In the indie comedy “No Burgers for Bigfoot,” Jonathan Grant wears five hats at once: director, producer, writer, editor and star. And he pulls of the feat flawlessly, creating a genuinely original work of fun that deliciously skewers the lethal pretensions that doom too many would-be film projects.
Playing the low energy, clueless, would-be auteur Michael Justice, Grant invents a boldly original screen persona of a man who couldn’t detect a scent if he was locked in a perfume factory. In putting together a horror short with both “a message” and a Sasquatch, the hapless Mr. Justice winds suffering a variety of outrageous fortunes ranging from being forced to accept financing in exchange for product placement on a bovine insemination service to getting hauled off in handcuffs by a singularly unimpressed police officer.
Film Threat caught up with Grant at his Norman, Oklahoma, home to discuss this delightfully offbeat project.
What was the inspiration for this film?
In a nutshell: Insecurity. Throughout my entire life I’ve encountered insecure people and been fascinated by the different ways that insecurity affects them. There’s a tremendous amount of humor there, but you have to know what to look for. I have a psychology background, so maybe I see things a bit differently, but if you really pay attention you can tell when people’s insecurity comes out. For the longest time I thought no one else would be able to appreciate comedy based on those subtle moments. But then I saw the original UK version of “The Office” several years ago and it was like I had found my soul-mate…or some other less creepy-sounding simile. To realize not only did someone else “get it,” but that such a show could be successful—that blew me away! It gave me the confidence to utilize it in my own comedy. Thank you, Ricky Gervais!
How did you conceive the character of Michael Justice, the clueless and vaguely sleazy filmmaker at the center of the story?
First off, I would respectfully argue that he’s not sleazy, he just looks like it! I really think Michael Justice isn’t even totally aware of what sex is! He may look like a child-molester, but that’s because he is probably ignorant of that entire concept.
The ego in men has always amused me. We are born with a need to be an expert and an authority, and if we don’t get that need met we feel like a failure. It’s so difficult for guys to admit when they are wrong or when they don’t know something. Showing vulnerability in any way feels almost like death. What’s funny is when guys don’t know much about anything and certainly aren’t qualified to be an expert in any area whatsoever. They still have that need inside them to be an expert, so they jump at any chance to act like an authority. It’s funny to watch them when this happens because they just light up inside! It’s funnier when they are dead wrong, and funnier yet when they are proven wrong.
It’s obvious to see why filmmaking might be appealing to someone like this. There’s even a part in Michael’s interview when he talks about preferring to see the world through the lens of a camera, and how he loves to “make his own reality.” That’s exactly what a narcissist does.
I also love guys who think they are funny, but aren’t. It’s so funny to me when someone will say something he thinks is supposed to be funny and then starts laughing at himself, even though no one else is laughing. I get asked a lot why Michael calls people “Dr. Jones” all the time. That’s his way of being funny. Who knows what the situation was or exactly what he said, but apparently sometime in the past Michael got a big laugh by saying “Dr. Jones” in a weird accent. Ever since that time, anytime he wants to be funny he just adds “Dr. Jones” to whatever he says. It, of course, never occurs to him that no one ever laughs when he does it. He’s totally clueless of the signals people give off, and his social skills are practically non-existent. I’m sure you’ve met people like this. If not, you are people like this!
Possibly my favorite joke in the film is a scene where Michael is trying to shoot in a cemetery. There’s an old lady crying in the background of his shot, so he goes up to her and asks if she would go cry at one of the other graves. It’s not one of the bigger laughs in the film, but for some reason I just really liked it. I ended up putting it in the trailer because I think it sums the character up pretty well.
What is the state of independent filmmaking in Oklahoma?
Well, that depends. Do you like vampire/zombie movies? If so, then I’d say the state of filmmaking in Oklahoma is pretty good. If you don’t, then it could probably be better. I don’t know what it is about Oklahoma filmmakers and their fascination with that weird, dark stuff, but coming across a project that doesn’t have some sort of undead creature harvesting flesh is pretty rare.
