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BFI London Film Festival: Rick Alverson Interview

10 October 2015 Nick Chen

London Film Festival 2015: American film director Rick Alverson discusses his new film Entertainment, and working with Gregg Turkington and Tim Heidecker to bring Neil Hamburger to the big screen

Cult comedian Neil Hamburger has been upsetting and antagonising audiences for more than two decades. Carrying three drinks onstage and sipping in between sentences, the greasy-haired, tuxedoed stand-up nasally whines into a microphone with call-and-response anti-humour (“WHY… WHY… WHY…”) and lambasts the crowd for not appreciating the punch line. But what happens afterwards when the bitter ball of nerves trudges away from the comedy club?

In Entertainment, Hamburger (the alter ego of actor Gregg Turkington) is translated to the big screen by acclaimed American director Rick Alverson, who co-wrote the script with Turkington and Tim Heidecker. Hamburger wanders the desert and struggles to sleep in motels, while bumping into unusual characters played by John C. Reilly, Michael Cera, Tye Sheridan and Amy Seimetz. Slowly losing his mind, he searches for the American Dream, only to find a nightmarish wasteland that mirrors his dusty emotions.

“The onstage character is literally lifted and borrowed from Gregg Turkington’s onstage persona Neil Hamburger,” notes Alverson, speaking ahead of Entertainment’s two screenings at this year’s London Film Festival. “But the offstage character is an invention of the film. While it riffs on intentions of Gregg and his work, it’s its own thing entirely. And so there was a necessity of him being somewhat of an ambiguous everyman.”

Entertainment is Alverson’s fourth feature film, following 2012’s ironically titled The Comedy, in which Turkington had a minor role. “Gregg initially didn’t want to be in The Comedy, “Alverson reveals, “because he hated the characters and the world and that subject matter. I insisted solely because of his hatred he had to be a part, and he graciously acquiesced.” After Alverson saw Turkington do Hamburger live, they bonded over Monte Hellman’s 70s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop and planned Entertainment. “We essentially took a comedic persona and placed it in the context of that sort of cinematic experience, and let the character dissolve into a world created entirely within the movie.”

Other influences included the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Bob Rafelson, Luis Buñuel, Bruno Dumont, Michael Haneke and Carlos Reygadas. But the writing process found a more geographical inspiration.

“Me and Gregg and Tim went on that trip and stayed in motels and travelled around the desert to lay down the initial foundation,” Alverson recalls. “And over the course of the next year, me and Gregg exchanged a lot of text messages. I ran ideas by him. Essentially, he brought the onstage character in. Some of the environmental components to it are things I worked on and essentially created this world around Gregg’s character in conjunction with Gregg.” Even without prepared dialogue, it’s still a tradition script. “It was a very solid working document. It has emphatic blocking and production and direction to it.”

As hinted by the casting of Will Oldham in New Jerusalem and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy in The Comedy, Alverson's background is in music, and the poetic, melancholic rhythm of Entertainment replaces a conventional three-act story.

“I view structure more tonally and musically and compositionally than I do in a traditional literary narrative,” he explains. “I don’t use dialogue to drive the narrative. I think that should be an antiquated device at this point. I think filmmaking in the visual, aural experience of cinema, its contribution is more experiential than immediate. I believe there’s not just an equal, but a great substitute for engagement with the thing through a tonal juxtaposition through essential flirtations with the audience’s expectation for narrative.”

Yet the film manages to riff on audience expectations when Hamburger’s voyage, as surreal as it may be, bumps into a few familiar elements. “We use a lot of stereotypes and clichés as building blocks because, very unfortunately, they are the grammar of popular movies. It felt necessary, whether it’s the desert or the bankruptcy and plateau of the Western American Dream.”

Alverson continues his knack for intriguing ensembles. Child star Tye Sheridan plays a clown who, through mime, earns applause from a crowd, while Hamburger seethes with jealousy. A further thrill is recognising Hollywood faces like Michael Cera and John C. Reilly popping up in in roles that support Hamburger, and not vice-versa.

“The whole thing is a cat-and-mouse game of flirtation with context in our relationship to cinema,” suggests Alverson. “By bringing in these recognisable characters in the context that surrounds them and the way we’re used to seeing them, that’s all very much taken into consideration, in both the casting and the performance. It’s naïve to think the baggage of an individual’s past work doesn’t play in the viewer’s imagination.”

That doesn’t mean any prior knowledge of Hamburger’s act is required. “I think it’s necessary that the movie can be watched without any backstory.” However, a few minutes on YouTube is worth your time, as is the subversive On Cinema at the Cinema web series Turkington hosts with Heidecker. “There’s some elements that Gregg had developed. But largely, his character is caught in a circular hell. I think that an eternal purgatorial recycling was necessary and was something we really embraced.”

But what is it about Hamburger that stands out from the crowd? “I’m not a fan of stand-up comedy,” Alverson confesses. “It’s always made me feel awkward. It’s marginally pornographic to me. But what Gregg does is entirely accessible to me. Largely, it’s tonally pushed through a necessary bankruptcy up there in front of everyone. It contends with the failure of connection and the failure of performance. So that really interested me.”

A unique cinematic experience, Entertainment is a film not to be missed, especially on the big screen with a crowd possibly experiencing Neil Hamburger for the first time. “Independent film needs to remain something that’s vital and uncompromising for audiences,” Alverson concludes. “In America, we don’t have the government to be a steward and safeguard of the arts in the way largely the rest of the world does.” With that in mind, we should be extra grateful that Entertainment exists.

Entertainment plays the London Film Festival on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th October. To book tickets, see website.
 

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