Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez knows how this Hollywood thing works. An assistant to Warren Beatty straight out of the University of Miami, the 29-year-old has been putting in work to get his name recognized as a filmmaker. After toiling away, living his life opening mail and answering phone calls, he finally got his first feature seen at Sundance, Easier with Practice, about a struggling writer who begins having phone sex with a stranger. An adaptation of an essay by Davy Rothbart, it was a quiet feature that opened in a limited release.
So how did this relatively unknown kid, with only one feature on his resume, get the pickiest author David Sedaris—who, until Alvarez, never let anyone adapt his work—to allow him to make a movie about one of his stories? It turns our persistence and clear vision is all that Sedaris was looking for.
Which brings us to C.O.G. In limited release and on VOD now, Alvarez's feature film, based on Sedaris's short story of the same name, follows a pretentious Ivy Leaguer who travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm to "get his hands dirty" for this first time, only to find his life entirely dismantled by the people he encounters.
Complex got the chance to speak to Alvarez about his working relationship with David Sedaris, what quirk means to independent film, and the importance of V.O.D. to indie cinema.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
How did this collaboration with David Sedaris come about?
I knew he had been passed on many film opportunities before so I tried to approach him in a way that was better than anyone had ever approached him. My approach was to try to make a film that felt as much, or if not more, like it came from me than it did from him.
I loved this specific story. I said to him one of the first times we talked was that even if he hadn't written it, if it had been from some writer that no one had ever heard of before, I’d still be trying to get this film made.
David's always wanted to be protective of his family, and the fact that they weren't in it, on top of other reasons, made sense for him to allow this story to be made into a movie.
Did you write the movie first or did you write a spec and then send it to him?
I got in touch with him first. He said, "Well, if we’re going to agree to do this, I’m going to let you go do it and this film is gonna come from you and I shouldn’t influence on that." I said he could approve everything. I gave him whatever degree of control he wanted over it, and his response was the complete opposite of all that. He loves movies, but I don’t think the process of adapting and making movies was actually that interesting to him.
How did you keep his distinct tone?
I lost a lot of great moments and a lot of great punchlines but I didn’t want two things: voiceover and what I call, "the Ally McBeal flashovers," which is kind of mind’s eye. That’s the easy way to adapt his work and I don’t think it would lend itself to a very good movie, you know? Because then you’re trying to take what works on the page and assume it’s gonna work on screen.
I would take one line of dialogue in the story that one character says and put it into someone else’s mouth or context. I saw the story as a rich trove of stuff to pull from and build on.
Why did it take so long to get it financed?
No one wanted to finance a movie about a gay guy becoming a born again Christian for two days. People got excited by David Sedaris and the thought that it's going to have voiceover and have really funny moments, but it's really dark.
Also, Hollywood is irreverent. It's like, "There’s never been a David Sedaris movie, so how do we know it’s going to be successful?" Which of course is silly because look at all of his book sales and blah, blah, blah.
People told me to get bigger names and I still couldn’t get the financing. At that point, I decided to cast whoever I want and cut the budget down. I was going to make this movie without everybody telling me how to make it.
Every independent film I watch, I have no idea how it got made. Except for the ones with really, really big stars in it. Otherwise, those movies are made on like, persistency and dreams and a lot of sacrifice from people. That’s actually the only way this film got put together.
Because it deals with sexuality and religion, did you fear any backlash?
A little bit, but not fear. I’m not a religious person, but some of my closest friends are, people who I consider family. So when I was writing the film, I knew I didn't want to make something I would be embarrassed to show them. Having said that, I’ve been really surprised, maybe because festival audiences tend to be a little bit more liberal, that there hasn't been any uproar.
It’s also because of the movie. When people get angry, it’s when they feel like their buttons are getting pushed for the sake of it. And that's not what this movie is meant to do. I tried really hard to make sure this was balanced by adding diverse characters. Casey Wilson’s character is invented for the deliberate sake of trying to make sure both sides of the religious experience, the religious conversation of the film, was accounted for.
You have Troian Bellisario in your movie. I’m assuming it brought a whole different audience who love her on Pretty Little Liars.
