Vengeance, which Novak wrote, directed and stars in, makes its way to theaters this week. Novak says that his experience writing for television helped prepare him for this dark, offbeat Texas comedy.
“I always wanted to be a writer/director,” he says. “In television, writing is a lot like directing. The showrunner in a television production is really the auteur the way the director is in a film. I was really getting a lot of the satisfaction of directing from TV writing.”
While television writing gave Novak the chance to tell stories such as “Diversity Day,” directing a film was a whole different experience, he says.
“In film, it really is the director’s medium,” Novak says. “All of the decisions that are already made when you direct TV have to be made for the first time by the director. I had always wanted to do it, and this was just my first chance.”
Vengeance is the story of Ben Manalowitz (played by Novak), a podcast aficionado who receives a shocking phone call informing him that one of the women he had hooked up with has been found dead. Ben receives the news from the woman’s eccentric brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook). Ty believes that Ben was in a serious, long-term relationship with his sister and invites Ben to join his family for the funeral in West Texas.
It’s a culture shock for Ben. Living in New York, he’s a complete outsider in Texas and struggles to connect with Ty’s odd family. However, when Ty suggests to Ben that his sister was actually murdered (despite having no evidence), Ben decides to recount his investigation in a true crime podcast. On his journey, Ben observes the vast cultural differences between New York and Texas, and learns that some of his assumptions weren’t entirely founded.
Vengeance debuted to positive reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. It's scheduled to hit local theaters July 27. Novak was excited about the opportunity to tell a Texan story, even if he wasn’t able to shoot in the Lone Star State itself.
“I really fought hard to shoot it in Texas because I thought that would be so much fun as well as so authentic,” he says. “The way the tax breaks worked, [production company] Blumhouse was only able to shoot the script as written if we shot it in New Mexico.”
Novak says that he made sure that he did a thorough amount of research so he could be as authentic as possible.
“I did all my research in Texas, and made sure we filmed it in Artesia, which is part of the same Pecos Valley as West Texas, so it looked the same,” he says. “I took everyone on field trips right over the border to show them what I was going for. To shoot in that landscape was completely important. You can’t do that on a soundstage.”
There was one Texan, incidentally, who encouraged Novak to get into directing in the first place. Novak worked with Longview native John Lee Hancock on Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder and learned some insights about his own acting style.
“I asked, ‘How do I work with B.J. Novak?’” Novak says of directing himself. “He just encouraged me to be very naturalistic, and to get different levels to the performance.”
Novak also sought the wisdom of renowned film producer Al Ruddy, who helped bring such classics as The Godfather and Million Dollar Baby to life. Novak said that the advice he received from Ruddy was the best he ever got on life.
“He told me in his gravelly voice, ‘You only need to know two things to direct: what you want and how to get it,’” Novak recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s so inspiring,’ because so few of us know what we want, but if you know what you want and you can figure out how to get it, you can really accomplish anything. When I thought of it like that, I had a lot of confidence.”
To prepare for his debut, Novak also talked to Leigh Whannell, a writer/director whose debut Upgrade premiered in Texas at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2018. Novak says that Whannell advised him to “watch the movie in your head every single chance you get.”
“Just take a walk and watch the whole movie in your head,” Novak says, as advice to any aspiring filmmakers in North Texas. “That way, when anyone asks you a question, because everyone’s going to be from a department where they know their field way better than you do, the costume designer can say ‘What do you picture?’ and you say ‘I picture this kind of thing.’”
“In film, it really is the director’s medium ... All of the decisions that are already made when you direct TV have to be made for the first time by the director. I had always wanted to do it, and this was just my first chance.” – B.J. Novak
Novak says seeing Pulp Fiction as a young man inspired him to get into filmmaking. He cites Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers as major influences on the mix of comedy and crime he was trying to achieve with Vengeance.
“The Coen brothers can make Fargo, but they can also make No Country For Old Men," he says. "I thought that this is sort of a blend of those two tones.”
Those crime elements meant that Novak had to cut out something he was familiar with: improvisation. He says that while improv was common on the set of The Office, he had to tell his cast to stick to the script while filming Vengeance.
“I encouraged them not to improvise,” he says with a laugh. “This script was really meticulously calibrated because of those blends of tone. Someone can improvise a really funny joke, but it throws off the balance of the movie. I think if I wrote a pure comedy, which I do hope to do some day, I’d allow a lot more improv.”
While he had to pay close attention to his cast’s performances, Novak says that working with actors was one of the most enjoyable experiences of directing.
“That’s maybe the most intuitive thing to me of the whole process,” he says. “I really love getting the actor's perspective. I really feel like I can explain any thought from inside the actor's head and ambition, being an actor myself. That’s the part I really love — conferring with an actor: ‘What if you tried to do this with the dialogue, what if you try to accomplish this with the scene, or what if you use this opposite strategy to do this in the scene?’ I love working like that with actors.”