Rick Alverson and Tim Heidecker on the Confrontational Humor of "The Comedy"
In describing The Comedy, one can use the terms “hilarious” or “uproarious,” but words like “provocative,” “cruel” and “disconcerting” are just as applicable. Inspiring comparisons to films like Five Easy Pieces, filmmaker Rick Alverson (The Builder, New Jerusalem) continues to explore both comic and dark elements of the American identity with his latest character study, featuring a revelatory performance by Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!).
Heidecker stars as Swanson, an aging Brooklyn hipster who spends his days meandering through life in Williamsburg with his crew of like-minded idlers (including previous co-star Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) with little direction and a definite lack of empathy. On the verge of inheriting his family’s fortune from his dying father, Swanson’s erratic and risky actions isolate him, making meaningful connections with others almost impossible.
Writer/director Rick Alverson describes the genesis of the project: “I wanted to make something that was an exploration of desensitization from a particular type of modern temperament. Maybe even something that borders on a cultural phenomenon that involves irony and sarcasm, with a certain desire to animate oneself through the grotesque or the obscene.” Perhaps one of the most polarizing characters in recent cinema, Swanson seems to spring from an amalgamation of the recurrent themes of alienation and disconnection that appear in all of Alverson’s projects.
“There are aspects of the character that exist in myself and people I know,” Alverson muses. “Some of that is a desire to explore something that’s the difference between my generation and my father’s generation. I think ultimately, too, the character seems indicative of a large swath of western culture. Even middle class folks, there’s a passive nature to them.”
He continues, “One of the central themes in the movie is that in our current culture, even people who aren’t wealthy have access to all manners of distractions and a barrage of conflicting information that can lead to paralysis.”
So who was to play Swanson? Alverson was initially drawn to Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim by watching their cult show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and being struck by its interesting and inventive format. He explains: “I think that their interest in awkwardness and the uncomfortable is in line with my own. I tried to go there myself in the context of drama and explore the spaces in between the certainty.”
Alverson reached out to the pair through their mutual friend and collaborator Will Oldham, and Alverson’s unique outline intrigued Heidecker, who admits, “I don’t get those kind of phone calls all the time. Rick and I talked for a while and he just kept on me.” Finally, after watching New Jerusalem, Heidecker was in. Heidecker explains: “Eric and I both watched it. It’s really hard to impress us, because there’s just so much junk out there. We just immediately knew that Rick is someone to take seriously. He’s just so capable of making a really beautiful movie.”
Embarking on one of the most challenging roles of his career, Heidecker worked to formulate an interesting approach to the character of Swanson with the aid of Alverson. “We talked a lot about the tones we wanted to hit,” Heidecker remembers. “Swanson really had two modes to him. There was this confrontational humor side and then there was the quiet insular stuff.” Alverson adds, “He fluctuates. There is a passive side to him, but he also is an agitator. The antagonizing is a very aggressive aspect of his character. It’s a desire to animate himself, a desire to affect the world around him. It’s a desperate attempt, in some ways, at engineering a response.”
Working from an 18- to 20-page summary with no written dialogue, Heidecker was completely free to explore the character of Swanson without restrictions. Alverson explains his and his partners’ process, which is conceptual in some ways and tonal in others: “Writing, for me, is bigger than the script. I think there’s something potentially antiquated about a 108-page document. It’s that old Hollywood model of having money and studios to recreate an imagined environment. As we well know, that mode is collapsing in its own way. There are new methods that need to be used that are more efficient.”
It was an interesting collaboration for Heidecker as well, as he explains, “Our shorthand developed pretty quickly. One thing I was blown away by was that he really knew what he wanted, and once he knew we got it, we moved on. He just knew. He’s so driven and focused.”
Using locations in and around Williamsburg, the shoot lasted 15 days. Without a formal script, the dialogue had to be improvised and created through discussions. Heidecker elaborates, “There were a few key things we talked about that Rick would suggest. There were key words or phrases that we knew we wanted to get in before each scene. Rick was really interested in finding the boring and mundane, like the afternoon after the big party. We didn’t feel the need to fill the spaces with tons of language.”
Heidecker continues, “It felt like this is the way that all movies should be made, unless you’re some kind of master of dialogue. It’s much easier to collaborate with people who can just talk and come up with ideas spontaneously to move everything along.”
Alverson thoughtfully speaks on the subject, “I really want to achieve a certain type of naturalism in all my films, and I feel like my approach is an efficient way to do it. It’s not out of laziness. It’s challenging and loose and strange and difficult to work improvising scenes and dialogue in that way, but when you let somebody speak in their native voice... it’s magic.”
When the film premiered at Sundance 2012, the audience’s reactions soon became infamous. News outlets reported angry responses to Alverson’s work and the rumor that numerous people walked out. He reflects, “I think those sorts of things get blown out of our proportion. I mean, there were 1200 people in one audience. The interesting thing to me was that the people who did walk out left in a huff. They were vocal about it. On at least 3 or 4 occasions, people had words with me in the lobby or at the Q&A and asked for apologies or defenses. It was fascinating to me. Maybe for some of those folks, the film struck a little too close to home. I think that you name something The Comedy and bring them in there and expose them to all manners of awfulness… they are just angry with you.”
The Comedy was Heidecker’s second film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the first being Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which was screened out of competition. Heidecker recalls, “It was funny that both movies were going to be there at the same time. There was this natural confusion that would exist. 'There’s The Comedy—no, you mean Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie?’ It was almost all set up to be an Abbott and Costello routine.”
Like Alverson, Heidecker was unfazed by the walkouts at Sundance. “It’s not a movie necessarily for those people. And that’s okay. It is the way that the reporters wrote about the audience reaction that creates controversy and suggests something that sizzles.”
After Sundance, The Comedy played festivals like South by Southwest and BAMcinemaFEST, and has been celebrated by audiences all across the country. Heidecker adds, “Since then, it feels like the film has had a different trajectory. Real serious writers have come out and written great things about the movie. So it’s not just some ‘bad movie,’ which I think was the initial perception.”
What does Alverson want audiences to take away when they watch The Comedy? He has a very definite answer: “Doubt. Confusion. A nagging discomfort. I want people to leave with a new sense of alertness because of those feelings. I think they are very important experiences that are eschewed by most movies and media because they don’t lead to excessive, instantaneous comfort.”
Heidecker adds that audiences should take note of this style of experimental storytelling. “I want people to think about movies and how we watch them. Let them know it’s okay to question the structure or how we’re sometimes duped into a false sense of normalcy. Most of all, I want people to question the old standard practices of, ‘This is how the structure of something should work,’ or, ‘This is how a character must behave.’ There’s so much more out there to explore than tired old conventions.”
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Also opening in these and other select cities nationwide:
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