For the first time, a David Sedaris work has been adapted for the big screen. Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the young filmmaker that helmed the acclaimed indie, Easier With Practice (2010), received the great (and very first) honor of a green light from Sedaris and co. to move forward on an adaptation of the short story, C.O.G. I met up with Mr. Alvarez at Luca in West Hollywood to discuss C.O.G.’s journey to the big screen. After some tea and pleasantries, and some friendly banter about other summer flicks like The To Do List and Kings of Summer, we dove in…
How has the festival circuit been treating you?
It’s been good. It’s been different. My first movie didn’t get into any major festivals at all. We really had to fight for it to get into festivals and fight for people to see it. And this time around, getting into Sundance just set a precedent and made it a little easier. The festivals that are going to be interested in your movie will seek you out. Not to say I haven’t inquired about some festivals I’ve wanted to be a part of, but, it does take a little bit of the leg work out of it. So it’s been good. It’s been weird too, a lot of young filmmakers think ‘well you know, it’s a movie so it should play at festivals’ but they don’t ever ask themselves, which festivals and why. Having sold our film out of Sundance, it became about making sure we’re playing the right cities, where we’ll open the movie later down the line, so that people can see it there and be aware of it. It’s just a different strategy, but it’s been great!
When did you first read C.O.G. and what was your initial reaction to it?
I read it when I was 15 or 16 years old and I was in high school. I hadn’t heard of David Sedaris and a friend of mine gave me the book. I remember reading the whole book and finding it funny, but that story [“C.O.G.”] stuck with me. If you read all his work… it’s very different and a lot sadder. It deals with darker themes, I think. Sometimes his work gets dark, but in a lot of cases his best stuff, his funniest stuff, is anecdotal too, and this one didn’t feel that way. This one felt like it had this ensemble of characters and has this very interesting character path that his other work didn’t have. It felt very linear and narrative, so I always thought it would make a good movie. Not necessary that it would make the best David Sedaris movie, but a good film and a good story.
In terms of the story, well, I grew up in a pretty conservative neighborhood in Northern California, and I wasn’t raised religious but I was raised around a lot of very religious people. So I always felt at odds with it, like I wanted to belong in something. So I always admired or was jealous of the people that had faith. So the story seemed to just tap into that in a way that was funny — from a point of view I hadn’t thought of before. It stuck with me. It was one of those things where you talk with people and are like, ‘Oh my god, you know this book? This book would make such a good movie. Why haven’t they turned that into a movie?’ And for me it was always this story. So then it was a matter of seeking that out.
So for a lot of people that don’t know, how was that process of seeking out the rights?
It was not easy. My first film was based on a GQ article written by this guy named Davey Rothbart, who is another This American Life contributor. And so, it was a similar kind of process in that I was taking one small story from someone’s work who writes a lot of different things. It was a similar type of legal agreement, which is to say, you’re not trying to get the scope of their entire work. If I was trying to do that it would have never happened. I just wanted the scope of this one story, and I wouldn’t go outside the parameters of this story. But David had been saying ‘no’ to people for so long, he just wasn’t interested in seeing a film — that didn’t have appeal to him of his work. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to go say ‘yes’ to a movie because there’s a lot of money there. That wasn’t enough for him. I had read a lot about his concerns about adaptation and I felt that this one, in my approach, would be so different from all of that and maybe there was a chance. So after finishing the first film, I tried getting in touch with him and his reps. And they said ‘we’ve been down this path before’, ‘he’s not interested’, ‘we just don’t accept requests anymore because its just not his policy’. So I just went to one of his book readings. I felt that this one was different and if he said ‘no’, if I heard ‘no’ from him, then I’d let it go entirely. So I went with a copy of Easier With Practice, and he knew Davey, and I said ‘Hey, here’s my film. It’s loosely based on a piece by Davey Rothbart. If you like it I’d like to talk to you about some things.’ So he was able to see that the character in that film is nothing like Davey Rothbart. It just took the story and “cinematized” it. I think that created a certain amount of comfort for him to say ‘yes’.
