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The Antagonist: Rising Richmond filmmaker Rick Alverson is challenging the Hollywood formula

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The drunken Brooklyn slacker looks bored.

Already retired in his mid-30s, the trust-fund kid spends most of his time in a recreational daze, wandering the city with his equally aimless friends in search of thrills. Tonight, he’s invited a young waitress aboard his sailboat to share a bottle of whiskey. We feel a dull spark of connection between them, if only through the casually offensive jokes they employ in every conversation. We watch as they sit below deck, half-undressed, smoking pot out of a tiny glass pipe. A first kiss feels imminent.

Suddenly, the woman arches her back in a violent epileptic seizure, her eyes rolling back in her head. Oddly the man doesn’t move to help, or even look mildly concerned. Instead he just sits and watches, chomping his ice while the long, torturous moment unfolds. We never see what happens next. Instead the director cuts to the couple shivering while returning to shore on a little skiff motoring against the cold, black night.

Welcome to “The Comedy,” a polarizing film by Richmond writer and director Rick Alverson that marked his breakthrough to wider national recognition in 2012. Today, he's not only one of the most important and promising artists to watch in Richmond, but he's one of the most uncompromising directors of his generation.

Like many of his films, "The Comedy," starring comedian Tim Heidecker in a dramatic role, was financed with help from Indiana-based music label Jagjaguwar, founded in Charlottesville in the mid-’90s. Alverson has released nine albums on the label with folk bands Drunk and Spokane, the last one coming in 2007.

On Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, Rick Alverson directs actor Tim Heidecker during a scene in his 2012 film, “The Comedy.” With it, the Richmond director broke through to national audiences.
  • On Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, Rick Alverson directs actor Tim Heidecker during a scene in his 2012 film, “The Comedy.” With it, the Richmond director broke through to national audiences.

Label founder Darius Van Arman has executive produced all four of Alverson’s movies: “The Builder” (2010) partly shot in Richmond, “New Jerusalem” (2011), which was shot entirely in Richmond and Chesterfield County, “The Comedy” and the forthcoming “Entertainment,” already picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, a promising trajectory for the filmmaker.

“He challenges the audience of his movies unlike any other contemporary director,” Van Arman points out. “You can’t watch and remain a bystander.”

While making the festival rounds, “The Comedy” had critics praising its singular vision and others slamming its lack of moral indignation for its protagonist. Industry types walked out of the movie's Sundance screenings — not that unusual — likely hastened by the lack of proper attention to commercial viability. A Chicago Sun critic wrote: “The strength of this film is that we have no idea where it will go. The problem is that we might not care where this film will go. … Nevertheless, the movie did get me to think, and that is a success and almost a redemption of its own.”

There’s no “almost” to anything this 44-year-old Richmonder does. Alverson is a bold and driven filmmaker who above all else wants his audience to think. Like other rising American filmmakers such as the Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”) or Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”), he aims to revitalize cinema as an art form by focusing on its formal elements - lighting, scoring, editing — as well as disrupting pre-conditioned audience responses. In interviews, he often explains that by making the audience uncomfortable, he hopes to force a more active and critical viewing experience.

Hollywood types view him as a talented cult filmmaker. But his challenging work is earning the respect of other directors and well-known actors as well. Veterans John C. Reilly (“Boogie Nights”) and Michael Cera (“Juno”) have parts in his latest. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman shot Alverson’s new film using Russian anamorphic lenses from the 1950s to provide a more grainy texture.

A peek into the forthcoming Rick Alverson film, “Entertainment,” starring comedian Gregg Turkington aka Neil Hamburger.
  • A peek into the forthcoming Rick Alverson film, “Entertainment,” starring comedian Gregg Turkington aka Neil Hamburger.

