Rough Sketch: Owen Kline on comic-book movies and dirty old New York

Daniel Zolghadri as aspiring cartoonist Robert in Funny Pages.
Daniel Zolghadri as aspiring cartoonist Robert in Funny Pages.

Funny Pages filmmaker Owen Kline chats about working with the Safdie brothers, dirty old New York movies and his favorite comedies starring his parents. 

We first saw Funny Pages writer and director Owen Kline on screen in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 divorce dramedy The Squid and the Whale at the age of thirteen. But already, he was no stranger to the world of filmmaking. He carries the surname of his comedy legend father Kevin Kline, and his mother is ’80s heartbreaker Phoebe Cates (herself the child of film director Joseph Cates). Hot on the heels of Baumbach’s Sundance winner, he initially opted not to pursue a career in cinema, staying in junior high school and gravitating towards his dream of becoming a cartoonist.

In the spirit of ‘writing what you know’, Kline’s directorial debut, which debuted at Cannes this year, is firmly in line with his primary passion. Funny Pages follows Robert (Daniel Zolghadri, a familiar face from the unnerving truth-or-dare scene in Eighth Grade), an aspiring cartoonist with a love of underground comic books and outsider artists, who is willing to go to great lengths to perfect his craft and break into the industry. The offbeat comedy is shot on grainy 16mm film stock for a grungy aesthetic to match Kline’s early documentary influences and is an indication of his creative collaboration with Benny and Josh Safdie, credited here as producers.

“The Safdies’ fingerprints are all over the movie’s sweaty, manic, shrieking texture,” writes Jacob Knight in his Letterboxd review. “You can smell the basement apartments, musty comics shops, and cramped state-run offices, as [cinematographer] Sean Price Williams captures every lumpy, odd face, and fraying hand-me-down sweater, placing us right next to these ugly misfits as they all chug away at their jobs and passions, barely keeping their own perversions at bay.”

Family portrait: Owen Kline, bottom right, with his The Squid and the Whale (2005) co-stars.
Family portrait: Owen Kline, bottom right, with his The Squid and the Whale (2005) co-stars.

For those seeking their next Safdie-related hit after Good Time and Uncut Gems—perhaps one with much lower stakes—this is a good bet. Describing the best advice he received from the brothers, Kline tells us they recommended he “use logic against itself and rationality against itself. If I was struggling with a story beat and coming up with generic devices to get what I needed from the characters, [Safdie collaborator] Ronnie Bronstein liked to say: “Well, what's the wrong idea?” Even if it's “wrong”, that often leads down more imaginative pathways.”

As such, Funny Pages thrives on the idiosyncracies of its side characters, the way they feel lived in the film’s world, and the way they fold into the narrative organically. Character actor Matthew Maher in particular, recognizable from turning up in Baumbach movies Marriage Story and While We're Young and a turn as a pirate in HBO’s Our Flag Means Death, gets his biggest chance to shine yet. Kline is a fan of the cameos he littered around Funny Pages, and mentions yodelling punk Avalanche Bob, Louise “Mary Hartman” Lasser, actor Peter Lucibello and comedian Andy Milonakis as personal favorites.

Robert seeks the mentorship of retired color separator Wallace (Matthew Maher) in Funny Pages.
Robert seeks the mentorship of retired color separator Wallace (Matthew Maher) in Funny Pages.

Kline shares more of his favorites in his Life in Film for Letterboxd, with an especially deep dive into the dark depths of dirty old New York movies. 

Is there a film that made you want to become a filmmaker? 
Owen Kline: My real dream was always that I wanted to draw a comic strip and have three panels a day in the paper and bring people happiness on a daily basis and whatnot. I loved movies, like everybody. Waiting for Guffman really made me want to make an independent comedy because it was the first movie that seemed achievable in its faux-doc style. All of its comedy leaned into the cheapness that the story required—it relied on its podunky-ness to work. 

Anyway, it seemed like the kind of thing I would want to make if I could do a comedy. I screwed around with mockumentaries in my early teens with a video camera because that synthesis of performance and improv and real location seemed like something mildly achievable. Later on, when I did movies with Josh and Benny [Safdie] and Ronnie Bronstein, we had this interest in common: trying to capture narrative and discreetly disguising it with the grammar of documentary a bit. 

They were looking to real documentaries for inspiration and pointed the compass for me towards [Frederick] Wiseman and Ross McElwee, the Maysles. But before that, I got the chance to do The Squid and the Whale a few weeks of the summer before junior high and it wasn’t really until then that I could see the film process in a way I could comprehend. I got to see how a run-and-gun handheld 16mm movie with little resources was made and how it could be enhanced by trying to imbue it with personal details.

Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 dry comedy Greenberg.
Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 dry comedy Greenberg.

Which of Noah Baumbach’s movies since The Squid and the Whale have you enjoyed?
I really like Greenberg. There’s a nastiness to the humor in that one and it’s also just so sad. It’s a funny movie about a guy with ugly, unsolvable problems and you really get the full gamut of his extreme emotions—all the bitterness and rage and rationalizations and disappointments—and the pathology will just continue forever. Poor guy. Hurt people hurt people.

Which artist characters in movies resonate with you the most?
Movies like The Horse’s Mouth, Prick Up Your Ears, and I Want to Go Home. [These movies are] ones that focus on [the character’s] petty grievances or showcase their working patterns. 

