We sit down with John C. Reilly at the Sundance Film Festival to discuss 'Cyrus'
The first time I met John C. Reilly was at the premiere of "Anchorman." And that was just a brief, "Hey, how are you? I like your work." That sort of thing. The next time I spoke to him was at Fantastic Fest. last year, where I interviewed him about "The Vampire's Assistant" just after seeing it. I was in the grips of an insane sudden onslaught of the flu, so I barely remember our conversation. Considering how long I've enjoyed his work, I figured it was about time we finally sit down and had a conversation where I actually came to it clear-headed, and so the day after I saw "Cyrus," I found myself at the Village At The Yard, sitting on a couch across from Reilly, in room where other journalists were talking to people like Alex Gibney and Tilda Swinton.
As with Spike Jonze, I came to the interview bearing gifts:
John: It’s just you and me?
John : Oh okay, I thought Jonah was joining us.
Drew: I think I'm going to talk to Jonah after this. For our website, HitFix, we brought mints this year. Would you like HitFix mints?
John: Yeah, sure. (starts to open the plastic wrap on the bottle) Do they have a psychotropic effect?
Drew: I wish. But at the very least you can make people think at parties that you’re giving out the good stuff now. So, so far "Cyrus" is my favorite thing I’ve seen up here.
John: Wow, thanks.
Drew: I think what’s really wonderful about it is... it could easily have been the high-concept version, and I could even see you and Jonah cast in the high-concept version of this. But there’s such a gentle, deliberate nature to the movie from the very moment it begins, and nothing is ever the big "now everything begins". There are changes throughout but they’re subtle.
Drew: When you guys are working the way you do on this film, how do you chart that stuff, because that seems to be the trickiest stuff to play... how you and Cyrus are getting along and how that dynamic builds over the course of the film. It’s really beautiful the way it played out.
John: Well, one thing that really helped that was we shot in order. So as the story built, it was being built in an organic way. We weren’t trying to double back and I think that gives the whole story an authentic quality. The other thing was that when we were speaking to each other, it was very rarely that we said written dialogue. I mean, we used the script as a guide to what the basic plot points of the movie were, but we were given a lot of freedom in terms of how we got there in each individual scene, and the way we phrased things to each other was just really natural and improvised dialogue, you know? We knew what had to happen in a scene, or, I mean, sometimes the guys would be like, "if it doesn’t feel right to have this happen in this scene, just do something else. We don’t care as long as it seems real." And that was one of the really cool things about working with Mark and Jay is they… (spots someone over my shoulder) ... one second…I have to go say hello to a friend of mine…I’ll give you extra time.
Drew: No worry.
(John rises and bolts across the room to where Tilda Swinton has just swept into the room. I watched her walk through the room four times. Trust me. Tilda sweeps. They talk, and after a few minutes, John wlkas back over.)
Drew: I would agree Tilda Swinton is worth crossing the room for.
John: Well, she invited me to her movie last night. I had to leave at the end. I didn’t get to say thank you for taking the time.
Drew: It’s one of the great things being up here is you run into everybody and people that…
John: She and I are doing a movie together soon, too, so…
John: ... it’s important to…
Drew: I love her work. "Julia" was amazing last year.
John: She’s like... she’s a goddess, man. So, anyway, we’re given a lot of freedom to make the dialogue seem real. And in terms of like how we gauged the subtler moments or whatever, that was just part of that thing of being as honest and as truthful as possible. It gave a lot of different variations for things because just the nature of improvising is that as you do it a few times, it starts to morph into other things and you get into other areas of feeling with people and different ways to attack a conversation. So we just gave a ton of material. There was like... there must have been enough footage, since we shot it digitally, so they didn’t have a constraint on how much they could roll. There must have been enough footage to make four movies or something.
Drew: I think it’s a real testament, then, to how they work with their editor, because the film feels…
John: That, to me….
Drew: ... tightly designed and you know that it had to be loose just by the nature of how they shoot, so...
John: To me, that is their genius and I didn’t even realize it at the time we started this. I was a fan of theirs from their other films when we started to work together. And they’re friends with my wife from the festival circuit. And I thought when we started, "Oh, this is their thing. Their improv thing on-set. And that ended up feeling like really like crazy. Like "This is insane. How can they just hand over to me the responsibility of telling the story?" Like I do improv a lot, but usually it’s much more guided than this.
