Bore Me, Michael Cera

I Regret That PR Departments Murdered the Interview as an Art Form

Bore Me, Michael Cera

AN ACTUAL STILL FROM THE VIDEO Anna Kendrick literally sat like that the entire time.

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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. recommended


Comments (31) RSS

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TVDinner 1
You know, there's something about our culture that just seems like it's been ironed flat. No one is allowed to have a public opinion about anything, because that might offend someone. You could work the graveyard shift at a gas station, and they'll make you sign a form saying you won't talk to the media.

Maybe that's why I still read The Stranger, three years after moving away from Seattle. At least you guys aren't afraid to have fucking opinions.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on December 29, 2010 at 4:49 PM · Report this
You could have just asked original questions.
Posted by I like bacon on December 29, 2010 at 5:39 PM · Report this
Knat 3
Wow, you're right, Anna Kendrick doesn't have lips. I still think she's hot, but you do have a point.

Thanks for the article about the world's most awful PR interview. It's a fun read.
Posted by Knat on December 30, 2010 at 12:24 AM · Report this
Agree w/ 2.
Posted by apathetic journalist on December 30, 2010 at 8:18 AM · Report this
Aw, this is so sad. Edgar Wright seems like the biggest little kid in the videos on his blog, and the film was so much fun. It's really disappointing to know that all of the bounce got steamrolled out of the cast and director right as the movie was coming out. I guess that happens on most major films, but I had naively hoped that nerds would be more resilient.
Posted by -ink on December 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM · Report this

Was the KING-or-KOMO lady jovially bantering about the film as a lightning rod for hipster-culture backlash?

I don't think Paul's questions -- about as controversial as one might be allowed to get in this scenario -- are to blame here.
Posted by d.p. on December 30, 2010 at 2:18 PM · Report this
laterite 7
I had to laugh at your comment about Soundgarden. Love those guys, but they have the WORST PR and street team ever. Every announcement or site update I read is so breathless and over-the-top.
Posted by laterite on December 30, 2010 at 3:18 PM · Report this
You should record your commentary/indictment over the video and post that.
Posted by SPG on December 30, 2010 at 4:48 PM · Report this
stinkbug 9

What did you ask them?

Ideally the interviewee would play along with non-standard questions, as in Gordon Keith's "awkward television interviews":………
Posted by stinkbug on December 30, 2010 at 6:19 PM · Report this
stinkbug 10

@8: That's what Luke Burbank did with his infamous Sigur Ros interview:…
Posted by stinkbug on December 30, 2010 at 6:21 PM · Report this
I'm looking at that picture and I'm dying. God that must have sucked.
Posted by MacGruber on December 30, 2010 at 9:36 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 12
Dude, no lips??

I know people with no lips, and the pictures at this link show that she has lips.
Posted by Matt from Denver on December 30, 2010 at 9:39 PM · Report this
I like shows like Larry King or Charlie Rose because they try really hard to make things interesting even when their subjects are boring, inane, self absorbed celebrities that talk about nothing remotely interesting. Maybe instead of blaming PR departments you should be apologizing for not trying harder and not growing as an intervier. It's your fucking job for god sakes.
Posted by ClareQuilty on December 31, 2010 at 11:00 AM · Report this
I'd love to hear they're side of that story. Interviewer comes in with a flip video recorder, says he's gonna post the interview on Youtube, and then asks a bunch of questions that have been asked a thousand times already? And YOU'RE complaining? WTF? Was Anna Kendrick not good enough for your flip phone? If you wanna "change the system", maybe you should think up of some interesting questions at least.
Posted by confused_interviewees? on December 31, 2010 at 12:23 PM · Report this
Jason Baxter 15
"To my horror, I realized Kendrick has no lips."
Posted by Jason Baxter on December 31, 2010 at 1:34 PM · Report this
Back before Russell Brand was a pompous ass, he had a weekly radio show and he delighted people by asking celebrities completely irrelevant and frequently silly questions.

He interviewed Morrissey (who hates to give interviews) for 40 minutes almost entirely about Moz's relationship to cats and his feelings on travel. Instead of pre-written answers, the actors are forced to think on their feet. The problem is asking off-the-wall questions that still hold meaning.
Posted by Extuno on January 1, 2011 at 6:28 PM · Report this
Best example of an interviewer asking questions that the PR rep did not pre-approve:…
Posted by El Oso Roñoso on January 2, 2011 at 12:09 PM · Report this
Interviewing is hard work. Not everyone can be good at it, especially if they aren't committed to being good at it.

