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“Nine Pages a Day of Heavy Dialogue”: Bob Byington and David Krumholtz on Lousy Carter

A man sits in a doctor's office's waiting room in front of a poster urging testing.David Krumholtz in Lousy Carter

In 2012, Bob Byington won a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival for Somebody Up There Likes Me; last year, he returned with Lousy Carter. Writing about the festival, I said of the film:

Introducing Bob Byington’s Lousy Carter alongside the writer-director, star David Krumholtz preemptively noted that while the film was shot and is set there, “Whatever you think of Texas, its politics have nothing to do with the film.” The disclaimer is accurate—this is another of Byington’s immaculately mean comedies with an underlying sentimental streak, a blend he’s been iterating with various degrees of sharpness for a few decades now in Texan settings that are slightly anonymous and essentially irrelevant. Given six months to live at the film’s beginning, Krumholtz’s morosely nicknamed title character is a lo-fi animator who peaked early and now teaches a graduate seminar on The Great Gatsby. Imminent mortality isn’t ennobling—instead, the long-time sober man dabbles with drinking again and desultorily contemplates sleeping with one of his students. Enacted by frequent regular collaborators—Krumholtz and, as his best friend, Martin Starr are returning company members, as are Stephen Root and Andrew Bujalski in smaller parts—Byington’s reconfigurations of misanthropy and mournfulness are a flavor combination that’s to my taste. As in his Harmony and Me, funerals are a good place to exhibit both, serving as an excuse for people to say mean things about the deceased, as when Carter observes of his mom that “She made me who I am: emotionally unavailable but someone who appreciates good books.”

Byington and Krumholtz first worked together on Tuna, a barely-seen deep cut from 2000 that’s since disappeared from public view. After being reintroduced at the Montclair Film Festival by their mutual friend Kevin Corrigan, Krumholtz took on a small role in Frances Ferguson. In Lousy Carter, he was initially considered for the part of Carter’s best friend Kaminsky (eventually played by Starr) but vaulted into the lead. About a month ago, the duo hopped on Zoom to discuss the making of the film, which enters limited theatrical release, along with becoming available on a variety of digital platforms, from Magnolia Pictures beginning tomorrow, March 29.

Filmmaker: There’s an interview where you discussed reconnecting for Frances Ferguson, but what I think I’m missing is the origin story of Tuna, when you first worked together.

Byington: We have differing recollections, I’m sure, but I knew I wanted to pair David with Kevin Corrigan. That’s an underseen film, to put it mildly, but I love the scenes they did together.

Krumholtz: If I remember correctly, Kevin called first and said, “Bob wants you to do this.” We shot, what, two days or something in a car? It was fun, driving around North Hollywood or Valley Village, maybe Van Nuys. I was young and still had a dream, and I feel like Bob captured that nicely.

Byington: David and I had mutual friends in Kevin and Suzy Nakamura. David was a mercurial, very talented performer, and we reconnected at Montclair. I know David had seen Infinity Baby, saw his friends, Martin [Starr] and Kevin [Corrigan], in the movie and was like, “Yeah, I want to be in one of those.” So, we did Frances Ferguson in the middle of nowhere.

Krumholtz: In an effort to make myself seem even cooler than I am, I’m friends with [Infinity Baby star] Kieran Culkin too. Go on, Bob.

Byington: With Lousy Carter, I really wanted David to be in it, and one thing led to another. He vaulted out of the Kaminsky role into the lead in a way that feels very organic now.

Filmmaker: Bob, you mentioned in the press kit that the part was not always originally for David, that there was a version in which Jay Duplass would have starred. But when you understood that it was going to be David, did that entail any kind of rewriting?

Byington: I don’t think so. David would probably know if there were many changes.

Krumholtz: For the record, I just want to say I’m Jay Duplass’s favorite actor. That’s not a lie, or at least that’s what he told me. So, it might be a lie, but it wouldn’t be my lie. Anyway, it didn’t change much, except maybe the physical character description, although I don’t think there was one. Jay and I are very different, but I was tubby.

Filmmaker: When you knew that you were going to be taking on the lead, was there anything you had learned working with Bob previously that you needed to do in particular to prepare?

