughing at everything, even some of the harsher stuff, but when that scene hit... that was a sobering scene for me.
RA: That's good, especially for someone who can comprehend or share the humor of these people. I would hope that the film works for people who read it entirely serious, not laugh at a single joke. I hope they walk out of the movie theater with a difficult but useful experience. It's ambitious, but I think we sort of meant it to operate on both levels.
In regards to Swanson's humanity, which you only get a little glimpse of in the movie, do you feel that if you humanized him more it would have robbed the film of its bite?
RA: Yeah. It would have been easy, too. There were so many places he could have been more humanized.
It's very easy for people to say, I know what this is. I read some takes on the film where people have said, in the first two minutes, I get it. This idea of "getting it" is very popular, and sort of troublesome, because this isn't a checklist. Engaging any kind of art, whether it's painting or film, it isn't this compartmentalized experience. There's this temporal thing with movies, where you don't get it unless you watch the whole film, and you probably won't get it for weeks afterward, hopefully. That's part of our intention. It should be ambiguous enough and resonant enough that it keeps changing. Then it's useful.
For me, in the final scene with the boy on the beach, Swanson is engaging in what could be considered normal human behavior, and that behavior could be interpreted as having emotional dimension if Swanson wasn't so robotic about it. Was that always the intended last scene in the film?
RA: No, we shot others. We shot an entire end sequence with a lot of production value and drama.
Is it going to be on the DVD?
RA: No, it's not going to be on the DVD. I'll just say that there were scenes that were shot which showed a kind of...
RA: ...a reckoning... with the world. Where Swanson was dealt a blow, got his due.
TH: It was probably too on the nose.
RA: It was just completely useless. There was no contribution. You might as well be making an episode of CSI. Honestly. Those things were conceptual and they were in the script, but the film was open enough to be rewritten during the edit. Things were moved around and we realized that [the beach] was the right ending. That was taken from a different place in the script.
I was going to ask how much the editing shaped the final product.
RA: A lot.
TH: About 75%?
RA: We went through a lot of cuts.
So when you filmed the beach scene, you weren't in the headspace that that was the final scene in the movie?
TH: If I recall, it was certainly one of the last scenes in the movie as written.
RA: Yeah, it was leading up to a moment.
TH: It's totally manipulated in the edit, because there was more that we shot for that beach scene that went in a darker direction, but that's how film works. It's about the end product. It's about the manipulation of the music and the sequence of events. I mean, the seizure scene's a great example of that, because what's striking and uncomfortable about that scene is the way it is cut, not necessarily [Swanson's] reaction. It's like Hitchcock; it almost becomes a thriller for a minute. It's tense because of the way it cuts between the two characters. Films are made in the editing room.
RA: I think that it's more advantageous and maybe more responsible to listen to the thing and put your ego in check a little bit and say, we have certain elements here. What can be reaped from the material as opposed to what do I want out of the material? What does the material have to offer? And then the thing changes; things reconcile.
TH: I was at a Q&A and we were talking about the editing-- the scenes that were cut, the ending. A lot of bad movies, I think one of the things responsible for them being bad is the director and writer being too precious about their own ideas; not being able to realize something isn't working. Saying, that's the way it's written. These are our ideas, we have to stick to them.
RA: That goes for production, too. People walk into a room, there's a certain chemistry there, and they demand it be what they imagined, instead of saying, okay, what raw materials do we have to use at any given moment? And I think that comes back to what I was saying about the way you guys [Tim and Eric] worked early on and where I've come from, a very guerrilla sort of thing where we had to deal with the limitations of the world around us. There's a certain amount of listening that goes on.
What's next? Rick, is it true you're making a film about the KKK?
RA: Yes. It takes place during reconstruction; it's about the early freeman community and the genesis of an early Klan splinter group. It's an anti-epic cruelty tale.
So, another comedy?
[Tim laughs. Rick does not.]
The Comedy is currently playing in New York and LA and is available on demand. It will be expanding theatrically in the coming months. More info from Tribeca Film.