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Gentlemen Broncos' Halley Feiffer and Mike White

We talk with writer/director/actor/Amazing Race-r Mike White and actor Halley Feiffer about their be-wigged and mom jeans-ed roles in Jared Hess' (Napoleon Dynamite) new film, Gentlemen Broncos.

Gentlemen Broncos

Jared Hess
' new film, Gentlemen Broncos, is a sci-fi goofball comedy hybrid, ostensibly about a 17-year-old science fiction writer named Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) whose manuscript, Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years, is stolen by his literary idol, Dr. Ronald Chevalier (the wonderful Jemaine Clement). But it's also about living in a geodesic dome in Utah with a mom (Jennifer Coolidge) who sells popcorn balls and designs modest nightgowns, having a "guardian angel" with an albino snake (Mike White), two friends (Halley Feiffer and Hector Jimenez) who make their own movies, and a panoply of sci-fi visions, professional and homemade, all starring Sam Rockwell.

That's a lot of movie, toggling between sci-fi dreams, teenage class issues, and the struggle to be an artist. And when it comes to comedy, Hess (along with his wife and Broncos script co-writer Jerusha, who clearly plays a significant role in these films) occupies an outsider perspective that's innocent, sincere, weird, and certainly unmatched. Who knows if Broncos will have the legs that made Napoleon Dynamite (and to a far lesser extent, the follow-up, Nacho Libre with Jack Black) such a cult hit, but we'll probably have to wait until next Halloween to see if any Dr. Ronald Chevalier costumes pop up next to little Napoleons wearing Vote for Pedro shirts.

Gentlemen Broncos

Tribeca had the chance to talk with the multitalented Mike White—probably best known for writing the Jack Black vehicle School of Rock, his other career highlights include Freaks and Geeks, Chuck and Buck, Year of the Dog, and a recent appearance on The Amazing Race, where he and his dad came in sixth—and the up-and-coming actress Halley Feiffer (The Squid and the Whale).

Feiffer (who recently appeared in a Flight of the Conchords episode and their video for "I Told You I Was Freaky") is a hoot, and when I brought up the fact that both actors were Wesleyan alums, she immediately launched into a hilarious riff about how her mother (Jenny Allen, who's currently performing in I Got Sick Then I Got Better at the New York Theater Workshop) keeps calling Wesleyan, suggesting that they do an alumni mag piece on Feiffer, White, and Broncos. And there were consequences:

Halley Feiffer: Then Wesleyan called me for your (motioning towards White) contact information!

Mike White: I try to stay off the radar.

Tribeca: So was this a very mom-jeans based set?

HF: When I showed up and did the costume fitting, I thought: Did this take place in 1986 and I just didn't read that? I pictured it totally differently, and I thought Tabitha would be more busty, I thought she would be showing off her breasts a lot, because I know girls like that. The thing about her, she's very flirty but she's kind of disgusting, so I thought of her as one of those girls who you're like, "Get those breasts out of my face! You're not hot, go away!"

But since they're Mormon [the Hesses], they don't really dress like that. They don't curse, they don't drink, they don't smoke and so we had to find other ways to do that and I think that's cooler, and more fun to figure out. Instead she wears shirts buttoned up to here and a little necklace and a little chastity ring and jeans with a little belt. I had to figure out how to be flirtatious and seductive in mom jeans.

Our wardrobe designer got really into the clothes and got a little manic about driving around to Deseret Industries, which is the Mormon-owned thrift shop, and she was like, "Dude, I found some amazing stuff at DI!" And she got really into it—by the end she was wearing a DI trucker cap, really into the aesthetic.

Halley Feiffer
Feiffer with her father, cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer

Tribeca: How was it working with Jemaine?

HF: He's really cool, he's very quiet, sweet, down-to-earth and modest, and like Jared said [both Feiffer and Hess do solid New Zealand accents], he'll call and be like, "Hey Jared, what do you think of this voice? [Switches into Broncos voice] Chevalier..." And then I got to do Flight of the Conchords with him and I think doing this movie really helped that out. They were really screwed and needed someone by Monday. He's just the nicest. It helps you see you don't beed to be a jackass to be successful. You can be a nice, humble, creative person and good things will come to you. And I'm really, really nice!

Tribeca: I'm curious about how Jared and Jerusha's work comes off on the page and in person. I'm impressed by the complete point of view and perspective that gets on screen. So many movies are so compromised and theirs aren't!

