A Conversation with Convention: Rick Alverson’s Entertainment Demands a Better Movie-Watcher

“Strategically subversive:” That’s probably the term that gets closest to labeling Rick Alverson’s filmmaking.

He sometimes refers to film as “the thing,” a visceral creation that, for him, has been tamed by our necessity to understand stories solely through their explicit intentions—a curse imposed on audiences by years of narrow-minded consumption. Entertainment, Alverson’s latest work after 2012’s The Comedy, uses these misled expectations as the basis to create a narrative familiar on the surface, but one that is not concerned with tidy explanations, certainty, cohesiveness or political correctness.

A crude portrayal of a stand-up comedian (cult alternative comedian Gregg Turkington, whom MovieMaker profiled as a “2015 Park City Breakthrough” earlier this year) whose art goes unappreciated, Entertainment challenges what viewers will take in both thematic abstraction and racy humor. Alverson pushes or reshapes narrative constraints in order to highlight the primal elements of cinema—its visual and sonic parameters.

Conversation with Alverson can be equally puzzling and enlightening. His views on commercial cinema are not what one might call popular, yet not unfounded. Entertainment announces the perfectly conceived intentions of one of the most indomitable voices in American independent cinema today—and whether those intentions are clear or ambiguous depends on who is watching.

Director Rick Alverson. Photograph by Susan Worsham

Director Rick Alverson. Photograph by Susan Worsham

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Entertainment deviates from most narrative films both in tone and approach. How difficult was it to get such a specific film off the ground?

Rick Alverson (RA): I’d like to think specificity would make a film easier to finance, but it’s layered with ambiguity intentionally in a way that made it a more difficult project to bring together. I think a lot of [financing] is based on the old model where the script was an exact precursor to the finished film. Independent film inherited a lot of those constraints but, out of necessity, doesn’t fully function that way. We can’t reproduce something exactly; we have to think in terms of the shifting conditions, like financial constraints and logistic difficulties of the production. It’s always a huge leap of faith, particularly with my projects, because all their vitality derives from a kind of ambiguity—a strategic kind of ambiguity. I’m grateful to everybody that made it happen. I’m really stubborn about that ambiguity and I’m really stubborn about those small rebellions against formal, traditional narrative structure.

Entertainment, just as much as my last movie The Comedy, is a lot about unpacking and deconstructing the way that we derive meaning from movies, or don’t derive meaning—the grammar that we’ve been taught by commercial filmmaking to interpret movies and the world. I think it’s a real problem for us and it creates a real deficit in our perception, the way that we digest narrative and interpret things. This movie, I think, questions a lot of that and internationally uses a lot of that grammar and turns it on it’s head a bit in terms of its metaphors and elements of traditional narrative.

MM: When writing a film titled Entertainment, does your idea of what that word means shape the narrative?

RA: Since the objective was to be bold enough to call the film Entertainment, I think it’s a fitting and sincere description of the film. We wanted to hit a broad dynamic with it. It should dance around all the ways that we are sedated, pacified and titillated by popular movies. It sort of does that. There is also a lot of it is musicality to it. It plays with that dynamic. It plays with this threshold between what we desire and need out of entertainment, and what is likely more nutritious for us but more problematic to our comfort. It plays a cat-and-mouse game with attraction and repulsion.

MM: It’s also fitting to have a comedian at the center of this unconventional narrative.

RA: Sure. It’s sort of the classic necessity of the court jester. I think Gregg understand that entirely. His onstage persona is a character [named Neil Hamburger] that he developed 20 years ago and it’s very much in keeping with looking at the thing square in the face and asking why it’s here.

MM: The film, then, is really also about audiences and our part in the way content is perceived or understood.

RA: Totally, and so was my previous film, but this movie is, in a more straightforward fashion than The Comedy, about viewership and audiences. I really believe that the author of the work is a viewer too, and they should take responsibly for that and have some sort of saying on what that experience is like. That should be taken as a credible experience. A lot of this movie, and even The Comedy, is about voyeurism and about how we digest and interpret things and what we seek from them, and the use of being pacified and sedated and anesthetize by movies or media, and the danger of that. I think formally for me it’s addressing a lot of those things. I have a bit of beef with popular culture, popular media and even a lot of contemporary journalism in movies that concentrate so much on subject matter and narrative. It’s almost rare to open up a description of a film and read about its aspect ratio, the color palette, or the composition of the frame, I mean, these things for me are first and foremost. I’m absolutely convinced that we are deceiving ourselves believing that experience must be a literary experience or a narrative experience in a literary tradition. I believe we are animals underneath all the language and I think that we are actually being affected by these formal components such as composition, color, tonality and sound. They are really the story that’s being told; the others are just passing for what the actual experience is.

MM: Tell me about your relationship with film as an art form and where these sensibilities come from.

