Tony Grayson in "Allen Anders"

SXSW ’18 Interview: Laura Moss on Laughing Till It Hurts in “Allen Anders – Live at the Comedy Castle (circa 1987)”

One of the major discoveries at last year’s SXSW Film Festival was Laura Moss’ unnerving short “Fry Day,” spending the hours leading up to the execution of Ted Bundy with a young woman who saw a business opportunity to snap photos for the throngs of people who camped outside the prison to celebrate, wearing “Fry Day” shirts and Bundy masks in a frenzy nearly as scary as the man who was sitting in the electric chair. Less than 20 minutes long and set during the 1980s, it spoke to the current moment of making spectacle out of horrific events, the mob mentality and banality of evil that could leave audiences every bit as haunted as the girl at its center.

Remarkably, Moss has done it again with “Allen Anders – Live at the Comedy Castle (circa 1987),” though that’s only in reference to the feeling that it gives, not the story that it tells or its style, ditching the elegant craftsmanship of “Fry Day” for the quality of a seemingly benign VHS recording of a low-level standup comedian who’s had his act taped for posterity. Teaming up with Tony Grayson, who also made a splash at SXSW last year with foundfootagexx100n.s.1,” Moss eerily recreates the vibe of standup specials one might see in the wee hours on HBO or Showtime with something even more insidious happening inside than an unfunny Gallagher routine. While the titular Anders (played by Grayson) goes through his set, the short film brings out the inherent contradictory truth in most comic routines, which is refashioning pain into punchlines with the horror residing in whether the audience can tell if someone’s really suffering up on stage.

Laced with pops and hisses from tape its shot on, as well as the insincere laughs that feel as they’re done out of obligation rather than listening to what Anders actually has to say as a description of futzing around with a zipper on his jacket makes it seem like he’s opened a portal to hell, “Allen Anders” once again touches the zeitgeist without feeling as if it’s intending to as the comedian’s cries for help go unnoticed by an audience inured to the truth of what they’re experiencing by the context it’s presented in, perfectly fitting into a “fake news” era as well as one in which the fear of doing anything but the familiar can inflict its own wounds. It’s a terrifying horror film and an extraordinary achievement, made more so by the fact that it was born out of a shotgun marriage and as Moss, her “Fry Day” producing partner Brendan O’Brien and Grayson make a triumphant return to where it all began in Austin as part of this year’s SXSW, the director shared how “Allen Anders” came to be, the cinematic trickery involved in capturing the authenticity of a real comedy bootleg from the ‘80s and why it’s important to stay active as a filmmaker. UPDATE: You can now watch the full short here:

How did this come about?

It’s a SXSW love story, really. My producer Brendan O’Brien and I met Tony Grayson, the actor and writer of the piece, because we were all at South By last year and he was premiering a midnight short called “Found Footage XXNO1S.something…” and we fell in love with it. And we loved Tony and ended up pretty much forgoing all the schmoozing, just to hang out with Tony the whole time. He’s an experimental performer and comedian, so a few months later, I was at the Chicago Critics Festival and Tony’s based in Chicago, so I had a chance to see him perform live [where he does] this routine [you see in “Allen Anders”], which is wild. It doesn’t have the loop. That was something that we added in the film, but it does have this digression from reality, so I said, “We have to film this.” Then Tony and I decided to try to translate his stage performance into something cinematic.

Do you have to watch hundreds of HBO specials from the 1980s as research? The shot selection seemed eerily accurate.

Yeah, we did a lot of research. Pretty much any comedy special or “Night at the Improv” from ‘80s, [which] was as much for costume design and production design as anything else. We have a great team and we shot at Standup New York, which is a comedy club that’s pretty old, but still needed a little bit of love from our production designer to have that hideous brick wall feeling. But we were figuring out [the visual style] well into the edit. I told the audience — these lovely extras who came out and had no idea what it was we were doing — to never acknowledge that Tony has gone off the rails. The whole time, [I said] he’s the funniest comedian you’ve ever seen and they didn’t really know what was going on. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what was going on. [laughs] We were [just like], “This feels right.”

Did Tony actually do a full set as Allen Anders and you’re covering this like a live event or was it more broken up than that?

We did six or seven takes and a couple pickups, going through the whole scene. It was really important for me that the momentum of his own performance wasn’t broken, so that’s why we had three broadcast quality VHS cameras going on him at the same time, which meant we could pretty smoothly intercut the performance. Most of what you see is [from] take seven, but every once in a while, we’d place in shots from another take, and it was the same thing [for filming] the audience. We basically had Tony mark through his routine and just turned our cameras on the audience for three or four takes. It was a half-day of shooting. It was a crazy situation and at the end of it, I just prayed that we had something that could make a film.

