Filmmaker David Schlussel On His Tribeca Film Fest Debut

By Abby Schreiber

Setup, Punch Teaser

In the thirty second teaser for short film Setup, Punch, we see a nervous young man (played by Elijah Wood) stare at an engagement ring, splash water on his face, and join his date (Alia Shawkat) at a table inside a stand-up comedy club. And, just before the clip ends, Wood's character takes the stage to perform a stand-up routine of his own. It's a cryptic teaser that, like the title of the film itself (which refers to a term found in both comedy and boxing), is clearly setting the audience up for a larger punchline (given the ring, it's a good guess that a marriage proposal will factor in somewhere). Though we'll all have to wait for the punch until the film premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival, in the meantime, we talked to its director, David Schlussel, whose previous film work includes making music videos for Madonna and Mandy Moore. Below, he tells about the film, recalls his own foray into stand-up (the film, he tells us, is even based on a real-life experience of his own), and shares how he cast Elijah Wood and Alia Shawkat in his debut short.

What details can you share about the film?

It's about a guy who tries to [intersect] his real life with his stand-up life and he does something very different onstage and has to deal with the repercussions of that choice.

Tell me about your film. How did you get Alia Shawkat and Elijah Wood to sign on?

I used to do stand-up comedy and the [film's plot] was something that happened to me to when I was onstage and I always wanted to make it into a film. My wife is a make-up artist and she's been grooming Elijah for years and years and we realized that Elijah and I both have an affinity for stand-up comedy. After I wrote the short film, I asked Elijah, "Would you read it?" and after he read it, he called me and said, "God it's great!" and there was this awkward moment when I had to bridge that friendship [gap] and say, "Would you ever think about playing the character?" He said, "Yeah I'd love to!" and I was thrilled.

Then we were trying to find the right girl. We went back-and-forth and couldn't really find the right girl and then someone mentioned Alia and I was like, "Oh my god she's perfect." And my wife had drawn a picture of the characters awhile ago and when we looked back, [the drawings] look like Elijah and Alia. We tried to get her but apparently she was in New York doing this cool art show [when we were shooting]. I made a very passionate plea to her manager and I called Elijah and asked him to call her. So he called and we heard from her team that she was in. That was such a life lesson -- if you're really passionate and you just go for it, good things come from it.

You mentioned that the film is based on your own experiences as a stand-up comedian. How did you get started doing comedy?

I've always been a stand-up junkie. I was always that guy who, no matter what someone was talking about, said, "Oh there's this comic who does a good joke about that." I moved to L.A. and was trying to write and direct. I took a UCLA class called 'Performing Stand-Up Comedy' taught by an older comedian that's kind of well-known in stand-up circles. I thought, "Oh this will really help my writing." And I thought, "I'll find someone like Larry David did with Jerry Seinfeld. I'll find someone who's really funny and then I'll write jokes for them and it will be wonderful." So the first day, the teacher talked about stand-up and then he said, "Oh by the way, next class you're going to have to get up on stage for five minutes and perform."  I walked up to him and was like, "No, no, no. I want to find someone to write for, I don't want to be onstage." And he said, "Well if you're in this class next week, you're going to be going on stage."

I wrote two jokes and I told the first one -- it flat lined. Not a laugh. But the second one got laughs and it was like the craziest drug I've ever experienced. And I thought, "I want more of that." I started to perform in different clubs in L.A. but I've never really found my voice as a comic, which is the key to it all.

What stand-up comedians do you most admire?

Louis CK is great. Richard Pryor is a genius at telling a story. He will take so long to set up a joke and be comfortable being onstage for that long without getting a joke and he would allow the energy to die and talk and talk and then he'd hit a punchline and [there'd be an] explosion.  John Mulaney is also a very funny storyteller, kind of in the vein of Pryor. He's been killing it lately. Godfrey, who was in our film, is so well-versed in comedy and knows how to play it so well. Mitch Hedberg was amazing -- I still listen to his stuff a lot. He would just hone every word to perfection to make a one line joke.

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