I feel like if the MPAA saw Assholes, they would just write a referendum against movies being made ever again. In fact, no more movies! Bye!
When we spoke to Peter Vack in South Korea this summer, his debut feature Assholes was without distribution. Thankfully, it has one now. This is the craziest shit you’ll ever see on the big screen.
Vack was on the peninusla in support of Assholes, which played as part of the “Forbidden Zone” at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. According to the genre festival’s program, the provocative sidebar is reserved for “extreme and ‘dangerous’ movies that challenge taboos and pose a problem for the freedom of expression.” Assholes was one of just four “forbidden” fruits, including Flying Lotus’ lewd and lubed-up curiosity Kuso. It’s hard to forget a moment like this: looking down at your stub to find an X where you might find an NC-17 and still clutch your pearls.
In the interest of keeping things spoiler free—especially for a movie like Assholes, which is best served like a blind taste test—we’ll leave you with this innocuous logline supplied by the actor-turned-filmmaker: “It’s about two sober drug addicts who meet, relapse, and fall in love.” However, if you like your bounty extra spoiled, our previous chat with Vack was quite exhaustive.
Vack also has Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. hitting select theaters next week, in which he plays a college rapist opposite Francesca Eastwood. Be sure to check out our full interview with Leite, Eastwood, and the film’s screenwriter Leah McKendrick. M.F.A. is where we start our new talk with Vack.
[Editor's Note: Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY will hold a special screening of Assholes on 10/7 with Vack, and actors Jack Dunphy, Betsey Brown, Jane Brown, Rob Brown in-person for a Q&A.
How's your press day going, Peter?
Good! I did some interviews and I have another one. People seem nice. I'm really grateful that people want to talk about the movie. All in all, I think it'll really help. How's Korea?
Things have died down since a couple weeks ago. It's repetitive and numbing, you know?
I only brought up North Korea one time when I was there. I asked some of the volunteers at the festival, these 21, 22 year old kids, like, "What's up? How do you feel about this?" They had the same sentiment: "It's been 70 years. What are we supposed to do, every day be freaked out about this?" It's eye-opening. It's completely human and I get it. How could you be any other way?
There's a new IMAX in Seoul and they have emergency gas masks in glass cabinets set up in the actual theaters now. I'd never seen that outside the underground subways before.
So I spoke to Natalia [Leite], Leah [McKendrick], and Francesca [Eastwood] about M.F.A. the other day. I had forgotten that you were in it! What do you remember from that shoot?
I remember the shoot very vividly, actually. I maybe mentioned this to you casually, but there was this strange confluence of factors that made it so I was cast as a sex offender four times in movies. This was one of them. So I approached this [rape] scene knowing that I’ve acted in scenes like this before and I felt emotionally prepared. But really, who cares what I felt? In this kind of setting, it’s all about what the other actor—in this case, Francesca—is going through. The trick is to serve the material where you’re in the scene, but also really attentive to the person that’s going through a potentially triggering, traumatic experience. And this was all led by Natalia, who’s an extremely sensitive artist. These really intense scenes that depict an awful and brutal rape or murder can actually be beautiful experiences for the artist doing it because they’re cathartic and the emotional atmosphere is very high. When you emerge on the other side, you do feel shaken, definitely, but hopefully, you’re adding to the conversation that has to continue and continue to deepen. It’s this big bag of emotions that I’d like to hope is ultimately a positive one for all involved. I find the scene very disturbing, but I think the way that it comes together in the movie is extremely powerful. I know it’s strange to call something so brutal cathartic, but I hope sensitive readers will have an inkling as to what I’m trying to describe, even if I’m not doing it perfectly.
Watching M.F.A. did jog my memory of you telling me that you played this kind of role several times. You also said that writing Assholes was perhaps your way of dealing with the fact that you’re usually cast to play assholes. There are obviously all sorts of reasons why actors might want to write and direct their own features. This seems just as logical to me: that you find pure joy in storytelling, and that you would want to take control of your own vessel, so to speak, in a field where so much of what happens rests in someone else’s hands.
You said it perfectly. Why I did and continue to have the impulse to make films is so that I can have ownership over a medium that I love so much and a medium that, if only as an actor, I often feel like a leaf blowing in a storm, looking for a resting place that’s comfortable and quiet. My personality is really not one that’s so well suited to sitting by my telephone and my email, waiting for appointments from my agents and hoping those appointments will result in me getting a job. I’ve been lucky, so lucky, luckier than most actors, that this traditional path of getting acting work has worked for me. But that life in and of itself isn’t creatively fulfilling enough because I feel too much at the whims of the marketplace. There’s nothing that’s more of a reparative measure to that feeling than making your own movie because when you do that, even if the movie is terrible, it’s still your terrible mess. There’s something so beautiful and liberating about making your own work that you can stand behind and not just have the experience of being a part of someone else’s palette, which is a beautiful thing to be, but sometimes you want to be the one holding the brush and making the strokes… I’ll take that metaphor and run with it as far as I’m allowed. [Laughs]
One other thing I’ll say about playing this horrible guy in M.F.A. who commits an earth-shattering crime like rape is that, when you’re playing that person, your best bet is to actually not feel that you’re doing any of that. Of course, if you’re playing a serial rapist that jumps out of the bushes, that’s a different story. With this guy, I’m not sure that he even realizes he’s a rapist and that’s scarier and perhaps it’s more accurate how that happens. He is a rapist and that was rape, but when I watch that, what strikes me is, “That guy I’m playing doesn’t 100% realize what he’s doing,” and that’s awful. For me, all the really pertinent realizations about anything I’ve done don’t come before or during, but after the fact. I mean, the goal would be that someone will watch that scene and then recognize the behavior in themselves and stop in real life. Maybe that’s an outlandishly hopeful goal, but I think it might be part of the reason why we choose to depict these horrible things in movies: so that, potentially, they’ll get into the culture and act as a sort of deterrent.
