(This article originally appeared in Short End Magazine. For more press, interviews and reviews on the fascinating topic of Adam Bertocci, click here)
The Idiosyncratic and Fantastical Adam Bertocci
by Noralil Ryan Fores
17 December 2007
Adam Bertocci sits in the dark, the glow from the microwave clock and the street lamp outside slightly light the room. This, he mentions, is his contribution to energy conservation.
"When I recycle, I'm a cheap asshole. I want my five cents back," he says, not joking but with a level-hearted kindness. Bertocci's also the type of guy who doesn't drink coffee; chuckles deep at his own jokes; runs self-proclaimed communist sets, where everyone pitches in to create the film; is close to and cares about his character creations "in a frighteningly real sense;" holds to libertarian politics when he gets political at all; rarely follows popular music, even when college dorm mate Will Butler came up the artistic ranks with Arcade Fire; hopes that his mind is a vast imagination where his characters, can in perpetuity, run and play and fall in love when necessary; and jokingly says he loves blaming other people for his problems. He's not the type of guy, however, who keeps his notes organized, a pernicious habit that, he says, should cause his biographers some aggravation.
"What do you imagine your biographers would be like?"
"This all depends on if I become best known for the films that I direct or the films that I write—or for, as I currently predict—dying in some very public and very humiliating way."
There's something immediately familiar about Bertocci—an intellectual air also marked by a pragmatism and lack of affectation. Maybe it's that he's got that wit of a Northwestern University grad, or perhaps that he's as much a film fan as its maker, or maybe it's just that he's so easily genial. Whichever of these it is, Bertocci talks in flow, with little pause, his ideas as quickly formulated as expressed, each of them complete, interconnected and fervent.
"I can have a long, boring conversation about Shakespeare until pretty much everybody is sick of talking about the damn play," he admits.
As for his passion with film, Bertocci started writing scripts as early on as the sixth grade. It was later in middle school, however, that he'd get a career idea kick in the pants. "When they re-released the Star Wars trilogy back in the late 90s I was in eighth grade, and I can still identify the shot in the big battle at the end that—it's not even an important shot in the grand scheme of things—something clicked for me that some dude in the 70s got paid to make that shot and that there will always be those people who make movies happen."
In 2000, working with childhood bud Kent Sanderson, Bertocci formed Guy in His Basement Productions and released the premiere short Young Jedi: High School Student. "It's terrible," Bertocci grumbles on the other end of the phone line. "Terrible." Since then GIHB has released the animated hybrid parody Run Leia Run, fantastical romcom Pat Gets a Cat, quarter life searching indie The World of the End and the atypical day-in-the-life comedy about a man-boy filling his day with mundane activities during a blackout, Sparky.
"I still today try to exemplify the spirit of some guy working out of his basement," Bertocci insists. "I don't ever want to move away from that creative, independent spirit."
In all GIHB works, there's a playfulness with the lines of fantasy and reality. It's as if Bertocci is constantly jumping from one side to the other, blending and separating the two at will. His animation, in particular, best defined in Run Leia Run, showcases inspired idiosyncrasies, balancing the lines between parody and full on oddity.
"I don't know if you looked up any of the history of Run Leia Run--who's in it—but Han Solo is played by a guy from the Arcade Fire—" Bertocci starts.
"You would think there'd be more buzz about that," he mulls over. "He lived in my dorm for two years. I just knew him as the guy from my Russian class who helped me with my homework. He's a very nice, genuine guy—"
"Who's good with Russian too? Were you guys both really good with Russian by the end of the class?"
"I was terrible," Bertocci says. "Russian was something I took for fun, but I didn't end up being good at at all."
"So Anna Karenina in Russian, not a possibility for you?"
"I had enough trouble with the conjugation, but I have read Anna Karenina and interestingly, Pat's last name in Pat Gets a Cat is Levin, and that comes from—"
Currently in development on the short film Brooklyn Force, a study of morality as seen in black and white by hipsters confronting gentrification, and with his comedy script Wreck the Halls in post-production wrap, Bertocci's in that fighting place at the beginning of a career right now, leading to what point, he doesn't yet know.
SM: Talking about your stories, particularly Sparky and The World of the End, there's a quintessentially innocent narrative driven primarily by a comedic underline that has within it an honest sentiment.
AB: You just graduated to the honors level in Bertocci study. I tend to use the word 'innocent' quite a lot to describe my projects. I joke that it's because being named Adam I'm always trying to get back to the Garden of Eden. I take great pride in being named after the guy who fucked things up for all of humanity.
I guess I consider myself a good-hearted and innocent person who wouldn't have felt out of home in the vision of the 50s, that we're all awe aspiring, that doesn't exist anymore and that never existed to begin with, of happy suburban people, living with their nice families and nothing wrong in the world. Ever. But, of course, it wasn't like that. We just think it was because we want something to cozy up to and say, "Wasn't it better back then?"
