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Mark Leyner on “War, Inc.”

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05222008_warinc1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Cult author Mark Leyner hit his stride in the ’90s with meta-fictional novels (“Et Tu, Babe,” “The Tetherballs of Bougainville”) and short story collections (“My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist,” “Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog”), all hilariously overstimulated, fantastical parodies of mass culture and ephemeral trends both highbrow and low. He created and voiced the audio series “Wiretap” (about a 19-year-old’s conversations with pal Kim Jong Il), had columns in magazines like Esquire and George, and co-wrote two books of answers to unusual medical questions with Dr. Billy Goldberg (“Why Do Men Have Nipples?”, “Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?”). It was only a matter of time before Leyner’s peculiar sensibilities wiggled their way into cinema.

Co-scripted by Leyner, John Cusack and “Bulworth” screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, “War, Inc” is an absurdist Iraq war satire set in the fake country of Turaqistan, where a privatized war has transformed the landscape into something sinister and cartoonishly capitalistic. Cusack stars as a Tabasco-addicted mercenary who, under the guise of a trade show producer, has been hired by Halliburton-esque clients to kill off the competition. Though it’s Leyner’s first foray into film, the project’s high profile marks his sudden resurgence of sorts, which is why our interview kept meandering back to his literary roots.

Years ago, I’d read that Cusack wanted to adapt and direct “Et Tu, Babe,” your take on celebrity culture and self-deification. What happened with that project, and why did it take so long for you two to finish a project together?

I wrote a couple of episodes for a show that Peter Berg was doing on ABC called “Wonderland.” During that period of time, I guess Johnny had read “Et Tu, Babe,” but he called me up and asked if I’d like to work with him on it. We started doing that and became good friends, and the screenplay ended up being… actually, I don’t think it’s accurate to call it simply a transposition of a novel into a screenplay. It’s so different. It’s almost one of these things where it’s “inspired by.” I wouldn’t want to just recapitulate something I’ve already done. It’s probably going to take a while to set up and make. It’s a huge undertaking, kind of Wagnerian and epic. [laughs] So knowing that, we went on to write a more manageable screenplay, almost like a chamber piece in comparison, called “Pipe Dream.” Then we wrote “War, Inc.” with Jeremy Pikser, and it was unclear for a while what we were going to do first, and “War, Inc.” sort of won out.

Unless it were animated, I can’t even imagine how “Et Tu, Babe” would visually translate with such improbable, stream-of-consciousness imagery as giant marble babies or the steroid-addled you.

That’s one of the things that made Johnny and I so completely, obsessively entranced with doing it. We’re constantly adding to it and making it more impossible all the time. It’s going to end up being a 50-hour movie. We actually thought about doing it in a series, like Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” But I’ve had work of mine animated, and when you think about how to do what I do, animation comes to mind almost first. One of the great tricks for me to teach myself over this past couple of years is how to actually translate my sensibility and aesthetic into a movie. It’s a tricky thing — you can’t start dumping tons of rich prose into a movie. The way to do it is to densely layer the visual field of a movie with ideas, to keep a high-pitched kinetic expression of those juxtapositions I like, and the sense of being the most shocking thing and the most inevitable thing in the world at the same time.

0522208_warinc2.jpgYour last novel was 1997’s “The Tetherballs of Bougainville.” Why haven’t we seen another since?

I made a conscious decision to step back and try something else for a while, and got caught up in it. I was writing about a book a year, or every two years, and I felt like I was in a cyclical production process. I loved doing it, but it felt like I was producing work with this cadence — like an automobile company, a new model every couple of years. I was so personally associated with the work as a character in the books, which was my doing. I’m now working on my first book of fiction since “Tetherballs.” It’s a book of new myths. It had occurred to me that there hadn’t been new myths for quite a while. It just seemed like the most ludicrously hubristic, arrogant project to take on, coming up with a new mythology. The gods and goddesses all live in this high-rise in Kuala Lumpur on the top couple of floors. That’s their Mount Olympus, all their opulent greed in one of the world’s tallest high-rises.

