Writer/Director Kitao Sakurai on Designing the Deliberate Randomness of The Eric Andre Show and The Passage
Adult Swim’s Tim And Eric, Awesome Show! Great Job and The Eric Andre Show ushered in a revolution of on-screen-comedy. Their new perspectives offered something so irradiated, shocking, non-linear and “random” that explaining them seemed inscrutable. You’d flip the channel if your grandma joined you at the television in fear you might have to justify it to her—in fear she might discover you’re insane. “These shows can only be the result of drug induced, inhuman, and unconscious improvisation!” The artists responsible for making you laugh are high, and maybe you ought to be while watching too.
Those who “get it” belong to a community whose bind is tacit and whose litmus test is laughs. You understand what cannot be related, what tickles you by no logic but by the surprises and awkward pauses of its rhythms. Yet this ineffable thing you consume has been strenuously prepared, not blindly, high-ly intuitited, by a collaborative of artists. Writer/director Kitao Sakurai, the mind (where one might not be assumed) behind The Eric Andre Show, does some of the articulating everyone’s flunked out on. Randomness on screen, it turns out, requires great discipline, work and deliberation. Maybe this is the effort we never wanted to admit we knew it took.
Kitao’s latest work—the amply accoladed, Oscar-qualifying short film The Passage, produced by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim— trades The Eric Andre Show‘s lo-fi grunge, which announced its irony, for a sleek and mannered classicism limited to long takes, zooms and static masters. On a whim, I caught it in the late night program at SeriesFest (where it took top prize) after it had already garnered high marks at Sundance, Nashville Film Festival, and Aspen Shortsfest, etc.
There is no English spoken in The Passage and the surfeit of languages that are voiced aren’t translated into subtitles. That’s because our vassal on this “passage,” an endearing neanderthal named Phil, doesn’t understand any of those languages either. So, to connect with the diversity of people that help him along, and to evade the ominous pursuers on his trail, Phil can only employ his malleable face and body. Sakurai directs it all without the ease of telling.
Filmmaker: I think people like to label this “realm” of comedy as random, but I’m certain so much of its making requires something deliberate. Can you talk about some of the more controlled aspects of the process, parts people might not expect?
Sakurai: So much of the trick to this kind of comedy—I don’t even know what that kind of comedy would be, but the kind that I do, I guess, is creating this illusion of things that feel bizarrely spontaneous and “random,” as you say. So much of how you do that is so much more writing and preparation and rehearsal than people would really think there is. For The Eric Andre Show there is so much writing that we do. So. Much. Writing. We write with Eric, and we have friends that we bring into the writers room to help generate hundreds of pages of material. Then we painstakingly haul that down, script out episodes — it’s a really really involved creative process leading up to the shooting of it. It’s cool that, to viewers, it feels totally out of the blue and random—it’s definitely edited to highlight those aspects, but there is so much work and planning that goes into making something fresh.
That’s a commonality to The Passage. There are a lot of things in it that people assume or think might have happened on the spot because it’s so spontaneous. I’m really happy when people think that, because we really did go through so much rehearsal to get that feeling of spontaneity. I think the sandwich scene is a good example of that. It feels like Phil is just in the moment and playing with the sandwich, having a lot of fun. In a certain way that’s true, but also we came to what he does in that scene with a lot of rehearsal and deliberateness. At first it was going to be like a few different gags with the sandwich, deciding which ones we were actually gonna do, refining that down, and then Phil, coming from a clown [background], was like “No no no. What if we make it just one of these gags and pull it out and see how far it can go.” That’s what the sandwich scene is. It took a lot of thought and deliberation to get somewhere that feels really simple. I think that’s what a lot of comedy is.
Filmmaker: How do you make this kind of humor read on paper? Does it read on paper, and how do you translate it to the screen?
Sakurai: A lot of that is shorthand—experienced producers knowing what we like—but a lot of it is writerly, you know? Everything from how you pitch an idea to how it’s written down by a writer’s assistant to how Eric likes to script it out. The writing tries to match and reflect what the content of that joke is about. It just brings clarity to all of the departments when you have a joke on paper read funny and you know what the comedic content of that joke is.
Filmmaker: Does the success off these jokes rely more on realizing the original vision meticulously or by experimentation and intuition on set?
Sakurai: That’s the goal with the preparation, that you can get to a point where you can come on set without any worries and be totally free and go in a “Fuck that!” direction, that you’re able to riff. If you’re not really prepared and trying to figure out what you’re going to do in the moment then you don’t have the freedom to play jazz.
Filmmaker: I feel like a large part of why I laugh at your comedy has to do with the confusion and disorientation of it.
Sakurai: That’s what makes me laugh. Obviously, that’s totally Eric’s taste as well. We like that sort of thing for The Eric Andre Show, and I guess I bring a level of that to whatever I work on. The Passage is pretty disorienting and confusing too, I guess, in a way that’s trying to be entertaining. But I don’t know. I feel like I’m just disoriented a lot. Or like, I can identify with this disorientation, and it’s very exciting to me or something when other people are confused—“I think I get it but I don’t.” Then it ends up being something totally different and it makes you laugh unexpectedly.
Filmmaker: How do you design disorientation while shooting and editing? Can you? Is it something you just have a rhythm for?
