The star and co-writer details how he uses his body to great comic effect in the absurd live action short.
Comedy is hard, but making people laugh without using words is even harder. Phil Burgers is no stranger to absurd comedy–his most famous character, Dr. Brown, is familiar to people all over the world–but he gets to be front and center in Kitao Sakurai’s The Passage (the short is available on the TBS website as well as at the bottom of this interview).
One of the great things about this short is the mystery around it. Burgers’ character is being chased by two morose and dangerous looking men, and he sets off on an unexpected journey that leads him through a Korean spa and a Mexican church. While other characters speak various languages around Burgers, he says nothing to the people around him or the audience. He’s like a doofy, schlubby Everyman who just keeps getting tossed around and abused to great comic effect. There is something very satisfying about watching a performer literally throw himself into every situation.
Burgers is careful and purposeful when describing his inspirations for The Passage. This could have been a clumsy short that centers on a doofy guy who makes bad choices, but Burgers’ face allows us to see that he is seriously taking everything in around him. He’s considering these different lives and paths. He doesn’t have to tell us with words–his eyes and body inform us about everything. This should truly be considered for Best Live Action Short at this year’s upcoming Academy Awards. If you’d like to see the short, it is available on the TBS website as well as at the bottom of this interview.
What was the inspiration for this short?
It was born out a couple disparate vignettes. I had an idea of being a drummer in a Mexican church, and then I had a separate idea where I’d meet a woman and then she left me in the middle of the ocean. The other one where I’m kind of hazed by these Korean men at the spa. All of those ideas existed separately first, and then I had some other ones that centered on me making some odd connection with somebody from a particular, foreign culture—one that’s different from my own. I was just sort of odd man out, and I was finding a connection with someone.
All of those ideas were coming to me at a time when I was living in Los Angeles, and I was living in this gentrified neighborhood of Echo Park. Just living a cushy life with a bunch of other hipster types. And then I’d drive my car through the city and I’d be exposed to these other cultures. But the exposition was very distant. I was never able to connect with them from the interior of my car. Or I’d be walking by a Mexican church on the sidewalk, but I was never really part of it. It was born out of seeing these cultures and intrigued by them but not necessarily able to become part of them. I think I’ve always like to travel, and when you’re traveling in another country, it’s easy to connect with people. For some reason, when I live in Los Angeles, it’s easier to get stuck in your groove and feel distance from those cultures when they are right next to you.
The short is billed as a “silent comedy.” Do you think we would benefit from having more comedies where people don’t speak? Just because of how we all are constantly talking over one another and shouting out opinions non-stop?
I don’t personally think people shouldn’t be making non-verbal work, you know? There’s a lot of really great dialogue out there, and there’s a lot of great drama and comedy right now that uses words. I personally feel you can do so much through action. I do think actions speak louder than words. To an extent, we are getting lost in saying too much and speaking too much. Or wanting to say too much. I’m not interested in that way of playing. I will revisit it more dialogue-based work. It’s also just using the medium of film—the visual medium. If I really wanted to hear people talk, I would just read a book and read conversations. We are using this visual medium, so why not use more action? And more images?
I was wondering if you were ever tempted to have your character speak at all. Other characters are speaking different languages, so I was curious if you would ever say anything.
That was just a creative limitation that we wanted to put on it. It’s fun to create these rules, you know? In past works I’ve done, I’ve done everything in one shot or I made a limitation/rule once that I couldn’t use any props. In this case, it was trying to tell this story without him saying anything in a way that didn’t feel contrived silent comedy. Placing me with all these foreign-speaking cultures was a natural way for me to not speak.
You obviously wouldn’t be able to then since you don’t speak the language.
Yeah. We always joked that in the end he would say, “Oh, can I have a burrito?” or “Can I have a sandwich?” It would also take away from the naiveté of the character. The minute you have a character speak—who hasn’t spoken the entire time—he becomes more intelligent, but he also becomes less pure. I think we wanted to maintain the purity of the character by having him be this bumbling guy.
You co-wrote this with Kitao Sakurai, who also directed it. How involved were both of you with the development of the writing? Do you only use a rough outline or do you do a lot of improv on set?
