Nearly twenty years after his starring role in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, Owen Kline makes his feature film debut behind the camera with Funny Pages, as writer, director, and editor.
In the dark A24 comedy, Daniel Zolghadri plays Robert, an aspiring cartoonist who, against his parents’ wishes, drops out of high school. With a one-track mind of wanting to be an artist, he brings chaos into his life, inadvertently pushing away his family and friends in favor of connecting with Wallace (Matthew Maher), a volatile former assistant color separator who worked at a major comic book publishing company.
Kline hadn’t set out to be an actor like his parents Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline. He knew early on he wanted to work behind the scenes instead. But when he read for the role as Frank in Baumbach’s film fresh into his teens, he caught the attention of the famed filmmaker. “I wasn’t hesitant to [act] but I really wanted to be a filmmaker then,” explains Kline, from his apartment in Queens. “The reason I [decided to star in the film] was mainly because I loved Bob Yeoman’s work, who shot it.” Young Kline was in awe of Yeoman’s work as a cinematographer on set, seeing him as “another actor in the scene” because of how artfully his camera work added depth to the shots by shooting it hand-held—a shooting style he took on for his own film.
Kline doesn’t deem Funny Pages to be as autobiographical as The Squid and the Whale was for Baumbach, but it’s a story that’s closely tied to himself. “When I was a kid, all I really wanted to do was write comedy and create a cartoon character—or create a character in a newspaper,” says Kline. He wasn’t interested in superhero comics like other kids (“They just seem like they were made by anyone”), instead feeling more inspired by the funny page in the newspaper, admiring cartoonists like Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz and Mort Walker, the artist behind the Beetle Bailey strips.
Though Kline doesn’t consider himself to be a professional cartoonist, it’s a passion that’s carried on since then. In 2011, he made a comic book zine, Whippers & Snappers, that featured a two-page strip called “Robert in the Boiler Room.”
“Starting with a comic was helpful because it’s like taking a scene and translating [it into a different medium], which is more behavioral and visual,” he explains.
In the comic, a teenager is given a tour of a nightmarish apartment and, as a twist, he decides to move in immediately. It was the genesis of Funny Pages, with the cartoon coming to life in the film. “That’s sort of verbatim the scene in the movie, where he tours the boiler room and moves in,” says Kline. “The joke of the comic was more that you don’t understand why he’s so excited by the whole thing and not put off by it. Originally it was more stone-faced, and that was sort of an impetus for the character. You couldn’t exactly tell where he was coming from with everything that he was doing.”
In the film, Robert’s actions come off at times as nonsensical and stubborn. Rather than applying to an art school and living comfortably in an affluent suburban neighborhood, he moves into the boiler room, never mind that he has to share a room with a stranger. But even when things keep going wrong, Robert masks his insecurities and cluelessness with a know-it-all attitude. For Kline, it was challenging to find an actor who could peel back the layers to the character. “Other kids tried to read this character as more like an attitude-y asshole, like it was Bart Simpson or something. It didn’t feel right. And when [Zolghadri] read it, there was a certain level of self-hatred or something in his demeanor that he accessed for the character,” he recalls.
When Kline began writing the script for Funny Pages, it became a cathartic way for him to “tap into a level of frustration and bitterness” he felt as a young adult in that confusing transition period at the end of college. “I was trying to figure out how to communicate my frustration with myself and I thought my generation was becoming,” says Kline. He took inspiration from the British kitchen sink film movement and Mike Lee’s early television work, while adding his own touch of morbid humor.
But for a while, the film was stuck in its early stage.
“I wrote this script and for a few years I couldn’t get anyone to read it. When people did read it, they were offended by it or didn’t get it. People just didn’t understand why I would want to make a movie like this with some of the material in it,” he recalls.
That changed when he asked Josh Safdie, whom he’s been friends with since his teenage years, to read it. Kline was merely expecting notes from the fellow filmmaker and some advice on how to get someone to finance the film, but to his surprise, Safdie decided to produce it alongside his brother, Benny.
The wait paid off, and he had the opportunity to premiere the film at Cannes. “It was a complete shock to my system,” admits Kline.
Tatiana Tenreyro is a pop culture journalist whose work has appeared on The A.V. Club, SPIN, The FADER, and Billboard. She’s a former member of the Weezer fan club and shamefully still owns the shirt—just don’t tell anyone. You can challenge her hot takes on Twitter @tatianatenreyro.