Silicon Valley, Avenue 5, and The Office actor Zach Woods likes movies about people that are a little messy, telling me about the frustrating and endearing quality of such things when we spoke the other day about his debut short film, which is in contention for an Oscar nomination after competing at Cannes. It all conjures an image of relatability. Because we’re all screw-ups pretending that we know what we’re doing or what we should be saying, including those among us who act like that isn’t so. Aren’t they annoying? And don’t you hate movies that advance that fiction of a well put together person?
Woods’ short film, David, could never be accused of that. Instead, it’s about a therapist (Will Ferrell), his son (Fred Hechinger, who nearly steals the whole thing), and his patient (William Jackson Harper) colliding over a small sliver of time and attention. It’s a comedy! Or a drama! Woods has heard it both ways, but he’s happy to let the audience decide (it’s embedded at the bottom of this interview, so by all means).
We spoke with Woods about his fascination with mess, the charm of this film, getting Will Ferrell to sign on, not taking on projects that lack urgency, the sadness of Gabe on The Office, and, most weirdly, pyro dancing.
Did you film this during Downhill?
It was after that, I got to hang out with Will a lot in these little towns in Austria where there wasn’t a lot to do and we got to talk a lot. And then when we got back from that, I guess it was a few months after that, I think.
I would imagine a lot of people ask Will Ferrell to be in their projects. How does one secure Will Ferrell to be in their first film?
I don’t know. He’s just very, very generous with his time and participation. I mean, he said he just really liked it, which is nice. I think he was also doing something sweet for me. You know? He told me that when he started reading it, he thought, “Oh, this is going to be one of those things where you read it and you say, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry, but I can’t do it.'” But that when the kid in the background is running up towards the window, that that, to him, was really funny and strange. And then he was hooked by it and that made him want to do it. He said it was too weird to not do.
If you had to describe the charm of this, what would you say it is?
I don’t know. I think the charm of the movie… I feel like there is, and maybe always was, an intolerance for the messiness of people. That with Instagram, and I suppose even in the political climate where there’s an incredible pressure and tribalism, I think there’s a lot of pressure to have a curated and blemish-free version of yourself that you put on display. And I feel like my most foundational experience of being human and dealing with humans is one that is characterized by mess. I think mess is the most quintessentially human thing to me. And it’s often what makes people both lovable and infuriating. And I think asking people to put up with your mess, and telling other people you’ll put up with theirs and embrace it… that is basically the main exchange of love in a lot of ways. And I also think it’s what is, to me, both funny and dramatic.
I heard an interview with Cherry Jones, the theater actress once, where she said theater is where we comfort each other with our shortcomings. And I thought that was such a nice line. And I guess I felt comforted in that way a lot from movies, and plays, and books, and all kinds of things where people are generous enough to invite you into their trouble. And that makes you feel less alone, even though you’ve never met these people. And to me, I wanted to make a movie that invited people into the trouble of trying to show up for people and doing it very imperfectly. And I think that struggle is very funny to me and very heartbreaking and very hopeful. So that’s the longest answer ever.
Nah, it fits perfectly. Are there films that stand out to you that do that same thing? Films that inspire you?
Absolutely. I mean, I think most of the movies I like are, in one way or another, about that. I mean, I love Ordinary People, speaking of therapist movies, and I think that’s a movie in which Timothy Hutton’s character really has to reckon with some very complicated, aggressive, shameful feelings, and welcome them in. There’s a great line in Ordinary People where Judd Hirsch’s therapist character says, “If you can’t feel bad, you’re not going to feel much of anything else either.” And I think that’s really right on the money. I also love You Can Count On Me, the Kenneth Lonergan movie with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. I love Kramer vs. Kramer. I don’t know if it’s exactly about mess, but I love The Lives Of Others. It’s a movie about this member of the Stasi, who’s observing this artistic couple in East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there’s really a million of them.
Are you actively working on something else? Are you looking to do something that’s long-form, short-form?
I just finished another short film. We’re just finishing the sound mix. I wrote it with Brandon Gardner who wrote this with me. And it’s a lot of the same crew and team, same DP, Andre Lascaris, who’s a genius, and the same producers. And we’re finishing that up now. That one’s more of a drama. That one has Michael Peña and Everly Carginella, who’s this little girl who’s truly spectacular. And so we’re going to finish that up. And then, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s next. I mean, I’m going to just keep trying to follow interest. Just be like, “What is upsetting to me? What is interesting to me? What makes me laugh?” And then figure out the form after. Anytime I’ve tried to write a specific thing, like, “I’m going to write a feature, I’m going to write a pilot. I’m going to write…” It always feels a little obligatory or something. It feels like I’m a mercenary. When I read it, it doesn’t really have a spark. I’ll just be like, “Oh, I see. You did the mad lib where you plugged in the details, but the structure was preordained and you’re…” So I’m going to try to just stay a weird airy-fairy little freak, and follow that for a while. You know?
That’s an interesting space to operate in. I’m sure you’re getting asked a lot, “when’s the feature?” It’s interesting that you’re just servicing the story and then taking it wherever.
Yeah. I can never remember who said this, but someone said making a movie should feel as urgent as having to pee, which I thought was such a great way of putting it. It should feel like, “Oh, I have to make this. Now, now, now. I have to make it.” Because God knows there’s so much to watch. And we’ve all seen movies where it feels like someone made a movie because they wanted to have made a movie. You know what I mean? Less that the story felt really urgent, and it more just seemed like it was a career move or whatever. And I don’t think you have to be completely purist about it. And I’ve definitely done things because I’ve had professional goals. I’m not claiming some sort of monastic purity here. But I do think the movies that I respond to most strongly are the ones that feel as urgent as having to pee. And my aspiration would be to make something that feels like it has urinary urgency. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So, the Office is obviously getting a lot of attention during lockdown here. I don’t think it’s a shock for me to say that Gabe was not exactly intended to be one of the beloved characters of The Office.
How does it feel to be, not a villain per se, but to occupy that space a little bit on a show that people love so much?
I mean, I think my hope is always to play characters who are difficult or unlikeable in a way that at least gives them some vulnerability or humanity. So that underneath their prickly porcupine behavior, you can see the soft skin of a sickly rodent or whatever. And I don’t know. I don’t really read anything that people write. So it’s hard for me to know the reception of the character or anything. But I think if people felt some mixture of alienation, understandable alienation, and also some sort of, at least, empathy or understanding for poor Gabe, then I will have done my job. [Laughs]
He is a character you kind of do want to feel bad for. I personally don’t. He doesn’t bother me to that much of an extent, which is a compliment. You don’t bother me that much. [Laughs]
Well, thank you. [Laughs]
But he does feel like someone who just tries so hard to be liked and just tries to build himself into something, which is, I think, something a lot of people can relate to.
Well, there’s nothing sadder to me than people who are desperate for… There’s no faster way to lose respect than to be frantically desperate for it. And I think Gabe is… it’s like in Mice And Men when Lenny grabs the thing too tight and kills the little bunny because he wants… Gabe is like that with anything, any authority, respect, friendship, romance. It’s all just like he wants it so bad, he just crushes it in his skeletal hands. [Laughs]
So, on your Wikipedia page it says that, as a child, you were into baseball, karate, and pyro dancing.
What’s pyro dancing?
[Laughs] I don’t know. That’s just the internet doing its beautiful thing. I mean, unless, the pyro dancing, I guess the only thing I can think is that maybe I was into pyro dancing and there was something completely traumatizing that happened related to the pyro dancing and I’ve blocked it out, but someone else remembers it. Other than that, I can say with some certainty that I’ve never done pyro dancing. Not because I’m scared of fire, but because I’m scared of dancing.
Should I go in and fix the Wikipedia entry, or just leave it?
Honestly, please delete everything else and just leave the pyro dancing. [Laughs]
You can watch ‘David’ below.