The first feature by David Cross is a surprise. Coming from a comedian as idiosyncratic as Cross, I expected Hits to be more, well, guffaw-laden. It’s not guffaw-laden. Or gag-filled. Or, well, odd. It was funny, but no guffaws. It was more wry, scathing social commentary on our online culture on instant faux-celebrity, the carnivorous tape loop of nothingness. It was thoughtful and satiric, but satire of the rueful, thoughtful type, not the abandon of parody.
Why shoot in upstate New York, and not, say, Los Angeles?
David Cross: For one specific reason—my wife and I have a house up there and it works taking place there. There is a real town called Liberty, and the signage is there and that’s all real Liberty. I did it for budgetary reasons cause we didn’t have a lot of money and I borrowed my friends’ locations and just asked them. The bar is where my wife and I and go when we’re up there and we hang out and we know everybody and we just said, ‘Hey, can we shoot here?’ The town dump, that’s our town dump. Not that we’re friends with everybody at the town dump. I stayed at my house and drove myself to the set and people crashed at my place and it was really about squeezing every penny out of the budget. It could be anywhere in America. I wanted specifically to shoot it in the summer because that is a depressed area in the country, in the state, but there’s so much that’s beautiful, and I wanted to temper this kind of depressing quality. If it was shot in the winter or post-foliage in the autumn, it would just be bleaker and I wasn’t trying to show that necessarily.
You cast some famous faces, but also some faces that are unfamiliar, like Meredith Hagler who plays Katelyn, who’ll do anything for fame but work for it.
I wrote with some people in mind; the main parts, are friends of mine. The two major characters that we cast were the teenagers, the girl and the boy, Meredith and Jake. I don’t know very many people in that world and it was a long casting process. One of the first tapes we got was from Meredith who did it on an iPhone at a friend’s place. She just got the script, really liked it, sent it in, and the quality wasn’t very good but she was doing some very interesting things and she was really good. Then I had to fly to L.A. for 48 hours and do this marathon casting session and nobody was really kicking my ass and I kept going back to this girl who did a thing on her iPhone. She couldn’t read in L.A. cause she was in New York and I called the UCB theatre, and said, ‘Can I borrow your basement?’ My wife and I read with her and we pretty much knew, ‘she’s it. She’s Katelyn.’
What was your inspiration, with the girl, with her desire for fame?
Well, I live in the United States… What I see is so prevalent now and it used to be just kind of jarring and head-scratching, but now it’s so ubiquitous—it’s just what our culture is—that kind of cheating to celebrity and fame; you can be a millionaire by going on Big Brother and being a fucking asshole, you can start your own cottage industry and attend events and DJ gigs. And, specifically the sex tape part of it, is Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, the Teen Mom, Farrah Abraham, if you’re familiar with her—they put out their own sex tape, and go, ‘Who me? Million dollar check please!’ And I find that abhorrent. And it’s bothered me. I’ve talked about it in my stand-up over the years and it’s part of American culture that there’s no meritocracy, you don’t earn any celebrity. I wanted to show what it’s like to grow up in a culture where that is all you’ve known as an infant. I’m 50 years old, and we didn’t have anything like that when I was a kid; up until I was in my 30s, and that started, in The Real World and shit like that. But these are kids who are growing up and think, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Why wouldn’t you put a sex tape out? It’s dumb to not do it because you could be famous. So that’s what I wanted to show.
It’s a great idea for a TV show. Did you ever consider that?
A friend of mine said the same thing, and I disagree because I feel like the story ends where the story ends, you don’t want to delve into too much—I don’t know how, what would episode 32 of the Dave Stuben [the ranting municipal worker] show be? I just don’t know what more there’d be. I wouldn’t want to force the issue. I’d love personally to see more of those Brooklyn hipster douche bags, you could write for them forever. But I think this story’s done.
Is the finished version close to the original idea or script?
