BJ Novak’s first feature film, Revengewhich hits theaters on July 29, is partly exactly what you’d expect from the comedy star known as Ryan from Officeand partly territory you’ll instantly (and correctly) assume he doesn’t know. Revenge tells the story of Ben Manalowitz (played by Novak), a New Yorker writer who travels to a small town in Texas for the funeral of a girl he briefly dated. He meets his family, who are convinced his death was no accident, and thinks he’s found the perfect fodder for a gripping podcast that can diagnose all of America’s ills — the kind of podcast he been hoping to do for a while now. But that same family, played by Ty Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron. Dove Cameron, and more, causes Ben to question his initial, cynical assumptions about them and their way of life – and to question his own way of life as well. SheKnows spoke with Novak and Holbrook about making this film, how Ben’s experience is faithful to Novak’s life, and what they hope viewers will take away from it. Revenge‘s take on digital life, cultural clashes, and more.
Let’s put that aside: “My real name is Ben. My family’s name on Ellis Island was Manalowitz,” says Novak — yes, the film is about him and a certain time in his life that he longed to break free from. Novak explicitly doesn’t care about comparisons: throughout the production process, he wanted to be as true to himself as possible, hoping to tell a more honest story.
“I [named Ben that] to remind me, play yourself as much as you can; play the truth about yourself anyway,” Novak says. “And that means showing people what you don’t want to show them. And it could be better than you think, or worse than you think. I would confer with [executive producer Leigh Kilton-Smith] after every take, and she was really making me take away everything that was me trying to be funny, trying to be cool, trying to be likable, like no, no, no, no.
Nonetheless, he had a story about his life that he wanted to tell, and so he took on the challenge: “I wanted to tell a story about where I had been in the world I lived in,” it begins. -he- and what he says next could have easily been deleted from his feature lines of dialogue.
“We think we’re connected to everyone, but that’s not the case. We date people, but they’re just names on our phones. And we listen to music, but it’s really just playlists, where you can’t remember the names of the songs. You say “lol” to someone, but you don’t really laugh. And we don’t know how close we are or not to people.
“The hardest thing to be is yourself, in all aspects of life.”
As Novak discusses the parallels to his own life, I can’t help but ask him about the opening scene of him and John Mayer standing in a bar and scrolling through the dating app options, explaining the coded ways they store women’s names in their phones to remember key details and the importance of exercising options. Was it also just Novak being as real as he could be?
“That’s the only scene that I feel is – I’m kind of like showing the audience, it’s kind of the opening credits, kinda, and it’s supposed to be a bit more like the joke version of the way we go out,” confesses Novak.
“I know John Mayer in real life, and I don’t think we’re that superficial. We also talk about other things than just – but you know, we think we’re cooler than we are. In the script, it says two guys who think they have it all figured out. So to me, it’s a travesty of guys who think things are going well, and you look at them from a distance, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, those guys.’
So Novak wrote a character like himself, and then took that character as far out of his digital comfort zone as he could imagine: Texas, a place so unfamiliar to Novak, born in Massachusetts and currently living in Los Angeles, than you might think.
“There’s something funny and interesting to explore about bringing someone like my character out of that comfort zone, into a real revenge story, an emotional story, and a family story,” says he. “All the things he instinctively has nothing to do with – and see how he adapts. So there’s the comedy of that, but there’s also the emotion of growing up.
For Boyd Holbrook, who plays the brother of Ben’s late pseudo-ex, the challenge was balancing the obvious comedy of Novak’s script with the need to make his character Ty Shaw so lovable and real that Ben and the desire for the audience to mock him in any way would be stripped.
“I’ve never played a character as vulnerable as Ty, who was such a selfless character who was willing to put himself in the crosshairs to figure out what happened to his sister,” says Holbrook. “So yeah, like me Boyd, I know there’s a lot of laughs written on the page. But the hardest part was not playing jokes. It was forever staying grounded in reality and just knowing that this comedy will take care of itself.
The whole Shaw family has to work for Revengeas a movie, to have the desired effect, and they do, so I ask Holbrook if the cast did any extra work behind the scenes to develop those relationships before filming began.
“We all went to the water park and risked our lives together and played with fireworks, just dangerous things to know we could rely on each other,” Holbrook — and J. Smith-Cameron — shared. , who plays her mother, blew them all away. with his willingness to take risks.
“She comes across as a very well-organized woman, but she’s reckless and death-defying like you wouldn’t believe,” Holbrook shares. “The character she plays Succession has nothing to do with her really being a renegade.
Novak’s dialogue and winning performances from Holbrook and Smith-Cameron make it easy to fall in love with the Shaw family and their world away from Twitter wars and instant gratification. Novak, whose entanglement in the digital world is evident from the Revenge script as well as previous projects like The premisesays he doesn’t have “an answer” on how to get out of the traps social media can set for us, but hopes for a movie like Revenge can remind us that more exists.
“One discovery of the film and the characters in it is that we spend so much time online that we kind of think, well, this is who I really am. And it’s not,” comments Novak. “When you put people in the same room, they connect way more than they do in those over the top ways you use to get attention. [online], which looks like a connection. The [are] all these tricks that are played on us online, that really tear us apart – to use a cliché, but it’s true. So I think the movie is about the emotion and the comedy of suddenly not being online anymore.
Watch our full chat with BJ Novak above.