Shortly before the making of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Jim Carrey had a novel idea for the electronic press kit materials for the film, the collection of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that is eventually drawn on to help promote the film later. Rather than cede these responsibilities to one of the many companies that typically handles the duties, Carrey had suggested that Kaufman’s longtime girlfriend Lynne Margulies, a filmmaker in her own right, be given unrestricted access to observe the making of the film and witness his uncompromising transformation into the comedian, which he would stay in character for both on-screen and off, much to the torment of many on the set including director Milos Forman.
It was around this same time that a world away from Hollywood, culturally if not geographically, Chris Smith was in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, just trying to survive the making of “Coven,” which he was documenting for his second feature “American Movie.” A seemingly cursed low-budget production that was being pulled together by the sheer will of its indefatigable director Mark Borchardt, Smith lovingly captured the lengths to which a film crew would go to chase the goal of scaring the bejeezus out of an audience when it was the film shoot itself that proved most fearsome. While Borchardt was seen having to beg, borrow and steal to keep “Coven” afloat, Smith had been running short on film, leading him to get in touch with a filmmaker friend Jim McKay and his producing partner Michael Stipe, who came onto the project as producers and kept the cameras rolling.
“American Movie” would be life-changing for Smith, enduring now for generations as a pure distillation of the controlled chaos of making a movie and exemplifying the filmmaker’s gift for articulating what drives people to extremes, whether in activism (“The Yes Men”), home-buying (“Home Movie”) or predicting the end of the world (“Collapse”), because of how humanely he trains his lens on the people he profiles. So it was only natural that when Spike Jonze was trying to figure out what to do with his discovery of the “Man on the Moon” footage, which had been tucked away in Carrey’s archives after Universal declined to use it as part of their promotion of the film, he gave a call to Smith, who would soon find himself in the unlikely position of making two movies about making movies in 1999.
“I could’ve never imagined, especially at that time,” says Smith now, reflecting on how the stars aligned for “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton,” which recently premiered on Netflix. “And I was spending time with Michael Stipe while he was working on music for ‘Man on the Moon’ and because he produced a movie for me and for Spike that year — “American Movie” and ‘Being John Malkovich’ — so he was at the center of all three films. It’s really odd when you think back to it.”
Yet the peculiarities of destiny become a central theme Smith explores in “Jim & Andy,” which mixes the footage from Carrey’s archives with the actor reflecting on the experience nearly two decades years later. To say the actor is in a different place than when he sublimated himself into the persona of Kaufman is an understatement, as the initial question to Carrey about how he would start the film is answered with a rumination of time, suggesting that things neither begin nor end, but exist on a continuum. Confiding that he’s found a “quiet, gentle seat in the universe,” he talks as if he’s discovered the same higher plane of consciousness that Kaufman had once stumbled upon to separate himself from other comedians with his inspired sense of absurdity, though it becomes clear the path Carrey had to take to get there hadn’t been easy on him. Having spent the last four years largely out of the spotlight, Carrey looks back with clear eyes on giving himself over fully to playing Kaufman, but also to the role of being a movie star, which he was never entirely comfortable with.
The communion with Carrey seems perfectly timed for Smith, who has also spent significant time away from the camera in recent years, instead turning his attention towards helping shepherd the films of others in his native Milwaukee as a producer on such films as “Animals” and “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” and venturing into the tech world, launching the recommendation app Rex. When asking questions about career choices or defining what success is, having reached the pinnacle of a given field, it seems like the filmmaker could be interrogating himself and even more so than the revealing footage that “Jim & Andy” shares from the set of “Man on the Moon,” Smith’s ability to meet Carrey on his own terms results in soul searching that is as satisfying to experience as it likely was to undergo. Following premieres at Venice and Toronto, Smith was recently in Los Angeles to show “Jim & Andy” at AFI Fest and he spoke about taking on the unusual project, the challenges of creating a narrative from a wide-ranging conversation, and what else he’s been up to lately.
So does Spike Jonze just hand you a box of tapes?
That’s the short version. I got a call out of the blue, just saying this project that we’re interested in talking to you about. Basically, there were about a hundred hours of footage shot when Jim Carrey was making “Man on the Moon” and “Would you be interested in possibly going through it?” Of course, for me, it was just looking at a project [with] Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey and Spike Jonze, it was an immediate “yes.” But then it’s like, “Okay, let’s take a step back and look at what this is.” When they originally came to me, I think people were thinking that the movie would be more focused on that one event [of the production of “Man on the Moon”] and interviewing everyone involved. But I was much more interested in focusing on Jim and how his life was affected from that event and what it was like as an actor for him to immerse himself in that character. So that’s where we started, with the idea that if it didn’t work, we could always do additional interviews. But it became very clear very quickly that that was the right approach.
When you’re offered this project, where are you as a filmmaker? Knowing you’ve developed an app and producing other people’s films, is directing your own films still something that holds interest for you?
Like where the hell did I go? [laughs] I spent about a decade just working on independent films and after the last one, I just realized I was killing myself to make these things, produce them independently and the audience wasn’t there anymore. So it was a time for me to take a step back and try to figure out what I wanted to do and I spent a lot of time working on a lot of different things. I moved to England and lived on a farm for a bit. So I went into a different space, taking a break from filmmaking and I was writing a lot. I wrote an animated film that I optioned and I wrote a historical drama that Antoine Fuqua’s company optioned. I also worked on some technology – on an app – and again, it was also just an attempt to explore different worlds and ideas and see what they would lead to. It was really an interesting exploratory period, but I was really happy to get back to making a movie.
