I was sitting in a chair, snapping my fingers in time to the music, and a naked man was spitting a giant mouthful of warm beer into my face. I was proud of myself, because I had had no idea the naked man was going to spit beer into my face but when he did it I successfully registered no emotion and just kept snapping my fingers in time to the music, which was the Rolling Stones. My mouth was hanging open, just kind of a zoned-out gape, and a good deal of the beer the naked man spat went in there. Still, I didn’t register any emotion. It was my proudest moment as an actor.
The film was called The Comedy, and filming for it had taken over most of my week, even though I didn’t know how big of a role I was actually playing. I’d been e-mailed a script by the director, Rick Alverson, but it was really just an outline of scenarios, centered around a despicable aging Williamsburg hipster named “Swanson” and his horrible social circle. There would be a situation and a setting, and the actors would improvise around it. Swanson humiliates a nurse. Swanson harasses a cab driver. Swanson makes a scene at a church. I played a member of the horrible social circle; you got a sense that they only hung around Swanson (who was played by Tim Heidecker from “Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!”) because he had money and paid their way, and that most of the actual camaraderie and good feeling between them had burned away years ago. The horrible social circle consisted of me, Eric Wareheim, James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem, Richard Swift from the Shins, and the comedian and prank-caller extraordinaire Jeff Jenson. Gregg Turkington a.k.a. “Neil Hamburger” played another friend of Swanson’s, but none of us had any scenes with him I don’t think. There was so much footage shot and so much improvising that it was difficult to predict what was going to be cut out and (I’ve told Rick this) I had a lot of moments where I wondered if the film was going to be any good.
On the first of my days, we shot a kind of drunken wiffle ball match in Greenpoint. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m hardly the sportiest guy in the world. I was kind of expecting the rest of the horrible social circle to be similar, but they turned out to be all baseball nuts. I had nothing to contribute to either their baseball conversation or to the game. I barely know which direction to run after I’ve hit the ball. The whole thing felt uncomfortably like a flashback to high school, with one particularly agonizing stretch where Tim kept pitching a wiffle ball at me again and again while I tried in vain to hit the thing. When I finally connected with that little plastic ball, I ran like hell. I had determined that at least I wasn’t going to get tagged out at first base. We shot a pretty straight version of some wiffle innings, and then allowed order to break down, then for it to break down even further. Bikes came out, and there was a lot idly pedaling around the concrete court while Eric Wareheim spat or whipped beer at people (PBR had provided the crew with a near-endless stack of warm beer pallets; I was asked by the wardrobe girl not to wash my clothes and by the end of the shooting week I reeked of stale dried PBR). Really, though, I barely talked to anyone, just played this weird indolent wiffle ball game with them. I left the shoot that day not having a sense of anybody’s personalities or who they really were.
The next day I rushed over to a location in Long Island City only to be told to wait for an hour. A second hour passed. A third. Across the street, they were shooting in an apartment owned by somebody associated with the film, a scene where the horrible drunken social circle are huddled around in the kitchen, miserably hungover, and Jeff Jenson vomits and Eric wipes his vomit up using a Bon Iver record (the whole film was filled with in-joke references to the Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar labels). I know that Jeff had been anxious about how he was supposed to do the vomiting scene. Someone had suggested holding a can of soup in his mouth, but another camp – Rick’s camp, maybe – was more hard-line about it and wanted Jeff to really vomit, to take ipecac or something so there was the requisite painful, difficult-to-watch full body heaving. I can’t remember which route Jeff went down. When I asked him about it later he seemed not to want to talk about it, and the scene ended up not making the final cut of the film anyway.
Finally it was time for my scene. I walked up into the apartment, said hi to the other members of the horrible social circle, who I still felt like I barely knew. Rick briefed us on the scenario. We would be all sitting around, drinking mimosas and trying to make really offensive conversation. He specifically wanted a defense of Charles Manson and of Timothy McVeigh. We nodded, and the cameras started rolling. There was a long, long period of awkward silence. I decided to start talking, and I don’t remember how I got there but I went on a long diatribe defending Manson before somehow transitioning to musicians who have done horrible things, to Phil Spector’s murder case and R. Kelly’s underage sex tape and how it was basically all okay because they made great work. It wasn’t what I actually believed but I was trying to be game for the scene, trying to be the horrible person I was asked to be. None of the guys agreed with me. They all started strenuously objecting, acting the way a normal person would act if you said stuff like that to them. Suddenly, for a brief but incredibly real-feeling moment, I felt like the scene was actually happening. Here I was with a bunch of people I barely knew, musicians and actors I respect, and I was babblingly defending murder and pedophilia as they looked on, aghast. I had a sudden vision of the finished movie being relatively tame and demure, save for a cutaway of me saying “Charles Manson was a pretty cool guy!” while James Murphy hung his head in embarrassment.