Has David seen the film?
Yeah, he was at the premiere at Sundance. Having twice now made films based on real life people, I think it’s a weird experience when they watch it. David said, ‘It’s so strange. I’m sitting there watching someone who doesn’t look like me or sound like me and he’s saying words I’ve said in places I’ve been. And, they’re saying my name and the person playing me is turning his head. It was just eerie.’ I’m just so grateful that he wanted to come see the film and support it, because if someone made a movie about me I’d probably never want to see it! <<laughing>>
You filmed in Portland. Would you say the geography plays a fairly significant role in the film?
It’s funny because Portland proper is a very liberal, cool, hip city. The movie technically takes place about an hour outside of Portland. If you go an hour out of Portland, you get to see some pretty raw Americana. There’s a lot of farming communities there. I always like going to a different city to shoot a movie. This one was really specific to the setting. At one point our financiers wanted us to shoot either in Ohio or here in California. We were trying to find a way to make it work but didn’t want to change the setting. The Pacific Northwest is part of the identity of the film. And you know, when you’re not spending that much on a movie, why not spend that marginal amount, though still a significant amount, on such an important element of your film, which is location. I wrote David telling him that we’re actually going to go shoot in Portland, and he said, ‘Oh that’s great, because Portland makes such a better Portland than Ohio.’
I’m so glad we ended up shooting in Portland, because you can turn the camera in any direction and it’ll still feel like Portland. Do I think we could’ve achieved the same feeling near Seattle or Vancouver? Absolutely and we entertained that. But there was no monetary or creative difference so we decided to shoot it where it actually happened. I actually looked at the actual apple factory he worked in, but it didn’t look as good as the factory we chose. <<smiles>>
…And everybody asks me if I went to this or that restaurant. My answer is ‘no’ because I was working the whole time. I wish I could’ve spent more time there. Someone brought me a box of Voodoo Doughnuts once, and that was it.
The alter call scene, which I found to be very reminiscient of There Will Be Blood, was a very pivotal moment and there’s many interpretations for what goes on in that moment. What’s your take on it?
There Will Be Blood was definitely on my mind, in that it had some similar ways about questioning ‘What is Christian?’ and ‘What isn’t?’ In the book C.O.G., that’s not a scene in a church. It’s just Sam and Jon on a roadside. I felt that the movie was becoming more about community than anything else, less of a coming-out story, but instead finding where you exist within a community — what kind of part you naturally are by your religion, ethnicity, sexuality, whatever it is. So it made more sense to me to put it in a church and make it more dramatic. But it’s very funny in the story and it was funny on the page and it wasn’t until we started shooting that Jonathan and I were like, ‘Well he’s kind of betraying himself here’, and that maybe in this moment all the stuff he says about faith and religion is true to him. We realized that that scene was about him lying to himself. It was a scene I put a lot of time into, one of the last scenes I rewrote. I have a friend who’s a very devout Christian and I wanted to make this a scene that didn’t insult him or that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by, so I got his take on it. He had some questions about it but my intention was to be fairly vague about it, the denomination, etc. And Jonathan did such a good job of it. I’m so grateful.
The coming of age story is very popular right now, especially in independent films. C.O.G. is quite vague about it, even up until the end, that the self-discovery is a bit unsure, a bit unresolved…
That’s funny you mention that because all the way through it, even up until the end, we were like, ‘Should we put a voice-over or something in there? Something to make it clearer?’
Do you wish you had? I think one of the strengths of the movie was its level of vagueness.
Yeah, I don’t wish it was clearer. I could have gone back and done things to make it clearer. When I make a movie with ambiguity, I feel that it evokes a stronger reaction from people sometimes, and I like that. I have to remind myself that I’d rather make a film that some people hate and some people love than a film that everyone thinks is just ok. Every time I read a negative review, I have to remind myself that I brought this on myself. <<laughing>> The ambiguity was a huge part of that. I mean, some people have the assumption that if you’re in the closet you’re unhappy and when you’re out of the closet you’re happy. It’s a lot more difficult than that and it’s a lot more rare than that. I like the self-imposed character complex here. He’s his own worst enemy. Some people still ask, ‘Is he gay?” and I say that he hits on a guy in the third scene of the movie!
But the relationship with the female friend is a bit conflicting.
Right. I don’t regret it, but if there were a scene that I’d go back and add one more clear line…and I still think I would’ve cut it out…but I would have added one to that scene. That’s the only scene where we get context of who Sam is, like, in the real world. I wanted to write a scene that had two people that had everything they needed to be happy with each other except sex. So I wanted it to feel like a breakup scene but without there really having been a real relationship. In the end I think the ambiguity keeps the movie interesting and keeps his displacement engaging because he’s trying. He is making the effort to fit in. It’s ultimately funny because as much as he judges them, he wants to be part of them as well. The desire to want to be liked by people. Hell, even the title is ambiguous, like, what the fuck does that mean?
Right! I constantly refer to the film as ‘cog’ and not C.O.G.! And I looked up ‘cog’ and found one online definition that says, “a subordinate member of an organization who performs necessary but usually minor or routine functions.”
Which kind of fits the movie! <<laughing>>
I don’t think I’m reading too much into this.
And the funny thing is that “C.O.G.” is still a religious phrase that’s commonly used. There was another movie called G.B.F. and I just thought, ‘darn it’s another acronym title, but at least it’s un-pronounceable.’ But there’s also A.C.O.D. that people were pronouncing, so it all doesn’t really matter. I would’ve changed the title, really, but no one could come up with a title that wasn’t basically a Nancy Meyers title, a title that literally could be the title of any movie. I’d rather have a title that’s specific to this film. I’ve never wanted to make a movie with an adverb or adjective then noun title…
Yeah, exactly. <<laughing>>
What was one of your favorite alternate titles?
We talked about ‘Above It All’. It was okay but a little cheesy. Then there were some seasonal stuff but nothing great. But this is the year of the acronym titles! There are tons.
What was it like to work with Corey Stoll, Jonathan Groff, and Denis O’Hare?
I was really lucky. No one auditioned for this movie. I was able to cast actors who’s work I really admired and would fit the movie well. Denis was a no-brainer for me. He’s literally done everything. It’s all monologues and long speeches and he can handle that stuff so well. I always show people his monologue from the first season of True Blood.
Same with Corey, I wanted him so badly. It was almost purely off Midnight In Paris. I was also so excited to see Corey wrap House of Cards on a Friday or Wednesday, and begin shooting with us on the following Monday and it was great to see House of Cards lift his profile. He’s truly a character actor.
And Jonathan…I had seen some of his work but hadn’t seen a lot. We met, here actually, and we got along really well and he was doing a play with Alfred Molina downtown called Red, a John Logan play. And in the play, Jonathan plays an apprentice to a very egocentric and cantankerous artist who takes every opportunity he can to tear into him. And I was like, wait a minute, this is exactly the same kind of relationship. And the play is literally the two actors for two hours — no intermission, one act. Anyone that can carry that amount of responsibility and share a stage with someone as towering as Alfred Molina and be an equal to them is someone that I felt had something that hadn’t been utilized yet. He was so good in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock and I just felt this was a good timing for him. I felt he was due to carry a film. This would be a great opportunity for him to show off what he can do. On stage, he has, yes, but on screen, not yet. Everyone worked really hard. I got really lucky.
What’s on tap for you?
I always hate doing this stupid thing where I legitimately can’t talk about it. What I can say is that it’s a really good project, still a low budget independent film, and more ambitious than anything I’ve done before. And, it’s not a script I wrote so it’s a very different experience for me. This is the first time I’m walking into something that’s already there. For me, my identity as a writer and identity as a director have been one and the same, so this is the first time the first part isn’t there. It’s really fun for me and a great challenge. I’m excited.
Great. Well…that’s it. Thank you so much!
Great, how long was that?
Let’s see…45 minutes.
C.O.G. opens in select Bay Area theaters this Friday, September 20, 2013.