Gregg Turkington is an actor, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His character, Neil Hamburger – America’s $1 Funnyman – has appeared in films and television shows for more than twenty years, leading to his being one of the most acclaimed figures in contemporary comedy. Mr. Turkington is the producer and co-star, with Tim Heidecker, of On Cinema at the Cinema, which this week concluded its tragic Lucky Season 7, and the spin-off series Decker, recently abruptly cancelled, both on Adult Swim.
Entertainment, a feature he stars in and co-wrote with Mr. Heidecker and director Rick Alverson, had its World Premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The cast includes John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera, Amy Seimetz, and Mr. Heidecker. Entertainment has received near-universal acclaim on the international festival circuit, and will be shown in theaters and VOD through Magnolia Pictures on Nov. 13, 2015. In a rare out-of-character interview, Mr. Turkington spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about road tripping with Mr. Heidecker and Mr. Alverson through small-town California to prepare for the film; winding up in the series finale of CSI; and taking off Neil Hamburger’s signature glasses for the first time in public.
This conversation has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: When I saw Entertainment at its premiere earlier this year, you and [director] Rick Alverson were bombarded with absurd, goofy questions, but you always seemed to hold your own with people. It was impressive. Have you started to get that kind of nonsense on the street, as your profile’s grown?
Gregg Turkington: Do I get goofy questions on the street? Fortunately not. If that was happening, I probably would have hung myself by now. To be walking around, faced with that, would be too shitty. But sometimes I do get some questions so shitty that they take the wind out of my sails. People will try to be edgy by asking me something like, “When did you last take a piss?” And there’s no answer to this that would be of interest to anyone, you know?
SM: You have the strange fortune of both being involved with several highly acclaimed movies – like The Comedy and Entertainment – and, as Neil Hamburger, with comics like [the duo] Tim & Eric, Tenacious D, and that whole scene. So I would imagine it’s hard for journalists interested in one or the other, art films versus comedy, to figure out how to ask you questions in the first place that don’t invoke things like “anti-comedy,” or “meta-narratives.” As a critic, it certainly feels daunting for me – I can’t imagine I’m the first person to say that to you, especially with a film coming out that you wrote, produced, and starred in.
GT: The thing is that I wisely – and with no regrets – refused to do any interviews for the last twenty years unless they were in character. In character, I was always willing to be interviewed by almost anybody, it didn’t matter if they were big-time or small-time. I took a populist approach to doing them. That made me immune to most of that shit, though [interviewers] seem to be trying to make up for lost time *Laughs*. But I’ll tell you one thing: when you talk to a professional journalist from a big publication, these people ask really good questions. It’s amazing to me that you end up thinking about things and talking about things that you have not thought or talked about ever before. These guys really know how to get you going – and it becomes a pleasure to talk to them.
SM: The impression I get is that for years, it’s been a steady trickle of requests from journalists when you’ve got a new show or album coming out. But Entertainment is a complex and sophisticated project, nothing simple or run-of-the-mill about it, and – I hope this won’t offend you – it’s on a new level for you. It makes people think. Are you being asked for more interviews now about this movie than ever before in your twenty years in stand-up, music, or television?
GT: No, it’s more of a combination of things. First, you’ve made this movie with investors who want you to do as many interviews as possible, in order to drum up some press in the hopes that their investment can be recovered. These people were nice enough to roll the dice on our little movie, so the more interviews you do, the better when it comes to that. Then, there’s the thing that in order to get people to write an article about your movie, you have to talk to them – that’s how you get them to write the article. If you have this policy of saying, “Nah, I don’t want to talk about it, but you guys should write the article anyway,” they won’t write the article. So that’s the point of me talking and helping out with this.
Also, now I’m open to talk as me in general whereas in years past, I would say, “I’ll do a Neil Hamburger interview, but that’s it.” And professional journalists would say, “Are you kidding me? We can’t do that.”
SM: *Laughs* I love the idea of someone at Rolling Stone or the Los Angeles Times saying, “That’s not going to happen” to an offer to talk to Neil.