‘Dirty old New York’ is the backdrop of Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), directed by Kline’s grandfather Joseph Cates.
‘Dirty old New York’ is the backdrop of Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), directed by Kline’s grandfather Joseph Cates.

What are your highlights from the ‘Pre-Giuliani Dirty Old New York’ canon?
Ha! Okay, off the top of my head, I’ll give you a bunch of gross New York movies and I’ll skip Cinderella Liberty and classics like that. Obviously the Abel Ferrara movies. It may be obvious, but Maniac and Cruising, and most other movies with Joe Spinell. Hmm… The New York Ripper. Besides something like The Warriors, the best ones are all pretty low-budget and things aren’t often as “dressed” by an art department so you’re seeing the real New York. 

Funny Pages writer, director and co-editor Owen Kline.
Funny Pages writer, director and co-editor Owen Kline.

The first Basket Case movie, Frankenhooker, and most other [Frank] Henenlotter movies. Obviously Times Square. Maybe a movie like Water Power, which is a blatant low-budget rip-off of Taxi Driver from 1977, only a year after Taxi Driver’s release. Vapors by Andy Milligan, which is set in a gay bathhouse on St. Marks Place that later became [legendary NYC video store] Mondo Kim’s—all the New York era Milligan movies. You also see that building and classic block of St. Mark’s in Blast of Silence. It’s in On The Bowery too, I think. 

My number one pick for anyone in this department would have to be a biased one: Who Killed Teddy Bear?, my grandfather’s [Joseph Cates] movie which I ran at The Roxy in New York this month. It’s very proto-Taxi Driver and I know was an important movie to [Martin] Scorsese. It has these wide-angle shots of [Sal] Mineo’s nutjob loner character pumping iron [Robert] Mitchum Cape Fear-style and bumming around old Times Square set to Charlie Calello’s loose jazz score, going into real adult book stores and seeing dirty mags. It has to be the first movie to show off adult bookstores the way it does, and it all looked barely dressed. I mean, the movie was made for pennies. 

The Roxy recently ran a print I found of Spike of Bensonhurst too, that’s a fantastic pre-Giuliani Brooklyn movie. Michael Townsend Wright from Funny Pages is a heavily-featured extra, he’s crawling all over Spike’s neighborhood. All the films of Paul Morrissey are good old New York movies, but the ones in that rife eighties period he did like Spike or Mixed Blood and Forty Deuce are perfect. And Heavy Traffic, although it’s mostly animated. Okay, stop me whenever.

Kline’s mother Phoebe Cates with an “unhinged” Rik Mayall in Drop Dead Fred (1990).
Kline’s mother Phoebe Cates with an “unhinged” Rik Mayall in Drop Dead Fred (1990).

What are your fondest memories of watching movies with your parents? Do any stick out that they also starred in?
My mom brought me to see a film print of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as my first movie. I think Drop Dead Fred [starring Phoebe Cates] is a really special movie. Rik Mayall’s performance is unhinged. We all revisited I Love You to Death [starring Kevin Kline] as a family recently, which is a fave that we hadn’t watched it in years. That movie makes me scream laughing.

Which oddball comedies feel like they were made especially for you?
A movie like Nothing Lasts Forever felt like it was made for me when I found a bootleg of it as a teenager. Actually, I recently revisited Airplane! and realized that it shaped so much of my sense of humor. It’s a certain idiotic glee the Zuckers are committed to that is aspirational. We did all of these leering basement apartment scenes in Funny Pages and I think they’d cease to exist if not for the Airplane! Peter Graves stuff, like saying scary stuff to the little kid: “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” 

“Nothing is more satisfying for a franchise movie than when its sequel is a parody of the first one.” —Owen Kline on Superman II (1980).
“Nothing is more satisfying for a franchise movie than when its sequel is a parody of the first one.” —Owen Kline on Superman II (1980).

Because we simply have to: What are your top four comic book movies? 
It depends on what you define as such, but I guess Crumb, although it’s really more of a portrait of an artist than it is a comic book movie, per se. Then maybe Superman II. That movie rules, it’s just Richard Lester doing crazy slapstick. Also, to me, nothing is more satisfying for a franchise movie than when its sequel is a parody of the first one. 

The Fantastic Four movie produced by Roger Corman is one that someone copied for me in junior high. It’s one of those movies that was never released officially because it was a cheap-o disaster. Regardless that it’s horrible, it’s one of the most expressive Marvel movies, and it looks like it was made on science-fiction sets from other movies. Every creative decision of the film is uniquely confusing. 

But the greatest comic book movie is Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in Artists and Models. That would be number one with a bullet. Frank Tashlin was on fire in those first years as a studio director and he worked his way up from directing animation with a cinematic flair, going from directing Bugs and Daffy and Porky to Jerry and Dean. The stump quote on Tashlin is always that his cartoons are like movies and his movies are like cartoons.

Finally, your film is distributed by A24. What are the most underappreciated films from the studio’s catalog?
I really enjoyed In Fabric, starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste from Secrets & Lies. The score is by Cavern of Anti-Matter, the great Tim Gane of Stereolab’s krautrock-inspired band. And of course, Under the Skin, starring the amazing Adam Pearson.


Funny Pages’ is in theaters and on demand now from A24.

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