Matt Walsh is about as accredited as comedy experts come. One of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe (and one of the stars of Comedy Central’s 1990s UCB television series), he’s been credited as one of the four people who launched New York’s improv boom (by The New York Times, no less). He’s the kind of comic who turns up on every comedy show worth watching—Community, Parks And Recreation, Arrested Development, Childrens Hospital, Party Down, Reno 911!, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Drunk History, and many more—plus films like The Hangover, Bad Santa, Be Kind Rewind, and Ted. Walsh has also directed two improv-driven comedy films, 2011’s High Road and the upcoming A Better You, and he’s one of the major players on HBO’s ongoing show Veep, as communications director Mike McLintock. But Walsh’s latest role is strangely straight and serious: He plays driven, selfish documentarian Pete, the central figure in the tornado thriller Into The Storm, and the closest thing the film has to a villain that isn’t a tornado. On a press tour for Into The Storm, Walsh sat down with The Dissolve to answer the question, “What movie do you consider compulsory viewing for cinema buffs?”
Walsh picked the 1987 cult British comedy Withnail And I, the first film written and directed by Bruce Robinson (How To Get Ahead In Advertising; The Rum Diary), and funded in part by former Beatle George Harrison, through his HandMade Films label. The film, based on Robinson’s own post-college years, follows two unemployed reprobate actors, Withnail (Richard E. Grant, in his breakthrough role) and Marwood (Paul McGann), on a sloppy quest to stay drunk and not freeze to death in 1969 London. Living in a filthy flat where they can barely scrape together the cash to keep the coin-operated gas meter running, they argue about life, insult and then cower from strangers, and eventually go on a road trip to a distant cabin owned by Withnail’s predatory gay uncle Monty (the Harry Potter series’ Richard Griffiths). It’s a manic, grubby film, in which Withnail constantly uses, abuses, and victimizes Marwood, while remaining his only friend. And while it’s built a sizable following in Britain, it’s less-known in the States. Walsh would like that to change.
The Dissolve: How did you first encounter Withnail And I?
Matt Walsh: I was turned on to it by a buddy of mine, Owen Burke, who was a big fan. It’s just a comedy driven by dialogue. There’s not much happening—it’s basically just two people seeking shelter, booze, and warmth the whole movie. But the performances and the wit are incredible, and Bruce Robinson based it on his life, all those experiences, and quotes, and people he met. He lived in that kind of shitty flat in London, and used to hang out with these kinds of characters. So I could respond to that. I had a beat-up apartment in college, or right after college, so it spoke to me in that way, too. George Harrison and HandMade Films—I liked the pedigree. And because it’s involved in the acting world—they’re struggling actors, I related to that. Richard Griffiths is so funny, and so erudite, the way he dreams of one day playing the Dane. His high-culture take is so funny to me, and the way he scares Withnail’s friend. I just love it. And Withnail is a great character. I mean, he’s a tragic character, but he’s so funny, and so resilient.
The Dissolve: Was this a film you encountered around college?
Walsh: Probably when I was in New York, probably 1999, I’ll ballpark it there. I got it on DVD, and just watched it so many times in New York on rainy days. There’s something soothing about it. I wish I could quote more lines.
The Dissolve: As you’re relating to the struggling-actor aspect of the story, do you relate to the specific relationship, the two actors where one is doing better than the other, and there’s a sense of jealousy and competition between friends?
Walsh: I had roommates who eventually quit on comedy, so I saw people go in divergent ways. You know, really talented, funny people who just quit on it for various reasons, like finding a person in their life that they wanted to spend time with, which competed with the solo chasing that comedy requires. The competition is there, but I think in comedy, it’s a little friendlier somehow. And certainly in improv and sketch, which is inherently a collaborative art form, I think you manage it better. It definitely is competitive, but you don’t root against people that hard, I think.
I was just thinking of a time in my early 20s when, like Withnail, somebody hit my car on an icy night, and put a big dent in an already-shitty car. And he was a cab driver, and he was like, “I don’t have insurance,” and I’m like, “You know what? Just give me 60 bucks, and we’ll call it even.” So I had 60 bucks and me and my friends basically drank for like two days, because it was a windfall. I didn’t care about the car. So I understand that feeling of, “We got drinking money!”
The Dissolve: Have you ever played the drinking game?
Walsh: Which one? The Bob Newhart drinking game?
The Dissolve: Ha, no. There’s a Withnail And I drinking game.
Walsh: What is it?
The Dissolve: You just try to keep up with them. You drink what they drink.
Walsh: Oh my God, really? Never. I could never do that. That’s insane.
The Dissolve: You don’t have to drink lighter fluid when Withnail does, though. You’re allowed to sub in overproof rum.
Walsh: Yeah. That part is dark, when he’s drinking that. I felt cold for them, the way the film portrays the cold. And they bring home a sausage or something like it’s a treasure. Like they just, I dunno, killed a deer.
The Dissolve: The film feels loose and improvisational, but apparently the director was adamant that the stars follow the script word for word, with absolutely no deviation. And he also apparently had a superstition where he wouldn’t use a take that made anybody on the cast or crew laugh.
Walsh: Yeah, though I don’t think the crew laughing all the time is a good sign for a comedy. Sometimes you want it subtler or smaller, and you don’t want to play unconsciously to the audience that’s there. People laughing is a good sign, but you can alter those takes and make them a little smaller, and in film… Sometimes you’re maybe unconsciously going for laughs, so I understand a little bit. I would never forbid a take just because it got laughs. Obviously that’s great, and it probably is funny, but there is some truth to toning it down, and not making it as funny. I understand that.
