Sundance Interview: Jonathan Groff and writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez of 'C.O.G'
On adapting David Sedaris, apple-picking and the audacity indie film requires ...
Adapting an essay by David Sedaris -- and the first time Sedaris has let one of his works be filmed -- Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "C.O.G." tells the story of Samuel (Jonathan Groff of "Glee"), who's exiled himself to the apple-picking wilds of Oregon post-college, where he learns more than a few unintended lessons about life and his own errors in judgment as he finds work at an apple factory and then becomes a jade-cutting apprentice to a devout Christian with a complicated heart played by "True Blood" star Denis O'Hare.
MSN Movies: How do you get to be the first guy to make an official David Sedaris film?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: It's been a long sort of ... I've always wanted to do it but it's always felt at arm's, you know, it always felt kind of just out of reach. And after I finished the first movie ("Easier with Practice,") I thought well maybe now's an opportunity to try. I have something else. I have some way in. And at first all his representation were like, "It's a policy. He just doesn't say yes to these things." And I was trying to say, "Well this one's different." And then they were just, "Yeah, we've heard that one before." And I was like, "No, but it really is." And it was that kind of back and forth for a really long time to the point where I just had to go to a book signing of his, hand him a copy of "Easier With Practice" and say, "Hey I've got..." You know, I didn’t pitch it to him. I just sort of said, "I have some ideas. If you like the film I'd love to talk to you."
And then after his tour, I think I handed it to him in September and I heard from him at the end of December. And it was just a really ...he was just really gracious and surreal. Like it was surreal to me that he was really, you know, he was kind of open to it. We got along. I think he liked my pitch on it, which was "Okay. I'm not going to ... it's not really going to be you. It's going to be your story, but it's not going to necessarily look like you or sound like you. You know, I like this story even if you hadn't written it. I would still want this story." And in some ways it's been amazing to have his support that way, and he (showed) support in a very different way. And he talked about it a little bit last night. He wasn’t supportive in the way he read through the script or came and visited the set. He was just supportive of me and very encouraging about it and very positive always about it and always getting together with me in town when he came through Los Angeles, which for me was such a motivator to be 'Okay, this guy is believing in me do this and I respect him so much," and that's definitely what helped me get through the three years it took try to get people to let me make it.
And Mr. Groff, I'm curious about how you got involved and in touch with the material.
Jonathan Groff: I got sent the script, and Kyle said he wanted to meet with me. And when I read the script I was really confused because I knew it was a David Sedaris short story. And I just saw David Sedaris, and I thought, "I don't look like him or sound like him, and I can't do an impression of him, so I wonder why Kyle's eager to meet with me for this film."And we sat down, and he sort of explained that it was Sedaris' story but he was not looking for an impression but for just someone to sort of inhabit the character. And when I sat down with Kyle he's so ... when he speaks about his work he gets so excited and so passionate that I knew that it was something that I had to be a part of because he was so inspired by the material and inspiring to talk to.
Samuel's whole thing is ... I can just picture him being one of those guys like me who likes Thoreau a bit too much with self-reliance, but what he really needs is self-awareness.
I mean how do you tap into...
Alverez: He does read "Walden." That's one of the books he's reading.
Alvarez: Which I was bummed because I remember when they put up the trailer for "Upstream Color" it was passing over a table with a close up of "Walden", and I was like the "Walden" references here's ...
Alvarez: Thoreau -- he's hot, he's sexy, he's dead.
Groff: So hot.
Alvarez: So, so in, so right now. So dead author chic.
But I mean how do you tap into playing an intelligent, articulate cluelessness in a way that's like human behavior and not a Will Ferrell character?
Groff: I think there's an innocence to Samuel that is sort of the way, and it sort of makes him relatable. There was a line last night, last night was the first night I've ever watched it with an audience, and there was a line last night that played in the bar where he says, what does he say?
Alvarez: He's like, "I just think people are so intimated by me."
