SUNDANCE LONDON: Comedian David Cross on his directorial debut and stepping back from acting.

Comedian David Cross, star of cult TV series such as Arrested Development, took to the stage at Sundance London following a screening of his directorial debut, Hits.

The dark comedy, which explores the nature of fame in 21st Century YouTube America, was first seen at Sundance in January and was produced by Honora Productions.

Cross, who has also featured in films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and another of this year’s films at Sundance, Obvious Child, told the audience at the sold out screening: “I’d be happy not to act in things. It’s really fun writing and directing and not being in front of the cameras. It’s pretty liberating.”

Earlier in the day, Cross was on stage at the Brooklyn Bowl at London’s O2 Arena, where Sundance London is being held for a third year, to discuss comedy and filmmaking. He was joined by fellow comedian and director David Wain, who spoof romantic comedy We Came Together is also screening at the three-day festival.

Hits Q&A

[After walking on…]

I’ve seen this thing 600 times and I wasn’t aware until I was here [in London] of just how much American flag signage there is and the word America is all over the place. Man, it wasn’t intentional. Well, somewhat intentional but not that much.

Thanks for staying. It’s too bad because I gave everybody who left a £20 note on the way out. It just worked out that way. I don’t have enough for everybody here.

Why did you choose not to act in Hits?

That was a conscious decision. This was the first movie that I directed and I just wanted to make sure that I could focus on what I thought I needed to focus. Also, to have fun. I’ve enjoyed so many things but when I’m in front the camera, produced and written something and helping with the direction and have an idea towards it, it’s just not as much fun. This was so much fun.

There were numerous times where I got jealous and I wanted to jump in there, especially all the ‘Think Tank’ stuff. There are scenes that were taken out because they were too funny. There are diner scenes that you don’t see where I was crying laughing. A lot of that was improvised. They had x amount of dialogue, which wasn’t very much and then I let them go. I got so jealous. As much as I enjoyed watching it on the monitor I wanted to jump in there and said: “What if I played a guy who walks into the diner!”

I’d be happy not to act in things. It’s really fun writing and directing and not being in front of the cameras. It’s pretty liberating.

Where did the idea come from?

I had a lot of ideas kicking around and I wanted to do a movie that I felt I could do in a practical sense. I chose the idea I thought would be cheapest to do. I’m not joking. That was a concern. I wanted to be able to make this for a million bucks or under. So that’s why I chose this idea.

It’s one of the quicker things I’ve wrote. I usually go through three, four, five, six re-writes. I didn’t go through that. There was a different ending and I went back and forth. But aside from that, this was a quick process.

I wrote it pretty quickly and then because we got into Sundance we had to cut five weeks off our delivery schedule so we started pre-production in mid-June [2013] and somebody got on a plane the day before it screened. We were literally there until 8.37pm the night before we had to get it Sundance in January. That’s a pretty quick turnaround. That’s quicker than average I’d say for movies.

How much improvisation do you allow?

A lot but I always get what’s on the page. I knew the story was going to change in post. It did quite a bit. It was actually a broader comedy initially and we took a lot of that stuff out. When we screened it for friends and people I respect in the industry who are writers and filmmakers and comics, they said: “You’ve got this other great story in there that’s getting buried under all the comedy.” All the comedy was a result of letting people go.

The Think Tank scene in the car when he goes: “Secret meeting in the Zipcar now!” I think the first five lines are scripted. Everything else they did was improvised. When you have actors who are capable of that, you’d be a fool not to let them go. But I make sure to get everything that’s scripted and then let them do whatever they want.

Is it difficult being a director with friends and people you’ve worked with, cutting their scenes?

I’ve been on the other side. I’ve acted in a ton of shit and have had that feeling when you go and something screens and you’re like: “They cut me out of half the fucking movie.”  

When we first screened it to the cast and crew, I apologised. “There was some great stuff. It had nothing to do with you.” It was just that the story presents itself and it became a slightly different movie in editing. I think they get that. You do feel bad.

One woman who’s in the town council meeting, knitting and she had a whole thing when the scene continues and he’s ranting and she goes up there. I really had fun shooting those but there’s a bunch of that stuff that’s not in there, just for pacing reasons. She came to the screening but was essentially cut out of the movie. At the party afterwards she said: “They cut me out of the whole goddamn movie,” left, got in a cab and went home. You feel bad but it’s part of what you do.

What is the best and worst thing about working with actors?

The best thing is that they’re cheaper than CGI. There is no worst thing. None of these people are the worst thing about actors but I’ve worked with people whether I was just in a production and had to witness this kind of thing or producing something. But there are the actors who are good actors and well-intentioned but they have that thing they can’t get past. They come to you and ask: “Why is my character doing this? I think the character should do this.”

Occasionally they’re right but often you know how you’re going to handle the story in post. They say: “I think my character should do this,” but you eventually get to the point where you have to say: “No, your character shouldn’t do that because I will never use it.” But that doesn’t happen often.

What do you think about people watching this film on YouTube or online?

 That bothers me but that ship sailed long ago. We’re never going to get back from it. There will always be people who love film and want to see it on a screen the way it was intended. I used to have a rule that – as the days increase – I bend more and more that I’m not going to watch a film on a plane or computer. But it’s a war of attrition and you give in.

I feel a little guilty because I know these people work so fucking hard. There’s a DP and lighting guys and you watch it like this [looks a hand] but that ship has sailed and that’s where we are. But as long as there are Sundance’s and Sundance London’s and people like you all who come in and want to see film the way it’s intended, we’ll always have this. But it’s a little disheartening. That’s why I stick to TV. Who gives a shit where you watch that?

What was your alternate ending?

He didn’t go that far, there was more chaos in the room. We also got hindered a bit by our production schedule and how long we had that location for. That dictated a lot of stuff. We changed it a bit in post. It was a difficult scene to edit.

I’ll give you a little insight. That was a true city council place where we were shooting. We had to get in at a certain time and had to get out at an exact time. It’s a civic building where people work and there was no: “Can we get an extra 20 minutes?” It was the only thing I did a shotlist for with the DP. There were 28 shots but we only got to about 14 of the set-ups. There was a lot I wanted to do that I couldn’t get to. The two days before we were supposed to shoot, Matt Walsh, who played Dave Stuben, came up and said: “My dad passed away and I have to leave Saturday for the wave.”

You can’t go like: “C’mon, dude.” There’s nothing you can say except: “Oh man, I’m so sorry to hear that. [Turns away] What do I do?”

Amy Carlson, who plays Miss Casserta, is a true pro. With her stuff, there’s nobody there. She’s not acting to anybody. That forced our ending to be what it was too.

How much of the cast were people you knew you wanted for the roles?

Most of them. The two main characters that were cast were the teenagers. I don’t know anybody in that world. We cast Katelyn and Cory. But just about everyone else was someone I sent a script to or called. I wrote with Matt Walsh in mind. I wanted Dave Koechner to be Rich. Almost everyone you see were either my first or second choice. I’m glad Elijah Wood said no. He would have been a bad Katelyn.

Did you have to create the pothole in front of Dave’s house?

You’re not going to believe this because that fucking, shitty street and that shitty house, we had to make a pothole. We had to go get an earth-digger and had to explain we would put it back. It took a while to get the location because we had to be able to lockdown the street. I live around there and people are very nice for the most part but a little suspicious. It’s a small town and there’s an attitude of “What’s this fucking Hollywood bullshit?”

We found a street where we could control a lot of it and every street has potholes except that one. We had to make it.