Krumholtz: I only really did one day on Frances Ferguson. I didn’t really have much time to think or worry about my relationship with Bob, because we were shooting nine pages a day of heavy dialogue. That really was my concern, and Bob’s as well—to make sure that I was word-for-word. It was difficult, because Bob writes very specific dialogue. I wanted to make Bob’s film for Bob, and that was my focus. I was aware that Bob meant well the whole time.

Filmmaker: Bob, do you find yourself being somebody who speaks to different actors in different ways? Because you’ve worked with both professionals and non-professionals in the same film before, I don’t know if you find yourself switching gears or if it’s just working with everybody to get things done in a timely fashion.

Byington: I want to believe that I am good at my job, and part of that is communicating effectively with each actor. It’s a good question though. I think my answer is, I don’t know. For example, Martin Starr, who had some scenes with David, I have a different relationship with Martin. I’m not combative with Martin, and I’m combative with David, and that’s just a natural dynamic. And we rehearsed a ton with the lead actress, Luxy [Banner, initially an intern on the production]. We had to get her on the level of these phenomenal actors so she could be in scenes with David, and that was not easy. I think we pulled it off. I think she steals scenes, frankly, and I think she’s beguilingly talented and interesting.

Filmmaker: When you’re trying to shoot nine pages of dialogue a day on what I assume is not an overwhelmingly long schedule, do you guys find yourselves dividing up working with actors? Is it a thing where Bob is running around trying to do technical stuff, and David, you find yourself slipping a little into the role of acting coach?

Byington: Oh boy, what a loaded question that is.

Krumholtz: No, I don’t. I wouldn’t say that Bob is too specific about technical direction, camera stuff. He really is immersed in telling the story, because he’s the writer and it’s his story. So, his concern more is performance, and I didn’t have to coach anyone, plus it’s not my job. Some actors take kindly to another actor saying, “Hey, try this,” and some don’t. So, I’ve learned to be a little more scrutinizing prior to saying something. It’s important to maintain a friendly relationship with an actor I’m working with, so I don’t want to say anything that might hurt them at the risk of losing that. Ultimately, the camaraderie and chemistry comes from two actors relating to each other off screen. I’m open to all kinds of stuff from actors, but I know a lot of actors aren’t, and I’ve had the experience of trying to do that with actors and having them bristle. So, I try not to do that.

Filmmaker: How many shooting days do you have?

Byington: 15.

Filmmaker: Did you find that having that one big location [the Baker School] where so much of it took place was that was helpful for you in order to be able to focus and not worry about moving around. or was it claustrophobic because everyone was just there all the time?

Byington: Oh, no, quite the opposite. We could not have done the movie without that location. It was like shooting in a studio. It created the tone of the film. I’m very grateful to Tim League—being able to get that location was everything. Even the scenes at the funeral home, with the funeral director played by Andrew Bujalski, was filmed at an adjacent building on the same property.

Filmmaker: Bob, you mentioned in the press kit that during when you were shooting the seminar scenes, you had COVID. Were you off-set, working through Zoom and trying to keep an eye on things?

Byington: No, I was laid up at home when we were prepping them. So, they just never materialized the way—I mean, when you’re doing press for a movie, you don’t like to talk about scenes that didn’t come off, that aren’t in the movie. But I guess that’s what that press kit says, that the movie doesn’t have the type of classroom presence that it might have had if we’d have had a little more time to prep that material. David was partly cast because of how well he handled the group environments in Francis Ferguson and it would have been nice to have a more freewheeling atmosphere. It just didn’t happen.

Filmmaker: You’ve taught, right? Is that a regular thing that you’ve done over the years that meaningfully informed the depiction of teaching in the film, or is it something that you do that doesn’t bear much relationship to how teaching is shown in the film?

Byington: I’ve taught a few times in a few places and yeah, it impacted the film. I wasn’t a very good teacher and was always struck by the fact that these students got a bad deal getting me as a teacher. I felt kind of guilty and wanted to put a relatively unrepentant, not very good teacher in the movie.

Filmmaker: Did you reread The Great Gatsby?

Byginton: I love that. But David’s not a fan.

Filmmaker: Why do you not?

