A couple of Halloweens ago we featured a memorable short called The Baby by Joz Norris, Lucy Pearman and friends, about a sinister baby (not to be confused with the similar-sounding series coming soon to Sky Atlantic called, er, The Baby).
Now Norris is back, in longer-form-film form. The inventively introspective comic wound up creating something completely new when his latest show You Build the Thing You Think You Are was forced from the stage (due to lockdown; he wasn’t banned). That material has now become a film, in a fashion that may well inspire other thoughtfully funny people, as the Covid rains wax and wane.
The result is impressively silly, psychological and psychedelic – think a mildly deranged Daniel Kitson – and after an initial streamed run Norris is now releasing it to the masses via Go Faster Stripe. Good news. But how did he get there? And where does the Romanian troll-goblin fit in?
How would you describe what You Build the Thing You Think You Are actually is?
I still keep referring to it as a ‘show,’ when I suppose I ought to say it’s a ‘film’ now. But to me, because it originated as a live show, film feels more like the format it ended up existing in, while the thing itself is more a collection of thoughts or ideas attached to a particular story.
I moved out of the flat I lived in for most of my adult life last year, and felt a weird re-arrangement of the different bits of myself in response to it. I wanted to make something that explored that displacement, via telling the story and expressing it through strange characters and asides.
So the film is a sort of taking-stock of who I’ve been over the past 10 years, and who I’m going to be looking forwards, which I suppose is a position a lot of us are in at the moment.
Because I ended up unable to make it into a live show, I tried to find a way of putting ideas on film that felt like it accurately reflected the feeling of an inner monologue in an original way. I’m proud of what I ended up managing to do with it.
It’s very cleverly put together – did it take a while to plan?
It did, yeah. One of the main things I was aware of was that I didn’t ever want the viewer to be looking at the same image for too long, so I didn’t ever want to just have a static shot of my face for too long without having other interesting things to cut to.
I only had the insides of my house to work with, so I broke the ‘show’ down into individual beats and scenes and figured out what order they would occur in, and how long they would all go on for. Then based on that I had to figure out where in my house I was going to film them, what to include in the shot, how to frame it to make it look interesting, and so on.
All of that stuff had to be planned out and storyboarded, so that I knew no one image would stay onscreen for so long that it became boring, before I could even begin setting up shots and filming anything. So it was a lot more labour-intensive than just performing into the camera and then editing it together.
I’ve been hugely flattered by those comparisons, of course. I’m a huge admirer of Kitson and Key’s work because the shows of theirs I’ve seen have felt like they place as much importance on tone and space and atmosphere as they do on the specific words used, or anything like that.
I’ve no idea what their working methods are, but I think live comedy is often very focused on communicating via rhythm, language and structure, and people like Kitson and Key make shows that feel more like tone paintings to me.
That’s something I focus on a lot in my shows. It’s not always about finding the right word, or perfecting the timing. Sometimes it’s about identifying the right tone or atmosphere or feeling and making everything else – language, rhythm, structure etc – secondary to that.
And [musician/writer] Nick Cave supplied the title, sort of?
And yes, I cribbed the title from a live Q&A I saw with Nick Cave. When asked about grief he said:
“You spend your life building the thing you think you are, then one day something happens that smashes it to pieces. And the terrible pain you feel is the attempt to pick up those pieces and put them back together. And they do go back together, but in a different way. And there’s great beauty on the other side of it.”
Oddly enough your film reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in places – novel scene-shifts; your word-tattooed torso. Was there a conscious shift in tone from live show to film?
I’ve never seen Memento, is there a wordy torso in it? Oh no! Apologies to Nolan fans who are irked by that bit, then, it’s not a conscious homage.
There was a deliberate shift, yeah. When I’m performing a live show I’m always trying to express a sincerely-held feeling in the most nonsensical way possible, which often means leaning more heavily into silliness and absurdity in order to coax the laughter out of the audience and make sure that sense of the ridiculous is still present.
With film, you don’t have that live laughter to encourage the ridiculousness of something, so I sort of had to dignify and respect my feelings more, and accept that the film was going to be a sincere exploration of how I felt about things, rather than necessarily being a nonsensical send-up of my experiences.
So the laughter and the ridiculousness is still there, I think, but it’s held more gently so that the honesty of the thing can come through with a clear voice as well.
Where does your Romanian Troll Goblin fit into the cultural landscape of famous trolls/goblins?
Ha – I found that mask in a shop in Bucharest and just knew I had to do something with him, there was such a vivid character coming through when I first encountered him. To me he feels sort of like a spiritual descendant of Sweetums from The Muppets – that same clumsiness and eagerness to please, underneath a monstrous exterior.
But he’s also quite chaotic and anarchic and confrontational, unlike Sweetums, so I suppose in that way he’s more of a Rumpelstiltskin figure – quite cajoling, quite mean, quite tricksy.
Any thoughts on future cinematic vehicles for the troll-goblin? It gets quite fantasy-horror at the end of your film.
I don’t know if I’ll do more with him – I often tend to come up with these silly characters that do their job communicating a particular idea within a particular show, but then when they’ve done that job I rarely think “Now I want to see what that character’s like if I put them in THIS situation!”
I tend to feel like they came and did their job and went, and with the odd exception I’m usually keen to come up with a new thing rather than coming up with a new setting for an old idea.
So he’s unlikely to pop up again any time soon. But who knows, if an idea for a proper old-school monster movie emerges that feels like it could authentically benefit from his involvement, then maybe I’ll dust off the mask and get him off the shelf again!https://www.comedy.co.uk/online/joz-norris-you-build-the-thing/interview/joz-norris-explains/