David Cross’s feature film directorial debut premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Hits is a comedy about viral video celebrity. Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh) becomes the hero of a hipster political movement for his protests to the town council. His daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) wants to make a demo for “The Voice” and imagines herself giving interviews to Ellen Degeneres. Cory (Jake Cherry) wants to be a rapper, if he can ever get the words out. Each of the characters is recorded in some humiliating way that goes further than their legitimate efforts do. We met up with Cross in one of Sundance’s sponsored lounges to discuss his new film.
David Cross: First of all, welcome to the Acura suite.
CraveOnline: Thank you. So you say this is based on a true story that hasn’t happened yet. Do you think it’s inevitable?
How long have you been thinking this way about the online phenomenon?
I guess it’s been in the back of my head for a long time, I guess since Paris Hilton reality show garbage.
Well, there’s been a lot of celebrity reality shows. Was that particular one especially offensive?
Well, that was the first one where somebody got famous for having sex and being a craven deplorable horrible person, empty, shallow, insipid, stupid but then rewarded by our culture who pretends that they don’t like her but of course they enable every shitty thing she ever does. That was just the first one I remembered. Of course you could mention numerous ones past that but that was the first one I remember about a leaked sex tape that made somebody famous.
But is Katelyn a deplorable character?
She’s on her way to being that but I don’t empathize or sympathize with Katelyn. I do understand. I don’t fault her as much as I would somebody 10 years ago doing that because that is the culture she’s raised in and she’s not incorrect that the actions she takes [will succeed]. We’ve lost our moral compass as society so she’s not as at fault as if it was 2001 and she did that. In that she’s 19 and she tried out for “American Idol” and they said no, and we can assume that there were other things and now she’s just moved onto “The Voice” just because they haven’t said no yet.
I was just talking with Brit Marling about Twitter and social media and how we have to balance our desire to connect with people online and removing ourselves from the actual experience. Have you thought about how this mass documentation and viral videos is affecting our ability to just be present?
History will tell us what the result of all this is. It’s fairly new in a historical, cultural sense but we’ll know shortly what it’s like for a generation to just grow up with all that and all that information just readily accessible. You’re starting to see it with millennials and then whatever the next generation is. Personally, I don’t care for it but I could easily just take myself off Facebook and all that stuff and then I’ll be done with it. It makes no sense to complain and still have a presence in social media. If you don’t like it, then just get off of it.
How did you find Meredith Hagner?
It was a long casting process and she was one of the first tapes I saw. I really liked her and it was like a self-tape at a friend’s house, but you get a lot of stuff all at once. I saw her’s literally first or second and then saw a bunch of other ones. We had callbacks in L.A., she lives in New York and I saw, it’s gotta be 20-some-odd Katelyns. There were a handful that were good and a lot of them weren’t right for whatever reason, and then it kept going back to Meredith and going, “Man, I should see that girl, I should see that girl.” My wife was also like, “She’s the one, she’s the one.”
After I did all the L.A. stuff, we flew back to New York, set up an audition. I called UCB in New York and said, “Hey, can I borrow your basement?” Meredith came down and this other girl came down who I also liked. My wife was there helping and it was pretty immediate. The other girl came in and there was no decision anymore. Amber [Tamblyn], my wife, was like, “Meredith, she’s the one. That’s your Katelyn.” My one hesitation was she was too skinny. There aren’t that many skinny girls up in upstate. I told her. That was one of the first things I said, “You’ve got to gain weight.”
Were you definitely looking for a relative unknown?
It just turned out that way but I think it’s always a plus to have nobody recognizable in your cast. It’s great for people don’t know Meredith, if they don’t know Jake, they don’t know James [Adomian], they don’t know Matt. They don’t know most of those people.
We sort of know Matt now.
Yeah, but for a lot of people it just makes the character more believable. That’s why I specifically didn’t want to introduce anybody before the screening which sometimes they do, like, “Here’s our cast.” I was like no, I don’t want them to go, “That’s an actress acting.” I just want you to believe that person.