Don't beat yourself up too much though. Writing book reviews sounds a lot like punishment to me and I think you do a pretty good job in that arena.
Posted by clint on January 2, 2011 at 5:47 PM · Report this
Lindy West 19
For the record, I was there at the interview holding the camera, and was surprised/impressed by how smart and insightful Paul's questions were. I promise you that wasn't the problem.
Posted by Lindy West on January 3, 2011 at 10:50 AM · Report this
Being someone who gets interviewed about twice a month, I can relate. I can't get over the fact that no one knows how to use google. Do a little research for pete's sake! Why do they always ask the same d*mn questions? I appreciate that Paul's questions were smart and insightful... Michael Cera must have been burned out by the last half dozen mindless questions. Press conferences are a good way to take care of all those same superficial questions at one time.
My perverse nature has led me to subtly sneak into my answers internal inconsistencies and even bald faced lies. Only once have I ever been asked to clarify. Where have all the investigative reporters gone? Whenever I get even the least bit challenging, invariably the reporter will shift the topic to more simplistic subjects, or of course that part of the interview will be cut. What is it about the media that insists on appealing to only the stupidest of readers/viewers. The Stranger at least maintains a good degree of originality. (thanks!) I remember how twenty years ago, reporters would come (often early) with a cameraman and an assistant who would take care of the lighting etc. They took notes, and they asked probing questions based on a working knowledge of my background. I would get a fax with the write up and an invitation to change anything that seemed in error. Then they just came with a cameraman, and though they took notes, turned on a recording device, "just to be sure." They started to ask the same canned questions. Only occasionally would I be asked to fact-check. Soon, the reporters were expected to take the pictures too! They only use a recording device now. They aren't even sure who I am, or why they are doing the interview (just that their boss said to cover the story) They arrive late, and haven't prepared any questions, so they ask me to, "tell (them my) stuff," and look abstractedly around as I feed the mic with information he forgot to ask me. Now they run from interview to interview without enough time to even take off their coats. That all has to be processed into some form of an article that night. The deadline being the same day, there is no chance for fact checking. The article comes out full of preconceived ideas, none of which are true (all of which I preemptively refuted to his mic) This tells me that last night, he didn't even have time to listen to his recorder before writing the story.
What does this tell us?
One, that journalism as we understand it, is dying. Investigative journalism, dead.
Two, quality in the media has been sacrificed for profitability.
Three, you can't believe what appears in print; it is either spoon-fed by promoters, and unquestioningly lapped up by 'reporters', or based on some incurious person's preset conclusions.
Four, a serious, hardworking, inquisitive reporter probably won't be appreciated in this kind of environment.
Posted by Rawkcuf on January 3, 2011 at 10:41 PM · Report this
21 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Post the video.
Posted by Jo Joe on January 4, 2011 at 4:55 PM · Report this
Bub 23
Please give the video the MST3K treatment, and then post it on YouTube.
Posted by Bub on January 4, 2011 at 6:03 PM · Report this
PR person here - I know, I'll duck the rotten tomatoes.

I empathize. I have a similar rant about mommy bloggers and one client or another at least once a month. Still, I'm not in the celebrity business (thank god) so it's rare for me to field that kind of attention.

I take some issue with a few of your points, but I agree the system is broken. These publicists sound terrible.

That said:

-There are PR people (like, ahem, me) who have never pitched The Stranger because we know we have nothing newsworthy for this audience. You just never get to meet us because we're so darn polite and busy pitching some paper much more suited for our clients.
-Anna Kendrick was probably contractually obligated to publicize the movie way before her part was even filmed/edited.
-Scheduling 30249534523409098 interviews in one day when you have a hotel room reserved for four hours (and 15 minutes of set-up) is not ideal for ANY publicity team.
-Particularly since, as you pointed out, reporters typically ask the same questions to death.
-The bass was undoubtedly there for the one random reporter from Topeka yelling "I need B-roll of something!!"

Related: The other thing is that if the celebrities go off script - I know this is a shocker - many of 'em are kind of doofuses:………

Sadly, it's just safer to give them a script (and many people feel more comfortable with one - they're actors, after all).

tl;dr Our job is to help you get the best story you can. Sucks that didn't work with these guys - please don't paint all of us with the same brush.
Posted by Washington Outsider on January 4, 2011 at 8:58 PM · Report this
BombasticMO 25
I'll chime in with Washington Outside - except that I'm an ex PR person.

It's fucking sad. Your bosses and company don't want you to say anything but 4-8 key messages. They are boring as hell, and any question you get, no matter how heavy-hitting, you have to take and just return to those same key messages. I hated it.

Reporters started to like me because I'd go off message since I knew the topics I was reporting on. Most of my co-workers just new the messages.

A good interviewer should push hard. Anyone who did that could get some good details, but unfortunately, no one does that anymore.
Posted by BombasticMO on January 4, 2011 at 10:04 PM · Report this
I've never met a PR person with as much integrity as Edina Monsoon.

And yes, I mean exactly that.
Posted by Sweetie on January 5, 2011 at 7:14 AM · Report this
I'd recommend checking out Kevin Pollak's Chat Show. He's continuing the Charlie Rose tradition a bit, but they bypass PR people and get interviewees by word of mouth and referrals, and since it's online there's no time restrictions (his recent Billy Bob Thornton show ran for a little over 2 hours).
Posted by j.lee on January 5, 2011 at 8:57 AM · Report this
Dee 28
I'm sorry, I can't get over the fact that the girl has her shoes on the couch. What a brat.
Posted by Dee on January 5, 2011 at 3:19 PM · Report this
Not cool that you insulted Anna Kendrick's physical appearance.
Posted by Amanda on January 5, 2011 at 6:19 PM · Report this
lewlew 30
You thought Mr. Cera would NOT be boring. Now THAT'S interesting!

And, Dee, you are welcome on my sofa.
Posted by lewlew on January 8, 2011 at 12:13 PM · Report this
i'm calling shenanigans on this. even lindy west assures us that the awkwardness of the interview had nothing to do with the questions asked by paul. you folks are trying to hard. but after viewing the photo posted in the write-up, kendrick appears to be seriously annoyed, and cera can barely contain his angst. top that with the fact you won't post the video, and i'm willing to bet you completely botched the interview via poor tactics. just a hunch. let me know when you release the footage.
Posted by Eugene Rushmore on January 15, 2011 at 2:53 PM · Report this

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