Talking with comedian and actor Gregg Turkington about the sad life of Neil Hamburger

  • Jake Tired
  • July 22, 2016
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Amongst other things, Gregg Turkington and Tim Heidecker spoke briefly in their comedy The Comedy about what the life of Gregg’s alter ego Neil Hamburger would be like offstage. It was almost four years on when we finally got to see exactly how that life would be in his latest film, Entertainment.

One time Australian Gregg Turkington took a call with The Iris to tell us about how the film came together and what  the future holds for Neil Hamburger.

So you were born in Australia, do you feel like you’re a little Australian on the inside?

I was born in Darwin, but my parents are American and they were only in Australia for a couple of years, so I was born there but didn’t grow up there. Later because I married an Australian girl I did move back there, and lived in Melbourne for several years. I mean I don’t have the accent but I love it there and going back and living there as an adult I loved it. I didn’t really want to leave, it was just a great place to live.

So you’re making plans to come back?

I try to get there almost every year; I’ve been doing tours there since 1999-2000 something like that. I’ve played every state and territory there is. Definitely will be coming back frequently.

So you are a co-writer on Entertainment with with Rick Alverson, how did you guys get together and start working on this project? Was it developed from the conversation between yourself and Tim Heidecker in The Comedy on the life of Neil Hamburger off stage?

When we were doing the comedy, we were just hanging out and talking about all kinds of things and that was one thing that was mentioned, Rick said he was kind of interested in at one point exploring the Neil Hamburger character in depth. It was something we talked about every time we were together and then myself, Rick and Tim went on a little road trip and knocked together the first version of the script.

Was that a difficult process, working on the script with three writers?

We don’t write the dialogue, we kind of plot out the different scenarios and characters and things that are going to happen. So we were throwing things out there and then discussing and then writing them up and piecing them together and removing them, we just kept finessing the thing for ages and hoping some financing would come through. It was definitely a couple years of finessing and tweaking before we had the script we ended up shooting with.

The landscapes for the film are amazing, were these places you had known about before shooting?

A lot of those places were. I took Rick to see those spots because he is from the East Coast and he hadn’t been out to these places in the Mojave Desert. So we went on a little road trip and had a look around and he knew of this really great Mexican cinematographer named Lorenzo Hagerman who had done a film called Heli and which Rick liked the look of and the landscapes were similar in certain ways and he though it would be great at capturing this stuff and he really flipped for the landscapes and for the areas that were chosen.

A lot of the critics have said the film is quite difficult to watch, but purposely so, was this your intention?

It depends what you are looking for, if you’re after a Mission Impossible movie then this would be extremely difficult to watch but if you liked weird art films, if you liked the Two-Lane Blacktop or something it would probably be really easy to watch. We definitely weren’t too concerned about making the movie to please everyone, that’s for sure.

You did mention Two-Lane Blacktop, was that kind of an inspiration for the film?

It was at least something when Rick and I were discussing what type of movie we wanted our movie to be like that we both agreed on, so it was a touchstone but we weren’t sitting there trying to replicate anything but it was a movie that influenced both of us and that we really liked the mood of and the bravery of, because to me that movie is as fascinating as any movie I’ve ever seen. But there would be people who would say what the hell was that because there was no plot but to me a traditional plot wasn’t needed, as it was fascinating from beginning to end. So we wanted to go into this with that same sort of attitude about it.

So in the film there are a lot of cameos on the film, most notably John C. Reilly and Michael Cera, how did that come about, getting those guys on board?

Well when you are sort of creating the world of this character it’s really a character study of one person and these other people weave in and out and it was important to have these secondary characters to be portrayed properly and for the ones we’d discussed those guys were perfect. There were other characters where we did the opposite and chose people whom and never acted before or been on camera before, so it was just dependant on the character and what was needed. John was really amazing at improvising the dialogue and coming up with these hilarious and really passive aggressive things that his character was saying to me and every take he had something that was completely mind blowing and he completely nailed it and was just so much fun to work with, I just think for that character a non actor wouldn’t have worked.

