Tomorrow the pitch-black indie Cheap Thrills begins its Chicago run at the Music Box. Described by at least one critic as a hybrid of Jackass and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, it takes place over a long night as two down-and-out guys get lured by a wealthy couple into a bizarre “game” wherein they perform strange dares for cash. (Full disclosure: I used to volunteer with one of the film’s writers, David Chirchirillo, at Odd Obsession Movies in Bucktown.) The dares becomes increasingly grotesque as the evening goes on, but the biggest surprise of the movie may be David Koechner’s performance. A veteran comic actor best known for his roles in Anchorman and NBC’s The Office, Koechner plays the husband of the wealthy couple as a smiling devil—his onscreen charisma, honed over decades of performing broad comedy, gives Cheap Thrills much of its menace.
As it happens Koechner will be in town tomorrow to perform at the Park West. It’s far from the first time he’s performed here—before moving onto film and TV work, Koechner spent eight years involved with the local improv comedy scene. In the first part of this interview, we discuss the differences between acting onstage and on camera. In the second part, which I’ll post tomorrow, he delves into some of his formative experiences in Chicago.
Ben Sachs: I’d like to start by talking about Cheap Thrills. It’s not the sort of movie you’re typically associated with, so I was curious as to what drew you to it.
David Koechner: You’re right—the movie is not a comedy. It’s a sinister thriller with dark comedic undertones. As for what attracted me, I got the script from [director] E.L. Katz and [producer] Travis Stevens, who thought of me for the role of Colin. I couldn’t put it down. There was nothing you had to “forgive” in the script. Oftentimes when you read a script, you find a scene or two that [the writers] had to put in because they needed to bridge the story but it doesn’t quite fit and you just allow it. There weren’t any holes in this story for me. Page after page, it just kept getting better. Obviously it wasn’t like anything I’d done before, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Once the movie was cast, how long did it take to shoot?
It was shot on a microbudget in 14 days, which is less than half the time of a normal feature. Fourteen days and in Los Angeles during a heatwave in a house that didn’t have air conditioning. All the conditions were lined up to make it a real pressure cooker.
How was it playing the bad guy? This might be the first character I’ve seen you play who could be described as evil.
When you first meet Colin and his wife, you think they’re just party people. I thought it was interesting to start out with this transition from something that people might find familiar from my other performances—this goofy, affable, almost charming guy—to something sociopathic. It was fun to pull [the audience] in innocently, but it was more fun to play with this cast, which is a really talented group of individuals.
You know, you do your preparation [for a film] and you hope for the best, but it’s so much better when [the other actors] have done their work. It’s almost like you don’t even have to think about anything else—you’re just in it. It was almost like doing a play.
The way you describe your performance, it sounds like acting in the film was a bit like doing live comedy, where you also have to draw in the audience and get them to like you.
That’s a good analogy. You’ve got to pull them in, get them to go along for the ride, and then hope that you can take them anywhere.
Were you drawing on what you’ve learned from comedy to create this performance?
To tell you the honest truth, I didn’t think this was a funny movie at all. I’ve seen it several times with festival audiences, and . . . I didn’t know there were that many laughs in the picture! I knew there was one laugh, in the scene where I’m on the couch with Ethan Embry’s character—you know what I’m talking about, when I have my hand down my pants? But I didn’t think there’d be so many, so I didn’t approach this at all from that [comedic] standpoint. I just prepped as an actor. You know, what is this scene? Does it parallel anything in my life?
How much dramatic acting have you done?
It depends on how you define “dramatic” acting. Some people would say that parts of Thank You for Smoking were more satirical, less out-and-out comic. Extract, though a comedy, I thought allowed me a different kind of performance. Final Destination 5, one could argue, has dramatic elements. But to me, it’s all acting.
I was looking over your filmography the other night . . .
. . . and I was stunned by how prolific you are. Between your movie and TV appearances, you’ve played about a dozen characters a year for the past decade.