The forthcoming “Entertainment” is a bleak and surreal road movie through the Mojave Desert. It follows the touring life of a small-time, aging comedian played by real-life, small-time aging comedian Gregg Turkington, aka Neil Hamburger. It is scheduled to open Nov. 13 in limited theatrical release and On Demand, with a pre-premiere of sorts at the Byrd Theatre on Nov. 8 as a fundraiser for the planned Bijou Film Center.

In addition to promoting his new film around the world, Alverson is working on five other projects simultaneously. Foremost among them, he’s casting a long-gestating film set in the Reconstruction era about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan titled “The Well-Dressed Man.” He calls it his “passion film” and a form of rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s infamous “Birth of a Nation.” It’s been in development for six years. There’s also the tentatively titled “Modern Age,” about the fall of a popular American lobotomist, which will star in-demand young actor Tye Sheridan, who appears in “Entertainment” as well as films by Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols and the upcoming big-budget “X-Men: Apocalypse." Alverson adds that he’s also writing a capstone to the trilogy begun with “The Comedy,” as well as a psychological thriller titled “The Couple” about a woman whose behavior is dependent on a dog’s actions.

 

“Metaphors are completely dysfunctional for me,” says writer and director Rick Alverson inside the replica 19th-century federal home he built in Church Hill. “They should exist in language and literature — but they ended up in films originally as a political necessity.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • “Metaphors are completely dysfunctional for me,” says writer and director Rick Alverson inside the replica 19th-century federal home he built in Church Hill. “They should exist in language and literature — but they ended up in films originally as a political necessity.”

On a wet fall morning at Lamplighter Coffee’s Addison Street shop, Alverson sits across from me looking like a hungry carpenter who also teaches graduate classes at the local art school. His dark gaze can be a little unsettling, not unlike a black-and-white image from a rusted Civil War-era locket. In most photos I've seen of him, Alverson appears to be brooding, or wearing a dour expression like one of his typical characters. But this morning I discover that he’s a natural conversationalist, his features growing livelier with each idea he expresses.

Half-jokingly, I suggest that maybe this feature story could somehow formally mirror his aesthetic.

“And how would that look?” he asks. “My aesthetic in language is Beckett. Nameless nobodies crawling through the dirt questioning what their limbs are for … That should just about sum it up.”

Samuel Beckett. Thomas Bernard. Robert Creeley, for whom Alverson traveled to Maine to record one of his last poetry readings. These were the literary figures who first intrigued him with their theories on language and grappling over form and content. In his movies, Alverson denies the “narcotic” comforts of predictable film narrative, namely a protagonist who engages increasingly dangerous hurdles and ultimately changes in some fundamental way by the end. Instead in an Alverson film, the beginnings and endings seem almost arbitrary, more like life. He has the ability to look at any environment with the fresh eyes of an outsider, which might stem from his itinerant childhood.

Alverson was born in Spokane, Washington, descended from German, Italian and Swedish ancestors. His father worked with Bechtel, an infrastructure energy company similar to Halliburton and would move the family every few years to larger projects that often were bad for the environment, he says. Alberta, Canada. Green River, Wyoming. Midland, Michigan. Frederick, Maryland.

All the moving around to different schools made Alverson profoundly introverted, nearly “crippled," he recalls. "I barely spoke and that lasted into my early 20s."

When the family was living in northern Canada, his mother became president of a skating club in Fort McMurray where her young son accompanied her daily. By the time he was 7, Alverson was into competitive figure skating. The sport taught him discipline as he prepared for the inevitable dream of the Olympics — which he later found to be an unlikely parallel to the “postponed utopia of heaven” in his Catholic household that still used the antiquated Baltimore catechism, he explains.

“I didn’t go to lunches or dances or gym classes,” he says, adding that he spent six hours a day in the skating rink from ages 10 through 19. “More than anything else, there weren’t many other male skaters. I spent most of the time alone in the locker room. On the other side of the rink there are 50 young ladies. To say that I was confronted by questions about masculine identity and gender — being a male figure skater in the 1980s — that was a given.”

