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Rick Alverson Talks ‘Entertainment,’ Neil Hamburger, and Finding a Movie’s Shape

Written by on November 13, 2015 

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For as unpleasant and uninviting as his films might sometimes feel, Rick Alverson is rather friendly and open in conversation. I wasn’t surprised, having spoken to him when The Comedy was released three years ago, but the latest endeavor, Entertainment, might be even more savage an indictment of certain mentalities and mindsets that its star has become (in)famous for. At the center is Gregg Turkington, whose character — despite only being called “The Comedian” — is his own Neil Hamburger, a rough-voiced, abrasive-beyond-reproach stand-up who’s earned a reputation through years of touring. (Click here to get a sample.)

I wasn’t interested in asking about the meaning behind specific moments or how he really feels about these characters. There’s plenty to consider, no matter how you feel about Entertainment in the long run — a week after viewing it, I’m still not certain — which meant our time together could cover a lot of ground.

You made two little-seen features, and then, when The Comedy happened, you were suddenly in a spotlight — “a spotlight” insofar as you were now asked to do interview after interview to discuss a very particular piece. That hasn’t changed with Entertainment; it’s only increased. Is it strange to have to be open about works that don’t necessarily announce their intentions? I’ve been wrestling with this film since seeing it.

I mean, I think about this, because there are a lot of people — directors — that choose not to “divulge any of their secrets,” or something. But I think, frankly, it feels somewhat in keeping with the experiment of Entertainment and The Comedy to talk about process, because there is a certain engineered event of “wrestling” with the thing, like you said, that is, I think, an objective and a responsibility of what I’m doing. So, to talk about that… I haven’t been, and I try not to talk much about narrative, or to talk about my feelings, or about the character’s emotional arc or narrative relationships in the movie. Those things don’t really interest me all that much at this point, you know? But I will talk about, like, the formal components and composing those things because, largely, one of the objectives of the movie is to make us reconsider the form and content relationship, and essentially how movies are engineering us to look through form and directly at content. The amount of emphasis on content all around us, through all media, is staggering.

What’s even more problematic for me is this engineered response to ignore form, or to experience content at the expense of form. So I think there’s an event that’s happening to us — a physiological event with imbibing any media. An aural, visual, and tonal event that we look through and we’re taught to look through — and we’re supposed to be “reading” the thing, like it’s literature. But the fact of the matter is that it isn’t; there’s an experiential thing happening. By talking about process and the form of the thing, I think that, by putting some emphasis on that, then we’re critical viewers, to some degree. I think a skepticism… if people walk away from this experience with a kind of awareness — and skepticism is a form of that — of the events of the thing, then we’re closer to the experience, rather than just looking through the experience for directions to tidy, efficient, validating kind of narcotic events.

Have you made much of Entertainment’s reception, then? Has the review-reading process been at all surprising or satisfying?

I think it’s been surprising and satisfying. I’m thrilled that some of these interests and objectives are resonating with people. I’m humbled and excited by that; it makes me… it challenges some of my pessimism. [Laughs] Which, I guess, is not the worst thing.

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So many of the settings are barren (in the case of the landscapes) or banal (in the case of the motels and clubs), and thus isn’t such a pleasant thing to be situated in. But the compositions evoke something beautiful in their austerity, so I wonder how you find the balance between a striking image and the sense of being dull, empty, even dead.

Well, here’s the thing: I’m aware that some of those images are titillating and beautiful, in ways, because there’s a sort of commonality about that symmetrical, cinematic beauty. Me and Lorenzo Hagerman, my DP, we were aware that they should be pleasing to us, but pleasing to us in ways that it’s grammatically accessible to audience — that it flirts with both “classic” cinema and “art” cinema. These are conversations about popular forms, so I think that, in keeping with the subject of the project, that making, having these classic, anamorphic, symmetrical, highly composed images — which are satisfying to me, aesthetically.

I’m an audience member, so I’m using that as a metric and a barometer for maybe a more universal, popular, American experience — as much as you can. I did my largest “test” audiences with this movie. We had, like, 40-plus people or something. Somewhat diverse audiences, and I had always been averse to that in the past because of the baggage of engineering a film to be a common denominator. Then I realized, “Oh, that doesn’t have to be the case at all.” Essentially, you can see your objectives and what you’re essentially trying to engineer — if the thing is functioning. Is it restless in the right way? Is this a cat-and-mouse game of repulsion and attraction? Is it functional? Is there a balance there? Are we able to keep audiences enough so the experience has some validity at all, rather than them storming out of the theater — much like there were audiences that did that for The Comedy. Now, it can only be so universal before it becomes part of the problem. [Laughs] That having been said. I don’t know if that answered your question at all.

Well, the movie’s shape feels malleable. You wonder if everything is based in reality, or even happening in chronological order. Were there noticeably different iterations that you went through, with alternate takes or scene orders that might have changed the scope of it a good deal?

