One of the most defining, ubiquitous comedic voices of the last decade—hitting the stratosphere of stand-up stardom and creating hit series including Louie and Horace And Pete—Louis C.K. is as much a filmmaker as anything else. Writing on series including The Chris Rock Show and Saturday Night Live before breaking out in a big way on his own, C.K.’s first shorts date back to the early 1990s, with his first feature, Tomorrow Night, going mostly unseen until C.K. brought it to fans on his website, through which he distributes his own material for a nominal fee.
Banking this unique distribution strategy off his stand-up fan base, C.K. has been a pioneer in more ways than one. The artist brought a filmmaker’s eye and his unique, often dark and absurd sense of humor to Louie, the project that launched a thousand FX series including Baskets and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, both of which he co-created.
Editing Louie, in addition to starring and executive producing, C.K. has taken the auteur approach to all of his projects since. The two other significant facts about C.K. with relation to the acclaimed Horace And Pete—and now his latest feature, the Toronto Film Festival-premiering, black-and-white, I Love You, Daddy, in which he also stars—is that he he funded both projects himself, and produced them in secret. Centering on the daughter of C.K.’s Glen Topher, played by Chlöe Grace Moretz, and shot on film, I Love You, Daddy sits amongst a canon of films driven on by filmmakers’ personal nightmares. In this case, the scenario involves C.K.’s daughter being seduced by a much older, notoriously creepy director and potential pedophile, played with potent dark energy by John Malkovich.
Sitting down with members of his I Love You, Daddy cast—including Edie Falco (Horace And Pete), Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia), Adlon and Ebonee Noel—C.K. explains the rationale behind these choices, examining his drives as an artist of rare form.
Louis, the self-financing idea is fairly self-explanatory, but why is it that you’ve made several of your last projects off the grid? How did you come around to this approach?
Louis C.K.: Because there’s so much television and so many movies, and so much media, and the Internet is a massive cornucopia, or dump truck, or whatever it is, nobody ever gets to see anything without knowing what it is anymore. It’s a rare thing. We all write and make movies thinking, “So then, you find this out, and then you find this out,” but the truth is, the audience is so contaminated by advertising and promotion that they don’t have the experience you think they’re having, or that you think they’re going to have. To me, the only thing I got out of [the TIFF premiere] last night is that’ll be the only audience ever to see it without knowing a single thing about it.
The absence of information around a project really seems to heighten things and generate substantial excitement.
C.K.: That’s how we all think that they’re going to be, and they’re never that way. We made Horace And Pete, we got to keep it in that vacuum for a whole 10 weeks, and that was joyful, to do it that way. People are always fighting for attention with things now because there’s so much content. Actually, if you don’t tell people stuff—you just keep your mouth shut—you don’t have to whisper it, you just don’t yell. Take the bullhorn off your mouth and it’s a secret.
You have a tendency to self-distribute but recently sold this film to The Orchard in a $5 million deal. Can you explain that decision?
C.K.: I want this out there—I want it to be. I want it to go out and be on movie screens. I want lots of different kinds of people to see it. I like experimenting with my own site. It’s fun, and I don’t value money as something to hoard, so I’ll give away most of it to try something like this. It’s worth the gamble to me, but with this movie, I made it to be a communal experience on a big screen.
What have you learned as you’ve walked your path in stand-up, acting and directing that informed your approach on I Love You, Daddy?
C.K.: Everything that you do is school. Everything is learning how to do something. I always feel like I wish I could do it all over again, now that I did it, now that I know how to do it. But you sort of accept that everything is like, “OK, we’ve got about 60 percent of what we wanted there, but we came away with a truckload of information and it’s going to make the next thing better.”
The TV show [Louie] was like making short films so it taught me a lot about filmmaking, and it taught me about storytelling in short bursts. I think that was my biggest thing to learn about. Before I did Louie, I didn’t really know how to write a story that well. I think that show taught me how to do that, and it was a smaller step from that to this, to actually write a whole movie that’s worth watching for more than 30 minutes.
Where did the seed of the idea for this film come from? To what extent is I Love You, Daddy autobiographical, with your experiences of fatherhood and show business?
C.K.: Working in TV and navigating success is a tricky thing. It’s easier to navigate the hard work of starting out because you just do anything they let you do, but once you get into an orbit, after the thrusters have pushed you into the orbit, now you have to navigate that orbit. That’s more about your choices.