Like so many others, it was at the movie theater where Alverson found an escape from society's shortcomings. He still can recall, as a young man, being entranced by those early Steven Spielberg and George Lucas blockbusters that reshaped Hollywood.

“The immersion that happens in the theater, the transportive nature of it, was disorienting and intoxicating,” he explains. He still remembers walking out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and feeling that his own face had transformed to become Harrison Ford’s. Even early on, he says he was frightened by the medium’s power. That still hasn’t changed.

By high school, his family had settled in suburban Norristown, Pennsylvania, birthplace of stop-motion animators, the Quay brothers. Alverson was “the artsy kid” at school and had a lucrative side business painting the backs of jean jackets with whatever album cover was in vogue.

Around age 19, he was visiting his older sister in New York when he discovered world cinema by the likes of Tarkovsky, Bergman, Herzog and Bresson at Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives.

“Seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker,’ because of the lack of information and ambiguities, it creates a restlessness in the viewer,” Alverson says. “Once you get over a threshold it becomes revelatory and you realize there’s something going on with your relationship to this thing. That planted a seed.”

In 1991, he attended New York University’s film program as a part-time student, where he learned production basics for a year. It was during this period that he met Irish-American writer, Colm O’Leary, in a neighborhood cafe and the two bonded. O’Leary later became his writing partner and the magnetic lead actor in his first two films. For an inexperienced actor, he’s shockingly good.

In “New Jerusalem,” musician and actor Will Oldham plays a Richmond evangelist and Colm O’Leary plays a former military supply guy in Afghanistan who now sells tires on Jefferson Davis Highway.
  • In “New Jerusalem,” musician and actor Will Oldham plays a Richmond evangelist and Colm O’Leary plays a former military supply guy in Afghanistan who now sells tires on Jefferson Davis Highway.

Back then, Alverson was writing a lot of language poetry — “very dense, amazing, microprose pieces,” O’Leary tells me. “You couldn’t enter them through reason or rationality. You had to enter the cadence of it, its own internal logic. It wasn’t going to explain itself to you. You had to enter it on its own terms.”

Still in his late teens, Alverson was self-educated and had found his artistic inspirations on his own, not through any institutions, O’Leary recalls. He believes the most revealing thing about his friend's champion figure-skating [past] is how driven it made him -- which carries over to his work ethic today.

“Skating you fall a lot and get back up. He’s tough, he can take his lumps,” O’Leary says. “But his ambitions have always been artistic ones. They were never about success, but rather about life.”

Alverson, left, directs a chapel scene starring James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. When the first 10 minutes were leaked after its 2012 Sundance Film Festival premiere, it wound up the most pirated independent film of the year.
  • Alverson, left, directs a chapel scene starring James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. When the first 10 minutes were leaked after its 2012 Sundance Film Festival premiere, it wound up the most pirated independent film of the year.

In 1995, Alverson moved to Richmond under the auspices of getting away to write a screenplay, though others told me it was to help a friend through a drug problem, which he later confirms. He shared a house with a band called Technical Jed.

Alverson was taking writing classes at Virginia Commonwealth University and, when not sleeping on floors, he picked up side gigs teaching rich kids how to skate in the West End, he says.

An atheist vegan, Alverson washed dishes at Bottom's Up before teaching himself to cook and working at Helen’s and Ipanema, where he helped design the original menu.

“We still use his hummus and focaccia recipes to this day,” owner Kendra Feather says. “He was a great cook, even-tempered. … We got all A-plus reviews that first year we opened. I owe him a lot.”

Playing music brought Alverson out of his shell. A singer and guitarist, he formed an acclaimed band called Drunk, which released the second album on Jagjaguwar. But it was his next band, Spokane, featuring spare instrumentation and quietly sad songs, that became his first true engagement with an aesthetic, namely minimalism. That band toured Europe twice and earned swooning critical kudos in outlets such as Pitchfork.

