Interview: Bret McKenzie on fame and his new film
By DIANA WICHTEL | Published on September 22, 2012 | Issue 3776
Comments: Leave a Comment | Tags: Feature, Interview
Bret McKenzie, of the hit comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, spills the beans on the price of fame and his new Kiwi film, Two Little Boys.
photo David White
It may just be show business as usual for him these days. But here on Planet Earth, it’s distinctly surreal to find yourself, of a winter’s evening, listening to an Oscar-winning Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit speak Elvish down the phone. “That’s the only one I can remember,” says Bret McKenzie, of his lines from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. “The other one just sounds like gibberish.” Actually, it all sounds like gibberish – exquisitely murmured gibberish, it must be said. But then, for the reedier member of New Zealand’s now, surely, most popular folk parody duo, spouting inspired nonsense has worked out pretty well. As that moving Flight of the Conchords song goes, “Think about the epileptic dogs.” So mesmerising is the Elvish I forget to ask what it means. According to a glossary for online elves, one word I pick up, “Mithrandir”, means Gandalf.
McKenzie has been seeing a bit of the grey one lately. This time around, his character even has a name: Lindir, elf of Rivendell. This is an advance on his mute appearance over a decade ago in the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That deathless three seconds – he looked like a skinny woodland version of Nana Mous kouri – made him the cult phenomenon Figwit. As in, “Frodo is great. Who is that?” “A big step up,” he agrees. “Last time I was an extra and I wasn’t really allowed to look people in the eye. This time, I got to hang out with Ian McKellen and all the actors. You get to talk to people. You get treated like a human being.” Well, an elf. “That was in May. That was ages ago now,” he says. He’s very busy these days. You have to line up for 15 minutes of his fame. I manage to ring him back, but I’ve had longer interviews with Gandalf. “I know,” he sighs, in a nothing-to-do-with-me way. “They’ve gotten really staunch,” he says, of his media minders.
Well, he’s famous. Ish. “We’re not so famous that we can’t do anything,” he says. “I mean I wouldn’t really go out by myself, because I end up talking to crazies.” He has a three-year-old daughter and a baby son. It can be confusing. “People come up to me in the street and say, ‘Hey, Bret.’ My daughter’s like, ‘Who’s that?’, and I’m like, ‘That’s some guy.’ She just thinks everyone knows my name.” Self-assured, amiable, still a little bashful, McKenzie doesn’t yet have to try too hard to come across as a regular guy. Perhaps to make up for the interview meter running, he tells me they read the Listener at his house. Which forces me to waste precious seconds telling him that when he won his Oscar last year for his Muppets movie song, Man or Muppet?, a cheer went up at the office from a floor of normally world-weary hacks. “Cool,” he says. “Oh! Awesome.” He sounds genuinely surprised anyone noticed.
Man or muppet? It’s a fair question when you consider the roles he has played. According to legend, and the Flight of the Conchords website, McKenzie and Jemaine Clement first performed together in nude suits and Velcro penises in a student production about male body issues. A creative scenario from which there was nowhere to go but up. A simmering crisis of masculinity also helps make Flight of the Conchords, their brilliant HBO television series, a sort of 21st-century Waiting for Godot with synthesisers. “Am I a man?” go the Conchords lyrics. “Yes, technically I am.” His latest role, in the Sarkies brothers’ new movie, Two Little Boys, lands him, with a resounding thud, at the muppet end of the spectrum. It’s based on the novel by Duncan Sarkies, who co-wrote the very black comedy Scarfies.
Two Little Boys, set in Invercargill and environs, continues a tradition that sees life on these isles at the ends of the Earth as a slightly less grown-up version of Lord of the Flies. McKenzie plays Nige, a 90s no-hoper in the process of fleeing the stifling purgatory of flatting with his childhood mate Deano. Driving while under the influence of an overheated meat pie, Nige accidentally kills a Norwegian football star. In one of many spectacularly imbecilic moves, he goes to the devoted but clearly barking Deano for help. Things quickly get psychotic in a story in which the only real moral message may be to always blow on the pie. There are mullets and Y-fronts, in confronting combination. Laugh? I’m still traumatised. “I know. It’s quite a harrowing comedy. You can’t imagine Adam Sandler doing this role,” he says. “The first 20 words in the film are ‘f—’. It’s not going to get played on an airplane in a hurry.”
