In Conversation With: Kent Osborne

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Kent Osborne is an animator, filmmaker, writer, and actor. His work on the television shows Spongebob Squarepants, Camp Lazlo!, Adventure Time, and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack has garnered him eight Emmy Award nominations. As a performer and producer, he is a stalwart in the films of Joe Swanberg, having collaborated on nearly a dozen films since 2006. In 2015, Osborne wrote, executive produced, and starred in Uncle Kent 2, the sequel to the Swanberg-directed, semi-autobiographical 2009 feature Uncle Kent. Directed by Todd Rohal and featuring Jennifer Prediger, Tipper Newton, and Swanberg, the new film tracks Osborne’s disastrous attempt to make a sequel to Uncle Kent with another director.

Uncle Kent 2 won the Visions Audience Award at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, and will be released in theaters and on Video-on-Demand by Fandor and Factory 25. Additionally, Osborne currently appears in Joe Swanberg’s Digging For Fire, available in theaters and on VOD as of Aug. 2015. Hot off the World Premiere of Uncle Kent 2, Kent Osborne spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about bringing his co-star/friends back for the sequel, his presence in the comedy scene, and balancing animation with acting. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

Editor’s Note: Uncle Kent 2 screens with director Todd Rohal in attendance on Sunday, September 6, 2015, at the Austin Film Society. More information here.

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Sean Malin: It’s an interesting time for us to be talking – you just made another movie with Joe Swanberg [Digging For Fire, 2015] and then he goes and mentions you in his interview with Marc Maron [on WTF with Marc Maron.] Did you listen to the podcast?

Kent Osborne: I did. It was so funny to hear them talking, first about [filmmaker/actor] Larry Fessenden, and then Marc was saying, “Oh, and I like that other guy.” I realized he was talking about me, but Joe said, “Who, Ti [West]?” and Marc responded, “Yeah, him!” I was thinking, “Aw, man…” until Joe went, “No, no – you’re [thinking of] Kent!”

SM: It must have been a big moment for you to hear Maron lock in on you.

KO: Yeah, it was, because I listen to WTF pretty regularly, and it was surreal to hear them together. It was strange just to hear someone I knew personally on the show, but then to have Marc – not Joe – bring me up –

SM: Right, he had honed in on you as an actor. He called you out for your role in All the Light in the Sky [2012].

KO: It was completely surreal.

SM: It must be odd for you to hear all these people that you’ve worked with time and time again start to filter into Maron’s world. Swanberg is known for using a stable of actors in the fashion of Cassavetes or Altman, and a lot of them are now reaching prominence.

KO: Yeah, Maron likes the Duplass brothers [Jay and Mark] a lot. Mark’s been on WTF.

SM: I know you guys worked together on Hannah Takes the Stairs. And Alex Karpovsky, who you worked with recently on Frank V. Ross’s Bloomin Mud Shuffle [2015], was just on the show. Do you feel like your comedy communities – yours in animation and this kind of alternative-alternative microbudget films, and his in “traditional alternative” comedy – are starting to come together?

KO: What Marc does now in comedy is fully mainstream compared to some of the movies I’ve done, but he did a voice on Adventure Time, so I got to direct him once. I met him for the episode, and he was great on it. Since then, I’ve heard him bring [the show] up a few times on his show, always by saying, “I played a squirrel.”

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SM: People have noticed that the comedy that you work on in film and television is all part of a growing “scene,” one where the Duplass brothers are moguls and the absurdist TV programs win Emmys and Swanberg gets to direct a studio film, et cetera. These “scenes” play a large part in your script for Uncle Kent 2, which I saw at SXSW [Film Festival, 2015], in that the “Kent” character is trying to find some way to make his version of Uncle Kent a post-mumblecore, post-modern film-within-the-film. Not to simplify, but how did you get tied up with those disparate social scenes?

KO: You mean with Joe, specifically?

SM: I’m thinking of the Swanberg/Rohal/Bujalski/Gerwig/Duplass contingent, with so many others coming to prominence now like Amy Seimetz and Kentucker Audley, Alex Ross Perry, Frank Ross, Takal, Levine, Lowery, and on and on. Far too many to name, obviously, but there is a kind of connective tissue running through their works together.

KO: I see what you mean. Well, my brother [Mark Osborne], who’s a stop-motion animator, and I made a movie in 2000 that played at Sundance [Film Festival.] He’d been there the previous year with a short film that had won the Grand Jury Prize. The film we made together was live-action, and we also went to SXSW and a few other festivals with it. Around that time, I started programming for Slamdance, and I met Todd Rohal briefly. He had a short that played the festival in 2001. Todd had seen a movie I acted in called Herd [1999, dir. Mike Mitchell], and he was being super-nice to me; he came up to me to introduce himself, and he knew my name. Then I saw his short, Hillbilly Robot [2001], at SXSW and I really liked it

Back then, I wasn’t really involved with independent filmmaking except as a feature programmer for Slamdance, which I did for a few years. But in 2006, I went to SXSW and stayed with my friend, Dan Brown.

SM: I’m not familiar with his work. He’s a filmmaker?