Label head Van Arman says Alverson’s band was the first on Jagjaguwar to get international attention, leading to a distribution deal: “It wouldn’t feel right if [the label] wasn’t involved on some level with whatever Rick is creating [today].”

Courtney Bowles, who played drums and glockenspiel for Spokane, dated Alverson for 13 years and co-produced his first two films. They remain close friends.

“His directorial skills were evident even then. He always had specific ideas for what he wanted,” she says of the band. “He does strike people as introverted at first. But he’s also one of the kindest, funniest, crassest people you’ll meet.”

But even with a successful indie band, it's tough to pay the bills. So Alverson began working on construction crews and as a self-taught carpenter.

“Rick is an autodidact and when he takes on something, he’s not there just to learn the basics. He becomes an expert practitioner,” says former Style reporter Chris Dovi, a longtime friend who had small cameos in Alverson's first two films. Returning the favor, Dovi hired Alverson to help build an addition on his house.

Learning carpentry was better than any formal education he ever had, Alverson says. He practically lived in the Richmond Public Library, devouring information on how to hand-build his 1,800-square-foot house in Church Hill, a replica 19th-century federal home that Style covered when it was being constructed.

Near the end of his band Spokane, “music was getting more digital and there was this democratization of everything. My contribution seemed superfluous,” Alverson says. “I felt there were a lot of people who could contribute what I was contributing.”

In the film world, this was not the case.

 

Comedian and writer Tim Heidecker (“Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”) turned in an acclaimed dramatic role as a wealthy and entitled slacker named Swanson in “The Comedy.” The film follows the boredom and recreational cruelty of a group of Brooklyn friends.
  • Comedian and writer Tim Heidecker (“Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”) turned in an acclaimed dramatic role as a wealthy and entitled slacker named Swanson in “The Comedy.” The film follows the boredom and recreational cruelty of a group of Brooklyn friends.

By 2008, when digital quality within the film industry had improved closer to celluloid level, Alverson saw his opening. He bought a relatively inexpensive camera and challenged himself to make his first feature film before turning 40.

From the start, he and O’Leary used the bare minimum of words for scripts, with most running between 20 and 40 pages — a far cry from the average Hollywood screenplay of 120 (basically a page equals a minute of screen time). Most of Alverson's scenes would become more like controlled improvisations.

“We just had conversations,” O’Leary says about playing the title role in the director's neo-realist debut, “The Builder,” which was inspired by the films of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. This lead character, an Irish immigrant building a Shaker-style post-and-bean house in rural New York, is closer to Alverson in real life that any of his other characters, according to friends.

“Rick and I had made our livings as carpenters,” O’Leary says. “There’s this idea in the film that if you can make something, get outside of yourself that way, that you can create this world for yourself. Or another state of being.”

Within five months, Alverson followed that film with the moving “New Jerusalem,” featuring veteran actor and musician Will Oldham as a friendly, working-class evangelist to O’Leary’s former military supply guy-turned-tire salesman.

The late Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars, calling it “an intense study … quiet and sad,” while the Hollywood Reporter found it to be “a rare film dealing with Christian evangelism in a realistic way that neither mocks nor proselytizes.”

Alverson’s first two features contain many lovely images of contemporary Richmond; a kitchen scene at the old Perly’s, bike rides through Church Hill, friends swimming in the James River against a golden sunset.

It was obvious that a pattern was developing of the director coaxing brilliant performances from his actors.

“He recognizes what the actor has and doesn’t have and tries to talk them into just being,” O’Leary says. “Because he’s not going to back away. The camera is going to leave you there in that moment and you’re going to be squirming. ... Something is going to have to be revealed.”

Alverson says the early films scrutinized a utopianism at the root of American culture and the often great disconnect between people and their ideas.

“People are always telling him, if you just make it a little funnier, you’d make more money,” Bowles says. “But he never wants to sacrifice his vision.”

The director's loyalty to his own curiosities has made him acutely aware that the model for creating art films is different in America than anywhere else in world. “Other countries, art films are subsidized by governments because of a belief in cultural stewardship and a sort of adventurousness,” Alverson notes. “In the U.S., these kinds of films have been degraded by the free market.”

