“The Comedy” is premiering in San Francisco at the Mission’s very own Roxie theater this Friday, November 23rd, and you’re in for a treat: Tim Heidecker will be hosting a Q&A after the screenings on both Friday and Saturday. It is playing at the Roxie until the end of the month.
You probably know Tim Heidecker as one-half of the comedy duo Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Well, if you’re expecting that kind of thing with his new movie, “The Comedy“, be prepared for a lot of brutal darkness.
The film is about Swanson, an aging, Williamsburg-living, PBR-swigging hipster-type on the cusp of inheriting his wealthy father’s estate. In his boredom, disconnection with the real world, and subliminal grief, he and his buddies engage in some truly awful behavior at the expense of a world presenting him with endless options. Hmm entitled, trust-funded, society leeches hiding behind a cloud of irony? We wouldn’t know anything about that around these parts, now would we?
I recently got an opportunity to chat with writer/director Rick Alverson and actor Tim Heidecker about the film’s mixed reception, how scripted dialogue is so passé, experiencing the end of comedy (9/11-unrelated), and about PBR as a cost-cutting production technique.
Mission Mission: I understand some other SF publications declined the interview after seeing the film and that it had the most walk-outs at Sundance. Were you expecting such a polarized reaction?
Rick Alverson: I suppose we knew it was possible. It’s sort of designed in some way and we kind of embraced it. It’s a little confusing from the get-go and maybe provocative because of some of that confusion. But you know, it’s definitely uh… hell, I don’t know.
Tim Heidecker: Yeah, first of all I think the notion of “the most walk outs in Sundance” is a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t know if anyone was standing out the door with a clicker. We had tremendous screenings at Sundance and SXSW and the reaction for the film certainly isn’t unanimously positive, but amongst a certain demographic it’s very positive. It’s a film that appeals to a generation that can dial in to not only the humor that’s in the film, but the underlying subliminal quality that the film has. And frankly, there’s an older establishment out there that’s incapable of embracing some of the themes in the film. But I’ve had plenty of conversations with people that I respect and come to watching films from an open-minded place and nobody that I know has a problem with it and considers it a successful film. So if you’re somehow angered by this film or offended or anything… you’re probably gonna be a person that I don’t want to know.
MM: Yeah, I think it’s very similar to the Tim and Eric show in that there’s a sort of person that will get this and someone who would probably walk out after getting the eyeful on the opening scene. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. I think I was expecting something more Tim and Eric-y but instead I got something that was funny but also incredibly dark.
TH: Yeah, it’s dark.
MM: So are you concerned with that dismissal from that “older crowd” that you speak of?
RA: No, I think there’s a new generation of potential movie-goers that are tired of some of the hard, fast lines that have been drawn on genres and the way we watch movies. For an older generation and for some critics, they desire that things are palatable to some degree and that they are fully aware of what they’re taking in and the context is hard and fast and clearly delineated. This movie intentionally confuses some of those things and questions the way we watch movies. I hope it would raise some of those questions.
MM: I noticed that Tim has been cast the opposite way as you might expect in recent movies. Like in Bridesmaids he played the straight man without a speaking role and in this he’s cast in a more dramatic role. I was wondering if you had Tim Heidecker in mind when you wrote the character.
RA: Well when the idea was originally conceived [I didn't], but when I started thinking of the implementation of the thing and turning it into a film then I fairly quickly realized that Tim and Eric Wareheim’s work would be compatible and I was pleasantly surprised that they had in an interest in working with me.
MM: How did that introduction happen?
MM: So how much of the writing was collaborative? It definitely seemed like the scenes with Eric Wareheim and Tim had their touch.
RA: Well when we hit the production initially, there was a 20-page script without scripted dialogue. Very concrete scenes and what was to be conveyed and the text, the tone, and the narratives necessary. And then when it moved into production, it does become more collaborative. As a filmmaker, I have an interest in narrative being driven by dialogue and even in this film I’m more interested in Tim’s voice and his cadence and delivery and not what particularly is said. So I casted people that are interested in being a little more experimental with the way movies are made. It does become collaborative. Then the writing becomes extensions of the edit where things are sometimes formed and other times butchered and re-thought and re-contextualized.
