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Comedians Olde English Take Surreal Challenge in ‘The Exquisite Corpse Project’

The comedy troupe Olde English loves a good challenge. So when founding member Ben Popik threw down the gauntlet and asked his friends to write a movie together, using a method devised by the Surrealists, the group took on the task. Right before they all went their seperate ways. The result – The Exquisite Corpse Project – will have its world premiere this weekend at the Dances With Films Festival in Hollywood.

The rules for the project were simple: each writer would come up with 15 pages of a script. The next writer would have only the last five pages of the script along with a list of character names and locations to work with. Popik would be responsible for directing the result.

What Olde English has delivered, however, isn’t an off-the-rails series of sketches (although there is a little of that) but a hybrid of narrative and documentary that provides a bittersweet look at a creative marriage that had nearly run its course. A touch of Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, but with more laughs and no psychoanalyst to help the “band” process things.

Earlier this week I met up with Raphael Bob-Waksberg and David Segal in Los Angeles. They are both writers and subjects of the film, having been with Olde English from the start. Bob-Waksberg revealed that the troupe didn’t set out to make a documentary.

“I think that’s something that we really found in the editing of the movie,” said Bob-Waksberg. “None of us really knew what this documentary stuff was going to be when we started. None of us knew what this thing was going to be when we started.”

All that Segal and Bob-Waksberg, along with Olde English compatriot Adam Conover and collaborators Chioke Nassor and Joel Clarke, had were the rules and the troupe’s penchant for approaching comedy with an eye towards structure.

“We were always a group that was interested in form first,” said Bob-Waksberg.

Case in point: the 2006 “Rules Show” that Olde English mounted after four years of writing and performing together.

“We gave each other rules based on each other’s weaknesses,” said Bob-Waksberg. “Dave, for example, was famous in the group for not being able to remember any lines. So I gave him a challenge: you have to write a monologue and perform it, and you have to get it line for line perfect. You can’t improv.”

“If you mess up you have to start over,” Segal added.

“Someone in the audience is going to be on book,” continued Bob-Waksberg, “and he did it.”

“I started over a lot,” Segal admitted.

The film cuts back and forth between the story of a couple whose relationship takes a series of improbable twists and turns and the documentary footage of the writers who are flying blind. Everything is structured so that the writers are, more or less, discovering the story at the same time that the audience is. In less confident hands this could have lead to a meta-textual disaster, but the storytelling chops of Popik and his collaborators are strong. Producing over one hundred and fifty short videos, as Olde English has, will do that for you. The documentary portion of the film plays it straight, even as the film within the film veers into self aware territory, a kind of neurotic by-product of the exquisite corpse process.

Yet the film within the film that we get is more fractured, perhaps, than the one that the writers actually produced.

“It was amazing how much of it connected. How many plot things ran throughout the whole movie,” said Segal of the script, the first read-through of which is documented in the film. “There were a bunch of weird coincidences with themes. There was at one point a theme of statues.”

Not all of those coincidences made it into The Exquisite Corpse Project’s final cut.

“In Joel’s section one of the scenes that we ended up cutting,” said Bob-Waksberg, “He’s like joking around and saying ‘I’m Anthony and you’re Cleopatra, watch out for snakes lady.’ And then totally coincidentally this whole snake thing comes up later [in the script].”

Nevertheless the film focuses on the fissures in the creative process. Offering up an examination of all that can go wrong when you are working closely with your best friends. There are clear moments of tension in the film that reveal the kind of productive creative-disfunction familiar to anyone who works on collaborative projects.

“I’ve gotten angrier with you,” said Bob-Waksberg to Segal during our interview “and Ben and Adam and [lead actor] Caleb [Bark] than I have with anybody else in my life. I include my parents in that. You’ve seen me at my angriest and ugliest. I think I’ve seen the same of you.”

“I threw a chair,” Segal confirms.

Yet both writers, who only recently saw the finished product for the first time themselves,  said that they’ve taken away an upbeat lesson from the final film. Segal confided that he was concerned initially that the movie would show Olde English at their rawest and most fractured. Instead he sees the film as a testament to the strength of the troupe’s bond.

“It could have gone really negative afterwards,” said Segal. “The potential is there to have hurt feelings. At the end of the day we’ll argue and do all this and then the next question is: ‘Hey do you want to go to Joshua Tree?’ We’re just really good friends.”

The film breaks out of its shackles as an examination of a single project and stands on its own as a meditation on the uncomfortable truths, and unexpected joys, of creative collaboration.

This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on May 30, 2012.