The first film adapted from the work of David Sedaris, C.O.G.—the title means Child of God, not Capable of Genocide—has many vivid moments, such as David (Jonathan Groff) sleeping on the floor of a bus and waking up in his drool, or David attempting a Sisyphean task of carrying a tank filled with butane for miles. The story has David (who renames himself as Samuel) trying to “find himself” by working at an apple orchard in the Pacific Northwest. He befriends Curly (Corey Stoll), a forklift operator, and finds a mentor in Joe (Denis O’Hare), an alcoholic Jesus freak who teaches him about God and how to make jade clocks in the shape of the state of Oregon.
Sedaris fans should appreciate this effort, which relies mainly on finding the humor in awkward situations. In a recent phone interview for the Bay Times, I spoke with openly gay writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez about C.O.G.
Gary M. Kramer: Like your last film, the excellent Easier with Practice, C.O.G. is very much about a shy/lonely/lost young man who finds himself caught up in an almost surreal situation. How do you identify with and/or relate to that experience?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: [Laughs] For me, what I’m drawn to is the complex male ego. In Easier with Practice, he is cripplingly shy. In C.O.G. David is cripplingly arrogant. They learn similar lessons, but in different ways. It’s not common to see lead male characters having weaknesses. In Easier with Practice, it’s embracing sexuality; in C.O.G. it’s how his sexual and social identity kind of become the same thing.
GMK: I like that you are a gay man telling queer stories. What prompts you to make gay films?
KPA: I don’t always, deliberately want to make gay films, but the films that draw me, and the themes in these stories, are specific to a certain gay experience, but also really universal. Not crossover films, but true human experiences that are queer experiences too. I had to embrace wanting to tell those stories.
GMK: Also like Easier with Practice, C.O.G. charts some uncomfortable moments. Why do you emphasize the awkward in your work?
KPA: It comes from being challenged. The scenes that challenged me in C.O.G. were charting how David develops his relationship with Curly. I guess I like to make people squirm. I love feeling uncomfortable in films. You feel something. I think the best comedy comes from a place that feels a little dangerous. I’ve always been interested in making something that doesn’t go down easy. I never want to make the film that after it ends, you forget it.
GMK: Samuel uses humor to diffuse situations, and creates a laugh when he tries to fit in. How did you adapt the text and create and develop the humor in the film?
KPA: In the case of C.O.G., some of it was there on the page. A lot of the funny moments in the printed story didn’t fit into the film, but the funny moments in the film aren’t ones Sedaris wrote. For example, when he says, “The Bible’s poorly written.” I tried to channel what Sedaris would find funny, and try to capture his spirit and do justice. The character in the film is not David, but it’s a fictional version of David’s non-fiction story. Who is this person and how does he fit in?
GMK: Rejection seems to be something that Samuel experiences often. How did you approach the escalating level of Samuels’ despair?
KPA: It was always about the way to handle the darkness of the film—casting Jonathan was to always have some levity and not make it really depressing—balance between comedy and drama. He was likable and had enough humor about himself to elevate the film so it never became too difficult to watch.
GMK Samuel also rejects Curly after being surprised by his “toy” collection. Curly is incredibly sexy and magnetic. Why do you think Samuel flees?
KPA: I never met Corey until production, and he has a real sexual energy to him. You can’t compute it. I like that he’s so hot, that folks ask: Why would you leave the room? Samuel leaves because he’s freaked out—not about penetration, but how open Curly is, which is the opposite of Samuel, who is more civilized and insecure and thinks its improper to discuss [sex] so openly. Some folks are out loud and some want to fit in and tone down. It’s not that Samuel is closeted—he goes giddily back to Curly’s house—but in this room, he’s like “What am I doing here?” Curly is so openly sexual, and yet he has a disassociated relationship to how he approaches sex—he’s childishly proud.
GMK: Samuel makes some very bad decisions in the film. Are you sympathetic for his character, or is he just pathetic?
KPA: [LAUGHS]. A little bit of both. Sedaris wrote a memoir, so looking back, he is very self-aware. And telling this story, he is removing his self-awareness and gaining it. At its core, C.O.G. is about knowing how other people see you. That’s why you follow him. There’s a naïveté, even though he’s a bit of a jerk. It’s fun to see him get cut down to size, but he doesn’t run away. His pride goes from a negative trait to a positive trait over the course of the film.
GMK: What did you learn about apples, jade cutting, and Jesus making the film? Which do you prefer?
KPA: [Laughs]. Almost as much as there is to know. Making the film was the experience the character goes through—starting out in the apple fields. It was a physical struggle with little money and time. Those are physical interactions and they make Samuel grow, and so is making a film. Apples smell. Shooting those factory scenes, there was such a distinct smell, and spending 2-3 days in that smell, you never forget it. I can’t imagine working there, but every time I smell an apple, I have a sense memory. I don’t know that I learned much about Jade.
© 2013 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.