Aug 30, 2022
Owen Kline on bringing ‘Funny Pages’ to the big screen
The writer-director discusses his new A24 film and growing up in New York
There is a scene in Owen Kline’s debut film “Funny Pages” where a car slams into Robert’s house on Christmas morning. Whether you find that funny depends on your sense of humor, of course. But it’s a good metaphor for the kind of humor that’s quite literally dripping throughout the movie, though.
Earlier, the death of Robert’s (Daniel Zolghadri) close friend triggers him to drop out of high school and move into a boiler room (that’s billed as a basement apartment). He’s greeted there by new roommate Barry (Michael Townsend Wright), a considerably older man sopping with sweat from the boiler. This and the car crash would work in horror movies, but in “Funny Pages,” they are used for empathy and laughs.
Kline, the 30-year-old son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, developed “Funny Pages” over six years with the help of long-time friends and collaborators Bennie and Josh Safdie, who directed Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems.” Though less tense than “Gems,” Kline’s movie is also about neurotic outsiders.
The story follows Robert, a high school student and aspiring underground comix artist who rejects the comforts of suburban life. When he drops out of school and gets into some trouble, he finds an unwilling teacher and unwitting friend at his lawyer’s office: Wallace (Matthew Maher) — a former low-level alt-comic artist — who later drives that car into Robert’s house. “Funny Pages” is a twisted coming-of-age comedy about the kind of offbeat people, like Wallace, who would feel right at home in an R. Crumb strip.
Growing up in New York, Kline himself would befriend older weirdos. When it came time to design the car crash for “Funny Pages,” he called up one of those friends, Tony Hassini, a literal magician who also happened to have directed over 200 commercials for Burger King in the 1970s.
“I storyboarded the hell out of that sequence,” says Kline. “ But I wouldn’t have figured it out without magician Tony Hassini because it was actually very complicated. We used magic to create some suspense, to create anxiety that makes you ask, ‘what the hell happened?’”
Brooklyn Magazine sat down with Kline to discuss “Funny Pages,” reminisce over Brooklyn’s long-gone Rocketship Comics … and to source some cat skeletons. This interview has been edited for flow and readability.
Six years is a long time to make a movie. Why did it take that long to make “Funny Pages?”
I’d spent many years on the script and that was a tumultuous process of wrestling with this thing, what it is, and trying to define it even for myself, but also trying to conceal certain aspects of it from myself to get something unconscious down. The characters kept growing and we kept finding them on set.
What was it like to finally make something you spent so long developing?
As a director or any kind of artist, you’re just a blindfolded person trying to hit a pinata and run towards your instincts. That’s a long process for some. For this movie, it felt like slow and steady wins the race with this thing, and it took a long time to steep. It was a collaborative process with the actors finding where things would go. It’s a collaborative process with the edit too.
Independent films are already difficult to make, and I think you’re suggesting that the really good ones are even harder to make because they don’t rely on established models.
Independent films are the hardest to make because the producers are putting in more money from their pockets. So there’s more anxiety for the thing to turn out right. I think what happens, though, is they have some festival that they want to hit, so they give their editor six months to make it. And ultimately they don’t find the rhythm of the movie. That assembly line method doesn’t work for art. So why should it for movies?
I want to talk about the character of Wallace. He has this ‘90s-era Quentin Tarantino energy. He’s a smart guy who’s aware of it, but he’s unappreciated. And his physical humor reminds me of Jerry Lewis.
Some people get so confused and ask me why Robert would be drawn to Wallace. So I appreciate when someone is able to see his virtues and intelligence. I didn’t want to just write him as some crazy guy. It’s more complicated than that. When I think about the people that I’ve known in my life with problems like Wallace’s … I’ve known a lot of sick people, but have things in common with them. It’s the things that we have in common that were intellectually stimulating. People with fascinating observations, were incredibly astute, but something else was chemically wrong with them. That’s the tragic side of it. The funny side is that Wallace is prissy and he’s very picky and particular, which contrasts with his unhinged nature.
You grew up in New York.
Everyone I knew in high school lived in Sheepshead Bay, the Slope, and Brooklyn Heights. Instead of going to high school parties, we threw these stupid, DIY, illegal shows in the New York music scene of the mid-aughts
In those trips to Brooklyn as a kid, did you ever hang out at Rocketship Comics in Cobble Hill?
Finding Rocketship was a revelation because there wasn’t really a store like it in New York, or there hadn’t been for quite some time. There was SoHoZat, maybe starting in the ‘70s, but it was around in the ‘80s and and closed in the ‘90s. It was focused on underground comics and alternative papers, comics and it was a record store. But since then, there hadn’t been anything that was focused on art comics, independent comics, or Fantagraphics. Around the time Chris Ware’s book “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” came out, it was like the second coming after Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Comics were finally being heralded as a serious art form. The new wave of artists from the ‘80s were, too, but they stayed underground.
You told Wired magazine that you own cat skeletons. Were you being serious?
Oh, I was joking. I don’t actually have any cat skeletons. I have two living cats! Everybody does cute shit in interviews. Everybody does that in their biographies. It’s always so annoying. “He lives with a wife and his cat Smokey.” I’m always fine seeing skeletons. It’s when I see dead cats and dogs on the street that’s upsetting. But skeletons? If anybody’s got any skeletons, I’ll provide my P.O. Box at the end of the interview. [Editor’s note: he did not]
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