Despite the easygoing title, nothing comes easy in “OK, Good” for either its central character Paul Kaplan or the film itself. Rather than exploit the usual struggles of an unemployed, overly devoted actor for desperate laughs, the dark comedy that’s in the midst of making its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival this week investigates the psychological toll of pursuing a career in showbiz to no avail. It’s not for lack of trrying, as we see Kaplan (Hugo Armstrong) go through three facets of his life that all contribute to a growing dread, from the workshops where he vigorously engages with his fellow actors in warmup exercises, to his afternoons anxiously waiting in his cramped apartment waiting for the phone to ring while eating omelettes comprised of egg and ramen noodles, to auditions for commercials in which his considerable effort and experience are unnecessary in the service of selling detergent and rental cars.
There’s a method to the madness in the hands of first-time feature director Daniel Martinico, a video artist who’s been making short films with his friend Armstrong since the fourth grade in Northern California. Surely, the trust between Martinico and Armstrong allowed the latter to be completely unvarnished in his portrayal of Kaplan, but Martinico is also able to deconstruct Kaplan on his own through the use of different perspectives in each part of the actor’s daily routine, wringing out occasional bits of queasy humor while really getting inside the guy’s head. While the two friends and filmmakers were in Park City, I was able to get into their heads a little bit over the phone about their inspiration for the project and assurance that Armstrong’s career is going far better than Kaplan’s. (No, really, he’s got a film at Sundance too – read till the end.)
Daniel Martinico: Hugo and I have known each other for a really long time and have worked on things together on and off since we were kids. But the starting place for this film was the workshop sequences. There’s a really amazing film that was made in the mid ‘60s by Adolfas and Jonas Mekas called “The Brig,” and they made it in collaboration with the Living Theater and it’s a documentation of this really intense physical performance. I saw it many years ago and it stayed with me ever since and somehow the idea of doing a film in a documentary style in which actors were able to be really physical and raw and crazy in the moment has been sitting with me for a little bit.
From there, Hugo is obviously an actor [in real life] and since we know each other so well, I’m constantly hearing about his experiences. We began to talk about pulling a narrative element into what was initially an abstract idea for a film and Hugo actually brought me along with him to auditions in L.A. I would sit in the waiting room and kind of soak up the atmosphere. It was kind of amazing. I also had the opportunity to see a bunch of casting tapes and they blew my mind. They almost could be pieces of video art on their own and obviously I live in L.A. and I have a lot of friends that are actors and I’m familiar with the world, but I’m not an actor, so seeing these tapes out of context was a revelation. Those kind of pieces were all floating around and then Hugo and I began to sit down and really construct a character that could be the focus of the story.
It’s interesting how the film has three separate tracks almost that come together to form the fractured state of the main character.
DM: Really early on, that was the idea. The workshop was going to be its own world, the audition tapes were going to be their own very specific world that we only see through the eye of the camera — and we never see the faces of the people that are directing it in kind of this low-tech, crummy aesthetic — and then Paul Kaplan’s world, which is really formal and locked off and confining in the way that it’s composed to kind of really emphasize this claustrophobia and just this sense of being trapped through the visual design. I think the real trick for us was finding how to weave them together in a way that really had them all compliment each other to accumulate towards where the film goes in the end.
One of the things I most appreciated was how if you didn’t know what the film was about going in, for the first 15 minutes, you would think you had infiltrated a cult.
DM: That’s really wonderful to hear because we didn’t want to explain. We wanted it to reveal itself, especially to people who aren’t familiar with the world because it’s like science fiction. Both the audition tapes and the workshop, especially, you’re really trying to understand what it is that you’re looking at. So part of the experience of the film is uncovering and solving the puzzle early on of what it is you’re actually looking at and why are these things happening the way they’re happening – the mechanics of the audition or the specifics of the way the workshop is happening.
Hugo, as an actor who perhaps has had experiences close to Paul, was it therapeutic to some degree to put them into the film and play a frustrated actor?
Hugo Armstrong: Paul Kaplan and I are very far apart as far as our attitudes, but I can’t deny there’s part of me that finds myself in an isolated, desperate and decisive place, just by the nature of the business. The situation that you put yourself in constantly calls your own idea of self into question each time you do it. And it’s a passing feeling for me because for the most part, I like doing the work. But Paul Kaplan is in a different situation, so for that moment not to pass and to be sort of stuck in that limbo, [it] was rather difficult to maintain that.
We shot [the film] fairly quickly, but still sometimes I would wake up and I’d realize I was going to have to be this guy for the whole day. It takes a lot of energy to be that, to oscillate at the frequency that he does. I think if there’s any therapeutic value that’s coming out of it, it’s seeing that the story, even though Dan and I painted it against the backdrop of Los Angeles and using this guy Paul Kaplan to tell the story, the most wonderful and gratifying thing [is] that we’re finding is it’s really universal to a lot of people and some so much that they say that they love the movie and that they hope they never see it again. [laughs]
If you’ve been making films together since you were so young, why was the timing right to make a feature now?
DM: It was always something we wanted to do. Obviously, we’ve been making films together for a very long time, but separately we do things as well. Hugo has a very active life as an actor, especially in the theater and I come out of an arts background, practicing as a video artist for about a decade. We did a short film together a few years back that was the testing ground for the way that we might work together on a narrative film with Hugo filling the lead and [both of] us writing and finding the film together. That was a really interesting and rewarding experience and that made me think well, we can step it up and do a feature. Hopefully this way forward, it won’t be as long until we’re able to do another one. We’re already talking about what we might do next and have some really exciting and crazy ideas that we’re working on.
HA: I hadn’t really thought about it until just now, but in a weird way, we’ve been working on our feature ever since we were kids because the way in which we work is really an accrued life together, knowing each other for so long. The shorthand is, at times, almost telepathic. We’ve done a lot of shorts and little projects and then as Dan said, it was just time to do the feature. It sounds so simple, but the fact that we were able to do exactly what we wanted to do was really almost alarmingly wonderful. [laughs]
Hugo, one way you’re clearly different from your onscreen alter ego is that you’re a successful working actor – you also appear in Stephen Frears’ “Lay the Favorite,” which is playing down the street at Sundance. Did you get a chance to see it?
HA: I did. It was really bizarre, not just the difference between the community of Sundance and Slamdance, but just the bare bones fact that you’re watching your own head like 20 or 30 feet high. [laughs] It’s a strange thing to do, but I had a great time on that movie and it’s a small part, but I really enjoyed it.
Was there a bit of culture shock running back and forth between Slamdance and Sundance?
HA: Yeah, Sundance is really super exciting and I’m having dinner with William H. Macy and there’s Bruce Willis and Rebecca Hall and Stephen Frears is patting me on the back and it’s all really wonderful, but it is fleeting to a certain degree and being here at Slamdance, it feels much more grounded. Being here with something that we worked so hard on and really put all of our heart and soul into, it’s amazing. It’s rewarding on a whole deeper level.