GT: *Laughs* It was ridiculous. But once people start to find out that you’re willing to talk, and you’ve formed this back-log of people who were trying to get these kinds of things going but couldn’t, now they’re ready to talk. I’m not sure why, but…
SM: Let’s start with the fact that your new movie is being critically acclaimed in every state and festival in which it screens. It was the same when I saw the previous movie you and Tim [Heidecker] made with Rick Alverson, The Comedy, at a screening the Sydney Film Festival in 2012. You lived in Australia for a while, right?
GT: I did, for five years or so, and I was born there to American parents, coincidentally.
SM: When I saw The Comedy there, probably forty people out of an audience of 150 walked out, but the remaining 100 gave the film a standing ovation. Then cut to this year, when Entertainment premieres at Sundance, and the situation was similar: some walk-outs, but most people seemed to agree that you guys have hit on something.
GT: We make these sorts of movies hoping to reach the kinds of people that will like them. I always realized and assumed that most people are not going to see these things, and if they do, that they won’t like them. But the people who might like them, the people that these crazy movies are made to resonate with, are the people who don’t like most of the movies that get made. And if those other people still don’t like your crazy thing, then you know you’ve really fucked up. So it’s been really nice to see that people who like Entertainment are getting super excited about it. They have great things to say about it and interpret it in ways that are so interesting to me.
SM: In a way, since you anchor the film, Entertainment is the apotheosis of the Neil Hamburger character. Hamburger was also at the center of The Big Ball with Neil Hamburger, a pilot you made with Mr. Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. How did making the movie compare to the TV experience?
GT: In both cases, my goal has been simply to do good work and hope that there will be some interest in it so that I can continue to work. In the case of the pilot, we had an idea for a completely different show and approached Adult Swim about it. They said, “No, we don’t want that, but we would be interested in a game show. Could you guys do a game show?” And we were like, “Uh…yeah, sure, I guess.” It wasn’t a dream project for us, but we did have a lot of ideas for where the pilot could have gone, like that it wouldn’t actually be a game show at the end and that it would veer off in these weird directions. So when it wasn’t received all that well by Adult Swim, it wasn’t like we’d just made the show we’d been hoping to make for all of our lives, whereas Entertainment was more of a dream project. If the idea for the movie had been shot down in flames, it would have been more painful, I think.
SM: But it wasn’t, obviously. How close to your original vision for the film is the finished project?
GT: It is almost 100% what Rick and I talked about originally. It is not 100% only in that the story has changed and the script was departed from quite a bit. Really, really different plot stuff going on than what was originally planned. And there are different people in it than we had talked about, a lot of characters were filmed and then eliminated during editing. But the main thing – the basic thrust of the movie – and the tone of it, which we wanted to get across, is exactly as we had seen and discussed it. I was interested in it being a grim art film with these bursts of humor that come at you, here and there. I’d never seen one of these types of art films that had extreme moments of humor built into them, and I thought it would make for an interesting rollercoaster.
That was one of the first things I discussed with Rick, and when I saw the final film, it was exactly true to the tone, vision and concept of the original idea despite things that had been different during the shoot. We did not have to compromise anything, you know? It’s crazy.
SM: As a fan of the kinds of movies you’re describing, I agree that that is seriously crazy.
GT: It is crazy that it got made. It was really hard to get made and I never really thought we would do it. I just thought we were writing a script and having these conversations, mostly for the hell of it. It’s hard to believe when something – I mean, a movie? – gets made in this day and age. It’s insane.
SM: I think you are right, so maybe you could walk me through this film’s strange path. It is my job to see the kinds of art films you’re talking about many times a year, and yet no, I’ve never seen a movie like Entertainment, this stultifying and upsetting drama punctuated by what I would consider violent comic moments. I mean, one minute you’re drifting through a sort of neon landscape with Joe Malina’s amazing colorization, like in a dream, and the next, you are being assaulted by [costar] Tye Sheridan farting with his armpits.