Sure, yeah. I consider the editing part of the writing process. I think this idea that we’re reproducing something that was imagined, and what occurs during that, oftentimes, traditionally, a very efficient reproduction of something is… I think we’re receiving something that is very dead, and feels very different from the elastic, combustible nature of reality. Responding both on location to the limitation and the problems — not just logistically, and from a production perspective, but creatively. Listening to this imagined event and experience, responding to the limitations of a room or an actor’s disposition, and thinking about how to use these things actively — and how to incorporate them — is really exciting for me.

My first movie, I was shooting it, so it was me and a boom person. There was a lot of malleability of being right on your feet and being able to experience the thrill of response to the events, of the creation of the thing. So, in keeping with that, I really still try to stubbornly hold onto that as much as possible, and have been fortunate enough to have producers and investors that allow me to radically alter the script if I feel that it’s necessary — in keeping with the initial sort of tonal objectives, as opposed to this idea that it’s just a reproduction of something that was promised. None of my movies have ended the way they were scripted, if that means anything.

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Then what is your relationship with your co-editor, Michael Taylor, like? Is it easy for you to watch this film and see where he directly made a choice?

Oh, sure. There are a lot of those, but I think the biggest footprint in my relationship with Michael is the way that we cut together. It’s kind of a unique process for us that we used in the comedy and we used again here, and I hope to in the future. There are certain instincts that I have that I know are too internal and blind, and need an objective hand — but he needs an objective hand with a test viewer. We go through this process, and it allows me to get a little bit of distance from the work, too. But we get together, he puts together the assembly, and we work together for a week or a week-and-a-half.

Gradually, we begin to sculpt the scenes and initially rely on some of his objective impulses with material, and keeping with the way he wants to work and I know I’m trying to achieve, and I participate in that process, but I’m literally sitting back in the room. After that week or week-and-a-half, I take the movie and I cut it for six weeks or more. I send him cuts, and I become really impulsive with it. I become obsessed with certain things and falling down the rabbit hole, and we get back together, and that sort of thing.

I’d like to shift over to the writing a bit. I was a bit surprised that this could be “the Neil Hamburger movie,” because I don’t imagine Turkington would want any peek behind the curtain of that character.

That’s right.

Was he hesitant about giving people so much as an idea of what the character’s psychology might be?

Yes. He was entirely skeptical and concerned about that. From the very first conversations about the thing, neither of us wanted it to be “the Neil Hamburger story.” It certainly wasn’t supposed to be a promotional vehicle for a comedic character. Now, if that’s a by-product of it, I mean, Gregg is an amazing person that deserves a successful career as much, if not more than anybody. So if that’s a by-product and people are driven to his work… but the work, in keeping with what he does, needed to be oblique.

When I essentially talked about recontextualizing that character into this other world that subverted the expectations of even his fans, he was very into that. It was the first time he even responded to being able to use that character. It was a year-long process of talking about the particulars of what we were doing, exactly, and what my intentions were — what we were “revealing.” Ultimately, the character is called The Comedian because he’s a riff on that stage persona. It pretty much took the Neil Hamburger persona, unadulterated, and put it as the stage persona. And then we created this offstage character that is obliquely related to that but exists in the film entirely.

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There are certain moments, like the Amy Seimetz scene, that are so incredibly ugly, and certainly not a flattering thing. It’s funny that he’d be willing to go there, to reveal a close-mindedness. That’s not really a question; it’s mostly just an observation, but…

No, I mean, I think that, for both me and him, that was exciting, to compromise the character. By making the character a product of the film that’s a hybrid and uses elements of his other character, it allowed us to do those sort of things. It is necessary that the thing can be compromised without ruining his livelihood. You know? [Laughs] So, I mean, the character exists in the space of the film, and I’m very interested in that moment where our sympathetic protagonist, where we become concerned about our affiliation with him, because it makes us culpable in the experience and we wrestle with how we identify with heroes and villains.

That seems like a major staple of your work. In interviews, you talk about having a range of influences: certain ‘70s American films, the philosophy of Robert Bresson, Lisandro Alonso, as well as the people you’re writing with and basing movies on. So do you struggle with harmonizing those to create something that’s distinctly your own?

No. I think it’s an exciting and educational experience to realize that there’s something… that any sort of act of creation needs the air of happenstance or chaos or uncertainty or chaos to get into it. If it’s just a vehicle for a promotion of one’s ideas entirely, rather than an engagement with the process and a collaboration with the medium and what that medium does, I think the “author” needs to be confused about what he or she is doing to have some vitality in the thing. I think that was less the case in my first two movies, frankly.

Those questions were starting to percolate, but it wasn’t until I took a left turn into The Comedy and deprived myself of all the aesthetic indicators and the confusion of the events, things that I don’t find attractive — that I find problematic or repulsive. To not make that clear to the audience felt really vital, you know? It felt like, “Wow. Now this isn’t just about me. It’s about a medium.” I’m having that conversation the way an audience member would, and as an author. I think that that’s continued with a little more intention in Entertainment — and with a little more care, frankly.

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Entertainment is now in limited release and available on VOD.


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