[Laughs.] I love her in Pretty Little Liars. I know her boyfriend well and so I’ve known Troian since she was doing theater in L.A. I think she’s such a good actress, so when it worked out and the show was able to give her the two days off we needed her for, I was so excited.
When we were at Sundance, there were literally fans of hers banging on our car window. One girl shaped her hand into a heart, pressed it against the window, and started crying. I thought all of her fans at the festival would be disappointed, but I realized that the people who are Spencer Hastings fans are the people who are actually going to enjoy this. This is a movie that Spencer Hastings would probably reference.
There was this phase, maybe we’re still going through it, when people confused quirk with independent filmmaking.
This summer was amazing for independent films. What do you think about this boom?
I think VODs are a part of it. Three years ago, when my first movie got distributed, VOD wasn’t really a conversation. I’m so grateful to have a theatrical release, but I know that most of this movie’s audience is going to live on streaming and VOD. I think it’s about embracing that and understanding that. When I was a kid and living in the suburbs and loving independent film, I had to beg my parents to drive me into the city every weekend to get to see whatever it was I could, to go see The Iceman for the third time.
Now, I don’t even have to walk to Blockbuster. It's not about laziness, it’s that the access you have to independent filmmakers is so much better. Drinking Buddies is a really good example of that. It’s a movie that is really accessible, certainly more accessible than a lot of the work Joe Swanberg's made before. Though it was still very much his. It had a pre-release on VOD, and I don’t think that movie would have gotten as big of an audience otherwise. It had a bigger cast, for sure, but it was released in a format where people knew how to engage in it. It wasn't like, "Do I go see Drinking Buddies or Man of Steel?" You’re like, "I’m going to sit at home and watch Drinking Buddies." I think it equalizes the industry.
It's also about concerns of budgets going away. During the Q&A at my first film, someone asked about the budget. It's kind of a long-running film festival joke. No one has ever asked me the budget for this and I think it’s because we’ve accepted that a movie is going to cost what it should. It’s no longer an excuse. The story’s no longer, "He made El Mariachi for $7000! I can’t believe he did that!"
That’s why I respect Shane Carruth. All the press of his first movie Primer, which is an achievement regardless of its cost, was about the $7,000 he spent to make it. He didn't want the narrative thread of his career to be about how he makes things so cheaply, so I understood why he didn't say it this time. He was essentially saying, "Let's engage these movies in a different way."
That's the change now. I don’t know what the budget was for Drinking Buddies, but they presumably made it quite modestly. I kind of know what some of these movies cost, not out of a sick fascination, but because I want to learn. I found out Naomi Watts was doing this micro-budget movie, like way cheaper than Drinking Buddies, in Florida. If Naomi Watts is going to do a movie that cheap and I can’t, then I have problem. That’s the challenge I put on myself with this movie, and I think every filmmaker has to.
Also, I think independent film is getting a bolder. There was this phase, maybe we’re still going through it, when people confused quirk with independent filmmaking. Now that major studios have learned to embrace the quirk—every sitcom on TV now looks and feels like indie comedies from the '90s—it's opened up the door again to do something a little scarier. And that’s what I’ve always loved about independent film.
What about the way your film is being marketed?
I’m perfectly well aware that they’re selling my film on quirk, but I don’t think the film is quirky. I get that that’s a marketing tool. People saw the trailer for the movie, which has done really well for the film so I’m not criticizing the marketing at all, but it was one of those things where I’m like what are they going think when they actually see this movie.
What about the people who argue VOD is killing the experience of moviegoing?
Well, even me, living in L.A. down the street from a theater, I watch a lot of VOD. I think the pricing in more appropriate. A lot of people say the heart of cinema film is in the cinema, but to a degree it’s adapt or die, nowadays. I’m not going to change how I make my movies for a smaller screen, but I am also going to embrace that it’s a great way to get work out there.
RELATED: Meet "Drinking Buddies" Director Joe Swanberg, the Man Behind Your Next Favorite Movie
RELATED: Jill Soloway's Honest Look at Female Sexuality, "Afternoon Delight," Is a Sign of Things to Come