There’s no choices when you’re starting out. You’re just like, “Please, let me do anything.” But then it turns around and it’s like, “We’ll let you do anything,” and that’s dangerous because it’s like, “Is that a good idea or not?” You could have your own TV show, you could have this, you could be the star of this movie. “You could play George Jetson,” somebody once said to me. “You want to be George Jetson?” I had to go “Jeez, is that a good idea?”
Charlie Day: [faux excitement] Do I? Is Cogsworth Cogs available?
The film comments on that notion—the idea that making work just for the sake of doing work is problematic.
C.K.: That’s right. And that’s dangerous.
It sounds like this is something you’re working against, with your decision to put Louie on hiatus and feel out other projects.
C.K.: That’s right. That’s why, when I started to feel that way on my show, I took a break and I got the momentum back to do another couple of seasons, and then I stopped when I felt like, if I make another one, it might just be to fill the episodes, rather than because I’ve got to tell these stories. You go to the barrel and you’re sort of scraping around, instead of opening the tap and it comes out. So, there’s that. Then, as far as my kids go, I’m not in any of this territory right now of what happens.
Your daughters are still quite young?
Pamela Adlon: I am [laughs].
C.K.: So I know everything about her kids. But also, this movie is about a nightmare of somebody. It’s imagined. This movie, to me, is a big “What If?” What if you had this experience? Holy f*ck. That’s what [writer] Vernon [Chatman] and I were talking about. What if one of my daughters started getting hit on by one of these fascinating, notorious people in the world? What the f*ck would I do? I got so scared in the moment of thinking of that, that I thought, “That’s a movie. I know this is a movie.”
Adlon: What just hit me, besides the fact that you’re probably cannibalizing my daughters and their friends, is that my youngest has a crush on Robert De Niro—the now one—and she’s 14 [laughs]. So she told me that—she’s like, “Mom, he’s hot.” I got sick to my f*cking stomach. I was like, “Don’t ever tell me…” OK, she’s going to have a thing for older guys now. This is happening.
Day: You’re going to get a phone call like [assuming De Niro accent], “Can she come out and play, or what?”
Beside the opportunity to work with Louis C.K., what were the elements that drove you all, as actors, to work on this film?
Edie Falco: It sounds like real people talking. Having worked in different forums, it’s amazing how hard it is to say some dialogue that’s put in front of you, and the whole challenge of the project is to make this sound like a human saying it. And then you get handed a script where you’re like, “Holy sh*t.” It’s just the way people talk, and the way they think, and it’s complicated and very hard to categorize. It’s just the stuff that I adore, and there are so few venues for it—very little brave writing these days.
Day: I’ve said it before, but you look at any one of these characters and there’s so much emotion behind everything that they say—except for Ralph [laughs]. So I did it in the hope that one day, I’ll get to play one of Louis’ emotional characters in a future film.
C.K.: I thought of that when I was cutting it. I thought, The next time, we want to give Charlie…Let’s see him get mad [laughs]. There actually was a through line in the story where Ralph gets his feelings hurt a bunch of times. Glen hurts Ralph’s feelings. There were like three moments, and I cut them out because they stop the momentum of the film, but there was that through line where he feels like, Why are you asking me to come over?
Adlon: That’s right! I loved that, when you were in the apartment.
Day: Truth be told, I’m a huge admirer of Louis, and his bravery in his art, and was thrilled when he asked me to be a part of it. Just to join that world.
Adlon: He kept saying you to me. “I’m putting Charlie Day in it!” I’m like, “Who the f*ck is Charlie Day. Why do you keep saying Charlie Day?”
Day: Pamela’s late to the party. Ask your kids who I am.
You always make an effort to write great, complex roles for women. How do you go about that, and what motivates that decision?
C.K.: In this movie, there’s one male character besides the remote Leslie. This is the only guy. I’m surrounded by these women, and there’s two missing here. It’s a constellation of women. Chlöe [Grace Moretz] and Rose [Byrne]…
I was raised by a hard-working single mother, so my first role model was a woman. My only caretaker was a woman, and I have three sisters, so my community was girls. I have two girls, and my dog is a girl. My dead dog was a girl. I don’t know. I guess I’ve always keyed in on that perspective. Also, they’re the other ones—I’m not one of them. They’re the other ones, so they’re so much more interesting to me. Writing is an exercise of trying to figure it out. I know I’m getting it wrong, but it’s fun to get in there and see. It’s my own little adventure.
