Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez on Sundance 2013 Film 'C.O.G.'
As the Sundance Film Festival continues in Park City, we continue our series of interviews with the writers of the Sundance 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition films. Today, we present our interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez, writer/director of C.O.G., based on a short story by author and storyteller David Sedaris. C.O.G. (which stands for "Child of God") marks the first adaptation of a Sedaris story to film - or more importantly, the first time Sedaris has given a filmmaker permission to adapt one of his stories to film. During our interview, Alvarez describes adapting a story from one of the most distinctive storytellers of our time, how his experiences with his first feature film shaped his approach to this project, and what Sundance means to him now after getting rejected with his first feature film.
Before we get to the interview, here's a short video introduction to Kyle Patrick Alvarez and his film C.O.G. from the Sundance Film Festival website:
Alvarez won the Someone to Watch award from the Independent Spirit Awards in 2010 for his debut feature film, Easier With Practice.
This interview was conducted via phone and has been edited for clarity.
Please describe your film C.O.G. for us.
C.O.G. is a dark comedy based on a story by David Sedaris, sort of loosely based on this story by David Sedaris, about this time that he spent in his 20s working the apple orchards of Oregon, abandoning the comforts of home on the East Coast in an attempt to get some kind of real experience out of life while doing hard labor on an apple farm.
You said it's loosely inspired. David Sedaris has such a distinctive voice, both literally and on the page, so how did you go about adapting his story into a screenplay to make it your own while staying true to that original voice?
Loosely inspired is almost too loose of a term. Some of the scenes are taken verbatim from the story and some of the dialogue is taken verbatim. You have this distinctive voice, both literally and on the page, like you said. My goal was to drop the literal 100% and not try to capture his physical tone in the adaptation or the casting. I didn't deliberately try to cast someone that didn't look like him, but I wanted to cast whoever was right for what the movie should be. And deliberately tell that actor, I don't want an imitation here, I'm not trying to create David Sedaris.
The movie takes place in modern day. There isn't any specific attempt to create David as a person because I feel like he's incredibly public, he spends most of his year doing book tours and readings all around the world. He has his audiobooks. He is an accessible person, I'm not creating someone from history. Part of my approach to David was to say, okay, let this movie exist in its own right. Let it be something that is indebted to David Sedaris' tone and inspired by it, that isn't trying to go out of its way to recreate him as an individual. I think even under the best conditions that would backfire [laughs]. Even if pulled off perfectly, it would still feel like a carbon copy as opposed to something inspired by it in its own right. What I did to translate that was not translate it at all. It was definitely one of the bigger risks with the film.
From a story perspective, what compelled you to make this story into a film? What personally drew you to it?
I first read the story when I was 15, probably, maybe 14. It stuck with me over the years. I mean, I'm a huge fan of David Sedaris, of course. Whenever I thought back on the stuff I have read of his, my mind always kept going back to this particular story. Even as I started going to film school, every once in a while, it would pop up in my mind and I would think, that would make such a good movie. Part of it was the actual physicality of it. It's very different from his other stuff. It covers quite a long span of time. It feels slightly less anecdotal than some of his work and the scope of it is bigger. The story has a lot of characters, a lot of locations, and a lot of emotional weight to it, too. It has a deep religious theme that runs through it, and I thought it handled that really deftly and really humorously. I thought it approached religion in a way I hadn't seen yet in a film, and dealt with that intersection between religion and sexuality in a really funny and interesting way that I thought would be interesting on screen. It had a handful of moments that I thought, if you could build a movie around those beats, you would hopefully end up with something really special.
Where do you see yourself in this film and this story?
I certainly see more of myself in my first film in terms of where I personally relate to it. What I see in this film, you want to always feel comfortable with who you are. I don't mean that by way of sexual identity. You always want to feel that you're at the best stage in your life and you have everything figured out, not in some kind of angsty way. You just want to say, “Okay, I'm doing the best I can for my life right now.” I think usually I'm wrong about that. I think I'm usually kind of a mess on the inside. I was interested in that dynamic.
Around the time I read this story, I was in high school, this is a strange little anecdote, but it made me think about the movie a little bit. I remember sitting at a party with some friends and I was talking about how junior high was the worst experience of my life and how depressed I was. I remember a girl I was close friends with said, "You know, that's funny. I thought you were one of the only people that had it figured out in junior high." It was like what you can wear on the outside and how it's different from what you really are on the inside and what does it take to strip that away from you.
The character in the film starts off kind of arrogant, he has this extreme confidence to him, and he's entering this situation thinking, “Okay, I'm here.” Part of the humor of the first half of the film is, which is a very Sedaris quality which is, “Well, I know what I'm here for, I'm sort of great, look at me, don't you think I'm awesome,” you know, that kind of vibe. I think David does that in such a self-deprecating and funny way in his writing that I was interested at looking at the more naïve version of that. What if this guy really thinks that way about himself? What does it take to strip that away?
