Early in Vengeance, a New Yorker writer named Ben — played by the film’s writer-director, B.J. Novak — is stunned to discover that Texans lost the Battle of the Alamo. He’s always assumed that if they’re remembering it, they must have won.
Novak admits that he had the same incorrect belief before making Vengeance. His unfamiliarity with Texas and its history made him supremely uncomfortable with the idea of setting Vengeance there — which is one of the reasons he went for it. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, Novak went to school at nearby Harvard and worked on the Harvard Lampoon. From there he sprung into a TV career that has included playing Ryan Howard on The Office, for which he’s best known. But he’s also an established writer and director who has worked not only on The Office and his Office-mate Mindy Kaling’s sitcom, The Mindy Project, but also on his own recent Hulu anthology series The Premise.
In Vengeance, Ben is a relationship-averse Manhattan careerist who ends up traveling to Texas to attend the funeral of his “girlfriend” Abilene (Lio Tipton). Ben thought he was just casually hooking up with Abilene, but her Texas family (who include J. Smith Cameron, Dove Cameron and Boyd Holbrook) are of a different mind.
A bit of a jerk who delivers lines like, “I don’t just want to be a writer, I want to be a voice,” Ben jumps at the opportunity to exploit Abilene’s death by creating a true crime podcast. It is focused on her family’s belief that she didn’t die of an overdose, as officials believe, but was, in fact, murdered.
B.J. Novak lives in New York City, and the East Coast is where he’s most comfortable. He had only visited Texas a few times, traveling briefly to major cities Austin and Dallas, as well as Marfa, the remote town that Vogue declared earlier this year to be “America’s coolest art town.”
“Marfa certainly ain’t Texas,” B.J. Novak tells MovieMaker, borrowing a line that Holbrook delivers in Vengeance about Dallas.
Embracing his discomfort, Novak started spending time in Texas’ smaller communities – places like Merkel (population 2,471), and Pecos (population 12,916). He went on to do principal photography for Vengeance in New Mexico, and additional exterior photography in Texas.
He discovered a fascinating contradiction in the Lone Star State: Everyone was both “the most intimidating and the friendliest.”
In the 1836 battle, during Texas’ war for independence from Mexico, about 200 Texans seized a former mission
in present-day San Antonio. More powerful Mexican forces led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna besieged them, but the Texans held the Alamo for 13 days before they were finally overwhelmed. “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry for Texans who demanded vengeance.
“Every other primal instinct points toward a clear evolutionary reward. But vengeance is different. It’s not about the future. It’s only about the past,” Ben says while recording his podcast, called Dead White Girl. He’s talking about both The Alamo and Abilene’s family’s desire to avenge her death.
Ben’s journey in the film mirrors Novak’s own relationship with Texas, as he grows to love the open landscapes, the Frito pies, and Abilene’s family, who unconditionally accept him as one of their own. Novak approaches Vengeance’s heavy themes straight on at times, and comedically at others.
But he stresses that he isn’t doing satire. Satire, he says, exaggerates the real world while “trying to make a statement,” while he’s trying to “write real life and let the comedy rise to the top on its own.”
B.J. Novak admits he occasionally crosses this line in Vengeance. But this film is, at heart, a story of grief — and how family, not vengeance, is the best way through it.
Vengeance opens in theaters on July 29, from Focus Features.
Main Image: (L to R) B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in Vengeance, written and directed by B.J. Novak and released by Focus Features. Credit: Patti Perret / Focus Features
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.