From his early days creating and hosting the groundbreaking sketch comedy show, “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” (the Bob being “Better Call Saul’s” Bob Odenkirk) to playing “never nude” Tobias Funke on “Arrested Development,” David Cross has shown an affinity for the off-beat. His directorial debut feature, “Hits,” will be the first to adopt a pay-what-you-wish model when it is released Friday on BitTorrent.
Set in Liberty, N.Y., a small town in Sullivan County where Cross lives, the dark comedy focuses on the intersecting trajectories of a father who is struggling to get a pothole fixed and his daughter who dreams of appearing on “The Voice.” We sat down with him in his publicist’s midtown New York office this week to talk about the origins of the project and his life upstate. Cross sat in the “sunny chair,” sporting a bushy beard and tattoos peaking out of his T-shirt, as he explained the importance of good catering and dished on a possible “Mr. Show” reunion.
You’ve been talking about fame in your stand-up for years. When did you realize you had the makings of a movie?
God bless you for asking that question. It wasn’t until we were doing press for the film at Sundance that I realized I’ve been talking about this for a long time. We had sketches in “Mr. Show” that dealt with that subject matter, so clearly it’s an idea that’s been rattling around there for a while. I expressly remember that when I decided to write and direct a movie, out of all the ideas I had floating around on pieces of scrap paper in my office, I knew this was the one I wanted to do for practical purposes because it’s the one I could do the cheapest – shot for under a million. And I have a house up there.
How long have you been living upstate?
It will be seven years in April. I try to be up there as much as I can but work dictates that I’m here sometimes, and my wife [actress Amber Tamblyn] is in the same situation. I love New York and live in Brooklyn, but I grew up all over the place and pretty poor so just the idea of having a house with stairs in it and a lawn is f—–g awesome.
I love that word “Citidiots” you use in the opening scene. Is that something you heard or did you make it up?
That’s something I heard at the transfer station, which is my town dump around the corner from my house. I heard one of the guys who was working there grousing about and using that term. Over the years, there have been more – all it takes is 10 or 12 – people coming up from the city to their weekend home. It’s a tiny town. There are a handful of restaurants, and you know everybody.
It’s a pretty impressive cast you assembled – Wyatt Cenac, Michael Cera, Matt Walsh, Jason Ritter and even a cameo by Julia Stiles.
As you can see, with the exception of the kids and some of the locals, they’re all friends that I got on the phone. I think it’s helpful that they’re not huge stars because you kind of buy into the character a little more, which is important with this. As silly as the Brooklyn guys are, you believe them. You feel their earnestness. It’s not like a Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey comic persona.
They do feel like people with tangible desires and don’t they each think they’re doing the best thing for the situation?
Yeah. Three times you hear the phrase “we’re here to help” from three different people, and no one is helping. And they are not there to help. They’re there to get famous and use people for their own purposes. It’s such a bull— condescending thing, and they’re just making it worse.
And it begins with a very simple problem – a pothole in the street that needs to be fixed. It seems that there has to be a person or department to call who could do that?
This guy (Matt Walsh’s character “Dave”) is trying. He’s at every town council meeting, and he just wants his f—— pothole filled. Dave is an amalgamation of a lot of guys from different town council meetings. In fact, the line that Michael Cera’s character says, “just Google crazy m—–f—– at a town hall meeting” – I Googled that when I was doing research for this, and a bunch of stuff Dave says in there is directly lifted from various people on YouTube ranting in this country and Canada. Quite often it’s someone who has some civic work thing like the light’s out on Monroe Street. They’re just [complaining] and [complaining], and you can tell they’re a little off.
It’s something very practical as opposed to ideological.
Yeah, Dave’s not like that. He’s a simple guy. He has that sense of righteous indignation. When I cast Matt, I gave him a couple Charles Portis books and said, “read this. This is Dave.” He’s a man of few words. He says what he needs to say and keeps his emotions in check.
But he’s also easily influenced.
Completely. He watches Fox News and listens to Alex Jones. If you look on his desk, he has a book called “The Rape of the Taxpayer” and “The Turner Diaries.” It’s all that libertarian right wing bordering on conspiracy theory stuff.
What did you learn from directing your first film?
This is going to sound arrogant but nothing really. I guess I verified what I imagined. Everything I do is so collaborative anyway whether it’s “Mr. Show” or “Todd Margaret,” I have a hand in all that stuff, so it wasn’t a huge stretch. Two very important things that I took into this movie from pre-production were to hire people that are affable and chill. There’s no excuse – zero – no reason to have people flip out and cause tension on the set. I don’t care what happened or what you’re going through, there’s no excuse and I’ve been on too many sets where that happens. When I was hiring people, as much as I wanted to see that their work was good, I wanted to make sure they were cool people because I was about to ask them to work really long and hard hours in the summer, six day weeks, for little money. The other thing was to make sure that catering was good. It sounds funny, but it’s a real thing and one of the few things that you can control. I know people who’ve tried to nickel and dime every penny possible, but I wanted to make sure we had enough for good craft services. The difference between having that good lunch and then people go back to work happy and having a [bad] lunch, it’s an important dumb little thing. Big Kev’s was a local BBQ place we used and Henning’s Local and Baker’s Tap. The owner’s/manager’s of Baker’s are in the movie at two separate points. They’re friends, and we used their locations. That goes back to why I chose this idea to see through.
In your life, do you find your fame is less noticed up there?
Yeah. The teenage girls at Peck’s Market, which is the market in town, will often get shy. They know my wife more than they know me though, but that’s about it. Everybody is as down-to-earth as you’d imagine.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that city people have about country people and vice versa?
Maybe that they’re simple, meaning that they’re not complicated. But their lives are just as complicated as someone in the city. They just don’t have as many distractions. The inverse I would say is that city people are snobs and culturally elitist. Even that is a bit of a stereotype though because it’s 2015 and it’s all becoming amorphous. Everybody from upstate goes into a city at some point. It’s not like you don’t know these people like in the ’20s when only rich people could take the train.
And yet there’s this sense of isolation among the characters in Liberty.
That’s totally a mindset. I still have the yearbook from when I was in 9th or 10th grade. I grew up in Roswell, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, which is now one big urban sprawl but when I was a kid was removed. It was only 35 minutes into town though. I remember the seniors were asked their favorite memory and one of the guys wrote, “that one time we went into the city to see Skynyrd or AC/DC.” For me, I wanted to be there all the time.
Bob Odenkirk mentioned recently that you guys are working on something new. How did that come about?
I keep hearing that guy’s name, and I have yet to meet him. (Laughs.) I pitched to Bob the 20th anniversary of “Mr. Show’s” coming up, and I want to go into HBO and pitch us doing a one-hour special. And he said, “great.” So I went and pitched the idea to them, and that’s all I can say for now.