There were a few rewrites on this one and I toyed with the idea of whether Dave has that turn where he says that inflammatory, racist, anti-semitic stuff—I put it in, I took it out, I put it in, I took it out—and I ultimately, obviously, went with this idea. I’m glad I did because there’s this story that’s currently happening in the States, this guy named Cliven Bundy, he’s a rancher in Nevada, and, long story short, he’s been letting his cattle graze on public lands for 20 years without paying any dues. He’s a Tea Party patriot guy and when the Federal Bureau of Management came a couple of days ago, he got out there with his friends and family and they’re going to, I don’t know, protect their land against big government and all these right-wing conservative pundits had to have him on a show—‘I’m just standing up for the American!’ and they’re like, ‘Go get ‘em!’ and he’s got a cowboy hat, and he’s a true American patriot. And then, I guess it was three days ago now, he had a press conference, and there’s all these people, ‘He’s a hero!’ they love him, they’re propping him up like he’s what’s great about America, and he went on this racist rant. It’s nuts, it’s crazy, he literally said, I’m quoting, ‘Let me tell you what I know about the negro,’ and then he talked about how maybe slavery was a good idea. It’s awesome. Now everybody’s like, ‘Ummm….well, all right, we disagree with that.’ So this is oddly prophetic, and I’m glad I stuck with that ending because it’s come true.
There are some really unsavoury characters in the film. Even the ones we root for become flawed. Do you think there’s any salvation in there for them?
The one kid that I both empathise and sympathise with is Corey cause he’s young and he’s in those transformative years and he encompasses that awkwardness that kids have. I told Jake [Cherry], ‘Here’s who your character is. Right now, he thinks he’s a bad-ass rapper, literally a year ago he thought he was going to be the best BMX bike ride extreme sports guy, two years before that, way into Dungeons and Dragons. He’s a kid who’s finding himself, but he eventually works for a PR firm. He’s the one I feel the most empathy for. They’re well-meaning, these people…Katelyn’s not a bad person, I don’t think Dave is a bad person, I think he’s a bit ignorant, he’s completely ill-informed, he’s easily manipulated by outside forces, he’s a little soft, but not too much and he’s just … I don’t think he really, really, truly believes that stuff that comes out at the end. It’s just in a fit of pique, his anger, he’s parroting back everything he’s listening to on right-wing radio, and almost all the world I create is populated by shitty people because I think there’s a lot of shitty people in the world. There’s a lot more shitty people than good people unfortunately, is how I see it. I’m not very religious; maybe if I was, I’d feel differently.
What was your creative process for creating each of these characters?
It’s who needed to be there, except the extraneous hipster kids were just fun and maybe that was self-indulgent, but as I said I have a house upstate so I know those kind of people, but I also live in Brooklyn, so I know those kind of people. But really it’s who and what you need to tell the story, basically, no more no less. I’m really happy with the final version of this, at least story-wise. But this was originally a lot funnier, more of a comedy, and I wish I could show you some of the scenes, I mean those hipster scenes; it just got too much and the balance was off and it wasn’t right for the story. I could sit for the rest of my life and just write for those kind of asshole idiots. It’s fun, it’s really fun!
Between stand-up and writing and acting and making movies, what’s your favourite to do? And will you do more movies?
Well, first answer is crafts services, always. I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time going to Whole Foods or whatnot and picking out tamarind-spiced roasted almonds—I like to make everybody happy, myself specifically. ‘What kind of Pop Chips?’ you know, and I take notes. ‘The Sweet Thai Chilli doesn’t seem to be moving as much as the Salt and Vinegar.’ So always crafts services. And, yes, my plan is to just do more stuff continually. They’re all so different, each thing has it’s pluses and minuses. I can tell you there’s no greater high than saying, ‘Thanks, you guys have been great’ to a stand-up theatre that’s packed and you’ve done two hours and it’s killed. It’s amazing. There’s nothing like that. Showing a film, doing a TV show doesn’t come close to that. So I can’t pick one but, yes, I definitely plan to do more things.