Adam Ezra and Jeff Grace have been friends since beginning their careers as performers; Ezra in music, Grace in comedy. While Grace trained at Second City and ImprovOlympic in Chicago (while working a day job in advertising), Ezra made a name for himself as an indie singer-songwriter (noted for his double-bass skills and self-taught knowledge of multiple instruments). By the time Grace moved to LA to pursue comedy full-time, Ezra was a YouTube sensation who received millions of hits. But after years of pursuing their art in their own hemispheres, they’ve finally had a chance to work together. Ezra’s a composer (and wrote multiple songs) for Grace’s directing debut Folk Hero and Funny Guy. Inspired by their own stories of performing and their personal friendship, Grace’s road-movie about two life-long friends has been embraced by critics as an insightful look at friendships (and male egos) by a confident new filmmaker, winning performances from leads Alex Karpovsky, Wyatt Russell, and Meredith Hagner, and high quality original music. With Ezra providing the inspiration for the moderately famous Jason (Russell), and Grace basing some of the down-and-out Paul’s (Karpovsky) experience on his own stand-up days, we spoke to them about the film’s origins, making the film, and making stand-up work on film.
The Interrobang: Before I ask Jeff to comment, I wanted to ask you, Adam, how he felt when he first heard about the film and when you finally saw the film, particularly the character you inspired. I don’t know how closely you relate to him in real-life?
Adam Ezra: Jeff and I have known each other since we were starting out. He’d come and see me at open mics performing music, and I’d see him perform at open mics as a stand-up. So we’ve been down similar roads together. The story’s not exactly autobiographical, but it’s loosely based on a story song I have and the stories Jeff and I have told about being on the road as a musician and comedian. Seeing the final product, the movie brings back a lot of good memories.
The Interrobang: Was the film based on a specific road trip?
Jeff Grace: We’ve never toured together, so the film’s inspired by a series of drunk conversations we’ve had about being on the road. And we’d always joke about going on the road together, or me joining him as an opening act, which would be a bad idea. But Adam has a song called “Desperate Plea from the Heart of a Shit-Head,” which is one of my favorite song titles of all time. And in that song, Adam tells a great story that would make a great MacGuffin for a movie like this.
Adam Ezra: That song’s based on this time I kind of chased a girl down to North Carolina and still struck out. And there was another time, Jeff had the experience of being hired to open up for this hip hop performer, but he’d be doing stand-up. And that story always made me laugh.
Jeff Grace: There was a Latino hip hop, rap group that came to one of my stand-up shows and thought I was really funny. And they had an 8 week run at a theater in Santa Monica. And for 8 weeks straight, I had to do a 40 minute opening act for crowds that weren’t there to see a stand-up show. And I came to find out that pretty much every comedian I’ve told this story to, including David Cross, whose in the movie, had opened up for a musical group. David had some success, but everyone seemed to agree that opening for a musician’s the kiss of death. Because people who are coming to see a rock show aren’t in the headspace to see a stand-up. Being a good audience requires a different type of attention. And I thought for a guy trying to resuscitate his career in comedy, the worst thing he could do would be to put him on the road with a musician.
Adam Ezra: I remember when Jeff told me the idea for the script he was working on, and it was a combination of those stand-up stories and the basic story from “Heart of a Shit-Head.” The character based on me was putting a tour together as a smoke screen to see this girl. And he needed a partner-in-crime to go with him, and convinces his down and out buddy to be his opening act. And it’s just this terrible plan, from start to finish.
The Interrobang: It’s interesting you mention the audience’s mindset being different for music and stand-up because I think you experience the pleasure in the two art forms completely differently, music’s something people seem to appreciate on a subconscious level, but stand-up requires active listening. If you go to a bar and someone’s playing music, it can be really nice. But if you’re not in the mood for stand-up or a club just springs it on you, it can put the audience in a bad mood before they even start the routine.