The whole feel of the horrible-social-circle scenes of The Comedy was somewhat sickeningly familiar to me. Specifically, it reminded me of being in junior high school, when I briefly but successfully clawed my way from the most despised pariah caste of my school into the “cool group,” only to find that it was a bunch of terrified kids taking turns teaming up picking on each other at the instigation of a head bully, all of us scared shitless that we’d be chosen as the next object of ridicule. Luckily for me, Rick had already cast his horrible-social-circle scapegoat in Jeff Jenson, playing “Cargill,” a scarily-intoxicated and apparently slow-witted friend the group seems to keep around just to taunt, so the heat was mostly off me. Jeff’s performance was the most immediately striking to me on that day of shooting. Tim was clearly very thoughtful and invested in his role of Swanson, but in his performance he was building something bigger that it was hard to see the constituent parts of. Whereas Jeff both was and wasn’t the character he was portraying in the scene. His eyes were frighteningly glassy and his stare sufficiently 2,000-yard, but he was shaping his performance from second to second in a very crafty way, charging right into the taunts of the group with a graceful clumsiness, then unsuccessfully hiding a pitiful and hurt kind of confusion when those taunts inevitably came.
The next day’s shoot started at midnight, at the same Long Island City apartment. We were shooting two different party scenes, the first being the naked-wrestling / beer-spitting scene between Swanson and Jeff. The idea was that these were the grim final moments of some out-of-control rager, that the situation had disintegrated to the point where Swanson and Jeff were taking their clothes off and wrestling each other in a kind of aggressive, desperate homoerotic breakdown. Which is exactly what shooting the scene felt like. A bunch of us, also in various stages of undress, sat in a semicircle around the two men while they stripped, grappled, splashed each other with beer, spat beer all over us. Rick showed us some footage immediately after and, shot in slow-motion, the sequence was hilarious and even kind of beautiful, but in real-time, with it really happening in front of my face, the intimacy of it was almost harrowing. It was vulnerable and embarrassing and raw. This night of shooting was the first time I realized how committed Tim was to this movie and to his performance, not just because of the content of this scene but because of the weird mix of wildness and focus with which he was building Swanson. It started becoming clear this character wasn’t just an asshole, he was also broken and pitiable.
For my part, I made a promise to myself that my character in this scene was barely registering what was going on except for in a distant, pleasant way. I just kind of glassed my eyes over and watched the two men go at it like I was watching a wrestling match on TV. I snapped my fingers to the beat of the record playing. Tim/Swanson spat a mouthful of beer in my face.
We broke. Some of the actors cleaned up. They brought in some extras for a bigger and different “party” scene, this one more of a group dance party. It was getting hot in the apartment by now, and all the extras were 21 and 22 year-old kids, coated in a sheen of sweat. Rick’s script had called for a scene of “daggering” – a lewdly sexual thrusting dance – between Eric’s character (called “Van Arman”) and some girl who had yet to be determined up until minutes before the scene was shot because everybody felt nervous about it, including Eric. Finally, the costume designer heroically volunteered. I was impressed with her moxie. In the end, the daggering was slightly more tasteful than it could have been, with the rest of the horrible social circle and horrible hangers-on dancing in a ring around Van Arman and the girl, all of us chanting a loud improvised chant Tim made up which went, “It’s the party of the year! It’s a total mess!” Somebody who watched the movie later tweeted that my dance moves in the scene are “how i imagine soviet teens in 1981 danced to boney m bootlegs.” At one point I grabbed two vinyl records and waved them over my head like an Egyptian fan around the two lovers in the center of our dancing circle. When Rick called, cut a guy from the crew ran up to me and said something along the lines of, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Those were his records. The records I was treating like props. The records I was commandeering, abusing, like a rich-kid asshole who doesn’t respect other people’s things. Maybe the role had gotten to me.
The last day was supposed to be a party on the boat where Swanson lives, but we were warned of a severe storm sweeping up the East River. I watched them shoot a scene on the boat, with Swanson and an actress I hadn’t met yet. By that point, the storm had rolled up the river and we all ran into an apartment (another apartment owned by someone connected with the production) and huddled inside for a couple hours, waiting for the rain to blow over. There was a break for dinner, and I went with Tim and Eric and Jeff and the actress Alexia Rasmussen back to the apartment where Tim was staying. We ate some food, listened to some music. I talked with Eric about Tokyo, and with Alexia about my pitiful attempts to act. Jeff was hungover – somewhat frantically so. Tim calmed him down on the patio, with an improvised baseball-like game, hitting some small rubber ball back and forth.
