This week we’ll be getting swarmed with Basterds. B.J. Novak kicks off our series of Inglourious Basterds interviews, which will include Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth (watch videos), Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, and the big man himself Quentin Tarantino.
As we all know, there are no small parts in a Tarantino film, there are however small actors. In the film Novak plays Pfc. Smithson Utivich, also known as “The Little Man” who is one of the eight deadly soldiers on a mission to take down the Nazis lead by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).
Novak may be known for his subtle humor from “The Office,” but he was more than thrilled to be given the chance to work with his idol Tarantino and get his hands bloody (something he never saw himself doing) on set.
How did you get involved with the film? Does Tarantino watch “The Office”?
NOVAK: He seems to watch everything, which is crazy. I’ll keep his confidences, but one question I’d been dying to ask him when we went out for drinks one night in Germany was “what DON’T you like?” Because he seems to find so much greatness in everything, in every movie. There are plenty of things he doesn’t like, and he’s very, very articulate about them. It’s interesting. He had watched The Office, he was specific about some jokes and comic timing he liked between me and MindyKaling . I know he liked that specifically. I don’t know exactly how Hollywood works – every agent takes credit for everything. I don’t know what list I was on or what casting director or what favor what agent pulled or whatever, but they said Jewish-American actors in their 20′s, and I guess all theApatow guys were busy, and I must have showed up on some list, you know? Then I had a meeting and it went really well, and I just squeaked under the 5’9″ line for The Little Man and there I was. I don’t exactly know how Hollywood works. I just know sometimes your agent calls and sometimes he doesn’t.
Did you have to get out of The Office production schedule to do this? How did that work?
NOVAK: Yeah, I did. When I first heard about it, it happened to be shooting during an Office production break, which felt like destiny, but then the schedule changed and it felt like destiny had hit a roadblock. There had been a Ryanplotline that had been floating around about making a play for Kelly and then running off to Thailand, and it seemed like that might be a good time to cash in that idea. Fortunately, it worked – partly because it was a funny, creative idea and partly because I hadn’t really ever asked for a favor like that and I’d been working with that group for a long time. This wasn’t a career move, this was something personal. They could tell.
Everybody is talking about how amazing it was to work on a Quentin Tarantino set for a variety of reasons. What was your favorite part about it?
BJ Novak: Quentin Tarantino. Watching him direct, which is really a performance in and of itself, and wondering how he did it, you know? I’ve always been fascinated by how Tarantino makes his movies. You kind of see the authorship at work in the film but you kind of can’t picture how he comes up with stuff. He’s very loud and performative, and if you ask him a question, the challenge becomes getting him to stop talking. Not that I had that problem, but it’s too much to handle…. please don’t quote me on that one, that’s going to come out really wrong. I just meant that he will talk forever, and to get to see that happen on set, to see him transform his words into images was cool. It was like going to Tarantino Film School.
Did you feel like you had to match his energy every day on set, or is that impossible?
NOVAK: Oh, I could never match his energy. I’m the opposite of his energy. We’d be a great Vaudeville duo – the bombastic director and the quiet writer. There’s no chance. Eli Roth came much closer than I did to that.
You were the little one, but you made it to the end and you basically got the two climactic scenes for the Basterds, what was it like building up to that and materializing that moment?
NOVAK: Well, first of all, not to give anything away, but one cool thing about the character that Quentin had always told me he had conceptualized for it was that he was frustrated with war movies where it’s very clear who’s going to live and who’s going to die. He wanted to play with audience expectations and focus on some people and kill them off and hide some people and have them emerge. He always thought it would be very funny to have the guy who’s supposed to get killed first make it to the end.
I think that was where the surprise and the fun of Utivitch surviving for so long comes from. The back story of the character and the interplay with Aldo really came from one scene that was cut to an extent – the scene in the vet’s office where everyone gets their jobs. I think it’s in the longer script and maybe it’ll be on the DVD or something. The rehearsal process of that and just the general rehearsal process we had where we went through everyone’s back story and talked about how people knew each other and how they related. He’s very much a believer in that, in the best sense – in a high school or college theater way, where you actually have time to spend to be theater-nerdy about your character and your motivation and stuff like that, which is fun. You’re on a Tarantino set, all you want to do is play and think and talk about the movie. You don’t want to just do your job. You don’t want it to end, so it’s cool that he felt the same way.
Why do you think your character was named The Little Man?
NOVAK: I think there was no character named The Medium Sized Man, which I think I would have been much better suited to, so I had to take the next best thing.
Because you almost weren’t little enough, right?
NOVAK: I almost wasn’t little enough, and I certainly wasn’t going to play The Bear Jew. Again, the Medium Sized Man would have been perfect, but it wouldn’t have been as funny.
You get to do a lot of violent and graphic things on set, was something that you were looking forward to or dreading?
NOVAK: I thought I would hate it. I’m really not a fan of violence in movies. What I’ve always loved about Tarantino is the humor and the dialog and the characters. I don’t exactly cover my eyes to the violence but that’s not what I buy a ticket to see. So it was kind of odd to find myself in that part of a Tarantino movie, but that was my job and that was my homework. I had scalping lessons, I looked up scalping on the internet and after a while, it just became like a calculus test I wanted to get an A on. I hated calculus, too, but I was a good Jewish boy who did my homework and that’s who Utivitch was. I don’t think he wanted to scalp, but if that’s his homework assignment from Aldo, he’s damned if he’s not going to get an A. That’s how I approached it on the set.
Everybody was saying you cannot miss an ‘and’ or a ‘the’ or anything like that, that Tarantino is very specific about his dialogue. Is that something that was a challenge for you or because you’re a writer did you enjoy that he was having his actors do that?