The thing is, when I do movies, I’m not always there for the entire run of the picture. Sometimes I’m there for a couple days, sometimes a couple weeks. If you’re the lead [actor], you have to be on set for three months. But most times, I’m supporting. So, I can be there for a few days, and if my part gets spread throughout the picture, it looks like I was there for the whole thing.
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve gotten to do a variety of roles—some better, some lesser. But this lets me say I’ve got range. I can be Uncle Earl on Hannah Montana and the bad guy in Piranha 3DD. I mean, come on—that’s some range!
Do you feel like you have to adjust your approach when you’re going from a kids’ TV show to an R-rated comedy? Or do you feel like there’s a core method you can bring to each project?
I’m just going to go and do what I do. The fact that I actually get a job in show business, that’s cause for celebration. Some people like to complain about work—that’s not me. I dig it, I love show business, I love acting, I love comedy, I love every aspect of this business. I just try to have a joyful approach to the work. I’m not saying I don’t have my complaints, but there’s no upside in complaining.
I’d like to talk about your time in Chicago. You lived here for several years before moving on to movies and TV.
I started [performing] at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago while simultaneously taking classes at the Second City. That was the greatest training—because even in class, I was up on stage. And this went on five nights a week for years. It was an intense time, because you really immerse yourself in [comedy] that way. It kind of becomes a religion. When you studied with Del Close, that was basically the attitude. Comedy is religion, it’s not fun and games, it’s as important as anything you’ll ever do in your life. That really stayed with me.
[Close] was just a remarkable guy. And to balance [his style] with the style that was going on at Second City at the time was very interesting. I learned a lot of different approaches to comedy, in both sketch and improv, and that was invaluable.
What were some of the different approaches?
Del was doing long-form improvisation—I don’t think that had been introduced to Second City yet. At the time, [Second City’s] worldview was more closely geared to just sketches. They were doing improv too, but they were also generating material. Both [schools] are wonderful, but iO was pure improvisation and Second City was steering you toward writing. They’re using [improv] as a tool for writing.
It’s a different way of looking at things. You’ve got a structure, and you might have an idea that you want to work [into] the scene, and you [improv to] try to generate material for the particular scene. At the iO, it’s all just free-form. You don’t have any preconceived notions, you just go instantly with whatever’s happening onstage. I would say there was probably a healthy little rivalry going on between the two at one point, but now they’re kind of blended. When I was there, everyone was taking classes simultaneously at both.
It seems like there’s now a greater emphasis on improvisation in movie comedy than ever before. The Anchorman movies, which you’re in, incorporate lots of improvised material, so do the movies that Judd Apatow’s directed. And then there’s a whole subgenre launched by This Is Spinal Tap, the comic mockumentary.
This is just another way to construct the work. [Director] Adam McKay, obviously, came from the iO and Second City. Will [Ferrell] started at Groundlings. So they put a cast together [for Anchorman], and then they wrote an amazing script. On their movies, when they’ve done two or three takes and we know we’ve got [a scene] in the can, then McKay will say, “Okay. Let’s improvise.” Because you don’t know if you’ll get another bolt of inspiration. And it gives Adam more choices in the editing room—he’s not stuck with just one line.
Another thing [improv] does is it makes you focus your performance. When you’re doing scripted lines, you know what’s going to be said by the other person. You just don’t know how he’s going to say it. In improvisation, you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, so you have to listen really intensely. I think that can have a chemical reaction that people see translated onto film.
Can you tell in the moment if an improvised scene isn’t working? Or does that only come through clearly during the editing?
It’s a case-by-case thing. On the set of Anchorman, Adam and Will create such a joyful and supportive atmosphere that there’s literally no failure. We have the scene we want in the can, so let’s see if can get more. If we don’t, no big deal. You know, just because you miss one pitch doesn’t mean you quit baseball.
I was wondering, more generally, about when and if you can tell if improvisation isn’t working.
I guess the most to-the-point answer would be, it’s great to improvise with people who know how to do it. If [the actors] don’t have that background, perhaps it’s not the best approach to take. If people are just making up stuff that has nothing to do with the script, then it might not be beneficial. But I say, why not try? It can’t hurt, unless you’re relying on it completely for your script.