Filmmaker Rick Alverson (The Comedy, New Jerusalem) discusses his latest feature, Entertainment, starring Gregg Turkington and in theatres now.
This interview was conducted over the phone by Christopher Heron in November of 2015.
The Seventh Art: I’m curious about the stages Entertainment went through from the initial idea to the final film. I know you usually work with outlines and scenarios, not full scripts, and you’ve worked with Gregg [Turkington] before. Did you workshop with him from an initial idea?
Rick Alverson: A lot of the projects I’ve been involved with and the movies are all riffs on particular thematic interest and problems I have with the American psyche and unlimited potential – this Utopian bent for the Western, particularly American, outsourced dream (for lack of a better word). But increasingly the movies have become more formal and about movies – about audience content, audience-screen relationships. I think that me and Gregg both have a similar interest in discomfort: he uses it to comedic ends and I use it to dramatic ends. I was putting together other projects and I wasn’t intending actually to work with comedians again after The Comedy – not because it wasn’t a rich experience, but because I’m outside of that world entirely.
I saw him do his stage character Neil Hamburger – for whom we borrowed the on-stage persona in the movie (the off-stage persona is a creation of the film, largely) – for an hour show and it just seemed really in keeping with some of the things I’m interested in formally: the repetitions of his performance as Hamburger and the relentlessness of it. The way the audience changes over the course of the thing, adapts to it, contends with it and becomes maybe restless, and how that achieves ends that are of interest to him and the group of people in the room. I’m definitely interested in that vacant space in narrative and dysfunction in the formal traditions of the way American popular film is constructed so the audience becomes activated, restless and even aware of the act of watching the film – its failures – and that’s where the dance begins. Using those manipulative terms to some kind of… hopefully more constructive end than just indoctrinating consumers into complacency and a narcotic kind of experience.
I should say, though, that the movies do use scripts, which have gotten gradually longer, but they don’t exceed more than 50-60 pages. I think this one was ultimately 50 or so, but I don’t use traditionally scripted dialogue. In all the other ways, the scripts look fairly traditional and they’re pretty rigorously blocked and designed, the intentions of the scenes are on the page and what’s being conveyed from actor to actor is in the scene description rather than in hard dialogue. I think the biggest reason for that is that I’m not all that interested in dialogue as a driver of the narrative. That’s something that doesn’t really exploit the most exciting elements of the audio-visual medium, which is a temporal experience – it feels and accrues and acts on our bodies and minds in a frighteningly similar way to our daily temporal experiences and the tonalities involved in that, and the shapes and the sounds.
You said that you and Gregg have a mutual fascination with where the audience is positioned. I know that he was kind of disgusted with the characters in The Comedy when you first approached him with that idea – he didn’t really want to do it – and you’ve mentioned that you bond over the things you hate. I’m curious to know both what you two have bonded over disliking and also the things that are uniting you?
I guess name-dropping particular things we hate would take a long time. [Laughs] I think with The Comedy in particular, for me it was an investigation of things outside of my world to some degree. As being a Western, an American man that’s having to contend with all of the rigors of that stereotype and gender affiliation all my life, I think that it’s something that is typically owned particularly in cinema and therefore it seems that it’s optional. I think that the forces which sculpt the male identity, at least through the Twentieth Century that I know through my dad and uncles, there’s a lot of contention and dissonance that doesn’t typically come to the surface – the frailty and the vulnerability of the individual contending with the rigors of this necessary identity, whether it’s the stoicism or arrogance or anger. The Comedy explores that world. You heap the American Dream on it – the fruition of that thing – and I thought of this as dystopian insofar as you have these individuals who have achieved everything. They have no wants or needs, they’re the dream of that bloated body on the beach that’s steeped in leisure that everybody wants to achieve, as opposed to utility. That world becomes very ugly very quickly with the collision of those things and I think Gregg feels the same way. The Comedy is a total exploration of that horror story of male identity run amok with unlimited options.
How does [the beach ending] connect with what you were saying about temporality of cinema? The Comedy is structured in a way that starts… not arbitrarily… but could have started at any point in this person’s life and ends similarly. [Entertainment] seems to operate in the same way: you’re just getting a snapshot and this is the amount of times you bristle against this masculine conception in that period of time.
