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Director Owen Kline On Creating His Grunge Comedy Masterpiece, ‘Funny Pages’

It’s rare, but there are times when a movie feels “special” from the very first frames. Funny Pages is one of those movies, apparent almost immediately that it depicts a different place, with different people, a different way than anything we’ve seen before. For people like me who watch a lot of movies, that feeling is invigorating; one of those periodic, necessary reminders that movies are capable of being surprising. Of being, and please forgive me for putting it this way, art.

Funny Pages is the directorial debut of Owen Kline, a woolly tale of a young aspiring cartoonist who, upon the loss of his mentor, moves from his comfortable upper middle class home in Princeton, New Jersey to the mean streets of Trenton in order to pursue his imagined dream of romantic squalor. Funny Pages opens with a series of drawings by its protagonist Robert (played by Daniel Zolghadri) — actually the vulgar, sublime work of cartoonist Johnny Ryan — and from then on, it’s impossible not to imagine every person in Funny Pages as their own caricature. It helps that Funny Pages‘ actors, almost to a person, look like R. Crumb drawings come to life. Meanwhile, Sean Price Williams’ grainy, grungy, Super 16mm cinematography all but gives them visible stink lines.

At times, Funny Pages feels like a dispatch from outer space. Yet it’s clearly just a canny caricature of a world that exists here on Earth. Specifically, in the video and comic book shops of the tri-state area. Produced by the Safdie Brothers (Good Time, Uncut Gems), who Kline met when he was a teenager crewing on their pre-fame short films, Kline was, just like his protagonist Robert, once an aspiring cartoonist. He also worked at a video store, which is where he met Miles Emanuel (“Miles” in Funny Pages) when Emanuel was an 11-year-old renting an Ingmar Bergman film with his babysitter. Likewise, Andy Milonakis is in the film because he’s one of Kline’s good friends.

Which is to say that Funny Pages is, like so many great things, seemingly the result of a collision between an astute artistic eye and serendipity. Just like with his movie, I had no idea what to expect from Kline himself — whose first notable IMDB credit is for playing Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney’s son in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale. In the flesh (or whatever the Zoom screen version of that is), Kline ended up seeming a lot like a de-caricaturized version of a Funny Pages character — shaggy, bespectacled, somehow “precocious” seeming even as a grown adult, and a virtual spigot of eclectic references.

I’m not sure what was harder, keeping Kline on track or keeping myself. Funny Pages just seemed to offer so much to talk about, from the conceptual — how do you pitch a movie so inherently tactile — to the logistical — what happened behind the scenes when you were shooting Daniel Zolghadri act an entire pivotal sequence with a massive wad of food in his mouth? In the end, I felt like I barely scratched the surface. But hopefully it was a compelling scratch. We all do our part. Funny Pages opens in select theaters and VOD this Friday.

I feel like the movie is kind of self-explanatory funny; like it’s funny on a basic construction level. Which is an achievement, but it also makes me wonder: how do you pitch something like that?

I didn’t pitch it. I just sort of spent years toiling with the script and trying to figure out how to write a comedy, you know? And try to do it true to the voice that I was trying to develop with short films and comics that I was drawing. My interest in comics was purely humor comics and comics in the newspaper. Peanuts was still in the paper when I was a kid. I don’t know. I just always kind of ran towards funny stuff. So I couldn’t really get into superhero comics, except for a couple of voices or whatever. But yeah, I mean, I know what you mean. It’s kind of a comedy on a molecular level, but I guess it’s on high as well.

It’s so visual. You get the joke when you’re seeing it. How did you make that come out on the page?

Just thinking about the voices and the characters. I think a lot of the humor comes out of just how different people’s tastes and sensibilities rub up against each other. I particularly love behavioral comedy. I don’t watch new TV too much, but I revisited King of the Hill and just kind of plowed through it recently and the behavioral comedy in that show and how the voices… there’s no real jokes. All the humor comes from the characters and how they reflect off of each other. I find that in Mike Judge’s work, I find that in Mike Lee’s work to a degree. They’re very different voices obviously, but there are no jokes.

I definitely pored through the script and the thing you are getting at is the question I always ask when I’m looking at something, or something doesn’t get a laugh at a reading or it’s just not working — that kind of joke, because it’s too much of a joke. It feels too writer-y, too constructed. It really has to come from the character, because if it comes from the characters, if it doesn’t get a laugh, you’re not going to have a kidney stone in the theater. …I don’t know if a kidney stone is the right indicator for stress, but I just said kidney stone.

