Bore Me, Michael Cera
I Regret That PR Departments Murdered the Interview as an Art Form
On July 30, I went to the Experience Music Project to interview Michael Cera, Edgar Wright, and Anna Kendrick in advance of the wide release of their comic-book movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I brought a Flip video recorder, and I planned to edit the interview, upload it to YouTube, and post it on Slog on or around the film's August 13 release date. The interview lasted exactly 14 minutes and 43 seconds. To this day, I haven't shown the footage to another human being because it's so incredibly boring that I can't watch it for more than half a minute at a time without tearing the headphones off my head in disgust and closing the video.
Journalists, especially arts reporters, deal with publicists all the time. They grant us access to art that we then relate to you. It's not a perfect system, but it works. Oftentimes, if the publicists are pitching something we're not interested in (we received a breathless press release a few months ago announcing in all caps that Soundgarden "landed" the cover of the September issue of Spin magazine, thereby creating a vacuum of apathy so great that the world nearly ended), we just ignore their e-mail. But if you agree to take part in something like this—a massive, concerted nationwide publicity steamroller attack—you're entirely at the mercy of a publicity department.
So I arrived at EMP to find a blonde lady from one of Seattle's TV stations—KING or KOMO or whatever the other ones are—interviewing the director and actors in the kind of environment that can be conceived only in the brain of a high-paid publicist. In the middle of a weird lobby room made up of a canyon between two enormous plastic walls, there was an outsize orange couch, a cardboard Scott Pilgrim stand-up, and a bass guitar sitting on a stand in the middle of the room. It was all so artificial and lame. What was the bass doing sitting there? Was the viewer supposed to think Michael Cera just finished jamming and set the instrument down to start an interview? Why were we in this gaudy, sterile room? Was it supposed to be "hip" and "edgy"? It looked like the set of a pilot for a failed TV show for kids: Paul Allen's Playhouse. The blonde lady and her camera crew cleared out, and I sat facing the actors and director and we were about to get started.
"It's such a relief to not be interviewed on camera for a change," Cera sighed. I blanched. "Um, I have a camera," I said, and pointed to the Flip, explaining, "I was going to put this on YouTube." There was an awkward pause, but not a patented Cera movie awkward pause. It was just a normal awkward pause and it went on way too long.
Then we got started with the most boring interview ever recorded. In the days before a film's release, the studio's PR departments probably batter into the director and actors that it is vitally important to not say anything in interviews that could even be heavily edited into something controversial. Unfortunately, it means you just get a lot of talk about how exciting and fun it was to work on the film, and how challenging it was but everybody really pulled through like one big happy family. And, of course, this was a more personal, artistic adventure than most other films, which can often be arduously commercial enterprises. It's like the most monotonous commentary track you can imagine.
I don't blame them. Except Anna Kendrick. What the fuck was Kendrick doing there? She just curled up on the far end of the couch and seemed annoyed at having to eke out a monosyllabic response to my questions. She's in the movie as Cera's little sister for about two minutes; at least if Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the romantic lead, were there, I could have spent those doomed 15 minutes staring vacantly at her lips. To my horror, I realized Kendrick has no lips.
I don't blame the actors. If anything, I deserve most of the blame. My questions—about negative reviews of the film that seemed more like indictments of some perceived hipster culture, about the frenetic pacing, about the challenges of adapting a two-hour movie from an incredible comic-book series—were probably the same questions they'd been asked hundreds (literally—hundreds!) of times before. Their answers were so practiced that they became completely devoid of meaning, entirely separate from the questions. Everything was just a gateway to a preplanned anecdote, and it all remains on video, stashed in some dusty corner of my computer, where it will remain until it gets consigned to the junk heap. It's better that way.
The interview is a lost art form. A few lonely journalists are keeping it alive, but PR departments have choked all the fun, all the spontaneity and playfulness, from them. There's no hope for their salvation as long as this system is in place. I will very, very rarely agree to do interviews, and only if I think the person is interesting enough to somehow transcend this machine that has been built to keep content as drab as possible in exchange for free advertising. This year, I published long interviews with Playboy cartoonist Gahan Wilson and essayist Mary Roach; both were delights because they were so unguarded and intelligent. But I swear that I will never do another interview that could possibly rival that awful summer morning I spent with Michael Cera, chitchatting about absolutely nothing.