Motor-mouthed and impeccably mustached, K. Roth Binew (Mike O'Connell) bursts with so much energy it's impossible to believe that by the end of the day, he'll be dead. But his doctor avers 'tis true that Binew has been stricken with a disease "terrible in its vagueness, and vague in its terribleness," and that it's time for the manic author/artist/gadabout/drunk to settle his affairs, with help from his manservant and biographer Mills (Jesse Eisenberg of Adventureland and Zombieland). The Living Wake, a gleefully mordant comedy about Binew's last hours to seduce his childhood nanny, establish a literary career and throw the ultimate going-away party, has spent three years touring film festivals from Vegas to Woodstock. BoxOffice.com talks to writer-star Mike O'Connell and director Sol Tryon about the pros and cons of immortality and resurrecting the quirky, truly indie cult film in a jaded blockbuster age.
Mike, you wrote the role of narcissist K. Roth Binew with yourself in mind-what inspired the character?
I do stand up comedy and write a lot of musings on failure and death that weren't necessarily appropriate for comedy clubs. I wanted to put it in a different form-I was pretty down at the time.
Comedians are depressives, yes?
Mike: They claim they are. I think they're half and half. They understand the great joy the world can provide, but they know the world isn't overjoyed to provide it. But I wrote that into a one man show and my friend Peter [Kline] and I decided to turn it into a screenplay.
The tone reminded me of those oddball comedies from the '70s, the ones Ringo Starr and Terry Southern cranked out like The Magic Christian.
Mike: Of course! We watched that movie after the fact, actually, and thought, "That's the craziest movie in the world." We all loved those '70s wild movies like Brewster McCloud-sometimes they're confusing, but they can also be uplifting.
Sol, on set how did you explain the tone to get everyone on same page?
SOL: So much of it was putting together the right cast. In auditions, we were looking for people with the right persona who just fit-we really had to find cast members who intuitively had the correct approach to the characters because we didn't have a lot of rehearsal time. Sometimes, they didn't even know they had it right. Jill Larson, who played Alma, read the script and didn't realize it was a comedy. She played the role of K. Roth's mother so seriously, it was perfect.
MIKE: It was really funny.
SOL: On set, we did a lot to set the setting. Even as far as all of our extracurricular actives encompassed the environment we were creating, and I think that helped everybody take ownership of this bizarre little world we were creating. We all fell in love with it a little bit. The cast, the crew, everyone could envision it.
There's such a contrast between Mike and Jesse's characters and everyone else in the supporting cast. Everyone else plays like they're in a straight and normal film, and then these two guys feel like they dropped in from a novel-they pop out.
SOL: Finding that right tone for Mills was so important for us to let Mike go to the full force of his character-we needed him to be offset so it did't go totally off the top in one direction.
MIKE: Jesse brings my spasmodic nature down.
SOL: And at the same time, he and the rest of the cast brings that extra layer and texture to K. Roth's emotional state of mind. You see his family and that grounds him even as he goes overboard.
With the newsreel that opens the film, we're set up that this is about a man's place in history. But the pivotal scene where the film deepens is when K. Roth tries to donate his books to the library and gets rejected. This isn't just about saying goodbye-it's about what if nobody remembers that you were here.
SOL: In the March of Times opening, it's what K. Roth himself would have created. It's one of his pieces of artwork and it gives you a glimpse into his mind about how he feels he should be remembered. And then during the day, you see that he's not really sure if he's going to be remembered for what he wants. In that library scene, it hits that he might not be remembered for anything, and that sets off a spiral of impending doom-how is he going to be able to leave a legacy?
MIKE: The card that comes up on the screen is, "It's sad when nobody remembers you." I don't think anybody ever thinks that they'll probably just be remembered for being crazy. But even that: people just want to be remembered-for what doesn't matter. But nobody is remembered. The percentages are really low. The odds of being remembered for something awesome are bad. But you can't even be remembered unless you die.
SOL: I'll be happy to not be remembered if I don't have to die.
