Most people recognize B.J. Novak as “Ryan” from the NBC sitcom “The Office” in which he also serves as a writer, executive producer, and director of the show. After appearing in films that include “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Founder,” the Massachusetts-born actor makes his feature film directing debut by tackling all things Texas with the dark comedy “Vengeance” from Blumhouse Productions.
Novak plays New York podcaster Ben Manalowtiz who travels to West Texas for a story after receiving an awkward phone call that his girlfriend Abby is dead. The only problem, Ben doesn’t have a girlfriend. Let’s just say random hookups are more his thing. He scours through his Instagram to see if he even knows Abby, when suddenly there she is, Abilene Shaw. Girlfriend? No. Random hookup? Yes.
Guilt-ridden by the fact that he couldn’t remember her and the distraught voice on the phone, Abby’s brother Ty (a very funny Boyd Holbrook), keeps insisting that the family knows how “close” they were, Ben calls his producer Eloise (Issa Rae) to inform her that he’s headed to the Lone Star State to attend the funeral, meet the family, and hopefully come up with a story for his podcast.
Along the way, Ben befriends the family, a colorful bunch whose names range from younger brother El Stupido (Eli Bickel) to sisters Paris (Isabella Amara) and Kansas City played by pop singer Dove Cameron whose music wasn’t on Novak’s radar. He just knew she had 50 million followers on social media and took cute selfies. The most surprising part of the cast is Ashton Kutcher as larger-than-life record producer Quentin, a cross between Boss Hogg from “The Dukes of Hazzard” and the fictional villain Svengali from the romantic novel “Trilby”, with an intellectual twist. Kutcher hasn’t been on moviegoers’ minds since playing Steve Jobs almost a decade ago. His welcomed return is a great addition to the first-rate cast.
“Vengeance” gets its title from the film’s plot. Ty is not convinced that his sister’s death was an accidental overdose. He believes she was murdered and vows to avenge her death with the help of Ben who informs Ty, “As a personal boundary, I don’t avenge deaths” but he promises to help Ty get to the bottom of what he believes happened by interviewing people and recording everything for his podcast.
The film gravitates from comedy and Texas stereotypes into dark territory that highlights the opioid crisis while Novak’s character undergoes a transformation (for the better) over the course of the film.
Recently I jumped on a Zoom call with Novak as he chomped on Austin BBQ to discuss “Vengeance” and his take on Texas included the sacred institution Whataburger which is featured prominently in the film.
Ok, right off the bat. Settle the debate. Which is better? Whataburger or In-N-Out Burger?
I’m 5’9”. To me the In-N-Out burger is compact. It’s a perfect size. Perfect amount of flavor. In-N-Out is a very precision weapon. Whataburger as an institution, as a restaurant, takes the prize. It is a much bigger menu, the shakes are better, the fries are better, and the ketchup is better. Everything is better at Whataburger, but I am habituated to the In-N-Out burger. The drinks are also better at Whataburger, and I love that they don’t sell bottled water.
The film was inspired by your real-life breakup, so I’m wondering how much of you is in the character Ben. Are there similarities between the two of you?
Way too many. But I like to think I’m more like Ben at the end of the movie than Ben at the beginning of the movie. The journey of this character is really someone that we can laugh at but hopefully relate to a little bit. He’s like a douchebag in our family type of guy. He’s somewhat shallow, somewhat superficial, and a know-it-all, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s not evil. He’s just kind of lost and needs to grow up, and have his heart opened.
Also, the character’s story arc involves a big transformation.
He’s taken way out of his comfort zone in Texas. Ben is forced to listen to people instead of stereotyping them. By the end of the movie, he’s a much more complex person, for better and worse. So, I like to think that I’m now more like Ben at the end of the film. When I started writing “Vengeance,” I was more like the character at the beginning.
Before shooting, you traveled to Texas to familiarize yourself with the people and the culture. Like most people who travel down here for the first time, I’m sure you had this preconceived notion of us. What surprised you the most about Texas?
I think the most profound thing I realized was how welcoming and warm the people were, which was such a paradox from the intimidating image they project to the rest of the world. The whole “Don’t Mess with Texas” and “Everything is Bigger in Texas” we take that seriously! We’re like, “Whoa, this sounds like I’m going to get beat up down there.” Honestly, I’ve never been treated with more compassion and open-mindedness anywhere I’ve been. That was the most profound surprise to me.
Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions is known primarily for horror. How does “Vengeance” a comedy fit into the scheme of things? It’s a dark comedy so do you think partnering with Blumhouse was natural or does this partnership signify a new chapter for Blumhouse?
I think a combination of those two things. What Blumhouse does already is take risks. They take chances on first-time filmmakers with smaller budgets and big ideas and turn them into popcorn movies. That’s what they did with “Get Out” which is why I wanted to do the movie with them but with a comedy and a thriller. So, in that sense, it’s what they’ve always done, but in another sense, I think they are growing as a company. They are always expanding. Blumhouse always has an eye on their audience which is cool.
Ashton Kutcher doesn’t appear in too many films these days. How did you convince him to step back behind the camera?
These days Ashton is so well known in the tech world. He’s one of their top investors, he’s business-minded, and he’s also a prolific TV producer. I thought, “Wait, I have this amazing opportunity here if I can convince him to be in the movie.” I see him socially now and then since we did “Punk’d” together, my first TV job. I knew how charismatic and intelligent he was but that wasn’t on peoples’ radar. He’s often seen in romantic comedies playing the charming guy. So, I thought I have this great opportunity to present him in a new way. He really went beyond my wildest dreams.
Dove Cameron is the movie. Her song “Boyfriend” is climbing the Billboard charts. Did you think about giving her a scene utilizing her vocal talents?
You know I did try to sneak a song in there, but it didn’t fit the scene, which is so much better and funnier, shorter. At the end of the day, it would have been a cheap move. It’s way better to show the world that Dove Cameron can act.
I usually ask directors what they hope the audience will take away from the film. Instead, I’ll ask you about what you want Texans to get from “Vengeance.”
It really matters to me to make a movie in the great tradition of Texas films. I wanted to represent real people in these characters not just stereotypes, although they are a part of real life too and Texans love busting each other’s balls. I just hope they enjoy it.
“Vengeance” opens Friday, July 29 in theaters