In C.O.G., the first-ever movie adaptation of a David Sedaris story that premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival, there’s a scene in which a proselytizing Christian named Jon (Denis O’Hare) counsels Samuel, his young fine-crafts protege (Jonathan Groff) – and non-believer – that only God can make him happy. “[Happiness] is not going to drop in your lap,” he says. “You have to ask for it.”
If Samuel’s only half-listening, it’s advice that 29-year-old writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez took to heart. He pursued Sedaris – delicately but aggressively – even showing up at one of Sedaris’s book readings in Irvine, Calif., to present the best-selling author and NPR humorist with a copy of his first movie, 2010’s Easier With Practice. The gamble paid off. “I liked Easier With Practice and then I just liked how enthusiastic he was,” said Sedaris, who chatted with reporters after seeing the movie for the first time. “There’s a way that people [in Hollywood] talk and you just get the idea that it’s just bullsh-t, and he didn’t sound like that. He seemed like the real thing to me; he seemed like an artist.”
In the movie, which is based on a story from Sedaris’s 1997 collection, Naked – C.O.G. stands for Child of God – Groff’s conceited college student heads to Oregon to “get his hands dirty” on an apple farm and see how the other half lives. But his intellectual prowess quickly proves a liability and his real education to the ways of the world is alternately helped and hindered by the farm’s curmudgeonly owner (Dean Stockwell), a romantically interested co-worker (Midnight in Paris’ Corey Stoll), and Jon, who builds clunky jade clocks shaped like the state of Oregon.
Fans of Sedaris’s will swoon at the movie’s first act, especially when Samuel encounters some inconsiderate and wacky bus passengers during his trip out West. But Alvarez sold Sedaris on his own interpretation of the story, and the essayist granted him complete control. “I never wanted him to feel like he had to check in with me,” he said. “I didn’t care who he cast, I didn’t care to read the script.”
Alvarez’s artistry and enthusiasm weren’t the only reasons he succeeded where Hollywood had failed for so many years. Many of Sedaris’s most famous stories are self-deprecating not only about him, but his family, and Sedaris was understandably protective about how they might be portrayed on screen. “The thing about this story was that my family’s not in it,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to be portrayed as an unsympathetic character in a movie; it’s another thing for my sister Lisa. She didn’t sign up for it. That was the key really, that it didn’t involve them.”
Alvarez’s vision got him the job, but it didn’t make the project any easier to piece together. He resisted pressure to cast bigger stars and promised Sedaris that he would not use any narration in the film – no matter that fans of Sedaris’s radio readings would likely expect it. “I turned down financing because of it,” said Alvarez. “My first promise was that I would have no voiceover because I would just be stealing his jokes.”
So how did Sedaris enjoy seeing a version of his life unfold onscreen? (You won’t be surprised that he scribbled notes on a pad during the show.) “It was haunting … and it’s painful to be reminded of how pretentious and horrible I was,” he admitted during the post-screening audience Q&A.
But he seemed pleased with the overall result, especially with aspects of the film that deviated from his writing. His favorite laugh in the film was not his own, and the casting of the buff Stoll as Curly, the friendly co-worker who becomes sexually aggressive and nearly rapes Samuel, won a ringing endorsement. “If [the real] Curly looked like Corey, I would still be living in Oregon,” he cracked to the crowd, “… and be wearing adult diapers.”
Alvarez said that he has no intention of now raiding the rest of the Sedaris catalog, but future filmmakers can thank him for paving the way. “If anybody else makes a movie based on something [that I wrote], I feel like I have my template of how that relationship [would work]” said Sedaris. “That you meet somebody, and you like them, and you have faith in them, and you think, “Oh great, I’d love to see that [movie].”