Yeah, I love when films just drop in and then pull the viewer out without the requisite resolution or introduction because it feels like that deprives us, as viewers, of the terms of the thing. It’s not entirely on our terms and I find that thrilling, unexpected in interesting ways; that this window isn’t solely owned by our preconceptions of what it should do and how it should act and what we should see through it. For the fragmentary time, the drop in for these moments in these characters lives is essential for me. I may just be ranting on… [Laughs]
Ranting is good, I’m realizing recently that all my favourite literature is about artists angry at other artists or even the practice of making art and that seems to come up here, the frustrations that The Comedian experiences. It seems to be about both the conception of entertainment, as well as the entertainer’s potential difficulties with entertainment or other entertainers. Could you talk about the relationships that exist between the audience and the art, but also the art and other art or artists – maybe through the clown character?
Entertainment‘s built using a lot of raw elements that rub me the wrong way. I think metaphors in cinema are totally dysfunctional and problematic because they just allow us to intellectualize the experience in a very concise and efficient way and then move on – with a “I get it” quality to it which is a bit of a tragedy and a waste of everybody’s time. That and symbolism in readings of movies in a literary sense. I think Gregg’s character that he’s refined over 20 years, Neil Hamburger, and the on-stage elements we borrowed from that feels like, from my perspective, the end of something – a feedback loop. The spectacle is eating the spectacle. The easy consumable nature of it is worn out and it’s not functional anymore in the way that it was, and I think both the Neil Hamburger character and The Comedian on-stage character [in Entertainment] are a by-product of that feedback loop. As far as the clown in Entertainment, that’s pushing something to its end also. A gyrating, shitting-in-his-hat, masturbating clown jumping around on tables and getting laughs – real laughs, I should say, no one was given direction to enjoy that – says something. [Laughs] What it is exactly is for all of us to suss out.
How does that relate to what you were saying about Utopia/dystopia? It seems like the clown himself sees, like most young artists these days, new channels of access whereas someone who is older, like The Comedian, would notice a difference in how art used to be made. For instance, there are two older references in the film: the Five Easy Pieces dialogue and also Dean Stockwell – both related to art that hit at a time where it was experimental, but could also find a larger audience. The Neil Hamburger figure, though, is only slowly gaining recognition now, versus the early days.
Yeah, I think whether it’s Dean’s involvement in the movie or the Rafelson references, that era was very meaningful to me and Gregg. There’s something about taking this character and putting him in Two-Lane Blacktop that we found to be interesting and hilarious in its way. I do think that maybe that momentary commercial recklessness in that golden ’70s cinema ended and a lot of those things were driven into a niche culture.
You mention [Monte] Hellman, the film made me think of The Shooting both in its location and… not to ruin The Shooting, but…
[Laughs] When’s that coming out?
The Comedian seeing himself in the television screen is somewhat similar and it has an existential twist on a genre, in this case a picaresque or road movie maybe.
Yeah, probably more of a [Samuel] Beckett road movie. I like those films, Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting. They’re totally dysfunctional, it’s not quite experimental cinema and it’s certainly not commercial cinema, it’s more opportunistic expression or something, I don’t know. It’s very interesting. As far as I know, they were shot essentially back-to-back with zero backdrop with these Godot-like figures. It worked at something that’s almost narratively indecipherable. I think they’re really interesting because of that, those are movies that can only be considered a plausible commercial commodity in the ’70s.
What these things have in common is something you said earlier that interested me, this aversion to symbolism. Beckett throughout his career was reducing every aspect he can from what he’s writing. I’ve been reading Alain Robbe-Grillet and not only was he interested in film as purely temporal, but also hated symbolism in the same way. These kind of existential narratives, including this one, all seem to shy away from that element. Here, even in the opening scene, the plane [graveyard] shies away from being a symbol, but we are examining them as objects.
Yeah, that’s the intention. Hopefully, the idea is that there’s this film grammar that’s composed of these convenient, efficient conduits – typically into the narrative, the content of the film – and we’re taught to ignore the form. Literally, it’s not even spoken of anymore, what you’re seeing and hearing. Metaphors in cinema have a historical necessity at one point, but think about that necessary obfuscation that’s employed to those constructive ends. In so-called free societies, that we would still veil “meaning” is dysfunctional to me, it doesn’t make sense. I think that it cheats us out of the experience. I think the problem here is that we’re taught and desire to be cheated out of the experience, it’s something that’s kept at an arm’s length. It’s tedious to look at something and say, “this is what this means,” and reduce it to language and reference and point it elsewhere, to not feel a damn thing about it. Because there is a grammar of that sort of thing from American popular cinema and Western cinema in general, we use a lot of stock symbols and metaphors, and hopefully as soon someone’s indoctrinated into that moment, the thing becomes dysfunctional. It isn’t the idea of its similarity to something, which is one thing the mind can become preoccupied with, but to look for its meaning outside of the shape of it and sensorial nature of seeing it is pretty futile.
