Wrong Cops, Chapters 1 – 3 – Sundance Film Festival 2013
Quentin Dupieux is an award-winning film director and musician, known widely for his debut feature Rubber (2008) and for his DJ work under the pseudonym Mr. Oizo. His latest film, Wrong Cops, world-premiered its first forty-five minutes – three chapters of an intended seven – at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Wrong Cops features Mark Burnham in the lead role as Officer Duke, a disgruntled and malicious Los Angeles police officer who sells drugs to pass the time. Duke and his cohorts are spinoff characters from the 2012 Sundance feature Wrong, starring Jack Plotnik and released in February 2013 on Video-on-Demand.
Mark Burnham is a Los Angeles-based character actor. His previous credits include Wrong and TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Arden Myrin is a comedienne, writer, and actress best known for her roles in MadTV and Suburgatory. She stars in Wrong Cops as Shirley, the aggressive, blackmailing partner of Renato (Eric Wareheim). Steve Little is an Emmy-winning comic actor, writer, and voice performer best known for HBO’s Eastbound & Down and Cartoon Network’s Camp Lazlo! He stars in Wrong Cops as Sunshine, a plain-clothes police officer and family man.
Mr. Dupieux, Mr. Burnham, Ms. Myrin, and Mr. Little spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary to discuss their film, the ideas behind film art, and what constitutes avant-gardism in the industry. This interview has been edited, compressed, and transcribed from audio for publication. It contains spoilers.
Sean Malin: You tend to “go big or go home” with the content of your films and your music. You often ask your performers to give broad, outrageous, even boisterous performances. Why do you choose a larger scope for your film than the simplicity or subtlety of a lampoon?
Quentin Dupieux: Well, what do you mean? I’m not sure I get it…
Steve Little: When you look at Rubber or Wrong, the ideas at the base of those movies is quite large. Just in that sense?
SM: I think that, even though Wrong Cops uses a lot of shot-reverse shot and choker close-ups that are typically used in a quieter or more personal picture, there is still a broad range in the execution of the comedy.
QD: Ah, yeah, so you’re not talking about the simplicity of the photography?
Mark Burnham: I think that if you walked out [to Main Street] tonight, at, say, 11:30 p.m., you’re going to see huge, boisterous personalities having fun – and sometimes, that’s life. The question – why that, as opposed to the quiet or restrained people with subtle behavior? – calls for a stylistic difference to match.
SM: But why, if you’re sticking with two shots and intimate close-ups, isn’t everybody whispering in the service of the comedy? There’s a disorienting effect caused by all the yelling and obtuse misbehavior in Wrong Cops. It’s Chaplin vs….
QD: I know what you mean. Actually, [the style] is not a choice for me, or a concept I think about.
SM: It’s organic.
QD: Yes. And even the way the film is shot, it’s only shot that way because I’m not interested in big camera movement because we see this every day in film. The crane, the big swoop-arounds. I prefer to keep it intimate because, right now, it’s more of my language. Maybe one day it will change. But with this movie, I feel good inside this more intimate world around only, like, three characters. Probably it is because I’m French that the tone of it just sounds right – but maybe, to you, it sounds wrong.
SM: Do you think that remains true for you even when you hire an actor like Mark [Burnham] or Eric [Wareheim?] Just because of their heights and their physical carriage, they suddenly make the screen seem huge.
QD: Oh, of course. Even in this world, you need different characters and types to make it real.
MB: Here’s what I hate: things that are made for basically no reason, which is anti-Quentin, in terms of a filmic statement. Like that Brad Pitt Chanel ad for example – it’s that false, “intense” sincerity that, when I see it, even in auditions in Los Angeles, I just laugh at it.
QD: When I seeing something like that, I feel like peeing on the poster, honestly.
SM: Still, for someone like Arden [Myrin] or Steve to go toe-to-toe with Mark or Eric and hold the screen, it must be a challenge.
Arden Myrin: Yeah, but I like it, though! I feel like it’s like playing tennis – you want to play with the best player you could possibly play against you know? [Eric’s] like a foot-and-a-half taller than me, but I like that sort of challenge, because I know that I’m going to fucking win and shank him with a shiv I made in the shower. You’ve got to have your own little things that make you scrappy. And it’s fun to play something with someone where it’s not a fair fight.
SL: It was funny – we were building that scene in the trunk [with Mark Burnham, Little, and Daniel Quinn as a pesky neighbor who becomes entangled in the cops’ affairs], or just outside it. And there’s the camera, and there’s this big man yelling at this other man that’s a foot taller. It’s almost like an Odd Couple with [Mark] – there’s a sort of energy that comes with his physicalness [sic] in scenes. But as Quentin said, if every character looked the same…I mean, it’s not a bunch of wrong cops who are all wrong cops in the exact same way.
AM: You need different instruments to tell any story. And there’s different ways to have power, too, than just being tall. Not everyone requires something physical to be a little threatening.
MB: Just by contrast, if you go back and watch Wrong (2012), you’ll notice that there is a subtle comedy starring Jack Plotnik that’s totally directed by the same person. So while the question of height is valid, it’s a kind of interpretation and not inherent to the work of this guy who writes and directs and goes broad. I had an acting teacher once tell me that there is no overacting, as long as you, the actor, support it. People like Jim Carrey make billions of dollars on that.
