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C.O.G.’s Kyle Patrick Alvarez on the Art of Indie Adaptation

Alvarez (background) on the set of C.O.G. with Jonathan Groff and Denis O'Hare

Kyle Patrick Alvarez has carved out an unusual niche for himself within American independent cinema; as he himself comments, “Everyone keeps on joking I have This American Life authors named David cornered now.” Alvarez made his feature debut in 2009 with Easier with Practice, a poignant, heartfelt drama about a young man who begins a phone relationship, initially sexual and then later also romantic, with a woman (or is it?) who randomly calls a motel room he’s staying in. Based on an autobiographical essay, “What Are You Wearing?”, written for GQ by This American Life contributor Davy Rothbart, the film debuted at CineVegas, had a small theatrical release the following winter and deservedly won Alvarez the Someone to Watch Award at the Spirits.

The promise of Easier with Practice is realized in Alvarez’s sophomore effort, C.O.G., which comes out today in theaters and on VOD through Focus World. Adapted from a segment of the same name from David Sedaris’ Naked, the film tells the story of the a defining summer in his life when the young Sedaris (Jonathan Groff), then a cocky and snobbish Ivy League graduate, went to pick apples in Oregon among “real” people but ultimately found himself apprenticed to Jon (Denis O’Hare), helping him fashion stone clocks in the shape of the Beaver State. Blessed with two resonant performances by its two leads, C.O.G. is not what one might expect from a Sedaris adaptation: there is no voiceover, no dry commentary, but instead Alvarez incisively and compassionately tackles the human drama in the tale in which there is an complex interplay by elements of the comic and dramatic.

In the second part of Filmmaker‘s interview with Alvarez, he discusses his approach to the art of adaptation over the course of his two films. (You can read part one here.)

Filmmaker: What was your filmmaking background prior to Easier with Practice?

Alvarez: I studied film at the University of Miami and moved out to L.A. and started working as a production assistant at a production company. I got no credits or anything there, so you can’t connect me with who I was working with, but this production company experience was almost cliché — there was no one with nearly the level of credits or intellect of Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin. It was those kind of stories you hear: I saw staplers thrown at people, I got the taste of that. Then I went and worked for Warren Beatty for a year as an assistant for him, which was a good experience. Nothing was thrown at anyone. It was an intense experience for sure, but a good one. At that point I was like, “God, I need to go make a movie.” Maybe six months earlier, Brick had opened in theaters. I read a lot about how they pulled the money together. Easier with Practice was going to be a different movie than that, but it just was one of those moments where I could see how it could be put together and how a reasonable budget could make something that would feel like it came from me. And that’s when I read this article in GQ and started chasing it down. It took three-and-a-half years from reading that article to going into production.

Filmmaker: I know that for some people, when they connect with material, it’s almost too painful for them to reach out to the author and find out whether it’s been optioned already. How did you approach the process of getting the movie going? Was it to contact Davy first?

Alvarez: Yeah, in some ways it was not too dissimilar to how C.O.G. came together, which was I read the article, and then I had a friend who was an assistant at an agency at the time who made the first call to Davy’s agent. This was actually really pre-Facebook, so there wasn’t really that level of access to people. Like, I could’ve written Davy@FoundMagazine.com, [but] that just didn’t feel like the right first step. So I had my friend call his agent. The call came in from an agency number; it just sort of helped get that first step in. It took a couple of months, but eventually Davy and I got on the phone and I laid out what I was interested in doing. It ultimately was the same thing I pitched to Sedaris, which was I wasn’t really interested in taking his life or his persona or even someone that looked like him or would talk like him.

I just liked the story – I thought it was just a good story. That it was true was nice, but it wasn’t even essential. I think he really liked that because Davy’s obviously in filmmaking, too, and has at different times various versions of Found Magazine existing in different forms. I don’t think he was necessarily interested in handing over all of his life’s work, but this one article he’d written a handful of months earlier at GQ, that seemed interesting to see what someone would do with it. I think it was a right time, right place, right story kind of situation. So I started there. I didn’t have a lawyer, which was a mistake, and had to learn how to write an option agreement and read an option agreement and negotiate an option agreement all on my own, which is helpful. I’m glad I have that now. I know how to read a contract, which sounds silly, but it’s actually an incredibly important thing. Once the script was written, then you could start rallying some people and sharing it with people and getting producers to help work with you. Once you have the script written, then you can actually start working with other people, which is why the writing process for me can be such a struggle because you’re on your own, you know?

Filmmaker: Can you talk about just from a writer’s perspective: the way that you approached the adaptation on Easier with Practice, and the extent to which you worked with Davy. Did you feel that you had license to make any changes that you felt were necessary?

