Vagabon, AKA musician and Letterboxd member Laetitia Tamko, joins hosts Gemma and Slim for a tour of her four favorite films: Pretty Woman; The Piano Teacher; The Worst Person in the World and Seven. Plus: Elden Ring, discovering Prince via Pretty Woman, covering Gen-X hits with Liz Phair, covering Karen Dalton with Courtney Barnett, loving Nancy Meyers, being f—ed up by Michael Haneke, wanting stability and chaos, and the hypothetical psychological rom-com starring Patti Harrison and Vagabon that we deserve. Vagabon plays at Storm King in New Windsor, NY, on June 25, 2022.Read transcript
Writers Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer talk about their excruciatingly hilarious new film All My Friends Hate Me, and the influences—from Ali G to Joanna Hogg—that informed its unique tone.
The new English film All My Friends Hate Me defies traditional labels. You could call it anxiety horror. Or anxiety comedy. Or cringe thriller. Maybe social torture porn.
Or you can rely on Letterboxd members to get even more specific. “The most uncomfortable I have been in a film in a very long time,” writes Arianne, who caught its Tribeca Film Festival premiere last June. “I’ve never seen a film that got social anxiety this right before,” claims Andrew, before admitting that “cringe comedy makes me wanna jump off a bridge.” But as Adam correctly observes, All My Friends Hate Me is “so much more than an exercise in discomfort”.
The plot concerns tall, awkward, thirty-ish Pete (played by Tom Stourton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Palmer, his long-time partner in comedy duo Totally Tom), who is heading to a huge manor house in the countryside to spend a birthday weekend with upper-crust university chums he hasn’t partied with in several years. Well-meaning, but socially paranoid, Pete can’t help but feel out of place amongst his old friends, especially with all the snipey comments being made by their new pal Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), who seems to have it in for Pete.
It’s an odd feeling when people watch it and say ‘I enjoyed your film that made me feel horrible’.—⁠Tom Palmer, co-writer and producer of All My Friends Hate Me.
As the weekend progresses, Pete’s paranoia kicks into overdrive, and he begins to suspect there may actually be something genuinely nefarious afoot. A disturbingly relatable masterclass in perceived slights and squirmy group interactions, All My Friends Hate Me is a worthy entry into the emerging subgenre that could be called social-anxiety horror, where the little voice inside all of our heads makes for delightfully off-putting cinema.
Stourton’s entertainingly specific lead performance is buoyed by a perfectly calibrated ensemble comprised of emerging British talent such as Georgina Campbell (Black Mirror), Graham Dickson, Charly Clive and especially Demri-Burns, who also appeared alongside Stourton in modern cringe-comedy touchstone Stath Lets Flats. That sitcom was directed by Andrew Gaynord, who makes his feature-directing debut with All My Friends Hate Me.
A tonally specific experience like this relies on many factors, not least the script, so I was curious to chat with Toms Stourton and Palmer about how they constructed the singular mood of their film. Over Zoom, we discussed the classic movies and British comedies they looked to as they deconstructed notions of class and likability.
All My Friends Hate Me often presents like a horror film—what were the horror touchstones you had in mind while you were writing and/or shooting it?
Tom Stourton: We wanted to do something that felt restrained, that had a European darkness like a Michael Haneke or something like that, but we also wanted it to be a bit funnier, but to play with those stakes, to have horror stakes, but the situation is a comedy one. So we were drawing on lots of different kinds of genres. The Shining feels like a big one to say, but you’ve got the character of the hotel in that, and we were writing for that specific house and we knew that could be part of the film as a sort of character. I love films like It Follows. It feels like quite an understated horror but has this horrible anxiety ticking along the whole time. Tom, what about you?
Tom Palmer: I guess we did go over some horrors for aesthetics and camera work and stuff but for us it was more trying to find films that trod that line between extreme darkness and comedy, especially Ruben Östlund films like Force Majeure and The Square, where this idea of taking something so trivial and insignificant and humorous and playing it so big that it becomes dark and almost on an operatic level of heading towards some big crescendo, some big reveal or whatever.
Those were our real touchstones for trying to get the tone right. Never letting the audience settle into, [thinking] ‘this is just a horror or this is a comedy and everything’s going to be fine’, but just wrong-footing the audience from start to finish. It was about that psychological darkness.
We kept calling it a social horror because we were adamant that this wasn’t gonna be a slasher-in-the-woods-type thing, but we wanted to allude to that because it’s obviously part of Pete’s inner psychological torment—getting carried away with himself, getting tangled in his own nightmares and fantasies. So there were a lot of references kicking around. I guess the hardest thing was to not settle into a genre.
TS: Someone described it as an “evil Richard Curtis”, which is quite good. We love Richard Curtis films, but taking the kind of Hugh Grant “bumbling Englishman trope”, but not letting him off the hook so much and watching him fail properly as opposed to charm his way out of things.
