Interview: ‘The Comedy’ Director Rick Alverson On Provoking Audiences — And Why His Next Movie Is About the Ku Klux Klan

Interview: 'The Comedy' Director Rick Alverson On Provoking Audiences -- And Why His Next Movie Is About the Ku Klux Klan
Interview: 'The Comedy' Director Rick Alverson On Provoking Audiences -- And Why His Next Movie Is About the Ku Klux Klan

In another life, Rick Alverson could have been a college professor. The director of “The Comedy” speaks in lengthy paragraphs, as if he were explaining unifying theories to a freshman philosophy major.

With his thorough, high-minded answers, it’s apparent that Alverson’s out to change the filmmaking landscape. Part of that involves ticking people off, as “The Comedy” did when it premiered at Sundance. The movie stars Tim Heidecker as a priviledged Williamsburg resident wandering around annoying people to no end. Whether the film is meant solely as a provocation or an indictment of the indolence plaguing young, wealthy Americans, the viewing experience invites discomfort. Alverson sat down for a conversation last month at the Vancouver International Film Festival to discuss this latest work, which has found favor with certain circles and inspired walkouts among others, with not much middle ground in between. “The Comedy,” which currently holds a B average on Criticwire, opens in Los Angeles this week and New York next Friday. It’s also currently available on VOD.

The movie isn’t conventionally funny, although the lead character thinks he’s a gas. Considering the focus of the film is on him, was there a particular reason for calling it “The Comedy” rather than something like “The Comedian?”

It had some other, more horrendous names in the working draft. But the idea is that it was always referred to as just “The Comedy,” because it was a blatant kind of sarcasm in keeping with the character’s state. It was always there and then I grew to like it more and more because it muddied the field and confused the potential approach and reception. It seems to facilitate some contradiction and confusion, which sort of excites me. I’m happy that it seems to keep the viewer somewhat destabilized, which is a big goal of mine. I think you can render the audience into a state where their awareness is somewhat heightened just because they’re uncertain of what’s happening. It can be done through narrative withholding or it can be done through these more cruel kind of tricks. A title can change the entire field of the experience. I think that’s why the film has upset some people. They’re unprepared. 

If your intent is to make people uncomfortable, would you prefer someone in the audience have preconceived notions of who these characters are or do you think it would have the same effect if someone was not really expecting anything in particular?

Contemporary film viewers, regardless of their age, seem to want to be substantiated and placated by what they see. They want to exaggerate a sense of themselves and to leave them intact and unencumbered upon the exit, you know? It’s interesting how that becomes slightly more difficult when people are destabilized in some way or another or they can’t really anticipate the experience. And I think there seems to be this desire for compartmentalization and to want to understand what you’re being fed.

I recently became fascinated with wondering if, in the digital age, there’s an addiction to having the world on our terms, because you can so easily dictate your experience. It’s as easy as you deciding what information you can get. You decide how you receive it and the corporate world responds to your desires.

Some of the more effective scenes are the characters explicitly talking about the process of constructing and creating comedy, what makes a good punchline and what makes comedic timing work. It’s almost like a comedy podcast brought to life. Did you find any connection there with how comedians publicly discuss the craft?

I tried in a number of scenes to get the guys to essentially be talking about something that’s concurrently taking place, essentially critiquing each other on their performance in the movie. I work from essentially 20-page scripts with no scripted dialogue. So a lot of it has to do with casting and chemistries. Obviously, Tim and Eric knew each other. Turns out, James Murphy knew Eric, Gregg Turkington knows both Tim and Eric and Jeff Jensen knew James Murphy. So there’s this convenient and necessary thread of familiarity. Where there isn’t, I think it can be recontextualized and utilized as hierarchies and groups. We shot a lot during those scenes and I was looking more for a tonal thing. We ended up finding that one moment when I asked him if they could turn it on Jeff a little. And Jeff’s brilliant.

There’s a scene in a bar where Tim’s character gets into an uncomfortable conversation with some bar patrons. Was that the only example of non-actors in the film or were there other instances where you tried to use non-actors to capture more of that spontaneity?

Well, I tried to get cab drivers who were actually cab drivers. They had also done some acting or had aspired to do such (I would have prefered that wasn’t the case). It’s a bit of a struggle, shooting in New York City. It was a larger production than I’ve worked on before and it’s a lot more work to cast people on the street that are authentically engaged in roles, which I had done before in previous films.

A lot of that bar scene had to do with Tim getting into a particular state. His performance is transparent. He’s performing for these men, so there’s an economy to it. He nailed the tone we were going for. The idea of dancing with the line of racial aggression, it’s a more dramatic flirtation with that line. The big thing that interests me about that scene is the passivity of the men in the bar, how that works against some cinematic conventions, about when those lines are flirted with and the general passivity of most people or everyone in the film that he encounters.

