If bacon and limited government are what motivate Ron Swanson, it’s fair to say that Parks and Recreation showrunner Mike Schur is equally passionate about two things of his own: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the indie-rock group the Decemberists. “It is literally my favorite book and they are literally my favorite band,” Schur told Vulture, channeling a bit of Chris Traeger. Schur is such a Jest fanboy that when the feature rights to the novel came up for sale a year ago, he snatched them (more on that later). And when a rep for the group called in search of a music-video director who was a fan of both the group and Wallace’s novel, “I was literally frothing at the mouth trying to not seem too desperate,” Schur says. Thankfully, Schur got the gig, and the resulting video for “Calamity Song” — which brings to life Eschaton, a tennislike game described in Wallace’s novel — debuted online today. Despite having directed a handful of Parks episodes, Schur says this experience was “very different.”
“Our show has a visual style that I’m very used to, after eight years of working with the mockumentary style,” Schur says, alluding to his years of work on NBC stablemate The Office. “This was about a lot of Steadicam, and referencing a very specific story from a very complicated novel.” Schur also didn’t have the luxury of several days of production inside a familiar studio. Instead, the whole shoot took place on location in Oregon over the course of a twelve-hour day. “There was much running around and improvising and trying to get everything we needed to tell the story,” Schur says, noting that pretty much “everyone worked for free” on the video. He’s particularly grateful to a lot of Parks pals who donated their time helping design the look of the video and all of its many detailed props (“tiny nerdy details,” Schur calls them), including a NASA glass referenced briefly in Jest.
Directing a music video probably wasn’t on Schur’s bucket list before “Calamity Song,” though he grew up appreciating the form. “I liked the ones that told stories rather than just throwing out a bunch of images,” he says. “‘Thriller’ was obviously huge. And I loved Radiohead’s videos when I was in college.” Videos actually weren’t a big part of his very young media diet, however. “I wasn’t allowed to have cable as a kid,” he says. “So videos were these super-delicious treats I’d get to see at friends’ houses.”
Now that Schur has put a tiny bit of Jest onto film, what does he plan to do with the film rights he bought to the book? For right now, nothing: “I love my job,” he says of Parks, and as long as the show’s on the air, it’s hard to imagine tackling it. “To adapt it would be an immense challenge,” he says. Schur, who wrote his senior thesis on Jest, said he went after the rights anyway because he “just wanted to be involved” in the possible filming of the book, even if it’s on a delayed basis (or perhaps with another screenwriter). “I’ve read this thing cover to cover maybe eight to ten times,” Schur explains. “If you don’t jump at the chance when something like this comes along, well then what are you even doing [in showbiz]?” Meanwhile, as much fun as it was to bring “Calamity Song” to life, Schur is not planning a prolific second job as a music-video director. “This was such a specific thing that was so in my wheelhouse,” he says. “There may be a Mouse Rat video on Parks this season, and if that happens, maybe I’ll direct that. But it’s not going to be based on any section of Infinite Jest.”