Podcast the Myth: B.J. Novak Goes to Texas in Vengeance

The Office star explores the stories that Texas tells itself

B.J. Novak on the set of his directorial debut feature, Texas-set comedic tragedy Vengeance (Courtesy of Focus Features)

"Tell me if I'm slouching." It's early – early by journalism junket standards – in an upstairs room at Cooper's BBQ on Austin's Congress Avenue. If you've been to Austin during South by Southwest, the odds are pretty good you've been here. It's the kind of place that Ben Manalowitz has likely been.

As played by B.J. Novak in his directorial debut, Vengeance (in cinemas now), Manalowitz is a writer in New York, barhopping, making a decent living, happy enough with his life – until his girlfriend's family calls him and tells him she's dead, and he needs to come to Texas for the funeral. Only problem: She was a hookup he barely remembers. But he decides to take advantage of the situation by heading to the Lone Star State to record a true-crime podcast about these hicks.

It's pretty obvious that's not the impression Novak wants to make. Vengeance isn't about some New Yorker fixing these provincials. It's also not about him learning the error of his ways. Instead, it's a funny, tragic, complicated look at the idea of Texas, how it's packaged internally and externally. The night before the press day, he'd had the local premiere with a special screening and a Q&A with veteran Austin film journalist and co-host of The Kingcast. Novak said, "I've always felt intimidated, not only by Texas, but by the indie film scene – impressed and intimidated. So to be in Austin, with writers like that, it was scary."

Maybe that's why he's so worried about slouching. The morning's about good impressions, and the slouching (even if, as we joke, it's what writers like Ben do) isn't something a director should do, and Novak's a director now. "Taika [Waititi] does not slouch," Novak said. "That guy is the doctor, the role model."

Impressions are important, because they define how something or someone is viewed. Yet first impressions of Vengeance are now set in stone, and Novak is sending his story into the world. He said, "As a former stand-up, it's interesting to me how similar and different it is to play your movie. Because, on the one hand, you can sit back and relax, and it's all done. On the other hand, you can't change it. You can't go, 'You know, tomorrow night I'm going to open with the other bit.'"

B.J. Novak and Boyd Holbrook in Vengeance, Novak's directorial debut and first produced feature script (Courtesy of Focus Features)

Austin Chronicle: The way you wrote Vengeance, it isn't the kind of story that fits into a genre box. How do you pitch that?

B.J. Novak: I pitched it with the title. Basically, "B.J. Novak, Vengeance," to Blumhouse, and I think just that alone conveys that it's not going to be your typical vengeance movie – but it is called Vengeance.

Honestly, I pitched it to Couper Samuelson, an executive at Blumhouse. I had said on Twitter that The Purge is the best premise since Jurassic Park. I think they're both just great magically great premises, and he was flattered by that, he worked on The Purge, and he took me for lunch and asked me, "What are you working on?" I told him, and he said, "Let's do Vengeance."

I think Blumhouse could take a risk on a low-budget script, but I write the script and no one could figure out if they liked it. No one could figure out what tone it wanted. To me, the tone was so obvious, and it's right there on the screen. That's just my voice, the way I write. I describe it as one type of Coen brothers movie meets the other type of Coen brothers movie. It's Fargo turning into No Country for Old Men, which to me is very seamless. My favorite directors, whether it's the Coen brothers or Tarantino, they make the comedy and the drama seem seamless.

“[Ben] is the kind of guy who thinks he’s been to Texas because he’s been to South by Southwest, and wore a cowboy hat once.”
AC: Texas has a rare ability to self-mythologize, and there's no state like Texas for this idea of the outsider coming in and trying to deal with those myths. Where does Ben come from?

BJN: It came from me. The worst parts of me, the parts of me that I wanted to make fun of and reckon with. And while I'm not a podcaster, I know that I have an ambitious writer, "Oh, I'm going to tell the world all these great ideas," and another part of me that's like, "Come on, dude. Everybody thinks that." So I wanted to play with and make fun of this guy who may be smart, and may have some good ideas, but is also not as smart as he thinks, and has a lot to learn.

You said that Texas self-mythologizes, well that myth is also packaged for export, and so when I looked at a map of the United States and asked, "Where would this guy have to go?" I saw Texas. First I went, "Well, that's just too hacky. Texas is such a mythological, stereotypical, larger-than-life idea." And then I went, "Well, that's why you have to go there, why you have to explore it."

This character would think the myth of Texas is really exciting and intimidating. This is the kind of guy who thinks he's been to Texas because he's been to South by Southwest and wore a cowboy hat once. So a guy like that who even says at the dinner table, "Yes, I've been to South By," but doesn't know that Texas lost the Alamo, that's the kind of journey I wanted him to go on.

The thing I learned on my many trips to small-town Texas, to feel out what he would be encountering, was a paradox where the most intimidating, mythological, larger-than-life place was also the friendliest. So as much as he was an outsider he was also welcomed – which I think made it even stranger to him.

AC: There's a lot of Texas, and it's a very varied state – Lubbock is a different universe to Houston or Nacogdoches, which is virtually Louisiana – so how did you find the version of Texas that you wanted, that played with the myths but didn't rely on them?

BJN: I told the director of photography [Lyn Moncrief] that I don't want to do Hell or High Water. I don't want to do the mythical, sad, faded, beautiful Texas of the past, which a lot of people come here to show. I said there's plenty of that, and it is very beautiful, but there's also a lot of light – harsh sunlight on a truck stop or a vape shop. It's also a very modern, dynamic, and bright place. A lot of people film Texas in a sepia tone, and to me it was that bright, bright sunlight that feels very modern, and really reminds you that you're also in America in 2022.

“New York has its own fictional reality and self-mythologizing stereotype where we think, ‘Oh, we’re the smart ones, we’re the enlightened ones, we know what to do, we trust the science.’”
I wanted to shoot a combination of that, and that's also the towns that I visited. I zeroed in on West Texas specifically, and part of my character's journey is learning that Texas is not just one place. … In the first phone call when he's told to come to Texas, he rattles off all the places he might be going and he's told that the place he's going is "five hours from Abilene." So zeroing in on West Texas, on my third trip, I realized I'd found this place that was very bleak and also very proud of its bleakness. It has plenty of money around because of oil, but it's also boom and bust. It's a very particular place, it's that Permian Basin, Pecos Valley area.

AC: There's also an element here of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the more subversive end of the Western. Liberty Valance has that line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," which plays into the idea of picking the story we want to tell, and that's really Ben's story.

BJN: The movie really is about myths, and the myths that we all live in. We definitely live in a time right now when we're all living in our own reality.

My character, Ben, very much sees a lot of these people he encounters in small-town Texas, he's already very judgmental that, oh, they live in this myth, they live in this fictional reality. In fact, Ben's from New York and New York has its own fictional reality and self-mythologizing stereotype where we think, "Oh, we're the smart ones, we're the enlightened ones, we know what to do, we trust the science," all of these things, and can also be completely in their own myths. So I wanted to get to the people under these things, show someone who is wrong about some things as well as right about some things.

Vengeance is in theatres now. Read our review and find showtimes at austinchronicle.com/screens.

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