A lot of the times you see a comedy — this is always just a pet peeve for me — and everybody has the same kind of jokes that they’re saying. The sensibility and the sense of humor of all the characters is one writer’s, you know? I feel like all the characters have a different sense of humor in the movie.

Right, I think so much of the comedy comes from this collection of characters. Tell me about the casting. This feels like the cast makes it in a way it doesn’t make other movies.

Thank you. Well, I just tried to find intriguing people that were off rhythm, you know what I mean? The movie’s just a little bit off rhythm, so I tried to find actors that could support that and read these things organically and not it play so comedy and play it real. And there’s a variety of… sorry, the question’s about casting, right?

Funny Pages Daniel Zolghadri Miles Emanuel

Yeah. I mean, like Miles for instance, where did you meet him?

I worked at a video store a little over 10 years ago, I guess, for a while and Miles (above right) came in and rented Hour of the Wolf when he was 11 with his babysitter. Something like that, I think he was returning it and I just was like, “Who is this kid?”

And then I kind of got the low down from Joe, the video store owner, that he was plowing through the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die book from Barnes and Noble or whatever. And I’d try to recommend him movies not in the book and he would make note of it once he got through the 1001 movies. But that character, his confidence and his sort of pride really did come from Miles. He’s like one of those Bozo The Clown punching bags, where you smack it and it comes right back up. He’s like an unflappable guy and, I don’t know. He’s kind of the most courageous character in the whole movie. Stands up for Robert at the end of the movie and has absolutely no reason to.

So Miles was a guy you knew from this video store environment, and then in the movie, a lot of these characters, they know each other from this comic book store that they’re all centered around. Does that world still exist, where people go to a video store or a comic book store? When I was watching it, I couldn’t tell if it was a period piece at times or if it was meant to be contemporary.

Well, we all watched streaming decimate the video store, you know? That was a pretty slow and agonizing death. But I think both should be able to exist. It was a sad day when we closed our video store, man. It was a real sad day and Miles was crying [laughs]. He was helping us close and throw out the last of the crap that was left over.

But yeah, I watched every great video store in New York with all these really unique individualized collections get broken apart, thrown out, and disappear. The Kim’s collection was the big terrifying one, but comic book stores are kind of the only… there is a remnant of that where you get every walk of life in a comic store. Or again, it goes toward that variety of person, that motley crew thing where you have the guy that’s in there all day, reading Owly, or the guy that’s a snob about Wolverine or the kid with the chain wallet that dresses like The Crow that’s reading Nightwing, you know? You get every kind of walk of life and then you get some weird kid who draws his own comics behind the counter.

I grew up with this comic book store that was sort of modeled off called Rocketship (in Cobble Hill). It was the first store that opened in New York that was sort of catering to the sort of art comics, “graphic novels” alternative voices, as well as… it was opened by people who owned St. Mark’s Comics, so they did offer superhero comics too, of course. That was in Brooklyn and I met my best friend there who was self-publishing his comic. It was just such a great mix of people.

Tell me about directing Daniel. Were there scenes where you just had him take the biggest bite of food that he could right before you started filming?

Yeah. I mean, that’s the kind of thing where the scene needed something, more than sitting at a diner. Clearly, this kid doesn’t have any self-preservation. He’s not taking care of himself. He’s sort of in a tailspin already by that point, and yeah. I just thought it was funny that he was pigging out, stuffing his face. You know, it’s visual. It looked way funny in close-up and it was the right attitude. It was just kind of like he was this slobby, contrast. But Daniel… you said directing Daniel?

I mean, what were you having him eating there and how much of it did he end up going through in the course of shooting that scene?

I’m sure we brought him a couple of plates of gigantic diner burgers. I mean, doing that, it’s funny, whenever you have someone eating in a movie, seasoned actors, they take these little theater bites because they’re actually thinking about continuity. So it’s fun when you kind of get to do something like that. It’s kind of revolting, you know?

Was he spitting any of it out? Or was he going full method and swallowing all of it afterwards?

I think he was spitting some of it out at a certain point. I didn’t want him to get fat. I didn’t want him to have a heart attack, eating too many burgers.

Sure. That’s important as a director, I would think.

It’s a weird scene. That’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It’s one of those ones where you don’t know if it’s going to work and it ends up being where you just kind of do it as a story beat and go, “Oh yeah. Yeah.” But then it kind of surprises you. It’s one of those things that actually sticks out in a movie with so much crazier stuff.

‘Funny Pages’ will be in theaters August 26th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.