Were the people in the audience perhaps people who usually go to comedy clubs or typical extras?

Some of them were friends. But for the most part, we did Breakdown Express, where you can advertise basically, “Come be an extra in our film,” and we needed to be a little precise with them because they needed to have a certain look. We also needed our costume designer to be in touch with them because they came in their ideas of ‘80s wardrobe and she came with racks and racks of clothing to augment what they were doing.

We also tried to create that atmosphere of a real comedy club as much as possible, and in that time period, it would have meant smoke everywhere. We debated get a hazer, but the place was small enough that the fake cigarettes [the extras] were smoking really did the trick. And we had access to the comedy club’s bar, so we had my production designer [Katrina Whalen] dressed as a waitress – you might be able to see her in the background in a couple shots — basically refilling everybody’s drinks, keeping them happy while we were going. So we were trying to keep it as real as possible.

This might be getting too far into the weeds, but at a certain point, I wondered who this tape belonged to — it looked professionally shot, but not necessarily produced for public consumption and you think Allen Anders might not have the wherewithal to commission such a tape, even though you see the tape is only of his performance again and again. Do you actually have any answer?

We had a lot of talks about this because our dream would be to do a half-hour Netflix special of Allen Anders, as if it was some found footage from the 1980s. [laughs] We talked a lot about literally, what is this? And we settled on this [being] the 1980s standup comic’s fever dream. In the film, it seems he’s stuck inside the videotape — and that’s something we got to play with in post [where] we did all of these glitches and weird little artifacts and then reexported the film to tape and ingested it again. It’s gone through legit VHS processing a couple of times, which is fun, and it did turn into “No Exit” at some point.

It wasn’t until we were in the edit that we figured out the loop actually. When Tony performs [“Allen Anders”] live, there’s this soundtrack. [The act] starts out as this really schmaltzy comedy routine that everybody laughs at because it’s so bad — “Mondays! This guy knows what I’m talking about.” And then as he starts to talk about the zipper, there’s this very eerie musical sound cue and I remember talking to Tony about that, saying, “That’s not going to translate onscreen.” When I watch Tony, I feel like I’m a little bit split in half, like I’m along for this ride with him and I’m uncomfortable at the same time, but I feel the things that help us suspend our disbelief or get into an emotional space are very different onstage than onscreen. So I was like, “Ok, how do we translate this effect and what does this feel like and how do we translate this imagery?” I thought “Wow, the audience doesn’t react [to this moment], we get this feeling of being stuck in this cycle, and it’s going to bring out Tony’s act in a new way.

Talking about post, you have a lot of fun with the credits and the music. Who’s responsible?

Katrina [Whalen], the production designer, did the titles — she’s a great titles designer and a great filmmaker in her own right. We were classmates at NYU, and my brother Doug, who’s a post-production sound mixer and composer, did the music and the sound mix. I had given him the reference of an old Norm MacDonald special’s closing credits and we don’t own to rights for that, but that’s what we temped in for a long time. Doug [then] spat out this amazing ditty that I still have stuck in my head constantly. But we didn’t ever want to break the world at all, [right] down to the credits and to the logo of the Bindery, which is a great production company [that] did our post. They have a great logo, but it’s modern, so my first suggestion was, “Would you mind designing an old sting for us?” They were so game, but [overall] it was important for us not to break the world.

This is every bit as precise [in execution] as “Fry Day,” but was it exciting to do something in a far shorter amount of time?

Yeah, it was great. Brendan, my producer, and I are writing partners and we’ve written two features now and we’re hoping one of them is going to be financed this year. But it can be really scary and frustrating when you’re starting your career to be so out of control about how and when that feature happens. So Brendan and I have made a pact with ourselves that we’re going to make one thing a year to completion that doesn’t suck by our standards. It didn’t matter how big or how small, and you’re right, “Fry Day” was a huge undertaking, it was a huge expense. And towards the end of this year, we realized a feature wasn’t going to go in 2017, so we felt this was the perfect opportunity to flex our muscles, to practice our craft, to work with Tony and to create something special. It helps keep you energized as a director when you’re not always in control of the next job.

“Allen Anders – Live at the Comedy Castle (circa 1987)” will play at SXSW as part of Shorts Program 1, playing on March 10th at the Alamo Lamar E at 11:45 am, March 12th at 2:15 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, and March 15th at the Alamo Lamar D at 4:30 pm.

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