It isn’t difficult to answer the call of Melissa Stephens’ “Finding the Asshole,” as the writer/director/actress presents the opening title of her new web series as emerging directly from an animated anus, but still the comedienne insists on closer inspection. Soon enough, you’re thrown into Los Angeles where one also doesn’t need to look far to find an asshole, but it’s the whole person rather than just one part, first drifting into a high-end fashion shop bereft of rational thought about what would be practical to wear or what it should cost, cruising down the streets of downtown in the second episode where tourists and locals collide quite literally in a dance battle, unable to escape their own cultural bubbles, and for a third, stepping into a ‘90s-themed house party where everyone’s a poseur.
While Stephens enters these tales most ignominiously through the rear, she shows off a sharp comedic mind upfront, teaming with Tom Detrinis to create a ridiculous send-up of a shallow culture, often saving the on-screen role of the biggest fool for herself. A veteran of the L.A. comedy theater scene, she brings in a killer ensemble to give serious weight to such silly premises and creates shorts that are as unexpected in their aesthetic as they are in their punchlines. Shortly before the series premieres at Slamdance, coinciding with an online debut on Vimeo here, here and here), the multi-hyphenate spoke about how in “Finding the Asshole” she discovered herself as a director and coming up with a premise that has endless possibilities.
I met Tom Detrinis [when] he was producing “Cult of Love.” We were working together and we just kind of hit it off and I [also] saw him in a show at the Celebration Theater out here in L.A. and he was so hysterical. We just got each other and I had this idea for these videos probably six or seven years ago and the image of how I wanted it to be, but I didn’t think I was a director, so I didn’t really know how to bring that to fruition. But I kept thinking about them and I’d pitch people or I’d write it out and once I had directed my first short, I was really ready to jump in and do another. I was like, “Oh, I can just do this,” and then I met Tom and we just sat down and I pitched him this idea. It was born out of that.
Had you always wanted to direct or was that an outgrowth of acting?
I didn’t know how much of a director I was until I started directing. I’ve always written and produced. I’ve always done comedy and I didn’t know how frustrated I was having other people direct — not that frustrating, but [they] didn’t have an aesthetic that I had and the way I wanted things to look. [I didn’t realize] how naturally it came to me until someone said, “Well, why don’t you just do it?” for this short that I did called “Peen,” that was a Staff Pick on Vimeo. After I did that, it opened the flood gates.
It is interesting you mention a certain aesthetic since that’s what the three shorts seem to share in common – the way they can move with the camera almost like a dance partner responding to the characters. Was that something that guided you?
Yeah, that is definitely a choice. And there’s lots of characters in it, but [the camera is] definitely a big part of it. And [the shorts] all do have an aspect of movement – I wouldn’t necessarily say dance, but movement helps me tell the story — of the camera, of the actors and the color choices. They all make it live in a world that is just “Finding the Asshole.” I’m not really sure which genre [that’s in], but it’s that.
Did you ever think there would be a narrative connection between the three of them?
Initially, they do have a connection between them in terms of [the idea that] everyone’s an asshole, but each scenario and even the aesthetic of the piece could be different. Now we’re on chapter three, I have more of an idea of how I want them to be themed and connected to make it more episodic, but these three aren’t connected necessarily in a thematic way other than “Finding the Asshole.”
It does involve a lot of the people you knew from the theater. Were you workshopping these together?
Tom and I would sit down and I’d pitch him an idea and we’d go back and forth and then I go away and I write them and then cast them and we’d just go from there. I happen to have a good pool of actors from the theater world and comedy world and I’d just write for specific people that I’d like to have.
In the first episode at that amazing clothing store, you wear quite a dress – it almost looks like a Frank Gehry building in terms of all the waves and curvature. How did you create that?
Our amazing costume designer Katie Dehombre [worked] on every single episode of “Finding the Asshole” and she’s just a dream human being. Originally, I wanted it to be an eagle and just budgetary-wise, we couldn’t make that work, so we went in this direction that felt a little bit more doable. I created a Pinterest board and a look we wanted and then she went off and designed it. [And for the clothing store] we took an art gallery and we turned it into a clothing store, so it actually is a fine art gallery with original artwork in it.
For the second episode, what was it like to shoot a dance battle in downtown Los Angeles?
It’s very difficult because you’ve got to work with sun and people and choreography and camera and limited crew, but it’s doable. We did it.
These seemed to grow more ambitious with each successive short. Did you feel yourself growing as a filmmaker?
Yeah, they definitely did keep growing and it was a conscious choice. It was like, “Well, if I can make this happen, then can I do this. The first one we did just because I knew exactly what I wanted and I really love long, static shots, so I’ve always wanted to do a one-shot, and after I wrote each one, I wanted to push myself, so I definitely felt like I’ve grown immensely.
You suggested earlier this could go beyond an episode three. How did Slamdance come about and what comes after?
For Slamdance, I just submitted it because I thought, why not? [thinking] we probably won’t get in. It wasn’t even something we really planned on doing. And then we got in, so that was just kind of a fluke and then I was already in the process of editing chapter three when Leslye Headland came on as an executive producer. We started talking about how we want this to become an episodic show that can live on a platform, so [going to] Slamdance to premiere chapter three helps us move into a place where we can continue to make them. The beauty of it — because we made it just for the joy of it in a world we made up — is we can just do what we want with it, which is really fun.