Novak seeks ‘Vengeance’

Triple threat B. J. Novak (writer/director/actor) plays erudite Manhattan radio personality Ben Manalowitz in “Vengeance.” Out of the blue a phone call from the brother of one of his many girlfriends informs him that Abilene (her name not the city) has mysteriously died.

Novak’s directorial feature debut takes the audience on a Texas joy ride through a landscape of comic situations that belie the film’s ultimate life or death conclusion.

“It was important that there be a lot of comedy at the front of the movie so that the audience feels safe and relaxed,” explains Novak in an interview with Screen Reflections.

“I wanted the viewer to go on the same journey as my character. He’s a little shallow yet a little sad in a lovable lame way. It’s a gradual descent into the flames, like a frog in a slowly boiling pot not noticing the difference,” says Novak.

Manalowitz flies to Texas, rents an economy car and drives to a one-horse town that has two police officers, a Whataburger, and a zone called the after-party where Abilene overdosed. Subsequently Manalowitz finds himself staying with Abilene’s family, themselves a wacky collection of personalities whose traits contradict their outward appearance.

Some of the performers in “Vengeance” include Boyd Holbrook, Ashton Kutcher, Issa Rae, and J. Cameron-Smith. Principal photography was shot in Albuquerque.

“I cared a lot about capturing the look of Texas but we couldn’t get the tax breaks that you can get in New Mexico,” says Novak.

Additional photography took place in Artesia, a town in New Mexico just north of Carlsbad, which is close to the Texas border. “We could go to houses and walk around Pecos, Texas [an hour south of Artesia, where the film is fictionally set] and walk into Bar-B-Q joints and houses and say this is what we’re matching,” says Novak.

The Whataburger sequence was shot at one of six of the franchise locations in Albuquerque. “It had to match my vision for the town,” says Novak. “Under populated but with big highways. My character says mean things in that scene, so I wanted the town to look its worse.”

Novak in conversation has a very friendly demeanor, he’s relatable as a regular guy. Talking to him he doesn’t give off the vibe that he’s Harvard educated, the co-writer and star of one of the prime American television comedies from the last two decades, or one of three characters from “Inglorious Basterds” who make it alive at the end of that acclaimed 2009 movie.

When prompted Novak recalls when Stephen Merchant, one of the original showrunners of the British “The Office,” directed an episode of the American “The Office.” [Season Five, Episode Six: “Customer Service”]

“You can never live up to the original but at least we’re working with someone we admire,” says Novak. “I thought of it like the British version broke all the quarterback records and now we’re freshman on the team.”

On working with Quentin Tarantino Novak refers to the experience as “living in a dream. Tarantino’s my favorite filmmaker, an iconic director in pop culture, let alone working with Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz.

“It taught me to be yourself and let others get caught up in your excitement,” says Novak.

“Vengeance” opens in the theaters this weekend.

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