Church Hill's resident hot indie filmmaker Rick Alverson is leery of feel-good stories. So he's chucked plenty of discomfort into his latest creations, a film about a failed comedian and a new music video for singer and songwriter Benjamin Booker.
As an artist, he's skeptical rather than coldly pessimistic. Critics praised his courage in "The Comedy," a coup de grâce for entitled hipsters.
The new film, titled "Entertainment," once again features actors Tim Heidecker ("Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job") and Gregg Turkington, also known as funnyman Neil Hamburger, from "The Comedy" — not to mention indie heavyweights John C. Reilly and Michael Cera. It was shot in the scorching Mojave Desert, where Turkington's character haunts lousy clubs. Production wrapped up on Aug. 7, and a premiere is planned for after the new year.
On July 21, the National Public Radio website premiered the video for Booker's bluesy garage-rock single, "Have You Seen My Son." Filmed just outside Richmond at the abandoned James River Correctional Facility, it's a cinematic compliment paid to a three-minute burner of a song that includes plenty of big arrows pointing to America's racist history.
Alverson took a break from post-production on "Entertainment" to talk with Style Weekly about his current projects and future plans for a controversial film shot in Virginia.
Style: You've been in the Mojave Desert for your latest feature. What's it like filming out there?
Alverson: Both exhilarating and highly stressful. I'm terrible in the heat. There was a physicality to making this film, dealing with 110-degree heat and having to watch out for rattlesnakes.
Did it affect you on an artistic level, too? "The Comedy" was shot in a visually dense urban environment, and now you've gone into the wilderness.
Certainly. "The Comedy" was messy, aesthetically and thematically. Characters are in the shadows of skyscrapers, both literally and figuratively. "Entertainment" has a meditative element. And the desert is a great representation of our barren media landscape.
Where did your approach to cinema come from, wanting to make it uncomfortable for viewers?
Like many others, I was surrounded by media starting from a very early age. There are a lot of default inclinations, like expecting media to comfort us. I want to peel back the layers of comfort cinema, to show how it affects our psychology. A director can easily revise history if the viewer walks out feeling like they just had a pleasant time. The audience can even be entertained by gore and violence while a neat story releases them from the complexities of history.
You're cautious when it comes to revising history, so does that explain why you've stalled on "Clement," a Reconstruction-era film about proto-Ku Klux Klan culture?
"Clement" is going to be shot in Virginia and it's a really difficult film to finance. I think others are cautious about it. The Virginia Film Office is still supportive. However, the subject matter is tough. It's not artistic junk food. So it remains an ongoing project. We've only completed a teaser.
Do your feelings about art and history carry over into present-day concerns? As a 15-year resident of Church Hill, perhaps you have thoughts about a baseball stadium next to a museum for a slavery site.
Again, it's like comfort cinema. Have some popcorn then walk next door to ponder atrocity! I don't think they should build a stadium there. A museum should offer sober reflection, unencumbered by recreation.
Was this on your mind when shooting Benjamin Booker's music video? He looks pensive most of the time and doesn't lip sync to the lyrics.
Well, this country does have a habit of locking away a particular demographic. So you have a black-and-white video of a young black man walking through a white -walled correctional facility. For a song about alienation, the play and juxtapositions are right there. The viewer can deal with the veneer or dive below the surface for meaning.
How much control do you have with your videos, from location to the musician you work with?
The Virginia Film Office helped me find the location. We have a good relationship. And Booker, he's a sweet kid who I connected with through friends — we called him up from New Orleans. I like taking a break for these music videos because I'm allowed to play with ideas and get in the trenches with a camera on my shoulder.
Do you try to keep your experiences with cinema separate from your music videos?
I think the video is intentionally cinematic. I'm increasingly interested in accessibility. Metaphors and free associations should appear later, after the viewer starts engaging with the art. For this video I was influenced, though, by Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep." It's about the Watts district in Los Angeles, circa 1977.
What are your plans now?
Post-production on "Entertainment" for the remainder of the year, then a festival premiere. And then, of course, I'm inevitably on to some other project. S