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Chris Eigeman on “Turn the River”

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05082008_turntheriver1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

One of Chris Eigeman’s favorite performances in his directorial debut, “Turn the River,” comes from an actor who has all of three lines and plays a pimply faced donut shop employee who tells his potential customers that he already drank the coffee. It’s the kind of droll one-liner that one could easily imagine rolling off Eigeman’s tongue during his heyday as the quick-witted star of Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming” and Whit Stillman’s trilogy of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco.” But “Turn the River” isn’t the intellectual yukfest one might expect from an actor with a reputation for snark and smarts, but rather the heartfelt character study of Kailey (Famke Janssen), a mother forced to give up her son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), who attempts to raise enough money through hustling at pool and poker to steal him away from his father. It’s an ill-conceived plan, to be sure, and Eigeman doesn’t pull any punches in its execution, nor does he shortchange any of the group of fine character actors he’s assembled, including friends like Matt Ross (“Big Love”) and Marin Hinkle (“Once and Again”) or veterans Rip Torn and Lois Smith. Eigeman recently sat down to talk about his first film as a writer/director, how pool scenes are like sex scenes, and the moment when he realized he was no poolhall hustler himself.

How did “Turn the River” come about?

I’d written a few little pieces of it, a couple of scenes here and there. I did a job with Famke as an actor called “The Treatment,” and as she and I were working together, it was a really good experience. I’d never known [Famke] before — she has a great cowboy spirit about her, both in her life and in her work. There’s a fearlessness about her. After that film finished, I went back to writing [“Turn the River”]. I wrote one of the bench scenes between the mother and the son, and it was incredibly evident I was writing for Famke — there’s something very defining about her, and it became a real path through the woods, having that as a sort of lodestone.

The interesting thing to me about the film was that it seemed more interested in the characters than the story it was telling. Were you conscious of that?

I’m a Jesuit when it comes to structure, but I really think that structure is defined by character. Everything serves that master. People will ask me “Why did Kailey do this?” I always wanted that if I turned the film off halfway through, the audience’s reaction would be “Well, I really loved Kailey and I really loved Gulley and I really loved Kailey and Gulley together, but I think this is a terrible plan of hers.” And that was something that propelled me through.

05082008_turntheriver2.jpgDid you feel like this was the right time in your career to direct your first film?

I don’t think there’s ever a great time, but a lot of this was born out of the fact that when I was just starting out, working with directors like Whit [Stillman] and Noah Baumbach, those scripts were bulletproof. Those were great scripts, and I got incredibly spoiled by that because as you go down the road in all sorts of mediums, you aren’t going to have those great scripts all the time. So I set about trying to write as well as I could, and that would be defined by every actor in the movie being able to do good work and to have fun.

This is a little bit of a technical question, but I remember listening to the commentary on “The Hustler” DVD and they were talking about how hard it was to shoot the pool scenes. Was that a challenge for you?

Oh. My. God. Are you kidding? It was truly fucking terrifying. There are a number of films out there with pool, but the two biggies are “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money,” [and] it’s interesting, you think of “The Hustler” as being wall-to-wall pool, but actually there isn’t that much. There’s a lot at the top and there’s a little at the bottom and that’s about it. There’s a huge middle section. I knew that wasn’t going to work for us because that can take an incredibly long time. The other way is “Color of Money” and we could’t do [that] because we just couldn’t afford it. Scorsese shot every possible point of view on that pool table, [with] those huge, long tracking shots with Tom Cruise singing “Werewolves of London” in synch to the music and sinking three shots. We didn’t have the support structure to try and pull something like that off, so we found a third way which was very controlled and very loose.

The controlled was we built maybe 20 or 30 pool shots — we took pictures of them, put them in a notebook and named them: Ann, Betty, whatever…all the way down. So we had these shots, and the last shot that Famke makes — Zelda — and we knew that was the shot that we would end all the pool with. Famke got good enough and John [Juback, who plays Duncan, the pool czar of the picture] is good enough that we could just let them play. We’d shoot 360 degrees and let them go.

I was always interested in how much I had to show. It can get really uninteresting watching balls fall into pockets — it’s a lot like sex scenes, here [what’s] going is infinitely less interesting than [the expressions on] people’s faces.

This might be my naïve view of the films you were making with Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, but this one had a similar feel of “let’s get together and make a movie in New York,” which it seems fewer films have these days. Has that changed over time?

05082008_turntheriver3.jpgIt has absolutely changed and I genuinely miss it. I worked very hard to bring these people together [on this film] and to try to form a tribe for at least a little while. To me, I look back on Whit’s films, on Noah’s, on “Kicking and Screaming,” [and] not only is that a movie I really like, but the experience of making it was so enjoyable. I never wanted to just be an actor for hire — that’s actually why I liked doing television a lot. Doing a year on “Gilmore Girls” was fun because I liked the tribe [aspect] of it. It’s like extreme sports — at this budget level, you’re either going to cling to each other with affection and hope for salvation or you’re going to knife each other. Somebody’s going to get poked in the eye. In this case, it was the former, which is great — if my next shoot is half as enjoyable as this one was, I will die a happy man.

This film has already surprised some people because of the kinds of characters you played as an actor. What have you made of the expectations that people have of you and the reception this film has received?

Look, if you’re an actor and the first movie you do, you’re wearing a cummerbund and cracking wise in a Noël Coward template, that is what people are going to assume and you can’t blame them. But yeah, I know. All the pool stuff came about because when I got out of college, I was shooting a lot of pool and thought I was good. I came to New York, and when I wasn’t parking cars to make money, I was shooting pool and getting my ass handed to me by people who were smarter, better players and very crafty about taking money out of my pocket. I still play, but I won’t play for money anymore. It’s important to know, if you’re in the land of gambling, what you’re good at. [laughs]

This was during the time of New York City when there were some great poolhalls that are gone now — you could easily spend a day shooting pool against people who were kind of famous. There was a poolhall called Chelsea Billiards which isn’t there anymore, but it was the last great room in Manhattan and I lost to this one guy so many times [it] drove me crazy. He was incredibly good, but I didn’t realize how good until I was out a lot of money and it turns out it’s this guy named Kid Delicious, and he just wrote a book about what it is to be a pool hustler. That’s where all that came from.

Are you planning to go back to acting any time soon?

I think basically I am an actor. Sometimes I’m an actor who’s writing and sometimes an actor who’s directing, but I think if I’m forced to fill out a form for my tax return, actor is the first thing I write down. I try not to fill out forms, but when I do, actor is what I write down.

[Photos: Famke Janssen in “Turn the River”; writer/director Chris Eigeman – Screen Media Films , 2007]

“Turn the River”opens in New York on May 9 and in Los Angeles on May 16.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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