GT: When I see Tye performing that horrible act, it is the funniest thing in the world to me.
SM: Yes, it’s hilarious, but how do you pitch this kind of movie to people who might end up supporting it financially?
GT: Well, that’s the interesting thing: you don’t. I tried not to get involved in that world. The key is to find a producer or a team of producers who are committed to the film and that share your version for it, and who aren’t corrupt or trying to do something that might benefit them financially at cost to the film, artistically. We lucked out by finding the right people for this movie. They would go to visit investors that said, “We are willing to write you a check right now,” but that [the producers] could tell were not the right people to be involved with because they’d have ideas for how the film and how it should be made. There are all sorts of problems and it makes it really hard to find people both willing to invest and with the best interests for the film in mind.
Rick, Tim, and I originally started talking about this idea on the set of The Comedy. Then we took a road trip to write an initial draft of the script, followed by another road trip where we shot a bunch of test footage that was really similar in tone and look to what the actual film is. We went up to Modesto, in the Central Valley of California, where American Graffiti [1975, dir. George Lucas] was partially filmed.
SM: I grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley, on the northern edge of southern California. [The Central Valley] is a major character in Entertainment, in and of itself.
GT: Coincidentally, I’ve worked on a lot of projects that are sort of fictitiously based in the Central Valley, and I always found the area really interesting. It’s not that different from Oklahoma in some ways, very conservative people, with farmers and wide open land, but people don’t see California that way. There’s all this neat architecture there, too, and I feel like I could drive around the cities for days. I’ve always been weirdly interested in the area, so I took Rick and Tim out there to shoot a bunch of shit. We went to this hotel in Modesto where we shot a bit. We went to a tiki bar and shot some stuff there; and some more stuff on the side of the road, and at an old diner. Rick then took the footage, edited it into a five-minute teaser reel, and gave that to the producers. That really seemed to help them to show what this film could eventually be, even though none of that footage was actually used [in Entertainment.]
It was also good for the three of us because I had never shot stuff with Neil Hamburger out of character. Just having this footage to look at later, to think about what I liked and what didn’t really work, was really useful when we began shooting. So armed with that footage, the producers tried any way that they could to secure funding over the course of a couple of years. It also helped a lot when John [C. Reilly] agreed to be in the film, and then when Michael Cera agreed to be in it, because then people become interested in investing when they might otherwise have not been interested. “Great, I’d love to invest in the new John C. Reilly-Michael Cera comedy,” and then they read the script and say, “What the hell is this?” Then those people, and their investments, vanish.
SM: *Laughs* Not too many people did, in your case. You’ve got around thirty people listed in the credits at various stages of “producer” for the movie.
GT: We got lucky. One of the investors turned out to be someone who had been a Neil Hamburger fan for twenty years and had been following his career for the whole way. So he totally knew what Entertainment was all about and what it should be about. There were so many good people who came through for us, especially at the end of the process. I tried to stay out of that process for most of it, though. Tim, Rick and I would just text little ideas for scenes and things to one another; and we’d have phone conferences once in a while, just to tidy things up [in pre-production.] At the very end, just before we left to begin shooting, I met with Rick and we had a long, long discussion to make sure we were on the same page. That was so helpful that by the time we began shooting in Bakersfield, we were completely on the same page and it was very easy to get the actual work of the film done. There wasn’t a lot of squabbling over what Neil would do or anything.
SM: Neil Hamburger is both a character in the film and an alter ego in our world, the corporeal reality. When you discussed how he would appear and behave in the film, is it part of a reinvention of the character itself, or as part of the “real world” mythology you’ve cultivated as Hamburger?
GT: Initially, the film was supposed to be pure Neil Hamburger. But as we went on, it made sense not to be forced to stick to that. Neil Hamburger has twelve albums out and a bunch of DVDs, and I’ve done a million interviews where I’ve given his backstory in great detail. So if we were to stick to that story, then we have these rules and restrictions right off the bat to contend with.
