Rather than a dark comedy, Owen Kline’s directorial debut Funny Pages is perhaps more akin to slowly unfolding tragedy with a number of gut-busting gags. The story follows Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), a 17-year-old aspiring cartoonist from an upper-middle-class background who drops out of high school to make his dream a reality. Moving into a damp New Jersey basement that’s basically a dungeon and crossing paths with Image Comics color-separator-turned-petty-criminal Wallace (Matthew Maher), Robert’s misguided journey may be painfully relatable for anyone who’s alienated loved ones through an intense dedication to niche interests.
With a very selective filmography after his breakout role in The Squid and the Whale as a 13-year-old, appearing only for friends the Safdie brothers (who returned the favor producing Funny Pages) and Michael Bilandic, Kline emerges an exciting new voice in cinema. Ahead of his film’s release, we were lucky enough to chat with him and the film’s star, Daniel Zolghadri, about the making of the film, as well as their own passions and histories that went into its conception.
The Film Stage: Well, maybe this is an odd question to start with, but I’m very curious: can you talk about the setting of Trenton, New Jersey? The relevance that city has to you, why you chose it for the film, and what it was like making the film in such a setting?
Owen Kline: There’s been a lot of movies set there, like Human Desire, the Fritz Lang movie with Glenn Ford. There’s a great shot in that where you can even see the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign that’s in our movie. That’s a classic sign. That’s just a sort of a classic cross-state sign and slogan, and it felt significant to the film and this particular story. Instead of the story being about a prep-school city kid who moves to an outer borough, the story demanded more of a hermetic seal, and the suburbs provided that—Princeton provided that. That’s a very particular environment. Contrasting Princeton with Trenton was more significant. The contrast couldn’t be more different.
For Daniel, was that an interesting environment to act in? Was there a palpable energy?
Daniel Zolghadri: Yeah. I would say that Robert, going on this adventure and sort of lowering himself, he’s kind of like a rich privileged kid and I think his whole idea behind it is to escape that in search of something more authentic, even though he wouldn’t think of it like that.
Owen Kline: Isn’t that all entitlement, though? That journey? I think there’s a guilt to that, like a certain self-destruction.
Daniel Zolghadri: Yeah, I think these things are complicated. Yeah, but those settings were fun to act in. The setting is beautifully built in this basement, and the other actors are kind of unreal and would have these heavy amounts of fake sweat, which is glycerin, like this sticky substance.
Owen Kline: And we were always putting more and more of it on.
Daniel Zolghadri: Yeah, it was a very immersive experience. And as I was making it, it did feel like we were putting together a live-action, weird comic book movie of our own.
Owen Kline: Especially since that’s how we started. That was the first stuff we shot in principle, was in the basement. So we kind of started with that hermetic seal of the movie in a strange way. We were all down there, it’s actually hot—it’s delirious—they had checked it for asbestos. With all this money no one’s making sure that this place isn’t going to kill anyone. [Laughs] We found this basement and it was kind of a nutty week. We realized, wait, no one could actually live in this space. We had to build up these apartment walls and make it look lived-in and livable and there was almost a bit of performance that we had to imbue in the overall design. Madeline Sadowski and Audrey Turner in the art department just nailed it, really just the certain chaos in that place. To me it’s the whole movie in a way. It sort of represented the whole world of the movie, like a world within a world.
On the set of Funny Pages.
This movie has some of the most incredible faces I’ve seen in a long time. Can you talk about the casting process of the wide ensemble, but also finding Daniel?
Owen Kline: I wrote this movie particularly for a lot of actors. Specific parts with strong voices in mind. Michael Townsend Wright was a lock from the very beginning. I just think he’s a brilliant performer and he was a cast member of The Uncle Floyd Show and he’s from the world of vaudeville revival. He’s Stan Laurel to another guy’s Hardy. He just had the Stan Laurel energy that I thought would be interesting for that character. I wrote it for him and there’s a certain dapperness that kind of shined through the sweat. There’s a certain classy kind of traditional quality to this guy. It’s not just some belching slob, although he does pick his feet. But I wrote it for him.
I wrote [Daniel’s] roommate, Steven—your literal roommate Steven—for Cleveland Thomas Jr., who was the assistant to Joe Franklin. He worked in Joe Franklin’s office and Joe Franklin’s office was this sort of cluttered hellhole. It’s just piles and piles of strange ephemera from old show business; it was just an avalanche. And Peter, who played the dirty Santa Claus in that one scene, is one of his other assistants.