Jeff Grace: It’s so different because I think comedians depend more on the reactions of an audience. They say a joke, hold for the laugh, each response generates the next one. Musicians are dominant when they perform, they’re leading the audience. Stand-up’s more of a conversation. When we had Alex do the stand-up on stage, normally you would have someone do all the stand-up and then lay the audio of the laughter in later. But that never felt authentic to his performance, so we just used the response of our extras. We needed them to set his pace and let him react in the moment. I’m sure Adam’s had shows and no one seems to be listening, but with music you can usually just power through the set. If you’re a stand-up and get no reply, and I’ve experienced that too, it’s almost like you’re just talking to no one.
Adam Ezra: It’s why I have so much respect for comedians. If you tell a joke and no one laughs, can you call it a joke? If I sing a song and no one’s listening, it’s still a song. I can always close my eyes and just do my art. Jeff can’t be a comedian if people aren’t laughing. That’s what I’ve always respected about comics. There’s a scene in the movie that’s kind of inspired by real life, where Wyatt’s telling a little story about what inspired a song and the audience laughs at his joke. And when I do that on stage, I get a response because I’m connecting with an audience and they’re at ease. And Jeff saw me performing early on and said there were parallels between my introductions and his stand-up and there are a couple of moments in the film where Wyatt gets an easy laugh, but Alex had been dying for one. Because it’s the story of a comedian who doesn’t have enough confidence to be himself on stage, on tour with someone who seems so comfortable in his own skin. And you see Wyatt get on stage to perform, and he did an amazing job being comfortable performing and interacting with the crowd in a completely natural way. Alex’s character didn’t need to learn how to tell a joke, but how to be comfortable on stage with who he is and what he had to offer.
The Interrobang: When you worked on the music with Wyatt on the songs you’d written, did you ever find him mimicking you or instructing him to perform in your style?
Adam Ezra: That’s so interesting because I came out to LA to work with him. And I’ve never done something like this, and didn’t really know what to expect. My first reaction to working with him was an honest feeling of relief, because he turned out to be a talented singer and guitarist before I showed up. The biggest challenges we had, the focus of our sessions together, weren’t about him learning the songs, but getting him to play them naturally as himself. It was like what we just talked about, he needed to get more comfortable using his own voice, rather than act like a “folk singer” or “rock singer” whatever his perception of that type might have been. I struggle with that all the time as a singer, finding and staying in my most honest voice. And Wyatt’s such a smart, gifted person he really understood what I meant and watching him on screen, I feel like he achieved that. When he’s performing, he’s not trying to act or sound like me, he’s being an honest version of himself on stage.
Jeff Grace: It was weird how often that “be yourself, find your own voice” idea comes up. I’ve heard it a lot, Adam’s heard it, I’m sure you’ve heard it. And it’s something we throw out there constantly, as if it’s easy to do. Artists, of any kind, need years to figure out who they are. But once you can tap into that, it becomes your greatest asset as a performer. But when you’re first starting out, learning the craft, everyone imitates someone. Wyatt’s friends with Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes and went on tour with them for a couple of weeks when he was still playing hockey and had some down time. And Adam noticed that Wyatt had picked up some of Chris’s vocal qualities, just through osmosis. And watching some of their rehearsals, it was an area Adam worked on with him.
Adam Ezra: And Wyatt had just come off a mindf**k as an actor. He’d literally just come off a movie where he played Duane Allman. So after spending months trying to mimic this person and not be himself. But I felt that the best way he could play his character was to perform as himself and sing with his own voice. But he was walking a fine line, because he is still playing a character.
The Interrobang: I think that “own voice” idea’s huge in comedy too, because it would be hard to find one of today’s top comics who didn’t go through a time of imitating their predecessors. The comics who arrived right after Jerry Seinfeld sounded a lot like him when they first arrived, but gradually became themselves. And in the film, Alex slowly starts to be a little more personal with his comedy.
Adam Ezra: And when he’s uncomfortable on stage, he reverts back to those go-to bits, inspired by the type of comic he wants to be. But when he does them, he’s never successful. And when he lets that go and starts reacting in the moment, he’s successful. I like that those moments happen when he feels broken down, he’s at that “I’ve got nowhere else to go” moment. And when he gets a laugh, and the laughs are authentic, those are such cool moments.