In her Variety review, Jessica Kiang quite accurately, or amusingly, described All My Friends Hate Me as what would happen if a Richard Curtis protagonist woke up with self-awareness. Did you feel like she had cottoned on to something aligned with your intentions there?
TP: Yeah, 100 percent. It was kind of incredible reading it the next day after it had come out because she even alluded to this quite obscure British film called Peter’s Friends, which is kind of subliminally-slash-consciously why we called [the character] Pete. It’s an old, niche, frothy comedy with some of the old classic thespy actors in it.
To us, it was a really funny idea to turn that on its head, but we would never have thought someone would actually like, pinpoint that that was a specific reference. She kind of nailed exactly what we were going for. It was just a massive surprise that everything landed with her—but a welcome surprise.
You hear a lot about cringe comedy these days. Is that a space you guys felt you were working in? Were there any cringe comedies that you had in mind? You’ve mentioned a few already, but is that a term you’re comfortable with?
TS: I love cringe comedies and I think there’s a lot of beat similarities with Meet the Parents. It just feels like a really good comic setup for some reason, someone going back into a house to sort of prove themselves in some way. There’s a great opportunity to just watch someone fail. The pressures of a reunion, they do feel very cringe a lot of the time, so I think cringe comedy is a pretty fair description.
Is it difficult to convey that kind of thing in a screenplay? It seems so beautifully formed in the finished product, but I imagine it’d be quite difficult to articulate that in a script?
TS: We just write “cringe” a lot in there!
TP: I do remember people reading the scene where Pete calls Harry a peasant by mistake (or, you know it’s completely his own fault)—I definitely remember people picking up on that and being like: “Oh, God, I find it really hard to read that scene because it just felt so cringe and you’re just hanging this guy out to dry.”
A lot of it’s tonal and subtle and obviously Tom puts on an amazing performance to heighten all of those incredibly intense moments, and the way that Andrew (our director) shot it to leave beats hanging and so you could really feel the atmosphere in the room. For instance, when Pete tells the story about how a refugee kid compared him to Daniel Craig. It’s quite funny on the page, but really it’s everyone’s reactions in the room that really add to it.
We were really lucky to have such a great ensemble cast. There were lots of moments like that where things felt like they really lifted off the page from everyone doing a hint of improvisation but really playing everything for as real as possible.
TS: It was interesting to watch some stuff that was just too cringe, that went on for too long, and [realizing that] actually, when I see this played out, it’s too much, I’m not enjoying it on any level. The editor and the director did an amazing job of treading that line of having those moments for the right amount of time before they are just icky to watch somehow, which I think you can tip over into.
I mean it as a compliment when I say that I felt stressed while watching this film. Was that intentional?
TP: I can think of a lot of films that do the same thing that I absolutely love, like, Uncut Gems. I don’t know what it is about that feeling, it just sucks you in I guess and it makes you present for the whole thing, you can’t look away. So it was definitely intentional, to not give people a moment’s breath. To only ever release the tension, for the rug to be pulled a second later with the next twist or the next whatever. The idea was to sit the audience in the feeling of anxiety and that was always our pitch when we were making it.
TS: I’m not sure we were like, ‘right, let’s stress people out!’ But we were like, ‘let’s make sure that we write every scene with this feeling in mind.’
TP: It’s an odd feeling when people watch it and say “I enjoyed your film that made me feel horrible”, or whatever the phrase may be. It’s a strange thing that we have decided to try and do but I’m glad it does occasionally hit people that way.
Tom Stourton, can you think of any films that have stressed you out?
TS: Uncut Gems, definitely. Peter’s Friends really stresses me out, but for different reasons. I mean, Force Majeure had me in hysterics but you are kind of like: they’re just not going to drop this, this thing isn’t going away, is it? That is a hard thing to accept in a film. Caché by Michael Haneke, that’s a really sort of hard watch. A lot of his films seem to kind of do that in a far more heavy way.
And Festen, that was another influence, the moment when they keep thinking he’s joking, and you see the diminishing returns of laughs as soon as you realize that this guy is actually not joking, and he’s going to accuse his father. Witnessing things slowly dawn on people over the course of the whole film is stressful, but they’re my favorite type of films, whatever weird thing that says about me.
Was there ever a point when you guys were developing this or writing it and trying to get it across the line that potential partners said anything along the lines of: “This is going to make people uncomfortable, how can we sell a film to people that makes them uncomfortable?”
TP: Well, yeah, I was told a lot of times that to sell a film you needed a clear genre, a big star and a happy ending, [none] of which we had as part of our package. So in answer to your question: yes. I think people were turned off by its uncomfortable nature, but I think to their credit, it was more this issue of sitting between genres.
