Interview: Rick Alverson on Warming Up to the “Uncomfortable Cinema” of “The Comedy”

On the eve of its release, the writer/director talks about making the searing Tim Heidecker-starring character study of a self-involved instigator, how it's divided audiences and the disconnect between...
Tim Heidecker sits in a subway station in a scene from Rick Alverson's "The Comedy"

“Why do you keep having to push all them buttons?” the lead of Rick Alverson’s new film “The Comedy” asks in its opening moments, the most innocent of the questions he poses as he sits next to the bedside of his ailing father in a nursing home, bored and disengaged, prodding the male nurse with gradually incendiary questions for sport. Naturally, the nurse begins to tune out Swanson, the disheveled layabout who is simply waiting out his father to collect an inheritance, but for his most honest query, the nurse is able to give him an honest answer: “Sometimes things need to be reset.”

As a whole, “The Comedy” does just that, recalibrating the things we may take lightly now in an age where to speak plainly is to invite others to mock you. That writer/director Rick Alverson does so with some of the most celebrated post-modern ironists of the day from sketch comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” to LCD Soundsystem lead singer James Murphy makes his third film all the more effective. But even without such a cast, he’s created a sharp-clawed indictment of a culture disconnected from relating to each other in a real way through the journey of one Brooklynite (Heidecker) who spends his days assaulting anyone in his path with verbal grenades, simply to see how long his antics will be tolerated with a smidge of hope that someone or something will break through to him.

It’s a difficult film, one that famously spurred walkouts when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, but nonetheless rewards its audience for sticking with it, sneaking under the skin as much as Swanson’s barbs do to etch a portrait of self-imposed isolation that’s a strong tonic for these increasingly toxic times. Since making the move from music with his band Spokane to movies in 2010, Alverson has been interested in investigating such dark corners under the brightest of lights, detailing an Irish immigrant’s struggle to find a place for his craftsmanship when he tries to make a home for himself in New York in his first film “The Builder” and depicting the tenuous friendship that develops between a recently returned vet from Afghanistan and an evangelical Christian proselytizer in “New Jerusalem,” the director’s second film which will finally see a Stateside release later this month. While that makes Alverson quite the busy guy, he was gracious enough to take the time recently to speak to me about “The Comedy,” the semi-improvisational process that was necessary for the film’s authenticity and what he’s learned about audiences from making “uncomfortable cinema.”

Your other films have both dealt with the theme of displacement as it relates to the experience of its main characters who have been immigrants. Was it interesting for you then to make a film with “The Comedy” where its lead, Swanson and his home of Brooklyn seem so intertwined onscreen?

The other movies, “The Builder” and “New Jerusalem” were very much about conceptions of America and to a large degree, “The Comedy” is also. It just happens to be that the conceptions of America [consists here of] utopian imaginings of our experience and dealing with the ideal as opposed to the practical kinds of realities. “The Comedy” is an exploration of a potential experience in the wake of that utopian dream, an exaggerated portrait of a spoiled nation.

As it’s become more gentrified, Brooklyn seems to be more identified in those terms and by casting heroes of the hipster set such as Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Neil Hamburger and James Murphy, you seem to be hitting them where they live in more ways than one. Did you want them in the film because they represent something as much as for their natural charisma?

A very important aspect of the movie is this way of communicating that’s indicative of modernity, like a kind of language-based coded system for inserting creativity into communication that has become bland, uninspiring and devoid of real merit and meaning. That was a big part of the casting. Less so than a particular demographic, I think that the casting was about a coded way of speaking whether it’s irony or through different affectations or humor or constructed insincerity – these things I think are just kind of a phenomenon.

Swanson pushes the limits just to see how long others will tolerate him and the film seems to follow suit as far as its relationship to the audience. Was it important to be as provocative as a filmmaker as Swanson is as a character?

There are some corollaries between the form and the content of the movie, I hope, and I like to muddy up that area. Oftentimes, the form and the content of a film are so divorced. For instance, we would have a story about madness couched in a very seamless narrative envelope. There is a flirtation with the same kind of aimlessness in this movie and some of the ambiguity in the way the movie is presented and obviously in its title. Those things are corollaries to Swanson’s experience and his state.

Swanson also drifts in and out of nursing homes, which at first is necessitated by his dying father’s condition, but appears to grow into a fascination about his own mortality. Is that something you’re interested in yourself?

That’s a quiet part of the film and one that is substantive and important to the overall experience of it, but it’s kind of overlooked in light of all the obscenity and some of the aggressive behavior of the thing. But the whole narrative and form of the movie is couched and padded with this desire for a reckoning with mortality and a desire for a reckoning with utility of the body and manual labor. Those are indicative of the desires of the protagonist.

With a semi-improvised film like this, were there any moments of spontaneity you were really pleased with or surprised by?

I was thrilled with all the performances. The way that I work, there’s a rigid architecture around the scenes and of what’s conveyed and of the particular mood we’re trying to capture. In between that, there’s a certain amount of chaos that’s present and it’s my job and the job of the cameramen to look and listen and be attentive to watching the conditions reap some sort of fruit.

For instance, I heard during the “Representing Williamsburg” scene, people in the scene knew they were on camera as part of a film, but it must’ve been nail-biting time to wait for the natural reactions of what Tim was putting out there as Swanson in that moment.

It’s guerrilla filmmaking because of its budget, but it’s more about setting up conditions only insofar as you need to and leaving the conditions a little frail and exposed and vulnerable. But that’s never at the expense of people’s comfort or safety. Maybe it’s at the expense of their comfort a little bit, but they understand that.

Speaking of which, the film has become famous for the divisive reactions it’s inspired. Has the audience reaction to this film in some ways reinforced your reasons for making it?

I’m really pleased about how it’s being received. Of course, I would desire that a broader swath of the public was open to being immersed in uncomfortable cinema and they just aren’t. But there seems to be a lot of diversity of opinion and there are definitely some folks who realize the intent of the thing and the immersion and the necessity of being exposed to the unseemly. So I’m thankful for that.

Have you learned anything about audiences that’s surprised you from the experience of traveling with this film?

Yes, there’s a very rigid ceiling, maybe even [in] particular demographics’ willingness to engage with discomfort in cinema and also to engage with a kind of self-doubt, which I think is one of the greatest assets of the form of movies – the potential for self-doubt. So me and them, we’re on different sides of the fence.

“The Comedy” opens in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily on November 9th and in New York at the BAMCinematek on November 16th before expanding to Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque, Phoenix’s Harkins Valley Art Theater and San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on November 23rd. It is also already available nationally on demand, on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.

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