In one of the film’s fascinating scenes, Glen is “mansplaining” feminism to his daughter, with the added complexity that he is trying to protect his daughter from harm, and raise her with good values. Where did that scene come from?
C.K.: Well, you’re never doing only one thing, and there is some writing in movies that refines like sugar, that says, “This is this.” The game of this scene is that this is a dumb guy telling a girl what feminism is, and he shouldn’t. But there’s other ingredients in there. This is more—whatever—brown rice. He’s also her dad. He’s also trying to find some foothold to say, “Why don’t you f*cking get your life going? Why don’t you take yourself more seriously?” He points to her friend and says, “She’s serious and you’re not.”
In the end, he’s also having a tin ear. He’s not listening to her, but it’s hard to listen to your kids sometimes because you’re pent up with intent to do for them. I was having a conversation earlier where I thought that “protect” and “prepare” are your two jobs as a parent, and they’re in conflict. You have to protect your kids, but you have to prepare them for the sh*t you’re protecting them from. When you get on the bleeding edge of that, when they’re 17, which I haven’t experienced yet, it’s intense, and you make a lot of mistakes. This guy was trying his best, and it wasn’t that good.
The final scene of the film is fascinating and emotionally resonant, this moment where Topher can acquaint himself with his daughter as a new person—as an adult—free of the distortions that come with parenting for decades.
C.K.: That’s what it is. If you’re lucky, you get a friendship. Again, I haven’t experienced that as a parent, but I was two people’s kid, so when your childhood is over, you go, “Hi, my name is Louis. What’s yours? Oh, you must be my mom. You must be my dad,” and you see what you forge. Because your parents are just part of the landscape, part of the scary world, and you come out of it an asshole like everybody else, or a nice person like everybody else, or both.
Then, it’s nice if you can stay friends, I think. I don’t think there is a thing of, “You must stay in touch with your parents,” because people can hurt each other that way, but boy, would it be nice if my kids cared to let me in on what’s going on with them when they’re [older], and that’s by the grace of them. I always feel like it’s a one-way relationship. I’m obliged to my kids. They have no obligation to me. I just f*cking hope they care to call me and spend time with me.
You’re one of those artists that tends to keep his collaborators close, including his actors. For you, as a director—and for you all, as actors—what is the value of that?
Falco: It’s so nice to be around the genesis of the idea. So many of the things that I do that are some of these larger projects, the colonel [behind] the idea is someone I’ll never meet, certainly not on set, and there were so many people between that person and me performing. It’s a venue where they’ve made this TV show before; they know how it’s done.
I remember one of the early days on Horace And Pete when Louis came in and said, “Well, I don’t really know if this is possible. This is my idea. We’re going to try to do this thing,” and it was endlessly exciting. You don’t get opportunities like that.
You’re just trying stuff. It’s the same reason I don’t really memorize stuff—I sort of keep it just on the tip of my brain, because it’s fresh and it’s new and you kind of don’t know too much intellectually about what’s about to happen. It’s a tremendously exciting place to be for an actor.
Adlon: I do a lot of animation and voice-over. You work with the same directors and actors over again. You know what their abilities are. I know if I bring Edie in, she’s going to be able to go to this place and this place. It makes everybody’s job easier. You just develop a shorthand, and you’ve got your own Mercury Players. It kind of fortifies the work because you get your team.
C.K.: It is, it’s like a team. I think of it that way, and that’s why I like to use people that I value again, because Pamela and Charlie, for me, share some territory. To me, they’re both leadoff hitters, or they’re Number 1 or Number 2 hitters if you know baseball at all. They’re like Derek Jeter, [Alfonso] Soriano, somebody like that.
Adlon: I don’t understand what he’s saying [laughs].
C.K.: These two are going to get on base, and once they’re on base, they’re going to cause trouble for everybody on the f*cking field. They’re going to steal bases, they’re going to find opportunities. They’re fast, they’re agile, and they have those capabilities. To me, Edie is like a great athlete. She’s like Bernie Williams, or she’s like a great wide receiver. Toss the ball into her area and she’s going to f*cking jump up and get it. I think guys like Malkovich are just going to walk up with ease, and he’s going to hit a home run and he’s going to trot around. He’s barely going to break a sweat. Whack! and he just eats his sunflower seeds.
Bearing in mind what you’ve said, do you think we will be seeing more Louie anytime soon? Do you have any updates at this point?
C.K.: None. I’m not thinking about it. It doesn’t mean it won’t pop into my head, but I decided that I want to leave it alone and maybe I’ll come back.