He may have starred in the beloved sitcom “The Office” and worked with his hero Quentin Tarantino in “Inglourious Basterds,” but B.J. Novak feels at his coolest when he’s shooting the shit at some swanky Manhattan watering hole with his buddy John Mayer.
That realization inspired the opening sequence in Novak’s new film “Vengeance,” a slice-of-life comedy that descends into a murder mystery set in America’s heartland. But before all the gun-cocking and bloodletting can get started, the movie opens at Soho House as Novak and Mayer’s characters wax poetic about dating and commitment in today’s age.
“I wanted this to be a collision of two movies,” says Novak, who also wrote and directed in his feature filmmaking debut. “I wanted it to be a conversational smart movie — like ‘Manhattan’ — the kind I grew up enjoying myself. And then I wanted a real-ass vengeance movie.”
Novak plays a writer and podcaster name Ben Manalowitz, who is on the hunt for his next big project when he gets a call that his girlfriend, Abilene, has died of an opioid overdose. In Ben’s mind, they were not in a serious relationship (like her parents thought), although they had hooked up a few times. Somehow, he’s guilted into attending her funeral in Texas, only to discover her gun-toting relatives believe she was murdered. Sensing a career opportunity, Ben stays to make a podcast, called “Dead White Girl,” about the mission to solve the crime and avenge Abilene’s death.
As a lifelong east coaster, Novak knew very little about the South before writing “Vengeance.” But he spent a lot of time in the area to pick up the idiosyncrasies — for example, Texans love Whataburger but can’t explain why — to ensure the movie did not turn into a caricature. Novak wants the culture-clash comedy to play to audiences in red states and blue states alike.
“Look, I’m from Boston. When Dunkin’ Donuts was in ‘Good Will Hunting,’ I was pretty excited,” he says. “It’s important to get these details right.”
Novak spoke to Variety following the film’s premiere at Tribeca Festival and ahead of its release in theaters on July 29.
What was it like to watch “Vengeance” with a crowd at Tribeca Festival?
It was extremely exciting. I am not one of those brave solo filmmakers who doesn’t care what anyone thinks but themselves. I really want to entertain an audience. I really trust an audience. I remember when I watched ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ I noticed that Phone a Friend was never as good as Poll the Audience. The audience always knew the answer. That had a profound effect on me. All of which is to say, I care more about watching that movie in a theater of 900 people than I do just about anything.
How did you get Mindy Kaling to go to the premiere instead of the Tonys, which were the same night? [Kaling was a producer on “A Strange Loop,” which won best musical.]
She committed to coming as soon as she heard about it. And she said, “This is selfishness and possessiveness. I don’t want you to become Jordan Peele and abandon me without me becoming part of the ride.” It was obviously a very nice compliment and, in true Mindy style, both sincere and a joke. But when she found out the Tonys were the same night, she did a lot of guilt tripping and grumbling. I told her to go to the Tonys, but she didn’t. I had this great screening and celebrated at the after party with my friends and then I texted her, “Hey, did you win the Tony? And she wrote “Yep.” And I thought, “Oh my god, this woman will never stop one-upping me.”
Where did the idea for “Vengeance” come from?
It came from the version of my life that I parody in the opening scene: I was a guy whose dream night was texting girls from Soho House with John Mayer, thinking that we were two guys who are certain they have it all figured out. I thought, “Well, what do I really want to change about that guy? And what would be a situation that would do that?” It kind of flowed naturally from this original premise of, how do I take someone who has so many qualities about myself that I didn’t like and put them through something that’s funny?
The movie seems like it’s a commentary about modern dating culture. Why did that interest you?
As I confessed to people how shallow I felt about my own life in this way, I realized, “This is an extremely common phenomenon.” Everyone is, on both sides of texting people, not knowing how it’s received or not knowing what the other person thinks. You can text someone back two nights later, when you’re in the mood. All of these misunderstandings, both willful and not, were a jumping off point for this character.
What do you make of those miscommunications?
It’s sad. We have so many options that we end up avoiding real connections. A lot of the jokes in that opening scene are about people who don’t realize that.
What kind of research did you do about what it’s like to live in Texas?
I chose Texas specifically because it was so far out of my comfort zone. Like the character, I had been to Dallas and Austin, but I had not experienced this vast, completely different West Texas culture. I knew I had to learn it enough to show what [Ben] doesn’t get at first. I took a dozen trips around West Texas with people I met, and they introduced me to some really generous people. Eventually I found Pecos, Texas, which was what I was looking for — a true, proud and desolate stretch.