I think people were always interested in the script, and always said [things like] “I read it in one go, I couldn’t put it down”, which was great. But then there would be these discussions about how it’s not a comedy, it’s not a horror, and hard to sell if you don’t know what it is. So that was an obstacle to overcome, but I’m really glad we stuck to our guns and we’ve made it in the way we did. I think it’s definitely come out as the best version of what it could be from when we wrote it.
Something else you often hear in film development and getting movies made is that the characters have to be likable. I really like how this film seems to throw the notion of character likability out the window quite early. Was that a conscious decision?
TS: I always assumed Pete was a lot more likable than everyone’s said, mainly because it’s such a personal thing. Again, we didn’t want to do a Richard Curtis film about British people being sort of charming and likable and awkward. We wanted the characters to feel like the guys that we knew at university, to feel like a real upper class. We wanted them to be real and flawed.
I think what’s interesting is a character like Archie [a particularly tragic poshie played magnificently by Graham Dickson], who outwardly is an asshole and not a very pleasant guy, and not very thoughtful, but is sort of likable because he’s himself and he’s authentic.
That’s Pete’s dilemma, he’s like, ‘I’m actually not that likable because I’m trying to be a better person somehow and [Archie] is effortlessly fun to be around, despite maybe not having a great moral compass, because he’s authentic.’ That felt like an interesting thing to explore with the characters’ likability.
TP: If you’ve got some central character drive that everyone can relate to, just trying to be a nice guy, trying to be liked, trying to be good, but failing in an unlikable way, that actually feels like it makes the audience relate more than if you’re just thinking about ‘how can we make this guy the most lovable, charming buffoon we can think of?’ or whatever. So again, hopefully that makes it kind of feel a little bit different in terms of the protagonist we’re sketching out.
Something I honed in on on my second watch was a line of dialogue uttered by Claire [Antonia Clarke], who is a portrait artist. She laments that she’s just documenting posh people for posh people. Was that you guys expressing your creative neuroses a little bit through the character?
TS: [Laughs] God, yeah, probably. That’s genuinely what an artist I know said to me once. She’s a great artist, but she makes her money painting portraits of wealthy families and their babies and it’s kind of a tough thing. I think that probably was in the back of our minds, yeah.
TP: Except for the whole ‘making money from it’ part.
I love films about, for lack of a better word, posh people and so I really warmed to this. Are there other films about those kinds of people that you guys particularly like or had in mind when you were writing this?
TS: Archipelago. Joanna Hogg, I think the way she sketches the middle and upper class is really refreshingly honest, and kind of sad and interesting and shows that they don’t need to be Downton Abbey characters. They’re a lot more complex.
TP: Recently there’s been quite a lot of American shows about wealthy people that maybe feels like a bit of a new thing and hasn’t been so acceptable for a while. Stuff like The White Lotus was a really interesting series about, I guess on the surface, quite unlikable rich people all in one place. I think as long as something is written with confidence, where each character does have some kind of redeeming feature or just complexity to their character, it can be just as interesting as watching people from whatever background. Joanna Hogg films really, Archipelago and The Souvenir, she seems to just really subtly draw those kinds of characters and I guess Festen as well, they’re all upper-crust characters.
You guys have been working together for a decade as a comedy duo. What were the films that you bonded over when you first met?
TS: Ali G Indahouse, which is a masterpiece to this day.
TP: We became friends aged thirteen over the fact we both loved Ali G and [doing] Ali G impressions. That was I guess the start of our comedy interest. When Chris Morris made Four Lions, I remember that being quite a kind of big deal, something that purely comedic and powerful being mixed together.
TP: Yeah, that was a Christmas tradition; semi-ironic but slightly enjoying it. We used to love Anchorman and all that kind of American Saturday Night Live-type and The Office obviously. Not that that’s a film.
TS: The Office was an amazing mind-being-opened moment, and you can see the depth that that’s created in British comedy. You talk about cringe comedy and there’s nothing that’s been that good, or that cringe.
All My Friends Hate Me is coming out in the States several months ahead of its UK release. Given the class elements examined here, are you conscious of how this might go down differently in America compared to England?
TP: We were always just so excited by the fact that the first festival we got into was Tribeca. That’s where it was launched, that’s where we got our sales rep and our amazing PR team and that’s where the rights were first sold. So it’s this very strange situation where it’s a really, deeply British film but the pinnacle of its journey has been launching in the US so it’ll be really exciting to see how it goes down over there. Hopefully, as we’ve been saying, it’s all relatable themes, and shouldn’t feel off-putting just because it’s British.
Hit me with your four favorite films. Any genre.
TS: Okay, Force Majeure. The Shining. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And… All My Friends Hate Me.
TS: Where is your funny one? Where’s your silly one? Don’t make me look like an asshole.
TP: Hunt for the Wilderpeople. That is my all-time favorite comedy.
‘All My Friends Hate Me’ is showing in select theaters and hits digital services on March 25, 2022.