Jeff: I’m glad you noticed that, because I heard Louis C.K. talk about that happening to him. He spent years doing “bits” that he could do in a two and half minute sets to get booked. But the best comics, at least my favorites, go off on these long stories, they don’t do bits. A comedy manager in the UK named Paul Duddridge became one of my mentors and kept ripping me for telling those types of jokes. There’s an “Evite” joke in the movie that I used to do all the time, I won a comedy competition with it as my closer. And I hung onto that joke for way too long. And he’d say, those jokes aren’t about you, you’re just making pop observations. And Seinfeld definitely felt like the gold standard of observational comedy to me, but that’s not the best way to deliver a unique perspective. There are plenty of comics able to deliver pure observational humor, but I think the majority of people want to connect on a personal level. And even someone at the top of his game like Paul F. Tompkins been candid about going through that period of adjustment. He named his first album “Impersonal.” You have to get to the point where you’re confident enough in your material and stage craft that you don’t panic if you don’t have a laugh every 30 seconds, because the story will result in an even bigger response.
Jeff Grace: I love him, and as a host, he’s amazing. I went to a taping of David Cross’s Netflix show W/Bob & Dave and he was the host of that show and he was so great. And I’ve seen him perform a lot and he’s so funny, but I think it took him a long time to embrace comedy that wasn’t just riffing, but a little more conversational. Because the ability to converse and converse on stage are very different. When I was at Second City, people would say “you’re the funniest person off stage.” And they meant it as a compliment, but that’s not what a comic wants to hear. You have to learn to be that on stage and it’s rare to see someone find success before the age of 30.
The Interrobang: How did you get David Cross and Michael Ian Black involved?
Jeff Grace: David had been in a movie that I acted in and produced called It’s a Disaster, by my friend Todd Berger, who wrote and directed it. We were in the comedy group “The Vacationers.” So I had this NPR DJ character, asked him to do it as a favor, and he was like “I have one day.” He flew down to LA, did the scene, and flew back all in the same day. Huge favor, great guy. He didn’t make any money doing that, but he did it as a vote of confidence. As for Michael Ian Black, I told UTA “I want a Michael Ian Black type” and they called back and said “what about Michael Ian Black?” And 20 minutes later, his agent called back and said he’d do it. I didn’t know him, but he liked the script. Melanie Lynskey, I met at a film festival and asked her to do me a favor. It’s a much smaller role than she’s used to. I looked at a lot of stand ups for the roles, including the Paul role before I cast Alex. I thought it might be good to have a stand up in the role, but I thought it might be confusing to have them doing stand-up someone else had written. But I thought about people I’d come up with, like Kyle Kinane and T.J. Miller, who are great actors. But thought it might upset an audience’s ability to settle into the movie.
The Interrobang: It is very risky to show someone “performing” because if the audience in the theater isn’t having the same kind of reaction as the audience on screen, the response can feel so disconnected, people get annoyed or frustrated and reject the entire performance. Were you guys thinking about how to avoid the pitfalls that happen on a lot of films about musicians, and especially about stand-up?
Jeff Grace: At the very least, I knew I had Adam on board and songs of his that I already loved. We went back to some of his earliest songs. And he actually said, “I think you like those songs more than most people,” but I knew we had songs that play well on stage. He also wrote a lot of original music, so I felt I had this luxury of having a really great musician on board who’s had success with the type of music we’re performing on screen. I like Almost Famous, but the band in that movie’s supposed to represent Led Zeppelin, the band Stillwater. And watching it I thought “this band isn’t that good, why are people acting so crazy around them.” The stand-up was more complicated, and sound design on the entire movie became really complicated. We ran into problems early on where there was that disconnect. And it’s easier to get extras to not laugh, but when Alex was doing well and earning laughs, we had to calibrate the reactions. We had to tell them to react honestly to the jokes, not laugh because they’re supposed to. If they thought it was funny, laugh but don’t force a big, unnatural laugh because you’re being filmed. But I was well aware that there are a lot of movies with stand-up where the audience’s reaction to the performance seems totally off, and it can be annoying. But there’s always going to be those problems with a double proscenium. It’s funniest when the audience in the theater laughs because Alex’s failed to make the audience on screen laugh.
