PARK CITY, Utah — Since the ‘90s, bestselling humorist David Sedaris has given Hollywood the Heisman. Anyone endeavoring to adapt his wryly observed personal essays into feature films was greeted with an automatic no, a byproduct of Sedaris’ enduring apathy toward mounting movies.
All that changed, however, when director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 29, slipped a copy of his 2009 indie phone sex drama “Easier With Practice” to the author at an Irvine book reading along with a note laying out his hopes to adapt Sedaris’ autobiographical essay “C.O.G.” (from the 1997 essay collection “Naked”) for the screen. The writer, who never met a quirk he didn’t like, eventually checked out the little-seen movie. And, impressed by Alvarez’s Gen Y enthusiasm and unvarnished sincerity, surprised everyone by granting him his blessing.
This dark-horse film version of “C.O.G.” made its world premiere Sunday night to an appreciative Sundance audience. It’s a boy-meets-world dramedy that fictionalizes the author’s real-life experience of moving to the Pacific Northwest to pick apples. There, the 20-year-old athiest (portrayed by stage actor Jonathan Groff) has a close encounter of the freaky kind with a fork-lift operator and comes into dramatic confrontation with organized religion thanks to a hard-swearing one-legged Bible thumper (who, incidentally, makes jade clocks in the shape of Oregon). The screening marked Sedaris’ first exposure to Alvarez’s efforts; he remained totally hands-off during production and declined to view the movie before its festival premiere.
Seated beside Alvarez in a downstairs reading room in the Park City library, Sedaris, 56, met with a small group of reporters immediately after the screening to share his thoughts on seeing his movie alter ego. “I’m not a sympathetic [character],” he said. “I can’t deny that I had to act like I was smarter than everyone else. It was like, ‘Ewww.’ I cringe, but I can’t deny it. All I can say is, I was 20 and that was difficult.”
That said, the celebrated author of such essay collections as “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” seemed clearly enthused by “C.O.G.,” including the myriad ways it diverges from the source material (a masturbation scene not included in the essay and an unspecified argument between the protagonist and his mother chief among them).
“It’s not about making me look good,” said Sedaris. “It’s about him doing whatever he wants with that story I wrote.”
“I was grateful for it. I was also scared,” Alvarez said. “I just put myself in the bubble of it and just tried to do what I was going to do — somewhat naively.”
Naïve or not, several key factors compelled Sedaris’ decision to entrust the material to Alvarez. No. 1: story selection. While many of the author’s essays detail interactions with his family members, “C.O.G.” is essentially a comedy of errors in which only Sedaris’ personal turmoil is played for laughs and pathos. And he had no compunction about being shown in a less than flattering light.
“The thing about this story is, my family’s not in it,” he said. “That was the key, really.”
“You put it best when you said, ‘I realized that my fear wasn’t that they’d get us wrong but that they’d get us right,’” Alvarez said. “I understood that and respected that so much. You put this mirror up to your whole family? I would never want that for myself.”
As well, Alvarez’s youth and relative inexperience with the movie world were winning factors in Sedaris’ eyes – he simply wouldn’t have taken a flier on a more established director. But most of all, the author said he simply picked up on a kind of heartfelt genuineness in the young filmmaker, a stand-out quality after having met so many Hollywood jackals.
“He seemed like the real thing to me,” said Sedaris. “He seems like an artist to me.”
Alvarez attempted to repay the kindness by not falling back on cheap storytelling tropes. Namely, he said turned down a larger production budget for the film that would have required he use voice-over narration on “C.O.G.”
“My first promise to [Sedaris] was that there would be no voice-over because I’d just be stealing his jokes,” Alvarez said. “I turned down financing because of it.”
Asked why he had been so reluctant to allow others to adapt his work for film, Sedaris initially explained it wasn’t so much a dislike of film as much as a reluctance to take meetings.
“I don’t like to meet with people because then you feel like you have to make them happy. I just feel like I have to give people what they want and make them happy,” Sedaris said with a laugh.
He went on to elucidate his apathy toward actualizing movie versions of his writing.
“I met with somebody a while ago and they said, ‘We want you to write the movie. We want you to make whatever you want.’ It was someone I couldn’t believe I was sitting in the room with,” he recalled. “I realized when I left, I immediately started thinking about other things. When she wrote back it was like, ‘I haven’t thought about that at all.’ But anybody in this town, they would be on fire. I’m the last person. It’s just not there. It’s just not in me.”
Having rethought the “automatic no” response – with a Sundance premiere to validate that decision – it raised the question: Would Sedaris let more movies be made out of his essays?
“I have a model of a relationship … template,” Sedaris said. “You meet somebody and you like them and you have faith in them and you think, ‘I’d like to see that.’ ”