I'll give you another example. Recently I've been wrapped up in the works of P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote, among other things, the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Are you familiar?
SM: I don't know the works myself.
AB: He wrote about a very idealized world of Edwardian England. It was all about the rich, upper class twits who never seemed to work, were always making and breaking engagements and for whom life was always one fun scrap after another. People love those stories because they are quintessentially innocent and exist in their own Garden of Eden. Even if you were rich in Edwardian England, no one was ever that rich or that carefree. One of the reasons (the stories) are so timeless and so loved today is because they are not actually of that time. They're an idealized world that happens to vaguely resemble a place in time that actually existed.
SM: …On that, as a good place to start, where did the story for Sparky come from?
AB: A little film festival in Canada was putting together, very quickly, a program of shorts about the blackout, and I happened to have a mini-DV camera around the house that summer…All I had was me, my apartment and some spare time. There was never any written script, though I knew all the scenes that I wanted to do and what order they would come in.
The thing about Sparky is that I joke that I'm embarrassed by it, but I really think it's a hoot. It was ahead of it's time in two ways: Number One: YouTube didn't exist back then, and people who were watching Internet video back then were nerds basically, people who were ahead of the curve. Today, everyone is watching videos just like Sparky…Secondly, a lot of the humor that I find in it is making the joke last entirely too long. Like the dancing. The dancing is deliberately way too long. Even my mom is embarrassed by it. And, the Listerine in the mouth for all of thirty seconds. In my mind, when a joke goes too long, it's funny, then it stops being funny, but if you hold it long enough, it becomes funny again. I'm finding that Family Guy likes that kind of humor, and while Family Guy has gone downhill very quickly after coming back, I'm glad they like the same kind of humor I do.
I only made Sparky just for that one festival and just for fun. The fact that it played at a couple more fests and people on the Internet seemed to like it is icing on the cake.
SM: The interesting thing about Sparky for me is that there is a tendency in comedy to use an ironic, sarcastic or self-deprecating humor. It's something completely unapparent in this character. If anything, Sparky's relationship, particularly with [love/friend interest] Jaime could be delusional—
AB: Oh, it's absolutely delusional. This has happened to me in my own life more than I care to think about. Sparky uses this time to play the good friend and be the good guy for Jaime, make sure she's alive and five minutes after the phone call's ended she's more or less forgotten that he's alive. He's very kind-hearted and that appeals to me, but I'm sure in his own mind he's scored so many points that have never really been on the table.
SM: And, the last line, "It was the best blackout ever,"…We're such a technological society, and we've become so dependent on communication via electronics, whether that be through the television, radio or Internet that there are definitely times where it's hard to remember how to just be ourselves. And, Sparkly was really hounding it out there for a good 30 seconds of the short, wanting his television. Then he chilled out, walked around, danced in the apartment a bit.
AB: I'd actually say that was one of the better blackouts of my life, even discounting it inspiring Sparky. I had a pretty fun adventure that day. I was working in a cubicle, in insurance—which kind of sucked—and so it was fun to get the day off. I walked down 33 flights of stairs, and there was no way for me to get back to the suburbs. So I walked from 38th Street [New York], and I had to crash with my half-sister, who was in the 80s. I got to see a whole lot of the city, and at that time, even being close to the city, I'd never really explored it much. [Editor's Note: Bertocci grew up in Bronxville, NY]…A lot of the blackouts that I've had to go through have mostly been frustrations, whereas with that blackout there was an adventurous quality. Being a little bit lost in New York, wandering around with nothing to do but explore and enjoy myself for a 50 block walk.
SM: So, while you walked 50 blocks, and there was an element of adventure in that, Sparky's adventure is just figuring himself out.
AB: If there's a message to Sparky--God help me—it's that there's a certain value in enjoying the everyday moments with oneself. You see it in Pat Gets a Cat a bit as well. This character is very lonely and very friendless. There needs to be a sense of enjoyment and happiness with oneself before anything else can fall into place.
Here we continue to talk about Pat Gets a Cat, a story that follows a young man who imagines that his newly adopted cat is the young woman he saw at a local library.
…Pat Gets a Cat is the only personal romance that I've ever written. I love romantic comedies, and I always wanted to do one. And, it was very important to me before I left Northwestern to do one movie that was conventional, or at least conventional enough for me; that had a beginning, a middle and an end, one of each and in that order; that had characters that we shot from a traditional three angle set-up. I wanted to prove that I could do that.
As for the relationship aspect of Pat, there are three relationships going on. There's the relationship with himself, the relationship with the cat—which is the reflection of the relationship with himself—and although we don't get into the story of him and the girl, they meet, they become friends and possibly there's romance in the future. I deliberately left that a little bit open-ended.