SM: Quentin, do have any trouble directing people of different acting backgrounds? Mark was trained in Los Angeles as a dramatic actor, whereas Steve, Eric, and Arden are all improv-based.
QD: When I write for them, I don’t even consider their backgrounds. They’re all human beings, different human beings for sure, and just that makes directing Mark much different than directing Steve for me. But there are many other reasons besides just their acting backgrounds. It’s more about trying to get a good feeling with them, and then getting a good experience.
SM: You wrote the part [of David Dolores Frank in Wrong Cops, Ch. 1] for Marilyn [Manson]. Do you write each role to include different nuances in your direction?
QD: I do; that’s the best. I wrote the lead in Wrong for Jack, the part of Duke for Mark, the part for [Arden], the part for [Steve]. I honestly think that’s the way it should be done every time. As a director – and I’m not denying my past work – I think this [film] looks more right in a way because I wrote the parts for the actors.
SM: Having seen the first three chapters, I think that’s true – there’s a less tongue-in-cheek, less cavalier attitude at play in the film. There’s a certain rigid quality to the interplay. Again, was that intentional, or like so many other elements of your work, was that an organic consequence?
QD: I was just trying to something different from anything else and that’s what I try to do every time I make a film. Each time I finish a movie, I need something different. After something like Wrong, you can’t do something with the same weird atmosphere. I don’t know how anyone does. I mean, David Lynch, I love him, and love his work, but I don’t know how he does, every time, the same weird thing. It’s exactly like in music – when I finish a piece, I cannot do the same. That’s why certain people have been pissed off at me. They were expecting like ten flat beats, but I feel like, no, it is done, I don’t want to do this again.
SM: Some people consider you the author of your work because you edit, direct, write, and compose the music for your films. But at the Q & A (held in Park City’s Prospector Theatre at the unveiling of Chapters 1 – 3) last night, you mentioned that you feel as if the film belongs to the actors.
QD: Here’s what I meant: we have the same camera on all of them, have them in the same location, same costume, all with the same script. But if they are bad, the movie sucks. Yes, it’s my job to have the best of them in the movie, but it succeeds as a work first because they’re good. I think it’s obvious that on this movie, specifically, we are not working hard on trying to find the right tone. Sometimes, yes, the scene does not work and it takes maybe fifteen minutes to fix it. We’re not trying to “find” something. They are these characters, it’s not like we had to tell them “about” the characters. Like Arden – she read the script and she got the vibe, understood what I was trying to do with Shirley, and she just…did it.
SM: Arden, when you go out for a role like this with your background in sketch-comedy series and small, sweet characters in films like Kinsey (2004), is it simply to avoid typecasting?
AM: *laughs* When I originally auditioned for Wrong, the role I read for called for a fifty-five year old man, a “male boss.” I remember thinking, ‘Um, is this the right part?’ And I almost didn’t go because I didn’t want to embarrass myself playing this hard-ass fifty-five year old guy. But I thought, ‘What can I do for this?’ And it became such an honor to work on that film that when I got this, I said, ‘Now you want me to play some girl?!”
MB: Thank god she did it though, right? She killed it!
AM: It’s just fun to do something you’re not accustomed to and to figure out if it’s something you can do.
SM: Does that element of fun make it more difficult to deliver the performance you’re being asked for?
AM: When you feel like, on paper, you are so wrong for what you are trying to do, you start to feel like you really have nothing to lose. So you just provide your version of something based on how you’d do it and not what anyone else is looking for. You say, ‘This is what I could bring to the table,’ and really, you get hired or you don’t. Of course, if you’re no good but you’re having fun, you don’t get the job.
SM: I am taken by the science-fiction element of Wrong Cops [an opening title card states, “Los Angeles. Year 16.”] When you create a dystopian world like the one here, do you fully fledge that world out?
QD: I am just trying to get away from this *points down vigorously* world. I like this world, but just like this *points to Sean, then the actors*, this is fun for me. But I am not interested in trying to find —
MB: We shot this here, in the real world —
QD: Yes, but some people are good at making this great, like human things and stuff. You know, I can’t watch any of this stuff. But I’m not even trying to talk about science-fiction – you *points to Sean* said the word! To me, “Year 16” is a joke, because it means nothing. So I’m trying to explain with this movie that this is not what [members of the audience] know.
MB: I also think – and I don’t speak for anyone, this is just my impression – that this dystopian tone that you’re talking about wasn’t written into the script necessarily.
QD: No, no.
MB: For example: in Ch. 1, we had to stop a scene between Eric Judor and I because the scene was not working. In that twenty minutes before we started again, helicopters started flying over head on an actual gang run. So this whole new tone developed out of the shooting of those helicopters [which appear during the title sequence of each new chapter].
QD: I think you *points to Sean* may be disappointed, but the locations we chose? We picked out some stupid locations just because they were cool for me [Dupieux also served as cinematographer], and also: quiet. So at the end, you just see two guys talking in a parking lot, and you don’t know why. It’s because you can’t really see any cars in the background, and [the lot] takes on this really antique feeling. Which I love.