John: This was like, "We don’t care if the story totally changes right now. We don’t care. As long as it seems natural and that’s what is supposed to happen next then go ahead and do it." So the filming of the movie was this feeling, like actually kind of uncomfortable and hard every day to keep the faith that this is all going to be okay, you know? Because we’re not shooting the script, and, like, the story is changing. Then when I saw the movie I realized that’s what really sets them apart is like they have the confidence to just let things go and get as much footage as they can when you’re making the movie, and then it’s a whole other process when they get together. That’s where the intimacy and the real genius of finding the moments and Jay Deuby, their editor, is like the third member of the team. I mean, he’s…
Drew: He would have to be. You look at these films…
John: He’s at least a third of the component there.
Drew: What is it about the... because the film is squirmingly uncomfortable in place... just deeply uncomfortable. And I think…
John: "Seriously, dude, don’t fuck my mom." (laughs)
Drew: There’s been such an explosion of style of film making, and I’d say in the last ten years people have really embraced it and it seems to be room for it in sort of the film culture now. But what is it about the profoundly uncomfortable that we’re drawn to when we watch?
John: Well, that’s what a lot of comedy is, you know? It’s just those moments that you try to avoid. Whether it’s a prat-fall or whether it’s getting caught sneaking up to someone’s house, you know, when you’re not supposed to be there. It’s that uncomfortable stuff that when audiences see another person going through it, it’s funny because you would hate to be in that position yourself.
Drew: At the Q&A after…
John: I don’t know, it’s just honest too. If you say, like... I think that’s the problem with a lot of more formula and, like, packaged commercial movies is like "Let’s make it funny but not too uncomfortable and like kind of sand off all the edges that make things recognizably real". And there's something that those ragged edges and those uncomfortable moments and the honest reactions... they’re bread and butter, you know?
Drew: I’ve certainly had many moments where halfway through it, you keep thinking, "God. I wish this was a nightmare. I wish this would just... I wish I could wake up and this wasn’t actually happening to me." And "Cyrus" really turns those wheels so carefully, so that when those moments come...
John: I think of it like it’s very… like the first half hour is just like a straight-up comedy, to me. It’s similar to like even "Step-Brothers" and movies like that where it’s like joke, joke, joke, joke, but in a much more real kind of character based way. And then halfway through the movie it becomes almost like an emotional horror movie.
John: You know? So many people have said to me, "I thought he was going to stab you. I thought something really bad was going to happen between you." And I think that’s really cool about the movie. You don’t know what’s coming. You care about all these people but that’s exciting. I’m so used to movies following movie patterns.
Drew: Yeah, and you get used to certain beats. You get to the point where you anticipate things.
John: Yeah. "Here comes the resolution," you know?
Drew: "Somebody’s going to run through an airport now."
John: (laughs) And this is much more like life really is I think.
Drew: What really struck me as I’m watching is... I think when it comes out, I think there’s going to be a lot of attention on the way you and Jonah play together. But for me it wouldn’t work if Marisa wasn’t who she is.
John: Yeah. Well, as I said at the Q&A at the premiere, if it was just left to me and Jonah, if the Molly character was more in the background and it became just about me and Jonah, we would have ended up making a much sillier movie together based on how we like working off each other. But…
Drew: She’s really something…
John: She’s very real and it’s her dysfunction that sets off a lot of what’s going on in the movie. The way she’s raised her son, and it’s funny because she’s put in this position like halfway through… her character doesn’t know what’s going on. I mean me and Jonah know exactly what’s going on, and she’s just a little bit in the dark, you know? We’re both just trying to game the system to win her over and she doesn’t quite know that that’s happening.
Drew: At the Q&A, somebody had said something to you about that I’ve seen you do serious before, which is so crazy because I’ve been a fan since "Casualties of War," and I liked that movie right away. Everybody in that film… I remember saying to my friend at the time, "All of these people are going to be amazing, because this is so beautifully played." And certainly there’s nothing funny about that movie. It’s such an intense piece of just machismo in the woods and guys just being terrible guys. And so for me it’s always been amazing when the transition happened and suddenly you were kind of accepted as John C. Reilly, go-to guy for comedy. And it really happened after the Apatow films and after you guys kind of blew up. So…
John: The Adam McKay films, you mean. Not that there's anything wrong with Judd films, but…
Drew: I give huge credit to Adam for those movies. I think "Talladega Nights" is an under-rated movie about America. I think "Talladega Nights" has a lot to say about America.
