sundance 2014

David Cross on Sundance, Upworthy, and Hate-Watching TV Shows

David Cross. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty

David Cross set his directorial debut Hits in a small town two hours upstate from New York City, but for the residents of tiny Liberty, it might as well be a hop, skip, and a jump from Hollywood: Almost everyone in Liberty is consumed with the idea of fame, whether it’s Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh), whose city council tirades make him a viral-video hit, or his daughter Kateyln (Meredith Hagner), who’s so determined to get onto The Voice that she’s already rehearsing her postshow sitdown with Ellen DeGeneres. As Stuben’s recorded rants reach a circle of hipster liberals (headed by James Adomian) who relocate from Brooklyn to Liberty, intending to make the local man a national hero, Cross gets in plenty of jabs at the current, vapid political climate, too. Vulture sat down with Cross last week after Hits premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and the comedian had plenty more to say about all those big, fat satirical targets.

You’ve been to Sundance before, but how did it feel to come here with a film you wrote and directed?
I was telling my wife and my manager this last night — and let me preface this by saying it’s an honor to be here for something that I believe in so much, because I haven’t had that experience before when I’ve been up here — but I really thought I’d be more emotional. I was afraid that I might tear up during a Q&A and have to say, “I’m sorry, guys, this has been my dream since I was a kid,” but last night, when I was sitting in the audience in that sold-out theater of 1,200 people, all I noticed were all the mistakes: “God, I wish I could change that,” or “I need to go back into sound,” or “I need to fix that.” It was definitely well-received, but watching it was nerve-wracking, and I had no emotion afterwards. I was like, “Thank God this is over.” I wanted a drink so bad.

The movie has a lot to say about people’s at-all-costs desire for fame. When you first started in the industry, was there a part of you that wanted to be famous, even a little bit?
Yes, but I should qualify that by saying I didn’t want to become famous for the sake of being famous — I wanted to be famous because that meant that I was successful in my chosen career. So in that sense, yes, I wanted fame, and I have come to be better at appreciating the fans and all the other stuff that is attendant with fame, but I don’t particularly care for it. That’s why I moved upstate: I live in a tiny town in the woods and I’m there a lot. I’m becoming increasingly antisocial as I get older. I was on the list for all these parties at Sundance, and I went to one. I was just like, “Fuck this, I don’t like it anymore, I don’t care. I just want to get out of here and go home.”

Reality shows like The Voice come in for a lot of skewering in your film. Do you actually watch those shows?
I see them, I can’t help it, but I do not share the desire to do that thing that a lot of people do, which is to watch something ironically. As much as I love Gawker and think that the writing there is really good — and they’re not the sole people who do this, but they’re the first people I thought of — they have that attitude like, “We watched Jersey Shore this week and it was so awful!” It’s willful ignorance of what they are doing by completely supporting those things that they purport to hate and loathe and don’t want on TV. They are directly enabling that show to exist. That thing drives me up the wall, and my wife does it. My wife watches Real Housewives and Millionaire Matchmaker and all that shit, and she’s like, “Oh my God, I hate it so much. I can’t stop watching it.” Tons of people are like that! Friends of mine, too. And I just don’t have a lot of respect for that. I’m like, “Well, then you should stop watching it. You’re helping them exist every time you talk about it.” It irritates me. I don’t like watching those sorts of people. They’re despicable to me, they’re terrible human beings — all of ‘em. They represent the worst parts of our culture, and I don’t want to do that thing where we sit down and make fun of them. I just don’t want to do it.

Another way that people in Hits aspire to fame is through viral videos — some that are designed to flatter a certain political sensibility, and some that are just stupid enough to catch on. I’m curious what you make of a site like Upworthy, which is all about the political viral video.
It’s all about commerce. They’re just making money. It’s like Huffington Post: It’s click-bait. They can say they’re trying to do whatever they’re trying to do, but that’s just glossing over the fact that everything they’re doing is geared towards making money. That’s what Upworthy does.

At the Q&A today, you said that the left and the right are equally hyperbolic.
They are.

You don’t think that’s a false equivalency? It’s hard to say that the left has a level of hyperbole that’s comparable to Fox News and talk radio.
I think we’ll end up agreeing on this: There’s a different quality to that stuff and what they’re saying, but it is true that both can be equally hyperbolic. Maybe it’s not 50/50, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that if you listen to Randi Rhoades or if you listen to Glenn Beck, they’re both screaming and yelling, they know their audience, and they’re both paid to stir people up.

One of the audience members today asked you whether you were making fun of the Occupy movement. Do you think you were?
In a general sense. I never sat down and said, “I’m going to satirize the Occupy movement.” Not at all. I didn’t realize this when I was writing it or shooting it or even when I was doing post, but as I started doing these interviews and talking about it, I quickly came to realize, Man, all this stuff is stuff that I’ve been talking about on stage for the last fifteen years, easily. So clearly, it’s stuff that’s been in my head. I spend half my time upstate and half my time in Brooklyn, and I see those [Occupy] guys all over the place. They’re well-meaning, but completely ineffective.

There are a lot of famous faces in Hits, but they mostly turn up in supporting roles — you gave the leads to comics like Matt Walsh and James Adomian, who haven’t gotten to carry movies before. I can tell you were excited to give them this sort of platform.
Well, one thing that has always bothered me — and it’s very thoughtless in the true sense of the word — is when people say, “Oh, I’m surprised that Fill-in-the-Blank Comedian was able to do that dramatic role well.” That’s crazy! Why wouldn’t you think they could do that? Comedians aren’t real human beings who can express real emotions, just because they’re good at pratfalls? There was one point very early on in this movie where I was toying with the idea of casting comics in dramatic roles and dramatic people in the comic roles, and that was probably not a good idea, but I will always happily cast comics. Look, someday, Zach Galifianakis will win an Oscar. He will, and it will be for a dramatic role, and people will go, “I’m really surprised that he was able to do that!” And that’s just stupid.

David Cross on Sundance, Upworthy, Hate-Watching