It's a sticky Texas afternoon, unpleasantly characteristic for the last weekend in June. I'm liberally drinking Lone Star beers on a van trip from Austin to the Guadalupe River Canoe Livery in Spring Branch, watching the color drain out of Frank Hvam's face as he momentarily but truly convinces himself that an ugly regional critter — possibly alligator-like, or insectoid, or some sinister hybrid of the two that lays eggs — will soon try to crawl into his warm urethra.
A mild-mannered, 42-year-old comedian from Denmark, Hvam is visiting the Yeeha State for the first time ever to promote his irreverent feature-length comedy "Klown," which he co-wrote and stars in as a nervous beanpole named "Frank," a sort of buffoonish self-caricature. Next to him in the back seat of the van is his producer Louise Vesth, part of the Zentropa team behind "Melancholia" and the upcoming "Nymphomaniac" for Lars von Trier. (The bad-boy auteur himself is an avowed "Klown" fan; he wrote one episode of the TV sitcom that the film is loosely inspired by and named for, which can be freely downloaded here.)
Two rows up sits a blonde, more rugged man named Casper Christensen (43, tattooed, cowboy hat, indistinguishable from the locals except his drawl is Scandinavian), Hvam's onscreen and writing partner-in-crime who also acts a bit like "Casper," Frank's party-animal pal with a cockeyed moral compass. Hvam seems politely fascinated by a conversation two journalists are having about past drug experiences that he's only vicariously having now, while Christensen blows my mind over there being no Danish equivalent for the word "motherfucker."
When they're together, Hvam and Christensen bromantically bicker and make each other laugh, calling their 14-year creative relationship (including 60 episodes of the "Klown" sitcom) the longest marriage either of them have had. "Casper was a great star when I started doing stand-up," recalls Hvam. "He had a sketch comedy show, which he invited me to join. As a young comedian, I said 'Yes, thank you, Mr. Christensen.'" Prior to that collaboration, however, a little bird tells me that Hvam had a bit in his routine that unkindly mocked Christensen, whose career had sidetracked into game show hosting. "When you're young, you're looking at the established guys at the top, and you feel like kicking up," says Hvam.
Christensen takes over: "I started stand-up comedy in Denmark. There was none. I worked so hard. Seven years on the road, no money, trying to make it work and get people to understand this is a new thing. Then along comes this idiot, just when the whole thing is set up. He enters the stage, and starts telling people how stupid I am."
"Wasting his talent," Hvam butts in. "You have 60 good years in you, maybe only 50, and then 'Deal or No Deal'…"
"That's not the show," Christensen argues. "He was making fun of a friend who really tried to work for him. Then I tried to get him kicked out of the agency. It didn't work. I had to do something different, so I hired him instead."
"Klown" hits U.S. theaters on July 27, a limited release compared to the roughly one in five Danes who has seen it in its country of origin as "Klovn: The Movie." In this socially awkward farce, directed by Mikkel Nørgaard with the handheld-camera naturalism of a Dogme drama, Frank discovers he's the last to know his girlfriend is pregnant, and is determined to get back in her good graces and prove his fatherhood potential. Casper has invited him on a canoeing expedition that will peak at a wealthy friend's exclusive one-night-a-year brothel, prompting Frank to unwisely abduct and bring along his tween nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) for what Casper dubs the "Tour de Pussy." Everyone in the van, including journalists from across the country, prefers to randomly yell out in the performers' native tongue: "Tour de Fisse!"
This isn't exactly a press junket, and I'm not saying that to justify the van's pit stop to pick up Four Loko and more beer. Austin-based distributor Drafthouse Films, a natural evolution of the celebrated Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and CEO Tim League's saucy brand of showmanship, is introducing the film to 130 or so ticketed participants as part of their open-air Rolling Roadshow series. Everyone seeing the movie tonight must arrive at the massive inflatable movie screen the same appropriate way: by canoe, in pairs.
Next: "I peek back at Hvam, familiarly soaked, and realize I'm unofficially the co-star of 'Klown 2.'"
While initially convinced Christensen's wild side would make for a more colorful rowing partner since I owe my editor equally colorful copy, I've developed a fine rapport with Hvam and ask if he'll make the hour-and-a-half trek with me. Besides, Christensen is the one who apparently nearly drowned from a canoeing mishap during the production, so Hvam is clearly the pro and a safer choice. Not that I'm worried, having brazenly packed only a single pair of jeans and pocketed my iPhone for the mild ride. But Christensen seems happier anyway, as he's been teamed up with — as if tailor-made for his pussyhound character — a cute fashion reporter from W Magazine. (Most common reaction to her inexplicable editorial assignment: "Did you say W or EW?")
