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SXSW interviews: Nöel Wells and Andre Hyland from the film 'Mr. Roosevelt'

<p>"Mr. Roosevelt" is the first film written and directed by comedian Nöel Wells, and the film had its world premiere in Austin, Texas at SXSW.&nbsp;</p>

"Mr. Roosevelt" is the first film written and directed by comedian Nöel Wells, and the film had its world premiere in Austin, Texas at SXSW. 

"Mr. Roosevelt" is the first film written and directed by comedian Nöel Wells ("Master of None" and "SNL"), and the film had its world premiere in Austin, Texas at the South By Southwest Film Festival. The Chronicle had the opportunity to sit down with Wells and co-star Andre Hyland in a press roundtable and discussed film distribution, ensemble casts and what it means to be successful. The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

The Chronicle: What part of Emily (the main character in "Mr. Roosevelt") is drawn from your characters that you did on "SNL" and "Master of None"?

Nöel Wells: These are different shows and projects, they require different skill sets and you funnel your energy into a certain thing. When I got on "SNL," I was like, "Oh, I’ll get on the show when because I can do impressions and I can do characters, that’s what I’m good at." So that’s what I did to try to get there. Then I thought, “I’ll get to write a bunch of stuff and I’ll get to be everything that I am,” and then that happened! Then, with "Master of None," it’s also a very collaborative experience, but it’s a character that needs to serve a purpose, and you do what needs to serve that character. For this movie, she is a character, so I pull on things that serve her journey and serve the story I want her to go on.

NW to Andre Hyland: What did you do for your character? It’s a little bit you, but also not you at all.

AH: Yeah, well Noel told me about the people they were loosely based on and sent me photos of different dudes.

NW: I sent photos of Austin dudes and ex-boyfriends!

AH: Yeah, that helped a ton. The one that helped me the most, I think, was the dude with the rifle, and I was like, “All right, I get that.”

NW: I sent a picture of a dude that I knew, who was my ex-boyfriend, we had a picture of him holding a rifle, and I was like, “What is that?” He’s a hipster with a gun!

AH: It’s this trend of skinny dudes like me, but it’s some version being like, “Yeah this is some tough, manly Americana sh*t,” ironic but not. Meanwhile, he’ll go eat a vegan hotdog or something. It’s this stupid fake bravado.

NW: Yeah, so you see these characters, you sort of do your best to explain them to people, but then they’re going to do whatever version of that character, and I think that’s what’s fun about evolving all this. Writing the movie, I feel like I’m good at characters and seeing how different people operate in the world, but I can’t play all of them, and so it’s fun to write them and give them to somebody who then turns it into something that they’re good at.

TC: The funniest part about that was you recognizing what kind of characters you’ve played in the past. When you had that conversation at the stream about quirky girls, I thought that was hilarious!

NW: Yeah! And then me going on my soap box tirade, then him being like, “Wow, okay, fine, you’re not!” What I like about it is that it diffuses the situation, then we’re just people. Yeah, I don’t want you to put a f**king box on me, but also there was no ill intent. That’s kind of what comedy is too!

AH: I also like that no one is really a villain, they’ve just got their own situation.

NW: Some people, when the see the movie, they say they were expecting something really bad to happen, like someone might stab somebody in the back or something would go wrong. I guess that’s how you want to do cartoons and movies in a sense, but I wanted it to also feel really honest. We’re all just people and we’re all so self-obsessed, and we’re all in our little body interacting in the world. We’re not bad guys… I mean, there are literal bad guys. There are so many sh*theads. But on average, most people are decent. I think the internet makes us feel like there are way more bad guys than good guys, and I think we need to start tipping the scales back to, there’s way more good guys and you shouldn’t fight the good guys, you should just try and help each other understand the world a little bit better.

AH: Yeah, don’t miss the forest for the trees.

TC: For me, this film was about what it means to be free and how you see others’ freedom. What do you think the film was about?

NW: That’s so true! I think, ultimately, what it’s all about is we have all these things on us that are holding us back. Emily is definitely trying to break out of it, but every time she tries to take flight and become free, something is just like, “F*ck you!” She gets smashed down, but it is like trying to lift off the ground, and everybody’s looking for their own version of freedom. Emily thinks she’ll find it through acceptance of her comedy. Somebody like Eric tried to find freedom in his music, but found it to be more of a cage, so he asks, “What’s going to be free to me?” For him, freedom is stability and freedom is having a family, and there’s nothing wrong with that! We’re all looking for that, and I think that’s what makes a great story, too. I actually think that’s what we’re all doing, all the time. We’re all trying to figure out how we can not feel bad. Can you live the life you want to live without hurting all these people? It’s such a balance. Emily goes off and does this thing that she thinks is going to liberate her, and then it not only is not working out for her, she hurt all these people trying to do that and balancing all that. But everyone is also saying, "It’s okay, you have to do what you want to do." We all have our stories and we all have our journey, we all have our wingspan, too. We’re all different birds… [this is where I start giving my weird, sick theory about how we’re all sort of part reptiles] and I think Emily is trying to be this great, white swan but everybody keeps dumping oil on her.

