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How to make a great dark comedy, according to the director of a great dark comedy

“Pain plus time equals comedy,” according to Ingrid Goes West director Matt Spicer.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza appear in Ingrid Goes West by Matt Spicer, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Elizabeth Olsen and Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Matt Spicer’s directorial debut is the ink-dark comedy Ingrid Goes West, for which he and his co-writer David Branson Smith took home the top screenwriting award at Sundance back in January.

The movie stars Aubrey Plaza as a young woman addicted to Instagram. She ultimately becomes obsessed with an Instagram celebrity named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and worms her way into Taylor’s life. It’s hilarious, and tragic, and more than a little twisted even when it’s wise.

Making a story about obsession, addiction, mental illness, and stalker-like behavior into something wickedly funny without sacrificing the characters’ humanity seems extraordinarily hard to me. Yet that’s just what Ingrid Goes West does.

So after the film screened on a snowy afternoon at Sundance, I tracked down Spicer to ask him a few questions about his approach to dark comedy. We talked about some of his favorites in the genre — like Boogie Nights, The Squid and the Whale, and Muriel’s Wedding — and he shared a few of his secrets for approaching Ingrid’s story.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

So, how do you write a good dark comedy?

Matt Spicer

I think a good dark comedy is not afraid to be not funny. That’s really hard. There are scenes in Ingrid Goes West where there are no laughs.

You have to know when to hold back — when to go for something emotional, or something dramatic, or something scary, rather than just a joke. There's definitely hilarious shit that we left on the cutting room floor just because it tipped the scale too far toward silly comedy. Aubrey [Plaza] was very helpful with that: helping us manage the tone, and saying, "Look, I think this is funny, too, but I think we should cut it. Let us live in that moment with the character. We don’t always have to tap dance for the audience."

Director Matt Spicer with some of the cast of Ingrid Goes West.
Director Matt Spicer with some of the cast of Ingrid Goes West.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

It helps to have great weird characters to bounce off each other who don't have any jokes at all.

Matt Spicer

That's what I learned the most from Boogie Nights: All the humor in that movie comes from the characters, totally organically. That's what I loved about all the performances [in Ingrid Goes West], especially from O'Shea [Jackson Jr.] and Aubrey.

I love broad comedy — I think McGruber is one of the funniest films of all time, or Wet Hot American Summer. I'm not shitting on those movies at all. But I think when you're going for the tone that we're going for, it’s better to be grounded in some sort of truthfulness or character — something more than a funny joke or a funny line.

Alissa Wilkinson

Making an independent comedy must be different than making one with a big studio. Do you feel like the artistic freedom of independent filmmaking lends itself to dark comedy, more than broader comedy?

Matt Spicer

I think it's just a matter of stakes, right? When you're doing an independent comedy, or an independent movie in general, there's less money at stake. You have more freedom — or at least that's the way it should work.

But that's the trade-off. I take less money to make the film, but I get to make the film I wanted to make. My producers totally supported the film that we wanted to make every step of the way. It’s not like studios, where you’re spending $50 million, or $100 million, or $200 million — there's so much money at stake, so people are going to protect their investment more, which tends to homogenize the end product.

Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West.

I really respect directors like Christopher Nolan who are able to work inside the studio system and still maintain their authorship and their voice. I know a lot of people personally who entered that system, then got completely chewed up and spit out the other end. I don't know what separates Nolan from other people, where he's able to do it and so many other people aren't.

Dark comedies don’t make much money. So why should a studio bet money on something like that? It doesn't make money!

If you want to make risky films, you have to be responsible in terms of budget. It’s a business. But that doesn’t mean you can't make interesting stuff — you just have to not get all the toys that you want, and think more creatively about how to achieve what you want to do with the resources you have.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think Breaking Bad is probably the most commercially successful ...

Matt Spicer

... Dark comedy. Yeah, you're probably right.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s a really funny show, even though it’s a total tragedy.

Matt Spicer

It is. I love things that have those two sides, because that's life. That's why I loved Manchester By the Sea. It's like there's always these moments that are undercutting [the drama]. That feels like more like real life to me — you're at a funeral, and then, like, somebody farts, and everybody starts laughing. There's that moment that shouldn't be funny, but it is.

Pain plus time equals comedy. I remember seeing The Squid and the Whale, which is one of my favorite movies, in college with my girlfriend at the time. I was laughing the whole time at the movie, and she was crying during the whole movie. My parents got divorced; her parents are still together. I related to all of it — I was crying about it when I was a kid, but now I can laugh about it. But to her, it was a tragedy about this family being torn apart. She was like, “How can you think this is so funny? You're a sick person.”

Maybe I am a sick person. But I don't know what else can we do. It’s why we have comedy, right? To laugh at sad, painful things.