We walked back to the set and the boat party had been turned into a rooftop party. They’d set up a tiny white tent we could all huddle under and babble to each other, the kind of quiet nonsense-talking you do when you’re in the background of a scene and they need you to look like you’re talking but actually want you to be quiet. In the foreground, Tim and Alexia had a long and inaudible conversation. Then the camera moved through the partiers, capturing our casual back-and-forth.
And then that was that. My scenes were done. It was 3:00 A.M., and at 6:00 A.M. I had to catch a plane to Seattle to start a tour with the Decemberists. I said goodbye to everybody and I left.
I would check in with Rick very occasionally and ask how the movie was going, but I didn’t see it for what felt like a long time. In the interim, they sent it to Sundance, where it made some news for the amount of people who walked out of it in disgust or who accosted Rick at the Q&A sessions, yelling at him “What’s wrong with you?” I finally got to see it at SXSW, where Rick had me get up onstage with him for the Q&A after. This audience wasn’t mad and didn’t walk out – they totally understood where the film was coming from. I’ve talked with some friends and I think this is a generational or even a class thing. I think the movie hit the Sundance audience – a slightly older, more aesthetically conservative audience – in a very uncomfortable place. Extremely unsympathetic characters can be polarizing, and I’ve noticed that the effect is more pronounced with a certain kind of viewer. And usually if a lead character is unsympathetic at the start of the film, we often patiently wait for him to change by the end. In The Comedy, the character of Swanson becomes more fully sketched-out as time passes, but he never really changes. That’s kind of the point. The SXSW audience understood when to laugh but weren’t offended. They recognized aspects of themselves and people they knew in this guy, and could both be amused by him and recognize that he’s a creep. For my part, I shouldn’t have worried about whether or not The Comedy would be good, although I understand why I did worry. I thought it was fantastic, funny, poignant, angry. And Tim’s performance was phenomenal.
The film opens with the beer-spitting scene. From the start, I had known Rick was going to set the scene to the song “Baby,” the beautiful centerpiece of the wonderful 1979 album Dreamin’ Wild, by Joe and Donnie Emerson (which Light in the Attic records just heroically re-released). Seeing it actually onscreen though, in slow motion, was a thrill. The memories of shooting that scene came rushing back to me, but instead of indignity and craziness there was a slowed-down opiate grace to the scene now, with that fluid slo-mo and that song. I always love hearing a beautiful song booming out of the giant speakers in a movie theater, and especially when it’s a song I love this much. Donnie Emerson was a teenager when he sang “Baby,” and the song gives off a teenage hormonal buzz but also has a sensual and worldly swagger way beyond its years, that slow fade-in, those cooing background vocals, that mantra-like chant of “Woo-ooo baby, yes oh baby, yes oh baby, yes oh baby,” the “yes oh”s starting to sound like “You’re so baby,” a weird compliment I sometimes now pay people when I’m drunk. The heavy-breathing intimacy of the song matched the physical intimacy shown onscreen and also mocked it, mocked the absence of real and sentimental love or even friendship in The Comedy, the warmth and closeness these characters won’t permit each other, the way they make everything into a gross joke.
I realized while watching the scene that I’d been cut out of it, along with pretty much everybody else, to better focus on the close-up nude grappling between Swanson and Cargill. My glassy eyes, my jazzbo finger-snap, they’d been for nothing. Likewise a good deal of the Manson-justifying scene had been cut out, as well as the entire rooftop party scene with Alexia Rasmussen. I’d been left with one line. After the screening, Rick approached me kind of sheepishly and said, “Sorry most of the scenes with you in them got cut out.” I told him that’s his prerogative. He’s the director and I can’t get mad and have to respect that authority. In a way, it’s a great feeling to have. With Okkervil River, so many decisions come down to me, and I stress and sweat and self-doubt and suffer attempted backseat driving from everyone who hears the music. In someone else’s movie, you just show up and do the best you can at what they tell you to do and besides that you have no other responsibility. It’s a refreshing position to be in.
Number 10: Bill & Will – “Goin’ to the River” (March 2011)
Number 9: Ted Hawkins – “Sorry You’re Sick” (November (2011)
Number 8: Blake Mills – “History of My Life (January 2011)
Number 7: Ray Price – “Release Me” (February 2012)
Number 6: Roy Harper – “One Man Rock and Roll Band” (February 2012)