Five Questions with C.O.G Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez

COG_JonathanGroff

Kyle Patrick Alvarez did something many, many writers and filmmakers have never been able to do. He attained the rights to a David Sedaris short story. Alvarez’s second feature film, C.O.G, is the first film adaptation of Sedaris’ work. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, C.O.G wanders from Sedaris’ narrative and is instead imbued with Alvarez’s own personal experiences, which is what attracted him to adapting the story in the first place. The movie follows David, Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening), as he spends the summer in Oregan on an apple farm. While David has high expectations for his time in this rural area, he ends up meeting a strange array of characters and struggling with the intense religious culture of the area.

Filmmaker: When did you first read “C.O.G?”

Alvarez: I first read “C.O.G.” when I was 14 years-old. I remember immediately loving the story and it always stayed with me over the years.

Filmmaker: This is the first David Sedaris story to be turned into a film, but you are definitely not be the first person to ask, so how did you convince him to let you make this film?

Alvarez: I think it was a few factors. First of all, he liked my first film which certainly helped a lot in gaining my trust. I also believe it had a lot to do with the story itself, because it doesn’t contain any of his family members, which had been a big point in him staying away from adaptations in the past. In addition to that, I think it was my approach which was to say to him that I loved his story. I didn’t just go out and say, “I want to make a Sedaris movie;” I genuinely wanted this one story and was very specific in describing to him the tone I was going for and what I was hoping to achieve. I think he saw that I was trying to make it my own and he really encouraged me to continue down that path.

Filmmaker: Did you find it difficult to uphold the authenticity of Sedaris’ work and personal experiences? Were you able to work with him to insure its accuracy?

Alvarez: I’ll defer to my previous response, which is to say that I told him authenticity wasn’t what I was going for. I really wanted the movie to stand on its own. What I always say about my approach is that I’m making a fictional version of his non-fiction story. David was certainly there for me as a resource and was incredibly helpful, but I was trying to go for the emotional truth of the experience he went through as opposed to achieving a specific kind of recreation. That’s why the movie takes place in modern day and why the lead doesn’t look or sound like David at all. In a lot of ways the story and my film are similar, but the details are quite different. There are two main characters I completely invented. I wanted the spirit of the story to stay in tact, but it needed to exist in its own form and adjust accordingly. I think in that regards David and I were on the same page.

Filmmaker:What lessons did you learn on your first film, Easier with Practice, that you brought to the making of C.O.G?

Alvarez: I mean the amount of lessons I learned on my first film are innumerable, but one of the more specific things I brought with me was how I approach a scene. I used to be the student of preparedness. On Easier with Practice I storyboarded the whole thing, but I found that actually caged me too much on set and put the actors in uncomfortable positions. It’s not to say that storyboarding isn’t helpful, but when you’re making a dialogue or performance driven film, the actors need to play a huge, if not primary part in deciding blocking and how a scene is going to play out. So this time around I only shotlisted, and then only for the sake of being prepared. Most days on set I would show up with the actors and really work with them in terms of when they should be standing, when they should be moving and then when they went off to get ready for costume and make-up, my DP and I would figure out our coverage. It’s so much more of an organic process, to be able to be malleable with your work on set lets you take so much better advantage of the talent of your team, your DP, cast and your locations especially.  So the biggest lesson I learned is that some of the best work comes from that kind of improvisation and in-the-moment work.

Filmmaker: You mentioned in an interview that you shared similar anxieties about religion as the main character in C.O.G. Though this is an adapted screenplay, were you able to infuse it with any of your own experiences or emotions of growing up?

Alvarez: Oh absolutely, that’s always my goal in adaptation. If I can’t find some way to make it my own, then I’m doing a disservice to the material. In this case though, it was the fact that the story effected me so much personally that stuck with me for so long. So my goal was to stay truthful to that initial spark and that was how it approached religion. Since it’s an aspect that comes up later in the film, I don’t want to discuss it to heavily, but I think everyone has a struggle with how they see themselves in the scope of religion. Religious beliefs, or even the lack of them, should be a personal struggle. To say we know what is out there (or not) is naive and I think that’s what the character goes through in the film. He’s so steadfast and certain in who he thinks he is when the movie starts out that I was very interested in seeing that kind of arrogance get broken down over the film. The crucial idea I let fuel the film is that when you lose your mind and your body, you’re left with your ‘soul’. Whether that’s the literal idea of a soul or not I want to leave up to the audience.