I think the movie tackles how he breaks down over time. He has this physical labor that starts to wear him down. After that, he has an emotional context that's lost, he starts feeling separated from home. Finally, all he's left with is this sort of spiritual awakening that happens or maybe doesn't, I leave that question vague in the film. I always joke, I'm an atheist until I'm on my deathbed. That's the feeling of the movie. I'd like to feel confident in my non-religious beliefs, but the truth of it all is we don't know anything.
There's definitely a deliberate effort to not put as much of my own life into it because I feel like I put a lot of that into my first film, and I wanted to step away from it a little bit and try to write a character that had a different voice than my own.
Tell us about your screenwriting process. Once you start working on a story, what steps do you take to get to a draft of a screenplay?
I write differently if I'm writing something original or if I'm adapting. For me, both my films being adaptations, I really do start with the material through and through. I know a lot of people say, you should read the book, then put it away and write it from your own voice. For me, the first thing I do is translate the story over into screenplay format, let me just take the book and put it in there. What pieces of dialogue can I use? I sort of format it in that shape. Not rigidly, not like, I gotta have every piece in there. I start laying it out that way. By putting it in that form, I start to see what works and what doesn't and what I need to strip away and what I need to add.
At the same time, I feel that, for me, screenwriting itself, and this will be somewhat heresy to say, I'm sure, but for me, the form itself is not the end product. I really respect the screenwriters that can write these beautiful screenplays that when you read them, they're beautifully written. That's not me. For me, if I know I'm going to direct it, I write a blueprint for other people to try to understand what I'm going to try to do. Therefore, I lose almost all prose, almost to a fault. I wrote my first draft of this script that was so bare of prose that people were not connecting to it, and I had to go back and rewrite it and put in some more emotional context for things and write some things out and give some things more descriptions because ultimately I'm writing it for myself, but at the same time you have to get it financed. It's that duality of: I'm trying to write the blueprint, but I'm also trying to write a pitch document at the same time. That was definitely a balance I had to learn in the process.
You said you had to add more to it to sell it, to get financing. Once you got financing, did you find yourself gravitating back towards a more stripped down blueprint? Or at that point, are you just going and it doesn't matter?
At that point, I'm just going, I'm adding stuff at the last minute. At that point, you almost move further away from it. And not to say I went through and heavily edited the script. But for me, in a dream world where I don't have to worry about financiers reading the script, I would just write: "He walks to the door and opens the door." But if it's a suspenseful scene, you kind of have to write: "He hurriedly walks to the door and grasps at the doorknob." You have to create that world in there, which for me, I'm not that comfortable with because I just think that's why I love adaptations so much. There are lots of great writers out there, and I don't consider myself an equal to David Sedaris even in the slightest. I see adaptation as a process of understanding the format of film, and saying, if I think this story makes a good movie, what is it in the story that I think makes a good movie, and trying to hold on to that and put it into this new format.
My first film has even more differences compared to the original story because that was a four-page article that I turned into a feature. This was a 25-page story, so it was definitely an embarrassment of riches for me in some ways to have so much to pull from in terms of dialogue considering my first go-around. I did add two major characters that aren't in the original story. Context of characters changed a lot. David encouraged that. He said whatever you need to do to make it work as a movie, you should do. I took that to heart and really ran with it.
When you step into the role of directing the film, how do you see the screenplay differently?
Where it really starts to change for me is when you start to talk to actors. I don't know if this is the right phrase to use, but you have a higher level of accountability for it in some ways. An actor may say, well, why am I going to do this? Most times, people reading the script won't give you those types of questions. I trust people in my inner circle of friends to give me those types of questions, but an actor is usually one of the first people to ask those questions. Once you cast an actor, that person is responsible for the character now, even more than you are. I find as soon as I start directing, I actually have to give up the writing side of it. There are other people determining how these words are going to work.
I write, direct and edit my films, so I never find that I switch hats. I find that there's a transition period across the three roles. As a director, if I find a great location, but the door is a little farther away this way and it doesn't make sense, not only do I have to reblock it on the storyboards but reblock it on a writing level, it's just different situations. Unless you're making a studio film and you can create what you want, the literal quality of screenplay has to go away, and what you have to say is what's the best thing I can bring out of this scene in this moment and try to do your damnedest, especially when you have an hour to shoot three pages. That happened a lot.
