It’s rare, but there are times when a movie feels “special” from the first frame. funny pages is one of those movies, it almost immediately becomes apparent that it depicts a different place, with different people, in a way unlike anything we’ve seen before. For people like me who watch a lot of movies, that feeling is invigorating; one of those periodic and necessary reminders that films are capable of being surprising. To be, and please forgive me for saying it like this, art.
funny pages is Owen Kline’s debut film, the vague story of a budding young cartoonist who, after the loss of his mentor, leaves his comfortable upper-middle-class home in Princeton, New Jersey, for the sleazy streets of Trenton in order to pursue his imaginary project. dream of romantic misery. funny pages opens with a series of drawings by its protagonist Robert (played by Daniel Zolghadri)—actually the vulgar and sublime work of cartoonist Johnny Ryan—and from there, it’s impossible not to imagine every person in funny pages like their own caricature. It helps that funny pagesThe actors, almost for one person, look like R. Crumb drawings come to life. Meanwhile, Sean Price Williams’ gritty, grungy Super 16mm cinematography almost gives them noticeable stinky lines.
On time, funny pages feels like a dispatch from outer space. Yet this is clearly just a clever caricature of a world that exists here on Earth. Specifically, at video and comic stores in the tri-state area. Produced by the Safdie Brothers (Good time, uncut gems), whom Kline met as a teenager while crewing their pre-famous shorts, Kline was, much like its protagonist Robert, once an aspiring cartoonist. He also worked at a video store, where he met Miles Emanuel (“Miles” in funny pages) when Emanuel was 11 and renting an Ingmar Bergman movie with his babysitter. Likewise, Andy Milonakis is in the movie because he’s one of Kline’s good friends.
Which means funny pages is, like so many great things, seemingly the result of a collision between a shrewd artistic eye and serendipity. Just like with his movie, I didn’t know what to expect from Kline himself – whose first notable IMDB credit is playing Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney’s son in Noah Baumbach. The squid and the whale. In the flesh (or whatever version of the Zoom Screen) Kline ended up looking a lot like a decaricatured version of a funny pages character – shaggy, bespectacled, somehow “precocious” looking even in adulthood, and a virtual faucet of eclectic references.
I don’t know which was more difficult, keeping Kline on track or keeping myself. funny pages seemed to offer so much to talk about, from the conceptual – how to present a film so inherently tactile – to the logistics – what happened behind the scenes when you were shooting Daniel Zolghadri plays an entire pivotal sequence with a huge wad of food in his stuffy? In the end, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. But I hope it was a convincing scratch. We are all doing our part. funny pages opens in select theaters and VOD this Friday.
I feel like the movie is kinda funny and self-explanatory; like it was fun at the base building level. Which is a feat, but it also makes me wonder: how do you launch something like that?
I didn’t launch it. I just spent years working on 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 humorous and newspaper comics. Peanuts was still in the newspaper when I was a kid. I do not know. I’ve always run for fun stuff. So I couldn’t really get into superhero comics, other than a few voices or whatever. But yes, I mean, I know what you mean. It’s kind of a comedy on a molecular level, but I guess it’s also over the top.
It’s so visual. You get the joke when you see it. How did you get it to come out on the page?
I only think of the voices and the characters. I think a lot of humor comes from how different people’s tastes and sensibilities rub against each other. I particularly like behavioral comedy. I don’t watch too much new TV, but I revisited king of the hill and just kind of plowed through that recently and the behavioral comedy on this show and how the voices… there’s no real jokes. All the humor comes from the characters and how they mirror each other. I find that in the work of Mike Judge, I find that in the work of Mike Lee to some extent. They are obviously very different voices, but there are no jokes.
I definitely went through the script and what you mean is the question I always ask when I watch something, either something doesn’t make a read laugh or it just doesn’t work – that kind of joke , because it’s too much of a joke. He feels too much of a writer, too constructed. It really has to come from the character, because if it comes from the characters, if it doesn’t make you laugh, you won’t get kidney stones in the theater. … I don’t know if a kidney stone is the right indicator of stress, but I just said a kidney stone.
