Go West and Sell Out, Young Man: David Cross on Viral Celebrity and His New Movie, ‘Hits’
"The old ways of getting money are not there anymore, so sell out, young man."
You probably know David Cross from starring roles in perhaps the two greatest comedy shows of the last 20 years, Mr. Show and Arrested Development. Now he has stepped behind the camera to direct his first feature film, Hits. The cast is made up of the type of people who are sometimes referred to as "comedians' comedians" like UCB's Matt Walsh, The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac, and Strangers with Candy 's Amy Sedaris, among others.
The film centers on teenager Katelyn Stuben (Meredith Hagner), who will do anything to become famous, and her father Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh), whose city-hall pothole rants go viral after Brooklyn hashtagtivists take up his cause. As the media and bloggers swoop into town, Katelyn sees her chance for fame. A scathing satire of our social-media celebrity culture, the film reminds us that viral is an adjective for disease. Cross's comedy has always had a political edge, and Hits lands on everyone, from talentless small-town YouTubers to big-city Twitter revolutionaries.
Despite the film's critique of viral fame, Cross is no Luddite and, in fact, is distributing the film with help from BitTorrent and Kickstarter. Online, Hits will be the first film distributed from BitTorrent Bundles, using a pay-what-you-want format. Offline, Hits will be appearing in around 50 markets thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign that included rewards like David Cross's beard clippings and the opportunity for Cross to run your Twitter account even though he "HATE[S] social media!!!"
I met with Cross last week in New York to talk about talentless fame, the lost concept of "selling out," and the possibility of a Mr. Show reunion.
Film trailer to 'Hits' (2015), directed by David Cross
VICE: First off, congrats on the film and the successful Kickstarter campaign to get it into theaters. Why was it important for you to have a traditional, theatrical release in addition to the BitTorrent?
David Cross: I know I'm increasingly in the minority—even among filmmakers, which is shocking to me—but I still value the experience of seeing a movie in a theater. I know that TVs are bigger now, and sound systems are better. But there are just too many distractions, and it's a different experience, especially with people's increasing lack of ability to focus on things. The idea of sitting down in front of the big screen, turning off your cell phones, and just watching the story unfold is important. The reason we did the Kickstarter was because the offers we got were the exact kind of offers that one gets when you have a low-budget indie film with no stars. You know, you're open in LA for a week and then pick three of your favorite big cities, add those, and then straight to VOD and iTunes. We worked really hard on it, and I'd rather give up the hundred grand I would have gotten to sell it so that more and more and more people can see it.
In the movie there's a sense that fame essentially comes from a lack of talent—from making a fool of yourself for getting hit in the nuts on camera. Is that just the way things are going?
Uh, going? I'd say that's the way things have gone. [laughs] In past tense. We're there, and we're never going backward. That's a viable shortcut to fame that didn't exist until YouTube, really, or America's Funniest Home Videos. Although those people didn't really make an industry out of it.
I was talking to a friend the other day who, like me, came up through the punk scene, about how our students don't even seem to have the concept of selling out anymore.
Oh, I've talked about that extensively. That's a side byproduct of this culture, and it easily comes at this dissertation about fame and monetizing your ideas. But, really, there is no concept of selling out. And I'm old enough to remember when selling out started. I'm old enough to remember Michael Jackson purchasing the Beatles catalog through Paul McCartney with the intention to sell "Revolution" to Nike to sell sneakers and how everybody was upset about that. And a lot of the angst was, "Don't you understand this? This is a domino, once you do this..." Then I remember the Del Fuegos—I think that was their name—they were an indie band from Boston and they did a commercial for Miller Lite and were vilified. And now those dominoes have fallen so that you have a band that's under the auspices of an "indie" quote-unquote band—which doesn't mean anything anymore, like "fun." You have a band that does a commercial for Citibank or Chase Bank, whatever the fucking bank is, and then the Reebok house in Greenpoint or Fort Greene, or somewhere in Brooklyn. They invited bands to stay there for a month, filled it with recording equipment, like "You can record stuff and then we'll take some of your songs and sell sneakers with it." And people were like, "Yeah, cool!" And that just didn't happen when I was growing up. You'd be like, "You piece of shit. You fucking greedy, soulless asshole." But now I'm the fool for not doing that.
How much of that do you think is the internet and the current generation, as opposed to the economic climate?
Well, it's both, because the economic climate is part of the internet. So the two go together. But again, I want to make it clear that the people who grow up in this world are fools to not monetize, because everybody is and there is no selling out. If you're going to work hard and put an album out and you're going to record music and then it's taken and put on Spotify and it's played a million times and you get a check for $17.42, then fuck it. Sell it to Ford. Sell it to Vans sneakers. Sell it to fucking VICETV.com. Whatever, get your money. The old ways of getting money are not there anymore, so sell out, young man. Sell out. [Laughs] Go west and sell out, young man.