MM: So I guess I wasn’t mistaken in thinking most of it was improvised.
RA: There’s no scripted dialogue, yeah.
MM: I feel like I’ve heard that “Hitler was a good public speaker” conversation during the party scene more than a few times at college parties. Were many of the scenes based on specific incidents?
RA: That scene reads in the script that there would be conversation about politics that diverges into this reckless justification of awfulness. “Feudalism” is written in there. There were touchstones, whether it was “McVeigh”, “Manson” or “Hitler”, throughout the movie that were supposed to be in a particular scene and the rest is something that comes very natural to Tim and I’ll let him talk about that.
TH: Yeah, I recall certain phrases and words being in the script, like “prolapsed anus” was something that I think was always there. So there were keywords that we knew Rick wanted to hit that would start something. But it was as simple as giving the direction to go and then letting me try to be as natural with it as possible. But letting it come through my own head.
RA: And I should mention his interaction with Alexia [Rasmussen] and her contribution to the scene. I think we shot that twice, once from each angle. So part of the reason it seems so natural is because there’s an actual exchange taking place. We don’t do rehearsals. We know what we want to achieve and it’s casted properly and people are in the right space. It has all the chemistry and potential and also uncertainty and awkwardness and potential for the failure of communication. It’s all possible there and that’s what we’re trying to capture.
MM: Rick, I recently heard you describe your experience of watching Tim and Eric Awesome Show as witnessing “the end of comedy” and I think you meant that in a good way.
RA: I did.
MM: Can you talk more about that and how it made you feel like you’d want to work with them?
RA: I mean, what they do is incredibly relevant and it’s a very modern sensibility. There’s a way of speaking and a way of addressing and flirting with discomfort and irony and sarcasm. There’s a real craft in what they do and how they approach it. Particularly their interest in awkwardness and discomfort. I appreciate that so much and I also have an interest in it.
MM: Tim, how do you feel about that characterization?
TH: That’s absurd. <laughs>
MM: I noticed that the characters themselves seem almost emotionally detatched from comedy and humor. Even when they joke around it’s really deadpan and they don’t really laugh at each other. Can you talk about their relationship to humor?
TH: Well, I think that’s certainly a style or a personality trait that we recognize in a lot of people that we know. We played it up quite a bit in the movie and made it way more aggressive and nasty, but originally the idea that Rick came to me with was about that and how guys kinda use humor to communicate and to shield themselves from revealing any kind of feeling or emotion. Also it’s recreational and time-killing. So that was on everyone’s mind as we were making it and we wanted to convey that. And again going back to that generational thing, the younger kids and people under 40 recognize that immediately when they see the movie. They relate to it and in some ways empathize with it and realize that they’re often caught in that irony trap as well, occasionally.
MM: I really enjoyed the character of… Bobby I think it was? The slower guy who’s trying to keep up with his more-funny friends. He didn’t really have a specific sense of humor but he just sorta threw stuff out into the world hoping it would hit and I thought that was really funny. Was that a written character or was that improvised?
RA: Who, [Jeffrey] Jensen? Are you talking about the mustached fella?
MM: Yeah, the mustached fella.
RA: Yeah, I think I talked to Jeff before I talked to anybody.
TH: I think Jeff’s personality is kinda close to that in the movie and we all recognized that in a group situation he’s like kinda naturally become the punch line or the punching bag and the most vulnerable one.
RA: Yeah he kinda has a talent for that, it’s sorta like a role he likes to flirt with and fuck with in conversation and characterization. So we exploited that.
MM: How did you get more unlikely actors like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy involved? He seemed very natural in the role.
RA: He was just kind enough to come on board and he gave us a couple of days of his time. He lives in the neighborhood and he’s familiar with the demographic that we were exploring from the music business. It was pretty straight forward.
MM: Tim’s character makes a lot of attempts to have some genuine experiences like connecting with the black folks in a bar, helping out some immigrant yard workers, and going to church. But they all seem to devolve into pranking. Why do you think that is? It seems like his need to be funny goes beyond just impressing his friends.