There's a thing in musicals that happens all the time, and I forget who came up with it. You can look it up. [Editor's Note: Okie dokie. Even without Bertocci explaining it, we say it's Oscar Hammerstein II.] It's called the conditional ballad. [Editor's Note: We're right!] It's generally with a man or a woman with the man singing the song. When a man meets the woman and starts falling in love, you want to have the big, great love story, but you can't actually do that because the guy's known the girl for like—five seconds. They had that one conversation. So what they do is—and, again I wish I could tell you who came up with that. I'm so mad. If you mention this in the article, you have to look it up and say that I remembered. [Editor's Note: Okie dokie again. Bertocci totally remembered it was Oscar Hammerstein II. He was all over it!] But! The conditional ballad. It's always, "If I were to fall in love with you or if I were with you or for a girl like this…" and it postulates that a relationship is already there and sings about that idealization…It's a good trick, and it works.
So, the thing about Pat Gets a Cat and relationships is that it's more about Pat understanding and coming to terms with what is missing in his life and practicing to have a relationship. And, by relationship I don't even mean romance because this is a guy who doesn't even have experience being friends. For me Pat Gets a Cat has never been about either friendship or romance. It's neither one or the other…The best kinds of romance really grow out of friendships, and I've never believed in what happens in the evil "friend" zone where one person says to the other, "We can't be in a romance because we're friends." I believe there's less of a boundary between the two than some people are willing to really think about because people are so eager to compartmentalize. It's amazing how you go 20 years down the line and see married couples who've been together for ages, and they're very willing to refer to each other as their best friends. For Pat Gets a Cat we get a character who's never really had so much as friends, let alone romance, and he has to start understanding what it is to have people in his life. He needs to practice, and that's what the cat is all about. He needs to have the experience of giving all that he has to offer and care for something else or someone else.
SM: That's one actress I want to talk about particularly, and you've worked with her on [Pat Gets a Cat and The World of the End], and that's Emily Mark. How is it that you go about working with her, and why is it that you're drawn to working with her?
AB: Emily and I met socially first and really connected in a way that I don't really—I have very few close friends, but with Emily and me it was quite instant. One of the first times we hung out together, she mentioned that she was looking to do theater, and I said, "Oh, I'm doing a movie. You can audition." And, then I promptly forgot that I said it.
All my life I've been making movies with my friends because who else are you going to do it with? When you start making movies you say, "Hey, friend, be in my movie," but it's weird when a friend comes to audition for you. My producer Dana Silver, he and I both knew Emily, and he knew that she and I were very close and that I cared about her very much…I told him it was important that he be very critical about her audition because I did not want my feelings to taint something that could be important.
So, I'm putting on my best stance of being critical, and she comes in and says, "Hi." She auditions and blows everyone in the room away. When she leaves, I just say, "What just happened?" I'll tell you, and she knows this, the thing that made Emily get that part, and what I think makes her very special in the capacity of a lot of young actors, is that so many of the girls coming in, even though they'd read the script, and I tried to explain what we were going for, so many of them were not playing a cat. They were playing a girl playing a cat. There was some part of them that was unwilling to commit or didn't want to look silly or were trying to be cute and impress the director. What Emily did better than anybody else by a long shot and made her right for this was that she just came in, and she was a cat. If she had a fit, that's because that's what the cat wanted to do. We had all the girls who came in play improv games. I think improv is a great thing for actors, and I like to test them out and see if they have creative minds. So, at one point I set food out for her, and the look on her face, the way she pounced on the food, was such concentration. It wasn't about, "How can I look funny getting the food?" It was about, "Oh, food! Pounce."
I'm always very proud of my casting. I've been very fortunate to work with some talented and nice people, and I always like to recast the same people when I can. Sometimes it's not possible, of course. Carolyn Siegel is my muse I like to joke. With the exception of Pat Gets a Cat, when she wasn't at Northwestern anymore, she's been in all my films, and she'll continue to be in all my films. I deliberately wrote The World of the End specifically for her. I know it, and she knows it. When I sit down to write a movie, there's always space for Carolyn.
SM: Wrap-up question: What is one question about your filmmaking that you've always wanted to be asked but never have been?
AB: How do you sum (the films) all up? What are they all about? And, I would answer that with a long, slow shrug. The big thing that defines my filmmaking is a lack of definition. I do cartoon and then I turn around and do a guy dancing in his apartment then an experimental romantic comedy then a traditional romantic comedy then a drama and a cartoon again. I feel like I've always been so afraid of being pigeon-holed that I make a conscious effort to break—I don't like copying anybody, not even myself. Which I realize is ironic when you look at some of my common themes and trends and the fact that I rip off George Lucas every three or four years.
In the end it comes down to love of the movie. If there is a line that encapsulates everything about my filmmaking, it's the filmmaker character [from Love: The Movie]—there's Carolyn Siegel again—saying, "Make your movie the way you feel is right. Don't worry about mistakes or cost you incur. Just create something." I use that to spur me on and just create what I'm interested in at the moment and do it in a way that allows me to say something. To say something that's uniquely me because if I don't, who's going to?
For more information, visit www.guyinhisbasement.com.