Krumholtz: I’ve never read it. I saw the movie. I figured that was enough. Bob wanted me to read it and I didn’t. That’s still a point of contention to this day. He also gave me the Nabokov novel [Laughter in the Dark, which Carter is working on an adaptation of]. I didn’t read that either.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the editing and ADR process and how that changed things, if at all?

Krumholtz: I don’t remember doing a lot of ADR on this—a couple tiny things that I did on an iPhone.

Byington: There wasn’t much. The edit was protracted and I wish I knew how to work on an edit without making it a protracted process. I’ve worked with the same editor [Kris Boustedt] for nine years now, and it’s like the movie’s 90% done after four months, then we spent another year doing the remaining 10%. I’m sure you’ve heard versions of that, but it’s just not possible to imagine releasing that 90% finished version, although you probably wouldn’t really be able to tell much of a difference between that and the final version. It’s something I’m working on.

Filmmaker: When you shoot, do you like to roll take after take without resetting in between? Do you do a small number of takes? Is it just all over the place based on the scene?

Byington: It depends on the scene. We’ll keep rolling and sometimes I’ll have a suggestion over the camera, which I don’t think the actors are super fond of but it’s hard to tell. And David can improvise if he’s set up correctly. Some of my favorite stuff in the movie is certainly when he’s improvising. He did a lot of improv in the scene with Luxy after class, when they’re talking about the book and he’s telling her that he’s not attracted to her.

Krumholtz: But Bob had to say, “Hey, do one where you just say a bunch of shit.” We got what was on paper in the can first. What I’m saying is, I didn’t do it without permission. It wasn’t like I suddenly just started improvising to make things better or change things.

Filmmaker: There’s a very particular cadence to your dialogue, which is pretty rhythmically distinctive. When you write, is it something that you feel like a beat and you don’t need to consciously sound it out to know what it will sound like?

Byington: Well, for this script, I had a subscription to Criterion and I’d heard David Mamet doing a commentary for one of his films, I think House of Games. And during the credits, he was complaining about the distributor and being really fucking funny. And I was like, “That’s what I want to do with this script.” I wanted to do the way David Mamet was talking during the last five minutes of this commentary when he was complaining about the distributor. I’m not saying I want to rip off David Mamet. I want to rip off the last five minutes of that commentary. If you can listen to it, it’s unbelievably funny.

Filmmaker: I’m wondering what it’s like for you guys to have this tag team effort of getting the film out into the world. It’s not the first time you guys have spoken together on behalf of the film, or a film, and you’ll speak together probably about it again a bunch before this interview is published. It has a really nice get-out-and-push feeling to it. But I don’t know what it’s like for you to negotiate that.

Krumtholz: I think it’s good to have two different approaches. This isn’t a vaudeville act; there’s no putting on anything. Bob and I are similar in a lot of ways. I don’t know if Bob feels more comfortable doing stuff with me or without me, but I like Bob. And I like doing these interviews with Bob, because I do have to watch what I say, because I don’t like to upset him. Whereas when I’m not doing interviews with Bob, I typically feel more free to say funny things about Bob, talk shit behind his back. I think both approaches work for publicizing this particular film. I love Bob, and I love doing this with Bob, and with every passing day, I come to love and respect Bob more. I’m at a point now where we’re in the exponential bonus round, where I’m loving on Bob more than I ever thought I would.

Byington: You really like to say my name.

Filmamker: Bob, I’m sorry to throw interview quotes at you from 12 years ago. But when you were talking to Texas Monthly about Someone Up There Likes Me, at one point you say to the reporter that maybe they should be talking to Nick Offerman, because he’s the person that the attention is going to go to. [“If a filmmaker wants to survive, they do have to create something of an identity, and I’m aware of that. But Nick is exponentially more well-known than I am, and it just seems sounder to focus the attention on him.”] It seems like over the years, you’ve adjusted pretty well to the idea that you have these names who lead your films and attention is going to devolve on them. Are you comfortable with putting this kind of extra emphasis on the lead performers of your films?

Byington: Absolutely. David is 170 times more famous than me. I’d much rather have people be like, “Oh, yeah, I want to watch that David Krumholtz movie.” I have like 700 fans in the United States, and David has whatever 700 times 170 is.

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