Deano is played by Hamish Blake, of Australian comedy duo Hamish and Andy. Nige is over him, but they seem doomed to be chained together for life. You have to ask. Does this resonate at all with his relationship with his Conchords buddy? “Well, I think Jemaine and I are definitely tied together for life,” he says a little ruefully. “People used to come up to me on the street or at parties and go, ‘Where’s Jemaine?’ It started off cracking us up. Then it would drive us a bit crazy. We were like, ‘It’s not a documentary.’” It must be hard to maintain a friendship, all things considered. “In some ways we’ve become more workmates. That’s more of a description,” he says. “Because we spend so much time together working that when we have our time off, we usually take time away from each other.” It has been intense. “When we were doing the TV show, we worked 100 days consecutively for 10 hours a day. In terms of creating ideas, you need surprises, things the other person doesn’t know.” So they’re that couple at the restaurant with nothing left to say to each other. “A lot like that. Or finishing each other’s stories.” Some duos end up falling out. “Not quite,” he says breezily. “I think there’s still a little bit of life left.”
Speaking of the perils of mateship, Two Little Boys is about friendship infidelity. Both the lead actors are indulging in a bit of that themselves. “Yeah, it’s like a comedy key party. A comedy swingers’ party,” he says. “Duncan [Sarkies] wanted to take these friends and treat their friendship like a dysfunctional marriage.” He must have been through some gruelling marriages. “Ha! I don’t know how much of it’s autobiographical. But he definitely didn’t kill a backpacker.” In this Fatal Attraction of bromances, you can run but you can’t hide. “That’s one of my favourite lines in the film: ‘In 15 years we can go flatting again!’” Yes. That’s the moment when it becomes truly a horror story.
If McKenzie spends much of the movie looking realistically at the end of his tether, he probably was. Some locations – the exquisite Catlins coastline co-stars – were remote. “Some of it felt like we were doing a nature doco hosted by a couple of bogans.” Neither Blake nor McKenzie is a trained actor. No fake fighting. “We didn’t have the skills.” Director Rob Sarkies had them slug it out for real. “After four hours of just literally punching each other, both of us were like, ‘Come on, Rob, give us a break, man.’” He lost a lot of weight. “I haven’t got much weight to lose.” Still, given their tragic Conchords characters, both McKenzie and Clement must have become accustomed to humiliations on the way up. “Yeah, I think probably me more than him.” Flight of the Conchords relied for inspiration on the haplessness of their early life on the road. No dead Norwegian backpackers, but some bizarre moments. “We ended up once staying with a Figwit fan.” That turned into the episode of Conchords in which their stalker fan, Mel, invites the boys around to her house. House rule: “You must not leave the house … Preferably, never.”
Times have changed. McKenzie doesn’t need to doss down with fans these days. “You get better at that stuff,” he says, of dealing with his escalating celebrity. “Try not to let it ruin your life.” So, what on earth are they going to do for new material now things are going so well? “That’s exactly it.” The problem came up when they were doing their Conchords stage show earlier this year. “We were starting to run out of stories that were pre our lives in America.” Stories that were pathetic enough? “Charmingly pathetic,” he corrects, lest it all sounds too tragic. Fortunately, after Two Little Boys, he did a movie that provided relief from playing the sort of guy whom women duct-tape to a door. “I was the love interest,” he marvels, of his role in American movie Austenland. “It’s about these women who go to a Jane Austen experience and they’re promised a Mr Darcy romantic encounter. A faux period romcom.” Goodness. Can we expect to see him rising from a pond in a big wet Regency blouse? “No, I’m the other guy. I play a stable hand.” Never mind.
Conchords co-star Rhys Darby has also been talking up the possibility of Flight of the Conchords, the movie. Again, helmet-like-your-hair and gigs-with-no-audience gags hardly fit with their more glamorous circumstance. “I think if we did a film, it wouldn’t be in the Conchords world. We would throw them into a different world.” He’s thinking something along the lines of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby buddy movies – Road to Morocco, etc – of the late 30s and 40s. They were zany and outrageously politically incorrect by today’s standards. A mad idea, but that’s never stopped him. It comes as no surprise to find the multi-talented McKenzie grew up in a creatively various environment. His father, Peter, is, he says, “a sort of bizarre combination of acting and farming as a career, with a side of law”. His mother is Deirdre Tarrant, the “ballet teacher dance person”.
