“Entertainment” is probably the most ironically named movie to be released in 2015 as it is not entirely fun to sit through, but to dismiss it as bad because it is not enjoyable would be missing the point. It proves to be an experience more than anything else as we watch a stand-up comic named The Comedian (played by Gregg Turkington) travel through the California desert while performing at a string of third-rate venues in front of audiences who couldn’t be less excited to watch him. During this time, he tries to get in touch with his estranged daughter and eagerly awaits a lucrative Hollywood engagement which just might revive his sagging career. But first, he has to travel through what seems like the equivalent of Dante’s Inferno in order to find any hope of salvation.
“Entertainment” was directed by Rick Alverson who previously gave us “The Comedy,” another ironically named motion picture which starred Tim Heidecker as an aging New Yorker who is indifferent to inheriting his father’s estate and passes time with friends playing games of mock sincerity and irreverence. Turkington is a noted stand-up comic best known for his alter-ego of Neil Hamburger, a persona which he brings to “Entertainment” but who is not the same character as The Comedian.
I got to speak with Alverson and Turkington while they were at Cinefamily in Los Angeles where “Entertainment” was being shown. When I told that them this interview was for Examiner.com, they joking replied how someone on the website gave them their movie the worst review imaginable and described it as anything but entertaining. We started with that review and went from there.
Ben Kenber: How do you feel about reviews like that?
Rick Alverson: Well it’s weird. Obviously the movie isn’t a romp through a good time, so if somebody says it’s a failure for doing that they are right, but that’s not even engaging with the movie (laughs). It’s like you’re not even walking into the room.
Gregg Turkington: They got the details wrong, that’s what I don’t like. They seem to have thought he was trying to do something else and that he failed in trying to do that, but he was trying to do that so he didn’t fail so fuck yourself (laughs). But I like the bad reviews if sometimes it feels like the person’s taking it so personally that the review, when you are reading it, you can tell that I don’t like this person and they don’t like this and this sounds interesting to me, I’m gonna go see the movie. I’ve gone to a lot of movies with scathing reviews because I could tell we are not on the same page, and what you hate is what I like. That’s fine with me.
BK: I saw “Entertainment” a couple of weeks ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Some movies are meant to be experienced more than enjoyed, and this movie is an example of that. Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed.
RA: Great. That’s very good to hear.
BK: We’re looking at a comedian who is at the end of his rope psychologically, and you can’t turn away from his suffering.
RA: Yeah, I would say it’s even more than just psychological. I think it’s a holistic disaster biologically, psychologically, spiritually…
GT: Environmentally (laughs). Although we did win an award in Switzerland at this film Festival we went to.
RA: Environment is Quality of Life Award from the junior jury at Locarno in Switzerland.
GT: Pick the film that best sums up the environment is quality of life (laughs).
RA: It’s true, we won.
GT: Environment is low quality of life, and that environment is low quality (laughs).
BK: I can see why it won. Greg, your character of The Comedian was inspired by your character of Neil Hamburger. When you brought that character to this movie, did you have to change anything about the way you perform?
GT: The live stage show is similar to the real live stage show although me lashing out at somebody for no good reason is not something I would do in a live stage show. That was more the character. But yeah, there were a lot of things that had to be planned out and thought about and addressed. Ultimately I don’t think it is the Neil Hamburger story. It’s a very similar character and certainly it helps to have that character up our sleeves when we need it, but we had to be free to start from scratch.
BK: Rick, I read in the production notes that you had mentioned how you found failure as being very liberating. What specifically about failure do you find so liberating?
RA: Well it describes the boundaries and limitations of the world and experience, and there’s something beautiful to what we can and can’t do and understanding them. It’s like understanding what your feet are for, and your feet have a certain function. I think functionality is beautiful, and we are increasingly a society that’s divorced from form in every way and ignores the limitations which are the actual architecture of life. So we are just ignoring the shape of things and instead are wrapped up in what things could be in this idealized ephemeral flight of fancy. There is a neglecting the beauty of facts on the ground.
GT: A lot of peoples’ failures are to me successes. There’s a purity often to them that you don’t find with things that are successful.
RA: Yeah, because the idea of success is that so few can achieve it in any discipline and any particular way, whether it’s the success of becoming incredibly rich or the success of perfectly achieving the discipline. The majority of people are in some sort of muddy approximation of that. I don’t use traditionally scripted dialogue in any of my movies, so there’s improvisation and other methods of achieving tonal exchanges or content. I really like when things fall flat or there is that absence of chiseled, airtight exchange that we see in so much of popular cinema.
BK: Regardless of how people view “Entertainment,” I have a feeling it will endure over the years as it offers a different and specific view of things.
GT: I’m surprised at how people’s perceptions of things is all based on something like an opening weekend or with music too. It’s like some record comes out and it doesn’t do well, but the music is still valid at any point. The time that it comes out shouldn’t determine the value of it. It’s crazy.
RA: There are these sort of free market metrics especially in an age where we don’t even know who’s buying this stuff. Netflix isn’t releasing their numbers or whatever company. Digital platforms don’t need to release their numbers, so we really don’t know where this stuff’s going and who it’s being imbibed by. To think that our metrics for an opening weekend at the box office have any sort of say about a work is silly.
