The director/actor talks about making the film on DV, dealing with the Ratings Board and making the book Everyone Poops into a movie

Groundbreaking films often get made outside the normal studio or even independent financing system, because that’s the only way they will get made. Paul Provenza knows this firsthand. Teaming up with esteemed comedian/magician Penn Jillette (of the famous comedy/magic duo Penn and Teller), these two comics took a joke called “The Aristocrats” and made a film out of it. Heavily inspired by a jazz musician’s ability to riff on one another’s music, Provenza and Jillette took this idea, grabbed some DV cameras and began shooting their movie. The premise was simple, each comedian would start off telling the same joke, but then take it in a whole other (often dirtier) direction.

Four years later, The Aristocrats was a completed film that played at Sundance and then opened nationwide. Banned by the AMC theater chain, this movie was very honest in it’s marketing. If you like dirty jokes you should watch this movie. If you don’t... STAY AWAY. On the eve of it’s DVD release, Paul Provenza, the film’s director, sat down and talked with MovieWeb about his “obscene,” little film.

How did you and Penn Jillette come up with the idea for this film?

Paul Provenza: It was a fever dream. We always get together and talk about art and the things that were being done, and Penn got deep into jazz at one point and was like really obsessed with it. He’d talk about it in ways that I really couldn’t understand. He was talking about jazz and I could hear him talking about comedy. I mentioned that and we started talking about the similarities between jazz and comedy. One of the things that struck us was how jazz artists will often do the same piece of material. They’ll do their versions of a standard or what have you, and you never get to see that kind of thing in comedy. We felt, “I wonder if you did that... if you could see the relationship a little more clearly?” That it’s the singer not the song as we put it.

So we said, “What if we took a standard in comedy and had everybody do their interpretations of it?” And we thought that could be an interesting thing to see. And of course, The Aristocrats is perfect for it.

How long did the entire production take? From you guys saying, “Lets make this movie” to having the completed film?

Paul Provenza: We shot for about four and half years and edited for about another two years. Those both overlapped a little bit, those time frames. Basically, we started shooting in early 2001. We debuted at Sundance in early 2005.

Did you and Penn have experience shooting DV or editing digital video before you got started on this project?

Paul Provenza: No. We had no idea what we were doing. In fact, the first night of shooting we had called a bunch of people to get together and meet us at the Improv. Bobby Slayton, Rick Overton, Emo Phillips, a handful of people, we said, “Just meet us at the Improv we’re gonna do this crazy thing, lets see what happens?” We got cameras and microphones that day, and the first night of shooting I had the camera in one hand and the manual in the other. (Laughs) I was turning pages with my teeth. We had no idea what we were doing. None whatsoever.

Now, were you surprised at all the controversy that this film garnered or did you pretty much expect it?

Paul Provenza: I actually expected a lot more! I was delighted to see that people got it the way we intended it, which was that it’s really a very loving and sweet movie; ironically. We didn’t know if it would ever get out there. We knew that if it did it would prove to be more easily accepted than conventional wisdom would tell us. The bottom line is everybody tells dirty jokes.

Yup.

Paul Provenza: Harvard professors and truck drivers, you know? Everybody tells dirty jokes. We just knew that it spoke to something everybody could relate to. If you like a good dirty joke, if you like comedy, you can’t not like this movie, you know? So we knew that it would do well if it ever got out there. The controversy was really very, very limited. Most of it came from the AMC Theater Chain. Which is a private company that has a right to show whatever they want; or not. Of course, the hypocrisy of what they choose to show but make an issue out of our movie speaks volumes. That’s really neither here nor there.

For the most part, the movie was generally really well accepted. There wasn’t anybody that made a real fuss. In fact, we expected to get a lot of flack from Christian Groups, and the truth is, there were about three or four Christian websites, they spend all the time talking about the movie, just talking about how horrible this stuff is that goes on and how awful the language is and everything, but they almost all, towards the end, say, “You’ll definitely laugh. It’s really funny, but is this the kind of thing we want, blah, blah, blah...” Even they couldn’t refuse the fact that it’s just hilarious.

The film seemed very honest in it’s marketing. It’s like you said, “If you like a dirty joke watch this film, if you don’t... don’t.” Was that something you guys agreed upon in the beginning? Or, did something happen to make you be so honest in the film’s presentation?

