'The Living Wake' Interview: Director Sol Tryon on Working with Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg, Mike O'Connell, The Living Wake
Jesse Eisenberg, Mike O'Connell, The Living Wake

Directed by Sol Tryon, and co-written by Mike O'Connell and Peter Kline, The Living Wake is the sort of movie that defies both labels and expectations. It's comedy; it's drama; it's a musical; it's a character piece; it's bizarre; it's its own genre. Even though you can't pigeonhole it – or perhaps for that very reason – The Living Wake has received some positive notices. (Check out The Reeler.)

Starring O'Connell and Jesse Eisenberg (he of Zombieland and Kristen Stewart's pal in Adventureland), The Living Wake chronicles the final day in the weird life of a self-proclaimed genius, the exuberant K. Roth Binew (O'Connell). With the assistance of his more subdued friend and biographer Mills Joquin (Eisenberg), Binew comes up with the idea of a “living wake” as his farewell-to-life party.

Winner of the Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival and the Comedic Vision Narrative Feature Award at the Austin Film Festival, The Living Wake is currently playing at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

Director Sol Tryon has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about The Living Wake for Alt Film Guide. See below.

Photo: Mangusta Productions

First of all, what attracted you to The Living Wake?

The first thing that jumped out at me was the shockingly intelligent comedy of Mike O'Connell. When I read the script my imagination was going wild with visualizing a world where this character would exist. I felt like there were no constraints, the dialogue was so original that it didn't have to be taking place in an environment that was like everyday reality. It called for something a little different, something slightly askew from any particular time or place, yet still strangely familiar.

 

Is the eccentric K. Roth Binew based on – or at least inspired by – a real-life individual? What's the origin of that tale?

The character was created by Mike as part of his stand-up comedy. He likes to say that he was thinking a lot about failure and death at the time. Since that material doesn't really work so well in his stand-up, he wrote it down as a 20-page one man show.

The character was so enormous and fascinating that it begged for a larger stage. The decision was made to make it into a movie and Mike, along with co-writer Peter Kline, began to work on a draft of the script.

From there the three of us developed the project into a feature film centered around this guy who saw himself as one of the great geniuses of his time, but had yet to be discovered and was now facing the finality of his own mortality.

Mike O'Connell, Jesse Eisenberg, The Living Wake
Jesse Eisenberg, Mike O'Connell, The Living Wake

Working with actor-co-writer Mike O'Connell and Jesse Eisenberg. What was it like? O'Connell's flamboyant character could easily have gotten “out of reach” for the audience. As a director, did you have O'Connell go “bigger” to fit into the shoes of his larger-than-life character, or did you have to tone him down? Both?

Mike was so amazing to work with. He knew the character so well and completely bought into my vision of the film. There were things that at times had to be toned down and also times where I pushed him to go “bigger” with the performance, but mostly that was taken care of in the writing process.

I worked closely with him on the last few drafts of the script as our visions for the film were completely integrated with each other. By the time we were ready to shoot we were really on the same page as to where he needed to let his character go crazy and where he needed to hit the more subdued and emotional marks.

Jesse came into the project shortly before we started to shoot and fit perfectly into the mix. In his portrayal of Mills Joquin, he brought a physical and emotional presence that really balanced out the brashness of K. Roth. His timing and ability to express thoughts and feelings in the subtlest of ways was a true gift to the film.

The chemistry between Mike and Jesse couldn't have been better. They were able to play off of each other effortlessly and provide a comfort zone for all of the other actors to jump into. They were always focused on the task at hand and committed to working with me towards creating this odd little world for K. Roth and Mills to live in.

 

The Living Wake has some elements that reminded me of Harold and Maude. I'm assuming that was an inspiration. Any (other) movies that inspired your approach to The Living Wake?

Yes, Harold and Maude was a big reference for us. The dark comedy about death and this fantastic tone were really something that we all loved and wanted to integrate into The Living Wake.

There were several other films and books that we used to inspire different elements in the film. We looked at Monty Python and the Holy Grail for its brilliant humor and ridiculous characters and settings; Withnail and I for the precise dialogue, wit and tone; Being There and Peter Sellers' amazing portrayal of Chance the Gardener; Stroszek for it's fascinating main character and how he copes with failure. We used the dynamic of the master and servant relationship from Don Quixote.

Visually, we watched films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? for it's great use of space and landscapes; The Royal Tannenbaums for Wes Anderson's fantastic attention to detail and balanced frames; and American Astronaut for the musical numbers and its uniquely beautiful look that you don't normally find in low-budget indie films.

Photo: Mangusta Productions

  'The Living Wake' Interview: Director Sol Tryon on Working with Jesse Eisenberg © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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