So far, Alverson has made his low and micro-budget films for less than a million dollars each, working with independent producers such as Mike S. Ryan, who financed similarly bold directors such as Todd Solondz ("Happiness") and acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, as well as the film “Junebug,” one of the lowest-budget films ever nominated for an Oscar.

Alverson’s next film, “The Comedy,” fully embraced confrontational cinema with both the narrative and the audience; it seemed to strike a nerve, coming when popular opinion began to swing against a gentrified Brooklyn.

“I wanted the audience to experience a level of culpability,” Alverson says, referring to his refusal to judge the privileged and entitled lead character. “I certainly didn’t want to be equated with hipsters, or racism, or misogyny, or comedy even. What’s being said was in the viewers’ repulsion. They’re finishing the sentence.”

Richmond musician Liza Kate, who has a part in the film, believes this is a sign of the director's fundamental trust in the audience, not some elitist formal pose. “He doesn’t dumb things down,” she says, “he trusts the audience, which is rare today.”

In the wake of “The Comedy,” Alverson received a fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and was invited to various speaking engagements at universities to discuss his work.

“The engine of the American psyche is to keep growing,” the director told me later over a breakfast burrito. “Sometimes it seems like the crux of all our contemporary problems is this disconnect between our aspirations and the facts on the ground. What actually can we achieve? And aren’t we better served by contending with the shape of things? Which comes down to form, literally.”

 

Although he keeps a low profile, Alverson has lived in Richmond for more than two decades, longer than anywhere else in his life. Plenty of people have urged him to hire an agent and move to Los Angeles or New York. Everyone he knows who makes movies already lives in those cities, he says, and even his sister and parents reside in the Los Angeles area.

“Most directors would take a bag of money to do whatever. I know Rick’s turned offers like that down,” says friend Bobby Donne, a local musician known from the influential band Labradford. Donne worked on the soundtrack to “Entertainment” and has gotten other soundtrack work partly because of his association with Alverson. “He may not even realize how influential his work is becoming to other directors,” Donne adds.

It’s not just Richmond’s affordability keeping him here. Alverson explains that he’s grown attached to his Church Hill neighborhood, which he’s watched progress from street violence — bullets once came through his window, nearly hitting his girlfriend — to its current Brooklyn-like renaissance with rising home prices.

Because he wears so many hats -- writing scripts, pitching films, finding investors, casting, directing, editing, and traveling to promote — he’s often only in Richmond two weeks or so at a time. Over the last month, he’s been to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Switzerland with the film.

Bowles, who sees early edits of his work (“I can tell by watching them, emotionally what he’s going through,” she says) keeps pushing him to bring on an intern or assistant. “He’s reticent because he values people’s time and wants to pay them.”

Smaller budgets have taught him to be scrappy and efficient when making films with his 35-person team, he says. But, as with most auteurs, financing remains tough.

“I’m stubborn and not great at the necessary deceptions in the industry,” Alverson says, giving due credit to Jagjaguwar. “In large part, they’re responsible for my career to this point.”

That’s not saying he doesn’t want larger budgets, which mostly means working with bigger-name actors. This especially is true for his Reconstruction-era film, “The Well-Dressed Man,” originally from a short story by O’Leary. Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon is one of the actors he’d love to cast.

That script follows freed slaves settling near a small Appalachian community of white, working-class immigrants and descendants of the Old South. Upheaval arrives in the form of a black, Northern educator founding a school.

“That is their dream project,” musician Liza Kate says. “He and Colm [O’Leary] have such an interesting working relationship. They butt heads but they love each other and they’ve made it work. … I’m excited to see their baby.”

Alverson says that living in Richmond made the project more personal.

“Seeing kids shot and fatherless families in Church Hill — these things have a direct tether to this period when there was a brief time when things could’ve gone another way,” he says.

