Growing number of funnymen transition behind the camera

Everyone’s a comedian, as the saying goes, and lately it seems every comedian — and comic actor — is trying to become an auteur.

Two very different low-budget, independently produced features written, directed and toplined by funnymen hit theaters this week: Dax Shepard’s car-chase comedy “Hit & Run” (picked up by Open Road Films for wide release Aug. 22) and Mike Birbiglia’s one-man-show adaptation “Sleepwalk With Me” (nabbed post-Sundance by IFC for theatrical rollout Aug. 24, with VOD to follow a week later).

These films are part of an influx of low-budget pics that has afforded such talent creative control — the question is whether their unique voices, more or less unfiltered, can translate to bigscreen success.

This past spring, Magnet’s absurdist “Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” written and directed by former comedy bandmates and Adult Swim stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, got a day-and-date slot. The pic netted just $200,000 at the B.O. and disappointing ancillary returns, but is re-emerging as a top Netflix Instant rental, according to its stars.

Enabled by DIY-friendly budgets, and inspired in part by Louis C.K.’s low-cost TV and online model that rewards him with creative control, more comics are looking to helm bigscreen indies, including “Office” star Mindy Kaling and the troupe behind Comedy Central’s hit “Workaholics.”

“In some weird way, (comedians directing films) makes total sense,” says Birbiglia, whose film features comics-turned-helmers David Wain and Alex Karpovsky. “Comedians are obsessed with control, making sure things are funny. Assuming there’s no studio involved, the director is the one person on a film who can’t get pushed around.”

Shepard sees film as demanding the kind of original voice that comics hone, and Heidecker adds that, “For the comedy to work for us, we need to be there every step of the way.”

There’s a long history of standups and comic actors directing features, from Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen to one-timers (Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers among them) with varying degrees of success. Comedy clubs were the breeding grounds for such helmers as Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Tom Shadyac, Chris Rock and Lonely Island’s Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, and while several, like Jon Favreau and Wain, have jumped from indies to majors, and others like Bobcat Goldthwait continue making low-budget, personal films.

One of the biggest drivers behind these recent projects is comics discovering the power of networking, whether it’s Shepard recruiting friends like Bradley Cooper to work for far less than their usual quote, “This American Life” host Ira Glass jumping into producing to support his frequent contributor Birbiglia, or Will Ferrell and Adam McKay serving as producers for “Tim & Eric.” Even the decidedly un-comedic Tribeca Film pickup “The Comedy” featuring Heidecker and Wareheim, with a planned October release, got off the ground with the help of comic filmmaking partners David Gordon Green, Jody Hill and Danny McBride. As Wareheim puts it, “The only way to get shit done in Hollywood is having power players — either your agents or big stars — to push it through.”

Internet outlets and cable shows have allowed comics to cultivate audiences that film investors can measure in precise enough numbers to greenlight projects at a price they judge is worth the risk. Birbiglia initially set up “Sleepwalk” with Glass at a ministudio, aiming for a $5 million-$7 million budget. After they parted with the financier over creative differences, they reduced the budget to just under $1 million, and with it, dreams of affording a helmer like Miguel Arteta, Phil Morrison or Lena Dunham (who gave notes on several drafts, reviewed an edit, and was slated to play Birbiglia’s sister until “Girls” came along). “A million dollars is a surprisingly small amount of money,” he deadpans.

Birbiglia had directed college comedy shorts before his standup career took off, one reason several friends suggested he helm the feature himself. “I get carried away when I describe how my story should be done,” he explains. “Jeff Garlin said, ‘If you hire a director, you’re going to be at each other’s throats.’?” Still, Birbiglia had help realizing his vision: His “Sleepwalk” stage show director Seth Barrish has a co-director credit, and the pair co-wrote the script with Glass and Birbiglia’s brother, Joe.

They enlisted new media outfit Bedrocket to fund three-quarters of the budget. “(Exec producer and Bedrocket CEO) Brian Bedol knows my work generates a lot of (Web) traffic, so the project will be valuable in some form,” Birbiglia says. “I think that’s the only reason anyone let me direct the movie.”

His online following has already helped: In late July, he and Glass launched #BringSleepwalk on Twitter and a Website fan campaign that’s helped increase the pic’s rollout from 34 screens to more than 100.

Meanwhile, Shepard’s sophomore feature, which will land on more than 2,500 screens, had a much easier path to the bigscreen. As on his first film, the 2011 mockumentary “Brother’s Justice,” he shares directing duties with cinematographer David Palmer. (That pic, which was babbed by Tribeca Film, had a brief theatrical life following its April 2011 VOD bow, and did not report box office).

“I never thought, ‘Man, I’d love to be a director,” says Shepard, who started out helming shorts for his Groundlings improv troupe in college, and made 15 more for Break.com after his MTV “Punk’d” success. “It was much more a practical response to having ideas, being a writer and being an actor. It was one more thing I didn’t have to hire someone else to do.”

That said, Shepard now says he prefers directing to acting. “It requires a lot more focus, and I find it a lot more fulfilling,” he says.

Financing for “Hit & Run” came together astonishingly quickly for an indie — in a week, Shepard recalls. When initial plans to make the pic with Lionsgate fell through, his hopes of getting the film made before his “Parenthood” summer hiatus ended last year seemed impossible, yet producer/co-star Nate Tuck helped get private equity coin, and Shepard edited during the “Parenthood” shoot. Exclusive Media Group nabbed international rights for AFM, and Open Road picked up domestic late last year.

Heidecker and Wareheim’s “Billion Dollar Movie” had a much tougher time finding its way to the screen. Despite the early support of Ferrell and McKay’s website Funny or Die in 2009 and reps working determinedly behind the scenes, securing funding for the R-rated comedy, about a pair of filmmakers unable to work within the titular budget, was an arduous process. It took a critical mass of superfans like Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, John C. Reilly and Will Forte joining to raise the film’s real budget which, suffice to say, was far more modest. Marc Cuban’s 2929 Prods. eventually stepped up.

Despite their varied trials, the comics behind all three films plan to direct again: Shepard is set to shoot his first solo helming effort “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money” (based on his comedy script) in March. Birbiglia plans to helm another one-man-show adaptation he’s scripted, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” next year.

And while Heidecker says there are no plans for another Tim & Eric feature — “the stakes and pressure in that world make it kind of challenging” — Wareheim claims that after they launch two new Adult Swim shows, they have a detailed outline for a “Trillion Dollar Movie.”

“We need to wait and see how all these DVDs sell before we get people who want to get into it financially,” he says.

Of course it remains to be seen whether the overall model gives comics the last laugh or is just an inside joke.

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