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Rick Alverson’s The Comedy Refuses to Go For Easy Laughs

Rick Alverson’s The Comedy Refuses to Go For Easy Laughs

Articles - Directing

In recent years, there has been a plethora of indie comedy dramas revolving around aimless, aging hipsters. The new film, The Comedy, is a superb example of this sub-genre. The movie stars absurdist comedian Tim Heidecker (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) as Swanson, a sardonic, passive-aggressive Brooklyn slacker ambling without purpose through life. When he’s not goofing around with his close group of friends, Swanson spends his time playing strange, antagonistic mind games with complete strangers that push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A subplot involving Swanson’s ailing father, who lies in a coma, hints at the protagonist’s damaged psyche. Despite its title, The Comedy is not an uproarious romp, but rather a piercing, uncompromising character study (with elements of dark humor) that manages to be both thought-provoking and unnerving.

The film caused a stir when it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and hits theaters in Los Angeles on November 9 and New York on November 16 (it is also currently available OnDEMAND). Before the movie’s release, MM caught up with writer-director Rick Alverson to discuss The Comedy.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Could you talk a little about the genesis of The Comedy? How did the concept come about?

Rick Alverson (RA): I had a very difficult event in my life, something with its own unexpected brand of indifference and cruelty, probably punctuating years of an equal indifference. It made me want to explore the capacity for desensitization. That summer I spent a lot of time with Champ Bennett (owner of the boat in The Comedy) sailing the waters around NYC. Being on that boat saved me from a lot of pain. I also spent a lot of time with my close friend Bobby Donne in Richmond, VA where I live. Bobby and I hatched the initial treatment that became the working script (I work from 20 page scripts without scripted dialogue) as a kind of audacious horror film filled with awfulness, knowing that I have a tendency to quiet things down. It was both an outlet for me and a budding exploration of ideas about movies and culture and communication and American entitlement.

MM: Why did you choose Tim Heidecker, who is known primarily for his absurdist comedy work, for the lead role? What did he bring to the table?

RA: I had been exposed to his and Eric [Wareheim]’s work only a short time before, and found it fascinating. I watched as much as I could and found a real affinity with their interest in discomfort and absurdity. It seemed troublesome and fitting to transpose that into the dramatic nuisance I was working on. It also started to become about coded language and creative ownership of relationships to things and people.

MM: Much of the film (especially the scenes with Swanson goofing around with his friends) feels natural and lifelike. Were any scenes improvised?

RA: I don’t work with scripted dialogue. I’m not fond of the word improvisation. To me it limits the ways a scene may evolve by imposing too much freedom on it; it insinuates a relationship to events and individuals, for me, as kind of limitless recreation instead of the limited necessities and desperation with which we predominantly try to communicate and engage in the world. That having been said, more traditional improv was definitely present and utilized and embraced in Swanson’s (Tim Heidecker’s) interaction with the group of friends. It needed that boundless artificiality. But elsewhere I try to set up rigid conditions within which individuals are unprepared, and in which they act and communicate more out of necessity.

MM: Despite its title, the film is, for the most part, not a comedy, but a dark character study about a man unable to connect with society. Why did you choose The Comedy as the title? Did you ever worry it might confuse audiences?

RA: I had an interest in bringing as many conflicting variables to the table as possible that would destabilize the thing and audiences. I believe we are more affected and aware when we are in a state of uncertainty. Initially, I thought everyone had the same unending cynicism and suspicion as myself and would never take such a blatant title at face value. It’s interesting who will and won’t. It describes those demographics afflicted by trust and passivity to media, and those, like myself, afflicted by a crushing mistrust of it.

MM: Swanson spends much of the film antagonizing nearly every person he comes across. Were you ever concerned that he might be perceived as too unrelatable?

RA: It was a tightrope walk. The other side is the romantic depiction, the opium of the movies that we’re so used to. It is far too easy to make a character likable, and dangerous because we lose that uncertain, objective relationship to individuals that we have in everyday life. I knew he would become difficult to relate to for some, but to a degree the movie is an objection to that glorified awfulness that saturates Hollywood and “independent” fare these days. Cruelty should feel like cruelty, indifference like indifference.

MM: When the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year, there were both raves from critics, as well as a number of walk-outs during a screening. Were you surprised by the polarized response, or did you always intend for the film to unsettle people?

RA: Unsettle, yes. Insult, no. I was surprised that some individuals are so conditioned to expect cinema to placate and self-affirm and divide the world into good and evil; to not only diagnose afflictions but prescribe the same tired old remedies they have come to expect. Those individuals have limited the power and potential of movies and their hands are as dirty as the purveyors of narrow moral tripe that have reduced American cinema to the dispensable state it’s in.

MM: In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also an accomplished musician and have released nine albums. Why have you pursued both art forms? Does each (movie-making and music-making) allow you to express different creative impulses? How so?

RA: I don’t really play music any longer. I explored the small space I could. I find myself approaching movies from a predominantly musical perspective though, it seems. I’m mostly interested in tone and texture and repetition and how that can replace traditional narrative. That seems to be a result of my time in music.

MM: Do you have any upcoming projects in the works that you can tell us about?

RA: A reconstruction era Klan and Freedmen movie set in 1868 called Clement. And an absurd dramatic feature about a comic in the mojave desert starring Neil Hamburger.

For more information about the film, click here.

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