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Edward Norton Divides and Conquers

Edward Norton Divides and Conquers (photo)

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You get two Edward Nortons for the price of one in pot/philosophy comedy “Leaves of Grass,” written and directed by, as well as co-starring, Tim Blake Nelson. Norton plays identical twins — Bill, a buttoned-down Brown professor with a rising career, and Brady, a fast-talking pot farmer who never left the small Oklahoma town in which the pair grew up. When Brady gets into trouble, Bill finds himself trekking back home for the first time in years for what he’s been told is his brother’s funeral. The Kincaid boys exemplify the type of role that Norton seems to do best, showcasing his skill with the dialect and physical qualities of a character to make the twins two very believably distinct people. “Leaves of Grass” arrives in theaters after a roundabout route that started with a premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, followed by a screening at SXSW where it attracted enough attention that a new distributor came on board for a larger release. The deal ended up falling through, and now it’s returned to original handler First Look Studios. Back in March, I got a chance to talk with Norton about straddling genres, “Down and Dirty Pictures” and the current state of indie film.

“Leaves of Grass” lured you out of a sabbatical you’d been taking. What lead you to take a break, and what were the qualities of the script that drew you out?

In early 2007, I’d decided I was going to not act for a bit. Not in some big way, I was just trying to finish a script. Literally right when I was just starting to get a rhythm, I met with Tim, and he said “I wrote this with you in mind,” and all this stuff — “Read it. Read it. I think it’s going to tempt you.” And when I did, I was actually a little irritated because it was really original, and playing twins was something I felt like was going to be an unusual challenge.

Do you get that a lot? People saying “I wrote this for you”?

It does happen now and then. It’s a very nice compliment. There’s a certain number of people saying that just in the hopes that that’ll make you read it. But then there are people who really do seem to have taken a certain kind of inspiration… You can’t do something because of that — that’s not reason enough to do it. It’s a nice compliment, but someone might have you in mind for something that just doesn’t click for you. That’s just the way it is. It’s like chemistry.

09152010_leavesofgrass3.jpgTim, in a way, knew me well enough to know that it did straddle things I was interested in. So it was great. I like the fact that Tim was thinking of me for it, and that it was funny. It wasn’t like oh, I wrote this for you and it’s a psychotic killer who wears a swastika on his chest and has a split personality.

He’s directed films before as well as having an established acting career. Is there a particular benefit to having someone direct you who’s had a lot of experience in front of the camera as well?

Absolutely. Actors make very good directors for other actors because they communicate in a vocabulary that actors understand. I’ve worked with some really good directors who had absolutely no idea how to talk to an actor to get the best out of them.

Tim was initially inclined not to play a role in the film. Me and my producing partner insisted that he should, because he was so right for the part. He’s such a funny, good actor that it just seemed wrong for him not to do it. He had not directed and acted, and he was nervous about it. I told him it would be fine, and it was. He was great.

You’re both Ivy Leaguers — was there any particular satisfaction in getting to play an academic at one of those school, in such a rarefied department?

The character [of Bill] was based more on Tim than anybody. He was a classical philosophy major at Brown and he had this professor that he was devoted to and thought was a hero. He’s way more of a classicist than I am. I tried to give him a lot of crap about setting it at Brown and how ugly the buildings were there. We had some fun. The thing that we both related to about it was that we both came from worlds and backgrounds that were very distant from the Ivy League, those intellectual temples that those places are.

He had roots in Oklahoma and I had roots in the South — [there was] that sense of having one foot in one world and then going to school at a place like that. The Oklahoma character was a lot like certain friends of mine in the ’70s.

The film is a pot comedy with some big philosophical ideas. Did you ever worry about having that balance?

0915010_leavesofgrass.jpgNo, to me, that’s what makes an interesting film. I laughed a lot at “Pineapple Express,” but I haven’t thought about it since then. A lot of my favorite films are ones that straddle tone — “Raising Arizona” or “Fargo” or any of the Coens’ best stuff, or Spike Lee, the way that “Do the Right Thing” is wild, madcap, with crazy comic sensibilities but a deep message as well about race and balance. It’s very difficult to make those films in the studio system. They want more clean lines.

As someone who’s bounced between doing big studio films and smaller films like this, do you ever feel like you have a one for me, one for them thing going?

No, with studio films, even early on I got very lucky coming off “Primal Fear.” I had opportunities to do more commercial films, but also things like “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which was Milos Forman and was being made at Columbia Pictures at the time. I chose it over some other things, even very early on in my career, because he was one of my heroes. People don’t even think of Milos Forman’s films as independent films, but they were. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” they made completely independently, and no studios would buy it. They only got it bought at that absolute last minute because someone called in a personal favor. “Amadeus,” too, they financed independently with European money.

So he was, to me, one of the kings of independent art made at a grand scale. Even though that was a studio film, I thought it had more of an independent sensibility. Then things I wanted to do really badly, like “Fight Club” or “American History X” or “The 25th Hour,” those were all films I made inside studios. People think I’ve been in more independent films than I have. You know Peter Biskind? When he wrote that book — what was Peter’s book called?

“Down and Dirty Pictures”?

When Peter was working on that he called me and said, “I really need to get some time with you, to talk about those independent films in the ’90s.” I said, “I was never in any independent films in the ’90s.” He was like, “What! That’s crazy. You’re one of my fixtures.” He started listing though all these films, and I explained every one of those is a studio film. I think it rattled his theory a little.

09152010_leavesofgrass5.jpgDo you find that that’s changed? There’s a general assumption that the studios are going to be getting more conservative now.

Not going to be. It has gotten very, very different. There’s been a real compression, not just in the number of small labels and companies that are acquiring films or turning to filmmakers to make those kinds of films. The sensibilities have gotten very conservative in my view. A film like “Leaves of Grass,” even into 2004, the Fox Searchlights of the world would have been snatching it up based on the reaction of audiences.

Now it’s much harder to get a film like this even put out now by those labels. It’s almost like going back to when there was Miramax, and that was it. I don’t think ultimately [studios] are very good at it. They tried to model themselves on Miramax and threw up all these little arthouse labels, but the truth is they didn’t know how to do it efficiently like Miramax. They’ve overspent. They’ve chased Academy Awards and wasted millions and millions of dollars. So now they’re just making studio films again. The few that remain, have a small film feel but are actually fairly safe on the whole.

“Leaves of Grass” opens in New York and Tulsa on September 17th.

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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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