I brought of those vignettes and I shared them with Kitao. We picked out our favorite ones and fine tuned others. We combined a few. I had this idea that I would meet this Senegalese family at a party and we blended that with the woman on the boat. We took all of these and refined and honed them and played with them in our imagination and then we had this idea of these two guys chasing me. After that we just had to order it. It would be great if he went to this world to this world and this is how he gets there. We established the overall journey first. We knew the basic outline of each scene, but a lot of it came to shape through improvising with the cast a week before the shoot. A lot of it came to be on the day of shooting as well. I personally like to work in a more improvisational way but have as much preparation as possible. Ready to throw it all out the window is necessary.
The physical comedy in this has me laughing out loud. One moment that I love is when you run outside of the Mexican church and it cuts back to the two men struggling with that mannequin. It’s honestly some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen this entire year.
Yeah, I love that. That’s something we decided to add in during the editing. We wanted to keep their presence alive. I’m already in the Korean spa and you sort of forgot about them. And the leaf blower guy. So we wanted to bring their presence back to the audience. Watching it with an audience, that moment usually gets the biggest laugh.
Your character really goes through it the entire time. Do you really just respond to that style of acting? At some point you even have the wig and the fat suit on and you really get the crap beat out of you.
Definitely. I’m more of a body person than I am a mind person. Maybe some of my training comes from that? As a culture, we’re too in our heads and I think we all have these bodies that can feel so much and express so much. It’s a very natural way to be. For me, at least—to react with my body and not just with what I say. We can get into a deep, spiritual conversation about the body if we want to! It’s a more holistic approach than more of just a physical approach. Acting can be psychological, but it can also be playful and fun and using your body and not just your words. We designed this obstacle for my character to run and jump through—both physically and emotionally. And obstacle courses are fun! Maybe it’s the child in me that responding to that. To go through it, you have to use your mind and body.
You even have that in the scene where you’re rolling around trying to make Krystel’s character laugh by rolling around with the sandwich.
Since you are trying to lighten the mood there, it made me think of comedy in this turbulent world we’re in. With things as scary as they are, do you feel the role of comedy is more important?
Laughter is always important. The feeling of it and the releasing of tension. Today I feel like there is a lot of tension and fear and uptightness about everything. But I don’t think it’s more important now. We’ve always lived through dark times and we’ve always needed silliness and play. Maybe just an element of play is what we need…
How did it feel to premiere it at Sundance?
It was really cool to see it on a proper, big screen with a ton of people. It was impressive to be there with a lot of other great films. It was my first time there. I don’t know what it means in the grand scheme of things, but I’m so excited about it.
One of my favorite things about it is that it is so mysterious, and it doesn’t provide us with easy answers to everything. It’s not all neat and tidy where some shorts may feel rigid with their structure. I had no idea where this was going and that looseness is really awesome.
If you surrender to that, you can really enjoy it. Some people want something more grounded or relatable. It’s better if you’re on the fence and it pushes you over and you let yourself go. It’s a great experience to be had.
You said the word rigid and sometimes that’s what it feels like when I’m trying to write more grounded more material. I feel too rigid in it. I don’t feel goofy and loose. I feel too confined in these parameters that are no fun to play within. It’s striking the balance. I’d love to do something that people can hook into the story more easily—but then feel that looseness or that play. It is more dreamlike.
You know, that word kept popping into my head both times I watched it. The way you dream and you just fall into the next scenario or the next segment of your dream.
That’s great. But I also think that a majority of the population of the people who are going to see this have lived in modern cities. A more domesticated, quite civilized life. Quite western. A lot of the places I travel in this film are outside that every day world that most of us are used to. But they are no means fantasies or made up worlds. They exist. I am personally drawn to another way of life. That exists all throughout our planet. People are doing things that are really odd to us. If you start to explore those worlds, it may feel like you’re in a dream. That’s one dreamlike quality to it. It’s a dream that actual exists, but it’s a question of actually seeking it out.
Just because it’s foreign to someone that doesn’t mean someone experience it in their every day life.
Or if we want to experience it ourselves, we can. It’s not so far out of reach. It doesn’t have to exist in our dreams.