The Dissolve: Do you see Withnail And I primarily as a comedy? It’s definitely been read different ways.
Walsh: Well, probably classically or traditionally it isn’t a comedy, because there’s tragedy at the end of it. You’re left with one character not succeeding, and I feel like that’s the message. But along the ride, to me, it’s a pure comedy. Maybe it’s a little darker, but I think all the lines, their value is toward wit, and wit obviously makes you laugh.
The Dissolve: Do you have a sense more of laughing with them or at them?
Walsh: Oh, with them. I root for them, and relate to them. There’s some punishing humor, like people being tortured or abused, not in an extreme way, but in a verbal way, in an awkward or uncomfortable way, but that’s always a source of comedy for me. There are some incredibly abusive moments in the movie. They’re always scared of the people they meet. Like, 90 percent of the people they meet, they’re terrified of them. You can feel they’re outsiders wherever they go.
The Dissolve: Given your improv work, and the movies you’ve directed, can you imagine making a movie like that at this point, sticking strictly to a script and not letting people play with it at all?
Walsh: No. I don’t make those kind of movies, but if I had a script that was as good as that… My understanding of Robinson is that he sampled all that stuff through a lifetime of living in London as a young man, and it was precious to him to execute it the way he remembered it, the way he experienced it. That’s probably why he kept them on the page, but I don’t work that way. I’ve directed two movies now, and I definitely want improvisation. That’s what I prefer.
The Dissolve: Your film coming out later this year, A Better You, is it as improv-driven as your previous feature?
Walsh: Yes. It’s always the structured outline with the classic “change necessary for the main character.” They’re character comedies that are small, small-budget always, and they’re populated with all the funniest people I know. I think that’s a good way to hedge your bets on a comedy, is get really funny people. And then you make sure you understand what’s at stake in every scene, and you do a little rehearsal before, so the backstory that doesn’t appear in the story is solidified between the actors. So then once you start improvising, it’s not like, “So, how long have we been married?” We do little theater-camp exercises, like interviewing the characters, and we put them in situations that won’t appear in the movie, but it helps give a greater foundation and understanding of the mood and the tone of the movie.
The Dissolve: You mentioned how dark Withnail And I is: It was based on an unpublished novel Bruce Robinson wrote, and he followed it fairly closely, but in the novel, Withnail commits suicide. He fills a shotgun with booze and drinks from it while pulling the trigger.
Walsh: Oh, really? That’s too dark. I think I only would have have watched it once. That’s a really brutal. Yeah, I don’t want to see that at the end of that story. Like, it’s okay to wonder whether Withnail maybe turns out slightly okay. You know he’s sad, that it’s a sad ending, but it’s not a violent, definitive ending like that.
The Dissolve: This kind of dark, discomfort-heavy comedy feels different from the comedy that you make and participate in. Is this a particular brand of comedy that especially appeals to you?
Walsh: No. I love smaller, realistic comedies. I enjoy broad comedies as well, but my preference is movies like Flirting With Disaster, with Ben Stiller. To me, that was almost a game-changer because that spoke to me about what I really enjoy in a movie. It was played so real. There are ridiculous situations, but they’re committing to playing it as if it’s real. There are moments where I forgot it was a comedy, and then it came back as a comedy. I like things played realistically, because it pulls me in. I buy it more. I don’t need a big premise for a comedy to work. I’m happy with witty dialogue—like, Veep obviously is not a big premise at all, it’s just witty dialogue and interesting characters. So I’m a big fan of that kind of comedy.
The Dissolve: There’s a shared dynamic in both Withnail And I and Flirting With Disaster, of somebody walking through life exasperated at the chaos around him, and participating, but still feeling outside it.
Walsh: Yes! Is that frustration comedy? Yeah, there’s something about an everyman who you like, but you can laugh at him being uncomfortable, or getting put into situations. Ben Stiller is very good at playing a straight man, with things like Meet The Parents. Withnail and a good Ben Stiller movie both have those the realistic reactions, which means I can imagine being in those situations, which pulls me in.
The Dissolve: How do you feel about just pure discomfort comedy, like the Ricky Gervais school of squirm?
Walsh: I love Ricky Gervais. The first Office is just perfect. I’m trying to think if there are things that go over the line, where it’s just too awkward. Like sometimes Sacha Baron Cohen, if he’s not picking on the right people—it’s a different genre, but it’s related to what we’re talking about—I think it goes too far. You have to be careful to make sure you’re making the right people uncomfortable. But I do enjoy discomfort in my comedy. And I like oddness, and right turns where I don’t expect them.
The Dissolve: So why is this compulsory viewing? Why do you think people really need to see this movie?
Walsh: One, it’s not out there in the mainstream, necessarily. I like turning people on to it, because many people don’t know about it, so there’s that. And two, it’s the dialogue. It’s such beautiful dialogue, such extremely wonderful performances. And I think it speaks to younger people. I think it’s a younger person’s comedy because I think everybody relates to those post-college days, when you were just getting by, and hedonism was dominant. For a comedy, it has some really uncomfortable moments, but they get played so well.
The Dissolve: If you were selling a young comedian on watching this today, what would you tell them they could learn from it?
Walsh: Well, in a simple way, you can say, “Your life can be funny. The tragic things in your life, you can assemble them your own way and create a funny story,” which is hopeful for stand-ups, sketch artists, and so forth. Here’s a perfect example of someone sampling his life, recording it, then executing it in a wonderful piece of entertainment. It’s very useful to see that. And it’s a different kind of comedy. I don’t see a lot of comedies like that being made now. So it’s interesting to look at another way to approach comedy. I mean, it’s bittersweet, it’s not broad, but it’s a true comedy. And it’s funny as heck.