Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “C.O.G.” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, officially giving it the distinction of being the first cinematic adaptation of a work by beloved essayist and humorist David Sedaris.
Based on an essay from Sedaris’s 1997 collection “Naked,” both the literary and cinematic versions of “C.O.G.” detail the experience Sedaris himself (played by the wonderful Jonathan Groff in the film) had when he travelled to rural Oregon to work as an apple picker. Through encounters with a glorious variety of locals, the twentysomething Sedaris came to considerable revelations about his religion (“C.O.G.” stands “Child of God,” an acronym that one of those said locals proudly self-identifies with) and sexuality. Expanding on those two themes, Alvarez admirably manages to both do justice to Sedaris’ unique voice and sense of humor while giving it a stamp of his own.
Sedaris — in attendance at the screening — was clearly quite pleased with Alvarez’s adaptation. Seeing it for the first time, he spoke proudly of what Alvarez had accomplished during the Q&A, while also inserting his trademark self-deprecation into the conversation.
“It was such an odd experience to sit in the audience and watch,” Sedaris said at the Q&A. “Because I had not seen it before. It was odd to watch something you wrote but especially something you wrote with you in it… It was painful to be reminded of how pretentious and horrible I was.”
After the screening, Sedaris sat down with Indiewire fittingly amidst the thousands of books in the basement of the Park City Library, the theater of which had been the site of the film’s premiere.
“I find a lot of times students will make movies out of things I’ve written and for some reason in film class they say, ‘Make the movie and then ask for permission,’ he said. “So people would write to me and say, ‘Oh, I made this movie based on something you wrote, and I need your permission to have it in a festival or something.’ And every one of them was the same. It was like laughlines of a story colored in. You know what I mean? And I would start watching it and I would think ‘oh my god, I wrote that.’ I couldn’t get beyond even my work. They were awful experiences.”
So what made him change his tune with Alvarez?
“I liked [his first film] ‘Easier With Practice’ and I liked how enthusiastic he was,” he said. “He seemed like the real thing to me. He seemed like an artist to me. And I think his youth had a lot to do with it… I’m 56. And Kyle is not even 30 yet. If somebody’s young and enthusiastic and talented, it seems like you should give them that and let them run with it.”
Another important aspect for Sedaris was that unlike most of his essays, “C.O.G.” doesn’t include his family members as characters.
“It’s one thing for me to be portrayed in a movie, or for me to be an unsympathetic character in a movie,” he said. “But it’s another thing for, say, my sister Lisa. She didn’t necessarily sign up for that. That was the key, really. That it didn’t involve them. Because I don’t care how Kyle portrays me. But I would care how he portrayed my sister Lisa”
“C.O.G.” indeed portrayed a version of Sedaris, and as he had briefly alluded in the Q&A, it was a cringe-inducing trip down memory lane for him.
“I cringe, but I can’t deny it,” Sedaris smiled. “I can’t deny that I had to act like I was smarter than everyone else. It was embarrassing. I cringe. And all I can say is ‘well, I was 20.’ But I mean, it’s still 20… It’s not like I’m saying ‘well, I was 7.'”
But Alvarez never intended to actually seek out a performance from Jonathan Groff that actively tried to portray Sedaris, nor did Sedaris expect that.
“I told myself that I didn’t expect Jonathan to be me. And I didn’t expect to go and see and the movie and say ‘that’s not what my trailer looked like.’ Because I didn’t sit down with Kyle and say ‘this is what it looks like.’ I let him imagine it.”
That scenario clearly worked out for Sedaris (and Alvarez, who rightfully beamed at Sedaris’s approval), who said it set a template for any potential adaptations of his work.
“If anybody else ever makes a movie based on something I wrote, I feel like I have my model of a relationship that I would want,” he said. “You know, you meet somebody and you like them and you have faith in them and you think, ‘Oh great I’d love to see that.'”
For now, Sedaris just seemed to love stepping outside of his world, and into Alvarez’s.
“It was fun going to that party today,” he said of a cocktail that was held previous to the premiere. “Because I don’t care if I ever see any of those people again. I don’t hope that I get a meeting with somebody. It’s not my world.”