‘ENTERTAINMENT’ Q&A: Director Rick Alverson On Abandoning the Traditional Narrative


IMG_0703Preston Barta // Features Editor

Director: Rick Alverson
Writer: Rick Alverson, Gregg Turkington and Tim Heidecker
Cast: Gregg Turkington, Tye Sheridan, John C. Reilly and Michael Cera

Screening tonight at Los Angeles’ Next Fest is ENTERTAINMENT, a loose narrative about an aging comedian (Gregg Turkington) who’s on the path to revive his career and meet his daughter.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with director and co-writer Rick Alverson (THE COMEDY, 2012) about the film’s distinct style, Turkington’s shock-comedy, and trusting your instincts.

Writer-director Rick Alverson.

Writer-director Rick Alverson.

I’ve read several interviews that you’ve done where you shared your feelings about modern entertainment. This film is very appropriately titled in that regard. And even though, you’re not a fan of incorporating metaphors, they are all well placed throughout the film. I feel like you could watch this movie again and again and can pick out different meanings, or maybe even feel a complete different way. Have there been any movies that you’ve seen that still do that for you?

Rick Alverson: “Oh, sure. There are a lot. I’m a big fan of Lisandro Alonso’s movies. Pedro Costa does a lot of that. There’s a lot of them, yeah.”

Did you watch those kind of movies as a kid, or was it something that you discovered later?

Alverson: “No, I mean, I grew up on– well, I was very introverted as a child, an adolescent and even a young adult, cripplingly so. I pretty much was socially reared on television and popular movies at the time. Living in the suburbs, we didn’t have exposure to arthouse cinema.

At 17 or 18, I discovered that sort of thing and it opened up an entire dimension to possibility. There can be a conversation and a predicament, you know? It isn’t just about arresting oneself of any active participation in the world. I realized it felt like it could be constructive, to continue something that we hopefully try to do in our daily lives. But, without the literal danger, there’s a decadence in the safety of our living rooms and theaters, that we can play out these confusions and predicaments. It’s similar to the dream state in that regard. There’s a reason why we go into rem and have nightmarish visions; it’s because it’s necessary in order for us to conceive the world, its dangers and our place in it. I think there’s a responsibility in media, and in cinema in particular, to do the same thing.”

Damn, well said. To turn to the story here, this film follows a comedian whose acts are quite shocking. It often makes the audiences in the film, the ones who are watching the character’s on-stage performance, feel uncomfortable. Does it worry you that some people will feel the same way about your film, or are you just reeling it all in and enjoying all the different interpretations people have for it?

Alverson: “I do care about the audience. We have a lot of exposure to things in this day and age. However, I see it as dance, an investigation about what those thresholds are. How can you keep someone in the game and challenge them, you know? I think ENTERTAINMENT is very much about cultural plateaus and exhaustion, so I think it’s necessary to hit those marks and dynamics of the thing, and then the retraction and repulsion spectrum.”

Gregg Turkington in ENTERTAINMENT. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Gregg Turkington in ENTERTAINMENT. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I like Gregg’s character and how he kind of just goes with the flow and trusts his instincts. When he deals with a tough crowd, he handles it and then we follow him to see where he goes with it. In your career, what is the moment where you most had to trust your instincts?

Alverson: “Well, I think– I guess I’ve been trying to figure out for all my adult life what an instinct is [Laughs]. I mean, there’s different forms of muscle memory, some of them belong to us and a large majority don’t; they’re sort of these learned kind of defaults, you know?

My first two movies, THE BUILDER (2010) and NEW JERUSALEM (2011), are much more consistent with my aesthetic, even though I think – and certainly THE COMEDY was – I don’t know much of anything about the comedy world. I hadn’t ever struck up a conversation with a comedian prior to meeting Tim [Heidecker], Eric [Wareheim] and Gregg. I think that’s part of what became really interesting: to realize once you divest yourself of your personal aesthetic interests, it can become a literal conversation. I think typically these tools, whether its for corporate enterprise or individual, seem to be propagandistic. I mean, for something to be formally propagandistic, it seems to have more integrity than for something to be a grandstanding platform for worldview. At the same time, when people ask me what my–“


Alverson: “Yeah, my intentions and this sort of stuff. I can say as a viewer, personally, what I see in them and don’t, but ultimately, I would hope that they breathe more than that. Otherwise, I don’t really know what it’s all about.”

Speaking of the film’s comedy, it may not make the audiences laugh as much in the moment–

Alverson: [Laughs]

But I found myself thinking about it and laughing at it later. I feel as though there is a timeless quality to it. Do you feel the same way about Gregg’s style of comedy?

Alverson: “Oh, Gregg is a master of temple, rhythm and dynamics with his on-stage persona, but it’s much more complex than that. I think in the context of our movie, it moves some of the responses to that out in a broader conversation and a serious experience.”

Gregg Turkington and "The Comedian" and Tye Sheridan as Eddie. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Gregg Turkington and “The Comedian” and Tye Sheridan as Eddie. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

What about some of the small characters? I mean, there’s so many interesting characters in here, as you do in all of your films. Of course, Gregg is at the center, but do you ever wish you could explore more of the side characters, like Tye Sheridan, or even Michael Cera who has a curious cameo in the film? Or, do you feel that because they are small, it’s best to leave audiences to wonder where they came from and what their intentions are?

Alverson: “Yeah, those things are kind of– well, I don’t think much about literary and narrative in movies. If I find myself asking questions about where people come from, what their motivations are, what does this mean, or what does that mean– just like everyone else, I’d be depriving myself of the experiential, temporal tonal elements of movies. I think that’s really what separates it from literature and what very much should.

Audiences are taught to feel, particularly in America, empowered and entitled to access very particular things: narrative information that they can’t experience in the world. I think that creates a safety in that exchange between the audience and the object of their attention. It’s kind of not really productive, you know? If we walk in and all our expectations are met, yeah, I think, of course, we’re satisfied, but the problem is also we’re pacified. There’s a history of engineering captivity in audiences in the United States. This is a country I’ve been born and raised in, so I am as much an authority as the rest of us [Laughs].

We liked to think of movies and media as something trivial but it’s not at all. It engineers responses and experiences, and we take that out into the world. It whittles down our empathy, contracts our capacity for understanding those around us, and it percolates down to the number of people who show up to polls and vote.

Some people may look at the content of some of my films and think there’s a destructive element, but that destructive element is essentially an attempt at resuscitation. It’s reverse engineering, activity in the audience so it has some vitality to it. And hopefully people are enriched by it. That’s my intention. Whether or not it succeeds is for other people to decide.”

ENTERTAINMENT opens in set to release in November, but it is screening tonight at 8 p.m. at Next Fest in Los Angeles. All ticket information can be found on axs.com.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.