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Funny Pages, 2022(Film still)

Funny Pages is a gritty comedy about failed comic-book artists

Owen Kline tells Nick Chen about his offbeat coming-of-age film, which was co-produced by the Safdie brothers

What if your hand views the world differently from your eyes? When comic-book artists draw with just a pen and paper, it’s intrinsically an extension of themselves, the shapes and ideas materialising from their imagination and subconscious. At least, that’s what I tell Owen Kline, an actor-turned-cartoonist-turned-filmmaker, when he asks why I don’t draw: I would rather not know how I deep-down perceive my surroundings.

“It’s a psychological test,” says Kline, 30, speaking over Zoom from his home in New York. “If I asked you to draw a family, or trees, or what God looks like – I could psychoanalyse you. That’s what’s fascinating about crude, homemade comics. All the stuff you might apply to auteurism, you can apply to comics tenfold because it’s all coming from one hand.”

The last, and possibly only, time you saw Kline was probably in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 divorce-drama The Squid and the Whale, in which Kline played the angsty, beer-drinking 12-year-old Frank. Nearly two decades later, Kline has returned to movies behind the camera as the writer and director of Funny Pages, a gritty, grotty comedy about failed comic-book artists. Not savvy networkers who draw superheroes, but stubborn misanthropes whose panels are scrappy, have smudged lines, and are redolent of Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb. With Funny Pages emulating the offbeat visuals of the art it celebrates, it’s possible it wasn’t written on Final Draft, but actually first sketched by hand.

“The movie was adapted from a short comic I did called Robert in the Boiler Room,” Kline clarifies. “It was the first inkling of the movie’s world: the strange, mismatched communication and cultural orbits.” He provides a lengthy dissection of Save the Cat, Hitchcock, and De Palma, all screenwriting methods he deliberately avoided. “I’m starting with character and stretching that out. What is the absolute ceiling of emotional vulnerability, insanity, and weakness?”

Funny Pages is also a coming-of-age story starring Daniel Zolghadri (creepy Riley from Eighth Grade, but a total charmer here) as Robert, an 18-year-old comics enthusiast whose middle-class background contradicts the outsider voices he worships. In the opening scene, Robert’s art teacher, Mr Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), strips nude and forces the boy to draw every wrinkly contour of his body, including down there. When the teacher drives after Robert, attempting to apologise, his car crashes and it’s fatal. In any other movie, it’d be the catalyst for a drama about grief and trauma; in Funny Pages, it’s a dark, laugh-out-loud punchline, inspiring Robert to chase after a new morally corrupt artist to mentor him.

Kline, whose parents are Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline, has always been an eager cartoonist. (A recent example can be viewed here.) As a 10-year-old, he taught himself to draw via Bruce Blitz videos (the American version of Art Attack), envisioning a career in newspaper comics. “It was character, more so than comics as a medium, that I was interested in,” Kline recalls. “But the incredible thing about comics, especially ones made outside of any system, is that they’re an uninhibited art form. You’re going to tap way quicker into your natural preoccupations.”

In Funny Pages, Robert rebels against his overprotective, loving parents by seeking a lifestyle that will fuel his creativity. He moves into an unhygienic, underground flat in which pet fish can’t survive the atmosphere, and shares a cramped bedroom with a man who doesn’t lock the door when masturbating to comics. Elsewhere, Robert encounters oddballs around New Jersey; when he pisses at a urinal next to a stranger splashing water on his armpits, what’s more surprising is that someone in this film actually washes themselves.

In regards to a film about mentors, it’s noticeable whose names are on the credits: Funny Pages was co-produced by Benny and Josh Safdie, the siblings behind Good Time and Uncut Gems, and Ronald Bronstein, the third, albeit non-biological, Safdie. Along with having Sean Price Williams (Heaven Knows What, Good Time) as cinematographer, Funny Pages includes cameos from Buddy Duress (the prison escapee from Good Time) and Mitchell Wenig (one of the Uncut Gems twins). You’re almost waiting for Adam Sandler and Julia Fox to saunter past in the background. “The first stuff we shot was in that basement,” Kline notes. “The Safdies were upstairs at their monitor. They ran downstairs, saying, ‘This is a comedy!’”

Kline was 15 when he befriended the Safdies, who, at the time, were at Boston University, uploading shorts to their personal website Red Bucket Films. “I worked on a couple of those,” Kline says. “I was playing in bands in the DIY music scene, I was putting out crank call tapes. I had these weird preoccupations but the Safdies treated me seriously as an artist. I was 18 and they let me (and a friend) animate the trailer for Daddy Longlegs. That’s a lot of faith to put in a young person.”

He continues, “I worked on Funny Pages through all sorts of jobs, on weekends, for over six years, in terms of writing, and trying to get anyone to give it money. Josh (Safdie) was the only person who took this project seriously, and helped me when I was struggling to find funds, after spending two years trying to get anyone to even read the fucking thing. That’s the hardest part, getting someone to read it, period!”

Kline, of course, could have done things differently. He co-starred in The Squid and the Whale because it was during the summer holidays and Baumbach was a family friend. “I didn’t really want to act after that,” he says. “I was lucky to know the director, and he wanted me.” However, he was asked to read for the role in Superbad that later went to Michael Cera. “I was flattered and almost brought myself to do it. The kids were going to be a little younger. I was a 15-year-old kid who still looked like I did in The Squid and the Whale.”

I reveal that moments before our call, I submitted The Squid and the Whale in my 10-film ballot for Sight & Sound’s prestigious Greatest Films poll, and that, to me, Funny Pages mixes Baumbach’s bitter wit with the Safdie brothers’ unpredictable energy. When Robert brings Wallace (Matthew Maher), a cantankerous criminal, to his family home for Christmas, the humour is in the culture clash – like a Safdies character entering a Baumbach movie and smashing up the furniture.

“I’m flattered you see those two things there,” Kline says. “The movie is not autobiographical, but the fabric is. One personal element is that the character is very impressionable. When I was making The Squid and the Whale, I was soaking up that experience like a sponge, and then with the Safdies, on their Red Bucket Films shorts, I was running around New York, getting thrown out of Chinese restaurants, filming actors through the glass. These experiences in troublemaking coalesced into the movie as well.”

The acclaim that met Funny Pages (it premiered at Cannes to a five-star review from the Guardian) suggests that Kline can stick with filmmaking if he wishes to, and he alludes to another comedy he’s written. Like Robert, though, Kline doesn’t seem like someone who wishes to produce mainstream material, especially given how Funny Pages concludes. No spoilers here – but it’s not exactly conventional.

“Robert Downey Sr told me there are three endings: ‘up’, ‘down’, or ‘it’s up to you’. I made it so the kid has the most to process at that moment. Would you say it’s ‘down’ or ‘up to you’?” I tell Kline, to me, it’s definitely a “down” ending. “Yeah, it’s ‘down’. And nobody likes ‘down’. That will often register as unsatisfying. Which is funny!”

Funny Pages is in UK cinemas and exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from September 16