“Uncle Kent,” Joe Swanberg’s lighthearted 2011 portrait of Los Angeles-based animator Kent Osborne, wasn’t exactly screaming for a sequel. But “Uncle Kent 2,” which screens in New York at BAMCinemaFest on Saturday following its premiere at SXSW in May, isn’t your average sequel. The bizarre project is directed by Todd Rohal, whose loopy “The Catechism Cataclysm” and “The Guatemalan Handshake” display a penchant for surreal, sometimes disorienting humor and baffling sight gags. “Uncle Kent 2,” which Osborne wrote, follows suit, while also mocking the idea of sequels and playing with its lead character’s creative block.
The movie opens — in a segment directed by Swanberg — with Osborn himself pitching the premise for the sequel. The ensuing odyssey finds Osborn coping with a hilariously annoying song stuck in his head, an unsettling journey to Comic Con and possibly the end of the world. Shortly before “Uncle Kent 2” made its world premiere at SXSW, Osborn spoke to Indiewire about the crazy logic behind the movie and how his adventures in indie filmmaking — of which the most recent stage stretches back to a role in Swanberg’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs” — inform his day job as head writer on Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time.”
The first 12 minutes of “Uncle Kent 2” are directed by Joe Swanberg. In those scenes, you pitch him the premise for “Uncle Kent 2” and he passes on it. How much of those events actually transpired?
It didn’t really happen like that. Two years ago, my friend Gareth and I had this idea where we’d take a train trip and shoot guerrilla style on the Amtrak. It was going to be called “Uncle Kent 2: On the Right Track.”
But you still wanted Swanberg to direct it?
I pitched it to Joe in an email and he said, “Yeah, definitely,” but he was busy. Then he got really busy, because he was making “Drinking Buddies.” That’s when he told me, “Hey, you should make it.” But I didn’t want it to seem like we made it without him.
How did the project progress from there?
At one point, I visited Austin and was having a beer with [“Results” director] Andrew Bujalski, [“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” director] David Zellner and Todd Rohal. I started talking to them about this train idea. There was supposed to be this scene where I got my own room in a train and was masturbating and then all of a sudden we pulled into a station. Todd was laughing at that. Then Andrew sent me an email and said, “I really like the idea. I can’t direct it but I want to help you make it happen.” Once a month, he would email me about it. Finally, I showed him the part of the film I wrote about the apocalypse. So we were developing that for a while and I was traveling to Comic Con. Then I decided, well, if I’m taking this train trip…why not make the film?
So how did you wind up getting Swanberg to direct the opening sequence?
By the time I raised the money, I called Joe and was like, “Do you want to direct the first scene?” It turned out a little longer than that. Originally, I wanted to fill the party with famous faces hanging out with Joe while I’m pitching this sequel idea. When we were about to shoot, he said, “I have this deep feeling that sequels are ruining art and killing the industry. I want that to be the reason I say no.” I said, “That’s great, because I can try to talk you into it.”
IFC released the first “Uncle Kent” but wasn’t involved with this one. How did you navigate the rights issues?
Andrew figured it out with IFC. They said, “If Kent wants to make a sequel that’s totally fine, we just want the first option.”
The rest of the movie follows such baffling logic that it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Rohal, whose “Guatemalan Handshake” and “Catechism Cataclysm” are similarly unpredictable, directing it.
I didn’t know what I was going to do if Todd said no. I was thinking, “Maybe there are some other people similar to Joe,” but once Todd said yes, I knew it was going to be a Todd Rohal movie — set in my universe. Right away, we had an outline that I sent to Todd. He started adding to it, making it weirder and funnier. It was a great idea. All along, I figured it would have bigger production values than the first one. It all seemed organic. We went and shot the scenes at Comic Con first. It was there that that we were hanging out and I was dancing around, shaking my boobs. He wanted to use that for the goofy credits.
The version of Kent Osborne in both “Uncle Kent” movies is a kind of sad, lonely guy who spends a lot of time smoking pot and daydreaming. But you’re pretty well-entrenched in a community and have a good career. So how much of these movies is accurate?
I wasn’t trying for years to make a sequel. Maybe if I wasn’t working on cartoons I’d be more like the version of myself in the movie. That’s why it’s easy to do it. There’s a line that Joe said in “Uncle Kent 2,” which was cut out: “You’re in all my movies.” And I said, “I want to make more movies with you. I get sad when I’m not in them. Why wasn’t I in ‘Happy Christmas?'”
You’re in the rare situation in that you inhabit two different worlds: You work for Cartoon Network on “Adventure Time” but also are associated with all these microbudget directors. How do you navigate both places at once?
When I met Joe, and Todd, and all those guys, they were impressed that I worked in cartoons. That was my indie film cred. Oh god, don’t say that I said “cred.” Anyway, they thought it was cool that I worked on “Spongebob Squarepants.” Then Steve Little [who appears in “Uncle Kent 2”], I met him while working on “Camp Lazlo,” before I realized he was going to be in “Eastbound and Down.” We’ve had people do voices on “Adventure Time” from that world, like Ron Livingston and Alia Shawkat. It’s kinda neat to get to know some of these people.
How much does the animation world knows or care about your work on indie films?
The Cartoon Network folks don’t really know about this. A few years ago at Sundance, the head of the studio was staying with me and some people came up and started talking to me about “Uncle Kent.” They were so confused. They know that a lot of people that work there are doing other stuff, have other projects and things. It’s not too unusual or outrageous. But it’s tricky when it comes to anything they’re doing to promote the show.
Speaking of which, how did you get “Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward to animate the opening credits for “Uncle Kent 2”?
Pen is kinda moody and has his own stuff he’s working on. But he loved the first movie. So when I started asking him about this, I said, “Can you…” and he started shaking his head, but when I finished asking him about it he said “Yes.” He also helped edit Joe’s part, because Joe was finishing “Digging for Fire” at Sundance.
Ward officially left the show last year. How are things going without him?
He was still coming to writers meetings after season five, then stopped in November. He’s been working on a treatment for the movie, working on video games, and other stuff. I think he still sees all the outlines. He’ll chime in. I think he feels pretty good about what’s going on. We’re all working on the show, but he’s been developing the movie for a couple of years.
How do your animation peers feel about “Uncle Kent 2”?
When the story broke, I started getting texts from people who were like, “What?” and our producer was like, “Well, that’s nice.”