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Midway through B.J. Novak's directorial debut, Vengeance, there's a scene that's guaranteed to inspire gasps — and dark laughs — from unsuspecting audiences. And the writer-director of the heady new thriller, which explores the fault lines that routinely trigger the divide between Red and Blue America, tells Yahoo Entertainment that reaction is 100 percent intentional. "If I had my version of an 'Applause' sign that I could hold up to the audience, it would say 'Gasp — dark laugh,'" Novak says of how he hopes viewers respond to Vengeance, which opens in theaters July 29 after premiering at the Tribeca Festival earlier this year. "It's a moment that reminds you, 'Hey, it's complicated out there.'"
The scene in question involves a national pop culture landmark that both sides of America thought they could agree on: the Six Flags theme park chain. In the film, Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a New York-based journalist who decides to turn an extended trip to Texas to attend an ex-girlfriend's funeral into an epic Serial-style podcast when he starts to suspect that her untimely death by drug overdose may not have been accidental. During his sojourn in the Lone Star State, the dyed-in-the-wool Blue Stater is exposed to Red State values and history that he wasn't previously aware of.
Case in point: Six Flags, which opened its flagship park in Arlington, Tex., in 1961 and still maintains its corporate headquarters there today, even as its footprint has expanded from coast to coast with parks in California, Illinois and New York. Since he's within driving distance of a Six Flags park himself, Ben knows all about its attractions, but what he doesn't know is the origin of the company's name. As he comes to learn, "Six Flags" refers to the number of flags that have flown over the region throughout its long history, including France, Spain, Mexico, the United States, Texas... and the short-lived Confederate States of America flag during the Civil War.
In fact, the Confederate flag still flew at the Six Flags Over Texas location — as well as two other parks, another in Texas and one in Georgia — as recently as 2017. That's when the parent company, Six Flags Entertainment, finally replaced them with standard American flags amid a nationwide push to remove Confederate symbols and iconography in the wake of the Charlottesville riots sparked by "Unite the Right" white supremacist rally. At the time of their removal, many people were genuinely shocked to learn that the Confederate flag had ever been displayed at Six Flags, and Novak says that remains the case five years later.
"That's one of the first things people ask me about after the movie — 'Is that really true about Six Flags?'" he says. "I don't know if it's well known, but the logic is right in front of our faces. This is a complicated country, and what I wanted to show in the film is what's great about it and also what's uncomfortable about it. That scene certainly sums up something that is both surprising and complicated."
Back in 2017, Six Flags was reportedly reluctant to remove the Confederate state flag, and instead sought to distinguish between the "Stars and bars" flag they displayed and the battle flag more commonly carried by white supremacist organizations. "Six Flags Over Texas continues to fly the Confederate States of America Flag and does not fly or sell any variation of the Confederate Battle Flag," a park official told the Houston Chronicle. The company reversed course not long afterwards, and has largely remained silent about the flag's removal since.
Asked whether he's expecting Six Flags to comment now that his film is stirring up a story they'd clearly rather forget, Novak simply shrugs. "What can they do? I don't think they'd want to make it a bigger story. But I also think the stakes of everything have raised so much in the past five years for better or for worse. The stakes were a lot different 20 years ago, I'm sure."
For his part, Novak says he's not a regular Six Flags customer... but that's not because of any political disagreements. "My one phobia is rollercoasters," he reveals, laughing. "I can't even go near a rollercoaster! Even if it's a ride for 5-year-olds at Disneyland, I have to ask: 'Does it have a drop?' And if they say, 'No,' I follow up by saying, 'Where do they take your picture on the ride?' If they start to answer, I'm like, 'I knew it!' They only take your picture if there's a drop. I'm just terrified of rollercoasters for some reason."
In a lively conversation, Novak discusses what making Vengeance revealed to him about the Red State-Blue State divide, casting Ashton Kutcher in a very different role, and why he still has a lot of affection for his "lost soul" Office alter ego, Ryan Howard.
