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B.J. Novak learned a lot about himself — and Texas — while working on 'Vengeance'

Boyd Holbrook (left) as Ty Shaw and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz are pictured in a still from the movie <em>Vengeance</em>, which marks Novak's directorial debut.
Patti Perret
/
Focus Features
Boyd Holbrook (left) as Ty Shaw and B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz are pictured in a still from the movie Vengeance, which marks Novak's directorial debut.

B.J. Novak says his new movie, Vengeance, is all about breaking down assumptions — an experience he had onscreen as its lead actor, but also off-camera as its writer and director.

The dark comedy follows Ben, a New York City-based journalist who travels to small-town Texas to investigate the death of a woman whose family falsely believes the two were dating. They also believed she was murdered. Cue the twists, turns and ensemble cast, which features Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron and Dove Cameron.

Novak himself has appeared in several films, including Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but is probably best known for his portrayal of corporate climber Ryan Howard on NBC's The Office, on which he also served as a writer and co-executive producer.

Novak says making this movie, his directorial debut, offered a welcome change in perspective. Namely: He's much nicer being the boss (which does sort of sound like something Ryan Howard might say).

Novak explains to Morning Edition's Rachel Martin that while he wouldn't exactly have called himself a diva before, he has a new appreciation for what a production takes.

"Any employee can get impatient. When I'm the boss of a film set, I am humbled and in awe of all the jobs that everybody has to do," he says. "How do I keep everyone happy, how do I keep them motivated ... I was much nicer and more professional and more respectful of everyone's job than I've ever been when I realized that it fell on my shoulders."

Novak spoke to Morning Edition about the movie, pulling pranks with Kutcher and his views on the evolution of comedy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With a tale fit for a true crime podcast or a movie or both, it goes like this - a writer from New York named Ben gets a mysterious phone call. His girlfriend is dead, but he's confused because this girl, Abilene, is not really his girlfriend. But her family thinks she is. Ben shows up at her funeral in East Texas, where he learns that Abilene's family also thinks that she has been murdered. Ben is a self-absorbed guy looking out for a big story to make him famous, and he thinks that this is it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENGEANCE")

BJ NOVAK: (As Ben Manalowitz) The death of Abilene is about the death of American identity and the need to find someone to blame for it. This isn't just a story about vengeance. It's a story about the need for vengeance, the meaning of vengeance.

MARTIN: That's the voice of B.J. Novak. He plays the lead character in this film. It's called "Vengeance." He wrote the screenplay. It is also his directorial debut. When he and I talked recently, Novak said the movie is about breaking down false assumptions. And when it came to Texas, where this was shot, he had some of his own.

NOVAK: I thought it was a badass, big people, big guns, big trucks - everything's bigger in Texas - and that it would be, as a result, very unfriendly to a guy like me who was so clearly an outsider.

MARTIN: But Novak says he was wrong about that last part.

NOVAK: It was not unfriendly at all. It was the most friendly place I've ever been. It is filled with intelligence and diversity and just surprises everywhere.

MARTIN: And those surprises became characters in the film.

NOVAK: Ashton Kutcher's character is this music producer that is completely underestimated. Ben goes to make fun of him.

MARTIN: Right. The character's name is Quentin Sellers.

NOVAK: Ben ends up meeting someone way smarter and more charismatic and intelligent even than he thinks he is. And he is really blown away by the surprises in Texas and what Quentin Sellers tells him about the people there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENGEANCE")

ASHTON KUTCHER: (As Quentin Sellers) If the landscape was like this and people were just born, you wouldn't have this problem. The problem is you get all these bright, creative lights and nowhere to plug in their energy. So it gets channeled into conspiracy theories and drugs and violence.

NOVAK: That really is sort of the midpoint of the story when he underestimates someone. And really who better than Ashton Kutcher for that, who is someone who's so easy to underestimate, who in reality...

MARTIN: Yeah.

NOVAK: ...Is this brilliant producer and tech investor, you know? So getting to show the world this version of him, I thought was very exciting.

MARTIN: You've known him a long time. I didn't realize that. You guys did "Punk'D"...

NOVAK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Together.