Most of the time you see a comedy – it’s always just a pet peeve to me – and everyone has the same kind of jokes they say. The sensitivity and sense of humor of all the characters is that of a single writer, you know? I feel like all the characters have a different sense of humor in the movie.
Well, I think a lot of the comedy comes from this collection of characters. Tell me about the cast. It makes it seem like the cast does it in a way that other movies don’t.
Thanks. Well, I was just trying to find some intriguing people who weren’t on the beat, you know what I mean? The movie is just a little off, so I tried to find actors who could support that and read those things organically and not play comedy and play it real. And there’s a variety of… sorry, the question is about casting, isn’t it?
Yeah. I mean, like Miles for example, where did you meet him?
I worked in a video store a little over 10 years ago I guess for a while and Miles (above right) came over and rented wolf hour when he was 11 with his babysitter. Something like that, I think he was giving it back and I was just like, “Who is this kid?”
And then I kind of learned from Joe, the owner of the video library, that he was browsing the 1001 movies to see before you die Barnes and Noble book or whatever. And I would try to recommend movies to him that weren’t in the book and he would write it down after he finished the 1001 movies. But this character, his confidence and his kind of pride really came from Miles. He’s like one of those Bozo The Clown punching bags, where you punch him and he comes right back. He’s like an unfazed guy and, I don’t know. He’s kind of the bravest character in the whole movie. Defends Robert at the end of the film and has absolutely no reason to.
So Miles was a guy you knew in that video store environment, and then in the movie, a lot of these characters know each other from that comic book store that they’re all centered around. Does this world still exist, where people go to a video store or a comic book store? When I looked at it, I couldn’t tell if it was sometimes a period piece or if it was meant to be contemporary.
Well, we’ve all watched streaming decimate the video store, you know? It was a rather slow and agonizing death. But I think both should be able to exist. It was a sad day when we closed our video library, man. It was a really sad day and Miles was crying [laughs]. He was helping us close and throw away the last shit that was left.
But yeah, I’ve watched every major video store in New York with all these really unique individualized collections smashing, tossing, and disappearing. Kim’s collection was the most terrifying, but comic stores are kind of the only one…there’s a remnant of it where you get all walks of life in a comic store. Or it goes to that variety of people, that motley team thing where you have the guy who’s there all day, reading great or the guy who’s snobby about Wolverine or the kid with the chain wallet who dresses like The Crow who reads night wing, you know? You get all life types and then you get a weird kid who draws his own comics behind the counter.
I grew up with this comic book store called Rocketship (in Cobble Hill). It was the first store opened in New York that kind of catered to the art comic genre, from “graphic novels” to alternative voices, as well as… it was opened by owners of St. Mark’s Comics , so they came up with superheroes in the comics too, of course. It was in Brooklyn and I met my best friend there who was self-publishing his comic. It was just such a good mix of people.
Talk to me about directing Daniel. Were there any scenes where you just made him take the biggest bite of food he could just before we started filming?
Yeah. I mean, it’s the kind of thing where the scene needed something more than sitting down at a restaurant. Obviously, this kid has no self-preservation. He doesn’t take care of himself. He’s already kind of in a tailspin by then, and yeah. I just thought it was funny that he was stuffing himself, stuffing his face. You know, it’s visual. It looked funny close up and it was the right attitude. It was just kind of like he was this slobby, unlike. But Daniel… you said lead Daniel?
I mean, what were you feeding him there and how long did he go through while filming that scene?
I’m sure we brought him a few plates of gigantic burgers. I mean, doing that, it’s funny, every time you have someone eating in a movie, seasoned actors, they take these little bites of theater because they’re actually thinking about continuity. So it’s fun to be able to do something like that. It’s a bit revolting, you know?
Was he spitting something? Or did he follow a complete method and swallow everything afterwards?
I think he spat some of it out at some point. I didn’t want him to get fat. I didn’t want him to have a heart attack, to eat too many burgers.
Sure. It’s important as a director, I think.
It’s a weird scene. It’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It’s one of those where you don’t know if it’s going to work and it ends up being where you just do it like a story beat and you’re like, “Oh yeah. Yeah.” But then it kind of surprises you. It’s one of those things that really comes out in a movie with so much crazier stuff.
“Funny Pages” hits theaters on August 26. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access its review archive here.