How To Make A Funny Movie About Making An Awful Movie
November 29, 2016
Screenwriters/saboteurs Dave Segal, Chioke Nassor, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Joel Clark, and Adam Conover.
“The Exquisite Corpse Project is a very strange movie” is the simple way to explain it. Layering self-reference upon self-reference, the film starts where the filming started — the director, Ben Popik, invited five friends (his three best friends and their two less–best friends) to his apartment on January 1, 2010, and proposed a challenge: the summoned men would write a movie together, 15 pages at a time, having read only the last five pages of the preceding section. Popik filmed the initial meeting and told his friends he would make a “making-of” documentary about this Frankenstein’s monster of a movie and splice that documentary into it as well. After some fuss, everyone agreed to do it. The order of screenwriters was chosen randomly: Chioke Nassor was exempt from the five-pages-of-the-preceding-section rule because he wrote the first 15 pages.
If it sounds complicated, yes.
The Exquisite Corpse Project is extraordinarily meta (the first spoken words in the movie are “I’ve got a really good first line”). Conceived as a last hurrah for Popik’s disbanded comedy group before he moved to Central America, it veers at times into therapy: during the interviews in the film, the filmmakers frequently discuss their disappointment in their friends, the screenplay, and the project, simultaneously sarcastic and earnest in an endearing form of bad-good faith. The documentary-narrative hybrid, described by Adam Frucci as “a comedy about making comedy,” had its “wide release” April 24, 2013 through Frucci’s website, Splitsider. It’s $5. Splitsider launched Splitsider Presents, an online film distribution company, with Exquisite Corpse, and Eric Spiegelman, who runs Splitsider Presents, said it “probably would not have happened without this film.”
The stars of the narrative sections of the film, played by Megan Raye Manzi and Caleb Bark, stage a fake holdup in one of the many odd storylines of the film. “There was never any pressure to be good,” Manzi said of the film, to which the director presciently replied, “Pull-quote.”
The movie varies wildly in tone, with each writer committed to his own vision and often, for the writers in the middle, bent on sabotaging the succeeding writer. Since the filmmakers were involved in a sketch comedy group started at Bard College, I told Popik and screenwriter Raphael Bob-Waksberg that the movie did not have the cooperative “yes, and” vibe of college improv. They quickly noted that their group, Olde English, was a sketch group, not an improv group.
“We’re big on ‘No and,’” Bob-Waksberg said.
“‘No, but,’” Popik said.
“‘No, but also fuck you,’” said Bob-Waksberg. “And also ‘I’m great.’”
Popik said he financed the movie personally with approximately $75,000 and a zillion favors. The stitched-together screenplay was written in five weeks (one week per 15-page section), and the narrative film within the Exquisite Corpse was shot in three and a half manic weeks in Brooklyn. Popik continued to shoot documentary footage of himself and his friends for another year after that.
The film within the film begins as a quirky hipster love story (yes, there’s a lot of voice-over), then becomes a weird children’s special, then a thriller, then a science-fiction brother-buddy adventure, and then collapses into itself as a sweet, sad, self-doubting look at the disjointedness of life. Popik says that he and the five writers are the only people to have seen the film cut together without the documentary footage, and we see them remark with some surprise in Corpse that it’s “watchable!” “It’s okay!” says screenwriter Dave Segal. It seems like it would be: the narrative sections are overall charming and full of warm comedy. Adam Conover, the professional comedian in the group, wrote the only section that relies heavily on a tired joke (read: a Mr. Miyagi–style racial stereotype).
Ultimately, the movie is about friendship, and staying together while growing up and apart. “When I was younger, everything made sense,” says the main character, Adayit/Meg, toward the end of the film, “and then at some point, slowly, gradually, the pieces just stopped fitting together.”
Bob-Waksberg, the most apparently neurotic of the group, penned this line in the final section, and it appears to ring true for the writers as well. All of them, at one point or another, question their friendships and the project.
After a Los Angeles screening, Segal said, “This was actually a really helpful thing.”
“If you guys ever have a problem with anybody…” Bob-Waksberg said.
Segal finished his sentence. “Make a documentary.”