I wrote a lot of those sort of oddball fringe characters for those people, and then Jennifer Venditti––who casts the Safdies’ stuff and a lot of great A24 stuff––helped cast a wide net for everyone else. For Daniel, we read a lot of people for this kid. We were just trying to find the right kid who was going to ground the world of this thing and tethered to some sort of reality. Daniel came in and read and from there I just knew. And I think what he brought to that character was a certain kind of self-hatred and self-destruction in the line readings; it wasn’t just sort of an attitude of snark. It was this certain kind of lashing inwards and outwards at the same time. There was just a certain mysterious, multi-layer thing going on that you were able to sort of mask, exactly, what was behind the motivation.
Daniel, what was the audition process like for you?
Daniel Zolghadri: Very uninteresting. I’ve been talking about this so much, but literally I did one tape. Like, I sent in a self-audition that I made myself and then I read with Owen, and that was pretty much it. And then we rehearsed. And then there was a lot of space after getting signed up until we shot, so we just kept finding the character and rehearsed a ton.
Owen Kline: I think we improvised a lot that found our way into the script too.
Daniel Zolghadri: Yeah.
Owen Kline: We just kept bringing life to it because you get sick of doing it over and over, so you have to find ways of making it exciting for yourself. We definitely found a lot of the layers of the seeds in rehearsal. We found that whole sequence, the drawing lesson that Wallace gives you in rehearsal. It took a bit but we found it. Like, it was three perspectives. That’s something we found and really reinforced in rehearsal.
Daniel Zolghadri: I guess that dynamic between myself and Matt [Maher], who plays Wallace, we really did that endlessly.
Owen Kline: I feel like the way your characters see each other you guys found on your own. You just needed to interact with each other. The dynamics were fun to figure out there.
What were the first kind of comics and cartoons you both fell in love with? Were you, from the beginning, kind of a snob who liked more obscure and older things?
Owen Kline: No, I just liked funny stuff, and I have a weird sense of humor maybe. As a kid I just loved funny stuff. I loved comedies and the Zucker Brothers. The first comics I read were comic strips—like three or four panels, then a punch line. Those were the comics that I loved. Those kinds of bright characters on the Sunday page as well as dailies. Getting into the history of American-produced paper strip comics was something I kind of dived into, in high school and stuff too.
But as a little kid I was interested in humor comics. I tried to get into superheroes and certain voices in that world were more interesting and less by-the-numbers than others. But really it was finding alternative, underground, New Wave comics. Just some of those voices, like the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets and Peter Bagge’s Hate; Daniel Clowes’ Eightball; Dirty Plot by Julie Doucet. A bunch of different comics, so many different voices. And comics are so interesting and different from film in that you sort of just find your voice for doing it in a way that you can’t in film. You know what I mean? It’s a more intuitive process and a very personal process of how you attack pacing, character detail, and how one draws a face says so much about someone.
That was something we were planning through this movie. Because it’s a lot of cartoonist characters and they all have different drawing styles, those have to be as indicative of their characters and do as much work as the dialogue and the performances that support it. So casting cartoonists with a variety of different styles for each of the characters, it felt almost like that device in old cartoons where the dog looks like the owner. But how someone draws the human face says everything about their approach to humanity. [Laughs]
Daniel, did Owen kind of have to give you a crash course on this stuff, or did you have any familiarity with it yourself?
Daniel Zolghadri: The first thing that I remember loving as a kid was, like, Tintin. And I read so many of those and I watched those cartoons. But I was never really fanatic about comics or anything, like superhero comics or any kind of comics. But I really did like nice-looking things, like colors and drawing. I did a little bit of that. But Owen took me and gave me a crash course, and he showed me the movie Crumb. And he gave me some actual iconic stuff, like Peter Bagge.
It’s kind of interesting because this is pre-MCU boom, but I seem to remember, as a child, the only comic books anyone (like friends or family) read were Archie and Simpsons comics. Those were the mainstream popular comics—kind of the funny pages—and then something shifted.
Daniel Zolghadri: What I’m into now is the Life is Hell books by that Simpsons guy.
Owen Kline: Yeah, Life is Hell is awesome.
There’s that line where Wallace says to Robert, “You’re obsessed with my failure.” Did you find, researching the lives of cartoonists, that there was kind of a history of depression and tragedy there?