The flip side of the viral content and monetizing whatever you can is that you do have these models like Kickstarter and BitTorrent that are starting to gain some traction. Do you feel hopeful that it will become easier to make money as an artist?
I haven't really thought about it. Much to my wife's consternation, it's not something I think about, including for myself [laughs]. But I suppose I could see an argument for it, and that's hopeful. And I think Kickstarter is fucking great. People who complain about it are just fools [laughs], and their argument doesn't stand up to reason after much debate.
What are the main arguments you hear about Kickstarter?
There's cynicism to it. It's usually about the people who are funding these things, someone who has money who wants $2.5 million to make a movie. I felt the same way about when Zach Braff was up asking for whatever it was. I was like, "Really?" And I was very sensitive to that. But our campaign is not to produce something, it's to get it out to people, and then we have a pay-what-you-want attached to it. So I feel justified in doing that. If we didn't, it just wouldn't happen. What I like about Kickstarter is there are so many projects of questionable worth, but there are so many projects that would not happen if it weren't for this. And I was a very early supporter of them—financially, I was one of the first people—and I think it's a fantastic idea. Also I love what BitTorrent is now doing with this movie, and I'm happy to be a part of it.
Still from 'Hits' (2015), directed by David Cross
Hits is the first movie that's going to be released this way, right? What attracted you to doing BitTorrent?
Well, that was the producer's idea, to go to BitTorrent. I had never been on BitTorrent. I don't know much about it. I'm not a tech guy at all or a social-media guy, and happily so. [ Iaughs] But I like this idea that content that would normally be on a DVD Extras disk, where you have a finite amount of space, is now accessible like that. You can download the movie, and there's some stuff that comes free. And then there's an extra pay wall or whatever, but there's all sorts of extra content should you desire it.
The tagline of the movie says that it's based on a true story that hasn't happened yet. How far do you think the content of the movie is from reality? I saw that in another interview you mentioned Cliven Bundy.
I would imagine that it's probably happened and my guess would be Florida. It will happen in Florida [laughs]. It's a very viable, plausible scenario, I think. I know there have been some people who disagree—a person in New York knocked the movie for being implausible, and I thought, That's absurd. So the Cliven Bundy thing was like, "Fuck you, man. Ha ha."
A few viewers said that the movie was a little mean, that it was skewering small-time people with big dreams. But to me it seemed like the big-city Brooklyn kind of fake activist and hipsters got it worse.
Oh, absolutely. I thought I was pretty equitable with my sarcasm. I guess that's why there's movies like Frozen and Fifty Shades of Grey [laughs], so those people can feel good when they walk out of the theater. "He was mean. He didn't like his characters." That's an absurd critique. [laughs]
Yeah, the whole idea that characters are there for you to like...
Yeah, very strange. I don't get that.
Did you collaborate with other people on the script for Hits?
I wrote the script. I tend to write a big draft, overwrite it, and then I'll go and cut it down. I'll spend a couple weeks honing it down and making a second draft, and then I'll pass that around. So the script was pretty set when I had it, but, again, like everything I work on, I like to hire with an eye toward people who are skilled at improv. It's not the most important thing, but I always encourage it. Once I get what I need exposition-wise, then I encourage people to play around, because you find your character that way. Probably the most improvised stuff is from James, the guy who plays Donovan. I encouraged Matt to improvise too, and I'd have to go look at the script to see how much made it in, [laughs] but the argument in the car, I think on paper it's maybe eight exchanges, eight sentences, so everything else they improvised. All that other stuff is in the Torrent extras.
I know that you, Bob Odenkirk, and Paul Tompkins have dropped some hints about a Mr. Show reunion/new project. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Man, I am not being coy. Bob's doing all of the Better Call Saul press concurrently with this, so we had hoped that there would be something in place that we could talk about. Because everyone asks, and I understand why. In 48 hours we'll be able to say something, but things aren't done yet, and we're sworn to secrecy and all that shit. But I can tell you something will be happening, for sure. Absolutely something will be happening.
I saw an interview from two days ago where you were like I think I'll know in a day.
I've got emails. I had to have a conference call. Hopefully by the end of the day. I keep saying that. But something soon.
Lincoln Michel's writing appears in the Believer, American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He is the online editor of Electric Literature and the coeditor of Gigantic magazine. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. His debut story collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. He tweets at @thelincoln.