Paul Provenza: No... that’s a really good question. By the way, kudos to you, that’s a question nobody’s really asked before. That’s been hard to come by so a little pat on the back to you there.

No, we decided right from the get go... when we were making the movie we weren’t sure it was a movie. We didn’t know exactly what it was. We didn’t know if it was this weird little art project, or something we would just do to give to friends. It was just a big experiment for us. Even at that point, we were like, “If this does get out, if there is a movie, we want it to be that way.” And when THINKFilm came on as a distributor, the first conversation we had was that, “This is very important to us.” For a number of reasons.

First of all, we chose to send it out unrated, because we think the rating system is a sham and we think it’s all political; it’s all money based. If you’re a big studio and you’ve got a million movies coming down the pike, big blockbusters and everything, you can get things swayed a little bit your way; here or there, or whatever. It’s all bogus, you know? But the intent of it is fine, it’s just to let people know what to expect.

So we said, “We want to send it out unrated because we don’t wanna play that system. We think it’s garbage. We don’t want to support it, we don’t want to be a part of it, but we understand the intent, so we’re gonna be more honest than they are.” When you see a PG-13 or an R or an NC-17, what does that really mean? It’s different from movie to movie because it’s so arbitrary. We came out and we were very clear. “Unspeakable vulgarity.” “Amazing profanity.” And if that’s something you’re uncomfortable with this is not a movie for you.

And that was motivated by the fact that we make movies for people to enjoy themselves at. I’m paraphrasing Penn here because he’s very articulate on this issue, the way he puts it is, “We’re not Michael Moore where we think we’re gonna effect an election and then change the world. We’re not Mel Gibson where we want you to start believing in our imaginary friends. We’re just a bunch of guys having a good time and if you wanna come and join us you’re more than welcome too, but we really don’t care what you think or feel. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like dirty jokes, there’s nothing wrong with that. Fine. No problem.” We’re not trying to hit you over the head. We’re not trying to say, “You’re wrong for not liking dirty jokes.” It’s not my Mom’s cup of tea; there’s nothing wrong with my Mom.

So we don’t have that kind of attitude. Our attitude is, “There’s room on the shelf for everything. We want to put this out and if it’s your kind of thing come and enjoy it, and hopefully you’ll think it’s a good experience for that kind of thing. If it’s not your kind of thing there’s plenty of other movies for you, and that’s the way it should be, you know?” Our attitude about it was really without any agenda whatsoever. It was really guileless. We really were just having a great time and sharing it with strangers. Allowing them to come into a very rarefied world and feel a part of it for a little while and just enjoy it.

So we were very, very clear about what to expect and we were really, really specific about what to expect, because we didn’t want anybody going to the movie not knowing that that’s what they were in for. We didn’t want people to go and not enjoy themselves. We wanted them to go and enjoy themselves.

Is there any talk of you and Penn making any more movies based around stand-up comic inside jokes?

Paul Provenza: (Laughs) Yeah, we’re working on, “Two jews walk into a bar...” (Laughs somemore) No, we’re talking about doing some other stuff together. Not like The Aristocrats, very different, but the kind of stuff we’re talking about doing is really creative and really inventive, and the kind of stuff that, like The Aristocrats, you can’t pitch ahead of time. You just gotta do it yourself and say, “This is what it was we couldn’t explain.” We’ve got a few projects like that we’re talking about. There’s all kinds of things coming down the pike.

Lastly, can you talk about your new project Everyone Poops?

Paul Provenza: (Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know when that’s gonna happen, that might take a bunch of years too. As you can see, everybody said The Aristocrats couldn’t be done. When it was done, somebody said, “The Aristocrats is to comedy and movies as ColdFusion is to physics. It’s just something that’s not supposed to be able to be done.” And I love that.

Everyone Poops is the largest selling children’s book in publishing history. It’s all over the world... and nobody’s made a movie of it. And people don’t make a movie of it because they say it can’t be done, and that’s what I’m gonna give it a shot at. (Laughs)

The Aristocrats is available on DVD through Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

Dont't forget to also check out: The Aristocrats

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Evan Jacobs