Sakurai: I don’t know. That’s such a hard question to answer, because I feel like it’s something that I bring subconsciously and not something that I’m setting out to do. I’m trying to be as clear as possible. A lot of comedy is about clarity. If you’re trying to disorient the audience you still have to be super clear about what the disorientation is. So, again this goes back to planning it out and being very detail oriented. Every detail is a choice and everything you do is a choice. If anything that’s what I try to bring to everything I do. I try to be very detailed about the choices, all the way down to the most minute details that have a subconscious payoff.
The choices that you make really matter. They’re choices that don’t necessarily read on screen but still have a humongous impact on what you’re doing. Growing up I really loved the Dogme 95 movies and I thought they were the best thing ever. I made some Dogme 95 shorts and felt it was so freeing to operate with constraint and firm perspective. It brings clarity to what you’re doing and how you want the audience to react.
When we shot the sizzle reel for The Eric Andre Show, it felt like what we were mainly trying to bring to it having the show’s perspective be crystal clear, which is that everything about it is super incompetent, and the worst decisions are being made. That was so liberating. It’s annoying to have to ask “What’s the best choice?” because that’s so boring. It’s much more interesting to ask “What’s the worst choice?”—not only what is the worst choice, but having a specific reason behind the badness of that choice. Then it becomes this detail that adds specificity and clarity to the world that you’re painting as a comedian.
Filmmaker: What perspective and constraints did you bring to The Passage?
Sakuari: We wanted to bring a high stakes authenticity to it. I don’t know if authenticity is the right word, but we really wanted to do things for real. That guided the casting of it. We didn’t want any actors that weren’t actually part of the cultures that they were representing. The airplane scene, we did that for real. It was a creative choice to not do it on a green screen. We’re going to subconsciously show the audience that this is real shit. What you’re stepping into is an immersive and scary world. That’s what that choice is saying. That’s why I think the beginning of The Passage is gripping. You feel like you’re there; whether you believe it or not, you can feel it.
There are audience members that will go “How did you do that? Was it fake?” You’ll always get that. But for the majority of the audience it feels real. I think that sense of reality was always really important to us. We also tried to do most scenes in a oner. That was definitely a guiding light.
Filmmaker; A lot of the jokes rely on the rhythmic camera timing of these long oners. Do you know when you’ve nailed the timing on set? Or do you find it in the edit?
Sakurai: You generally know when you nail it. I think there were a couple of times [in the edit] that we found one scene worked better than the one we thought. But by and large, you kinda know if you have it or not, especially with this way of working.
A lot of the scenes took 10-15 attempts to pull off. Sometimes you’ll nail it on take eight or take three or whatever, but it was still worth exploring those additional takes. That’s what’s cool about working with Phil, who’s this master clown, physical comedy performer. He won the Adelaide Fringe Festival. He has this great experimental theater in L.A called the Lyric Hyperion that’s become the center of the clown and experimental theater community in L.A.
He’s really such a gidget genius and has so much craft. It’s stagecraft. It’s just him being good at being able to sustain a really long performance and stay in the moment but still take a ton of notes between takes. In between takes we’re changing a lot. We’re cutting jokes out because they’re too slow or this or that. He has the ability to sustain that take after take with these changes and he’s also able to step back in an objective way and see his own performance. It takes a lot of experience and mental fortitude for performers to be able to objectively watch their own performance without being humiliated or embarrassed.
Filmmaker: There is something so primally relatable about his character. He is very innocent. He loves simple things like food and people. Did you always know this was the character best suited to taking us across this passage?
Sakurai: We just kind of found that character. Phil had some very loose ideas and images to start, and we developed off of those ideas. We got them up on their feet and started working with them. Phil has an innocence to his clowning persona, it’s a throughline throughout all of his work. So, the character that we found on The Passage is very in line with what Phil has been doing for a long time, that Dr. Brown kind of character. A little different of course, but we wanted to keep it Phil. There’s a reason he’s been working at that kind of character. We didn’t want him to be mean, we wanted him to be authentic and sincere, and not mean to cause harm. It’s hard to have a destructive character that means to destroy.
Filmmaker: Why the choice for no subtitles?
Sakurai: We wanted to be able to tell the story visually. We wanted everything to be understandable and relatable without having to have to read a sign or something. It all comes down to the perspective of the film. We don’t want the audience to ever be ahead of Phil. If we can understand what Phil can’t, that puts us outside of his perspective.
Filmmaker: Can you say anything about this feature you directed that MGM’s putting out?
Sakurai: Unfortunately I can’t, but it’s very exciting and it’s a labor of love.
Filmmaker: Is it an extension of what you’ve done with Eric Andre and other projects so far?
Absolutely. I’m very lucky to have done this project because it’s definitely a direction in which I want to move. I love The Eric Andre Show and the perspective that brings to what I’m trying to say, I guess. [Laughs]I don’t know if I’m trying to say anything. It feels like it’s using the medium, in a different way, but with the same intentionality and part of the process that I bring to it. I just love, over and above everything else, people like Eric and Phil who have such a different perspective. I just try to work with those kinds of people and uplift what they have to say to a new level. I consider that to be part of my voice. I hope to get something out of them that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It’s a gift that I’ve been able to do that with a number of talented people.