You hear all these stories all the time on movies, they're like, oh, they were rewriting and it was a mess. For me, I didn't rewrite much, I think the final film reflects the script quite a lot, even more so than my first film. My first film I'd say was twenty to thirty percent improvised. I think this film's maybe five percent improvised. There's not much in it at all that wasn't scripted. It was the nature of working with more theater actors that were all very talented ad-libbers, certainly, but I found the actors on this film treated the script more directly. They were a little closer to the words, which I thought was interesting to see because my first film was very different. With my first film, I let the actors change the words as they needed to, and on this film, the actors followed the script more closely.
The first scene of the film we shot was a scene between these two characters, and in the film, one character that Corey Stoll plays, in the book and in the script, he was kind of more unhinged. We started shooting it that way and Corey did a great job with it. Then we shot this one take where Jonathan Groff's character says to him, “You're the closest friend I've made out here in the weeks I've been out here,” and Corey's character responds, “Oh, that's a sweet thing to say.” In the script, he says it in jokey, baby voice that's written in the Sedaris story. One time, I said to Corey, “Try saying that line like it really means something to you, like this really has an effect on you.” He read it that way, and it had so much more weight to it and worked so much better. There was this sort of chemistry that was created between them. Suddenly, every time we had a scene between them, I felt I had to do that. You can see it and you could feel it, that was better. So if I tried to stay true to the script and kept the character wacky, every time I tried doing that, it never worked.
So I would go at lunchtime and start pulling that stuff away and writing in more sincerity, and what was supposed to be these two people at odds with each other for the time they are in the movie together actually became the opposite. We're shifting it where they're actually really into each other, both on a sexual and an emotional level. Then it has this fallout effect of what are their motivations later on when this and that happens. For me as the writer and the director, it was the constant juggle of making sure the motivations made sense as we were changing it while shooting.
These are the kinds of things that would have come out during rehearsals easily and we would have been on set exactly as we rehearsed, but on a movie like this with our budget, I met most of the actors six hours before we started shooting. It's just the nature of making a low-budget film. You find it on set and you do your damnedest with the time you have and that's the risk you take on a low-budget film.
Was the editor in you happy with the result of the footage you got?
Oh, yeah. Honestly, the things when I watch the film I'm happiest with, those were the things that changed while we were on set, things we came up with while we were on set. Even little beats in the movie that production goes insane over because you see something great and you say, “We need to add a scene where this happens.” There's this whole subplot in a beauty salon and we shot in an actual beauty salon. On the ceiling above the shampoo chairs, they have these posters, like a Lisa Frank style poster of these kittens with wings on them. So when you're having your hair shampooed, you're staring at this poster, and I thought it was so funny that I decided we have to add a scene in the movie where the character sees this. We're already shooting ten pages in one day, and I say, we've got to add in three more shots here and relight, and people freak out. But the truth is it's one of the best beats in the film.
I think I learned on this film, the more you emphasize what's there in that moment on set that feels really authentic, those are the things that are going to feel special in the film because they're truer. And I came from the school of heavily storyboarding everything. My first film, I storyboarded every shot. While I still think I'll always do that, I think you almost create all those materials for yourself so that you're prepared to drop everything and come up with something better if you can. I'd never really followed that rule of thought. I was so much more rigid on my first film. One of my goals with this movie was to make something that was faster and looser and had a different approach than my first film.
What was the most challenging scene or sequence of this screenplay to write, and how did you finally solve that problem? Was it on the page or was it on set?
The last scene of the film, which is the last scene in the book, I raised the stakes a little more than what was there in the book. At some points, I felt a little uncomfortable. This was someone's real life, and even though he gave me a certain amount of freedom to adjust it as I needed to, you start saying, “Where is the line where you might be pushing it too far?” You don't want to change the nature of what someone's real life was. I do feel a duty to David and hope when he sees the film that he feels that it at least captures some truth of what he went through and what he wrote about. Changing that last scene to raise the stakes and make it a little bit more intense I know makes for the better scene.
I would say the most difficult thing will be when David watches the film [for the first time] and maybe has some thoughts on specific scenes or not. While writing it, I really tried to trust my instincts even more so than I ever had in the past, and feel like, if this needs to be here, it needs to be here. I didn't really have any specific scenes I had to keep on revisiting to make better.
There was a scene when they are in the character Curly's house (played by Corey), and he's about to take the David character to his bedroom, and in the script and in the story, it's written that the character is very wacky, he's doing all these affectations and speaking in all these kinds of funny voices. It was very Sedaris-like in the way he was portrayed. We were shooting it on set and everyone was doing a good job, but it was just not working. That's when we broke early for lunch and I sweated in the corner of a room and rewrote it and rewrote it.
