"They say everything's bigger in Texas. Everything's bigger about film, too."
So says B.J. Novak in looking back on his journey to Vengeance, the dark comedy that marks his debut as the writer-director of a feature film. An Emmy-nominated writer, comedian and alumnus of The Office, on which Novak directed five episodes, the now first-time filmmaker has just come from the Los Angeles premiere of his movie, following a showing at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.
"I've done a lot of TV, but really, from day one, I wasn't prepared for what an honor it felt like to be on a film set by comparison," Novak considers. "There is just a magic and scope to it, that in a way is translated exactly into the release — being in that theater, having a red carpet. It's larger than life, which is, I think, why people are attracted to cinema in the first place."
Vengeance stars Novak as Ben Manalowitz, an aspiring podcast host and the epitome of coastal elitism, who travels from Brooklyn to small-town Texas to attend the funeral of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), a women he used to hook up with. The authorities say Abilene overdosed in an oil field. Her family says she was murdered. So, Ben launches an investigation into her death – which just happens to be the perfect subject for a true-crime podcast.
In conversation with A.frame, Novak breaks down the process of taking his feature directorial debut from script to screen, and reveals the biggest challenges of making his first movie.
On the page
Novak had the title for Vengeance long before he began writing the script. He'd seen a poster for another movie of the same name, a 2009 revenge thriller directed by Johnnie To and starring Johnny Hallyday as a chef and former assassin who sets out to get his retribution on an ancient crime syndicate.
"It looked cool, and I kind of smiled to myself and thought, 'I'd like to star in a movie called Vengeance,'" he recalls. "Because I knew right away it wouldn't make me Liam Neeson — it would make Vengeance something more complex and wry and funny."
That effectively established the tone of the movie, with a plot that allowed Novak to kick the wheels on long-held ideas he had about the world around him. And the movie wrestles with a lot of thorny subjects: What's wrong with America, what's right with America, civil unrest, the myth of red states and blue states, conspiracy theories, our true crime obsession, exploitation as entertainment, the opioid epidemic, guns, racism, and social media.
"We live in a country where we see each other as villains across a divide on Twitter, instead of as real people. I wanted my character to be a victim of it, and also on the wrong side of it. And then, everything kind of came from there," Novak explains. "I thought it would be funny and dark in an almost British Office way to have someone pulled into a funeral for someone he didn't think he was serious with, and then, asked to avenge her death. Then I thought, oh my God! That's that title I thought of all those years ago."
On the set
Despite the weight of running a film set for the first time, Novak knew he wanted to star in Vengeance too. "It was so specifically written for me," he says. "Even aside from the part of me as an actor that couldn't resist wanting to play something besides Ryan from The Office and show people something else, it really became about protecting the tone."
"But as I got closer and closer to filming, I got scared, and I thought, I don't know if I can pull this off! No one else will cast me as the lead role, maybe I shouldn't either!" Novak admits. "I started going through a list of all the great actors in my age range, and I thought, these are all better actors than I am, but I don't think any of them embody the tone. Because it's just my sense of humor."
Novak cast Boyd Holbrook as Abilene's big brother, who ropes Ben into solving her untimely death, with J. Smith-Cameron, Louanne Stephens, and Dove Cameron rounding out the Shaw family. Ashton Kutcher co-stars as guru-esque local music producer Quentin Sellers, and Issa Rae plays Ben's podcast producer. (The movie even includes a voice cameo from Fresh Air host Terry Gross.)
"I had to be a better person. I couldn't be a brat. I couldn't be grumpy until I had my coffee from crafty."
"When I'm in the scene, I love improving. When I'm up against the clock and someone else has an idea, I'm less generous about it," Novak laughs, explaining his inner conflict as both an actor and the director. "So often, I will really want to perfect a line my way. I'll do seven takes of it my way. Then an actor will improvise one take and I'll end up using it. It's good to have other people's ideas, even when you don't want them."
For Novak, that was both the challenge on and opportunity with Vengeance: Learning when to trust his instincts in executing his vision and when to trust the cast and crew around him. "You think, 'Am I being gaslit into just wrapping on time? Or am I being obsessive and overshooting something that I'm never going to use?'" At the end of the day, he had to trust that the people he'd hired were better at their jobs than he was at their job.
"I had to be a better person. I couldn't be a brat. I couldn't be grumpy until I had my coffee from crafty," he reflects. "You're really a leader every second you're there. Someone told me when I moved here, 'Number one on the call sheet is always a dream. It's four and five who are the nightmares.' I've been four and five on the call sheet — I hope I haven't been a nightmare — but being at the top and knowing that you need to set a tone for everyone, I loved that challenge. I loved being a better person for it."
Three weeks into shooting on location in New Mexico, with the Land of Enchantment standing in for central Texas, production was forced to shutdown indefinitely due to the pandemic. Filming resumed seven months later, in October of 2020, but, in the interim, Novak began editing his movie.
Meanwhile, Finneas O'Connell (better known simply as Finneas) was crafting the movie's soundtrack. Novak met Finneas through John Mayer — who also pops up in the movie — and bonded over Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score for The Social Network. At the time, Finneas had never composed for a feature. "He's in the odd position of being a first-time scorer who already has an Oscar," Novak says. "Because he won for Best Original Song last year" — for Billie Eilish's "No Time to Die" — "so his writing is very cinematic."
Vengeance's soundtrack also includes two songs written by composer Jesse Novak, who is the director's brother ("We'd been writing sort of silly songs together since we were like five years old."), and climaxes with Lana Del Rey's "American," which is used both ironically and earnestly. ("I was very, very lucky that I got the song, because it's hard to clear a Lana Del Rey song!") But it's Finneas' score that lends the film its propulsive rhythm, combining ambient electronic beats with the soundscape of a Spaghetti Western.
"He's not only a solo artist but also a producer, so he's used to working with other artists. And that may have been the secret weapon of why he was so good as a first-time composer," says Novak. "I think the film was like an artist who came into his studio and he could size it up and say, 'I think this is the voice of this performer.' Instead of a pop star or a hip hop artist, it was a film."
By John Boone