SxSW 2016 Interview: AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN Director Gregori Viens
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/11/16 03:28:50
"Henry Phillips, a hapless comic songwriter, gets lured to L.A. when a powerful TV producer hears about his catastrophic career path and decides to make a show about a loser. But when a major network gets involved, Henry must decide whether his legacy will be to make jokes for a living, or become the butt of them. Sisyphus meets Charlie Brown." Director Gregori Viens on AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN which is screening at the 2016 edition of the South By Southwest Film Festival.
Great to hear you will be attending. Talk to me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and your previous work!
I grew up in Paris, France, in the late 1970s and 80s. The city had over 700 cinemas, and kids got in very cheap, with practically no age restrictions, or at least none that were ever enforced. My brother and I would sit through all sorts of pictures; anything from the Marx Brothers to Truffaut, Disney, Spielberg, Woody Allen, Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beneix, and so on. Like so many boys and girls of my generation, I fell in love with the actual movie-going experience, as well as the movies themselves.
In the mid 1980s, we got our hands on a VHS camera and a couple of VCRs with basic editing abilities, and started to play around. After high school, my brother found a real calling in mathematics and gave up the video making hobby. I, however, went on to study sociology and political science, which probably led me to making my first full length documentary, a cultural and social study entitled ISLAND OF ROSES in 1994. By then I had moved to Los Angeles and was finishing my Bachelor of Arts at UCLA. I bought an old 16mm Eclair NPR and got an internship with a film editor, who let me use her flatbed Kems at night to make a demo. I applied for, and got, some grants to make my doc, and I just went for it. ISLAND OF ROSES was about the disappearance of community of Judeo-Spanish speaking people in L.A., the Jews of Rhodes, who are my own ancestors on my mother's side. The film played at many festivals, and was even broadcast nationally on ABC on a Sunday morning. I got an MFA in film from Syracuse University, upstate N.Y. That degree allowed me to teach film for a number of years at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, I worked on several projects with my old friend, comedian and songwriter Henry Phillips. Our 2010 feature, PUNCHING THE CLOWN, was a precursor to this one, and after winning the Audience Award at the Slamdance Film Festival, it gained a healthy cult following, which made the new movie possible.
So with PUNCHING THE CLOWN being a cult hit, how did AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN come together for you?
The inception of this film is a long story. However, to simplify, I will say that my writing partner Henry Phillips and I have made several films and shorts together over the years in which he plays various fictionalized versions of himself. This one, AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN, stems from the experience we had a few years ago at a cable network as we struggled to develop, then failed to produce, a show about Henry's life as a satirical songwriter.
We wrote the screenplay and I asked producer David Permut, who had championed our first feature after Slamdance, and lived through part of the failed TV show experience with us, to produce it. He agreed and brought in several investors including Rick Rosenthal and his indie production company called Whitewater Films and frequent partner Matt Ratner. My old high school friend Rob Harley stepped up as a major investor as well and we were finally in business. Financing was secured thanks in no small part to the participation of several great artists, who were either old friends, or fans, of Henry and of our previous movie. So we are eternally grateful to Tig Notaro, JK Simmons, Sarah Silverman, Mike Judge, Doug Stanhope, Jim Jefferies, Nikki Glaser, and many more for making things happen. They joined Henry Phillips and Ellen Ratner to complete the cast. And a fun fact; Stephanie Allynne, who plays Tig Notaro's partner in the film as the couple struggles to have a baby, was actually Tig's partner in real life, and they really were struggling to have a baby at the time.
Very interesting to hear the title, AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN, is an addition to your 2010 film. What is the significance of the title?
The name of our film, AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN, is a joke about alphastacking, the shameless industry trick which exploits the fact that movie listings prioritize titles that start with letters high the alphabet. Of course, by satirizing that practice in the very title of our film, we do feel a little dirty, but it's OK because we are doing it ironically.
With all of the support, what keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?
This may not be original, but I am driven by my passion for filmmaking and the desire to tell a story that is as true to life as possible, and worth telling on a screen.