SM: You would have had these self-imposed narrative restraints for where you could and could not go, as far as a more literal “Neil Hamburger story” interpretation.
GT: Yeah, and initially, I would say that I was clinging to some of that stuff, which was making certain things hard. Like I’d say, “We can’t do this scene because Neil can’t be seen without his glasses,” to which Rick would respond, “What the hell are you talking about? We can’t make a credible movie where he wouldn’t take these glasses off at any point.” But I was still stuck to what I’d been doing for the last twenty years, namely making sure that I wasn’t photographed as Neil Hamburger without his glasses. That was such a strong part of protecting that live character and recorded character. Obviously, though, this film is a very different kind of work, so I had to get in the mindset of not clinging to these things. Luckily, Rick presents quite a strong case for why some of this stuff was not particularly credible onscreen.
Over the course of a couple years we were able to find many different ways to deal with certain issues. For example, we didn’t know exactly what Neil Hamburger wears offstage because he’s always seen in a suit [when performing stand-up comedy.] Then there was the voice, which I can now admit being wrong about. At first, I thought that he had to talk offstage the same way that he does onstage, because, you know, that’s his voice. But clearly that voice wasn’t going to work for a dramatic film. So we had to start moving away from the Neil Hamburger character’s script, and that made things so much easier.
SM: Now that Entertainment has received so much critical acclaim, it’s getting a theatrical release, and you’re starting to become ubiquitous in movies and TV shows, the interviews you were once so reticent to do must also be adjusting in tone. I imagine your work being treated by journalists with more intellectualism and seriousness than ever; but the irony is that your specialty in shows like On Cinema and Decker, in The Comedy, and as Neil Hamburger, has been lampooning highfalutin entertainment. We started the interview [with segments unpublished here] by goofing off, but we’ve had a good and sincere conversation going for some time now. As your profile increases, do you have a preference for what kinds of interviews you’ll do, between goofy, “fun” conversations, and the more arty, intellectualized ones?
GT: Talking about projects in the way [you and I] have will never be and never was my first choice, though thankfully your questions weren’t bad. I have been goofing around with these kinds of interviews for twenty years or something, but I’ve done that shit for so long that it was getting a little tiresome. And honestly, it’s not even possible for me at this point to be the [Hamburger] character while doing these interviews. I just try not to strategize before an interview – in fact, on the contrary, I’ve just decided to answer questions when I’m asked them and not to worry about it. It wouldn’t make any sense now that we’ve seen Neil Hamburger offstage because we know now that he’s actually rather sullen and uncommunicative when he’s not performing.
SM: I have to admit that I’m surprised that that was not the case with you in real life. You’ve actually been responsive and engaged, seemingly, and it’s been a pleasure for me to talk with you. That’s got to help to raise the profile of your projects.
GT: Maybe so, but as I said, I’m not strategizing when I go into these interviews. I actually find this stuff very amusing because I was never gearing any of [these projects] towards a career with any kind of momentum *Laughs*. I’ve always assumed that the stuff I did would have, I don’t know, a few people that would like it, but I was not trying to parlay it into some massive career of doing bullshit. I’m only trying to do stuff that I myself like. If something comes along that doesn’t fit that mold, but it’s funny, or amusing, or weird – like being in Ant Man, for instance – I just think, “Really? Well, okay, that sounds interesting.” Or like the CSI thing, you know, stuff like that.
SM: Forgive me, because I should have done my research, but I don’t actually know what you’re referring to. What CSI thing?
GT: I was in the final episode of CSI ever, CSI: Immortality [2015, dir. Louis Milito]. I got a call to come in and read for it, and of course my first instinct was to say, “No, no, sorry, but I’m not coming in.”
SM: *Laughs* But it actually seems perfect for you, in an odd way.
GT: I didn’t go to acting school, and I’m not trained as an actor, but I went in for the reading. And they gave me the part in CSI and my name’s in the credits of the last episode. Now, that’s funny.