In the first two feature films of his career, director/writer Patrick Brice finds a way to create comedy out of uncomfortable circumstances. In “Creep,” a freelance videographer (played by Brice himself) answers a vague ad on Craigslist about helping a guy shoot a video. The job becomes a lot more sinister than anticipated. In “The Overnight,” a husband and wife (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) and their young son accept an invitation to dinner and a family “playdate” at the home of a well-to-do couple and their kid. The evening, however, doesn’t play out like anyone imagined.
During an interview with me at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Brice, who earned his BFA in Film from the California Institute of the Arts, talked about what he looks for when he writes comedy and what his goals are as a new filmmaker. “The Overnight” is currently playing in theaters. “Creep” can be found on VOD platforms.
How do you approach comedy as a writer? Your two most recent films “The Overnight” and “Creep” have comedic elements, of course, but there’s a dark sense of humor to both of them.
For me it’s just a chance to indulge in my own taste. I’ve always found a lot of humor in darker situations that, when put in a movie, would incorporate a lot of narrative tension. It’s not a stretch for me coming up with this stuff in both of these movies. It’s a chance to play in different sandboxes, whether it’s a found footage horror movie or a flat-out comedy. Both of these movies have that kind of same comedic sensibility. Making “Creep” was a lot of fun because that was an improvised film from a 10-page outline. We made it in a short amount of time. It was just [actor] Mark [Duplass], me and a movie camera. Having that experience of discovering a film during the process of making it was helpful going into “The Overnight.” It was just a matter of listening to and following my own instincts.
You wrote both “The Overnight” and “Creep.” When you’re writing a screenplay, how do you like to work? Do you have to lock yourself away from everyone and everything to get it done?
I think it’s hard because there are so many more distractions nowadays. Committing to a project that takes more time is difficult. It’s taking a leap of faith going into writing a script. The scriptwriting process, unless you’re Superman, is going to take a few months. It’s going to be something you devote a lot of time to. You have to be your own critic while you do it. For me, it’s hard to get rid of all the distractions and get to that point where you can write something. I usually start with an outline then do a sort of brain dump and structure the script from that point. There are certain beats you have to hit. I want to make sure I’m hitting them in the outline phase before going into writing the script. It’s harder to work around the script once it is fully formed.
As someone who is new to the industry, what is going on in your head when you start getting calls that actors like Adam Scott and Jason Schwartman want to be in your movie?
I did not think I was going to be able to get performers of that level. It was all a nice surprise. It’s nice that all of them read the script and responded to it. Each person we offered the part to said yes. It was hugely validating as a writer to have these guys respond in the way they did. It’s not normal. What helped is having Mark Duplass as a producer and his track record with these kind of movies and the way he makes them and puts them out in the world. It can be enticing for an actor, for sure. Once we met with each other, it was a really fluid process. Because we shot the movie so quickly, we had no rehearsals. The creation of the tone and any discussions about character stuff all took place in maybe one or two individual meetings with the actors. It was cool because it almost made it feel like we were creating a play. The film has that feeling to it.
You’re talking about the tone of “The Overnight” coming from a natural place. Did that include some of the more uncomfortable sexual scenes that happen? How did you confront those scenes?
For us, everyone was super professional. It was such a small crew and production that we were all on the same page from day one. It was never really uncomfortable. I think all that discomfort kind of existed in the movie through the characters and the performances. I think the last scene of the movie – not to give anything away – is kind of an intense scene. I think everyone was sort of nervous about that and leading up to it. But once it got to the point where we had to shoot the scene, it was just a natural thing. We were able to craft a moment like that to feel as real as it could. It wasn’t like we were forcing anything. Anything we felt was forced was tossed away.
What about the uncomfortable nature of “Creep?” Would you feel disappointed if someone came out of that film and thought of it as a straight horror movie instead of one that had comedic elements sprinkled throughout?
I guess people are going to react to both of my films in different ways. I think there is a lot of different factors involved like where people watch the films. “The Overnight” is quite fun to watch in a theater. “Creep” is something that is going to be discovered at home at this point. It is definitely a creepier and more uncomfortable experience watching it at home. One thing I’ve realized making these movies is that a lot of filmgoers are just masochists. They love that feeling of getting toyed with a little bit. I think both of these movies kind of do it in a way that’s really inclusive. If you give into the conceit of either of these movies, there’s a strong likelihood you’re going to have a good time. If you approach either of these movies saying, “Impress me” or “I’m not buying it from the get-go,” they’re not going to win you over. With that said, for the people who like this kind of thing, I think they both are a lot of fun. My goal is to make something that is entertaining and fun to watch. That’s my No. 1 goal as a filmmaker: to make something that is engaging and feels new for people. If that involves creating the potential to make people feel uncomfortable, then I’m willing to take that risk. At the end of the day, if you want to make something that feels new, you have to put yourself out there.
When is the last time you laughed at something in the theater that maybe others didn’t think was necessarily written with comedic intentions?
It’s funny because I was just thinking about this the other day. I don’t do that too often, but I remember going to see the movie “Jackie Brown.” I was probably 13 or 14 at the time and I went with my dad and his girlfriend and my grandfather. The moment when Robert De Niro, out-of-the-blue, shoots Bridget Fonda in the parking lot, my grandfather, who is not an outgoing guy or anything, just burst out laughing. That moment is seared in my memory. Maybe it’s something that influenced what I would be doing later on. It was a horrible thing happening in the movie, but maybe it could be funny, too. It’s this unexpected element. I love that moment in the movie.
When it comes to comedy, do you think people are too sensitive nowadays? Do you think all issues and themes should be fair game to joke about or is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?
I feel like everything is up for grabs, for sure. But I also feel like it depends on where you’re coming from and how you’re handling the material. If I feel like I’m in the hands of someone who is being thoughtful about what they’re putting out there, even if it’s something grossly offensive, there is a strong likelihood I’m going to respond to it. If it’s something that is gross or negative or a joke at someone else’s expense, I’m not going to appreciate it as much. I feel like all the humor in “The Overnight” exists to push boundaries. It’s there to serve the story and characters at the end of the day. It’s obviously there so I can be goofy and have all this ridiculous stuff in the movie, but at the same time, if you’re not with the characters on this journey and if you’re not buying it, it’s just not going to work for you. I try to be thoughtful and cautious when it comes to that kind of stuff, even though this is a movie I could see potentially being way too awkward for certain people. For anybody that is willing to give in a little bit, I feel they will have a good experience watching it. It’s fun to watch people cackling and cringing.
Where is Peachfuzz (the werewolf mask in the movie “Creep”) today? Do you keep it in your closet at home?
Yeah, I have it in my closet! It’s going to probably come out next month. We’re going to do a special screening for the movie and will bring the mask. But, yeah, it lives in my closet.
Have there been any requests to mass produce the mask? I know with a horror movie like “The Babadook,” people were requesting the studio to produce that handmade pop-up book and they obliged. Maybe Peachfuzz will get the same reaction.
If there is a demand for it, we could probably make that happen. I love the mask. It’s goofy but is also really scary under the right context. I love that duality.