Andrew Gurland: comedy, realism, and moral ambiguity

photo / © 2004 Dada Films Andrew Gurland (right) in Mail Order Wife 
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Andrew Gurland blends comedy, realism, and moral ambiguity reminiscent of film noir to create films that are funny, memorable, uncomfortable, and surprising. For Gurland, his films aren’t a direct expression of how he views people and their actions, but are often a fantasy that allow him to vicariously explore what he doesn’t have the opportunity to do in reality, such as commit acts of revenge and hang around pretty girls. In this Q-and-A, Gurland reveals some of his influences, what he strives for in his films, and hints at what’s to come.

That Other Paper In Fuck Gramaglia Up, the character you portray says, “I enjoy the human experience and seeing how people react in certain situations.” How does this quote relate to your own motivations for making films?

Andrew Gurland Well, I mean most of the film, performance-wise, is all improvised, so it’s not like I spent a great deal of time on that line. Even though I usually work with a script, I like to keep it pretty loose.

TOP What is your motivation for making films?

AG Well, it’s my job, firstly, and I guess I love the movies. I love all kinds of different movies, and I love being surprised. So, as a result, I’m always trying to surprise people.

TOP So, what are some films that have surprised you?

AG I loved that scene in Sarah Marshall where he plays “Dracula’s Lament.” That blew my mind. That was just such a– Oh, man, that’s when it went from being a good movie to being a great movie, because you realized you were just getting all this insight into his darkness, but through a very funny moment, and it became so much realer.

TOP Your films seem to provide an insight into how people act, and a lot of them, despite not being actual documentaries, are shot in the documentary style and seem to employ non-professional actors, which strengthens the perception that the characters in your films are real people, acting how real people act.

AG Yes, that is correct.

TOP Do you think that the way your characters act is an accurate representation of how real people act?

AG Oh, I couldn’t say that. I’m just trying to make people believe the moment; I’m not making any commentary on how people act.

TOP I noticed a parallel between your films and the way film noir seems to portray people, because both you and film noir, they seem to see people as paranoid, manipulative, motivated by personal gains or sex, and they seem to subscribe to a sort of morally ambiguous worldview. What do you think of film noir and this correlation?

AG Well, I will say that one of my great, if not my greatest influence in filmmaking, is Nick Broomfield. I really love his movies. What blew my mind, when I saw the Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, in the movie theater, was how he made himself as a documentarian film noir hero. Like, he was going to investigate this thing, and driving to this seedy place and meeting all these seedy people. And there was even a lot of comedy in it because he was playing it so dry, as though he were oblivious to everything. So, I never have thought about that comparison about myself before, but I was definitely conscious of it with what Nick Broomfield did. I thought, “Wow, that’s really interesting the way he’s doing that.” I was really studying documentary, and I think I was already making documentaries at that time, and also had a foot in the comedy world as well. I was doing some joke writing for Norm MacDonald on Saturday Night Live, and I just saw that style that he was using in his movies, and then I went and subsequently rented some of his older movies. That was a great influence to me.

TOP How is it that you got involved with joke writing for Saturday Night Live?

AG I had a friend who was doing it, and I just got the fax number and was just faxing in jokes and that’s about it.

TOP What other television work have you done?

AG After I had made a couple of movies and people starting come to me. So I did bunch of TV writing and directing. Some pilots for FX, Comedy Central, and a few other networks.

TOP And how would you describe that experience?

AG I loved it. It turns over much quicker. You can get a TV show written and shot in a much shorter time. And I like working, and I’ve pretty much liked everything that I’ve done. I mean, one of the pilots that I worked on, I was assaulted by the star of the show with a piece of fruit, and that was very uncool.

TOP Are you able to reveal–

AG I can’t tell you who it is, but I’ll just say that he threw an apple at my testicles, and I didn’t care for it.

TOP And what did you do to warrant that?

AG Well, what happened was I gave him a piece of direction that scared the horse, and the horse scared him. The crew laughed and he thought I was trying to make him look like a fool or something. It was like a horse in the ghetto type of thing, and I think just the horse really was agitating him.

TOP And what was the horse doing in the ghetto?

AG [laughs] Oh, he was– It was like a sketch about gas prices being so high that he had to get a horse in the ghetto. [laughs]

TOP So, in general, what would you say is, if you’re able to remember, your first conscious memory of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?

AG You mean like as a baby?

TOP Well, not that early. Unless there was something very memorable.

AG I mean, I would imagine it was, like with most little kids, things having to do with farting or shitting. I can’t remember one that’s specific, but I know I found those things hilarious when I was a kid. And, you know, I still do.

TOP And was there a particular moment when you started to pay more attention to humor?

AG It was the first thing I gravitated towards as something that I could see myself doing. I remember being a little kid and watching specials, like the ones Dean Martin would host. Martin or whoever hosted would bring out Don Rickles, Jonathan Winters, and people who, in a way, almost antagonized the audience, which was really appealing to me. That they could be both loved, but also confusing people and making them laugh all at the same time. Then I got really, really into Andy Kaufman. That was somebody who just really influenced me a great deal, because I wasn’t sure when he was kidding, and I love that feeling. So that’s definitely something I’ve tried to chase. Where it looks like the characters or even the story, the filmmaker himself is oblivious to how funny what he’s doing is.

