Rick Alverson had been making fantastic films before 2012, but this year thrust him into the conversation with the odd, discomforting “The Comedy.” Starring Tim Heidecker of 'Tim & Eric' (and featuring a whole slew of other interesting people, including James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem) as Swanson, an eternal Brooklynite and juvenile faced with the imminent death of his father. Though a large amount of responsibility (and inheritance) are coming his way, he’d rather spend his time shooting the shit with friends or provoking total strangers with his own brand of confrontational humor. Alverson’s movie assays the numbness that comes with comfort and questions the very nature of comedy; it is both a funny and perturbing portrait of a man who just doesn’t know when to quit (or, even sadder, of a man who quit long ago).
“The Comedy” is now available on VOD and hit New York City theaters on Friday (our review here), and in support of its release both Rick and Tim sat with us to discuss a myriad of topics, including its reception at the Sundance Film Festival, expectations that movie audiences have, and what they’re up to next.
The Playlist: What made you two want to work with one another?
Rick Alverson: I was talking with Will Oldham, who was a mutual friend of ours, and he hooked me up with Tim. I knew I wanted him and Eric involved and it sort of evolved from there. I think I saw [the short film] "The Terrys" and I realized there was really something demonic in Tim that was accessible [laughs]. And seeing his stand-up on YouTube and just realizing that there was something that was really compatible with the character. We all have a similar interest in discomfort. We're also all from Pennsylvania, so… [laughs]
Tim, what made you want to work with Rick? Had you seen his earlier films?
Tim Heidecker: What really made me interested were the conversations we had. I liked his point of view and it was an interesting idea. My reaction to doing anything is kind of like, "Yeah! Sure!" But then I saw "New Jerusalem," and it was really great. It was a movie he had shot, it looked beautiful, I liked the performances, it was a very interesting movie, so I felt comfortable.
When the film premiered at Sundance there were some angry responses. How have the festivals been post-Park City?
Alverson:I think the festival reception has been very much calmer, I suppose. The Sundance thing was a little overplayed. If you round those people up in a room it's probably like 50 out of probably 3000 people that saw it that weekend. But at the same time, you're a little fragile about your movie at first. To have people attack you and insist that you defend what you've done as some kind of social infraction against the world… it's a little startling.
Heidecker: If they had shown "Flight" at Sundance, I would've expected there to be 100-200 walkouts. I just think it's funny that this movie gets this reputation. They expect us to apologize for it or something. But this is the movie we made, this is the way we see the world, and we're pleased with it.
Alverson: There has been a reception in the blogosphere that is similar to that dynamic in Sundance, they list a litany of issues with characters or scenes, and then there's some kind of summation that that equals a bad film, which is the most juvenile thing I've ever heard.
People constantly harp on what films should or shouldn't do, when in fact people should take them on their own terms. Or at least try. Many don't do that.
Alverson: It is about terms. We're conditioned in America, in a mainstream sense, for everything to be on our terms. It's our point of view, in a partisan sense with our television, our news… everything we do, digitally, is on our terms. Art offers a very different thing. Maybe there isn't a tolerance for it anymore, I don't know.
Heidecker: I felt that it was a very well crafted film in the sense that I did feel there was an arc. I felt like I've been taken on a journey, that things do happen in the movie. I keep hearing about all of these things that the movie that "doesn’t have," well, I felt them when I watched it. They weren't this big obvious handed-to-you-on-a-silver-platter, but they were there.
Alverson: It's really bizarre that people wouldn't say,"'maybe this is intentional." Like we just failed because Tim couldn't emote enough, because I couldn't get an emotion out of him and he didn't have one to give. It wasn't something intentional about the subtlety, about tamping it down or being interested in muddy spaces.
Heidecker: There's also a distinction between a family member’s reaction to it and then somebody who defines who they are by writing about film that doesn't have the ability to see outside the box. I can understand my grandmother just not liking it, and that's it. But for someone who watches movies for a living and is interested in cinema and understands the history of the art, they should try to understand where it's coming from. They don’t have to like it, but at least try.
You’ve spoken about Tim’s character having unlimited options, which essentially makes him retreat to and stay in comfort zones, with no desire to really grow or mature. Why do you think our "unlimited options" cause this?
Alverson: Not to sound too lofty, but I think it takes place progressively in the middle class with unlimited access to information, and we flatline very easily as animals. I think we're a little arrogant and a little out of touch with our capacity to just become inert, potentially destructive creatures.
Heidecker: There's a disconnection from survival. The luxury that we have is that we don't have to worry about very much.