How would that relate to The Comedian? He’s engaging with art and the audience then engages with him at different levels: you have the violent outburst from one person who isn’t getting it in the film, but as the viewer of the film you’re both getting the act and getting why someone would not get the act. It seems the two need to happen; if everyone understood The Comedian or Neil Hamburger, would he be as interesting without the possibility of someone misreading it?
Probably not, no, and it’s interesting because this is the most extensively tested movie that I’ve had. When I first started making movies, I was averse to that sort of thing, but it’s incredibly necessary and useful now – especially with being interested in riding a particular line with an audience’s relationship to what they’re seeing and expect to see, what they want and don’t want. There were a lot of people who saw this movie who did not have the prerequisite of the Neil Hamburger character and it needed to function with those people and neither me nor Gregg wanted it to be a prerequisite or to drive people to that character. It also had to work for people who did know him, but the important thing was it wasn’t supposed to work in the same way. It seemed to be tragic entirely and nobody found the jokes funny – most nobody – that didn’t know [Laughs], but for people who did know it was a different relationship to humour breaking down and the proximity laughter and exhaustion, which becomes a legitimate moment in the movie: when he’s somewhere between tears and act of laughing, and manufacturing laughter as an impulse.
How does the editing work in conjunction with that, because there are moments where it deliberately withholds the outcome of something. There’s a joke being workshopped and then when it’s going to play to an audience, the edit comes before you can see how it plays. The Comedian’s cohort tells him story initially and then later you realize it’s a joke when it’s being performed in front of an audience, but we only saw The Comedian’s non-reaction.
The emphasis was on the process, the act, as opposed to the reception of the joke. Maybe that’s just more the bent of being interested in the process, the material of the thing literally and figuratively, more so than the resolution – the thing we’re waiting for. My experience growing up watching movies, they fulfilled expectation for the possibility of the thing – the satisfaction and the deflation of the expectation that happened with resolution is great in the moment, but then you walk around with your life and there’s no corollary in the real world, or very rarely. Time doesn’t stop and there isn’t a rest, this finite moment of satisfaction where the screen goes black. It just seemed to be an egregious act. [Laughs]
It also seems to speak to the repetition happening in the editing, where there’s subtle variations, but the same scenario is playing out in different ways. I know you’ve connected that to a more musical approach and I was hoping we could go more in-depth into that. I’m picturing something like Steve Reich…
Is that the kind of repetitions… ?
Oh jeez, I wish. I don’t think it’s that complex. It’s more simple structural terms, but yeah, the Steve Reich thing of relationship and expectation, the way your relationship changes to the thing and the thing changes against your expectation – that’s fascinating. I think of the film in structural terms: the relationships between the colours or the spatial relationships in the frame, or the number of repetitions, there’s a musicality to the thing. Tonal variations and the pitch of the thing, it’s all dependent on the literal temporal narrative. It’s almost like there’s another want to move away from the content narrative which we’ve been sold and realize there’s a different kind of functionality, like we’re actually engaged for reasons unbeknownst to us. We’re responding to the formal engineering of the thing and we’re not even aware of it; it either functions or it doesn’t, but we’re looking through that thinking that we’re responding to a story. I don’t think that’s true, so there is an attempt with all the movies, but The Comedy and this [in particular], to find a very simple or maybe even fragmented narrative that doesn’t operate in traditional terms, but then essentially deceive the audience into believing that there’s conventionality. But to do that through the formal events in the cut, or these repetitions, or these variations. I guess it’s the difference between composition and pop music.
I think in this one, the formal repetitions are more pronounced. I found myself noticing how many symmetrical framings there were when The Comedian was alone that especially with long distances, there’s a loneliness to the shots. Then where there are conversations, the wide frame pushes characters in the shot-reverse-shot to the edges. You mentioned blocking as something you take into account early on, what were the strategies you were exploring?
