Somebody Up There Likes Bob Byington
The writer-director talks about his fifth feature
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AC: So, Keith really wowed some people in Harmony and Me. Do you think he stood up to the demands of his role in Somebody Up There Likes Me?
BB: Yeah, of course. I'm certainly not going to say, "No, I don't think so," but I do happen to think he stood up to the demands. He's going up against a very trained and experienced actor in Nick Offerman, and we realized right away that we needed to harness each of their own strengths. If we tried to turn Keith into Nick, we were fucked.
AC: Jess Weixler is an experienced actor, as well.
BB: Yes, she is, but he has more scenes with Nick than he does with Jess, I think. But, yeah, both Nick and Jess have what I call access to craft, and Keith doesn't have access to craft. He's not an actor. Were you disappointed by his performance?
AC: By no means was I disappointed. I think he broke out of that sidekick mode quite well.
BB: I think he sees himself as a little bit more of an actor by now than I do, and he's not always thrilled when he hears me talk about him not being an actor. He doesn't love that. I will say that, by the end of the job, he was more of an actor than he was at the beginning. He had learned some stuff.
AC: Does he aspire to be a serious dramatic actor?
BB: I don't know.
AC: You guys haven't talked about it at all?
BB: Not really.
AC: Is he in your next film?
AC: You're having a lot of success with Somebody Up There Likes Me after being on the festival circuit with it for more than a year, so it would stand to reason that you would want to enjoy the moment. Can you talk about the reception of the film thus far?
BB: I've noticed that there's some impulse to take the film more seriously. It's a comedy, but the marketing impulse of the distributor has been to say: "Well, let's try to skew the dialogue about the movie so that it's an important movie. Let's talk about why it matters. Let's talk about what awards it has won. Let's talk about the good festivals it has screened at." There wasn't so much of that with the two films previous. There was a little bit of that, but not as much. So that's what seeps into the discussion. Like, you'll be at a festival Q&A, and I used to be a lot more interested in a Q&A where you would talk about problems with the film or what the film tries and fails to do or things like that. Some of the bigger festivals and some of the distributors that one confronts now, they're not very interested in that, because that subverts the marketing impulse.
AC: Do you think independent films are becoming more disposable?
AC: Why do you think that is? Is it the proliferation of festivals? Is it how these films are delivered and presented in distribution? Is it the way critics approach the work?
BB: Yes, yes, and yes. All of those things. I was just thinking today, between the time that we made contact earlier and the time of us doing this interview, you know, in that 15 minutes: We're reasonably happy with how things have turned out so far with the film and the festival stuff. And our distributor is demonstrating due diligence in getting the movie into the major markets. We have a guy in Nick who a lot of people have heard of doing a lot of press for the movie. But it's funny that the home run for us would be to do really well on [video on demand] and pay the investors back. And that's definitely a different type of home run than five, 10, 15 years ago, when there was an apparatus for your movie to kind of move out through the world into these independent theatres through word of mouth and live kind of a life. That model has vanished. I think what you're asking is: Does that create, then, a certain sense of these movies coming and going as quickly as the razor in my shower? [Consider] the difference between seeing a movie at the repertory theatre where I went to college, the student union, and streaming a movie on Netflix or iTunes. If you compare those experiences, I think you have your answer.
AC: As an admirer of your work, I do feel like there's something different about this film. There's a different pacing to it. There's a different look to it. You use music differently, I feel like, than maybe you have in the past. Do you think that's an accurate assessment, and if so, was this conscious?
BB: Yeah, but I think a lot of that comes from the producer, Hans Graffunder, who I'd mentioned before. He had seen Harmony and Me, and he read the script for Somebody Up There Likes Me, and rather than letting me fall into my usual devices, sort of slapping things together and doing a lot of the things I had done before, he put us on a path to a larger-scale production. A nicer camera, a real [director of photography], a real music supervisor, a real composer. We had a lot of things that I did not have on other movies. And, you know, you can't just take the guy who made Harmony and Me and put him on the set of Somebody Up There Likes Me. You have to do some stuff, and Hans made sure that stuff got done so that it was gradual and not suddenly landing on the set and looking around hoping for the best.
AC: But you're an intelligent guy and a capable filmmaker who's got some erudition when it comes to the canon. I feel like you're being falsely modest, like some hayseed saying, "Aw, shucks" about what you brought to the table and your own progession as a director.
BB: No, I'm just ascribing what you're seeing; I'm giving credit where it's due. I think sometimes it works for a director to make that transition, and sometimes it doesn't. My experience on this job was that those transitional elements were handled really well. It was the production that handled them, not the director. That's a key distinction. A lot of times you'll wonder why someone who made such a great movie that had such an independent spirit and was so handmade and interesting, why they can't transition to a bigger movie. I don't think it's them. I think there's an assumption that they can do it – like, it's taken for granted that they can do it – and the producers don't pay attention to some things that need to be paid attention to. We had a producer who paid attention to those things. And the director ends up getting a lot of credit for the movie. But my experience on this job was that Nick and Hans, they had so much to do with the movie working that it's very difficult for me to imagine the movie without them. Directors get the credit when the movie's good, and they get blamed when the movie's bad.
AC: One thing that was completely unexpected was the use of animation in the film.
BB: That was in keeping with the desire for a bigger movie. I had always wanted to try to make a fun movie that was colorful and entertaining with great songs and music. I had worked with Bob Sabiston, who is obviously incredibly talented, before. I found it pretty rewarding. I like working with him, and I think he likes working with me. Because we had these transitional elements in this film, who better than Bob to turn loose on them? We let him imagine that stuff as fully as you see in the movie. We gave him some basic guidelines, and he took care of the rest. I love how that stuff turned out, and I know you did, too.
AC: I saw some screwball elements, which would seem to be in line with the things you're talking about. What were some of the films that influenced you on both the script and direction?
BB: Bananas was the most influential movie by far. It was so influential that I was just watching it pretty much any chance I got before the movie, during the movie, and after the movie wrapped. I had it on a lot. I really came to admire and see it in a way that I hadn't before. I think if you watch Bananas once and then forget about it, it comes off as kind of a silly movie that has a lot of Woody Allen jokes in it, bits characteristic of his humor. If you watch it a lot, though, it's a much more subversive, courageous movie. He was still unestablished as a director, and for him to go ahead and try to make this movie that was just so nuts. I really took some inspiration from that.