Bob Odenkirk is one of those eclectic actors constantly working to re-invent himself.
Odenkirk comes from an enviable comedy background that includes the likes of Saturday Night Live, Tim and Eric Awesome Show! Great Job! and The Birthday Boys, as well as crafting the sketch comedy masterpiece, Mr. Show with Bob and David. Beyond that, Odenkirk has also done just as strong a job standing out as a dramatic performer, starring as Saul Goodman in the exceptional Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul.
Odenkirk’s latest effort is the Netflix original film Girlfriend’s Day, which is a genre-mixing anomaly that very much feels like a synthesis of a lot of his work.
Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson (The American Scream) with an incredibly human touch, the film explores the quiet beauty of the people that write the words behind greeting cards. Odenkirk stars as Ray Wentworth, a writer desperately in need of rejuvenation, who is taken down a sinister path as suddenly the whole world begins to go greeting card crazy.
With Girlfriend’s Day coming out on February 14th, just in time for Valentine’s Day, we had the opportunity to talk with Bob Odenkirk and Michael Paul Stephenson about the world they’ve created here, the curious history of this project, and how music can ultimately hold so much power in a piece like this.
DEN OF GEEK: Let me start things off by saying I really loved this movie. It’s this odd sort of film that really denies being easily labeled.
BOB ODENKIRK: It is a very offbeat sort of movie. I’m not exactly worried about it. It is what it is. I guess my curiosity to you though is did it take you a little while to acclimate to things? Or were you pretty much on board from the beginning? And also, what did you feel like it was like while you were connecting to it? In other words, did you start liking it immediately, or did it take you like ten minutes to figure out where everything was at?
I liked it right from the start, but I liked even more that it morphs as it goes along. It becomes a very different movie by the time it ends. I enjoyed that there’s this creeping sense of dread and anxiety coursing through it and that these noir undertones start coming to the surface, too.
So I liked it from the beginning, but it does take some time to acclimate to, but isn’t that part of the fun? That’s what Ray’s going through at the time, so you should be in the same place that he is, trying to feel this all out as it’s happening.
MICHAEL PAUL STEPHENSON: Exactly
BOB ODENKIRK: Now that you bring that up, it makes me think about the music in the film. We all of a sudden realized that the music was going to clue you in to it all. Michael experimented with all different sorts of music on this thing, but once Bobby Tahouri, the film’s composer, got on board, things clicked into place. What we figured out is what you just said, that invoking that there is danger coming and that there is darkness to this story made you understand it all. The performances and everything benefit from it.
Even just the subject matter itself. If you had the same film with a very silly score to it, it’d play like a completely different movie because it still has these comedic ingredients to it.
BOB ODENKIRK: Yeah, it really was a revelation to us in that room to have that music come in that really invoked noir and darkness. It made us feel like, “Okay, we’re on solid ground. This movie is going to go somewhere and it’s going to become heavier.”
MICHAEL PAUL STEPHENSON: For me, it was just about creating a sense of real stakes in this very absurd world and trying to figure out how to treat it sincerely. There are real dangers in this silly world. Bob and I never went into this wanting to make people laugh. It was more about making people feel like there was something to care about in this world. That’s one of my favorite kinds of comedies. Those films that don’t feel like they’re trying to play a joke.
Was that very somber, melancholy tone always a part of the script or something that was stumbled into while changing it through the years?
BOB ODENKIRK: We had to discover that. Without that this thing would just float away. On its surface, if you try to explain this movie to somebody—there are greeting cards, and there’s murder—it sounds like the lightest fantasy ever. The whole thing would just float away. For things like the murder—the murder has to drive Ray. Ray has to care about that murder and get all fucked up inside because this guy dies in his arms.
So in order for us to connect with Ray and his struggle, everything in that world had to have a certain gravity to it. Also, that music invokes noir film in such a classic way, which just helps your brain to understand that this is a pulpy, noir tale and that there will be a bad guy, a gun, whatever. It’s weird because if you look at the page, you can imagine a broader, sillier performance version of this, but you wouldn’t care about that. So hopefully the way that we approached this, and in particular how Michael goes about shooting it, it can sustain you through how very silly it is.
You mention all those disparate elements of the film and I do think it leads to this Coen Brothers sort of quality, too. It’s this ultra-dry sense of humor that’s really hard to define.
MICHAEL PAUL STEPHENSON: Coen Brothers were a big touchstone. We’re obviously fans. Bob and I talked about them a lot. I would argue that the only difference is that sometimes the Coen Brothers don’t like their characters, but we want you to appreciate each of these weird characters from this world. There’s something genuine about all of them. So there’s a lot of Coen Brothers, but it’s also just classic to elevate your characters and make them larger than life.
BOB ODENKIRK: And there’s this dark undertow to it that allows you to do pretty madcap stuff. And the world still has stakes because of that darkness that runs throughout. And yes, Coen Brothers were a reference point throughout the entire movie, as was the movie Being There.
MICHAEL PAUL STEPHENSON: Chinatown was another big one.
BOB ODENKIRK: Chinatown, but in a different way. Tonally, it’s just such a weird tone. It’s the sort of thing that could confuse a general audience and have them unable to laugh at things. I think it’s why films like this don’t get approached very often. But you got it right—Coen Brothers, and Michael sees Being There in it. I’ve watched Being There more recently and it’s really silly. This person is really stupid and he ends up insulting the president with The Tonight Show being a part of it all. It’s ridiculous though. it could be a Mr. Show sketch. Yet they loaded it up with seriousness. Serious actors play it dead dry. So that was definitely a touchstone for us as well.
Well talking about all of the silliness in the film, the idea of this magic greeting card that’s treated like it can save the world is a really absurd concept. Do you see this story as an endearing, optimistic idea, or one that’s ultimately more satirical and a commentary on where the world is at?
BOB ODENKIRK: Well that might be something for the audience to figure out for themselves. I think Michael’s touch also comes in here. We ultimately want you to laugh with us and not at our characters. There’s certainly doing a lot of silly things and involved with some really silly dialogue and moments. The real challenge though is in how to play this out where you’re with them and you’re not laughing at them.
MICHAEL PAUL STEPHENSON: For me, a lot of it comes down to the writing. The guy that comes in and reminds us that nobody is better than nobody is fascinating. It wasn’t hard to find ways to respect these characters because they all have something that I can relate to on a very basic human level.
Lastly, what do the two of you hope people talk away from this film? What are you trying to get across here or are particularly proud about this project?
BOB ODENKIRK: I want guys and girls to sit down and watch the movie and they both like it equally. It’s got a little bit of nastiness and darkness mixed in with a sweetness. I also want it to be people’s favorite film behind Spinal Tap.
MICHAEL PAUL STEPHENSON: We all need more joy. We need to smile. We need to laugh. I want people to have that, but more than anything I want people to be surprised and say, “I didn’t expect that.” In terms of trying to get something across with this film? No. It’s about smiling, laughing, and enjoying this thing.
Girlfriend’s Day premieres on Netflix on February 14th, Valentine’s Day