TOP Some people, when they start seeing a lot of humor, they start to recreate it, like doing bits for their friends, is that something that you, yourself did?

AG Oh, for sure. I listened to comedy albums when I was a kid and watched all the comedy specials, and we repeated lines to each other, yeah. That was definitely something I did.

TOP And, what were you like in school?

AG I was frequently truant. I would say that I was a class clown, but there were a lot of them. I wasn’t the class clown.

TOP What are some of the things that you would do to get laughs from other people?

AG I would say sleazy things to girls, say obnoxious things to teachers – things like that. I was always trying to be funny for my parents, and my siblings and my friends. I would write funny speeches for my English class; or I would always figure out a way, if I had to do a book report, to do it in a funny voice.

TOP Do you happen to remember any of the speeches that you gave?

AG I did something right after Reagan was shot by John Hinckley. I did it as John Hinckley, apologizing, but it was just a bunch of jokes about Jodie Foster. That’s about all I can remember, and I remember it was really on the border of bad taste, but was able to make the teacher laugh. So, I was always trying to walk that line.

TOP And did your humor ever get you in trouble then?

AG For sure. I remember one time the teacher got really mad over something really stupid. I think he asked me if he could be frank with me, and I said, “Okay, Frank.” and I remember that made him really mad.

photo / © 2004 Dada Films Mail Order Wife 

TOP I know that Cheaters was based on your own experiences with school, but I also read that Mail Order Wife was based on a real encounter that you had.

AG That was probably a joke. No, it’s not, I never had any real life. You know, sometimes I’ll say that my dad got a mail order bride or something, but sometimes you’re just doing an interview and act like a wise guy. There was nothing real about it.

TOP In Cheaters, Mail Order Wife, and many of your other films, revenge is a reoccurring theme.

AG Yes. I love revenge, I really do. I find it very funny. You know, there’s a lot of things you can’t do in real life because you know they’re a waste of energy, so it’s fun to write about them. I do think that a lot of what I write about, or what I explore, is my fantasy life, so in real life, I don’t have the energy to get back at people, so I like to write about it. In real life, I’m just totally whipped by women so I like to explore misogynistic themes.

TOP Other than Cheaters, how many of your films are based on actual experiences that you’ve had?

AG they’re all inspired in some way. You could talk to me about any film, I could tell you where it comes from my real life. Cheaters is the only one that’s real literal. Gramaglia was very much inspired by real life because I made that right after I had won Sundance with Frat House, and all these actresses who were so sexy were hitting on me and I knew that I could do anything I wanted to them, but I couldn’t because I was already married. So, I was so angry with them, because why wouldn’t they fuck me before? They wouldn’t, but now they would because I won Sundance. So, I wanted to make a movie really exploring that hostility. So I got an actress naked and I asked her to do jumping jacks, because I was mad, so that was autobiographical. That whole story was made up so I could make a movie that ended with that scene.

TOP And how about Broken Condom?

AG Broken Condom, that’s really my wife, and she was nine months pregnant, and I was freaking out about having my first kid, so it was a great way to explore that tension in our relationship. And she really did start crying, because she was just so mad that I was putting her through that when she was nine months pregnant, so there was a lot– That was very real. Like, that moment where I tell her I’ll see her in court, and then I ask her if my suit is clean and she says, “You would know.” That’s really real. I don’t know if my suit is clean. [laughs]

TOP How about Black People Hate Me and My Glasses?

AG I was Jew mugged a couple of times, which is when they mug you and break your glasses.

TOP Were you used as bait to attract other–

AG Yeah, that whole thing is true.

TOP Many of your films feature characters named Andrew Gurland who are also filmmakers. How do you compare to these fantasy counterparts?

AG I just have more self-awareness than the characters. I think it’s funny to be oblivious, but obviously I wouldn’t be able to write those scenes if I didn’t know that they were funny, if I didn’t know that the characters were acting ridiculous.

TOP Other than get revenge, what are some other things that you would say you are able to do vicariously through your work?

AG Well, first of all, I love– The best part about making movies is I love to get to hang out with pretty girls. That part of it is amazing. It’s been a long time since I’ve shot something, so I’m looking forward to the next one where I can do that again.

TOP And what is the next one that you’re working on?

AG I am working on a teen sex comedy that takes place in Iraq. A lot of the soldiers that go over there are virgins. So, it’s kind of like a Porky’s meets Platoon kind of thing. I’ve been talking to a lot of soldiers and about what they did about having sex while they were over there.

TOP And will this film be made for Adam McKay’s company?

AG Adam will be involved, yes.

TOP And how is it that the two of you got in touch?

AG Well, we knew each other vaguely at SNL. I was a really big fan of his writing, and then we bumped into each other again, and it turned out he was a fan of Frat House, so I pitched him this idea.

TOP And when will filming begin on this?

AG We are going to be going to Iraq this summer, shooting on location.

Mail Order Wife trailer