[“Jim & Andy”] just came out of the blue and it was very exciting and really fun to get back into it. It felt very second nature and I couldn’t have a better project to get re-immersed into that world because of the support around it.
Because of the nature of this conversation with Jim, who’s also coming off a career break and clearly in a reflective mood, did you find yourself in a place where you were ready to have it?
I feel the same way that Jim says every movie that he made was a reflection of that period in his life. I feel very similarly. “American Movie” was about a guy that was struggling to make an independent film, where I was very much in the same situation. I hadn’t had any real success at that time. I was filming by myself Mark, who was filming by himself at many times, and then I was very politically active in the late ‘90s/early 2000s and so “The Yes Men” was a reflection of that. I was always really interested in weird homes and people who lived off the grid, so “Home Movie” was around that time where I was looking into buying a house and what that means. And “Collapse” [came out of] this obsession with how the world really works, trying to understand what forces are really at play, and going deep into the world of Michael Ruppert, so with taking some time away and trying to figure out what’s actually important and what you want to do, this movie is definitely a reflection of that headspace.
Is it true you didn’t meet Jim until after watching the “Man on the Moon” footage?
No. I didn’t meet Jim until we started recording the interview. [laughs] I like to not meet people that I’m going to interview because I think there’s an energy that comes from that interaction. We were just given the footage and [after] sifting through and experiencing that time period through that footage, we cut that down to three-and-a-half hours, then used that as the basis for the interview, in addition to just having a real curiosity of who this person is and their thoughts not only on that time period, but everything else that’s happened since.
When it’s predicated on archival material like this, were there touchstones in the footage that you thought you could build around in terms of certain themes or storylines?
A lot of the footage led to questions that gave context to those events and a lot of the additional material just came from [Jim] being in a place in his life where he was open and willing to reflect not only on that time, but on everything that’s happened since. We just caught him at a really great moment, and if he came in and said, “I’m only willing to talk about that instance,” we would’ve ended up with a very different movie. But he felt comfortable and very open at that time to having a discussion about anything, so that dialogue resulted in a movie that far exceeded just something that was limited to an event or particular period of time.
It’s funny how things happen for a reason and I think had this movie gotten made earlier, there’s no way it would’ve been the same film. It was very much a product of this sequence of events, which is that he had the film tucked away for 18 years.
Your last film “Collapse” also was centered around a single interview that you draw a compelling narrative out of. Did that film influence how you and your longtime editor Barry Poltermann went about this in terms of knowing how to structure it when it’s not as obvious as a chronologically-told story?
I think every film you do, you’re learning and you’re becoming a better filmmaker. At times, I’ve looked back on older films and you look at them differently because you have a different way that you would approach the material, but “Collapse” did give us a better sense of how to deal with something that was largely centered around one person. Barry and I work really well together because I have one angle in terms of what I’m looking for and the way the interview’s conducted and he has the benefit of just working with the material and not worrying about anything else that happened. So he comes back to me basically with a pitch of what he sees and that starts a dialogue with us going back and forth trying to find what the movie is. It takes many different forms along the way.
This one originally was in chapters, dedicated to different themes and then it turned into a structure that was looking at the days of the shoot. Eventually, we realized those two things were working against us and it very much led to the movie that we have now. Our goal is to always make something feel effortless and I think that we got there with this, but in that process, it’s very challenging to try to take all these disparate elements [to cohere]. In this case, we had Andy’s biography, Jim’s biography, the event of Jim shooting “Man on the Moon” and Jim staying in character, and then we had everything that happened to Jim since, so we were trying to make things work seamlessly. That was a challenge that only gets sorted out over time.
A lot of recent coverage of Jim has been reduced to soundbites where his talk of the cosmos might come off to some as crazy. Is that also something to be aware of in how to convey this conversation to an audience?
I think the environment and platform that we have in the movies just gives enough time for people to just to think about and digest the ideas that he’s actually trying to convey and I think that makes it seem much more relatable. I’ve had people reference things and I actually say, “Well, let’s talk about what he actually said,” and often people will come around to saying this makes sense. But it’s format – putting someone in a space where they can actually articulate their thoughts over a period of time as opposed to this chaotic red carpet environment where I thin things are taken out of context and they’re harder for people to fully understand.
How much time did you have with Jim to do the interview?
We ended up shooting a couple of days. A large part of the movie was shot in the one day and then we went back and did some additional shooting to fill in some gaps that needed more clarification.
What’s it been like going out on the road with Jim?
It’s been such a pleasure just spending time with him just because the incisive, thoughtful, caring person you see in the movie, that’s the way he is in real life, so it’s been such a joy. We went to Venice, Italy, we went to Toronto. We did a screening in New York — Michael [Stipe] ended up being at the New York screening and came up and did the Q & A, so it was really interesting — and now we’re doing our last screening tonight in L.A. and it’s just been so nice getting to know [Jim] more on a personal level since making the movie. I just feel lucky to have been asked to be a part of this and feel like I’ve been along for the ride.
“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton” is now streaming on Netflix here.