To start off, I wanted to learn, in your own words, how you ended up in the position you’re in now.
I went to NYU Film School, because, you know, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch. I thought that’s where the really cool, indie filmmakers are coming out of. And then my freshman year of NYU film school, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” came out, “Drugstore Cowboy” came out. I saw those films at the Angelika Film Center and I was like, this is what I want, this is the fantasy. Someday, I’m gonna have a movie play at Angelika.
And then that happened. I made this movie called “Mail Order Wife” a couple of years later and it played there, but when I was there it wasn’t the same Angelika anymore. There just weren’t as many people going to see those movies, and I was like, Holy shit, I’ve got to figure something else out.
So those are the big, broad strokes. “Mail Order Wife” was shot in a very naturalistic style, and a bunch of people saw that movie. Even though it didn’t, you know, perform in the marketplace, it got a lot of attention from people in the industry. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell saw it and wanted me to do a raucous comedy with them in kind of that naturalistic style [“The Virginity Hit”]. Eli Roth saw it and wanted to do a horror movie [“The Last Exorcism”].
Then Glen Gordon Caron, the creator of “Moonlighting” and “Medium,” he saw it and wanted to do a TV show with me. So we developed something for Showtime and filmed a pilot for them. [“Gurland on Gurland.”] At the time, I had made those movies with Eli Roth and Adam McKay and Will Ferrell and they made it into movie theaters, but I was broke. I was like, something’s wrong. And the process of working on that Showtime show with Glen Gordon Caron was so much more rewarding and so much quicker that I was like, man, I really like working in TV.
When that sushi lunch had happened, you were clearly already married — how long have you been married?
I have been with my wife for 22 years. We are married almost 17.
So the entire stretch of your career?
Oh yes. My wife has had to endure many failures.
And successes, I’m sure.
Yeah, if you say so. I’m joking. We got married in September of ’97 and in January of ’98 I won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so we got off to a good start. And then my first script sold for a lot of money and I got to direct it. So in the beginning, things were good, but then we went through some lean years.
Going back, looking at “Mail Order Wife,” that’s 2004. But the Underground Film Festival had already been going on for several years before then. How did you balance yourself for pursuing a career in filmmaking while also operating a film festival?
What happened was, I took a documentary class with Todd Phillips. He was working on a G.G. Allin documentary, called “Hated.” And I was working on a Al Goldstein documentary, he was a New York City pornographer who I fixed up with my mom. And we were very like-minded, Todd and I, and “Hated” got finished first and there was a lot of interest in it from these European festivals, which were very different from these American festivals. The American festivals were more like, I don’t know, film societies and a little bit more high brow. And [Phillips] said these festivals in Europe were more punk rock, and so Todd had the idea of opening a festival like that since there were no festivals like that in the United States.
So we started working on the New York Underground Film Festival together. And the first year was very successful. We had this documentary called “Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys” — it was a documentary on NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) and that was very controversial, attracted a lot of attention.
When you look back on those very early days, what about them is most striking to you? What’s the first thing you think about?
Just being in independent film in New York City was somewhat like, I don’t know this but I would imagine, Seattle during the grunge movement. New York City was the center of independent film and it was exciting. You had Miramax, and New Line. It was a really exciting time in the world of independent film.
Was there anything about being in the New York independent film community at that time that had a major influence on you?
Just the whole do-it-yourself type of attitude. I know when Sal and I — Sal Levin is my partner that I’ve been working on the show with, he’s co-executive producer — when we were hiring directors to work on the series, we wanted directors who had made independent films because TV directors who don’t have that background are used to having a safety net, I would say. Because the FX model is very low budget and DIY, it was great being able to collaborate with filmmakers who had that indie background. So you have Jesse Peretz and Jamie Babbit and Huck Bakto, who was my partner on “Mail Order Wife” — you have all these people who have real indie credentials.
Is there more to curating an indie feel for your show beyond just hiring people who have worked in indie film?
We talked in the writer’s room as well about…I didn’t want to feel a formula from episode to episode. We wanted to make 10 indie movies. That was kind of the directive there. We didn’t want audiences to be able to predict the formula, we didn’t want episodes to all begin and start in the house.
This is another Nick Grad story — he’s really been an amazing mentor in this process. When we turned in one of the scripts, he called me to say… it wasn’t that he didn’t like the script, but he said it felt maybe a little too much like one of the other scripts. And so he said to me, “This show can be whatever you want it to be, and don’t feel constrained in any way.” And that really opened things up for me. I was like, God this is amazing. When I’ve worked on feature films, when I work with studios, no one ever says that to me. “You can be whatever you want.” I was like, here I got a guy, whatever his title is at the network, is telling me to do what I wanted. Like, what a great way of dealing with an artist, and challenging me.
When you got that advice, was it invigorating?
I love to be challenged. I mean the people who I can surround myself with, whether it was working with Todd or with Huck or with Sal, there are people who challenge me, who I feel like are always trying to make things better and force me to be better. I like that kind of competition, creative competition. It’s not aggressive, but you know, inspiring.