The Six Flags scene is an example of the film's overall thesis that Red Staters and Blue Staters don't really know each other. How much did you know about Texas before you started making Vengeance?
Nothing! [Laughs] All I had was an open heart; I wanted to learn and I didn't want to go and tear it apart or make fun of it, which is what my character would have done. Obviously, I also didn't want to glorify anything if I didn't feel it should be glorified. Like Ben, I knew nothing about Texas — I'd only been to Austin for SXSW and to Dallas to visit a friend, but I had not been anywhere else in this vast state and that excited me. That also meant that I could really discover things the way my character would.
You're originally from Massachusetts, which has its conservative pockets. Did you grow up around any Republicans?
Not at all. I've always lived in Blue bubbles: Massachusetts is incredibly Blue, and Los Angeles is incredibly Blue. So it's really been a learning experience whenever I get a chance to be in a place where people don't think like they do where I'm from.
What's something that immediately surprised you when you were on the ground in Texas making the movie?
It was the friendliness. Texas has this larger-than-life mythos of toughness — you know, "Don't mess with Texas," and that sort of stuff. And while there's some truth to all of that, it was also the friendliest place I have ever been. I've never been more welcomed by strangers, and I was so nervous to go there! I thought they'd see the obvious Blue State Hollywood guy that they had nothing in common with. And I'm sure that they did see that, but they didn't care. That was a contrast that I put front and center in the movie.
You mentioned that you didn't want to tear Texas apart, but the state is also passing strict anti-abortion and election laws — policies that must be anathema to you.
The important thing in terms of the movie I was making was to focus on character. There's a scene where Ben and his ex-girlfriend's family get into a fight outside of a Whataburger, and that was a moment where it felt like the larger political argument burst into the open. But it was really an emotional fight where the family is breaking apart. The important thing was to play the emotion, not the political debate.
Do you expect the country to find common ground in the years ahead, or are things going to get worse?
I think both can be true: I think the division will get worse, and I still hope for common ground, because deep down everyone knows there's no other way out. The only way out is through.
Speaking of Whataburger, you use that fast food chain a lot in the movie. Have they reached out to you?
We've been friendly since they saw the cut, but we had to fight to use Whataburger in the movie. They should be paying us, because I think it's the best Whataburger ad, but they did not. [Laughs] Not only did they not pay us, we had to really scrounge for permission until we got a local franchisee to vouch for us and let us film there. But I thought it was key because we've all seen the local diner being the spot in a Texas movie, and it was important to me that we reflect not just mythical Texas, but modern-day Texas. And these days, a chain restaurant is your local restaurant, so let's be honest about that and let's show that in all its glory.
Since the movie is a Blumhouse production, I kept expecting a Get Out-style horror twist, but the film feels much closer to something like Chinatown in terms of its central mystery.
Absolutely. The Long Goodbye is another movie I referenced a lot, where you have this unlikely lead character in this mystery situation. I think there are a couple twists that are worthy of the Blumhouse name, but in general Jason Blum was more attracted to this because it was daring and because it was a first-time filmmaker. That's what interests Blumhouse as much as horror.
I specifically got John Huston-in-Chinatown vibes off of Ashton Kutcher, which is never a comparison I expected to make.
That's very interesting! I didn't think of that model in particular; the important thing for me was that Ashton have this pivotal role in the center of the movie where you underestimate him and he ends up turning everything on its head. I thought, "Who better to do that than Ashton Kutcher?" He's a guy who is underestimated as a likable romcom lead, but in fact has this incredible depth of charisma. And Ashton boosted the whole production by the fact that he was an ally and came with ideas and suggestions. He was really there to be one with the project, and when such a big star is there and willing to help like that, it inspires everybody.
You've known him for a long time — have you been surprised to see him get so political and become a vocal advocate for causes like Ukraine?