MW: The reason I like working with them—for me it's hard because I want to do my own stuff, and to go away and do something else, it's usually because I love the person and also I feel like their thing really reflects who they are. I like that they have such a unique point of view. Jared has a really interesting conflation of character traits: he's very accomodating and easy going, [but] at the same time he's very assured in what he wants to get across. It's a very pleasant person to have helming the ship. You feel like he knows where he's going, he knows what he wants. At the same time, he's not defensive or anxious about people contributing. Everything is welcomed. He has a very mellow, smooth, and also really funny way about him as a person.

HF: That's such a good way of putting it. Mike, you are so well—that Wesleyan connection, can you just feel it? What I love about these characters is that they're so unjustly self-confident, and I think that's a really funny combination, to have so much self-confidence but very little basis to back it up with. This has a real family and friends-based sweetness. Jared's really good at creating this alternate reality.

Tribeca: Is there a Wesleyan film mafia? And are you guys part of it? [Other Wesleyan alums in Hollywood include Joss Whedon, Matt Weiner, Michael Bay, and the buzzy newbie Ray Tintori.]

HF: I'm not. But then, who I am I to say?

MW: I think it's more of a testament to the codependent nature of Wesleyan graduates that they tend to seek out their own, but I don't think necessarily it's a concerted mastermind effort to take over Hollywood. But I wasn't a film major—they claim me, but at the time I was just an English major—I didn't even know that Wesleyan had such an esteemed film department when I chose to go there, nor did I take advantage of it when I was there. So I now know a lot of film majors because they tend to introduce themselves as ways into conversation. I grew up in southern California, and the last thing I wanted to do when I got into college was to see a lot of movies. It just didn't seem like a good way of taking advantage of the education there. Not to harp on film majors. I was thinking, I wanted to go back east to have the kind of autumn leaves and reading the great books under a tree [experience]. And also at Wesleyan the film majors, they're kind of culty. You have to give over your whole four years to it, and I wasn't ready to do that.

HF: Very similar, I also wasn't a film major and I also wasn't a theater major, even though I did a lot of theater up until that point. [But] I was still able to do theater and act in friends' films and work on filmmaker friends' films a lot, and make up my own films with friends that weren't film majors that were kind of good (and that we thought were even better than other film majors' films, probably because we made them). But some of those films are bad! They're not good! You don't know.

MW: Well, people are just starting out!

HF: Well, okay [laughs], you're right! Now I do wish I had taken advantage [of Wesleyan's film program]. They had a really cool film series where you can see great movies on a big screen Wednesday through Sunday and I saw, like, three in four years.

Tribeca: You [motioning towards Feiffer] had the Michael Bay Film Building, but I don't think you [White] did when you were there.

MW: Is there a Michael Bay Film Building?

HF: We don't call it that, but that's pretty much what it is. Is that what it's called?

Tribeca: I think he donated the money for it, but I'm not sure .

MW: Well isn't that neat! I remember when Michael Bay was going back to Wesleyan—it's got a more progressive-minded student body and they're also very critical about some of the excesses of Hollywood movies. Bay was going back to speak at Wesleyan. He was asking me to shoot him with some potential questions that might come up in some kind of interview there and I was like, Well, what would you say if someone said that violence in movies propagates violence in the culture? or something to that effect. He said, I would say when your movies combine a gross billion dollars worldwide, then come and ask me that question! [Ha!] I was like, I just don't think that's right for this particular audience.

HF: That is SO funny! Oh, let's try another tack, Mr. Bay!

Tribeca: What are you doing next?

HF: I'm currently in Still Life, which is running in New York. I have this movie called The Messenger coming out, and two small indie films, Twelve Thirty and Fighting Fish. Fighting Fish is about incest, but good sexy incest. Steamy incest. [We laugh very hard.] It's a coming-of-age story about a troubled family that have sex with each other.

MW: I'm doing this show for HBO that I wrote and I'm directing it, it's with Laura Dern. I don't shoot until January but we're casting now. It's really cool working at HBO, I didn't realize how bad I had it until I started working at HBO. It's called Enlightened. It's about a woman who has a nervous breakdown at work and she goes into treatment and she has her epiphany about what she's going to do and how she's going to make the world a better place.

Tribeca: Thanks for talking with me. Particularly about Wesleyan.

MW: Party on!

Gentlemen Broncos opens on Friday, October 30. Click here for ticket information.



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