He notes that the classic “Birth of the Nation” was the largest-grossing film of its time, even now it's remembered as a racist but major formal achievement. “It really hasn’t been re-approached,” he says. “I’ve wanted to right some of the wrongs in that film.”

Forget financing a racially sensitive film, Alverson can’t even find a theater in Richmond that shows the kinds of movies he wants to see. So he ends up watching them online at places such as Fandor (“It’s embarrassing,” he says). That’s a big reason why he supports the creation of the Bijou Film Center.

Bijou co-founder James Parrish describes next week’s Byrd screening as a trial partnership with the Institute for Contemporary Art, which hopes to bring contemporary filmmakers.

Parrish envisions guest filmmakers premiering at a state-of-the art ICA screening room and then continuing the run at the Bijou when it has a brick-and-mortar spot. Alverson is a great example, he says, noting the director was “anointed by the art world” with the selection of “Entertainment” for closing night of the Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films series earlier this year.

And what about his new film “Entertainment”? You could call it a road movie to the end of the American dream, with a depressed, phlegm-hocking, cocktail-spilling comedian at the helm.

Scott Foundas, a Variety film critic who recently took a job as a development executive at Amazon Studios, is a fan.

“Alverson is an original who doesn’t do anything to get a cheap rise out of the audience. Rather there is a profound sadness and loneliness at the heart of his work — key tenets, as Alverson sees it, of the modern American male ego,” Foundas writes. “Time and again he brings us to feel deeply for the most ostensibly repellent and antisocial of characters.”

Indie film veteran John C. Reilly (“Boogie Nights”) plays cousin John in the forthcoming Alverson film, “Entertainment,” which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. It opens nationally Nov. 13.
  • Indie film veteran John C. Reilly (“Boogie Nights”) plays cousin John in the forthcoming Alverson film, “Entertainment,” which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. It opens nationally Nov. 13.

For those who come to the Byrd screening, or catch it Saturday at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, the filmmaker’s advice is to be prepared for dealing with uncertainties.

“We’re wired to experience things on our own terms and compartmentalize because there’s danger in the unknown,” Alverson says. “But experience on our own terms isn’t really experience. It’s masturbation, essentially.”

He maintains that he’s interested in his films reaching larger audiences even if his methodologies undercut that goal.

“A lot of good artists like Rick find life intolerable, you know?” O’Leary says. “Those are the people who look most unflinchingly. Other indie filmmakers are stylistic or rely on humor. All that’s swept out of the frame with Rick. His work goes beyond emotional storytelling. To do that, you have to be vigilant and honest. The hard work, the obsessiveness, the compulsiveness are essential. You have to be a hard person and, of course, that is because underneath there is so much sensitivity.”

For now, the growing local film community can still claim him.

“C’mon, he’s not D’Angelo,” O’Leary says, laughing. “Now that guy is a stone-cold genius.” S

Th Bijou presents "Entertainment" on Sunday, Nov. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Byrd with director Rick Alverson holding a Q&A after the show. Also, lead actor and comedian Neil Hamburger will perform after at New York Deli. Tickets for the screening are $7 in advance at Steady Sounds and $10 at the door.

A video for the song "Animals in the Zoo" by Leah Devora from the soundtrack for "Entertainment."

Rick Alverson’s 12 Favorite films (in no particular order):

“Come and See” (Elim Klimov)

“Mouchette” (Robert Bresson)

“The Piano Teacher” (Michael Haneke)

“A Woman Under the Influence” / “Husbands” (John Casavettes)

“Out of the Blue” (Dennis Hopper)

“Killer of Sheep” (Charles Burnett)

“Breaking the Waves” (Lars Von Trier)

“Fat Girl” (Catherine Breillat)

“2001” (Stanley Kubrick)

“Stroszek” (Werner Herzog)

“The Tim Drum” (Volker Schlondorff)

“The Son” (Jean and Luc Dardenne)

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