NOVAK: My first job on camera was pulling pranks for him on "Punk'D."

MARTIN: So you knew even back then he had that kind of philosophical bent, too?

NOVAK: I didn't know his philosophical bent then. I've seen it since. But back then, you know, he would give micro notes on everything. If the car is yellow and this clipboard is yellow, you're not going to see it. I want you to change it this way. I mean, he was very detail oriented. You know, meanwhile, he's wearing the trucker hat, and he just looks like this kind of iconic celebrity. But he was calling all the shots.

MARTIN: What was it like being the boss? This was your first time directing a film.

NOVAK: It was way too comfortable for me.

MARTIN: Mmm (ph) say more.

NOVAK: I am much nicer being the boss than I am just being an employee, you know? When I'm an actor or in a writer's room, I'm like, when's lunch? When are we getting out of here? Why have I been waiting an hour?

MARTIN: Oh, you're a diva, a little bit.

NOVAK: I wouldn't say a diva, Rachel.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

NOVAK: But, you know, I'm, like, an employee. Like, any employee can get impatient.

MARTIN: Right.

NOVAK: When I'm the boss...

MARTIN: Right.

NOVAK: ...Of a film set, I am humbled and in awe of all the jobs that everybody has to do. How do I keep everyone happy? How do I keep them motivated? I was much nicer and more professional and more respectful of everyone's job than I've ever been when I realized that it fell on my shoulders. So I think it suits me very well, to be honest.

MARTIN: So in reading up for this conversation, I got that sense that you are someone who - A, tries hard never to compromise on what's funny to you, right? That's number one. But what you just said, you also care a lot what other people think. And you want people to like the stuff that you make. Is there an inherent tension in that?

NOVAK: No, to me it's the same thing because I'm thinking like the audience all the time. I'm thinking of my cousins in the theater. I'm thinking of me when I was a teenager going to see a movie. I'm thinking, I cannot let anybody down for a second. I got all this way. I'm always thinking like the audience because that is why I do what I do. I think some people make art for themselves, but I'm making art for - or art, I'm making what I make, whatever you call it - I'm making it for an audience. And I feel like that's my purpose.

MARTIN: But who's - I guess, who's the audience? - because you also don't want to cater to every single human being out there.

NOVAK: I do. I do.

MARTIN: Do you?

NOVAK: I feel - maybe naively, but I feel that everybody - funny is funny, and everyone has the same sense of humor. And when we made "The Office," we were making the most particular, obscure types of jokes and characters, and it ended up becoming so popular. So to me, that's just a lesson. If you make something that you really think is funny - and we pictured the audience making "The Office," but we were the audience. So I do think that if you work hard enough for what you think is good, I don't think there's any limit to who likes it.

MARTIN: Are there things - are there jokes you used to tell that you don't anymore?

NOVAK: Sure. I mean, everything's always moving.

MARTIN: There are comedians for whom this particular moment of self and collective revelation over the last couple of years, it's provoked change for some people who have said to themselves, you know what? I made mistakes that I didn't recognize until now, that there are some things that - whether it has to do with race or gender, that they're actually not funny. Have you had that kind of...

NOVAK: You know, I have a clear point of view to myself about it, which is just that when you're a comedian, which I have been, you know, you read the room. And you perform - some things work better some nights, and some jokes get stale. And some jokes are wrong for new contexts and not in another. So to me, I don't think anyone should have regret over what worked in 2004 because it was a completely different room and a different context. But I also don't think anyone should be moaning that they can't tell the joke from 2004. In 2022, you're not telling a joke about Bill Clinton now either. So, like, why do you - everything is changing. Everything is stale and wrong. But I don't think anyone needs to or should have regret, unless you really caused some pain that nobody spoke up about at the time. That I will say, OK. But I think there's all kinds of things that you look back, and it was the right joke for that moment and totally the wrong one now. So I don't think anyone should regret what worked then, and I don't think anyone should bemoan that it doesn't work now. It's always moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: BJ Novak, it's been a real pleasure.

NOVAK: Thank you very much. That was great.

MARTIN: His new film is called "Vengeance." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.