Some audiences know Kevin Pollak best as the actor from hit drams such as “A Few Good Man,” “The Usual Suspects” and “Casino,” while others remember the stand-up comedian and master impressionist who rose to fame on the 1980’s comedy circuit. Regardless of how you see him, the 57-year-old actor is redefining his career once more by stepping into the director’s chair for the very first time.
In his debut documentary “Misery Loves Comedy,” Pollak interviews some of the biggest names in comedy, including Jimmy Fallon, Amy Schumer, Larry David, Steve Coogan and Judd Apatow, in order to understand the relationship between a comedian and his/her deep desire to connect with audiences. During one of Apple and Indiewire’s Tribeca Talks at the Apple Store in Soho, Manhattan, Pollack joined Indiewire’s Nigel M. Smith to discuss the making of the film and his prolific career. Watch the entire discussion above and check out highlights from the conversation below:
Credit Jimmy Fallon for the film’s success.
Pollak appeared truly surprised by the film’s success with audiences and on the iTunes chart, where it claimed the #1 spot for documentaries shortly after being made available. “We climbed to #1 on documentaries and we’re rising up the independent charts. It’s shocking to be honest. I’m not trying to act like it isn’t. There’s so much content it’s unbelievable. To make any kind of dent and to land with anything but a thud feels incredible honestly.” But the real reason for success: “It didn’t hurt when Jimmy Fallon re-tweeted it to his 24 million followers. That didn’t hurt a damn thing. It was the only reason we put him in the movie. ‘The Tonight Show’ is great, but it’s really the 24 million followers that count.”
Pollak spent 10 months in the editing room.
While Pollak had originally lined up 25 comedians to be interviewed, more performers continued to say “yes” as shooting began and 25 hours of footage quickly grew to over 60 hours. The result was a rather hectic editing process. “I spent 10 months in the editing bay trying to figure out what the hell this movie was. I have a friend with two Academy Awards for Visual Effects — Robert Legato, who won for ‘Titanic’ and ‘Hugo’ — and he’d been shooting second unit for Scorsese since ‘The Aviator.’ He’s a good enough friend and he agreed to edit it to at least put together some kind of template. We put together a 10-minute thing and brought it to Sundance in 2014 for the production company who was one of the co-financers. And then I had to go off on my own and make 10 minutes into 94 minutes. I brought in Dylan King to help with the transitions from chapter to chapter and to make it look more slick. I could still be cutting the film. There was no script or narrative to work from, just the horrible decisions I made and fixed for 10 months.”
Sundance was more exciting than nerve-racking.
“Being accepted into that festival for the premiere of your directorial debut is the goal line and the victory. It’s a calling card you take with you to your next job or one you just tell everyone who will listen. I wasn’t nervous. I was excited as hell to see it with an audience. I had seen it with a couple friends at the house. I had set up a friends/crew/family screening in LA, but I didn’t really know what I had, just like a comedian who puts on an act doesn’t know what he has until he takes it on the road. That was the other exciting thing about Sundance, it was the first time it was with a legitimate audience.”
Pollak used chapters to create a narrative backbone.
When asked about why he decided to organize the film as chapters of questions, Pollak responded, “I did that to create a form and a structure and a narrative. It made sense to create these chapters that represented the arc or trajectory from ‘Who’s Your Daddy/Mommy?’ where it talks about whether your parents supported you or not, to ‘Losing Your Amateur Status’ and so on. You start to get this ebb and flow of the life and choices of these comedians through these chapters. Children suffer from ‘Hey, look at me!’ disease because they’re children, but adults suffer from it too or else Facebook wouldn’t be a huge company. But who chooses ‘Hey, look at me!’ as a career and all the rejection that comes with it? Who chooses that as a profession? That’s a sick fuck!”
Pollak made a conscious decision not to be in the film.
“I was able to get 60 incredibly famous funny people, and I wanted to share everything they had to say. If there is 60 people and the full length of the film is 94 minutes, everyone has like 90 seconds each, that leaves no time for me. I chose from the beginning not to be on camera. My opinion on all of this is the edit of the film. The film is my opinion. I’m much more interested in what they had to say in answering my questions. I got to choose from what they said, so that seemed to be enough of my footprint. I like what Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore do, but that didn’t feel right for this project. Finally, I didn’t need to be the center of attention! I wanted to be a director. But you do hear my voice asking questions, so I wanted the audience to feel my presence and to get a sense that it’s one of the reasons the performers in the film felt comfortable and free enough to have a conversation. In that regard, I am in the movie.”
The thesis of the project expanded while shooting.
While originally intended to focus solely on stand-up comedians, the project continued to grow during filming as Pollak included professional actors and filmmakers who knew what it was like to face a crowd and do anything for a laugh. “Jon Favreau, for instance, talks about the audience and how you can have a movie where the studio is arguing about test screenings, and yet he’ll only change things if the audience wants it, not if the studio does. I wanted that point of view of how important the audience is. I wanted as much of the experience as possible, not just stand-up comedy. Sam Rockwell I saw here on Broadway with Christopher Walken and he has a monologue and talks to the audience in the middle of the play. So I knew him and Bobby Cannavale, who has also done Broadway, knew what it was like to stand naked on a stage and try and get a laugh. They knew the pain of when the laugh doesn’t come, which is why one of the chapters of the movie is ‘Bombs Away.'”
On dedicating the film to his mentor Robin Williams.
“He was a mentor of mine when I started out in San Francisco at age 20. He had become a made man from ‘Mork and Mindy,’ but he chose to spend most of his time in San Francisco where he would raise his family and mentor some comedians like myself and Dana Carvey. He was just a friend. He appeared in some specials of mine. Over the years he meant so much to me. When I was shooting the film he was shooting the comedy series on CBS, so there was so time where he was available.
“We got on the phone and it ended up being these couple of friends talking about the concept of the movie and that dovetailed into a therapy session. I didn’t record them. They were private conversations. And I didn’t even think to record them because it was mostly him saying how sorry he was because he couldn’t be in the movie. He was also thrilled I was doing the movie. He passed away when I was in editing. There were notions kicked around about asking people who were in the movie about Robin’s passing, but that felt like it could be misconstrued to be taking advantage of a horrible situation. So dedicating the film was the least I could do because he was my mentor.”
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