Interview: 'Middle Man' cast, director discuss their new dark crime comedy
Comedic actor Jim O'Heir sits in a hotel lobby just hours before the world premiere of his dark comedy "Middle Man" at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival. As he chats about his new movie, a woman approaches O'Heir.
"Are you from 'Parks & Rec'?" she asks, to which O'Heir smiles and warmly replies "Oh, I guess." He takes a moment to say hi to the Oregon woman who is in Seattle for her daughter's college graduation. "She loved that show. I just had to make sure it was you."
"For good or bad, it's me," the "Parks and Recreation" actor replies with a laugh. O'Heir enjoys the type of fame his character in "Middle Man" would kill to have. "Middle Man" follows a hapless and generally unfunny accountant Lenny (O'Heir) who abruptly quits his job to become a famous stand-up comedian. But after picking up a charming but dangerous hitchhiker (Andrew J. West), Lenny is pulled into a killing spree -- which surprisingly improves Lenny's stand-up act. (Watch the trailer)
"Middle Man" writer-director Ned Crowley, who describes the film as a dark comedic thriller, says he wrote Lenny specifically for O'Heir. The two have been friends since they performed improv comedy in Chicago together more than 30 years ago.
"I don't like traditional comedies - yet I love humor," Crowley said. "I didn't intentionally say 'I want to make this thing so dark.' It was more a meditation on what people will do, in this day and age, for their fifteen minutes of fame."
O'Heir likens Lenny's acumen for comedy to the particularly off-key "American Idol" auditions.
"His mother has told him he is funny - but he doesn't have a funny bone in his body," O'Heir said. "His mother taught him that comedy was Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello. So he doesn't know about your Louis CKs, Aziz Ansaris or Lettermans."
To tell the story of a polite, naive man sucked into bloody rampage, Crowley and O'Heir turned to Kickstarter.
"Ned has had this film in his head for his years but we never had the time, the power, to make things happen," O'Heir said. "Then because of 'Parks,' my face is out there."
O'Heir admitted crowd funding also came with accountability.
"Strangers gave us money - that is more pressure because I would never want to disappoint them," O'Heir said. "These are fans of something they've seen me do on television. We had the pressure - and I know Ned did too - that we want these people to go 'Damn am I happy I was part of that film.'"
"I like that the comedy comes from the darkness," said Dudek, who plays Grail - a small town waitress who befriends Lenny. "I was particularly drawn towards this character (Grail), who is so charming and sweet. She is representative of that person who deserves better - and no one sees how beautiful she is or how kind she is. I think that's the draw with Lenny - they're both people no one has appreciated and they can appreciate each other, at least."
West said he immediately fell in love with his character Hitch, a violence-prone drifter, but he admits the script scared him.
"It was intimating because I had never done something like that before," said West, who read the script multiple times before digesting all of it. "In the second or third reading, I picked up more and more on this pulpy, noirish atmosphere that Ned had created, coupled with all this great comedy. I just love those types of movies: those sort of irreverent, funny, violent movies filled with these crazy characters. I'm a fan of those movies but I had never really done one like that before."
Although Lenny finds himself inextricably tangled with Hitch as the story progresses, he is also drawn to Grail.
"Grail and Lenny are the two people who can see the goodness in each other," Dudek said. "That's Lenny's quest for fame: he wants that positive part of him to be seen."
The cast worked for SAG scale - the equivalent to Hollywood minimum wage. Although the budget was small, Crowley said crowd-funding the film also gave himself and the producers creative freedom.
"We did the film we wanted to do, without a lot of people telling us what to do -- that's kind of a gift," Crowley said. "I probably don't know how lucky we had it - being able to do what we wanted with people who are really committed."
Dudek said it was exciting and moving to see people have a passion to make a smaller-scale film like "Middle Man."
"It's nice to see a movie that's made from people really giving things of themselves, of their skills, of their resources in a really direct way," Dudek said. "It shows the belief that so many people really have that this is worth doing. This is a labor of love - people feel their particular involvement and their thumbprint on it. I love that people feel more personally about a movie like this."
Even with the creative freedom, O'Heir says there was some trepidation about the film's dark tone.
"We went for it. You're going to love us or hate us for it, but we went for it - that's the bottom line," O'Heir said. "On the day that we shot the main part of the ending, we also shot an alternate (ending). Ned was wondering 'Have we gone too far?' But, we as actors, everyone of us were like 'Oh Ned, you have to keep it the way that it is.' One of the things that drew me to the script was that ending. If you're into dark comedy, we nailed the ending."
Crowley said he never looked at the alternate footage after filming it - and West said he was happy the final cut used Crowley's original ending.
"I don't think that he ever thought that he would or thought that he should (use the alternate footage)," West said. "I think the temptation sometimes is there to try to make a film more commercial or try to make it more widely accessible. But at the end of the day I think Ned made the movie that he wanted to make."
"Middle Man" world premiered at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.