For a second I wondered if you were pulling something where Meredith is an actor playing Meredith playing Katelyn. I was already thinking of another meta level where you’d create a star.
Interesting. No, I did not. That’s a high concept. Fred, I have got to take a piss.
[I leave the recorder running. He’s back two minutes later.]
That was really quick.
Yeah, I’m not fucking around.
There are a lot of celebrities in sometimes random roles where we might think because they’re a celebrity, that’s going to be a major character, like Julia Stiles. What was your intention with peppering the supporting cast with stars?
It was really just I wanted somebody who looked like they’re from the city. They needed to look kind of urbane and Julia’s a friend. I’d worked with her. I worked on the same film that I worked with Erinn Hayes [It’s A Disaster]. I just called her and said, “Hey, can you come up for a day and do the scene?” That was a lot of it. It is calling friends, “Hey, I’m making this movie, you wanna do it?” They’re like, “Yeah, sure.”
Which of the three videos do you think was the worst: the sex tape, the rap video or the town hall speeches?
I’m going to go with Donovan’s ridiculous [town hall mashup]. When we were cutting that, we had to cut that so it was not too good. We had to cut it and make it intentionally bad. This would work for those people. They think it’s good. It’s just awful. It’s so dumb.
Did you edit the video yourself?
My editor and I. Actually, Patrick [B Coleman] and Katie [Ennis] his assistant put that together, and I’d come in and go, “Put this here, make this here” but they did the yeoman’s job on it.
The name of one of Michael Cera’s marijuana recipes is Queef Latina, which is also the name of an actual drag queen from the movie Leave It On the Floor. Did you know her?
No! Are you serious? I thought Michael Cera made that up?
I wondered if it was an improv.
That was a Michael improv. I was responsible for Black History Month and I think President’s Choice, and he came up with the others. We came up with a list of a bunch. We just cut them.
So Ellen Degeneres did the voiceover but you got Mario Lopez on camera?
The Ellen thing was always scripted that she is sitting in her car, and we shot it. We shot it, it was scripted that way. She’s just sitting there doing the interview and then Katie pulled stuff from Ellen, audio clips that fit in there when we came up with that new idea for the opening. I’m friends with Portia [de Rossi] so I e-mailed Portia and said, “Hey, can you roll over and ask Ellen if we can use some of her stuff?” She came back immediately and very graciously said yes.
So it was sound bites of Ellen, but Mario Lopez and Maria Menounos were game to shoot an “Extra” segment?
I don’t know if “game” is the right word but they did do it, yes. That was always scripted as whatever we could get that was of that kind of show.
What did you think when you read “ANUSTART” in the new “Arrested Development” scripts?
I thought it was funny.
Can I have an appointment with a good analrapist?
I guess that stuff’s not as funny as I think it’s going to be.
Fred, you’ve learned a valuable lesson.
Do you have any inklings of what’s in store for Tobias if Mitch Hurwitz gets to do a TV movie?
I don’t. Even if he did have an idea, it could change 17 times before we even start shooting but who knows if it will happen again. I’d love for it to happen but we’ll see.
What is next for you?
I owe a script on a project I’m doing for Showtime so I owe them that script which I’ve owed them for a while but now that I’m done with this, I can concentrate and finish that. I have two other film ideas that are starting to come into their own as I start developing the idea. I’m going to sit down to write the screenplays.
That you’ll direct also?
What’s the Showtime pilot?
They haven’t picked it up. They bought the pitch. They’re waiting for the script and then we’ll see. They’re pretty high on it though, but it’s turned out to be quite literally the most difficult script I’ve ever written.
Why is that?
I don’t want to give everything away but the second act of this pilot, it’s difficult to find the balance of how much do I give away and how much do I save for the rest of the show? It’s tough. It’s harder than I thought.