So how much of the dialogue was actually improvised? Was it all of it?

Almost everything. Some of the stuff with Michael Cera was written and that was strictly due to necessity he was kind enough to come out during a play he was doing, we really only has a few hours to shoot with him so we didn’t have time to screw around. We were shooting out in a public restroom as well so it was helpful to be able to give him some dialogue to think about but in the end he did improvise a bunch of other stuff but that was the only part that was scripted, even if he didn’t use all the lines and did some of his own things. And that was strictly due to time restrictions, we had him for about six hours he had to fly out from Chicago, drive out to the middle of the desert shoot the scene and then drive back to LAX and fly back to Chicago. So really it was almost impossible, and we didn’t want to strand him, we wanted to make the most of our time with him so we sort of planned that part out.

So you would have preferred some more time with him but it just couldn’t really happen?

I mean that’s the rule for the entire movie. We were shooting on a very low budget so everything was like that, every location costs and you have a crew sitting around and you have a movie that probably needed twice as much money and twice as much time as it did. It was tough but that scene was extra tough because we were shooting in a public restroom out in the middle of the desert and you get people that want to use the restroom, so we had all these things going on in the rest area and we had to move quickly.

So was that anything like shooting in the military base?

Yeah I think we had three hours there, you know so that was another tough one. You just got to make it work as they say sometimes necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes it’s good not to have as many choices. The other stuff that we shot that didn’t work, we cut because sometimes the location didn’t pan out or even the lighting didn’t work. When you have these low budget films you have to be smart with what you got.

So does this mean there’s a lot left on the cutting room floor?

There are definitely some characters and some scenes and things that didn’t make it into the movie. In some cases there was nothing really wrong with the scenes but they just didn’t fit the trajectory of the film and how it turned out. Some of these scenes are attached to the DVD that came out in America as deleted scenes, I know that Dean Stockwell had a lot more going on then what you see in the film and that is all on the DVD, that whole character is fleshed out a lot more.

Talking about the trajectory of the film, would you be able to label it under a single genre, between drama and comedy?

I would say it’s a drama with almost inappropriately funny moments that sort of pop up within the midst of all the misery.

A lot of your work seems very satirical and dry; do you think there’s something wrong with conventional comedy as it currently is?

I think that a good drama is often very funny, and then a really good comedy should also have moments of drama. You don’t want to just have something with people just slipping on banana peels for two hours; you hopefully have some sort of message to impart to the world. Comedy is one way to express these things, sometimes it’s not as respected as other ways but in the case of this film, the character of Neil Hamburger the comedian he is based on has always had a sort of glum, depressed and serious side to it. So it really never made sense for this film to be anything but a drama. If you were making a movie about Carrot Top or another comedian then a drama probably wouldn’t be the right way to go.

What then is the future for Neil Hamburger, will we see more of his character explored like this?

I think as far as the movie goes we’ve said what we needed to say. It’s still a touring entity and I often tour Australia as I said. I’ve done many tours there with Doctor El Suavo the magician from Melbourne and I’ll be back again doing the Neil Hamburger show but as far as films, we’ve said what was necessary.

So right now you are working on On Cinema and it’s return on July 27th as well as the fourth season of Decker, which is airing currently, so is there anything else you are currently involved with?

Well Decker is currently airing over here and I was told it’s going to be coming to TV over there (in Australia) some time very very shortly. I believe it was the Comedy Channel running some of the Adult Swim stuff. I’ve always got my hands involved in all kinds of things but that’s definitely enough for now Decker and On Cinema, it’s a whole big world there and we’ve got our hands full with that stuff.

Do you prefer being in front of the camera then or being behind it in the production or writing roles?

I kind of like live performance more than anything and that’s sort of what I cut my teeth on. I do like writing stuff with Tim we have a lot of fun but I think that it’s live performance that I believe I’m really cut for.

Well thanks for taking the time Gregg, have a good weekend.

Entertainment has been released nationally on DVD and Video-on-Demand.