A Conversation With Rick Alverson (THE COMEDY)

Musician and filmmaker Rick Alverson premiered his new film The Comedy at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. I caught it at BAMcinemaFest this summer, and have been telling people to keep an eye out for it ever since. Picked up for distribution by Tribeca Film, The Comedy is now available on VOD and finally beginning a theatrical release. I’m curious how it’ll fare in the market—though it stars Tim Heidecker, and features Eric Wareheim (of Tim and Eric fame), as well as a bemused James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, niche fans probably won’t get what they were expecting.

The Comedy is a bone-dry title for a film that wobbles on the line between black humor and bleak drama. As Swanson, a slobby, loathsome hipster, Heidecker gives one of the year’s most compelling performances—embodiments?—of the mocking, infantile shell that can pass for existence among a certain Williamsburg, Brooklyn elite. Alverson has a fine feeling for discomfort, drawing out Swanson’s brutish, stunted collisions with the world. Whether you find Swanson repellent, interesting, or both, there’s a lot to appreciate on the level of craft. The film has an ace soundtrack, and is beautifully lit and shot by Mark Schwartzbard (Think of Me, The Dish & the Spoon).

I recently talked with Alverson about his approach to filmmaking, and the collaborative process of making The Comedy.

H2N: I thought we could start by talking a little bit about the production. How much of the film was scripted, and how much did you improvise on set? What was the collaboration in terms of the story and dialogue?

Rick Alverson: With all of the movies I’ve made I work from like 20-page scripts with no scripted dialogue. It’s really important to me…it seems an efficient way to achieve a particular kind of naturalism. I’m disinterested in linear narrative being conveyed through dialogue, so casting becomes really important, the edit becomes really important, the writing kind of continues through those things, and through collaboration during the performance.

H2N: That’s something you talk about with the actors even when you’re auditioning and beginning the process?

RA: Yeah, I mean it’s the first thing I talk about. To some degree… it’s about establishing a relationship with an actor or a non-actor where they’re willing to bring a certain amount of themselves to the thing, or even for an actor an unusual amount of themselves to the thing. Their own characteristics. And [to] let me create some of the fiction, to recouch and recontextualize their behavior into it…With each movie it becomes more articulated and more concrete, a particular way of working. With The Comedy and with the previous movies, I haven’t had rehearsals, per se. Well, at all. They’ve just been conversations. There are meetings and conversations about some of the logistics, and what needs to be conveyed, and what’s trying to be accomplished with any given scene.

H2N: When you have these conversations, do you talk more about character motivation, or do you just sort of give the scenario? How much does the actor have to interpret—let’s say in the case of The Comedy, what a hipster is? How much do you talk about the inner workings of the character?

RA: I don’t really like to do that at all. That’s where a lot of the trust of the thing would come in. I’m not really interested in conversations about motivation. My first two movies were primarily working with non-actors, and it’s funny how a non-actor, like, never asks about motivation, because [there’s] this innate understanding that when you go to pick up a glass of water, or you walk across a room, or you’re experiencing a certain state, that those things have a corollary in the real world that isn’t complex, and is related to these individuals’ bodies, and to their comprehension of a motivation for that. The actors that I worked with on The Comedy were people who had an equal amount of suspicion or distrust about traditional ways of working in the craft, so we didn’t have to have those conversations. I think that I would get sort of… infuriated if I had to explain the motivation for a particular action. If it isn’t accessible to the individual then I’ve cast the wrong person, or I’m creating some kind of fantasia that is not applicable to human experience, I don’t know. [He laughs]

H2N: I have to say, I loved the film, but it’s very specific, and in a certain way it seems like that could almost be applied to the audience as well, this approach of not broadcasting the motivations. Now that you’ve had a chance to screen it in public, what have audience reactions been, and has that changed at all depending on different generations or locations?

RA: It very much has, it’s really interesting. I mean, I hadn’t really expected this broad of a swath of people to be exposed to the movie, I don’t know why. The other movies had been for a more limited audience, and other things I’ve done in the past [as well]. There are sort of rigid lines in between certain demographics or certain generations that seem to be becoming evident, which is really interesting for me because it tells me a lot about… contemporary appetites and capacities for dealing with movies, what they want movies to be, how they want them to function, you know? My dad, I think, was really off-put by the movie. And he belongs to a generation of people, having gone through World War II and this sort of thing, for whom entertainment was operated predominantly, if not exclusively, as a generator of comfort. And I think that he and many people from his generation were conditioned to expect that it operate exclusively as that, and the idea that you would go into that private, intimate space and be exposed to the vulgarities of the world seems to be an affront. That’s very different from the experience of a lot of young people.

H2N: One of the things that struck me about The Comedy is that it takes on race and class issues very directly, and it was notable because I don’t feel like I see many independent narrative films, especially the smaller, character-based films, that actually seem to have a political consciousness. I’m curious how much this was a choice of yours, or if the entrance for you was this character, and any larger political ideas are more personal reactions for the audience?

RA: I have deep political leanings, and I think a lot about politics, and I have very strong views about certain things. So it’s a challenge for me, like with my last movie New Jerusalem—I’m an adamant atheist, and I went into that movie wanting to see how I could interact with the depiction of an evangelical that would obscure that fact. As opposed to just acting as a platform for my worldview about the detriment of utopian religious thought, I would… try to connect with the individual in the movie. I think to some degree that worked, and it was illuminating for me. And it lets filmmaking have a little bit of a broader purpose, some of that potential for the objective capture of behavior, or something. I think to some degree with The Comedy it’s the same thing. For the most part, except when I get in this bizarre space of having interviews and talk myself into corners, I’m a pretty quiet person. I find aesthetically and behaviorally a lot of the interactions and the grotesqueness of the The Comedy to be abhorrent, you know? But I wanted to try to find some kind of neutrality in there where that wasn’t evident, but that was a challenge for me. As opposed to using the movie as a pulpit, which I find kind of reprehensible. It’s what Hollywood has always done, and directors, even in the mainstream independent space now, where essentially [a movie] is a vehicle for a director’s worldview. There’s a certain amount of arrogance in that, it’s like you’re just a failed politician or a failed journalist that is trying to utilize [a medium] that has so much more potential. I don’t know if that answers your question… you were talking about the class issues?

H2N: I’ve always been struck by how race and class inform hipster and art world social interactions to a huge extent, but I don’t often see that portrayed. It didn’t feel like you had this strong message you were trying to project, but it did come through and I appreciated that.

RA: That’s good. For me that was one of the larger impetuses for making the movie. I mean, it is about an individual who feels literally divorced from experience because of his unlimited options. Traditionally it seems like in human society we’ve been forced to interact with what’s “foreign” to us. But if we can increasingly protect ourselves from that, and necessity doesn’t drive us into those places, then… we’ll just keep to our comfort zones. It is very much about a particular kind of white culture that is divorced from the conditions [and] the diversity of the entire world. New York is such an interesting place because you have… that sort of affluent white culture that you can find in a place like Williamsburg, it’s almost like the equivalence of a traditional Chinatown, or something. Or Greenpoint, a bastion of a still very intact Polish and Ukrainian population. And those are right against each other, but there’s this articulation between them that is kind of fascinating. I think there’s something equally sad about the inability of cultures to contend with one another in broader, more intimate ways, I guess. I don’t know.

H2N: Obviously it’s called The Comedy, but I find it a very sad film —

RA: Good! [He laughs]

H2N: In part the musical choices underscore that. But even though [Tim Heidecker’s character Swanson] is sort of an abhorrent character, I felt a lot of empathy, because I felt like he was someone who is sort of unmoored, and it’s symbolic that he lives on a boat… floating in this void where he doesn’t know how to create a meaningful life for himself. Was there something in particular that made you decide to focus on this sort of subculture, or what was the genesis of the film?

RA: All the minutiae of hipsterism doesn’t really interest me. It’s interesting in so far as it ultimately is a cultural delineation based on fashion and taste, and increasingly it’s in sync with commodities and consumerism in a way that it hadn’t been in past years. It’s almost like there’s a merging of these subcultures and this more mainstream space. More than anything it was just this idea of Williamsburg as a conceived cultural nucleus, that you can be in a place where you believe you’re at the cusp of culture, regardless of if that’s true or not. [He laughs] The idea that you can have individuals that conceived of themselves of being in a nucleus of culture. I don’t think there’s anybody in those same demographics that would believe that they are at the center of something in Richmond, Virginia where I live. It was interesting to have that initial condition, and then to show individuals that had this exaggerated form of unlimited options, where it came down to even the lack of necessity of having to engage with the world in any kind of meaningful way. And they have access to unlimited information, they have access to unlimited time and leisure, it’s an exaggerated form of the middle class and imaginatively how they engage with the world… If you have those two conditions you can explore a lot about America, and the concept of America, and the concept of a utopia, and how, as human animals, we’re really primed for that state. If it’s even something that we’re capable of flourishing in, and I don’t believe that it is. I mean, the worst nature of individuals comes out oftentimes in those scenarios, and it’s the rare aberration that people aren’t exclusionary and greedy in those situations. I have a pretty dark or pessimistic view of the potential of human life. [He laughs]

H2N: One of the things I noticed is that the film is mostly composed of medium and close-up shots. Was that something you developed ahead of time, or that’s what worked shooting in the spaces you were in, like you don’t have a permit, or you’re trying to be unobtrusive?

RA: Shooting in New York City is a bizarre experience because there’s so much of it that exists in such an exaggerated way in our imaginations, all of that information outside of the frame. I also didn’t want the movie to be very aesthetically pleasing. I don’t know, those are kind of impulsive choices that are difficult to analyze, I suppose. Some of it, for all I know, might be a result of the fact that I don’t see movies in theaters, I see them on my computer, so I have a different relationship to scale. [He laughs] I think maybe a lot of people do, a lot of younger filmmakers have that different relationship. You’re not going to see movies framed like Lawrence of Arabia, just because of that relationship to the way we take in that information in our homes, and that kind of thing.

H2N: What was your relationship working with the Director of Photography Mark Schwartzbard?

RA: We had a lot of conversations about what I didn’t want. I had shot my first two movies myself so it was really challenging for me to relinquish the thing to somebody. It was an interesting sort of lesson in communication, and where a person’s instincts are synonymous with yours, and where they aren’t, and how conversations can influence muscle and reaction and that kind of stuff.

H2N: Could you talk a little bit about where you’re going next? I know you’ve done music in the past, are you still balancing film and music or have you been taken over by filmmaking now?

RA: I don’t have plans to record, my band Spokane put out its last record in 2007. I’ve been sort of busy with this stuff.  My [upcoming] movie Clement is set during Reconstruction, just after the Civil War, and deals with a small community and the genesis of the early Klan. It’s also kind of an exploration of cruelty, and what occurs in a vacuum, and deals a lot with concepts of America, and liberation, and struggles for power, the root causes of maybe some of the things that we’ve seen in The Comedy. There’s that, and then I’m working on another movie with Gregg Turkington and Tim Heidecker set in the Mojave Desert, essentially a dramatic depiction of the life of Neil Hamburger, he’s a comedic persona of Gregg Turkington, who played Swanson’s real estate partner in The Comedy.

H2N: So no real comedies in your future then?

RA: Well I hope not! [He laughs]

— Susanna Locascio

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