NOVAK: It’s a lot easier when you only have about ten lines. It was not a challenge for me at all. In fact, it was a joy. I work 99% of my life as a writer, and to have someone else write for me and to get the opportunity to say Tarantino’s words was once in a lifetime, as far as I was concerned, and I wasn’t going to fuck it up by throwing in some more B.J. Novak words that I’m sick to death of. It was fun to get to turn off the writer side of my brain.
How much did you immerse yourself in the time period and those films? It’s its own film, but it’s informed by all this history, too and all these different film stars. How much did you watch?
NOVAK: I read a lot of books about the time period and a lot of soldier accounts of World War II to get myself in the mindset. I watched some of the movies from that era and some of those Dirty Dozen types of movies.
Did you watch any of the German films, too?
NOVAK: I think Julie Dreyfus did. I didn’t get a chance. She had a copy of Lucky Kids, Goebbles’ movie, which I really wanted to watch with her, but asking to go to her hotel room to watch a movie with her sounded too sketchy, so I didn’t end up asking to see the DVD, but I really wanted to see it. But I didn’t speak any German, so I wouldn’t have been able to understand it. It wasn’t subtitled. Quentin also had an incredibly strict no cell phone rule on the set. That was our biggest fear, that… I don’t know, someone would plant a cell phone on us. I didn’t even have it with me and I was scared it was going to ring. So I think stuff like that helped keep people out of the modern world and mindset.
You were talking about how you didn’t have as many lines as some of the other characters, but with Quentin Tarantino films, there are no small roles. The smallest roles can oftentimes be the biggest roles, so it’s your chance to leave a stamp on his film. Did you ever feel that?
NOVAK: I felt exactly that. It’s so nice that you said that. Right before I left to do the movie, one of my friends – Brent Forrester, a writer on “The Office” said, “you are going to be a part of film history. I don’t care how big or small this part is. I don’t care how good or bad this movie turns out. Tarantino is film history and you’re going to be a part of film history.” I kept that with me the whole time. That wasn’t going to be taken away from me. I thought this would be a great movie and I thought the part would be really fun, but regardless, I do think his movies hold a special place. And when I came back to “The Office” set, Steve Carell – all these other people have these huge movie careers and they had been working with me for years and years, and I was different to them now. I was a guy who had done this magical thing.
They still ask me all the time “So when Tarantino this, so what did Tarantino say…” you know. You can be a really big movie star, you can do any type of project, but there is something special about even a small or medium-sized part in a Tarantino movie. Playing even The Little Man in this movie would be a big man in anything else.
Were they jealous?
NOVAK: I think maybe of the life experience. We writers are so trapped in this airless little room in the worst part of the worst part of the Valley. I think they thought I was on a yacht in the south of France with Brad Pitt the whole time. They didn’t think of lonely cold nights in a Berlin hotel room. Maybe there was some jealousy from the other writers, but when Greg Daniels let me out to do it, he compared it to a tradition they had in Russian prisons long ago, where they would let one person go each year, and it would always be the best storyteller. That person would have to go and come back, as long as they could tell enough stories to keep the rest of the prisoners entertained for the year. So he said I was the lucky prisoner who was going to go, and I’d better be the best storyteller.
Can you tell us how much was shot that isn’t in the theatrical cut?
NOVAK: A ton.
Can you point to any specific scenes that you had?
NOVAK: There’s a scene in the veterinarian’s office that I know was cut in half. I don’t know how it turned out. It was really fun to do, so I hope that is seen someday. There was a lot of stuff with Shosanna that could have gone further. But I think he always knew that if he released it, it would be a 9-hour movie. I think he just wanted to write and write and write and shoot and shoot and shoot.
What did you take away from working with Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt and apply to your own acting and writing?
NOVAK: Don’t be afraid to trust your instinct. I don’t think Tarantino fit into any box when he started out, and he stayed true to his vision. He didn’t listen to any agent or friend or anybody that told him to make it more like the other movies that were coming out. He listened to himself, and I think that if you’re good, you should listen to yourself and have other people imitate you, if you can, and no one has more imitators than Tarantino. I hope someday I’m good enough that people try to knock me off, and the way you do that is by not knocking off other people.
And from Brad Pitt, I learned ‘don’t let anything bother you.’ He has more distractions in his life than anyone I have ever seen, and he never wore it in public. When he was with you, it was all about the scene, it was all about you, it was all about what was going on. It was not about the thousand headaches and distractions and fake rumors and people who wanted a piece of him. I thought ‘man, if Brad Pitt can keep his cool and keep from complaining or being too big for this or that, there’s no way the temp from “The Office” is ever going to pull anything like that in his life.’
You were admiring that Tarantino has no fear and he doesn’t hold back and trusts his instinct, but he waited 10 years to actually finalize his script and send it to somebody and say “I’m done.” As a writer, is there anything that you’re working on that’s on the back burner that you’re waiting to be perfect?
NOVAK: That’s a great question. When I say I learned these lessons watching Tarantino, I can’t necessarily say I can apply them. I don’t know. I think every writer has to fight their own fear. I think there are plenty of obstacles like that, but I guess I mean specifically to not write things to please other people if it doesn’t please you is the lesson I learned from Tarantino. Don’t just try to be a working writer, try to be an artist. If you liked this film or not, you can tell that Tarantino is an Artist with a Capital A, and there aren’t that many people like that or who even aspire to be like that right now. It’s kind of old-fashioned, and I loved it. I loved being around it and I want to have the courage to try to do that myself. There are other obstacles that you face when you try to be an artist – pretentiousness is a deadly one – but it’s trying to do something great. I think there are a few people out there that I really think of as artists who boldly struck out in a direction and succeeded.
Check out B.J. Novak in Inglourious Basterds this Friday August 21st.