Groff: Yeah, and there's sort of a complete unawareness that it's humorous. And so I think that for me was the way and to sort of make him more likable and not so much of an a**hole. It was difficult though because he definitely, and David said it last night in the talk, he said, " I forgot how pompous I was when growing up; watching this movie made me realize it."
Right, but I mean the difference between pomposity and arrogance is like manslaughter versus murder. I mean there's not a lot of intent there, right? Was there?
Groff: No, totally. It's really, and I've said it couple of times today, (a thing) I think we can all relate to. I never went to college, but when I left home, when I left my hometown and struck out in the world I felt like I knew what I was doing. I had a plan because I had no sense of reality of what anything was actually going to be like. And I think that everybody can relate to being that age and sort of striking out thinking, "I'm going to take the world by storm," or "I'm going to go to this small town and sort of honor them with my presence and my smarts," and then they sort of end up teaching you a lesson. And I think even outside of that when you're young even today we think we have our s**t together, but life introduces us to different people and puts us in different situations where we're constantly forced to question who we are and sort of redefine who we are as we make our way through.
Alvarez: And I think too, I was going to say to give Jonathan some credit on it, I think that that element, like being able to be accessible but still play the character how it needed to be played, that was the primary quality that I was looking for in someone who could be kind of arrogant and kind of be a little bit like a snob and then be able to turn that into a certain kind of sincerity. And that was the number one quality 'cause I think that was the number one challenge of the part. And it wasn't even like we didn't go through many takes on some of those lines.
Alvarez: I think we shot that scene when you're like, "Oh, I was just so, people are so intimidated by me," that was the first scene we shot of the movie, and I think by the second take or third take the pitch, the tone of it was right, and I think we just took that through the rest of the film.
Is it ... not to narrow it down too much, but it is interesting, that the sort of thematic similarity to "Easier With Practice" in the whole idea of a telephone as this emotionally charged theater of the mind?
Alvarez: I mean in terms of when he calls his mom ...
And you can feel him sort of filling in the blanks, right?
You can feel him projecting onto her things that may not be there if he could see her.
Alvarez: It's funny, 'cause we did. We called it the "Easier With Practice" shot, that nighttime scene where he's calling his mom and trying to still impress her but clearly a little overwhelmed 'cause we did it in one take so it was very much along the same path you know, which we joked about. And of course there was a masturbation scene so we joked about that, too, like those things. But if anything there was a deliberate effort for it to try and pull it away from that. I wanted it to be different than "Easier With Practice" in tone and pacing. I think this is. I think this one's much more broader in a lot of ways, and it moves a lot faster, and it's a good 25 minutes shorter than "Easier With Practice." And so for me where I think it's similar is in the way the characters, you know what I tried to do is treat people who we would normally not treat them so sincerely whether it's Aaron in "Easier With Practice" or even Curly (Corey Stoll) in this movie, you know? It was like I always wanted there to be a human understanding, even when Curly comes and attacks him. You know it was tough, but we tried to find that way, and it was always sort of a difficult balance. And Corey did such a good job when he's like, "I showed myself to you," and he wells up when he says it. I think that’s what makes the character work.
And then he commits sexual assault.
Alvarez: And then he commits sexual assault, right, 'cause he's up against, in a lot of ways I feel like he doesn't even know what he's doing when he does it. It's just an anger that's built up in him and same with Denis O'Hare, Jon at the end when he goes on his sort of homophobic rant to him. To me I still feel the sadness of that scene is that you know he doesn’t really want to say those things, and he's relying on it because of how ashamed he is about the clocks not selling so he's just resorting to his last thing to hold onto.
Well. the whole movie's kind of this funny little travelogue about self-loathing in a lot of ways, right?
Alvarez: (Laughs) Yeah.
Let me ask you this, Mr. Groff, when you have a writer who's produced such a body of work in such a distinctive voice, did you just go through everything to get little hints of cadence in Sedaris-speak or did you walk away from it?