RA: Again, it’s about dynamic. When I was in my early 20s and moved to New York, I had the pleasure of meeting a few painters that became close friends. I learned so much about the world and interacting with the world and about filmmaking to some degree, even though I came to it much later from that initial formal, tactile approach. The musicality of the cut, its tempo, its pace, its dynamic, its range, what it does and what it doesn’t do, how it affects a person or doesn’t affect a person. The problem with narrative fiction film is that we insist that it does a very particular thing, when it wants to do a lot more. That thing is tell a story and convey a meaning, a certain amount of information that we can unpack in a small synopsis or in a few words. Then we walk away and say, “I know what this film means.” That’s the absolute cessation of any kind of benefit of the thing. It’s so odd that we don’t insist on those same conditions with the fine art world, like with painting. Film isn’t all that divorced from these. It’s a compendium, and a mutt, and a hybrid of all these other arts, but it’s not given the same latitude as those are, which is I think a bit of a shame and squashes the potential of the thing.

John C. Reilly in Entertainment

John C. Reilly in Entertainment

MM: What were some of the qualities, or specific equipment, you and your DP sought to employ for Entertainment?

RA: Lorenzo Hagerman shot a movie called Heli, which won Best Director at Cannes for Amat Escalante, and I loved his sensibilities. There seems to be a real connection between a lot of Mexican and French films, and I kind of came of age with a lot of French and European cinema, so I was so happy to have Lorenzo involved. We used these ’50s Lomo anamorphic Russian lenses and we shot with the ARRI Alexa Plus in 4:3 aspect ratio to get the full sensor. They have a lot of aberrations that a lot of contemporary lenses have shut out, which are really beautiful. It’s soft at the top when we used a wider lens and these other beautiful imperfections that lent a kind increased veil between it and the audience, which is something I was interested in because I wanted it to resemble what we think of as a movie, traditionally. We were shooting in 2.66 aspect ratio, thinner than contemporary widescreen, so it’s even an exaggerated kind of cinematic look, in keeping with the title. This is all necessary one-dimensional contention with the way that we look at movies. The idea is to do that and then get in there in the thing and sort of rearrange the furniture and scribble on the walls with it.

MM: What’s your approach when it comes to editing, which is also crucial to the way we perceive cinema?

RA: I co-edited the film with Michael Taylor who was also my co-editor on The Comedy. Editing is an extension of the writing of film that needs to be reconsidered, and listened to, and contended with. Especially in keeping with what I said earlier about the necessity of independent films being more agile and not sticking to the script as much. That’s what differentiates them from traditional, commercial movies. I like to take advantage of the potential and possibilities of listening to the thing and what it wants to do in violation of what I might want it to do. Then it’s like a conversation between the thing and myself, and hopefully that’s a stimulating conversation and that’s also one that others viewers would have, because I consider myself a viewer as much as an author.

MM: Are you absolutely opposed to being a part of the mainstream or working in a more conventional fashion? 

RA: No, I’m not opposed to that. I’m increasingly kind of interested in the possibility of it, although I’d have to find somebody that sympathizes with my approach and interest. These recent films are total flirtations with convention. My first two movies were these quiet introverted things that were more in keeping with my personality and my aesthetic, but The Comedy sort of violated all that and felt like an actually conversation with the medium and the world. Entertainment is even further that way, even though some people have said that is darker or more confrontational than The Comedy. I don’t understand that. It doesn’t really seem that way to me. To me it’s a conversation with convention, and hopefully it gets us to ask some questions about the status quo of the thing.

Gregg Turkington in Entertainment

Gregg Turkington in Entertainment

MM: What do you look for in a actor? Gregg Turkington seems like the perfect match for you.

RA: Finding people who sympathize with and related to your approach. Ultimately some of that is your worldview. It’s necessary that everybody comprehends my intentions and prejudices and confusions. Then we kind of just move into it together. Cast in is incredibly important. It just can’t be anybody because it’s a kind of partnership. It should be more holistic than just a business relationship. Gregg is an incredible partner as an actor and a co-writer. We have similar sensibilities, similar confusions, similar dislikes, and these things are fuel for getting into the thing. He was also incredibly gracious about trusting me, which is probably the most essential component to that relationship between and actor and a director.

MM: Everyone has a reaction to Entertainment, whether positive or apprehensive. Is your intention to make films that stir the viewer enough to have a reaction one way or another?

RA: Absolutely. My greatest fear is to contribute to a culture of passivity. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I think this is in opposition to that, and not just for the sake of provocation, but for the sake of stimulating the mind and animating emotions. So that a film has some sort of use in culture and so we can bring vitality to our lives. It’s a playground for learning about relationship with the world and our perception to the things around us.

Entertainment functions to me as a drama. I don’t see it as a comedy. It has comedic elements. I’ve been very happy with the reactions but there is something that has been haunting me about context. We get so unsettled by ambiguity and that restless kind of thing that it does to us, which I find absolutely accelerating and really useful, but as a culture we get so off-put by that. We search for things outside of the content of the film and the its form to tell us what it is. Some of those are contextual things about who is in the film, what else they’ve done, as opposed to just looking at what’s in front of your face.

MM: What’s your next challenging project?

RA: I have a few things. One of them is a project called The Mountain, which is loosely based on a mid-20th-century neurologist called Dr. Walter Freedman who popularized lobotomy. It hits a lot of things in that sort of pivotal moment in mid-20th century, like the transitions and naive optimisms that facilitated the world that we found ourselves in. MM

Entertainment opens in theaters November 13, 2015, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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