B.J. Novak explores culture of false connections in 'Vengeance'

B.J. Novak wrote, directed and stars in "Vengeance." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI
1 of 5 | B.J. Novak wrote, directed and stars in "Vengeance." File Photo by Christine Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, July 29 (UPI) -- Writer, director and star B.J. Novak said he intended his film Vengeance, in theaters Friday, to ask questions he cannot answer.

"The film is more of an exploration than a lesson," Novak told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.


Novak plays Ben, a New York City journalist who travels to Texas when he finds out Abilene, a woman he barely knew, died of a drug overdose. Abilene's family found his contact in her phone and assumed Ben was her boyfriend.

Ben gets the idea for a podcast when Abilene's brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), suggests that his sister was murdered. Ben records Ty's quest for vengeance as a podcast to show how people invest conspiracy theories because the truth is too mundane.

In satirizing podcast culture and conspiracy theories, Novak was careful never to make fun of Ty and Abilene's family. Novak said the film attempts to dissect the generalizations in which the media trades.


"Everyone in the country is a full human being, and we don't get to see that from a distance on social media or on cable news," Novak said. "The movie is really about how surprised we can all feel when we realize that everybody is a real, complex human being."

The very misunderstanding that leads Ty to call Ben is an indictment of the social media generation. Novak said it is common for single people to add contacts to their phone knowing little about a person except for where they met.

"We really reduce these people to characters that we can choose from on our phone and we don't know how they feel about us, either," Novak said. "Even dating, the people become more hypothetical or symbols than real people."

Though Vengeance focuses on podcasts and phone contacts, Ben comes from a world of social media, too. The nature of Twitter and Instagram has found its way into Ben's real-world behavior.

For example, Ben answers every affirmative question by saying "100%" instead of "yes." Novak said Ben is speaking the way people often speak on Twitter.

"You say 'LOL,' you're not laughing and you say 100% -- it's not nearly 100%," Novak said. "It just means 'sure.'"


Novak said Ben's attitude comes from a culture trained to exaggerate daily.

"The only way to replicate the feeling of connection online is to get attention," Novak said. "So we exaggerate these things to get attention, and then that feels like a connection."

Novak said viewers of Vengeance would be correct to see through Ben's exaggerated confidence. The film introduces Ben talking to a friend (John Mayer) about his noncommittal view of relationships.

"These are guys who think they've figured out the world and definitely are not as cool or as smart as they think they are," Novak said.

Vengeance uses the extreme examples of a death and mistaken identity to illustrate how false Ben's supposed connections are. Novak said he hopes viewers think about their own online interactions.

"I do personally feel that we spend too much time expressing our political views and we end up exhausting each other and ourselves," Novak said. "I wish that we spent more time talking about art and sports and family."

Vengeance is the first movie that Novak wrote and directed. He was a writer and director of the American The Office, along with playing the character Ryan on the series, and also wrote and directed for The Mindy Project, on which he also appeared.


Novak created the anthology series The Premise, which aired last year. In directing Vengeance, he said he was inspired by his Inglourious Basterds director, Quentin Tarantino.

"While no one can be as brilliant as Tarantino, we can all express ourselves with the excitement that he does," Novak said. "I thought that's definitely the way to direct -- to lead people through your own enthusiasm."

The enthusiasm Novak showed his Vengeance crew was of a more sincere variety than he depicted in Ben. Novak said he respected that camera, focus and sound departments, for example, knew more about their specialty than he did.

"I can't do what they can do," Novak said. "All I can do is have them understand the tone that we're all working on."

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