Alvarez: I think told him that much. Sedaris was much more like, “You go do what you’re going to do with it. If you have anything you can ask me, but I’m not interested in reading the script, etc.” But Davy wasn’t necessarily interested in controlling or approving or anything like that, but it was his life and he was just curious to see what I was going to do with it. So there was definitely more communication along the way and a couple of questions here or there and stuff, It’s not so much that I am eager to get that person out of the process. Even with Sedaris, I even said, “We don’t even have to sign an agreement, just let me write 90 pages, 100 pages. If you don’t like it, I’ll let this go.” I never want to make something that the original person would be unhappy with, but at the same time, my aim is more to just try to find my [way into the story] —I’m attracted to the stories, not necessarily the people. Even in the case with Sedaris, I wasn’t interested in really making a “David Sedaris movie,” I was interested in making C.O.G. into a movie. And I think they’d be very different things.

I think if I was trying to make a David Sedaris movie, obviously I would’ve approached it completely differently, and Sedaris would not have OKed it. I think that that’s what he’s been down in the past with Me Talk Pretty One Day; that took the wholesale greatest hits approach. And my approach wasn’t to sort of be either Davy or David… You know, everyone keeps on joking I have This American Life authors named David cornered now. It’s like, David Rakoff; I think there’s maybe one other that I would need to go to next. But, I don’t know. They were interesting stories to me that I thought tackled the scenes that I was interested in, and they were good starting off points, you know? In some cases, there were specific scenes I was interested in and wanted to turn. Obviously in Easier with Practice, it was that last scene in the diner. What was interesting to me was like, how do you get the audience there? How do you get the characters there? How do you get that to a place that the resolution of this movie isn’t really melodrama, but sincerity between two people?

With C.O.G., there was a lot of circumstances there I thought were really funny, like obviously in Curly’s room, but also the last scene – I thought that there was something emotionally true about how it ended. What really excited me was the whole movie wouldn’t work without that final scene, and how do you make that movie that’s part comedic and part serious character drama? The challenge was how do you make a movie that does both those things? And that was the hard part of getting it financed. That was the hard part of making it and that was the hard part of selling the final film because you go in and expect one thing, and you leave with a different thing. I was interested in that. I think that it might throw some people off or anger some people, but I thought it was a risk worth taking.

Filmmaker: I recently read the story that Easier with Practice is based upon, and you managed to expand what was there, while sort of keeping the spirit and sort of the feeling of the original, which seems to me the aim.

Alvarez: I’m glad to hear that. For me, it’s about not necessarily even the specificity of lines or moments or character traits, even. Obviously Davy in the movie is very different than Davy in real life. But [what interests me is,] what is the emotion that that article or that story, what does it invoke that I find interesting, and trying to hold onto that?

Filmmaker: To go back to C.O.G., you mentioned how you approached David Sedaris – what was the agreement that you had with him? Did you end up formalizing it or did you go ahead with essentially writing on spec then getting approval from him?

Alvarez: No, we ended up formalizing it, for which I have to give the credit to him. He has a very straightforward and refreshing way, and he said, “Well, if I’m going to say yes, I’m going to let you go do this,” and not, “I shouldn’t say yes.” And so, it of course took time between lawyers and I had very little money to pay, and so that took some time, but no more than a few months. It was definitely formalized but he never really was interested in reading the script or anything like that. I don’t think he was actively uninterested, I just think he thought that if my whole pitch to him was I’m going to go and create this thing that’s going to kind of be different than him, then he should let me go and do that. And I really admire that. I don’t know if I’d have the guts to just hand it over to someone and not try to control it in any capacity. And I think part of that’s David Sedaris himself, who really isn’t interested in being a filmmaker.

I think part of it, too, is just trusting someone and trusting the process they’re going to go through. When I made changes and when I was going to cast someone that doesn’t look or sound like him and make changes to his character, I just kept that in the back of my mind: well, this is what he asked of you. So, at the end of the day, if fans might be disappointed, I’d feel much worse if I disappointed David, you know? It’s not so much, “Oh, does he like the film or not?” but “Did I stay true to what I told him I was going to do?” And I think if I were to go back and reread my first six-page email to him, I feel fairly confident that the movie I pitched to him is exactly what the final movie is. That’s why it took a long time to finance, because we had to keep on cutting the budget down because I wasn’t interested in changing fundamentally what it was. I promised him no voiceover and all these things, and I was very stubborn with that because at the end of the day I just had to rather not see the movie happen than happen the wrong way.

Filmmaker: As you touched on before, it presumably would’ve been a much easier proposition had it been “the David Sedaris movie,” rather than just an adaptation of the essay.

Alvarez: Oh, absolutely. You don’t know how many times people have been like, “Well, we’ll consider financing if you add voiceover and if you add these jokes.” I mean, there’s so many great punchlines from the story that just had to go. I couldn’t put them in because they didn’t suddenly start making sense in the version I was making. It was tricky because on one hand, I admired him so much, but on the other hand, I tasked myself with making it something that would exist in its own right.

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