MIKE: Enjoy yourself watching everyone else die. Better grow a thick skin.
If I could live forever, I'd choose it in a second.
MIKE: And then you'll start laughing at people who are dying-be really smug about your immortality.
SOL: But it does depend on how you age. That makes the final decision.
MIKE: Soon they'll have nanobots to clean up your body.
What's surprising about this dark comedy is how it becomes so...earnest. Like the biggest twist you could do is to get sincere.
MIKE: It's funny-everybody laughs at crazy people with wild ideas, but they have families and hearts. Sometimes really sensitive hearts. Everybody's got an emotional core and it fills out the person when you know they'll hurt and they'll struggle, but they'll still try to enjoy themselves.
SOL: K. Roth's character cracks that outer layer of how he's been presenting himself to the people in the film and the audience. Even though his friendship with Mills is bizarre, his life has impact on people. And whether he's remembered is up to them.
MIKE: They at least talked about his wake at the liquor store the next day.
You've taken this around the festival circuit-what kinds of reactions have come up at Q&As?
MIKE: I've been accused of taking drugs many times.
Your dialogue sounds like he's auditioning for Bartlett's.
MIKE: He's overly poetic-he fancies himself a wordsmith. He's a guy who thinks he's quotable so he becomes quotable because he has a man write everything down. I've always wanted to be one of those people who quote other people and make themselves sound good. People who can put their wisdom into sentences-I've always been impressed with that.
There's a running bit where K. Roth tries and fails to recall his dead dad's "brief, but powerful" monologue. How much of this film is commenting on the cliches of other films?
MIKE: Without saying the meaning of life, we wanted to say the meaning of life. That made everybody giggle. It's the most convenient way to explain everything, a brief, but powerful monologue. For a lazy man. Without actually having to figure it out.
You made the film in 2007. Tell me about the path to distribution.
MIKE: Do you have a lot of time? It will take three years to answer that question. Coffee?
SOL: We felt like we made this movie that was so unique and precious that needed to be handled very carefully. We had a great festival run and praise and press and awards, which was fantastic. And we had several different offers along the way, but we never got to the point where we felt like it made financial sense for our investors and they were going to handle the film right. Of course, it was right when the bottom fell out of the industry and people stopped paying huge sums for films. We spent the last year raising money and trying to make the right connections so that we could position the film in the correct light, as well as be able to maintain control of the project for the future. We wanted to split it up so instead of lumping all distribution with one company, we could say, "You're really good at DVD, you're really good at VOD, you're really good at distribution." It's been exhausting.
MIKE: At one point, I even offered to kill myself to increase the marketing campaign.
Did the success of Eisenberg's Zombieland give it a boost?
SOL: Absolutely. Jesse's fame has really taken off and that's been great for the film. Jesse feels like anything that will turn eyes and ears in the film's direction is great. Everybody feels like the film is our jewel-we feel really great about where we're at with our theatrical distribution. We've got lots of interest in different cities. Depending on how well it does in our opening weekends in NY and LA, we'll see how far it will be able to go. It's a polarizing film. The people that love it are infatuated with it. Sometimes, it can confuse people who don't want to not like it.
MIKE: That was our goal-to fuck with everybody's heads. But it is a happy story because after years of work, we just get to put it in front of people and see what happens. I think as unique as the movie is, there will be an audience for it.
SOL: We always knew that the film was going to lead us. It was going to speak to its audience and go the way it needed to. And we've held true to that.
MIKE: But it's very similar to how they won't take the books at the fucking library.
SOL: So we've decided to open our own library.
MIKE: And there's two things in it: the script and the movie. And some lady sitting there.
After Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, have you felt a backlash? Are people guarded against being charmed by a film, especially one with a lot of quirk?
MIKE: [Radio announcer voice] "There is a sweeping cynicism in our culture today..." I agree. Some people go into a movie totally open to cry or laugh and some people go in with their arms folded. If we can unfold just one set of arms, we've succeeded.