Owen Kline: Absolutely. And I guess getting older and a little bit further into comics history, I became really into EC Comics, like the pre-code stuff. There’s a book written about them by some psychiatrist, I’m forgetting the name of it, but it’s a classic.
Oh, Frederic Wertham? The guy who called Batman and Robin gay propaganda and stuff like that?
Owen Kline: Maybe. I never actually read this fucking thing. But it was similar to the red scare.
I think it was called Seduction of the Innocent.
Owen Kline: Yes! Seduction of the Innocent by Doctor Whatever the Fuck His Name Is. But yeah: the book was mainly an attack on EC Comics. After the comics code was introduced their most popular comic was MAD! when it was a comic book—they kind of annihilated all the genre comics. But to me it’s very interesting. Like, there’s this whole generation of sort of genre journeyman artists—may they be studio filmmakers like John Huston or Raoul Walsh or guys like Wally Wood, or many of the incredible artists at EC or in the Golden and Silver ages. But they’re these guys who’d been through the war and the Depression who were cranking out comics, like Two-Fisted Tales by Harvey Kurtzman or even The Vault of Horror or Tales From the Crypt for EC Comics.
These would have horrifying, horrifying images. Like, a story coming out of these guys who would be on deadline, and they would write some story about two guys that are on a desert island together after escaping prison and they’d be chained together like it was The Defiant Ones, but then like vultures are circling around them and a vulture will start eating one of the guys. These are things by people who’ve actually served and been worked by all this shit, by all these life experiences. That stuff translates in an interesting way. And kids would read them! And they wanted it to be salacious and shocking and catch people’s attention. And kids loved that.
Again, Wally Wood in particular was an interesting, depressing character with a complicated life and was definitely an inspiration towards the Wallace character to a degree. I mean, they’re not anything alike, but it was just the struggle.
But comics in general, even independent ones—even if you weren’t in the comics industry per se—independent comics people have a very hard career. It’s just tough to get anyone to care and it’s such a big world. But there are people that quit and get their hearts broken by comics, film, anything. But “you’re obsessed with my failure”—I just felt like that kid. He needed the reason to be the Jesus to this kid’s Judas or something and could only see it his way. And I think that was his conclusion on this kid and his obsession with him and why it was so upsetting.
But “you’re obsessed with my failure,” I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience with a filmmaker or artist of some kind—like, there are enigmatic artists who stop working, like even someone like Alex Chilton from the band Big Star. Even though that’s probably the greatest work he ever did, because Big Star was a commercial failure, he didn’t want to talk about it; he didn’t want to play those songs. He only wanted to play the Box Tops songs. Like, there’s great footage of people coming up to him after a show he played with Teenage Fanclub where he’s signing these albums and he just says, “You keep buying them and I’ll keep signing them.” Like, he sounds so miserable. Some people don’t want to be reminded of their past work, especially if they made a flop movie or something, and it only gives them pain. That’s just something that I’ve seen so much and I tried to create the most emotionally destitute version of that in this movie, I guess.
What do you envision Robert’s life being after the events of the film?
Daniel Zolghadri: I don’t imagine anything dramatic. I think it’s just that the whole movie is something that’s relatable to a lot of people, it’s like the first time you just get knocked down.
Owen Kline: And you get up again.
Daniel Zolghadri: Yeah, he gets up and keeps on moving.
Owen Kline: I think that this kid has had his first bout with self-hatred and self-destruction and the struggles of trying to identify yourself and who you are. And he’s made it really hard for himself. But after a bout of self-destruction you almost get sick of those thought patterns and I think he’s going to run toward self-preservation. In some way, I think he’s probably gonna have to get realistic—he’s gonna have to go to college, maybe an art school. But, he’s gonna have to conform to a degree and figure it out. I imagine his comics will always be this sort of thing he nurtures in his little corner of his apartment. It’s more just that kind of art.
I mean, Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. I can imagine him just self-publishing or getting some small-press thing that ten or fifteen people are interested in reading, two of which are his friends. But I imagine that he’s going to get some job that suits his interests and create and nurture that himself, because there really isn’t an industry for that—or it’s just really tough. It’s harder than anything; it’s harder than making a movie, even, making a graphic novel or something. To market it, make that work, making a comic or graphic novel, it’s diminishing returns for a lot of people.
Funny Pages opens in theaters and VOD on August 26.