Alverson: Even with someone's desire for entertainment or their desire for stimulation… This isn't supposed to be an exploration of the richest 1% or the hipster elite. It has the potential for us to think about our larger culture. I'm not saying all of these options and what we have is bad, but it's fascinating, culturally, in our part of the world how we can pacify ourselves through unlimited access to stimuli and information. It changes us.
One of the things that really surprised me was the fact that Swanson never gets his "comeuppance" — I can think of a few occasions where I assumed he was going to be scolded or beat down, especially in the bar scene. [Heidecker’s character enters a bar filled with African-Americans and pushes racial buttons]
Alverson: The stereotype in American cinema is that an individual walks into a bar that's outside of their racial comfort range, and they get into trouble. There's a comeuppance. I've heard this thing, that it was "unrealistic" that he didn't get beaten in that bar. Why would these guys want to beat some jackass who is just running his mouth? If anything he's more entertainment value for people just having a drink. He was absolutely not going to get beat up in the bar. The idea was that he danced the line, there was flirtation with that.
Heidecker: He's too much of a coward to pass that line. Like the scene with the cab, he runs away like a big baby.
Alverson: I think a lot of potential sympathy, or access to this individual, is through his creativity. There isn't just numbness, there is active, physical, and emotional intercourse with the world, a desire to flirt with it. He desires to stimulate it and himself. And I think if there was some moment of reckoning, it'd let us all of the hook. We wouldn't leave the theater and feel uncomfortable or have issues with the film, and therefore, we wouldn't have any issues with ourselves. We love that as American audiences that are affirmed and placated and validated, all of our experiences, seeing on our own terms, we love seeing someone evil getting their due. We feel confirmed. We leave and we're unmoved.
I also took him not being berated as people not thinking he was worth their time or energy. That’s incredibly sad.
Alverson: There’s that too. But for me there's also this quiet thing about the movie, about the passivity of everyone around him. We look at him and say this guy is an asshole, it'd be such an urgent responsibility to comment on his despicable nature, but we don't condemn anybody in the film for not having commented on it. It's a bit weird, right? [laughs] So there's a larger part of inert numbness in the movie that extends well beyond him, it extends to everybody in the film.
Tim, you put a lot of yourself in the role. Was that uncomfortable?
Heidecker: There's a point in the film [where] me and the character kind of separate, in regards to the level of inappropriateness and sort of confrontation he indulges in. It wouldn't be something I'd do. I didn't want to act like someone I wasn't. I wanted to be open to take a backstory and the circumstances and behave naturally in those situations. I wasn't going to put on a voice. I changed the way I dressed, some cosmetic things, but that’s it.
Alverson: I have a tremendous amount of respect for that. I can't do what I am trying to do if somebody isn't willing to put themselves on the line like that. You understand the process, that it is fictionalized.
Heidecker: I also enjoy it. It's what I always wanted to do with my life. To act, to make stuff, to be creative and generate films and television. I have no problems just being in front of people doing embarrassing shit, because who cares? I just don't have that in me. We realized there wasn't going to be a lot of value in building this persona that was completely artificial, so if I'm telling a joke or doing the Nick Nolte impression in the movie, that's something I might do in real life. But Rick's there pushing me, saying 'be darker.' There's guidance and direction and limits, but I think a smart actor should always be playing themselves.
Will you guys be working together again?
Alverson: We want to do a movie called “Entertainment,” which is about comedian Neil Hamburger in the Mojave Desert.
Heidecker: It's partly about what people expect out of entertainment and what it's like to be out there on the road, so it's kind of a road movie. And it's about entertainers who reach a level that isn't what they imagined success would be, and living within the boundaries of compromised failure.
Alverson: For me, there's an extension of this exploration of American utopianism… California City is a very bankrupt, bleak version of what was imagined as a new Las Vegas. Tim has a part, he's producing, and he co-wrote.
And Rick, what about "Clement," your next project?
Alverson: The cast is coming together. I have some people that I am thrilled to have on board, and others we're talking to now. It's difficult, it's slightly bigger budget than other things I've worked on, so because of that it's a bit more troublesome. Colm O'Leary (“The Builder” and “New Jerusalem,” Alverson’s previous films) is in it, my longtime writing partner and collaborator, he’s making a return to my movies as an evangelical Irish preacher. It's also based on a story he wrote and we wrote the script. It's not the geographic genesis of the KKK, but it's more about that moment, that larger kind of moment of the birth of that particular kind of intimidation. It has to do with the breakdown of the America that was constructed on slave labor.