How does your idiosyncratic style work with two writing collaborators? Are there characters, scenes or details in the “War, Inc.” hodgepodge that are specifically yours?

Sometimes I think my purpose is as a saboteur when I’m working with other people, derailing what they’re trying to do or taking things to a ludicrous extremity. But Johnny and I have a great working relationship based on never saying no to each other, being yeasaying enablers. If one person writes something, and the other doesn’t get it, like it or understand it, we just encourage it more. When Jeremy joined us, it was more of the same. We work so closely and cross-pollinated each other’s work so much that sometimes it’s hard to remember who did what.

The name Yonica Babyyeah has you written all over it.

Some things are surprising, though. I’ve really tried to be scrupulous in not saying who did what because I think it’s best if there’s a collective creative entity. But since you brought that up, that’s a great name. That sounds like it could be a name from one of my books, but that’s actually Jeremy’s invention. He’s a wonderful machine for churning out odd and wondrous names for characters. Some of them are based on Pig Latin.

As a collective voice, your politics are obviously in sync when satirizing the military industrial complex or the privatization of war. But what do you want people to take away from the movie beyond some yuks? Are you concerned the film preaches to the choir?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. My feeling about the movie is that it’s more radical in its form, spirit and aggressively unhinged anarchy than in its small-“p” politics. At this point, for a movie to come out and satirize the debacle of the Iraq War isn’t particularly novel, courageous or interesting. I think the movie forces people to go on this ride that I hope will cause [them] to question how they look at things, to celebrate their own unorthodox ways of being in this world. To me, those are the ways that a movie or a book or a piece of art could radically affect someone. It’s more in that sense than about any specific issue or policy decision, you know what I mean?

05222008warinc3.jpgSure. I asked because it’s an atypically angry focus compared to your novels, where politics are usually one small facet of a wider cultural view. Speaking of which, how do you feel about this election year?

My work generally tends to be an all-out, 360-degree subversive take on everything, most of all my own notion of myself as a son, father, husband, human being and male in this culture. So it’s unusual to be associated with something that has pointed, more localized politics to it. As far as the election goes, this is sort of a corollary of what I’ve been saying. I’m very skeptical about electoral politics in this country altogether. To me, it’s so dependent on and supportive of the moneyed elite in this country that it’s very hard for me to get particularly excited about anything that happens in either the Republican or Democratic parties. Having said that, there are moments when [Barack] Obama seems to me to be a reasonable, intelligent and well-informed person, unusually so for an American politician. So now and then, I get that feeling, whatever that Obama feeling is. But on a whole, I’m skeptical about it all. I thought of myself as kind of an anarchist all my whole adult life, from the days when I was 15 or 16.

I’ve heard your books called “post-postmodernist” in the past, but where can you go past postmodernism? Doesn’t it eat itself and everything in its way by design?

It’s not a term I’ve ever applied to myself, and in some ways, it’s a fundamental misinterpretation of my books, to concentrate so energetically on the irony. I know this will sound peculiar or perverse to you, but I always thought of my books as being earnest and genuine. “Et Tu, Babe” was born out of my absolute certainty that a writer’s life was solitary and insular, and I was happy with that. I love reading and writing, it’s my whole life. “Et Tu, Babe” was a fantasy of what seemed to me not only impossible, but probably inimical to being a writer — celebrity and power and things like that. It’s very important that what I do offers someone something useful in some way or another. And I think you’re completely right, you pose a very good question. If all you’re doing is pointing out in a clever or snide way the impossibility of creating something of value, then it consumes itself and ceases to be of any use to anyone.

[Photos: John Cusack as Brand Hauser; Hilary Duff as Yonica Babyyeah; Mark Leyner – “War, Inc.”, First Look International, 2008]

“War, Inc.” opens in limited release on May 23.

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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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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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