Groff: No. I did one thing. I listened to all of "Naked" on audiobook and the "C.O.G." short story's not in the audiobook. He actually talked about it last night because it's so long. And when I sat down with Kyle the first time he was very, very clear about this is not a Sedaris impersonation. It's you playing a character. It's not at all doing the voice or whatever.
Alvarez: It could've backfired if you listened to or read too much in a way.
Groff: Yeah, so I guess you're right. There is a sense of humor about him. And certain lines like the Bible not being written well and those kinds of things are important to understand where the humor lives and where the source is from. So I did the audiobook of "Naked" and that was the week before we shot and that was it. I started looking at things on YouTube. I started (watching Sedaris' appearances on) David Letterman, and I watched two of them. And then I was like I can't watch anymore because I don’t even want to have that in the front of my brain while I'm doing these scenes.
It's like putting the milk next to the garlic in the fridge.
Alvarez: It's funny 'cause I'm glad you brought up that line (about the Bible being) "poorly written." It played so well yesterday, and I was so happy. That' s one of the lines I wrote. Like it's one of the few punch lines that weren't Sedaris so I was really happy (Laughs). It's nice when some of the few moments ... it feels like okay, I was able to, certainly not be as good of a writer as Sedaris, but find some way to pin some other things that fit the movie better with a sense of humor, which wasn't easy at all.
Let me ask you one final big question, which is not a pointed criticism but a serious question of the film, which is when you're reading a Sedaris piece it has that element of retrospect. There's a rear-view mirror. It's "All this happened, and at the time I didn’t know, but I learned this, or it meant that." How do you get by without that kind of sense of retrospect, without having buckets of voiceover or having it be related by an older, wiser character?
Alvarez: Some people were like "You should get (Sedaris) to do voiceover." I was like I would never ask him to do that. But you know, keeping voiceover out was important to me. I felt it would only be there to replicate him. And I don’t know, it's tough. I wonder if that's an element of the movie that's just not there from his work, you know, the sense of looking back on it and understanding yourself better. Like maybe that’s the feeling at the end of the film.
Alvarez: You know maybe that's the feeling there, but I think why David's humor is so funny is that he looks at himself with self-deprecation but in a way that acknowledges almost how great he is at the same time. You know he's sarcastic in total, it's a very specific thing to him, but it's a self-awareness that makes it accessible. This character isn't self-aware yet. I think that's where the humor comes from, a different place. I always thought that this is a movie about a guy where the joke is on him, and that's what I thought would be different. We're not saying, "Oh look at these Christian families. Look how funny they are." Instead we're saying, "Look at this guy who has no idea what he's doing there. Look how funny he is." You know that was always sort of my goal with it, and at the end it's like he's kind of gets battered and left on the side of the street you know literally or figuratively. And I thought that was interesting, you know, to see you know. I always say it's like you know, I always used a joke -- I called it the queer "Into the Wild," except he doesn’t learn anything and he doesn’t die. But I don’t think that’s the case. In the final film he really does, and I think that’s a testament to Jonathan's performance because it's certainly not there in the dialogue. I do think he does learn something that's more my sarcastic take on it, but I liked this idea of ...
Into the Mild.
Alvarez: Yeah, into the mild. (Laughs) Hey, there's our title. We're going to change our title to this. But I like the idea of this someone going into this small town and then it kind of chews him up and spits him out. And so whatever that reflection would be that it would I think it would come later than that. But I do think it's an interesting point because it is the element that ... if there's any defining element of his work that isn't in the movie that I just don’t think there could've been.
On final question Mr. Groff, is it will be fine with you if you never seen another apple again?
Groff: No, they were so great. They were delicious.
Groff: I want to see as many apples as I can. Now it's like a good memory. When I see apples now at the grocery store I have a completely different perspective from being in the apple factory. I see what they all go through. And I mean it's one of the great pleasures of the movie is really, I mean it's a real apple factory we were in and seeing that production and seeing those women stand there and pick out the bad ones. It's like a whole other slice of life that I have a whole new appreciation for.