The house was full of artists. When McKenzie was eight, he and his brother were ushers for Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair’s superb absurd music/theatre duo the Front Lawn. “They were a pretty big influence on our stuff – kind of dry and really great at putting narrative into songs. The songs are stories and short films within themselves,” he says. “A lot of our songs are based on character, like their songs.” They were more arty. “Definitely. We grew up playing in comedy clubs. We had to have more gags.” That absurdist sensibility comes in handy on all occasions. It informs the Conchords’ ruthlessly catchy Red Nose Day charity song – Feel Inside (and stuff like that) – for Cure Kids. The lyrics come from schoolkids whose chats with Clement and McKenzie (there’s a series in that concept, surely) made for hilarious television. – “We’re Flight of the Conchords. Have you heard of us?” – “No.”
Brooke Fraser and Dave Dobbyn sang about spewing and drinking bubble mixture. “Everyone was very willing,” says McKenzie. Up to a point. “I think one of the rappers was running out of patience, rapping about the tooth fairy.” Fortunately, the Conchords didn’t have to worry about their image. “No. Jemaine and I don’t have much street credibility.” As for the future, when we speak, the premiere of Two Little Boys, which showed at the Berlin Film Festival, is looming. “The Germans really loved it,” he muses. “I’ve got no idea what that means.” Other plans? “I guess the best one to write would be ‘in negotiations with Kermit the frog’.” He’s talking to arguably the most normal of his stage and screen sidekicks to date about another muppet movie. After his Oscar win, that could be difficult-second-album territory. Kermit’s cool with the pressure, apparently. “Luckily, he’s done about eight movies. He’s done a lot of difficult second albums.” The non-green member of that duo admits he might feel nervous about expectations if he thought about it. “But once I get into the job, we’ll just close all the doors. Ignore the outside world,” he says. “And ignore the Disney executives.”
The big time. It inevitably involves time overseas. Life in New Zealand, if Two Little Boys is any indication, may resemble sharing a claustrophobic, grungy flat with a lunatic, but it’s preferable to the mirages and McMansions of Los Angeles. “There are so many shows and ideas that are based in Los Angeles. So many writers live there.” You can’t go into a restaurant, he says, without recognising it from Curb Your Enthusiasm. He prefers the reduced scale of home. “You’re forced to adapt. You can’t really burn your bridges in New Zealand. There aren’t enough bridges to burn. That’s very different to Los Angeles, where you get people hustling. Hustlers don’t survive in New Zealand. They always end up leaving the country.”
photo David White
You would imagine McKenzie is about as adept at hustling as his Conchords alter ego. So he looks set to stay. A career based here is more possible now. “Yeah, definitely, with Peter Jackson having created this giant industry down the road.” And people manage international careers from here. “Exactly. It’s quite a long commute, but …” He’d best get working on that private jet, then. “Ha! I’m quite a long way from that. I need a global smash-hit trilogy.” Why not? After all, it has been a wildly improbable ride so far. “Absolutely. I mean, we started off touring mostly to get away from winter. Jemaine and I are both ambitious creatively, but neither of us wanted to do an American TV show. That was never the plan,” he says. “It probably wouldn’t have happened if we’d tried.”
Not that his country of birth has succeeded in keeping him entirely grounded, as the pair who were not funny enough for TVNZ take on the world, together and one at a time. There’s a photograph of McKenzie, playing the muppet on the red carpet, frozen in balletic mid-leap on his way into the Academy Awards. It captures something of the spirit of his career arc to date: exuberant, gravity-defying, driven, daft. Win or lose, he was already walking on air.
Sundance Institute Selects Six Creative Teams And Projects For New Frontier Story Lab, Oct. 21-26
Posted Oct 3, 2012
Los Angeles, CA — Sundance Institute today announced the six projects selected for the New Frontier Story Lab that will take place from October 21-26 . Inspired by New Frontier at the Sundance Film Festival and built on the Sundance Institute Lab model, the Lab is supporting projects that use technology to deepen story and engage audiences.
The projects, a mix of fiction, non-fiction and hybrid, are: Gregory Bayne and Cory McAbee’s The Great American Funeral, a collaborative film and music project; Yung Jake and Vince McKelvie’s Kickstarder, which uses audience participation to guide the narrative progression of the project; Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar’s Reinvention Stories, which combines radio, documentary cinema and online interactive storytelling; Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn’s The Silent History, a serialized novel written and designed specifically for the iPhone and iPad; Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons’ Touch, a first-person interactive documentary designed for tablet devices; and Roger Ross Williams and Woo Jung Cho’s Traveling While Black, which combines collaborative storytelling, digital cultural mapping and a role-playing interactive game.
