David Cross on Kickstarter, Millennials, and His Directorial Debut ‘Hits’
2015 is off to a great start for David Cross. Not long after launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund distribution costs for his new film Hits, the project met its $100,000 goal with eight days to spare, ensuring that the film will premiere in at least 35 markets across the US next month. Written and directed by Cross, Hits debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year and marks a big push for Cross not just into filmmaking but finding new ways to get low-budget indie films into actual theaters in small towns across the country, rather than just a VOD and limited theatrical release. While Hits has plenty of funny moments and a fantastic cast (Matt Walsh, Meredith Hagner, James Adomian, David Koechner, Amy Sedaris, Michael Cera, Derek Waters, and Wyatt Cenac, to name a few), at its heart it’s a darkly caustic journey into the pathetic depths of viral videos, internet fame, and the insatiable vacuum of lowest-common-denominator post-reality culture. I recently spoke with Cross about making Hits, why he turned to Kickstarter, and when we can expect the next big Mr. Show reunion update.
Congratulations on the film! Why did you want to tell this story, especially as a directorial debut?
The very simple short answer is because of all the ideas I had kicking around sitting on scrap pieces of paper somewhere, this was the cheapest one to realize. I have a house upstate where we shot a lot of the movie. We had people crashing in my house, that’s where I stayed, we saved a lot of money, I used friends’ locations…so it was all kind of a labor of love, cheaply made.
How did casting work? Did you write the film with specific actors in mind, or did you write the script then go from there?
I had the basic skeleton of the idea laid out, but then Matt Walsh was somebody I’d thought of very early on as well as James Adomian and Derek Waters. Those three guys — the three characters — were ones I wrote, not from the very beginning, but as I was developing the script those were really the only three roles I wrote with somebody in mind. And it’s foolish to too heavily try to make it in somebody’s voice, because there’s always an 85% chance they’re not available for whatever reason.
Internet-made fame and people who desperately want it are obviously huge themes in Hits. As someone who has experienced fame — especially before the internet took over everything — what have you learned from it?
[laughs] Well I don’t think any of it is applicable to the story. I’ve only learned experiential stuff, but there’s no sage wisdom I can offer to people. I know I’m saying what’s been said a million times but it’s a double-edged sword, because you can’t not want fame because fame dictates your success — or at least for actors and writers, it dictates your success to some degree. But you have to take the fame, even though it can be very intrusive. And that part of it is how people assume that you feel the same way that maybe most famous people or celebrities do, and you can see in this movie those are people who have a degree of desperation to be famous, or feel entitled to it, or feel that fame is the be-all end-all, that’s the thing. And I don’t feel that way and a lot of people don’t, but people who see you in an airport — even if you’re on the phone having a very animated argument with your wife or something — people have no compunction about going up and saying “Hey! Big fan! Can I get a selfie?” That happens more often than you’d think, and it’s really annoying. That’s really the main annoying thing about it, and you can live with that. I don’t live in Hollywood, I’m not that kind of person, but people just kind of assume you are.
You recently did an interview with The Wall Street Journal and had some harsh words about the younger “hyper-connected generation.” It feels like every other day there’s an article about how millennials are narcissistic or lazy or glued to the internet. In the context of comedy though, it seems next to impossible for a young aspiring writer/performer to get noticed without having an internet presence. Do you agree?
Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t read the interview so you might have to refresh my memory, but to speak directly to what you said, firstly, there are two things happening simultaneously. One is I do believe, by example, that millennials as a generation are very narcissistic and culturally vapid — et cetera, et cetera — except, I would also qualify that statement saying that’s been said about every generation ever by the generation prior probably going back to the 1600s, you know? So that’s an observation I make, but it was an observation made about my generation by the generation before that, and their generation by the generation before that. I mean, I do believe those things, but the difference there is that we didn’t have social media growing up, but if we did we’d be the exact same kind of people. That’s just youth, you know?
You also said in the interview that you don’t believe there’s a meritocracy anymore. Can you expand on that a little?
