Andre Hyland is a really funny guy. He’s also a relentlessly creative, DIY-influenced artist who’s spent the last 15 years honing his unique talents through a variety of media — from his early obsession with graffiti art to his crafty, lo-fi Blond Chili short videos to his more recent work as an actor on cable TV shows like Stupidface and The Daily Habit.
A native Cincinnatian, Hyland grew up in Clifton, graduated from Indian Hill High School and studied fine art at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. After a short stint in New York City, he moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and almost immediately began crafting a series of playfully subversive alter egos that eventually grabbed the attention of actor/comedian/producer Bob Odenkirk, who’s become something of a mentor. The pair recently teamed up to create a pilot for Comedy Central based on Hyland’s latest improv-fueled character, a boisterous, mullet-sporting talk show host named Jesse Miller, who has a fondness for energy drinks and oversized polo shirts.
Alas, Comedy Central passed on the pilot, but it’s the duo’s most recent collaboration that’s threatening to break the Cincinnati native to a wider audience. Written, directed and starring Hyland, Funnel was one of only 22 U.S. narrative short films invited to screen at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, which opened Jan. 16 and continues through Sunday. The amusing, characteristically lo-fi seven-minute short centers on a guy (Hyland, who plays things pretty straight for once) whose car breaks down, spurring, as it’s aptly described in the Sundance program, a “quest across town that slowly turns into the most fantastically mundane adventure.”
Hyland recently took time out of his busy Sundance schedule to discuss Funnel, which he filmed in Cincinnati (specifically Milford, Madeira and Kenwood, for those curious) one day last January with the help of his cinematographer and newly minted brother-in-law Shane Johnston.
CityBeat: I’ve seen a lot of your stuff over the years, and one of the interesting things about Funnel is that it’s probably the most straightforward character you’ve ever played. Was that intentional?
Andre Hyland: I’m glad you noticed that. That’s one of the things that’s special about it or different for me. A lot of characters I do, I kind of make them real enough to operate in reality but they’re not like me at all. But this one was way more like my actual self, at least in behavior and demeanor. There was a conscious choice to do that.
I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the Jesse Miller stuff I’ve done, but I’ve spent most of the last year-and-a-half doing the Jesse stuff. I’ve done the live show for about three years and the Comedy Central pilot as Jesse. The pilot turned out great and everything for Comedy Central, but it didn’t get picked up. So I’d invested all this time in this Jesse persona and that character kind of had a wave and a momentum to it and went where it went, but after that I’m like, “OK, I need to force myself to do something new.” And one of things that I haven’t really done is trying to play something just straight, closer to me acting as a normal dude of sorts.
CB: What was (Bob) Odenkirk’s role as a producer of the short? What’s it been like to work with him?
AH: I met him through my manager in 2008 when I was working on this TV stuff.
My manager wanted me to meet with more veteran TV show-runners and talent and that sort of thing, and Bob was one of the people I met with. Of course, I loved his stuff — and he liked mine. He called me and said, “Hey, let me know if you want to hang out and talk about some projects. I’d love to be a part of it.” After that, whether he’s officially working on a project (of mine), he’s always around to consult and help with things.
On Funnel, when I showed it to him, I was like, “It’s not totally cut yet, it’s not hard laughs, it’s not…” and he was like, “Dude, just put it in.” He was really into it and gave me some thoughts on things. He suggested that if I wanted to put his name on it maybe that would help get more people interested in it. And he was the one who was like, “You should submit this to Sundance.”
CB: When did know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
AH: When I was really little I saw Ghostbusters. After seeing that I didn’t know at the time I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I knew I wanted to be in movies in some capacity. When you’re little the first thing you see is the people on the screen and you’re like, “I want to be an actor.” Then in high school I learned more about things and I thought, “Oh, I want to be a cinematographer, the guy controlling the camera.”
And then Nike shot a commercial at Oak Hills High School, and I remember sitting there watching — I was an extra so I could watch the production — and thinking, “Oh, the cinematographer has to listen to whatever the director says. Directing is what I want to do.” Not that the cinematographer isn’t important, but he’s there to support the director’s vision. I also remember seeing movies like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski and starting to think more about the directors of movies than about the people on screen.
CB: What was it about those films that got you excited?
AH: I was 14 when Pulp Fiction came out, and I just hadn’t seen anything like that. That movie was like Nirvana’s Nevermind, like a classic album. For people who weren’t used to independent film it was like, “Oh, shit!” But I feel more of a connection to Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski. I liked them because they were so character-driven, which I love, and they were both really funny but they weren’t straight-up comedies. I like straight-up comedies, too, but what really appeals to me personally is something that seems grounded in reality and just takes these human moments that are pathetic and funny and delivers them for you.
CB: How do you think growing up in the Midwest has impacted your approach to filmmaking?
AH: It’s definitely impacted it a ton. Like Jesse Miller is straight up a dude from a Cincinnati Cyclones game. I say he’s from Norwood. I actually shot a video when I was back visiting his hometown over the summer, which will probably be ready in a couple months. A lot of my stuff is drawn from observing the people I grew up with. Even if it’s not in an overt way, Cincinnati has had a big influence.
CB: A lot of your characters, like Jesse Miller, have this Andy Kaufman-esque performance-art aspect to them where, as an audience member, you not quite sure where the line is between the character and the performer. Were you a fan of Kaufman’s brand of meta-comedy?
AH: It wasn’t like I saw him and was inspired by it. I was always doing that kind of work with a similar kind of take on things —subversive comedy — and people were like, “This reminds me of that (Andy Kaufman) stuff,” which is when I became more hip to him. I was late to him as far as what I was doing, but I certainly appreciate his stuff now.
CB: So what’s next for you? You’re already writing a full-length feature, right?
AH: Yeah, that’s my next big goal. I’d like to get financing for this script I just finished. It would be a low-budget independent feature. Who knows what will come in the next year, but that’s my main goal right now. Some TV project might come my way. It’d be great to get a role performing in somebody else’s thing, to be involved in something where I’m not doing all the heavy lifting.
CB: How do you think being a part of Sundance will impact things going forward?
AH: I hope it will open up some opportunities, but then I’m going to have to deliver. I’m looking forward to seeing what it might bring. If nothing else, it’s just awesome to be here and experience the festival. It’s kind of like getting a college degree. Once you get into a festival of this caliber — there’s a short list of things that are on this level — people say, “Oh, there must be a level of quality to the work because of that seal of approval.” I’m the same guy I was before I came to the festival, but this allows other people to go, “OK, a name we trust says this guy did a good piece of work, you should look at it too.”
CB: One of the things I noticed about you from the very beginning, and it’s still there today, is this burning drive to create and fulfill your vision. Where does that drive come from?
AH: Yeah. I don’t know. It’s almost like a compulsion. Not in a bad way, but it really is. If I’m not making something or creating or working on an idea I get antsy. I’m anxious to get it out, you know? There are times when I get exasperated and I’m like, “Jesus Christ, gimme a break.” But then I think about it and I’m like, “Well, what else would I do? If I wasn’t doing this I’m just going to be thinking about doing it and be like stifled and frustrated that I’m not doing it.” I feel like I’m lucky because I have something that I’m passionate about, and there’s a handful of goals that I really want to meet, and I won’t be satisfied until I get there. ©