The selectors said: “A director who uses an organic approach to filmmaking, Rick Alverson allows for a certain flexibility in the narrative instead of following the direct line of the script. This results in an experience that takes viewers outside their expectations. In 2011, he was awarded a Visual Arts Fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”
Photo by Jay Paul
For Rick Alverson, the contemporary climate of media saturation and easy access changes the responsibility of filmmaking. “It just isn’t enough to put out a film,” he says. “If there isn’t something unique about your approach to the form, it’s like littering.”
Alverson, a writer-director-musician, had worked with the Bloomington, Ind.-based recording label Jagjaguwar on nine albums in almost as many years as vocalist for the bands Drunk and Spokane when in 2010, the label backed his move into filmmaking. His films, like the music, can be described, as commentator Martin Williams wrote of Spokane’s oeuvre, “the melancholic splendour and barely perceptible progression of a sinking sun.”
Alverson’s debut, The Builder, took a subject portrayed by any number of films — an immigrant disillusioned with the promise of a better life in the United States — with the method of an existential study. He followed it with New Jerusalem, about an immigrant who is also a fractured war veteran coming to terms with a co-worker’s religious zeal. Perhaps expecting something more conventional, some audience members walked out during the Sundance screening of The Comedy, an unflinching portrayal of those who feel a certain entitlement, set in the hipster epicenter of New York City’s Brooklyn borough.
Originally from Spokane, Wash., Alverson came to Richmond more than 20 years ago after living in upstate New York and New York City. During the early 1990s, he attended film school at NYU, but he dropped out, then fronted rock bands for a decade. Still, the idea of making movies percolated. A catalyst may have been Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 fable/psychological thriller Stalker, which he saw in New York. “That film was confusing to me unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I was ultimately tremendously moved by it,” he says. “I felt altered. The passage of the camera and tracking shots and narrative are so slow, so dysfunctional, it actually becomes an active internal experience.” He was also influenced by Lars von Trier’s controversial 1998 film The Idiots. In Alverson’s view, these films, as well as screen adaptations of The Exorcist and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, challenge the expectation of movies as a means of comfort and distraction. They liberated him to make art that examines the unease inherent in our relationships with the world.
Alverson casts mostly nonprofessional actors, friends, musicians and writers, because he’s more interested in personalities. Writer/performer Colm O’Leary carried The Builder and was featured in New Jerusalem. Richmond artist/musician Liza Kate appeared in The Comedy along with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Bandmate and partner Courtney Bowles co-produced The Builder and New Jerusalem. Robert Donne, Alverson’s writing partner in The Comedy, also scored the film.
His roster is currently full of projects in development. Planned for a future shoot in central Virginia is Clement, based on a novel by O’Leary. “Centrally it deals with the early, proto [Ku Klux] Klan in the South,” he says. “This is the genesis of contemporary race relations in the cauldron of Reconstruction. And people are strangely afraid, in my opinion, to invest in something like that.” The Couple is more in the psychological-thriller realm, about a woman whose behavior is dictated by that of her dog. This winter he’ll likely begin production of Entertainment, set in the Mojave Desert. It follows a broken-down comedian (Gregg Turkington) playing clubs across the Southwest, working his way to Los Angeles to meet his estranged daughter. “Hopefully,” says Alverson, “it’ll be brutally depressing.” —HK