David Cross — co-creator of Mr. Show and a former star of Arrested Development — has always been slightly ahead of his time. Last spring, he and longtime collaborator (and Breaking Bad star) Bob Odenkirk released a book of rejected scripts called Hollywood Said No!, which served as both a “look what you missed out on” tease to industry executives, as well as a reward for longtime fans. If you read the feature screenplay for Bob and David Make a Movie, which skewers just about every personality type in Tinseltown, you’ll know he doesn’t have much regard for the decision-makers in the industry.
But despite the rejection he may have experienced in the past, when it came to making his directorial debut, Cross wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“I had this idea and it’s been kicking around, and then, I came back from a Sundance that just made me angry,” Cross told BuzzFeed, noting that he’d seen a bunch of “shitty movies” at the festival that got him so worked up. “That was the kick in the ass for me. [I decided,] I’m just going to sit down and write a movie that I know I can make relatively cheaply.”
The result was his dark comedy Hits, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. It’s a bruising satire about caricatures of small-time nobodies trying to shortcut their way to fame in an era of reality TV and viral videos, with shots fired in all directions. The film features Veep’s Matt Walsh (a co-founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade) as Dave Stuben, a disgruntled local municipal worker who vents his frustration in angry and ill-informed rants at his small-town council meetings. He is a conspiracy theorist and a talk radio listener who buys into every fringe charge and outrage that he hears.
His daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), meanwhile, is the 19-year-old product of the 21st century, delusionally obsessed with making it on The Voice while daydreaming of interviews with Ellen DeGeneres and getting jealous of the fame of Teen Mom’s cast. The character is both outrageous and pathetic, depending on your point of view.
“I don’t have any sympathy for her, or empathy, but I do understand,” Cross offered. “It’s the one mitigating factor; I have contempt for that idea, but I understand it. If it was 15 years ago, she’d just be a hateable person, but she’s been brought up in the culture that says that is a viable career path that we’ve all decided as a culture is OK and rewarded.”
Hagner has a bit more sympathy for her character, however. “I think she is, on paper, the end of the world, and represents a lot of the things I don’t agree with, like David,” she said. “But then I read it a few more times and I saw similarities in myself and there were actually things in Katelyn that I really loved and kind of helped me… I have a lot of issues with self-doubt, and there’s something about playing someone who is so fiercely confident, the irony being that she has nothing to actually feel comfortable about.”
Much of Katelyn’s life — as well as the lives of every other character — are lived through their cell phones and laptops, part of a constant search for validation that often turns into distracted misunderstandings. Viral videos and sex tapes become subplots within the film as the characters spiral into further self-obsession.
Much of this can be read as Cross’ justification for not being on social media himself. “Yeah, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have Instagram, I don’t have Tumblr. I don’t have any of that shit, I hate that stuff,” he said. “I understand its use and people have certainly wisely incorporated it to make themselves more successful and more money, certainly comedians. I don’t like it, but I also don’t bitch about it. I don’t write essays, I don’t do stand-up about it. I just personally don’t like it so I’m not on them.”
“I have a Facebook page which I will shut down when this movie comes out,” Cross continued. “I’m serious, I hate it. It’s a waste of time. Again, it’s narcissism. I don’t care about the minutiae of this shit; I have no desire to reconnect with someone I knew in third grade. And maybe I sound like a cranky old man, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t care about you or your favorite brunch or the photo you took of the sunset or what you thought about the football game. I don’t give a fuck, it’s a waste of my time, and I guess I’ll keep writing movies about how lame you are.”
Hagner noted that she has does have Facebook and Twitter accounts — though she rarely uses them — and mostly sticks to posting photos on Instagram. Still, working on the film did make her reevaluate her online habits.
“There’s an element to his film, this idea that you can be so connected but so removed, this recurring theme that I discovered while watching it; it’s this idea that no one’s listening to anyone,” she said. “I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and 90% of my friends are all on Tinder for dating, and I’m finding this idea that we’re just so removed, even though, yeah, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. And I didn’t realize that upon reading the script or making it, but watching it is just like, wow.”
The film’s takedown of self-indulgence isn’t just limited to users of social media. Cross also hones in on the way people protest politically, and what he calls the self-serving nature of many activists. Dave’s civic disturbances ultimately get noticed, thanks to a weed dealer named Michael Cera, by ridiculously mustachioed Greenpoint hipster Donovan (James Adomian) and his wife Maddie (Erinn Hayes). Donovan — who is so steeped in irony that it becomes earnestness — decides to turn Dave’s fight into his protest group’s next cause.
Donovan creates a hyperbolic and ludicrous remix of Stuben’s town council flare-ups, equating them with Occupy Wall Street and revolutions in the Middle East; the video goes viral and brings the national media to the small upstate New York town, where this one-man complaint machine has been stewing in anger over things like potholes and not getting his full three minutes to speak.
“I’ve been to so many protests; I went to two pro-choice marches [and] the anti-war marches, one in Washington and two in New York,” Cross said. “I agree with the issue, I agree with the sentiment, but I think they go about things in a completely wrong way… For so much of those people, it’s a self-serving, narcissistic thing in its core, and this idea of ‘I’m making a difference,’ but you’re not making a difference. The people who do drum circles and dress up in silver paint and carry signs like, ‘Another atheist lesbian against the war,’ it’s like, OK, great, who gives a shit? You’re not helping. Those guys represent those [causes] that are well-meaning but really self-serving.”
The film is the only real forum for Cross’ dismay, given his lack of social media channels — as he notes, his “rant” against Twitter only came in response to BuzzFeed’s question — and, for all the shots he takes at reality TV, he isn’t too concerned with its proliferation’s impact on the smart, scripted shows for which he is so well known.
“I think in part because there is so much out there, there’s just more opportunities,” he reasoned. “It’s always going to be crap, and hopefully the cream rises to the top. It’s a little frustrating when a guy posts some shit on YouTube, some prank thing, and then turns a million-dollar deal with Fox to produce shows or something, but that’s always been around. I think it’s a good thing that people don’t need to buy film stock and develop it and get in an editing suite anymore, and they can just take an iPhone and make a great short. I think that’s a good thing… 98% of it is going to be garbage, but it’s good that 2% is going to be larger.”