A lot of reviews have latched on to the idea that the main character is unlikeable and has elicited more anger or indifference than sympathy or pity, even in positive reviews. Has that reaction surprised you?

Some of the negative reviews have lambasted the movie because of the despicable nature of the character, which is really fascinating to me in the most defunct kind of irrational criticism. It’s fascinating. That goes back to some people’s idea that a movie should be on our terms, as opposed to the filmmaker or the world. When anyone approaches me, if there’s a dislike, usually it’s a great dislike. It’s usually not a passive sort of thing, that feeling that there’s been an infraction because they had to see something on their terms and they didn’t have a way in. Just having seen “Amour,” the thing that I love most is the objective nature of it. There doesn’t seem to be this fissure in the thing for you to get in emotionally. That’s maybe the biggest service of contemporary cinema that deals with difficult topics — a sort of repairing the wall that exists with objective viewing. When you go to  a movie, you can sit and actually analyze behavior. We disrupt that a lot by turning it into a subjective experience and becoming one with the protagonist.

It’s the way that people are conditioned to watch movies. They’re looking for that gap to get into the character and for it to become a subjective experience. They demand sympathy, which I think is problematic. How many strangers on the street do we feel sympathy for? There’s an inaccessible nature to the world that can be replicated very easily in movies that isn’t often done. So I tried to put people into positions where they were confronted with that. Also, the prodding nature of the movie and the recreational aggressions of the protagonist are aimed at the audience just as much as they’re aimed at the subjects of that aggression throughout the movie. That’s a convenient thing going on for me.

Next page: From “The Comedy” to the Ku Klux Klan.

You’re credited as an editor on the movie. Considering your approach to narrative, was that necessary for you to have that control as well?

For me, it’s essential, because the thing is continuing to be written. I firmly believe that there should be some elasticity to all stages of the production and the execution of the project. There’s this troublesome, propagandistic sort of grandstanding that somebody like Spielberg is engaged in that ultimately you see something presented which is a reflection or a magnification of the director’s view of the world, whether it’s a view of history or a view of his or her own cinematic prowess. When it should be more reflexive and responsive to the conditions, even the narrative. What does the movie want to do? What do the environments want to do? What do the characters at any given moment and hopefully there’s the potential for more life and an actual dialogue with the world through movies that way.

Due to the nature of the improvisation, were there times that you had to rein your actors in?

There was some dialing back, I suppose. I still don’t do more than like three takes and there are no rehearsals. So the casting has to be on and what’s being conveyed is understood prior to the scenes. More than anything, even when I’m in the edit, I’m looking for an authenticity and an uncertainty that exists in the scene. I was pushing Tim to step over that line.

Everybody was kind enough to basically trust me with them. I asked them to bring a lot of themselves into the thing and ultimately, there were some natural apprehensions about “Where do I end and where does the character start?” The more I can have the individual bring of themselves, the more that I can recontextualize that into the fiction, the more efficient and authentic the process is. I think that’s a big exploration of the movie, not to damn behavior, but to analyze it.

There aren’t many examples of characters addressing each other by name. Is that choice an extension of having actors bring a lot of themselves?

Well, people don’t often address each other by name. It’s a silly cinematic convention. Although it does present problems in the credits when you have people’s names listed! Inevitably, there are some conventions in the movie, but I’m constantly trying to disrupt them in some ways.

To keep inserting and reminding an individual about the fiction of the thing, that happens a lot with the placating and safeguarding of an individual’s experience. I think our minds should have space to move around and consider both the authenticity and the artifice and be uncertain at any given moment what’s real and what’s manufactured.

There are attributes and characteristics that are utilized from every individual in the movie, but it serves a fictional end. Some of the more insular group scenes are borrowing more from the way that a group of people naturally talks to one another. Gregg Turkington and Tim and Eric are all provocateurs in their way and in their fields. I think that’s why I went to them because we had a joint interest in questioning and dismantling what we do. It’s an extension of all our work, to a degree.

How has this project influenced the sort of films you want to make next?

Well, it’s definitely influenced the way that I’m going to continue working, particularly in the response of certain audiences or an understanding of the way that people watch movies and how to make the most out of the endeavor. The next movie that I’m working on, we hope to shoot this fall. It’s set in 1868, it involves the early Klan and the early freedmen communities and it’s this anti-epic cruelty tale that takes place in this Anglican preacher’s barn. It has moments that stick out like “The Comedy” does and flirts with things that people might be uncomfortable with. That gives me more space to deal with the subtlety that exists in the periphery around those wild noises and those cacophonous events.

To some degree, in the initial conception of “The Comedy,” with the script and the direction of those scenes and what’s conveyed, it’s very important to address the brightest colors in the spectrum, to go straight at the jugular for some of these things. Then it also has the potential to explore subtlety around that. People respond to those things.

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