KO: Yeah, he’s an awesome director and producer who lives in Austin and, actually, just by coincidence *points at shirt*, I’m wearing a shirt of his [characters]. He is also the friend that took me to Swanberg’s LOL [2006]; the previous year, Dan had helped to get Kissing on the Mouth [2006; Joe Swanberg’s first feature] into South By. So when he told me about LOL in 2006 and said, “You have to see this movie,” we went together. I loved LOL so much, I thought it was just great. I can remember seeing Kevin Bewersdorf [who plays “Alex” in the film] and thinking that he was so natural, and so funny. And he was clearly playing this version of himself that wasn’t the most flattering, which impressed me a lot. So after the screening, I went up to Joe to tell him how much I enjoyed the movie. I was also at the afterparty, where I met Kris [Swanberg, née Williams] and Kevin, and at one point they grabbed my cell phone and started examining it. I couldn’t tell if they were making fun of me or what – they said they weren’t – but I remember leaving the party and going back to Los Angeles, and on the plane, I thought to myself, “Aw, man, I was too early to the ‘scene’. I should have made a feature in 2006, not 2000. I wish I could make a movie with Joe and these guys.”

SM: I am fascinated to hear that considering you and Swanberg have now made nearly a dozen films together. He must have sensed a mutual interest from that first meeting, no?

KO: I think it was Dan who had suggested to Joe that he put me in a movie because I would get naked *laughs*. So I sent Joe the movie my brother and I had made, Dropping Out [2000], and a couple other little things. Within a month, he asked, “Hey, what do you think about doing a movie this summer?” So I flew to Chicago, as did Greta [Gerwig]. We hung out and got to know each other, and helped Joe make this little film, Thanks for the Add! [2006]. We were just trying out a couple things in that. It’s a short about Greta’s character asking mine, a stranger on the street, if she can borrow my phone – it might still be available somewhere online.

SM: Are you proud of that film and the work you were doing [with Swanberg] at this time? Like, how do you see these organic, spontaneous early projects now that you guys have worked together for so long?

KO: I thought the short was great, super funny. Joe at that time was fresh out of school and already working on his webseries, so he was always making stuff. Just the fact that Greta and I would be in town for a weekend was enough for him to say, “Let’s try out this new camera and make something with it.”

SM: Greta Gerwig and Swanberg are both becoming figures of celebrity, with the Baumbach and Solondz movies increasing Ms. Gerwig’s profile steadily and Digging for Fire featuring every actor under the sun [with the casting done by Mr. Swanberg himself]. Did it feel when you began working with these people that you were outclassed by their star power or, like you were saying about Kris Swanberg and Kevin Bewersdorf, that you were just kind of outside their “scene”?

KO: No, because Joe’s so friendly and fun to talk to that it made getting to know him pretty easy. And, yeah, I do feel like I bonded with him. When we made Hannah Takes The Stairs, he rented a house for like a month, and everyone who is in the movie was just kind of living there. Greta had a room, Ry [Russo-Young] had her own room, and then the guys slept on air mattresses. Mark Duplass and I actually had the exact same mattress, and we both drove hybrids – I had a big man-crush on him. It’s possible we even had the same bedsheets.

We would all get up in the morning, and Kevin would make a big, communal breakfast. Ry and I would be talking about politics or something, and Joe would start telling us about how he was thinking of shooting the next scene. He and Greta were piecing the script together as we went along. Then we’d shoot for a couple hours until he said, “I got everything I wanted today,” and he’d go off and edit while Kevin cooked a big meal for dinner. The rest of us would walk to the liquor store, pick up a bottle of gin for gin-and-tonics – at the time, Joe was a teetotaler, not drinking or smoking – so it was me and Kevin bonding over “drinkin’” and “smokin’”.

The next morning, Joe would show us the footage he’d edited together, which made it so that we could play off those scenes when [we acted] that day and could keep track of where we were. That made the improv aesthetic really easy to pull off because Joe was so on top of things; and as a result, making that film and living in that house for a month was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a person, ever. Instead of feeling like an outsider when we started, I found it depressing when it ended.

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SM: Was there a sense that these actors were going to “hit it big” so soon after that film? It feels like the entirety of that cast has had a mid-range indie go to a major festival and distributor in the last five years alone.

KO: I definitely had the sense, looking at Mark and Ry and Andrew [Bujalski] and Joe, like, “Hey, everybody here is a filmmaker except for Greta,” but she had only just gotten out of school. But you could tell that she was special, you know? Her stuff in LOL, even though they were mostly just these phone messages, are so engaging and interesting to listen to. She’s able to make that happen as a performer…even before we finished Hannah, Mark was asking her to be in Baghead [2009]. There was a sense that everyone who worked with her was just going to want to keep working with her – she was just going to keep “taking the stairs,” in quotes *laughs*.

SM: “Greta Gerwig: Still Taking the Stairs.” I’d see that documentary in a heartbeat.

KO: Anyway, the fact that I had worked on things like Spongebob Squarepants was something everybody seemed to like. It made me feel like I brought something valuable to the table.

SM: It felt like you had your foot in the door of something major and professional. The work that you do in animation, and especially that your brother has done in animated film, is in a whole other league of productions than the kinds of movies those filmmakers were used to in 2007.

