When David Cross enters the designated interview room at his publicist's office, he sits through about half a question before trying to steal my interview notes and start riffing. "Let me take a look at those," he says. When I pull them away, he goes, "No?" and laughs. "All right."
It's easy to forgive the heavily bearded Arrested Development actor and comic for attempting to take control, since he's just now releasing his directorial debut, the black comedy Hits. The comedy is both a portrait of a daughter (Meredith Hagner) and her father (Matt Walsh) struggling to make their lives better in an upstate New York town, but it's also a satirical allegory about the frivolity of millennials who want to be famous only for being famous. It stars a number of Cross' friends and former co-workers (Michael Cera, David Koechner, Julia Stiles, Amy Sedaris), and takes place in the town where he lives.
"The reason [I made] this movie was this was the one I could shoot the cheapest," Cross says with a laugh. "The bar in the film, that's my friend's bar. I stayed at home and people crashed at my house. Doing it that way made it so I knew I could shoot this for under a million."
While speaking with Rolling Stone, Cross explained his motivations behind making Hits, which will be available as a pay-what-you-want bundle on BitTorrent beginning Friday, as well as hinting at the plans he and Bob Odenkirk have been hatching to celebrate Mr. Show's 20th anniversary.
Why did you want to make a movie about fame seekers?
It's a subject matter that I've brought up a lot in my stand-up over the years, even in Mr. Show sketches. So clearly it's in the back of my head there. I can't say there was a specific trigger or something that I saw and said, "I'm going to write a movie about this." But it's obviously something that's irritated me to some degree for a long time.
All of the movie's characters are contemptible.
I think [Meredith Hagner's character] Katelyn is contemptible, but I understand why she's like that because she's a product of her culture, the culture that you and I created for her. So, for as much as I dislike her — if she was sitting next to me, I'd roll my eyes and think she was an idiot — I suppose she is an amalgamation of people I've sat next to over the years. But, I get it. I don't like her. I don't share her values at all, yet I can't fault her as much as people might think I would. She lives in a world now where seeking fame that way is an OK thing to aspire to. Also, [Jake Cherry's character] Cory isn't contemptible. He's one of the sweetest. He's 16, you know?
There's a line in the movie about one of her friends, who was on Teen Mom, giving out an award.
Yeah, I mean, that's what she thinks.
I was in the middle of dinner, talking to a group of people and this guy goes, "Yo, dude! Man, can I take a picture with you?"
Because your movie is satirizing fame seekers, what are the downsides to fame from your perspective?
Well, there aren't too many downsides. But the loss of privacy is one. You're eating or on the phone, you're having an argument, you're crying, you're struggling with luggage, whatever the situation is, and there's no wall. Literally, two or three nights ago, I was in the middle of dinner and I had to go outside and have this big conference call. And I'm talking to a group of people and this guy goes, "Yo, dude! Man, can I take a picture with you?" It's just weird and it happens a lot more frequently than you'd think, and now with the advent of phone cameras, forget it. When I did stand-up and nobody knew who I was. I could go up as different characters and people wouldn't know, and I'd try to make the audience uncomfortable and then I'd come out of it. I can't do that anymore.
The rest of it is pretty good. You know, you get free drinks. And if I was more of a scenester guy, then I'd really take advantage of it because you get to go to a lot of parties. All the things that for most of my life I desperately needed, like clothes...it was not there. And now, [even though] I certainly don't need another pair of Vans, they come in the mail.
When people do approach you, which Mr. Show routine do you get most?
It's a toss up between either Ronnie Dobbs or "Can I have this chair?" from "The Audition." I get stuff that takes me five minutes to figure out what the reference is.
Do you get Tobias Funke or Mr. Show more these days?
It depends on your age, gender, culture, ethnicity, and economic class, really.
The other thing that makes Hits' characters so loathsome is that they don't realize they need to put in work to be famous.
People have certainly worked harder and longer than I have in stand-up and grinding out a career, driving an hour and 45 minutes out to a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Massachusetts to get shit on. I did that for years. Now there's a short cut, and that's part of what the movie speaks to. You can be famous for just being famous. You don't have to demonstrate any sort of discernible talent at all, and then people feel entitled to that. That goes back to what I'm saying about Katelyn, where as much as I have contempt for her, I get it. I can't fault her.
Without spoiling the plot, one of the characters makes a crazy conservative, racist, anti-Semitic rant. How did you write that?
I have access to the Internet where I can get stories about what happens in Florida, so I don't think it's that crazy.... About 35 or 40 percent of what he says is taken from actual people ranting at actual town council meetings. At one point in the movie, Michael Cera's character says just Google "crazy motherfuckers in town hall meetings," that's what I did. It's instantaneous, and there's a wealth of stuff from all over the country, even Canada, that's on there. Some people are mildly disturbed, some people are clearly mentally ill, but a lot of what is said there are just patchwork pieces of stuff that people actually really said.
You've said that the movie is not a "morality tale." What is it you want people to think about after watching it then?
I don't expect a generation of millennials to put down their cell phones and say, "You know, I'm going to create some expressive art, and I'm not gonna sell out." It's hopefully a statement that's palatable, as opposed to being the way I say it in the joke form or what might have been a sketch on Mr. Show.
Since you mentioned Mr. Show, I saw on the Hits Kickstarter page that you were planning on a reunion of some sort in March or April. What are you planning?
I can't say anything yet. Both Bob and I were really hoping — because he's doing all this press for Better Call Saul — to have something that we can say, but not yet unfortunately. We will shortly. I feel confident saying that we will be doing something, somewhere.
Well then, what was going on in that reunion photo Paul F. Tompkins tweeted?
Bob and I have been meeting with an eye towards doing this thing. I'd fly out to L.A., and we'd write for a week. I'd go home for a week and go back out there two weeks later. We just informally started
We got enough stuff and were like, "We should get all the guys together who are informed." We got enough stuff that we felt comfortable having our first writers' meeting. That was one of the best afternoons I've spent in my life. It was a blast, just making each other laugh. One thing that Bob and I noticed — like, we write these things, but we forgot — was initially, there were sketches Bob and I had written separately but didn't have an outlook for, and then you give them to these guys and you're like, "Oh, right. They're good comic actors." They were already elevating material in a way you just didn't even anticipate, and it's becoming funnier. It's one of the most pleasurable things about the whole process.
How long have you been working on this new Mr. Show "thing"?
We probably started in December. Very informally, we'd meet for four to five hours, have lunch, talk about ideas. We've had sketches because we've toured together, and we've done some charity things together, so we've kind of masked these sketches. It's been like, "Let's get as much done as we can, on my dime, and I'll pay myself back if we get going."
It's going to be good. We've got some really good stuff already.