TC: We’re college kids, so we [write, direct, act in] make our own sh***y, goofy short films. You wrote, acted, directed and filmed on 16mm. Why did you decide to wear all those hats, and what was that process like?

NW: Some people just like making things. Actually, I think people are driven to create things, make things, and it’s just figuring out what that is. For me, I’ve always just wanted to do this, I’ve always wanted to make movies. I’m always thinking of all these ideas. I started out making videos, because that was all I could do at the time, and then you get skillsets along the way, that are like, “Okay, now I can make it bigger, and this time I think I have a longer story.” It’s all just different challenges to do the thing that I’m always going to be doing. I like it! That’s what makes me really happy. It was my baby, and I wanted to create this stuff and I knew that I was the one that was going to do it. Then, 16mm was a good choice because I learned how to develop my eye through film. I started taking pictures when I was in college after I had given up being a director. I’d shot a bunch of things, and I thought they looked bad and I thought, "Oh, I must not be talented enough." Then I started taking pictures on film one summer when I couldn’t afford to get the film developed. So, I took 36 rolls of film and when I started getting the film developed a little while later, I was really shocked to see that I had a sense of style and it was very distinct what I was doing. I realized I was looking over my shoulder too much on digital to evolve. The advice I would give: you have to grow! You’re not going to be Terrence Malick right out of the gate. Every experience and everything you do evolves and builds on itself. The pressure should get off your shoulders to have it all figured out, and just start doing things. Follow whatever you feel like doing next and it’ll all sort out one day.

AH: Yeah, it’s like circumstance ends up leading to your process that you’re comfortable with. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing all these different things, it just feels like you’re making something.

NW: You learn all these skills through all the things that you failed at before. I make a 30 second video and I learn how to direct myself. I learn how to tell the camera person what I want to do.

AH: Or a new editing program or whatever. I want to do this thing so I can learn how to make that happen. A lot of times if it’s limited, it forces you to be more creative.

NW: That’s what was happening on film. There was that limitation, you have to do it quickly, you have to develop your instincts, and you don’t get to look over your shoulder and see what came out. You just have to get good at it. That actually is pretty liberating. I like to not shoot digital, because I didn’t want to know if I got it right. I wanted to see what happened and then get to work from it from there. I think we’re all just afraid of doing things wrong, when I think we should all be saying, “Let’s do things wrong, because then we’ll figure something out from there.”

AH: It’s nice too because you don’t have enough time to overthink stuff. Sometimes you go with your gut on three options instead of 14 or something like that. Then, you’re like, “Well that clearly is the best of those three.”

NW: There were times when I only had two takes, then when we got into editing, we couldn’t use one of them, because there was something wrong on the shot that we couldn’t see because it was film. Then we’d say, “Well, we’re going to use this other one and we’re going to make it work!” There is something very liberating about having a limited amount of choices and just figuring out how to put the puzzle pieces together that feels the most satisfying.

TC: Yeah, I totally get that. For us, it’s like making a five-minute film in 45 minutes. So continuing on the point of [shooting on film], I think there’s something special about the permanence of the document you make on film. There’s also the drawback that all of your mistakes are permanently documented somewhere in a closet! How do you guys feel now that you’ve made a lasting document?

AH: I thought it was cool. This is really the only time I’ve made something that was shot on film, I was just excited and thought, “this’ll be really cool to be in a film film.” You’re not really getting that opportunity much anymore.

NW: Yeah, I like it. I think I‘m a person that deals with things. I like things, I like interacting with the world, and I like holding things. It just feels better rather than it being this conceptual thing, existing somewhere in space. In college after I fell in love with film, my college thesis was "The art of film and why analog processes should outlive the digital revolution," and part of it was the experience, and how it feels. It’s an object, and it lives, and it interacts with things. It interacts with the light, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen with it. Who knows what’s going to happen? That’s kind of exciting! There’s a portion of me that as a real progressive person that sometimes feels bad that I’m making more things to fill the world with, but as long as it’s not garbage, I think there’s something special. We’re humans and we’re going to be passing these down, and we’re all connected by things and the experiences we have, but also to hand somebody something and say, “Wow, there’s a history here,” that’s really cool.

TC: Giving them a film reel instead of a hard drive with your movie project.

NW: Yeah, which by the way, my first hard drive that had all my projects on, and I tripped on the cord in the computer lab and I lost everything. I remember being like, “All that stuff I did, I’ll never get to look back on,” but now I get to look back on them. There’s also something kind of freeing about that, too, like, “Well it doesn’t exist anymore so maybe I’m thankful.”

AH: I have all these VHS tapes, like high school videos and stuff I made, and a friend came over recently and we were just looking at these tapes, and he was like, “Dude, you got to those up and digitize them.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah I know.” He was like, “You know those will disintegrate.” Yeah, I know all that, but also, honestly, all these tapes right here have lasted way longer than any hard drive I’ve ever owned.

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