KO: Right, exactly. And for years after that, working on other things together, I would think about making Hannah: “That was the high point. I have yet to have another time where there was so much fun.”

SM: Hearing you talk about this with so much fondness reminds me of a conversation I had with Todd Rohal last year when he was telling me about making Rat Pack Rat [2014]. He worked with a bunch of close friends on that film, like the actors Eddie Rouse, Robert Longstreet, and Steve Little.

KO: I actually know Steve from when we were writers on a show called Camp Lazlo! together. I think I met him before Todd did, so it’s been fun to watch [Mr. Little] get on Eastbound & Down, and then start to be in a ton of movies, including Todd’s. That’s happened for a few people I know, which is so great.

SM: I bring up that conversation because Todd has a habit of giving his friends the lead roles in his films and directing them to excellent results, especially those who are not traditional leading types, like Steve or Eddie. With Uncle Kent 2, you take the lead, just as you did in Uncle Kent – did you ever imagine yourself as the star of live-action features? That’s a lot of individual responsibility, especially in contrast to something like a writer’s room on an animated television show, which is hugely collaborative.

KO: Usually, when I’ve had the opportunity to star in something, it’s either because I wrote the movie or it’s literally named after me *laughs*. I like the animated show I work on now a lot, especially because they gave me a week off to go make Uncle Kent 2. I think it’s all about balance for me. The most independent and lonely thing I do is a series of new comics, one every day, in 2015. It’s called “Cat Agent,” and they are all on Tumblr.

SM: “Cat Agent,” who appears in Uncle Kent 2, is a decidedly goofy character. Do you see yourself as a purely comic actor?

KO: I’m not “dramatic,” really…

SM: And yet you have these intense, kind of electric, uncomfortable moments in Hannah and Uncle Kent.

KO: Yeah, thanks. You know, when we made Uncle Kent, I thought that people were really going to find it funny. But then we’d screen it and people would come up to me afterwards saying, “That movie’s really sad.”

SM: Although that film is what I would describe as “melancholy,” that would be an unfair label for Uncle Kent 2, to put it lightly. How have people who know the first film been responding to the sequel?

KO: The filmmakers I’ve met who see Uncle Kent 2 really seem to enjoy it. I was just in Baltimore, Maryland, and a bunch of us were talking about Uncle Kent 3. Joe goes, “I should direct it!” which is a thought I also had. I think it would be so funny to go back to the same style as Uncle Kent after people see Uncle Kent 2.

SM: He won’t do the sequel, but he would do the threequel?

KO: That would be really funny, I think. But back to what you were asking: the film came around so organically and over such a long stretch that it felt like the right way to make the movie. There were a lot of different versions of it: one in which I spent the whole film on a train; one that took place during the apocalypse. Originally I brought it to Joe to see if he wanted to direct it, but he couldn’t at the time because he was so busy. So he said, “You don’t really need my blessing to make it, it’s your life, but you have [my blessing] if you want to get another director to make it.” I didn’t really want to do that until Andrew Bujalski was like, “Well, I don’t want to direct it, but you have to make this movie.” That was when the idea for the opening scene came to me as one in which I pitch a sequel to Uncle Kent to Joe, and Joe saying no, but hey, go ahead and make it.

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SM: Right. That scene plays out in the actual film, except that Joe’s character basically says, “I don’t believe in sequels.”

KO: Joe was the one who said that he did not want to say “I’m too busy,” he wanted to say, “I don’t like sequels.” That felt more realistic to his feeling about it at the time, and it was perfect because I’m not the kind of person in real life to go, “Ah, c’mon, man – just make some time and do it.” But if he was to say, “I don’t like sequels or reboots,” I felt a lot more comfortable debating with him for the scene.

SM: How strong was the element of improvisation in this film in comparison to the movies that you had worked on with Swanberg and Rohal [who appears in Hannah Takes the Stairs] before?

KO: I had written the outline but a lot of the stuff with Joe came from him, like the thing with sequels and a moment where a bag rips. I imagined that sequence as fifteen minutes where I was very stoned and trying to get something done – I kind of wanted to make people walk out of the movie with this sequence that was way too long and had something happen towards the end of it, just before it changed [into the final hour of the film].

SM: The movie has so many guest stars, celebrities, and other filmmaker peers of yours in it. How many favors did you have to call in just to get the film made?

KO: It wasn’t that bad, really. There were a lot of people in town for ComicCon, and I mentioned that we had a big group scene at the end that needed a lot of people. People like Sophia [Takal] and Larry [Michael Levine], they didn’t even know they’d be in more than a scene when they arrived. I just reached out to some people, a couple said no, but a lot of people who were available and wanted to do it came by, even if they were confused by it.

SM: Uncle Kent 2 won an Audience Award at SXSW this year, so it’s obviously a crowd-pleaser [and since, it has been picked up for distribution by Fandor and Factory 25.] If it were to lead you to more significant roles in the mainstream, and given that you have this full-time work as an animator on several major series, would you take big offers without buddies of yours involved in the projects?

KO: Nope!

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