BJ Novak went to Texas looking for ‘revenge’ and found America

A funny story BJ Novak likes to tell from the making of his new movie is about the day he thought he was having a stroke. Are you laughing yet?

In early 2020, Novak, a writer, comedian and “The Office” alumni Finally got the green light to make it. “Revenge” A dark comedy set in small-town Texas. That’s when she thought he was slurring his speech and called a colleague to ask if he was watching her too.

As Novak recalled, “I was like, you heard that, didn’t you? And he said, I do. And I called my doctor and went in for an MRI the next morning, and they Said you’re right, and I realized I was nervous about making this film.

Like much humor that appeals to Novak — whose symptoms, rest assured, were entirely psychological — what’s funny about this story is a matter of perspective. You can laugh it off with relief, knowing that the person telling it is no longer in danger.

It’s a theme that comes up again and again in “Revenge,” which mixes some of the wacky comedy that “The Office” was known for with a knowing, cynicism that never flies in the hallways of Dunder Mifflin. was

The film, which opens Friday, is Novak’s debut as a feature director and screenwriter, and stars Ben Manalowitz, a self-confident New York writer. When Ben discovers that a woman he casually dated — very casually — has died under mysterious circumstances in his Texas hometown, he goes there in hopes of turning the story into a hit podcast. travels

Although Ben comes with selfish motives and a stereotypical sense of red-state values, he falls in love with the dead woman’s family (played by Boyd Holbrook, Jay Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron). . His investigation also leads him to a powerful record producer (Ashton Kutcher) who has a bad influence on the town.

For Novak, “Vengeance” is an ambitious attempt to step out of his sitcom comfort zone and see if he can make it as a leading man like Albert Brooks. As he said of his acting experience, which includes small roles in “Inglourious Basterds” and other films, “I’m a very reactive guy. I’ve never been a point of view character.”

“Revenge” is also one of a small number of original comedies to get a theatrical release, and making it required a level of commitment that Novak never expected.

“I really felt like a lunatic on the corner,” he said. “I’m going to star in this movie, and it’s a comedy, but also a thriller, but also a love story. But it’s also about how technology does this to us. I really Thought I was crazy, but I continued.

One afternoon in June, Novak was relaxing on the patio of a downtown Manhattan hotel, where he had performed “Revenge” at the Tribeca Festival. For the first time in months, Novak said, “I’m not in a terrible cloud of writing, editing and fighting. I really like it.”

Face-to-face, Novak, who turns 43 on July 31, comes across as easy-going and effortlessly funny. Describing her life as a Boston-area transplant now living in Los Angeles, she said, “Everyone in L.A. assumes I live in New York, which I take to mean: You’re Jewish. , right? Or, I haven’t seen you in a while.”

But there’s an intensity that colors all his stories about “revenge,” the central premise of which he’s been kicking for years.

“We live in fragmented times, unquote, because we communicate entirely on our own timelines,” he said. “It was from my experience of dating and being a somewhat shallow person who didn’t really know what he was missing until it was too late.”

“Every year that went by, it became a more important film than I ever intended,” Novak added.

Between 2015 and 2018, Novak said, he took research trips to Texas cities like Abilene and Pecos, trying to dispel his misconceptions about a part of the country he thought he was missing. would be undesirable.

“I thought these big dudes with beards and pickup trucks would be very suspicious of a blue-state guy from Hollywood, and I got the exact opposite,” he said. “It’s the warmest culture I’ve ever had. I’d go to Easter dinners and people would show me poetry they’d written.

Novak returned from his trip with the premise of what would become “Revenge” and the intention that he would play the lead role. “I wrote this role because it was impossible to cast with anyone other than me,” he said. “You know, superficial with a possible hidden heart, blah blah blah.”

While the film can be equally harsh in its satirical treatment of gruff citizens and credulous country folk, Novak said the screenplay for “Vengeance” benefited from lessons learned while working on “The Office.”

In particular, he said the sitcom taught him “the confidence to throw away your best joke if it doesn’t feel authentic or if the character does long-term damage — if you honestly play an emotional moment, So the laughter will be more satisfying later.”

That said, Novak also had to remind himself that it’s okay to portray his “Avenger” character with some positive attributes — an approach he never would have taken on “The Office,” which But he has portrayed writers such as Mindy Kaling, Paul Lieberstein and others. His supporting villains.

On that show, Novak said, “We were too shy to redeem anything, so we played the least redeeming characters. We were all allergic to him in the writers’ room.

Joining the cast of “Vengeance” is Issa Rae, who plays Ben, a podcast producer who hopes to impress. Singer-songwriter John Mayer, who plays one of Ben’s selfish New York friends; and Kutcher, who previously employed Novak. As an on-camera partner for his MTV prank series “Punk’D.”

Kutcher said he was particularly moved by a long monologue his character delivered, about people who seem to care less about their lives than the digital record of them. They leave behind.

Kutcher said, “When you look at human behavior, and the frenetic nature of chasing that dopamine every moment that goes away from posting what we think is interesting or cool or funny, you realize that The merit of the theory of “.

Also, Kutcher said, he appreciated that Novak was willing to play him with a mustache. “I just saw his mustache. I don’t know why,” Kutcher said.

But as production progressed, Novak became anxious about realizing he had to carry the film as a leading man, triggering a panic attack. It was then that he reached out to Mayer, who Novak described as “awesome coaching.”

Mayer has been a longtime friend of Novak, dating from “The Office.” (In an email, Mayer explained that he gave permission. show to use his song Dundee Award for “Your Body is a Wonderland”.)

Mayer said he doesn’t remember all the suggestions he made to Novak, but one of them was to give up alcohol before he started shooting. “First and foremost, you have to stop drinking,” Mayer said. “I know people cringe just hearing that stuff. But it’s true.”

He continued, “I think I mentioned the right haircut, the basics. But how sweet and vulnerable is it, to ask BJ before filming what advice I can give him?

A few weeks into filming, production was suspended for several months due to the pandemic. At times, Novak found himself working on film and his Hulu anthology series “The Premise” on FX.

“I filmed an FX show and then I went back to shooting ‘Vengeance,'” he began, then corrected himself. “No, I was editing ‘Revenge’ when I was writing it. It was a mess, and I had Covid.

“I took extra time, because I was writing badly and editing badly because my brain was out of whack for a few weeks.” “They were both going badly in different spots because I couldn’t balance them and I thought I could.”

Now “Vengeance” hits theaters alongside blockbusters “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” at a time when many other low-budget comedies and dramas are more grounded affairs. are about Releasing live on streaming platforms.

Jason Blum, chief executive of Blumhouse, one of the companies behind “Vengeance,” said the film could have just as easily gotten a streaming release.

“I can’t tell you that we didn’t consider this during the pandemic,” he said. “We considered every possible distribution outlet.”

But, Blum said, his company has had success with films by writer-directors who have combined the comedy and thriller genres, such as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” and he hoped that “Vengeance” would also A similar lane will be found.

“This movie is exactly the kind of movie people say they want to see,” Blum said. “If it does well, it will pave the way for not only films based on existing intellectual property but also other original films to be released in theatres.”

For Novak, the theatrical release is a chance to show “revenge” to the very people he hopes will catch him, and to determine if they appreciate what he gave them. How is it shown?

“I really want Texans to like it,” he said. “I wanted to make it the favorite movie of Texans. I even put a Whataburger in it. I remember watching. Dunkin’ Donuts in ‘Goodwill Hunting’ As a Bostonian, you feel like you’ve seen that.