“The Exquisite Corpse Project”: Ben Popik Interview
What’s your favorite type of movie? Comedy? Drama? Documentary…you know what? It doesn’t matter because “The Exquisite Corpse Project” has it all. Self-described as a comedy, drama, documentary, thriller, action movie, buddy picture, heist flick, love story, and supernatural adventure all in one. This sounds extremely confusing.
When I saw this movie at the Austin Film Festival, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. But it turned out to be the funniest and most surprising movie at the festival. And yeah, the confusing description actually describes it perfectly.
Director Ben Popik along with the five writers, Chioke Nassor, Joel Clark, Adam Conover, Dave Segal, and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, used to constitute the group Olde English Comedy. They were one of the most popular internet sketch comedy groups from 2002-2009, with a big contract to produce videos for Turner. But the stress of this success sucked the fun out of the group, leading to fighting, and eventually the end of Olde English Comedy in 2009. What a sad, sad day that was. Before they all went their separate ways for good, Ben gathered them up for this one last, big project.
Ben Popik: Basically, I challenged five comedy writers to each write fifteen pages of a movie script — with the constraint that each writer could read only the previous five pages of the script before writing their section. So, writer number two was allowed to read pages 11-15, while writer number five could read only pages 56-60 (which happened to be the middle of a climactic fight with practically no dialogue!).
Then, I filmed a documentary following the writing process — from the meeting where I initially assigned the project to the writers, to each writer reading their five pages and reacting to them, to the writers watching the finished film together as a group. We then cut that documentary footage into the movie, so that the audience always knows what the writers were experiencing at any given point, even though the audience actually knows much more than the writers do. It’s a really fun format.
MCD: Why did you choose to make The Exquisite Corpse Project the way they did and not the “regular” way?
Ben Popik: We’d experimented with a similar format in the past for a couple of our live shows (at the time we called it “The Rules” format). The basic idea for the “The Rules” concept was that each writer would assign another a list of constraints with which to write a sketch. For instance, I’d give Raphael a set of three or four different creative constraints, and he would have to write something original while obeying those rules. We would then film the meeting where we assigned each other the rules, and, when it came time for the show, we would show the audience the video of the rules being assigned, followed by a video or performance of the finished sketch.
The interesting effect of the format, we found, is that the audience had a heightened appreciation for the material, regardless of whether the written material worked well or failed. By including the audience in the creative process, we found that we could elicit a greater emotional response from the audience, presumably because the audience better understood each writer’s experience. I came up with the format for the movie as a way to try to reproduce the same effect in a feature film — and I think it works pretty well.
Here’s an olde school video from Olde English:
MCD: I can attest that the format does indeed elicit a greater emotional response. Seeing why the writers wrote what they did and the others’ reactions to each section really held the movie together, and provides for an endearing ending. So, I was curious, with such a unique format, how the writers initially reacted to it.
Ben Popik: They were all on board (to different degrees), but they were insistent that if they each wrote their fifteen-page sections, I had to agree to produce the film that they’d written. At the time that was pretty nerve-wracking, because those commitments are in no way similar (it takes a couple days to write a fifteen-page script, but a couple years to produce a film). I also didn’t know what they would write, how terrible it would be, and if I’d even want to film it. Fortunately, even though the script they wrote is all over the place (and how could it not be?), I was sufficiently impressed with the stylistic range and variety in the script, and was convinced that we could make it work — especially with the right documentary material. The movie ended up being very different than I initially imagined, but that’s part of the process when you’re experimenting with a new format.
MCD: Obviously, since this group of guys has gone through a lot together through the years, I assumed some of them would give Ben some trouble during writing their section. So, I wanted to know who gave him the most trouble.
Ben Popik: The second writer, Joel Clark, proved to be the most difficult writer. His initial pages (which represented minutes 16-30 of the prospective film), really didn’t advance the plot at all — which I viewed as a problem. The first fifteen pages of the film moved very quickly, but then Joel’s pages felt very stagnant: the characters just sat around, they didn’t make an decisions or actions, nor did we learn anything new about them. It felt like sabotage, even though I know that wasn’t Joel’s intention. So, even though it pained me to do so, I ultimately asked Joel to rewrite his pages — which he did. His rewritten pages, however, turned out to be an intentional form of sabotage, but that becomes a really fun part of both the film and documentary.
A clip on the writing experience:
MCD:Joel’s pages honestly happened to be the funniest in my opinion. It was such a crazy change from the beginning. And, knowing that he intentionally wrote them out of anger towards Ben, made it that much funnier. Because of the drastic changes from writer to writer, I wondered how the actors dealt with this.
Ben Popik: I think it was difficult for the actors. What many people don’t realize about film production is that you generally have to shoot out of order in order to be economical about locations. For instance, if we’re filming in a convenient store, we don’t have the freedom to come back more than once to shoot scenes that are in different sections of the movie. Instead, we had to shoot all those scenes back to back, even though they’re stylistically very different. That’s a very unique and difficult challenge for the actors, because while they’re technically playing the same characters from section to section, the characters change pretty dramatically based on the writers’ assumptions/guesses/perceptions of who those characters are. There were definitely days where the actors would be in a romantic comedy in the morning, and then be in a supernatural thriller in the afternoon. I think it was fun for them, but it was definitely a challenge — for everyone!
MCD: What were the best and worst parts of actually making it?
Ben Popik: The best part of the movie was working with my closest friends in a creative capacity again. We’re at our best when we’re playing around with new formats, we’ve always shared a love of experimenting with new ways to challenge the audience and make the audience laugh. The worst part is probably marketing. We’re not great at it and we hate it. We’re very fortunate to live in an age where we can produce a film independently without any sort of studio backing, but the downside is that you also have to handle your own marketing. If there are any marketing students out there who want to add film marketing to their resume, feel free to contact me!
MCD: Everyone, help Ben and the crew market the movie! Come on, quit sitting around. Ok, so after seeing the movie, I obviously wanted to know if Olde English Comedy talked about making another movie?
Ben Popik: We haven’t discussed making another movie together, but I hope we do. I don’t think we realized until we started working separately from one another how similar our sensibilities are, and I know that I’ve had a hard time trying to find those sensibilities in other comedy writers I’ve worked with. In short: there’s no formal plan, but I’ll certainly be pushing for it.
One last Olde English sketch with Julia Frey, who is in the movie:
MCD: What’s next with the movie? How can the people see it? The people need to see it.
Ben Popik: The movie is currently doing the festival thing, and then, in the Spring, we’re going to bring the film on tour. That tour will likely coincide with the launch of the film online (in short: everyone will be available to watch the film online in the Spring — if not see it in a local theater). It’s a really fun(/really funny) movie, and we’re excited to share it with everyone.
Again, if you get the chance to see this movie, see it. You won’t be disappointed. The best place to keep up with “The Exquisite Corpse Project” is on their Facebook page. Also, check them out at IMDb and their website.