Adam Ezra: The platform for the music was unique because Wyatt’s character used to performing on stage with a big band. And now he’s duct taping a tour together, so he has to play in these small bars that are set up for open mics. So the production didn’t have to be amazing to get a good reaction from the crowd, especially because Wyatt and Meredith were great, natural musical performers. I was so nervous they wouldn’t come across as real musicians. But Jeff made a smart decision to make a scenario where the performances were very low-key and relaxed. And subconsciously, I think people in the audience react better to their performances because they both recorded their performances live on set, rather than lip sync to previously recorded tracks.
Jeff Grace: They put so much work into the music, they had demos for me before we ever started filming. I was starting to fear that I love Adam’s music and love Wyatt and Meredith so much, can I be objective about this? But people have come up to us at festival screenings and asked if we’ll release the music. And we did! Adam did, he put together an album.
Adam Ezra: “Songs from a Movie” not super imaginative, but it was a fun process to send Jeff music while he worked on the script. It helped to influence the musician character. And then I went into the studio and recorded the music, some of which was used, but it’s all available now.
The Interrobang: I know Meredith wrote some of her own music, so what was your relationship like with her. Had you written music for her character that didn’t get used or work on some of her compositions?
Adam Ezra: I think it was very important to her that the music she sang felt like it came from her. And I’d written some songs for that character, and we did some demos in New York. But it just didn’t feel enough like her. So she and I started writing some music together. And I think that’s when the characters began to focus on Wyatt and Meredith’s characters as singer-songwriters. They took the ball and just ran with that idea. They wrote some of the music they sang together on site.
Jeff Grace: There are a few songs they wrote in Atlanta the week before we started filming. The song you hear during the montage, they wrote in Atlanta and we had an extra day to film so we just recorded the three of them singing in the park on a blanket. And the audio you hear is the audio we recorded outside, so you can hear the highway in the background. And we re-recorded the song in a studio, but I thought the recording on set sounded better and felt authentic. And we also have their real chemistry set that only helped their performances. A few weeks after we wrapped, they started dating and it wasn’t a huge surprise. But I really appreciated how flexible Adam was, because I thought he’d write every song, and he was willing to write new music for the film. But once you get actors involved, things change. But he was the inspiration for the character, he’s the guy I know that lived the rock star dream. He has a very specific level of notoriety I wanted the character to have. He gets asked for autographs, but can also go to Target without being bothered. And there was a documentary about Jeff Tweedy, who went on tour without Wilco, and you realize he’s kind of obscure without his band. He can eat in a diner, and there might be one Wilco nerd who asks for an autograph. That’s the level of fame Jason is at in the film.
The Interrobang: After doing stand up for so long and now writing and directing this film, do you feel yourself moving into that area as your primary profession or do you think of stand-up, sketch, filmmaking all falling under the profession of “comedian”?
Jeff Grace: I started with a group of comedians who have all pretty much made it. Kyle, ,T.J. Miller, Pete Holmes, Kumail Nanjiani. And they were always “stand-ups,” but I never felt that comfortable putting all my eggs in one basket. Looking back, I see that approach really paid off for them, the same way Adam immediately started pursuing music as his profession. I was a little more of a generalist who did a little stand-up, improv, sketch, acted, I had my video group. But those guys are first and foremost stand-ups. That seems to be their primary focus and they just happen to be good at acting and sketch comedy as well. But since directing, I think I see myself more as a filmmaker who sometimes acts and does stand-up. I still do stand-up, I don’t know if I feel like a stand-up, but I feel like a director.
Adam Ezra: One of the things that’s been so great about watching Jeff make this movie is how comfortable he is, and I think it reflects in his work and in this movie.
Jeff Grace: It took me a longtime to fully commit to comedy as my profession. I had a day job for a long time in advertising, and Adam was a huge proponent of me quitting and pursuing comedy 100%. You can’t be an executive and part-time comedian, it won’t work. I have a director friend Marc Webb who kept trying to get me to move to LA, that you just can’t have a plan B. I used one of his lines in the movie. And I finally embraced that mentality and fully committed.