The New Frontier Story Lab is an intensive, residential retreat focused on creative support, which includes individualized story sessions, conversations about key artistic, design and technology issues, and case study presentations. Drawing talent and expertise from all of Sundance Institute’s creative programs, including Feature Film, Documentary Film, and the Sundance Film Festival, the Lab has been planned under the supervision of Michelle Satter, Founding Director of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program.
Robert Redford, President & Founder of Sundance Institute, said, “The lines between previously distinct forms of personal expression are blurring at an ever-accelerating pace with the hybrid of art and technology, and as artists drive this evolution, we continue to look for new ways to support and advance their work. The New Frontier Story Lab is a rare opportunity for these artists to explore their concepts and consider the impact they may have on how stories are experienced in the future.”
Satter said, “Our establishment of the New Frontier Story Lab last year was a significant milestone. Supporting projects that are immersive, interactive and tell stories across multiple platforms is one of the ways that we are providing new opportunities for audiences. The guidance of our Creative Advisors is particularly critical, as it brings together experts from diverse disciplines, all of whom share a unique understanding of the importance of story in art, film, gaming and new media.”
Creative Advisors for the New Frontier Story Lab include Mark Bomback (Writer, Unstoppable, Live Free or Die Hard), Susan Bonds (CEO, 42 Entertainment), Dana Dansereau (Interactive Producer, National Film Board), Kirby Dick (Director, The Invisible War, This Film is Not Yet Rated), Nick Fortugno (CCO/Co-Founder, Playmatics), Nelson George (Writer/Director, Life Support,Brooklyn Boheme,), Aaron Koblin (Artist /Creative Director, Google), Bret McKenzie (Actor/Comedian/Musician, Flight of the Conchords, The Muppets: 2012 Academy Award for Original Song), Kara Oehler (Editor in Chief/Co-Founder, Zeega), Noland Walker (Executive Editor, Localore, AIR), Lance Weiler (Co-founder, Reboot Stories) and William Wheeler (Writer, The Hoax, The Reluctant Fundamentalist).
Projects supported at the inaugural New Frontier Story Lab in 2011 include Rome, a multiplatform interactive narrative experience from Director/Creator Chris Milk, inspired by the music produced by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi; Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America, which premiered in the New Frontier exhibition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival; and Jigar Mehta and Yasmin Elayat’s interactive documentary project 18 Days in Egypt, telling the story of the first 18 days of the Egyptian revolution through crowd-sourced media.
Finalists named in capital's search for finest
Last updated 05:00 15/10/2012
Movie stars, dames, Silver Ferns and mayors are all among the nominees for The Dominion Post's Wellingtonian of the Year Awards.
The Wellys recognise the people making a difference in the Wellington region each year, across arts, business, government, and other areas.
While well-known people such as comedian Bret McKenzie, Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy, and Silver Fern Katrina Grant have been nominated, the categories are also filled with Wellingtonians doing great things behind the scenes.
Across nine categories, 34 finalists have been named.
School student Brittany Trilford has been nominated in the Youth category for her impassioned speech on the environment's future at the United Nations' Earth Summit, while conservationist Alex Kettles has been given the nod in the Environment category for his work on Matiu/Somes Island over the last 20 years.
Sose Annandale, principal of Porirua's Russell School, was nominated in the Education category, and the father-daughter team of Graeme and Julie Moore head up the Business nominations for the success of specialist food warehouse Moore Wilson's.
But the Moores are not the only family up for a Welly.
Bret McKenzie is facing off against his mother Deirdre Tarrant in the Arts category. Tarrant has been nominated for her tireless work with Footnote Dance, after retiring from her role as director earlier this year.
Category winners and the 2012 Wellingtonian of the Year will be named on November 22 at the Amora Hotel.
For more details and to purchase tickets, visit dompost.co.nz/wellys
After hours. #SundanceLabs #NewFrontier @yungjake @AaronKoblin Bret McKenzie
Story building session at #NewFrontier #SundanceLabs. Name that fellow ... go!
We made mistakes on the radio show, by the time we got to #FlightoftheConchords, we'd figured out a few things. Bret McKenzie #NewFrontier
We put the best stuff in the pilot, can't save it for the end, might not make it to the season's end! Bret McKenzie #FlightoftheConchords
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#flightoftheconchords #bretmckenzie #sundance
Lunch meetings are underway #SundanceLabs #NewFrontier
Last day here at #SundanceLabs with #NewFrontier Class of 2012!
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