A shaggy dog story that B.J. Novak likes to inform from the making of his latest movie is concerning the day he thought he was having a stroke. Are you chuckling yet?
At first of 2020, Novak, a author, comedian and alumnus of “The Office,” had finally gotten the green light to make “Vengeance,” a dark comedy set in small-town Texas. That’s when he thought he was slurring his speech and called a colleague to ask if he was noticing it, too.
As Novak recalled, “I used to be like, you hear that, don’t you? And he said, I do. And I called my doctor and went in the subsequent morning for an M.R.I., and so they said you’re tremendous, and I spotted I’m terrified to make this movie.”
Like plenty of the humor that appeals to Novak — whose symptoms, rest assured, were completely psychosomatic — what’s funny about this story is a matter of perspective. You possibly can laugh at it in relief, when the person telling it is not any longer at risk.
This can be a theme that comes up steadily in “Vengeance,” which blends a few of the awkward cringe comedy that “The Office” was famous for with a knowing, cynical sharpness that will never fly within the hallways of Dunder Mifflin.
The film, which opens Friday, is Novak’s debut as a feature director and screenwriter, and he stars in it as Ben Manalowitz, a self-assured Latest York author. When Ben learns that a girl he dated casually — very casually — has died under hazy circumstances in her Texas hometown, he travels there in hopes of turning the story into a success podcast.
Though Ben arrives with selfish motives and a stereotypical sense of red-state values, he grows enamored of the dead woman’s family (played by Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara and Dove Cameron, amongst others). His investigation also leads him to an astute record producer (Ashton Kutcher) who exerts an ominous influence over the town.
For Novak, “Vengeance” is an ambitious try to step out of his sitcom comfort zone and see if he could make it as an Albert Brooks-like leading man. As he said of his acting résumé, which has included small roles in “Inglourious Basterds” and other movies, “I’m very much a reaction-shot guy. I’ve never been a point-of-view character.”
“Vengeance” can also be considered one of a small variety of original comedies that can receive a theatrical release, and getting it made required a level of commitment that Novak had never expected.
“I actually felt like a madman on the corner,” he said. “I’m going to star on this movie, and it’s a comedy but additionally a thriller but additionally a love story. Nevertheless it’s also about how technology does this to us. I actually thought I used to be nuts, but I kept going.”
One afternoon in June, Novak was relaxing within the patio of a hotel in downtown Manhattan, where he’d presented “Vengeance” on the Tribeca Festival. For the primary time in several months, Novak said, “I haven’t been under some terrible cloud of writing and editing and fighting. I actually prefer it.”
Nose to nose, Novak, who turns 43 on July 31, comes across as easygoing and effortlessly humorous. Describing his life as a Boston-area transplant now residing in Los Angeles, he said, “Everyone in L.A. assumes I live in Latest York, which I take to mean: You’re Jewish, right? Or, I haven’t seen you shortly.”
But there’s an intensity that colours all his anecdotes about “Vengeance,” whose central premise he had been kicking around for several years.
“We live in divided times, quote-unquote, because we communicate completely on our own timelines,” he said. “It was from my experience dating and being a somewhat shallow one who didn’t really know what he was missing until it was too late.”
Novak added, “Every yr that went by, it became a more topical film, which I didn’t ever intend it to be.”
Between 2015 and 2018, Novak said, he took research trips to Texas cities like Abilene and Pecos, in search of to dispel his misconceptions about an element of the country he assumed could be unwelcoming.
“I assumed that these huge dudes with beards and pickup trucks could be very suspicious of a Hollywood blue-state guy, and I discovered the precise opposite,” he said. “It’s the warmest culture I ever found. I went to Easter dinners and other people would show me the poetry that they had written.”
Novak returned from his travels with the muse for what would develop into “Vengeance,” and with the intention that he would play the lead. “I wrote the role to be not possible to forged with anyone but me,” he said. “You already know, superficial with a possible hidden heart, blah blah blah.”