GT: It’s also replaced for a lot of people film criticism. I hear people in airports or on the street talking about box office numbers and really that should only be of interest to the investors, not to the moviegoers. What do you care if it made 30 million or 60 million? That’s nothing to do with you.
RA: Increasingly we want context for everything. We need context for our own experience. We need to understand how other people are viewing something so that we know how to view it, which is a bit of a shame. Where’s discovery?
BK: I imagine there was a lot of improvisation involved in the making of this movie.
GT: For the dialogue. The rest of it is pretty scripted out very carefully scripted out. It’s not improvised like, what will we talk about now. It’s written there what the topic is, what the town he is in and what’s being communicated. It’s just up to the actors to use the actual words.
RA: We were talking about the other day how there’s, in a tent pole blockbuster movie, a general sense that people were improvising. Because of the prowess of the spectacle, everybody is saying that they know that they (the actors) are riffing on lines in a popular sense. But I think when people talk about independent films and say that they are improvised, it’s just like you turn on the camera and everybody’s doing whatever the fuck they want. It’s so many different things for so many different people. You think you are communicating one thing by saying it, but language is useless sometimes. This was fun because we worked with different people in different ways. I was improvising lines and writing lines on the spot and feeding them to certain people. Others like John (C. Reilly) and Gregg, they have a chemistry and they are very good improvisers so the dialogue exchanges between them were in that world. For me, watching that thing sort of come apart or the attempt at it, honestly half the time if I know we are covering whatever little narrative ground we need, I’m just listening to the voices. We don’t do more than three takes, and some of that is economic. If it’s not achieved by the casting or by the sort of conditions that you’re setting up, then what are you aiming for? I like things falling kind of flat too.
GT: But it’s also true that people think it’s a big free-for-all, improvising. They should see a scene that we might do where we do the first take, me talking to somebody or whatever making up the dialogue, and Rick says, “Alright for this one I need you to move half a millimeter to your right.” That’s not a free-for-all, being told to move half a millimeter to the right. That would probably be the direction over we need you to use this line and to say this specific thing. A lot of times it was stuff like that which is really the opposite of a free-for-all.
BK: Gregg, your character gets booked at a lot of second-rate venues or places that are the worst for comedians to be stuck at. Is that something you’ve experienced in your own career, or is that something you just been a witness to?
GT: I experienced it when I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that it was happening by booking shows that I knew what have that sort of outcome. And then sometimes you go into a show with the best of intentions and it just doesn’t pan out. Things get awful and ugly. But I like a variety of responses and so I like to have shows that are successes on the traditional level, success in the failures on the traditional level. To me they are probably both successes because they gave me a different experience.
RA: I feel that way about movies. It’s strange increasingly for me to recognize how similar me and Gregg are and what we want out of the thing whether it’s comedy or drama or film or stand up. We’re kind of curious about the off-kilter event (laughs).
BK: There are some amazing shots of the California desert in this movie. On one hand they are beautiful, but on the other they illustrate how vacant and empty The Comedian’s life is. Was it challenging to get those shots with the budget you had?
RA: We stretched our budget really, really far, and that speaks to the dedication of everybody involved; the crew and the producers and the cast. So yeah, of course it’s challenging. It’s 112° outside and Lorenzo Hagerman, our cameraman, is carrying a 50-pound camera kit on his shoulder up a rocky cliff to get those wide vista shots 400 yards from something. Gregg’s shoes are melting and it’s dangerous out there. Don’t go to the desert! (Laughs)
GT: Don’t shoot in the desert is right!
RA: Me and Gregg talked about how we liked in the 70’s you see a lot of films of people just sweating and nobody’s dabbing them. They are just covered in sweat and look greasy and wrong. You started to see that becoming the sterilization of, “No that’s not quite right. We can do better than that.” So you had to sterilize the representation down to its most idealized form, but we were hoping for some more sweat actually.
BK: Tye Sheridan’s role in this movie is interesting because he basically plays a clown who doesn’t have much of an act. He just basically panders to the audience’s basest instincts. How did you work with him on that role?
RA: I showed him an idiot dance and he brought it to life. I’d ask him to do sort of these mime-ish things at events, and he stepped up on that stage and animated it in a way that shocked all of us. It was electrifying. He sort of plays the apocalypse in the movie. He definitely is the end of the spectacle. He’s reduced down to the rawest of the raw materials. He is the smut in the pig sty, the character I mean. Tye is one of the kindest, gentlest, most respectful young men that you could ever meet.
BK: What do you hope people get the most out of “Entertainment” and the experience of watching it?
RA: I hope they do what you’ve done. You can watch a film and be activated by it and be engaged with it and have an experience like you’re saying. It doesn’t necessarily in a typical sort of way expect for it to do to you what the majority of films do. There can be an outlier that doesn’t operate by those principal, and the spectrum of art is much larger than a particular metric like if you enjoyed it or if you didn’t enjoy it. It’s so much more broad.
I want to thank Rick Alverson and Gregg Turkington for taking the time to talk with me. “Entertainment” is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.