But as far as stimulants, I actually avoid coffee during the year for the sole purpose of getting maximum impact from the caffeine when I DO drink it on the set. Consequently, a single espresso is all I need for the day when shooting, because I am so sensitive to it. My filmmaking partner Henry Phillips, on the other hand, drinks so much coffee that he actually has his own JASH web series called YOU AND YOUR FUCKING COFFEE, in which he destroys people's lives by asking for coffee at inopportune moments. So, in production, between Henry and me, the coffee situation is sometimes quite complex.
So what was the biggest challenge with AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN, and when did you know you had something special with this new movie?
The biggest challenge was having to steal rehearsal time with the actors at otherwise quiet cafes and restaurants, which made us feel like we were turning into the very kind of Hollywood blowhards we were supposed to be lampooning. I suppose we knew we had something special when it became clear the actors in question, including JK Simmons, Tig Notaro and Sarah Silverman, were all cool with our awkward limitations, because they simply enjoyed the script.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was photographed.
We used two Arri Alexa cameras for principal photography. Bryce Fortner, the bright and talented Director of Photography agreed with me that although it is not the highest definition camera on the market at 2k resolution, it would give us the most delicate and natural image. Bryce and I wanted to shoot this realistic comedy with the look of a drama. We achieved that goal in part by avoiding too much frontal high-key lighting, which seems to be one of the go-to indicators of contemporary comedies. Instead, we favored low-key lighting, playing with shadows and light. We felt that this project required as much realism as possible, and embracing available light was a great liberation for the look of the film. I do believe that naturalist approach even helped the actors on the set understand our story's tone. Our approach to photography was very organic, and we never tried to go against the grain of the location, which were chosen for their realism and believability in the first place.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
Like any filmmaker with a comedy in their bag, we are looking forward to screening the film for an audience of people we have never met! Comedy is one of the only art forms in which there is direct and immediate feedback, in the form of laughter of course, and we are dying to hear that reaction. We want to see what works and what doesn't. We do hope our film connects with people in the room, and if things go well, that the audience will spark some positive word of mouth.
I also look forward to meeting other filmmakers, writers and producers; SXSW has a phenomenal reputation for bringing creative people together. And of course we are crossing our fingers for at least some good leads in the realm of distribution.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?
After SXSW, we will most likely screen the film in Los Angeles, but we do not have a date for that yet. If we do find distribution after the festival, I will be asking that same question to the distributor!
Tell me more about showing the film in LA if and when you get the chance!
We would love to screen it in Los Angeles, where it was made. As long as people show up, I will take any old theater. It is becoming so rare to enjoy a movie at a movie theater. If I could choose one, l would say the Hollywood Arclight, which is such a quality venue.
What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?
"Eteins ton putain de portable, petit merdeux, t'es pas chez ta mamie, la." Because if you have nothing nice to say, say it in French.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?
Filmmaking has been morphing and shapeshifting, so take advantage of that, and do something yourself. Make it clever or original on a shoe-string budget. This way you can showcase what you are capable of doing with complete control and no money, rather than wait around hoping for an elusive first film financing.
And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
It is difficult to eliminate so many of the great films I have seen at festivals over the years, and pick just one. How about two? A short and a feature.
The first one that pops in my mind, was an 18-minute Italian film by Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia, called RITA. I saw it at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2011. It is about a young blind Sicilian girl who is left alone and has a brief encounter with a teenage thief who robs her house, but then takes her to the beach and teaches her to swim in the sea. It gave me chills, as it was as close to a perfect work of original cinematic realism as I have ever seen.
And as far as feature length films go, I will mention a fearless film called DONOMA, by Haitian-born French based filmmaker Djinn Carrenard. I saw it in 2010 at a now defunct French film festival in NYC. DONOMA is a multi-layered love story, three love stories interlaced, with tremendous acting, drama, social relevance and wit, made as a first feature for 100 euros or so; probably the cheapest film ever to screen at the Cannes Film Festival where it also made some big waves.
These films give independent filmmaking a good name, give me the desire to see more from the artists who made them, and make me want to make better films myself.
Be sure to follow the progress of AND PUNCHING THE CLOWN by visiting www.andpunchingtheclown.com!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte