BJ Novak went to Texas in search of “Revenge” and found America
A funny story that BJ Novak likes to tell since filming his new movie concerns the day he thought he had a stroke. Are you still laughing?
In early 2020, Novak, a writer, comedian and alumnus of “The Office,” finally got the green light to make “Vengeance,” a dark comedy set in a small town in Texas. That’s when he thought he was yawning on his speech and called a colleague to ask if he noticed it too.
As Novak recalled, “I was like, you hear that, right? And he said, yeah. And I called my doctor and went the next morning for an MRI, and they said you were fine, and I realized I was terrified of doing this movie.
Like a lot of humor that appeals to Novak — whose symptoms, rest assured, were completely psychosomatic — what’s funny about this story is all about perspective. You can laugh with relief, when you know the person saying it is no longer in danger.
It’s a frequently recurring theme in “Vengeance,” which blends some of the awkward gritty comedy “The Office” was famous for with a cynical, self-aware sharpness that would never fly down the halls of Dunder Mifflin.
The film, which premieres Friday, is Novak’s directorial and screenwriter debut, and he stars as self-confident New York writer Ben Manalowitz. When Ben learns that a woman he was casually dating — very casually — has died under unclear circumstances in his hometown of Texas, he travels there in hopes of turning the story into a hit podcast. .
Although Ben arrives with selfish motives and a stereotypical sense of red state values, he becomes enamored with the deceased woman’s family (played by Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron, among others ). His investigation also leads him to a shrewd record producer (Ashton Kutcher) who wields a disturbing influence over the town.
For Novak, “Vengeance” is an ambitious attempt to step out of his sitcom comfort zone and see if he can become an Albert Brooks-style leader. As he said of his acting resume, which included small roles in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and other movies, “I’m really a jet guy. I’ve never been a movie character. point of view.
“Vengeance” is also one of the few original comedies that will receive a theatrical release, and it took a level of commitment that Novak never anticipated to make.
“I really felt like a lunatic around the corner,” he said. “I’m going to be in this movie, and it’s a comedy but also a thriller but also a love story. But it’s also about how technology is doing this to us. I really thought I was crazy , but I continued.
One June afternoon, Novak was relaxing on the patio of a downtown Manhattan hotel, where he had performed “Vengeance” at the Tribeca Festival. For the first time in several months, Novak said, “I haven’t been under a terrible writing, editing, and fighting cloud. I really like that.”
Face to face, Novak, who turns 43 on July 31, comes across as easy-going and effortlessly humorous. Describing his life as a Boston-area transplant recipient now residing in Los Angeles, he said, “Everyone in Los Angeles assumes I live in New York, which means: you’re Jewish, right? not ? Or maybe I haven’t seen you in a while.
But there is an intensity that colors all his anecdotes on “Vengeance”, the central premise of which he has been shaking up for several years.
“We live in a time divided, in quotes, because we communicate completely on our own timelines,” he said. “It was from my experience of dating and being a somewhat superficial person who didn’t really know what was missing until it was too late.”
Novak added, “With each passing year, it became a more topical film, which I never wanted it to be.”
Between 2015 and 2018, Novak said, he took research trips to Texas towns like Abilene and Pecos, seeking to dispel his misconceptions about a part of the country he assumed was unwelcoming.
“I thought those huge guys with beards and pickups would be very suspicious of a guy from the blue state of Hollywood, and I found the exact opposite,” he said. “It’s the warmest culture I’ve ever found. I would go to Easter dinners and people would show me the poetry they had written.
Novak returned from his travels with the founding of what would become “Vengeance”, and with the intention of playing the lead role. “I wrote the role so that it would be impossible to play with anyone other than me,” he said. “You know, superficial with a possible hidden heart, blah blah blah.”
While the film may be equally scathing in its satirical treatment of snobbish city dwellers and gullible country folk, Novak said the script for “Vengeance” benefited from the lessons he learned while working on “The Office.”
In particular, he said the sitcom taught him “the confidence to throw in your best joke if it didn’t feel authentic or damage the character in the long run – if you honestly play an emotional moment, the laughter will more satisfying later.”
That said, Novak also had to remember that it was okay to portray his “Vengeance” persona with a few positive attributes — an approach he never would have taken on “The Office,” on which he, Mindy Kaling, Paul Lieberstein and other writers have portrayed her supporting miscreants.
On that show, Novak said, “We were too shy to cast anything redemptive, so we played the less redemptive characters. We were all allergic to that in the writers room.
The “Vengeance” cast has grown to include Issa Rae, who plays a podcast producer Ben hopes to impress; singer-songwriter John Mayer, who plays one of Ben’s self-absorbed New York friends; and Kutcher, who previously employed Novak as an accomplice on camera for his MTV prank series, “Punk’D.”
Kutcher said he was particularly impressed with a long monologue his character delivered, about people who seem to care less about the lives they lead than the digital recordings they leave behind.
“When you look at human behavior and the obsessive nature of chasing that dopamine hit of posting every moment that we think is interesting or cool or funny, you realize his theory has merit,” Kutcher said.
Additionally, Kutcher said he appreciated that Novak was open to letting him play his character with a mustache. “I just saw him with a mustache. I don’t know why,” Kutcher said.
But as production progressed, Novak grew increasingly anxious about having to carry the film as the main man, triggering his panic attack. It was around this time that he contacted Mayer for what Novak described as “beauty coaching”.
Mayer is a longtime friend of Novak, dating back to “The Office.” (In an email, Mayer explained that he allowed the show to use his song “Your Body Is a Wonderland” in exchange for a Dundie Award.)
Mayer said he couldn’t remember all the suggestions he offered Novak, but one was to stop drinking alcohol before he started shooting. “First and foremost, you have to put alcohol consumption aside,” Mayer said. “I know people cringe just hearing this stuff. But it’s the truth.
He continued, “I think I mentioned having the right haircut, basic stuff. But how sweet and vulnerable is BJ asking before filming what advice I could give him?
A few weeks into filming, production was suspended for several months due to the pandemic. At times, Novak found himself juggling film duties and his FX anthology series on Hulu “The Premise.”
“I filmed the FX show, then went back to filming ‘Vengeance,'” he started to say, then corrected himself. “No, I was editing ‘Vengeance’ while I was writing. It was a mess, and I had Covid.
“I took longer, because I was writing badly and editing badly because my brain was bad for a few weeks,” he said. “They were both going bad at various times because I couldn’t balance them and I thought I could.”
Now, “Vengeance” is coming to theaters on the heels of blockbusters “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” at a time when many other low-budget comedies and dramas on more earthly subjects are broadcast directly on streaming platforms.
Jason Blum, chief executive of Blumhouse, one of the companies that produced “Vengeance,” said the film might as well have been streamed.
“I can’t tell you that we haven’t considered that during the pandemic,” he said. “We considered every possible distribution point, ever.”
But, Blum said, his company had success with writer-director films that blended comedy and thriller genres, like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” and he hoped “Vengeance” would find a way. similar.
“This movie is exactly the kind of movie people say they want to see,” Blum said. “If it works well, it will also pave the way for other original films to be released theatrically, not just films based on existing IP.”
For Novak, the theatrical release is a chance to show “Vengeance” to the very people he hopes to capture, and to figure out if they like the way he’s portrayed them.
“I really want Texans to like him,” he said. “I wanted to do this favorite Texans movie. I even put a Whataburger in it. I remember seeing Dunkin’ Donuts in “Good Will Hunting”. As a Bostonian, you felt so seen.