Was it difficult to agree to this part at all?
Well, because I’m not an actor that’s asked to do movies all the time, if the material is good and the director is someone I want to work for, I say “Yes,” regardless of what the character is. I never hesitated with this. I’d met Natalia before and liked her. I read the script and liked it. And even though I knew that I would be depicting sexual violence and I’ve been a part of scenes like that before, the movie is timely. We need stories like this. Unfortunately, this story needs to be told and retold because it’s still a problem in culture. So I can see myself playing a rapist again, which is jarring to hear coming out of my mouth. As long as we live in a rape culture, we’ll have to unfortunately tell these stories to try and combat whatever mechanisms are in place that allow for these offenses to continue. So in a way, it wasn’t a hard choice for me. It was an immediate “Yes” because of the collaborators and because of the importance of the story.
We should talk about Assholes now. What’s the rating on this, by the way? Is it still X?
I’m not sure that it has a rating. I think it’s less of a factor for a movie of this size. I think if we were in multiplexes, which we would never be, maybe we would get an NC-17 or an X. This is the kind of movie that just comes without a rating. I think that already indicates that there might be material that’s, you know, objectionable.
So you didn’t have to go in front of the MPAA or anything like that.
No, no, no, no. I actually don’t know the rules around the MPAA, but I think it’s the amount of theaters that you’re going to be in that dictates the necessity of going in front of them. I feel like if that board saw this movie, they would just write a referendum against movies being made ever again. In fact, no more movies!
Yeah, fuck this shit. We’re over this. Bye!
This might sound ham-fisted, Peter: I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole after watching VH1’s Behind the Music episode on Tom Petty. It clicked over to this Courtney Love documentary and she’s saying all these poetic stuff like how she turned to drugs to feel comfort whereas Kurt was looking for oblivion, which might explain why she’s still here and he’s not. What do you think Adah [played by Betsey Brown in Assholes] is ultimately after in her addiction?
I think she wants intimacy and affection because she’s not getting it. I also think she wants some reprieve from her anxiety. I think those two things are usually linked. But like many people her age, or any age, who have a history of going to substances or impulsive behavior—to calm the need for intimacy, if that’s even possible to fill, or to calm the anxiety, which can be such a life-long struggle and so difficult to minimize—she makes all the wrong decisions. I feel like she’s a girl who’s just desperate to be seen and have some connection in her life that she doesn’t have.
It’s so easy to want to and then self-medicate in our culture.
Yeah, it almost feels like self-medication is advertised everywhere. Whether you’re doing it with illicit substances or state-sanctioned substances, especially in America, it’s such a viable path that—we do question it, but we question it in the extreme cases, right? There’s a lot of sobriety cultures and 12-step cultures and I support them wholeheartedly and I know it’s a really viable way for people to quit addiction, but I feel like there’s such a pervasive amount of functioning addiction in society that we don’t really know how to even begin to discuss it, or if we even want to discuss it. It’s this constant truth that we live with, or many of us live with. It’s something that I have a lot of questions about. I don’t really know the answer to those questions and sometimes I don’t even know how to formulate the questions themselves. But I know that embedded in Assholes are a lot of my feelings, both conscious and unconscious, about this universality of addiction.
I went back and watched an episode of MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back on YouTube.
Oh you did? That’s fantastic.
You look and sound so young on that. It’s really trippy.
It was kind of a while ago, yeah. Also, they did stuff to the episodes on YouTube to make it undetectable by the robots that look for copyrighted material. I might sound modulated to a different pitch. It’s a very weird experience watching that show on YouTube. But I’m glad you did.
Yeah, the quality—it is almost unwatchable.
[Laughs] We had such a blast making that show and the truth is, had that show come out a couple years ago and not like six years ago, I think it would’ve done better. I think it was a little ahead of its time. The material was actually too graphic for MTV so all the sponsors pulled out and they just didn’t give it another shot after that. It’s too bad that show didn’t have more of a life because it was criminally fun to make. It means a lot that you watched it.
Doug Liman has an executive producer credit on that show and he also directed the pilot. He obviously has American Made in theaters right now. What’s he like to work with?
I was actually texting him today to try and get him to come see Assholes, but he’s in Montreal working on something. Yeah, he directed the pilot and another episode. He’s a great filmmaker and a great friend. He’s someone who I still feel really close to. I think he’s one of the best directors.
He always had this mystique about him to me. Edge of Tomorrow knocked me sideways.
Oh incredible. Incredible! Something really does stick out to me about the way Doug works, or the way he worked on Pants. He operates camera while he’s directing, which is so exciting to see. It’s very cool to have Doug operate camera and have him come out from behind the camera to give you notes because he’s a gifted DP, too. There’s something about it that feels more intimate. It’s fine when the director steps out from behind the monitor in the video village, but really fun when you just get a little note from the director who almost becomes like an actor in a scene. I remember being so continually surprised by how thrilling that was. It’s rare because not a lot of directors—myself included because I don’t have that skill and I’m not sure I ever will—can do everything.
What’s been on your mind lately that you might want to turn into a film story idea next?
Right now, I don’t know. There’s a novel that I started writing in 2015 and I finished the first draft of that in August. I don’t know whether it works or if it’ll be something that will be out in the world, but that’s been the focus of my creative energies. I have some other screenplays that I might dust off and see if I can make. I’ll definitely make another movie, but it’s too premature to say what that will be next. You can trust that it will happen because it’s impossible for me to quit this.