Well, his wife [Mila Kunis] is from Ukraine, so that I certainly understand. He's always been a very outspoken and opinionated guy, and I love that he is truly himself in public as well as private.
John Mayer plays Ben's friend in one early scene. How did that cameo come about?
Well, I was thinking, "Ben's life is going fine in one way, but he's also not as cool or smart as he thinks he is." And that reminded me of times in my own life, because I happen to be friends with John, and whenever I'm hanging out with him I feel like we're cool and smart! [Laughs] He and I are close enough where I was able to direct him and give him ideas for improv where we could really lean into the self-parody versions of ourselves where we think we're smart, but we really have a lot to learn.
Ben isn't the most likable protagonist: How much did you want to play into that in your performance?
I didn't want people to hate him. I really wanted him to be the kind of guy in your own family that you're rolling your eyes at because he is a little lame and a little selfish, but he's still in your family. I kind of wanted him to start in that place, so that we'd have somewhere to go.
It does feel like you're satirizing aspects of millennial and Gen Z culture through him at some points.
I'm not really looking to make fun of anyone, but I do think the important thing in the movie is dig under why people are acting in these ways. Ben does want to say something about America; yes, he's doing it for his own ego and other selfish reasons, but the spirit of the film is why are we acting like this? Another example is Dove Cameron's character, who wants to be this social media superstar. Ben teases her about it, but Ashton's character explains: "It just means she knows she's somebody, but doesn't know who yet." So we may joke about them on the surface, but the bigger questions are: "Why is Ben selfish?" and "Why is Dove superficial?" That to me is a fresher take than the obvious judgmental one.
I was always struck by how committed you were to making Ryan one of the sleaziest, most unlikable characters on The Office. He almost feels like a leftover from the original British series, as the rest of the American cast tended to become a lot nicer as the show went on.
Things kind of evolved with all the characters in terms of what felt right. With Ryan, he was really a lost soul who tried out a lot of different personas and couldn't quite break through in business or as a person. He tried on different hats, and I think a lot of peoples' favorite hat was the corporate douche. That was fun to play — every actor loves playing a villain.
Was part of your reason for acting in Vengeance to escape the shadow of Ryan?
No, I don't mind the shadow of Ryan unless people think that I'm really like that in real life! [Laughs] The film has a hard tone to capture, so I thought I would play Ben myself to at least try and convey the tone. Also, it's much easier when you don't have to schedule around anybody else's schedule! But in terms of the shadow of The Office, I'll always be proud if that's the first thing people know about me, because it just means the show meant so much to people. So I wasn't looking to escape anything: It was about looking to grow and try new things.
I do have to ask about Ryan's appearance in the series finale of The Office where he and Mindy Kaling's Kelly run off together and abandon his infant son at Dwight and Angela's wedding. That's a pretty dark ending — was it your pitch?
I was in conversation with [Office showrunner] Greg Daniels about that. I think the idea probably came from him, but I loved it. I know that I improvised Ryan's final line, which is "I finally mastered commitment" as he's running away from his baby! But I thought that was an incredible balance of romantic and dark. Ryan and Kelly literally run off into the sunset together, except it's also as they abandon a baby.
Have fans ever complained to you about it?
No, they've never said that to me. They tend to talk about "fire safety" as it were. [Laughs]
How does Vengeance speak to the kinds of films you're hoping to make going forward?
I like making things that have a sense of humor, but don't need to only be a comedy. One thing I loved about The Office is that it's a drama that happens to have a lot of comedy in it. You fully invest in Jim and Pam's romance and in Michael's loneliness — it all feels completely realistic, and that's why all the jokes are so much funnier, because they come from character and from stories that you care about. So I want to take that lesson into everything I make. You know, Jordan Peele is the best because he doesn't make comedies at all, and yet he is one of the great comic talents out there. It's a way to wrestle with big ides and things that matter in a way that's really entertaining to watch.
Vengeance opens July 29 in theaters.