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SXSW '09 Interview: "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up " Director Alex Karpovsky

by Erik Childress

The “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up” Pitch: TRUST US, THIS IS ALL MADE UP explores the mystery of the artistic process, documenting the hilarious on-stage mental gymnastics and offstage insights of legendary improv duo TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, who astound audiences by spinning a unique, wholly original and entirely mesmerizing narrative each night they arrive onstage.

How did you first come across Dave Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski and their show? And what was the process of convincing them to make a film about it.

ALEX: A friend dragged me to see their show in New York at the Barrow Street Theatre. I wasn’t a huge “live improv comedy” fan but my friend urged me to surrender my preconceptions and just check them out. As the theatre went dark at the end of the show, I was entirely blown away. As awe-struck by their character’s depths and the twists and loops of the storyline, I was equally curious about how their off-stage relationship feeds their performances. A few days later I sent them an email, explaining that I was a filmmaker who was interested in making a documentary that explored their unique form of long-form improvisation as well as the dynamics that underlie and govern it. We discussed the structure and tone over a few emails, got down to details a month later over a cup of coffee when they were back in town, I assembled a small crew that I worked with before and whom I respect tremendously, and then began shooting a few short weeks after that. It all happened very very quickly.

Do you have any experiences with or fond memories of Second City and Chicago?

ALEX: I grew up watching Saturday Night Live as a kid, which of course, consisted of many Second City folks. Personally I only visited Chicago once, in my early twenties. Naturally, I went to Second City, where I saw some amazing sketch comedy and pictures of many of my heroes on the wall (I wanted to be a comedic actor for a good 5 year stretch in my youth…).

If you could cast Dave and TJ as live-action cartoon characters, what would they be?

ALEX: Back when I was in college and pretending to be an academic, I read an essay by Isaiah Berlin called The Hedgehog and the Fox, which explores Tolstoy’s theory of history and the paradigms of genius. Basically, Berlin divides thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (Plato, Dante, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Proust, etc.) and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (Aristotle, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe, Pushkin, Joyce, etc). Riding back home on the subway after seeing TJ and Dave perform for the very first time, I remembered this essay and how neatly it could be applied to the two very different chaps I just saw onstage. I realize this doesn’t really answer the question but hopefully it’s close enough. Anyway, if you bump into me at SXSW after having seen the film, I would curious to hear your thoughts (and more than happy to share my own on who is my hedgehog and my fox).

With your last film, Woodpecker, you worked within a format that is becoming commonplace these days in blurring the line between true-life documentary and fiction in a manner that keeps the audience guessing as to its authenticity. This is happening in certain reality TV shows as well and what struck me about Trust Us is how Dave & TJ are essentially creating a new play with every performance. This isn’t just sketch comedy, but a fully realized structure from scratch each night that is more telling about the human condition then any of the “reality” that is replacing genuine writing and craftsmanship every day of the week. Can you expand upon that a little?

ALEX: The characters TJ & Dave adopt on stage are, generally, very believable; or at least have many realistic facets to them. I can either directly relate to them or see shades of them in folks I know, and that’s what makes them funny to me, as well as vulnerable and uncertain and flawed. In short, it’s what makes them human and three dimensional and capable of nurturing empathy from the audience. To explore a given character for 60 minutes, to keep the audience engaged and laughing and sacred and curious about all their desires and relationships, I think you need this depth and I think “reality” anchors its expression. To some extent each one of their improvised performances is a trial by fire; they need their characters to be believable/realistic or the assembled audience before them will begin showing their disengagement in various ways. This pressure, this stubborn and unrelenting need, is not as viscerally existent in other arenas. Also, these guys are brilliant actors, probing writers and pseudo-shamans, which doesn’t hurt either.

Speaking of writers biting the dust, it’s a trend we’ve been seeing recently with film critics. Do you have any favorite (or least favorite) film critics?

ALEX: Answering this question can only compromise my ambitions.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

ALEX: Critically constructive reviews from respected prints/online journalists seem to be increasingly rare. I’d be a fool not to take what I can get here…

Are you familiar with TJ’s work on the Sonic Sonic fast food commercials? If so, can you describe your favorite?

ALEX: I’ve seen a bunch of them but only at bars and restaurants and the sound is always off. Someday, I hope to hear one.

Any aspirations to moving away from the documentary format into narratives?

ALEX: No more documentaries for me. At least not in the near future. At least not without a lot more help. It’s too much damn work! Some people enjoy finding the story in the editing room. I used to be one of those people. Something happened. Perhaps it was editing my first feature, The Hole Story, for a year and a half in my parent’s basement and not-so-slowly surrendering to dementia and legionnaires disease (I’m fine now). No, for me, I want the struggle and the search for story to happen up-front, before shooting. The edit on this particular project went a lot faster than I expected, which was fortunate and which allowed me to maintain enthusiasm moving forward. Nonetheless, it will be narratives from here on in, I think. Based on my interest and temperament at the moment, I just feel they’re more fun to work on right now…

Any thought on your part, or even Dave & TJ, about filming more of their performances so we can have a documented collection.

ALEX: We shot 5 performances for this project. Only one is featured in the film but, in my honest opinion, they’re all incredible. We will include at least one other full performance on the DVD as a special feature (if we ever come out with a DVD, that is), along with audio commentary and a few other treats.

Woodpecker played SXSW last year. What was your experience like here compared to other festivals and what are you looking forward to most upon your return?

ALEX: SXSW was tremendous. We were lucky enough to sell out all our screenings and garner several very kind reviews. I also met a bunch of extremely talented filmmakers (along with their films) that I subsequently kept bumping into on the festival circuit, which was a lot fun and, at the risk of sounding pretentious and/or haughty, I hope will allow me to make more informed, more honest, more fearless, more funny, more better films. Though we were fortunate enough to play in several dozen subsequent festivals, SXSW was by far the biggest and where the film received the most attention. Looking forward to this year’s festival, I hope we continue to have great turnouts, a modest sphere of buzz and good word enveloping the project, and the opportunity and stamina to see as many film as I can…


Alex Karpovsky 's Trust Us, This Is All Made Up will have its world premiere at the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival on Friday, March 13, 9:30 PM at the Alamo Ritz. It will screen again at the Ritz on Tuesday, March 17 (6:30 PM) and Friday, March 20 (8:30 PM)

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originally posted: 02/19/09 07:19:38
last updated: 02/21/09 13:32:14
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