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Interview: Neil Burger on “The Lucky Ones”

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09302008_theluckyones1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

Despite all the talk about Iraq that may be generated by “The Lucky Ones,” Neil Burger’s latest film is far more interested in what’s going on in America. In fact, it might be the more foreign country to its trio of soldiers (Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña and Tim Robbins) who return home to find crowded bars spellbound by “America’s Got Talent,” and conversations with civilians limited to a series of empty “thank you for your service” platitudes to fill the air. But that isn’t to say that “The Lucky Ones” isn’t hopeful — when what’s supposed to be the end of a long journey for these war vets becomes the start of a cross-country trek, “The Lucky Ones” becomes a pleasantly old fashioned road trip movie where the destination isn’t as important as the company you keep. Fortunately, it’s good company to be in, which surely must’ve been a relief for Burger both as a storyteller and in a more practical sense, since “The Illusionist” writer/director shot much of the film in a cramped van as it passed by and stopped in real locations across the country from New York to Las Vegas. I recently spoke with Burger about his diverse filmography and what he learned from being on the road before the camera rolled and long after.

You wouldn’t guess that “The Illusionist” was directed by the same person that made your first film, “Interview With the Assassin.” In the same way, “The Lucky Ones” seems to bear little relation to “The Illusionist.” Your next film [“Dark Fields”] is in the sci-fi genre. Is there some connection between them for you?

They’re related in a way. Obviously, “Interview With the Assassin” and [“The Lucky Ones”] are very much about America. “The Illusionist” is a departure from that, but the thing that links it, I think, is that like the other two, they’re about people that have no power trying to somehow empower themselves. In “Interview With the Assassin,” it’s that cameraman and even the guy who claims to be [the second gunman in the assassination of John F. Kennedy] — they’re trying to make themselves important in the world. Whether he really did it or not, he feels like he hasn’t gotten his due, and the cameraman is looking for some roll of the dice to bring him up in the world. In “The Illusionist,” it’s different, but it’s [Eisenheim, the magician played by Edward Norton] using his skills to move through this very hierarchical society that wants to keep him down. This one’s the same. These three people come back, they’re like nobodies. They’ve got really no power and it’s like how do they make their way through this cultural/political landscape.

09302008_theluckyones2.jpgI also thought that “The Illusionist” and “The Lucky Ones” might share a bond as far as inspiration was concerned — when you came back from shooting “The Illusionist” in Eastern Europe, did that give you a different perspective on America?

That’s exactly right. You have that shock of reentry; everything that was familiar is suddenly foreign. [In the film] these three characters find that they’re strangers in their own land. They’re completely disconnected from the average folk here. Coming back here from “The Illusionist,” I was shooting over there about six months and completely wrapped up in this 19th century world. You come back and it’s eye-opening. It’s nothing that you don’t know, but somehow you’re seeing it with fresh eyes. In the case of this story, I thought, “What better way to look at the country now than through the eyes of three people that have been out of the country for some time?” Particularly serving their country as soldiers — I thought that put a more provocative spin on the whole thing.

One of the film’s most interesting aspects is how you employ the three soldiers largely as observers when they’re in public. The film as a whole actively invites the audience to look at the characters the soldiers encounter and possibly see themselves or people they know. How much did you want to make America a character in this movie?

The initial idea was that it was always going to be more in the background, a cloud hanging over them. In what we did, those guys just want to have a good time. They just want to be normal and get back to their families, but instead, they find their life isn’t that easy and they end up being strangers in their own land. But it was always walking a very fine line between the humor and the seriousness, and dealing with whatever political issues that were coming up. It was always [part of the movie that] they weren’t going to talk about the war; yes, they’re soldiers, but first and foremost, they’re Americans and they’re human beings. To me, the war is just one small part of what’s going on in this country and it’s more a symptom of something larger, so that’s where I wanted to keep it. It has its place, but it’s not the only story and not necessarily the main story.

09302008_theluckyones3.jpgYou actually took the road trip yourself before you wrote the script. Did you have any moments of reconnection with America that surprised you along the way?

The thing that I picked up…I don’t know, it’s kind of this one small thing. [slight laugh] Something that you see a lot — you see fundamentalism and you see pornography, sometimes in the same shopping center or either side of the highway. You go blasting down a Missouri road and there’s a megachurch and an adult outlet store or something like that, facing each other. And I thought my God, that sums up the complexity of America.

You’ve had to hit the road again to promote the film — have you learned anything from the reactions you’ve been getting?

I have actually. People have been really with it. There’s been this collective experience; people are laughing and then they’re crying at the end. What I realized, which I think I knew when I was writing it, because I’d always intended to use the humor to approach the serious issues in a more roundabout way, and what I learned from this — there are some outrageous moments in the movie and they seem to bring people’s emotions to the surface. It roils them up, so that when there’s something that’s more serious, more somber, more heartbreaking, their emotions are available to them and they feel it all the more. The big laughs knock the scab off so when we probe the wound, it’s that much more painful. [slight laugh] It was interesting to figure that out.

[Photos: Michael Peña and Rachel McAdams; Tim Robbins; director Neil Burger on set — “The Lucky Ones,” Roadside Attractions, 2008]

“The Lucky Ones” opens in limited release on September 26th.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com 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….

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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.

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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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