Hvam and I are literally the last duo to don life preservers and push off shore, armed with a twelve-pack of Tecate. It's already the foreboding start of a comic misadventure. A tiny, waterproof, stop-motion camera has been affixed to the inside of the bow where I'm sitting, but the suction cup can't handle the weight and I give up trying to reattach it four minutes downstream. I'm embarrassed to keep repeating the phrase "off the record," so I'll only say Hvam and I connect over our cultural differences — where we're from, what we're about, how we live — before delving deep into family and parenthood.
I'm not a father but both he and Christensen are, which prompted the film's storyline before they started writing any jokes or improvising dialogue. Sometimes we share our leisurely outing through this postcard-perfect corridor of greenery in silence, though the Guadalupe River is annoyingly shallow and the current sluggish since there ain't much rain deep in the heart of you-know-where. Botched maneuvering or maybe miscommunication gets us stuck in rocky patches more than once, and we soon develop an expertly synchronized dual-scoot to clear us when we run aground.
Suddenly! — and I use that word generously since the only suddenness here is my relaxation — we spy a capsized crew about 50 yards ahead. Two Austin photographers have curiously misjudged the most petite of waterfalls and toppled into the river, their canoe now caught in the undertow and overturned lengthwise across the narrow passageway. There's nowhere else for us to go but over the shipwreck, so we brace ourselves for the ramp-like launch. However, we're not even at a fraction of ramming speed, so in cartoonish slow-motion, we go up, up and twist left into the drink ourselves.
I'm not even thinking about the camera, my clothes or my waterlogged phone because I haven't yet cracked my second Tecate and I'm pissed that the rest is now floating away. I peek back at Hvam, familiarly soaked, and realize I'm unofficially the co-star of "Klown 2." Nearby, a perky brunette jumps out of her ride to our aid, helping us get our canoe emptied and back in flotation mode. She splits her toenail open in the process, which I only learn a mile downriver when I see her boyfriend doing all the paddling, her foot propped up and bloodied.
The rest of our journey is thankfully uneventful, until the half-mile home stretch when Hvam notices the screening is about to start soon. I ask if he's scheduled to introduce the show but he's not quite sure, so we make triathlete-like power strokes, which I'm pretty sure is putting permanent strain on my untrained muscles. [UPDATE: Weeks later, coincidentally, my arm still doesn't bend correctly. My Olympic days are over.] I'm determined to get the guest of honor ashore in time, and I'm so distracted after bullying our way to the front of the disembarkment queue that a livery employee has to ask if we left something behind. Sheepishly, I retrace my steps and pull my iPhone out of a standing puddle in the canoe.
The following morning, I meet up with Frank and Casper at The Highball — a staple of the Alamo Drafthouse empire that includes a bar, restaurant, vintage bowling alley, event space and private karaoke rooms. Frank grabs my thighs to see if they're still wet from the day before, and Casper hugs me; I feel initiated, but into what? We go straight into Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes breaking up (Christensen: "We were in shock, man. I think we're going to stay in the country to try to figure out how to deal with this thing." Hvam: "Is it because he's homosexual?"), and both agree that Cruise would be perfect to play Casper's role in the unnecessary Hollywood remake of "Klown," currently underway with "The Hangover" director Todd Phillips and Danny McBride attached.
We talk about yesterday's excursion, and try to figure out how a skilled canoeist like Hvam could've made the wrong kind of splash. "You say you're a pro until you're not anymore, or it's proved that you're not," Hvam reasons. "We were until tipping over that stupid canoe. From then on, I was an amateur."
"It was a perfect 'Klown' situation," Christensten permits. "Frank is getting into a canoe with another man and tipping over. I'm with this beautiful young Asian reporting girl, flirting the whole way downstream. I didn't know if it was an interview or speed dating. I was on her, man."
"On the other hand, I got a friend," says Hvam. "I'm going to visit Aaron in New York."
Christensen smirks: "And I got a phone number. I don't know who's winning here."
Watch the trailer for "Klown" here:
Watch footage from the canoe expedition here: