Filmmaker Rick Alverson on his confrontational and remarkable new film The Comedy.
The Comedy, Rick Alverson’s third feature, delights in subverting expectations. It’s hardly a work of traditional comedy, and viewers unfamiliar with Alverson’s nontraditional directorial style—and furthermore, the absurd performative leanings of its leading man, Tim Heidecker—may find the film rough going. The movie opens with a Bacchanalia: in the aftermath of a Williamsburg loft party, Swanson (Heidecker) and his friends disrobe and grind on one another in a slow motion, booze-fueled delirium. The scene is abundant with painful detail: full-frontal nudity, sweaty gyrations, and tumescent stomachs in heavy swing. This unpleasant proximity is sustained for the duration of the film; The Comedy suspends the audience at an uncomfortable remove from Swanson, and we’re often left too emotionally distant to penetrate his repugnant public exterior, but too close to dismiss him entirely.
Though there is something of an overarching narrative in Swanson’s management of the estate of his comatose father, the film is largely composed of vignettes in which Swanson and his friends (most notably television collaborator Eric Wareheim, comedian Gregg Turkington, and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy) insult each other, drink excessively, and engage in socially transgressive activities in desperate attempts to amuse themselves. The Comedy favors a species of humor—if you can call it that—that is offensive to the point of repulsion: among other things, Swanson delivers speculations on Hitler’s gastrointestinal woes, repeatedly abuses cabdrivers, and in one instance, assumes the character of an Antebellum plantation owner. Such extremity might come off as cheap, shocking, or even artistically irresponsible if not for the implied drama of Swanson’s family life. Though he remains venomous and cruel throughout, real pain bleeds through the coarseness of these moments. Even the most offensive antics of these aging hipsters belie self-awareness and insecurity, and it becomes patently clear by the film’s end that its subjects are deeply uneasy about the lack of momentum and purpose in their lives. Swanson wants to be of use, to be a person in the world, but he simply doesn’t know how.
Alverson has long been interested in close, naturalistic explorations of character—his first two efforts, The Builder and New Jerusalem, also employed fragmented, scene-driven structures to examine the lives of otherwise easily-stereotyped individuals—and while The Comedy explores new geographical and social terrain, it displays the same patience and nuance that made its predecessors so compelling. For Alverson, characters develop through slow, studied accrual as opposed to grand narrative arcs. The figures of his projects—Swanson perhaps most of all—are not intended to be taken as fully realized creations, but rather as works-in-progress. The challenge of The Comedy is to observe its characters as they change in a way that is temporally and psychologically consonant with real human experience. Whatever its initial difficulties for the viewer, Alverson’s mode of filmmaking continues to produce some of the most nuanced, structurally ambitious, and empathetic cinema around.
Ryan Sheldon What first inspired you to start making movies? Do you think that any aspect of your directorial approach has changed drastically since The Builder?
Rick Alverson I am more aware now of the limitations of my vision, of the possibility of the thing on its terms as opposed to my own, and that has become my primary interest in making movies. That you could walk away with more questions than you had when you began, about the world, about audiences, about filmmaking, is very promising. I’ve dispensed with the idea of the masterpiece, it’s ridiculous. I expect there to be flaws in the execution, that’s what makes it valid and animated. That’s what gives it its potential.
RS The Comedy certainly isn’t a comedy in the proper sense, and I wondered what your intentions were as far the genre of this film was concerned at the outset—did you want to go in a particular stylistic direction, and what are the stakes of calling this movie “a comedy”?
RA The title was sort of in keeping with the general desire to create an imbalance or destabilization in the thing from the foundation up, to some degree. In my previous movies, I tried to do that in a quieter way by utilizing stereotypes and then working against them—making the attributes muddy.
But I think to call The Comedy “The Comedy” was to use a blatant misnomer. There were two things: One, I thought it was a good introduction to some of the insincerity and the concept of perpetual irony, which extends even to the outside or shell of the thing, where the title would be indicative of that very thing. Also, I have a lot of suspicion or distrust of media and movies and part of me believes that it also sets you up to be mistrustful from the first moments—it’s not just destabilized, which I’m an advocate of, because I think it increases awareness and attentiveness—uncertainty does.
RS It certainly does. In a way, it’s an interesting exploration, formally, of what happens when you have dark dramatic themes coming into collision with a register of black comedy—it’s heavier than satire. Do you think it’s fair to say that in some ways The Comedy is a study in inherently false character?
RA Yeah, that seems fair (laughter).
RS Precise attention to character is something I’ve noticed in a lot of your films. What else do you prioritize in your directorial approach?
RA I definitely prioritize texture and tone far more than traditional narrative. I fall on the side of the coin of people who believe that cinema is sort of given a short stick when it’s forced to behave like literature or theater, or like a record of those forms. I think there’s something particular that movies can do—there are wonderful advantages—that literature doesn’t. The temporal nature, for instance—that really interests me, and I’m not really taken by the explanatory kind of avenue that things that come with straight dialogue have, for instance. I don’t write scripted dialogue; I haven’t for any of the movies. There are roughly twenty-page scripts that establish particular scenarios, environments, character traits, tones, moods—all of this stuff can operate in the service of those tonal objectives.
RS Could you talk about about that writing process? How do you conceive and subsequently go about realizing your scenes?
RA As I said, the scenes are written in a tonal way. There are concrete explanations of action and conveyance and mood. I very much believe in the benefit of leaving the thing open, hence the unscripted dialogue; it allows us to be reflexive to environments and the cast and their limitations on that day and in that place. There are individual conversations with cast, initially about the methodology, then addressing questions and concerns about the scenes. I prefer to stay away from particulars in character development. It seems to me that ignorance of oneself, even of one’s past, is a predominant way of being in the world. I establish blocking and the shots are impulsively composed. Then we shoot the first manifestations of the thing, no rehearsals.
RS Is there a specific revision process that attends this method?
RA I continue to revise and rewrite the scripts until day one of shooting, often a bit afterward. Most of the revision takes place in the limitation of the thing. It is evident instantly what will work and what will not. I’m more interested in listening to the thing and the limitations it puts forth than in stubbornly inserting my will and belief that it should be something else. That’s a very vivid place where there is a collaboration with the medium and its potential. The edit becomes very important, an extension of the writing.
RS How much performative latitude do you afford your actors in the moment?
RA I think that the latitude in this film came about because of the casting. There’s a lot of latitude, but it shouldn’t be mistaken as some improvisational free-for-all, because there are a lot of rigid constraints around things, as far as what’s being conveyed. It’s not out of line for me to offer particular examples of dialogue. I just don’t want to dictate how things are said, which is why I cast individuals for their voices—their native ways of talking. I favor a kind of muddy naturalism; that seems most efficiently achieved through a process of utilizing native ways of speaking.
That being said, I don’t do any rehearsals; I only have conversations about both filmmaking and logistics—they’re exploratory conversations about more general things, but also about practical concerns, like the engagement between individual actors and what’s being conveyed. I shoot the thing straight off, and I seldom use more than three takes. I’m interested in the thing flailing a little bit—in there being this chaotic kind of uncertainty that finds a place inside the more rigid architecture of the film.
RS I guess another example of this would be the way in which Will Oldham really inhabits the role of Ike in New Jerusalem.
RA I cast for characteristics. Whether someone wants to believe it or not, the majority of actors utilize more specific characteristics of their natural manner of speech and behavior than they’d like to admit. That being my perception of the craft—or lack thereof—I look for characteristics that I can exploit and recontexualize into a fiction. I work best with people who are willing to bring along themselves and trust me to create a fiction out of pretty raw natural traits and their capacities for a particular kind of social engagement or communication, or a particular kind of presence.
RS Colm O’Leary moved out of the leading role for this film, but he co-wrote it with you. How has your relationship with him evolved over the years?
RA We’ve written and are shooting a new feature called Clement, set in 1868 in Reconstruction-era Appalachia. It focuses on the early clans and early freedman communities. It’s an anti-epic cruelty tale that explores some of the root causes of American entitlement—that’s kind of my long line. It’s based on a story of his. It was conceived prior to The Comedy, which was supposed to be my “smaller project” between projects, but became something else. He will be acting in it as well. We’ll be picking up where we left off to that degree. We’ve sort of waded into the medium together. I have tremendous respect for his intellect and partnership.
RS Given the setting that you decided to tackle in The Comedythat being the hipster milieu of greater Williamsburg—what was so important about Tim Heidecker? What went into casting him in the lead?
RA What he brought is pretty evident in the film. When I first saw his and Eric [Wareheim]’s work, it struck me as being really interesting because of its relentless kind of agitation. The great, almost redundant interest in discomfort and absurdity—some of that redundancy is musical and beautiful and horrific at the same time. I think they have a similar interest in the comedic utilization of both repetition and discomfort that I do—and the dramatic sense of those things, too. Tim, in particular, had a capacity to display a kind of agitated flirtation; I could see that both in his stand-up and his work with Eric. He had these qualities that rode a line between sincerity and antagonism that seemed to be perfect for the character of Swanson.
RS Absolutely. Their comedic mode is one that’s at once so extreme in its absurdity but somewhat honest in its intention to be confrontational, and you made excellent use of that here. Were you ever concerned that a particular dynamic common to Tim and Eric’s work might overshadow your ideas for the film—or did you have confidence in their ability to bring their sensibilities to the table in such a way that your own vision remained uncompromised?
RA Since the film spends so much time dealing with Swanson’s, the protagonist’s, forays outside his group of friends, it made it interesting for me to flirt with that characteristic mode and familiarity that Tim and Eric and Gregg [Turkington]—these folks who know each other—have in their chemistry, their particular way of talking to one another. It’s a creative ownership of conversation, where the normal world is a kind of banality, and they’re determined to own that banality and to exaggerate or destroy it. There’s this really interesting mode that occurs in there.
Because of Swanson’s forays into the world outside of that group, I knew that the narrative would allow him to leave that space—then, the antagonization becomes more extreme, full of different motivations. I think that Tim and Eric and I—all of us—felt that there was a latent danger in flirting with their brand, for lack of a better word. But we all embraced the idea of the confusion of the thing, and of flirting with concepts of what they do and what they can bring to the thing. If you watch the movie, there’s content and context that occurs outside of the frame—the baggage that a recognizable individual brings to the thing. But I think that that should be taken into consideration when they’re utilized in the narrative.
RS How did you go about assembling the film’s supporting cast—how did individuals like Will Sheff and James Murphy come to be involved in the project?
RA The independent record label Jagjaguwar executive produced the movie and funded it, as they had with my first two movies. I played music for a decade. I like working with musicians in that they are used to the scrutiny of an audience but are often private and vulnerable or have developed a particular way of performing, all of which can translate well to the camera.
RS On that subject—the score in this movie is really good, which is true of all of your films. In general, how has your musical background informed your directorial style and approach?
RA I think of the movies musically, from start to finish. I find myself being more interested in tones and mood and texture than in anything else, certainly more so than linear narrative.
RS Many people have read The Comedy as especially critical of the “hipster generation.” It’s certainly mindful of the listlessness that attends privilege, and—at least in Swanson’s problematized example—explores the volatile potentials of having financial means and an unsatisfied taste or need for extreme amusement. Did you intend a political dimension there?
RA The politics of anti-hipsterism don’t interest me really. The idea that it’s a generation is ludicrous, really—it’s all ephemera and perpetual social posturing. We’ve always had that. I have definite political motivations and opinions about passivity and decadence, but I think there is a responsibility to both explore and obscure those political motivations, or at least to reduce them to more fundamental things.
RS Let’s address the narrative itself—the plot is somewhat spare, and yet there is a lot transpiring behind the scenes, which animates Swanson’s highly antagonistic character. It struck me as a kind of post-domestic drama, in which he’s sort of left—of all people—to negotiate the wake of a family crisis. It’s handled in a very understated way. He’s literally walking around aimlessly in a more or less vacant house, his father’s about to die . . . I was wondering what attracted you to a premise that left the momentary drama of these events outside of the film, as opposed to one where we see them occur.
RA I have a real frustration with some of the more traditional conventions of narrative, the trickery that’s involved in it. I think that there’s this great, seemingly perpetual desire of American moviegoers to be placated and self-affirmed and validated through their recognition of a particular form. I understand that—they desire to be able to read in a filmic grammar. That’s where the flirtation comes in. To me, it’s almost obligatory. But I don’t want to explore the narrative in real-time; it has a pretense of messaging—that there’s some kind of point or moral lesson that must be conveyed in the thing. I’m more interested in the temporal nature of this “story,” and through repetition and obfuscation and concealment and flirtation—I’d rather use those things to substitute for the real-time narrative.
The contextual brushings of Swanson’s past have much more gravity and potential because they’re obscured; they’re a backdrop. Having an interest in naturalism, I question why the way we see or experience things in movies is so unlike the way we experience temporal reality. If I meet up with a friend and we have a particular kind of exchange—a narrative exchange—it’s more tonal than informational. I have a sense of a larger narrative because of that tonality and the idiosyncrasy of that person’s emotions. Part of it is that I want to be a sort of pain in the ass for people who think that they deserve to know everything about an individual just because they’re on screen. It’s a reprehensible and arrogant desire to own information and to own experience. We’re conditioned to expect that we control our experience, more so now that we can change what we encounter very rapidly through broadband Internet, and whatnot. It’s come to a point where narrative is completely divorced from the way that we experience the everyday, and I think there has to be some counterweight. There’s some duty to remove or strip the individual viewer of all the power and put them at the mercy of something.
RS Your point’s well taken, because one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of watching The Comedy is attempting to get a handle on Swanson as he appears through a series of fragmented vignettes. The structure of the film presents him at a variety different moments and in similarly varied settings. I think that’s common to a lot of your work—the vignette or the short scene—and I wondered if you could speak more extensively about your ideas about structure. Is your goal to drive at character through the accretion of moments?
RA Yeah, there’s something about that experience accruing over the course of an hour and a half—time acting on experience. The tonal shifts in our experience of an individual are more interesting to me than the patent, usual, dramatic sweeping gestures that usually occur in a compressed space. People who say that there’s no narrative in The Comedy are missing the subtleties of Swanson’s interactions—there are shifts and changes that occur in his relationships, and in the actual scenarios that he encounters. They are different, and there’s something about how I am engineering the scenes and how [Tim] is engineering the scenes—a desire for ownership of a narrative, and also relinquishing of that ownership in the hopes that something will act on us—and specifically, on Tim. It was a really interesting process to figure out this particular concept with these particular people who are working on different planes—in terms of how they complemented one another and formed content.
RS Are there any trends that you find especially problematic in contemporary American cinema, whether independent or mainstream?
RA The trends I find problematic are trends that belong to an older cinema, one’s that had some validity and purpose at a different point. It disappoints me that we, as a larger American audience with increasingly unlimited access to history and information, seem to have lost interest in the evolution of popular forms in a really meaningful way. We want them in different colors, but don’t change the shape. We need the shape, demand it even. It substantiates us. It validates us. It is on our terms and leaves us untouched. We want to be titillated but not to question or explore what titillates us. I think the need and desire to accommodate that instinct in audiences is not just problematic but potentially dangerous.
RS The Comedy is undoubtedly a controversial and divisive film—it’s literally split audiences. Are today’s audiences too comfortable with their position as such, and if so, what ought filmmakers do to add more dynamism to the experience of viewership?
RA I have always gone to movies to be destabilized, to have my perception shifted or my heart and head confused. I have always gone to them desperately. I have desired them to resuscitate or reanimate me in some way. So I would think being challenged by a movie, confused by it and ourselves is a primary impetus of watching. I am apparently a minority in that regard. So then you consider how that same pitch might affect someone who comes to the thing with the intent of being validated and assured. They are angry. It is an insult or a failure. With the response to The Comedy I have found there is a small bandwidth of people that reside in between these two impulses. Maybe the movie is for them, I don’t know.
RS Where would you like to see cinema go from here in general?
RA It’s a strange, vicious cycle, giving people what they want—it quickly dictates what you can give. Without government arts support like they have in Europe, or the non-profit equivalent, there is little more than a free market decline into the ever more palatable and mediocre (as far as any flirtation with a wider footprint for a movie goes). There needs to be a tidal shift in the way we support and disseminate challenging and innovative cinema to that common market. All we have now is the increasingly isolated and literally bankrupt purveyors of art cinema on one side of the room and the pushers of audio-visual narcotics on the other. I want to see a reanimated, subsidized independent space that can gradually improve that horrendous diet. In other words, I want to live in the ‘70s.
The Comedy opens at BAM on Friday, November 16. Alverson and Heidecker will be present for Q&A’s at 6:50 pm screenings the 16 and 17 of November. The film will be in wide release later in the month.
Alverson’s New Jerusalem will be screening at Videology in Williamsburg November 30 through December 6.
Ryan Sheldon is a fiction writer who writes for BOMBlog about books, film, and music.