B.J. Novak is known for writing and directing episodes for many T.V. shows, such as The Office, and most recently for The Premise, but his new film, Vengeance, is his first time writing or directing for the big screen.
Q: In the film, you, as the podcaster, are in the sort of interviewer role, whereas you are usually on the receiving end of those questions. What did you discover from being the person who essentially is the one asking the questions?
Well, what I discovered interviewing people is the same thing my character discovers, which is that listening, is the key to everything. We always are trying to make our voices heard, everyone’s trying to talk and express themselves, but what really is good for us, and teaches us, is to listen. And my character is a good listener, as an interviewer, but not as a human being. As he lives with his family and researches the life of the woman, that they’re trying to solve the mystery about, he becomes a better person as well as a better journalist. I think what you do great in your job, and profession, is being a good listener, and I think that is a secret key to a lot of things and, the key to solving a mystery!
Q: What was the most challenging thing about filming during Covid?
Well, we were very lucky to be able to come back and film at all. We took a seven-month break while they sorted out Covid and we tried to figure out, how do you film something in Covid? So when we came back, the whole crew was in masks and the cast had to wear face shields so that the masks wouldn’t interrupt our makeup, but we looked like robots walking around the set and we got tested every day. Ashton Kutcher (plays Quentin Sellers) actually is the one who said, “I want tests every single day, not every other day” and we got through it without a single person getting Covid!
Q: Speaking of Ashton Kutcher, you guys have been friends for about 20 years! What do you guys talk about when you get together, with both of you leading different lives, for example with him starting a family and becoming a dad?
Well, what I was hoping he’d tell me was how to be rich, because he’s such an amazing investor. He’s famous for being early on every Twitter, Airbnb; He’s always one of the first people in. So what I really would have likes was some investment tips, but in general, we kind of talked about the story. We talked about the acting, the costumes, the mustache, really everything, everything possible to delve into this character (Quentin Sellers), which was a new challenge for him to play such a dramatic part, and very exciting as a director to show that side of him to the world.
Q: Since you’ve published many books, and even wrote the script for this film, what kind of advice do you have for people who are aspiring writers?
I have two pieces of advice. One is carrying a notebook all the time, or your phone. Have your phone ready with the notes app all the time and write down your ideas. Write down your thoughts and later come and look at them and try to sort them out into things. I find if you divide up the idea stage and the execution stage, it’s not so overwhelming, but when you sit in front of a computer with a blank screen and you try to do both at once? That’s when it’s overwhelming.
Q: I’ve heard different ways other writers go about starting stories. When I interviewed Woody Allen, he told me that when he comes up with an idea he will write it onto anything he has nearby, even a napkin. He said he stores it in a drawer so he can pick out an idea when he feels he wants to write something. Do you have a process like that to store ideas?
Well, I’m pretty organized with where I keep my ideas; I file all my ideas away, I write them in notebooks and then I transfer them to a computer. I’m pretty diligent about sorting my ideas, but it’s really the ones just stay in my brain forever, stay in my heart, that I just, I’m taking a walk and I can’t stop thinking about a story, and that’s the one I write. And then I go back and look at the notes I’ve taken for that story, but I really don’t decide a random like that. I decide from the heart.
Q: Do you have any tips on how to grow the idea and develop it into becoming a full story?
My advice is to lean on the people you are writing for, lean on your friends, who hopefully, will want to read your writing, and try to make it so that they like it. I find writing for an audience is very motivating. If you know you’re going to email it to them, you picture them reading it, and you edit it much more carefully if you picture an audience. So I just say don’t just write for yourself, write it to send it to somebody.
Vengeance is now playing in theaters.
Interviewed by Izumi Hasegawa
Edited by Hana Umemoto