RA: For me, there are a lot of interactions that don’t necessary involve humor. They are flirtations with behavior, you know. There’s a relation to the irony and sarcasm and the humor in the thing, but a lot of the humor ends up being situational because of the audacity of this individual for pushing these lines of social acceptability. I didn’t answer your question. I can’t remember what it was.
MM: I think you answered it pretty well. (Debunked it, actually.)
RA: Oh, great. <laughs>
MM: The film felt pretty damning of the aging hipster culture and it’s screening in the Mission which is probably filled with aging hipsters. Do you think hipster-types are receptive to the film?
MM: Actually, I think I already knew the answer to that. But why do you think they are able to laugh at that sort of thing?
TH: I think that generally-speaking hipsters that I know or observe hate hipsters more than anybody. So it’s like, “at least I’m not like THAT guy.” So I don’t know, there might be the hardcore, humorless contingent of hipsters that don’t appreciate this movie but everybody that I would identify as coming from this world really loves this movie and it’s not as damning of a satire as it maybe could be in my opinion. The movie has to be set somewhere and it has to be about some kind of person, so it was convenient that this sort of demographic exists, but I don’t think it’s an indictment of that culture or style necessarily.
RA: Nor is it a celebration. It allowed us to examine a particular kind of urban white culture. And not even that particular culture, characteristics of a broader culture.
TH: And in some cases we’ve gotten people saying to us, “you know that movie really hit home and I felt like it created some self-examination within me and it made think about the way I’m leading my life.” So it’s become almost an inspirational movie for some people in a way that it allows some self-analysis to occur.
MM: I also noticed that PBR was featured prominently throughout the film. Did you guys work out an endorsement deal there?
RA: PBR, is like, you know you’ll see it in a lot of lower-budget pictures because they seem like they’re cool about having their product in things. It’s more of a producer-ial thing, you know what I mean? There was a lot of drinking that was scripted and necessary in the movie so they need to be drinking something that you can afford. And also, PBR is a beer that the demographic that we’re utilizing drinks.
MM: Was drinking part of the acting formula? Did we see some genuine moments of inebriation?
RA: I encourage people to drink if they drink and the scene calls for it. I think that the fabrication of that thing is silly. Particularly if you work like Tim and I do and have. It’s all done utilizing what’s available to us, whether that’s environment or the shortest route between two distances, I don’t think it’s just convenient but it’s a way of working and a sort common-sense approach to it.
MM: I was wondering if there was any significance the plastic shopping bag that Tim’s character is always carrying around.
RA: <laughs> Oh that was the bane of our existence, the most difficult part of the production wasn’t it Tim?
TH: Yeah, it was a continuity nightmare.
RA: It was in more scenes. If there’s one thing that I regret, it’s that plastic bag disappears on like three occasions. But thanks for reminding us, we’ll talk to the art department at the premiere tonight.
TH: Yeah, but they did a pretty good job. It was hard. It was a lot of people’s first movie. You know, a little bit of a tangent here, but one of the incredible things about the movie to me is how professional the whole movie looks and feels and there’s a consistency throughout in the camera work and the costumes and everything. It’s amazing that a movie with such a small budget shot in such a small amount of time can look like it came out of any studio, in my opinion. People are mischaracterizing this film as being like “mumblecore” or “low-fi”. It doesn’t feel that way to me at all. It feels very clean and crisp and well made and well produced. That’s just my opinion, though.
MM: So what was in the bag?
RA: There was a cup. And there was a book. Wasn’t it a copy of “The Sorrows of Young Werther”?
TH: Yeah the idea was this guy is kinda a minimalist and he lives on a boat and probably ends up sleeping over at a friends house on some nights. He’s kind of a troubadour. He doesn’t have much to call his own so that bag does just fine to carry the essentials.
RA: Yeah and it sorta contradicts some of the emphasis on hipsterism. It’s patently obvious that he doesn’t give a shit about the how he dresses or the way he looks. He almost luxuriates and embraces a slovenly sort of…
TH: Yeah, he’s like two steps removed from having a bindle over his shoulder. <laughs>
MM: Well being from the Mission I just always thought it was a burrito in there.
RA: <laughs> Oh that would have been nice.
MM: Well that was fun, do you guys wanna talk about anything else?
Thanks to Mike Keegan from the Roxie for setting this interview up!