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Tribeca ’08: Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland and Spencer Vrooman on “This is Not a Robbery”

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05022008_thisisnotarobbery1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

When Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland and Spencer Vrooman had to come up with a title for their first documentary, “This is Not a Robbery,” they looked to the René Magritte surrealist painting “This is Not a Pipe” for inspiration. While there was very little that was artistic about the robberies attempted by the film’s subject, J.L. “Red” Rountree — who merely went into a bank and handed a teller an envelope with the word “robbery” scribbled on it — there was something positively surreal about the fact that Rountree was 86 years old when he decided to first rob a bank. Rountree died in 2004 after starting out with great success in the oil business and ending in prison, though not before a series of incredible twists and turns of fate led the octogenarian to turn to a life of crime. Jansen, Kurland and Vrooman recently sat down to reflect on Rountree’s legacy, how they got cozy with law enforcement and how they’re getting away with things of their own at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

How did “This is Not a Robbery” come about?

Adam Kurland: Basically, we came across the story in the L.A. Times obituary section and I was just fascinated by this guy’s life. There were so many questions left unanswered by this story that I just wanted to know what happened. Lucas, Spencer and I have all known each other since we were really young. Lucas [and I] were both living in New York and we decided we were going to do a doc on this guy and plan the whole trip, got everything together and met up with Spencer in Los Angeles.

Because you’ve known each other for so long, did you guys find out anything new about each other while working so closely together on a film?

Lucas Jansen: If you basically live off somebody else’s nose for three and a half years of your life, even if you’ve known them since you were a little kid, you find out more about people. I think anything you want to know about Adam or Spencer or me, you could ask any of the three of us and you’re pretty much covered.

AK: But the truth is that the three and a half years making it were also huge periods of time where we changed drastically. It was a long process, a difficult process and an amazing process, but I would say the people who started making this movie are not who we are now necessarily.

Spencer Vrooman: It’s like going from “Saved by the Bell” to “Saved by the Bell: The College Years.”

I’m assuming that you’d never been to Central Texas before, where there are such great natural characters, as you discover in the film — what was that experience like?

SV: We’re very much big city boys, as painful as it is to admit it, but when we went down, people took us in, were completely generous all along our travels, even people we weren’t used to being friendly to us, like police officers and the wardens of jails. Everyone was so accommodating…there’s a broad interest in this story that I think led people to want to help us because they wanted to learn more about [it].

05022008_thisisnotarobbery2.jpgWhile the story of an elderly bank robber is quite funny on the surface, was there anyone who you talked to who didn’t have a sense of humor about Red or the crimes he committed? You mentioned that Red’s family didn’t want to talk much following one of the screenings.

SV: We really hit very few obstacles. The thing about [Red’s] family, they just didn’t know Red, so they weren’t appropriate for the film for that reason. Any estrangement had taken place earlier in Red’s life and was unrelated to the robberies. As far as anyone else, probably the worst reaction to Red Rountree was the bank teller who developed the phobia of elderly people. And even with her, we shared a lot of the information we’d found out about Red’s past history and I think she may have taken steps towards reconciling [her fears and memories of being robbed] after discussing it with us. Part of the fun thing is Red lived two lives — one as a law-abiding citizen and one as an elderly criminal — [and] we have been able to show people who only knew one side of Red the other side, and I think they come to understand it better. That’s been a huge part of the process for us.

One of the most clever conceits of the film is the timeline, which shows how Red went from a man who made a fortune in the oil business to someone who decided to rob banks, but not necessarily in that order. How did you come up with the chronology?

AK: It was in post-production when we realized that we were going to go back and forth. We all love Akira Kurosawa and “Rashomon,” which used that back and forth. It was obviously an unconventional style of filmmaking where you were going back to a point that happened before. Coming into the post-production, we knew we had to find some similar way to that to tell the story.

SV: Once we had the time wall [a series of interludes throughout the film that mark the time in Red’s life by using framed pictures of Red], we were good.

AK: We went through a couple different transitions that went from the past to the future, from the future to the past, and we eventually came up with the idea of this wall in a room that could’ve been the audience’s room or Red’s room or any room, really — time flies on it as if someone is trying to put these back in order.

The film also has bits of the audio interview Jim Lewis conducted for an article in GQ. While that must’ve been a bit of a holy grail to have his actual voice for the film, how much did you want to rely on it versus finding your own story?

LJ: Process-wise, we found all of the other elements of the story came to us before those tapes, actually. We finished our shooting process before Jim Lewis offered the tapes to us — they were an after-the-fact revelation. We’d already got the chance to fall in love with all of our secondary characters and had to fight to find ways to tell the story with the secondary characters before we even got the tapes with Red. We went through a slow uncovering process of getting into those tapes and falling in love with our lead character in a whole new way that we could then retell.

So now that the film has premiered, what has the festival experience been like for you guys?

LJ: it’s been a thrill and we’ve only had limited screenings for other people. We’ve kept a tight lid on it and to be able to open it and show it to so many people and get the response that we’ve gotten has been incredible.

SV: I think when we jumped into the project back in 2005, our attitude was kind of like, hey, Red Rountree at 86 with no previous criminal experience started robbing banks, well, then fuck it, at 23, with no previous cinematic experience, we can probably make a documentary film about it. And now we’ve got that feeling like we’re on the way out of the bank with our envelope… which probably means at any second, we’re going to get caught and locked up for the rest of our lives, so we’re just enjoying this short high now while we have it.

[Photos: “This is Not a Robbery,” Andrew Lauren Productions, 2008]

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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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