Did you go into the movie wanting to subvert expectations that people who live on the coasts may have about people who live in the middle of the country?
I wanted to make a movie for everybody — for Texans too. Some people I’ve worked with worried, and a few were tickled by the idea: we could stick it to these people. And it was the complete opposite. I was so hard on myself to make sure I never did anything like that. It got to the point where I had to make sure I wasn’t too hard on the New York side because I had found so much in the Texas side I could really bring to life.
How did you decide to cast John Mayer?
That came straight out of my life. The times when I feel the coolest, and probably am not nearly as cool as I think, is when I’m with my cool friend John Mayer, talking about life at some glamorous spot. John is a great friend and one of the smartest people I know.
How did you become friends?
Way back in the day through our mutual friend, the great Bob Saget. We had accidentally put a John Mayer song in the background of an “Office” Christmas episode without thinking about it. It was tied to the scene because it wasn’t a separate audio track, and we couldn’t clear it. I called Bob, and I said, “I know you’re friends with John Mayer. Can I call him?” And I did. John said, “Look, I’m a serious ‘Office’ fan.” He gave me all these references and said, “so I know what you’re doing. Let me guess, it’s Michael Scott’s favorite song.” I said, “No, no, I promise. It’s just in the background of a karaoke party.” He said, “I’ll do it in exchange for a Dundie.” So we made him a Dundie and he gave us the song. We’ve been friends ever since.
Ashton Kutcher, who you worked with on “Punk’D,” plays a local music producer in Texas. Why did you think of him for that role?
People love Ashton, but they don’t necessarily know this genius side of Ashton. This is one of the great tech investors of the past 10 years. People know him as this charming leading man, but not this intellectual powerhouse. I met him in his office, and instead of an audition, I pointed to the whiteboard and said, “Tell me about this company.” He looked me in the eye, and I would have invested all my money in this company. I thought, “Well that’s Quentin Sellers.” As smart as Ben thinks he is, he needs to meet someone he thinks is smarter than him. And it has to surprise him. Ashton Kutcher was the only person who could do those two things.
Is it true you lived in Bob Odenkirk’s house while you were filming?
Yes, I lived in Bob Odenkirk’s house. He was a hero-turned-mentor of mine, who gave me advice over the years. I was insecure because I’m a comedian doing something that’s kind of serious. Who am I to do a movie called “Vengeance”? Bob had just started “Better Call Saul,” so he knew better than anyone that a comedy person can really transcend that. I called Bob because I was going to move to Albuquerque for principal photography. I knew he lived there to shoot “Saul” and he said, “You can actually rent my house because I’m on a hiatus.” So I rented his house and I downloaded all the streaming apps on his TV. I get back to L.A. a few months later, and I turn on HBO Max, and there’s two accounts — Novak and Odenkirk. And I’m like, Bob didn’t get his own account? He just piggyback onto mine? Fair enough. I’m honored.
Do you ever look to see what he’s watching?
That’s a great point. Hopefully it’s “Sex Lives of College Girls.”
What did you learn from working with Quentin Tarantino on “Inglourious Basterds?
Tarantino is both the most gifted director alive, and also the most intuitive. It made so much sense to me, the way he would envision something in his mind and then communicate it so clearly and casually. I could never come up with the things that he has in his mind, but I could take that as a lesson: Whatever you are thinking about, there’s a way to communicate it clearly and inspiringly. It was distracting, how thrilling it was as a life experience. I really had to balance that against focusing on the role.
In past interviews, you’ve said you regret that you didn’t appreciate working on “The Office” as much as you should have at the time. Did that realization change your approach on future projects?
Yes. On set [for ‘Vengeance’], I made the decision I was going to enjoy every day. Because I’m a perfectionist. I’m going to do my best no matter what, so I might as well enjoy it. And in fact, I’ll probably even do a better job by enjoying myself. And that’s definitely a Tarantino lesson. That guy enjoys himself, but he would never let a frame suffer. Filming is so finite and you’re at the mercy of so many chance elements. It’s probably easier to let yourself go, “Whatever we get in 12 hours is whatever we got.”
Is it weird to think “The Office” satirizes a place that people are less and less aware of because more jobs have become remote?
“The Office” transcends the office setting, which I know only because teenagers love “The Office” so much and they’ve never worked in an office.. and maybe never will work in an office. At the end of the day, it’s a way to explore characters, not office life.
Is there anything from today you wish you could write about from Michael Scott’s perspective?
Well, everything. But it might be less funny. We live in less funny times. I wouldn’t really want to see Michael get things wrong because I love him too much and the stakes are too high.