There was just a big article in The New Yorker about kids who are getting deals because of their Vines, which are like six or seven seconds or whatever. And I would look at that and go “What? Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve busted my ass for fucking 20 years and I haven’t accumulated the amount of money this kid is gonna make in an hour?” I had that kind of frustrated attitude, but also, that kid should do that — fuck it! The idea of not monetizing your product in 2015 America is absurd. I’m the fool. I’m the idiot for retaining some semblance of the idea of selling out, you know? I’m the idiot. Those guys should make as much money as they can, because that’s what culture in America is about.
Did the process of making the film change or affect your views on that at all? Was it therapeutic in any way?
No not really. I mean, after 14 months of writing, pre-production, shooting, and then post on it, it was like “There! That’s the thing. That’s what I meant.” I would imagine the next movie I do will be wildly different. I’m very happy with the actors’ performances and I obviously didn’t have the money to do a bunch of visual effects, but it was really more about the story. So I feel good about that, but I don’t feel like I got some dogmatic screed off my chest that I couldn’t put into words or something.
In terms of the Kickstarter campaign, why is it important to you to get Hits in theaters versus a VOD release?
Well I’m clearly in the minority on this — which is shocking to me — and I’ve had this discussion with two different directors. This one guy was telling me how he had watched some movie on the plane on his iPad. It was a while ago and I forget which movie it was, but it’s a good movie, and I gave him shit about it, like “That’s a good story, that’s a good movie — don’t you feel like you would experience it in a deeper, better way if your focus was just totally on that story?” And he was just like “Nah.” Like, you don’t feel an obligation to these guys who work for 18 or 20 months busting their ass on this thing? And you watch it in between ordering fucking Pringles on your flight while people are, you know, running around and getting up and going to the bathroom and everything, on your little six-inch screen? “No that’s fine!”
So I definitely have that and I know I’m in the minority. I mean, some films I just don’t care about and if I get a DVD or a screener then great, I’ll watch it at home and that’s fine and I don’t feel guilty about it. But there are some movies…like I wouldn’t want to watch Breaking the Waves on a fucking plane, you know? Not that this movie is like that, and it doesn’t really matter what movie it is, but it’s a different, better, more fulfilling experience to watch it on a big screen with proper sound and no lights, uninterrupted, and you sit and you watch it. Whether it’s a dramatic movie or something silly like Anchorman, it’s just a different, better experience. And this movie would never get played in a theater in some of these cities and towns that have reached out to us and said “Listen, if this thing happens, we want to show this film.” There are places where we would just never play and we’re getting more and more interest in that, and that’s what’s so exciting to me too — that this will actually play in a theater in Fairbanks or…I don’t know, Ogden or something like that. [laughs] That’s really cool.
It’s interesting how in order to get that more traditional theatrical release you’re using a newer internet-based technique like a Kickstarter campaign.
That’s also a part of it: If this idea can get something in place where somebody can take this idea to its next logical level and get it so you don’t need a Kickstarter to get it to places and then maybe somebody somewhere figures out a way how, with minimal costs, you can completely bypass distributors and sales agents — which take a chunk of your money! — somebody will figure it out. This is the very first step into hopefully making this more universal in an actual, viable way.
You had a lot of great rewards for Kickstarter backers — one of them was the full diner menu from the movie, which you wrote yourself with menu items like “tartar cunts” and “gay chicken.” You also said you like to “spend an inordinate amount of time” creating things like that that you know will “most likely never be seen.” Has that always been the case for you?
In everything I do there are always a couple of little secret three-frame jokes. In one of the early episodes of Todd Margaret, he goes to get a liquor license and on the board behind him there’s meetings and stuff on a dry erase board and there’s all these Mr. Show characters who have meetings. You’d never ever catch that, but if somebody freeze-framed they’d see it. So stuff like that. So when our art department said “We need a diner menu, do you have any ideas?” Shit like that is so much fun for me and it makes me giggle and I just spent a couple hours jotting down stupid things for it. It’s like three pages front-to-back — there’s some regular stuff on there, but there’s tons of ridiculous items. So there’s always shit like that in everything I do.
Are there any updates on the Mr. Show reunion?
There’s nothing to write about because it’s not done yet, so it’s still a little premature. We feel very confident that it’s going to happen, but I can’t really speak to it until, I don’t know…I’m hoping within the next couple of days it’ll all be fucking official, but unfortunately there’s not much I can say yet.