Actually, I’m acting in a film right now that’s a western/comedy/adventure/drama and it’s looking pretty good. It’s definitely one of the best projects around here in a long time. Of course, my character dies by getting stabbed in the eye… so there is a little horror involved, but then again what western doesn’t have someone getting their eye cut out and blood squirting out by the tank-full? Oh, I guess I should give him a plug. The name of the movie is The Ecstasy of Gold and theecstasyofgold.com has the trailer for it.
Of course, Sterlin Harjo’s film “Four Sheets to the Wind” was a hit at Sundance and that was filmed in Tulsa. Actually, I was in that film, kind of. Some filmmakers and actors feel they are too good to be extras, like it somehow demeans them or something. I always like to support other people’s work. I know how hard it can be to find extras, and we should help each other out. Plus, it’s fun and I almost always meet great people.
Comedy can be very difficult to pull off, especially for lower budget indie films. How were you able to determine what could generate a laugh?
I like what Jerry Seinfeld said: “If you think comedy is hard, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
There’s a lot of truth in that statement. But then again, if you think comedy is easy, you probably shouldn’t be doing it either. Pretty much only people who think it’s not all that hard but think it isn’t exactly easy either should be doing it. But that isn’t quite as catchy-sounding.
Seriously, though, you are right on. Comedy is difficult to pull off. It’s a sense you just have to have. Either you have it or you don’t. There’s a timing and a rhythm that you have to feel, and literally one frame often means the difference between getting a laugh and not getting one. Anyone can have funny ideas, but that’s completely different than executing it.
Comedy might not be “hard” if you have the right talents on board, but you definitely have to work harder. All the greats in comedy take their comedy very seriously. If you think you don’t need to be anal and nit-picky with comedy, you probably should focus on other genres. Comedy is an extremely fragile thing. Even the smallest, most subtle things can get in the way of a laugh. Most of the work goes into getting rid of every little distraction that will disrupt the rhythm. Even something as small as a subtle camera shake, watch beep, wink, or unexpected movement in the background can totally ruin the momentum of the setup. You must immerse the audience in the setup or the payoff won’t work.
I think one of the biggest reasons indie films struggle with comedy is sound. I started out in sound, so I probably have a little different background than many directors. Sound gets overlooked because it’s not something most people notice consciously. It’s only noticeable to the subconscious—which is the very reason it’s so incredibly powerful. Pictures determine what you see, but sound determines how you feel. You could have an incredibly remarkable experience with no picture and only sound. Radio programs did that for years before the television was invented. But, if you had a movie with no sound and only picture, no one would show up! Even the silent films had music playing.
Sound is just as important in comedy. I see bad sound ruin jokes all the time, and indie films almost always have poor sound. Bad sound kills comedy. It is extremely rare when a scene with bad sound gets a laugh, and even in those cases, good sound would have increased the laughter by a considerable amount.
Did you have sequences that had to be dropped for the lack of humor?
Actually, believe it or not, we had the opposite problem. The first cut was almost two hours long! It was a long process of trying to trim almost 30 minutes out of it. Almost literally every joke was someone’s favorite in the film (we talked to a bunch of the test screeners). We couldn’t get rid of anything without someone protesting. We finally got a cut that was really tight and that I liked a lot, but it was still about 10 minutes too long. It took months before I caved, but the only parts that dragged were the ones with character development. I hated to cut them out, but in the end I gave in. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did. I fought for a long time.
Where can people see “No Burgers for Bigfoot”? And what are your distribution plans?
Starting this fall we are going to distribute to theaters in about 17 cities over the next couple of years. If anyone wants to see it, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to be kept up to date. We’ll only send out emails a few times a year so don’t worry about getting annoying emails all the time. That’s the best way to know when the film will be coming near you.
The trailer is available on our website noburgersforbigfoot.com, along with all sorts of good stuff. Some of the characters in the film have MySpace pages, which are fun to check out as well (our site links to them).
What are your next projects?
I’ve got several ideas for TV pilots and films, but they will all have to wait until I’m done with “No Burgers.” There’s one film idea that I’m really excited about, but it’s still in the brainstorming stage. It will be much different than this last one, but will still have plenty of comedy.