Though the movie will be equally scathing in its satirical treatment of snobbish urbanites and credulous country folk, Novak said that the “Vengeance” screenplay benefited from lessons he learned while working on “The Office.”
Specifically, he said the sitcom taught him “the arrogance to throw away your best joke if it didn’t feel authentic or damaged the character long-term — for those who play an emotional moment truthfully, the laugh might be more satisfying later.”
That said, Novak also needed to remind himself it was OK to depict his “Vengeance” character with some positive attributes — an approach he would have never taken at “The Office,” on which he, Mindy Kaling, Paul Lieberstein and other writers portrayed its supporting miscreants.
On that show, Novak said, “We were too shy to pitch anything redeeming, so we played the least redeeming characters. We were all allergic to that within the writers’ room.”
The forged for “Vengeance” grew to incorporate Issa Rae, who plays a podcast producer Ben is hoping to impress; the singer-songwriter John Mayer, who plays considered one of Ben’s self-centered Latest York friends; and Kutcher, who previously employed Novak as an on-camera accomplice for his MTV prank series, “Punk’D.”
Kutcher said he was particularly impressed with a protracted monologue that his character delivered, about individuals who appear to care less concerning the lives they lead than the digital records of them that they leave behind.
“If you take a look at human behavior, and the obsessive nature of chasing that dopamine hit from posting every moment we expect is interesting or cool or funny, you realize his theory has merit,” Kutcher said.
Also, Kutcher said, he appreciated that Novak was open to letting him play his character with a mustache. “I just saw him having a mustache. I don’t know why,” Kutcher said.
But as production moved forward, Novak became increasingly anxious about feeling that he needed to carry the movie because the leading man, setting off his panic attack. It was on this time that he reached out to Mayer for what Novak described as “handsomeness coaching.”
Mayer has been a longtime friend of Novak’s, dating to “The Office.” (In an email, Mayer explained that he allowed the show to make use of his song “Your Body Is a Wonderland” in return for a Dundie Award.)
Mayer said he couldn’t remember all of the suggestions he offered Novak, but considered one of them was to offer up alcohol before he began shooting. “Firstly, you have got to place drinking away,” Mayer said. “I do know people wince just hearing that stuff. But that’s the reality.”
He continued, “I believe I discussed getting the suitable haircut, basic stuff. But how sweet and vulnerable is that, for B.J. to ask before filming what advice I could give him?”
A number of weeks into filming, production was suspended for several months due to pandemic. At times Novak found himself juggling duties on the film and his FX on Hulu anthology series “The Premise.”
“I filmed the FX show after which I went back to filming ‘Vengeance,’” he began to say, then corrected himself. “No, I used to be editing ‘Vengeance’ while I used to be writing. It was a large number, and I had Covid.”
“I took beyond regular time, because I used to be writing poorly and editing poorly because my brain was bad for just a few weeks,” he said. “They were each going badly at various points because I couldn’t balance them and I assumed I could.”
Now “Vengeance” arrives in theaters on the heels of the blockbusters “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” at a time when many other low-budget comedies and dramas about more earthbound matters are being released on to streaming platforms.
Jason Blum, the chief executive of Blumhouse, considered one of the businesses that produced “Vengeance,” said the film could have just as easily received a streaming release.
“I can’t let you know we didn’t contemplate that throughout the pandemic,” he said. “We contemplated every possible distribution outlet, ever.”
But, Blum said, his company has had success with movies from writer-directors who blended comedy and thriller genres, like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” and he was hopeful that “Vengeance” might find an analogous lane.
“This movie is strictly the form of movie that individuals say they wish to see,” Blum said. “If it does well, it’ll open a path to place other original movies in theaters, too, not only movies based on existing mental property.”
For Novak, the theatrical release is a chance to indicate “Vengeance” to the identical people he hopes it captures, and to find out in the event that they appreciate how he has depicted them.
“I actually need Texans to prefer it,” he said. “I desired to make this Texans’ favorite movie. I even put a Whataburger in it. I remember seeing Dunkin’ Donuts in ‘Good Will Hunting.’ As a Bostonian, you simply felt so seen.”