We rehearsed it once or twice before we started shooting it, and it was all working really well except for this one beat. Curly has to go over to the David character and say, “You're a clever little boy, did anyone ever tell you that?” That was motivated by a previous line of dialogue I had to cut. The actor is asking me, why is my character calling him clever if he hasn't said anything clever? Right there on the spot, I had to come up with a line of dialogue. It was genuinely one of my proudest moments ever as a director because the line of dialogue ended up being so perfect and true for the character. Just those few milliseconds when an actor says, why am I going to say this to him? And you know you only have 30 more minutes to shoot this scene and you have to come up with a line of dialogue to make the scene work and stick together, and then to have that spark. That was a moment for me where I was still very much the writer. Ultimately, it ended up being probably my favorite beat in the film. If there's anything I learned from this movie, it’s that I have to be willing to improvise because really good stuff can come from that.
David Sedaris hasn't seen the film yet. Are you nervous about his reaction? Is there anything you hope he'll say to you afterward?
He's going to see it for the first time at the premiere at the festival. I've offered for him to see it before, and I think there's part of him that is like, I'm going to get to see it in a big theatre, why am I going to watch it on a DVD on my laptop? That sort of approach I really admire and appreciate because if someone had made a movie about something in my life, I would be terrified to see it. I remember once I found out someone had made a short film and based a character in it on me, and I was like, I can never, ever see that, it would put me through an identity crisis. [laughs]
Of course, I want David to say, “It's so great, it's the best movie I've ever seen.” [laughs] But at the same time, what he's always said to me is this should be your thing and you should go make it your own. I think after seeing the film, if he can say to me, “I really felt like you made it your own and that's what I'm proud of,” that's the duty I have to him. If he likes what I did with it in terms of putting myself into it as a filmmaker and a writer, if he could appreciate those things, then I think I'll be okay. But of course, the fantasy part of me wants him to shake my hand and say, “I'm so thrilled I did this with you!" [laughs]
You never know the reality, and if he has some problems with the film, I need to be able to be responsible for those as the adapter. I would much rather have him be honest with me and say, “Hey, I liked some things, I didn't like others.” Maybe it will be the dream, maybe it will be somewhere in the middle. I would imagine it will be eerie and a little strange. We shot in some of the same locations he was actually in. I think in some ways, it will feel very similar, but in other ways, it will feel very alien to him because it's not someone who looks like him or talks or sounds like him. My hope is that he can distance himself in a way. Just knowing how he really loves movies, I'm hoping he can watch it and almost pull himself out of it for a second and see what he thinks of it then. That might take a few viewings on his end if he wants to figure it out [laughs], but I'm incredibly nervous about it.
It's one thing to premiere at Sundance, which is already making me anxious and excited, but it's another thing to have one of the people you admire most in the world trust you, nevertheless have to show them what you did with that trust. It's definitely something I'm eagerly anticipating.
Only a few more days, I guess, and you'll find out.
Yes, exactly [laughs].
What has been the most unexpected part so far about getting into Sundance?
I'm not sure unexpected would be the right word. My first film got rejected from Sundance. As soon as that happened, for better or worse, our movie became an uphill battle in terms of getting it seen. It's like, okay, you didn't play at Sundance, there is a little bit of that fatalistic, “F***, we're done,” you know? But this time around, there's the exact opposite of that, which is everyone has this energy of: "It's gonna be the next big thing." And I'm going in cautiously, like, "You know what? A lot of movies play at Sundance and do become the next big thing, but a lot of great movies play there and still have their struggles." I'm very well prepared to still push for the film and fight for the film to make sure it gets seen like I had to do with my first film. I'm trying to go in with my expectations tempered, knowing that there are some incredible movies playing there by incredible filmmakers, and I'm just honored to be a part of that.
What has never ceased to surprise me is how much the industry really does use Sundance as a barometer, and almost regardless of how the film is received, just that it's playing in Sundance is kind of enough for some people in terms of what it would mean for my next step. It's like the seal of approval, and they trust that. I think Sundance is very careful about what they program. It's easy to criticize it, but I think that they have a mountainous task, and I think they do a really good job. And I'm saying that even in the context of my first film having been rejected and that being a really difficult thing for me. I can only appreciate it all the more this time around. Now I can really appreciate what it means for this film and really know what it could do for the film. I would've had no context to understand that the first go-around. So in some ways, I'm grateful for that perspective.
We would like to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for his time and generosity, especially as he stepped away from his final editing sessions before Sundance to speak with NFS. We would also like to thank Jonathan Baron of Inclusive PR for arranging this interview.
Be sure to check out our previous interviews with Sundance 2013 screenwriters in case you missed them.
Have you faced the challenge of adapting material from such a well-known voice or writer? How have you approached the challenge of making the screenplay and story your own while staying true to the original tone? Do you have a favorite film adaptation that you think strikes this balance particularly well? Share with us in the Comments.