You’ve been working with this one style for most of your career, a more documentary-esque feel. Is that something you think will always be a component of your work, or do you think you could ever try to do something high budget, like HBO does?
However much money someone is willing to give me, I’ll be able to piss it away. So absolutely, I’ll take a big budget. Is that the best campaigning for a big budget movie I could do? Let me piss away your money!
Thats pretty much what Michael Bay is doing right now anyway. Seems to work for him just fine.
He makes very profitable movies. But yes, here’s what’s really different about this show for me. I always had a reluctance to work with the top talent, because I always thought, Oh my God, it’s so hard to cast people. That’s why I did a lot of fake docs, B-movies, horror movies. Because they weren’t cast-dependent. I always wanted to avoid the bullshit of casting. Even in film school, I would cast other film students and not actors because I was like, It’s easier, I know they’ll show up on time.
But this was such an incredible experience. I can’t believe the level of cast I attracted in terms of Nat [Faxon] and Judy [Greer] and Jenny [Slate] and Brett [Gelman] and Paul Reiser and John Hodgman. I’m excited about working with talent now in a way I hadn’t been early in my career.
That’s actually something I wanted to ask you about. When you were working with this cast, how did they react to what was ultimately a very different style from, say, a multi-camera sitcom?
Every one of the actors had a bit of an adjustment period. They were all used to being asked to do more, and carry more and hit jokes harder. And that’s not my style. I like to play things for reality. So there was an adjustment for everyone and it took an amazing amount of confidence for everyone to say “I’m still gonna be funny without doing every joke at 11.” And everybody did it and was great. In addition to being hilarious people, they’re all really good actors. So we just played the reality of the scene rather than try to pound jokes home.
It’s much easier to replicate an existing tone. When you are trying to create an original tone, there’s an adjustment period where everyone has to find it together. Every actor went through an adjustment on that, to try to find the right note. But we got there, with everybody.
It wasn’t just indie directors you brought onto the project, but crew as well — Benjamin Kasulke, the director of photography, works with Lynn Shelton a lot. What kind of experience did that end up bringing to the set as a whole?
Well, in a lot of Ben’s work that I’ve seen there’s sort of a voyeuristic feeling. More than indie or doc, that’s how I would describe it: voyeuristic. I wanted to create the feeling like we were a fly on the wall in these people’s lives, in their private conversations. So that was the intention in going with those voyeuristic stylistic choices.
It seem like something that has evolved very organically out of your documentary background as well.
Absolutely. And this was, I feel like, the first time I was kind of able to make the adjustment, cause it’s not a fake documentary. You’re not supposed to believe that it’s a documentary. I was able to use the elements of that style but employ them in a narrative.
When you shifted from that fake doc style to using some of those techniques on what was not a fake doc, was that a relief? Was that a new challenge?
Every project has its own set of rules. So every project is a challenge and you have to find it. So it was a challenge. I wouldn’t say it was a relief. It was a challenge. It’s always a challenge. But I did not get off on it. I get off on how hard it is. It’s always hard to hit the right note. One thing I can say about the style is, I have to play every wrong note until I hear the right one.
Does that lead to more takes or fewer takes?
I do a lot of takes. I also don’t know what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that magic, real moment. I think there are writers who like to hear their lines, hear the words being said. They imagine a rhythm of how they get said. But I’m always trying to erase the script. To erase the rhythm, to erase the performer. I want everything to seem so natural.
And the multiple take process comes from that?
Yeah, in case you get that one magic moment where something unexpected happened. Sometimes it’s even somebody forgetting their line and saying something else, or the rhythm gets interrupted. It’s going for that perfect moment. That perfect thing that I don’t know.
So where are you in the production process right now? I know you said you’re in the editing room…
I’m so close. I pretty much have every episode picture-locked. I’m just doing a little bit of fine cutting on the finale right now. And coloring, mixing.
What happens next?
I’m going on a family trip with my wife and three children. I’m gonna try to get to know my kids again.
Do you know when you’ll hear about Season 2?
No, I was hoping you were gonna tell me what you’d heard. I thought that’s what this call was about.
I am secretly an FX executive with a very large checkbook.
Honestly, I’m not sweating it right now. I’m enjoying this process. I imagine that when I have some down time, I’ll spend more time thinking about a different project than when I can work more on this one.
If you had your pick of options, what would you pick — TV or film?
I think about that every day. I love the TV business. I do not like anything about the movie business. I really enjoy working in television in a way I did not about working in movies. But as a medium I still love movies. It’s complicated for me.
Seems like you have the best of both worlds happening right now.
I think as a job, as a way to support my family, I’d rather work in television. I was trying to support my family for a long time in movies and the roller coaster of it was pretty brutal.
The worst part of it is, when your movie doesn’t work, they don’t answer the phone any more. Kind of like they don’t know you. They send you to the back of the line. When your show doesn’t go, they say, “What else do you got?” So I just feel like there’s no middle ground. In movies, if you don’t hit it they’re looking for the next guy. In TV it’s like, you got really close. Let’s go for it again.