Some of that is impulsive, but I’m really anal about framing and I shot the first two movies by myself, approaching those more as a cinematographer. It was even getting in the way of other things, like being aware of art direction or sound. There are tropes to even some of the framings, there is a classical nature to the extreme wide shots and the anamorphic lenses we used, because the idea was for there to be a contention with the thing as a film. It needed to seem like a film, there wasn’t supposed to be that deception, there was supposed to be an inherent safety in approaching the thing. Armed with that safety, if the film still functions, if it can still be destabilized… Whereas The Comedy used blanket genre deception and misdirection about the intentions of the author through the use of comedians and this provocative dramatic setting, this film was asking, without that flirting with the fourth wall, just taking it as a film, can the experience still be activating in this day and age? So there’s a mixture of classical composition and things getting messy. But there’s also a messy naturalism inherent in the performances because of the traditionally scripted dialogue. I have always loved exchanges that sort of fail, sort of fall flat or not be the perfect expression of either the author or the character’s intentions. When you have that with something that is classically, symmetrically framed, there’s an interesting dissonance that can be achieved.
How did you arrive at the look of the film with Lorenzo [Hagerman]? I read that you used ’50s lenses with their own imperfections, but it also has a more European feel. We’ve been saying ‘classic’, which at this point includes art house films, but it does seem to me to be that classic art house style.
Yeah and some of that classic art house style has origins in early Hollywood, so that attention of form still very much exists in European art house and Mexican or Latin American export films. There’s a total bleed between European cinema culture and Latin American cinema culture now. For a lot of reasons, the U.S. is a blank spot on that map and I think largely because our arts aren’t subsidized entirely by the government as cultural stewards, so the free market tries its damnedest every day to dilute the thing down to a palpable common denominator. I think every filmmaker I know struggles against that and those trends don’t exist here. You even watch a lot of independent film now and the cinematic grammar that’s taking place in the cinematography is almost totally transparent – the idea of style is disappearing.
Maybe we can connect this to the soundtrack, which has an out-of-place-ness. It’s out on Numero [Group] and there are a lot of tracks from the label on it. Who was selecting those songs in particular and how they relate to the film?
Me and Gregg wanted a certain sound. Gregg ran a label called Amarillo Records in the early ’90s in San Francisco, I think, that did these vanity pressings and outsider artists, 250 pressings, these rare and sometimes amateurish, but beautiful and fascinating, and sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking oddities. I think that felt appropriate and Chris Swanson, who’s an executive producer and founder of [the label] Secretly Canadian, co-owner of Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans and Numero now, was the music supervisor and he was able, beside the offerings of Gregg, to flesh that out and introduce me to a lot of things. We were able to place in the things that felt right from an assortment of essentially rare recordings.
Is it the rarity that’s important? What element made it feel right?
That they’re recognizable to an era, but they’re by-products, almost discard from an era. It’s fascinating. Essentially, much like the interest in the cutting room floor dialogue, something that seems incidental and not-quite-right and fails in a small way, some of those tracks belong in that place. They weren’t perfectly executed to the preconceived notion of excellence of the day. I think they’re impactful and beautiful, it squares with the film really well.
How does that relate to “Ave Maria”, which the film culminates with?
I was insistent, we tried to get Perry Como’s “Ave Maria” so hard, but they wouldn’t get back to us. So we had a choir do it and it turned out great, but that’s something that I grew up with and always loved. It was heartbreaking and the daughter’s name in the movie was Maria. That’s one of these personal, autobiographical flourishes that directors have the audacity to throw into their movies. [Laughs]
With your collaboration with [composer] Robert Donne on this film, what was the dialogue you two had before going into this? What were you looking for? It’s a fairly accessible score, but it did draw my mind to more avant-garde scores in places.
Yeah, me and Bobby both have an interest in certain horror films, genre films, and he was a co-writer on The Comedy and a lot of our approach to that was as a horror film. He’s in a band called Anju now on Kranky [Records] and was in Labradford – these were avant-garde, what some people called post-rock bands – and we played music together for years. I think there was an interest in trying to achieve something that was recognizable as a score, but seemed flat and didn’t quite meet expectations and played with dissonance. Those things are used in a traditional way, to heighten the intent of the film, which is the success of the narrative and the interest in its failure. That’s echoed in the score in the same sort of manipulative sense that Spielberg uses his score to achieve… joy and sorrow. [Laughs]
Here there’s more sorrow.
I’ll give him the redemption and I’ll take the sorrow.