John: That’s what I love about Mckay. He’s such an intelligent subversive guy, like I don’t even think most people even realize like just how…. ah anyway, how subversive those movies are.
Drew: Does it surprise you when people aren’t aware sort of the breadth of how much you’ve done? Because it seems to me like you’ve been an icon in the independent world for a long time and you’ve worked with so many amazing filmmakers. There are waves that you’ve gone through.
John: I like that. I don’t mind it. I’ve worked actually my whole life, consciously and subconsciously, I think, to erase my tracks. You know what I mean? Especially directors that I want to work with, to keep them from putting together a whole string of, "Oh he’s this guy and this and this and this." My whole career, people only know me from like the kind of movies they like to watch. And so my game plan, if anything, has been change it up as much as possible so when a guy says, like, "Wow, it was great to see you in a drama. I just knew you as this comedy guy," I was like, "Great." You know? Great. Because then I surprised you and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to, you know... that’s the secret to longevity in a film career, is either do the exact same thing over and over and perfect it, and like just be the best at that thing, you know? Find that character that’s your iconic character and do it well, or change it up so then they don’t know what’s coming when they sit down, you know?
Drew: It seems to me that you have always been very... I don’t know if luck’s the word, it’s just that you have this incredible taste. Do you watch a lot of film in order to be aware of like young film makers coming up? And when the opportunity arises you’re like, "Oh, I know that guy’s work. Absolutely I’m going to do that."
John: Yeah. I’ve been coming to Sundance for years. I’ve been coming here since before "Hard Eight." Early 90’s. And my wife is a film producer and she’s been on juries and we watch a lot of movies at my house, but really I just… part of it is being aware of what’s out there and just being open to whatever. I don’t look for a certain kind of movie. I just look for inspired people and stuff that I want to do that seems different than what I’ve already done. But yeah, the other part of it is that my work kind of gets its own work, you know what I mean? It’s like people come up to me and I don’t even know who the hell they are, you know what I mean? These younger filmmakers come up and they know "Boogie Nights" and they know "Hard Eight" or they know "Magnolia" or they know "Talladega Nights" or whatever it is. You touch people through your work and then that’s how you stay relevant to younger people. And to me, I’m just trying to stay interested in life and the most interesting thing is stuff I haven’t done, so...
Drew: Well, I really love "Cyrus," man. I thought it was tremendous.
John: I’m glad you liked it because I put a lot of myself in it. I really did. I put my own… I truly put my own kind of vulnerability on the line there.
Drew: You know, I’ve known Jonah for a little while and I was still surprised.
Drew: And was there any... you watching him, was there any period where it felt like Jonah was adjusting to the idea that this was a totally different kind of thing he’d done before and there was a sense of as you guys did it he opened up more?
John: No, because he’s a smart kid, you know what I mean? He’s not a kid… he’s in his 20’s or whatever, but he’s smart enough to know like why it was funny in a smart way. I mean, he’s a smart enough guy to like understand what’s funny about a prat-fall and what’s funny about… and so he got like the weirdness of this character and that just really tickled him. It wasn’t like, "Oh God this is too heavy. What are we doing here?" And he and I just really hit it off and it was fun to do. And truth is, like whether you’re an actor or not, there’s certain people in the world who have the ability to be honest when a camera is on them. And there’s certain people that can’t, that have to kind of dissemble. And Jonah just has the ability to be honest, so that’s all he was doing, you know?
Drew: One of the biggest laughs in the movie for me is him standing behind the keyboard staring you down. And it is so intense.
John: Yeah. I don’t know if you’re going to talk to him, but ask him about that because the amount of footage that you see on screen of him staring at me like that, was probably the only footage they had of that without him laughing because he kept cracking up over and over and over because I was staring at him like, "Mm-hmm... right on, right on." And he just could not stop laughing.
Drew: For me it was one of the biggest laughs in the whole film and it’s so uncomfortable. John, thank you so much for…. it’s really nice to see you again.
John: My pleasure. Thanks for the mints.
I'll also have a chat with Jonah and a chat with Mark and Jay Duplass for you, and my thanks to John C. Reilly and all the fine folks who had to juggle to put us together this week.
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