St. Vincent on Playing a Satirical Version of Herself in The Nowhere Inn: The Purpose Isnt Necessarily to Endear

There haven’t been a lot of sharp rock ‘n’ roll satires in recent years, with “This Is Spinal Tap” perhaps having set the bar too high for future contenders to trisk following in its platform bootsteps. But “The Nowhere Inn,” a new movie starring and written by St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein, boldly offers a witty take on musicians and media on its way to landing as a seriocomic nightmare. It’s comedy “with a scotch of horror,” as St. Vincent told Variety in a previous interview about the film. The source of the horror, such as it is? No less a thing to be parodied and/or serious bogeyman than celebrity narcissism itself.

The film has St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, playing herself, at least initially, as a star submitting to a documentary being made by her best friend, Brownstein, also portraying herself, up to a point. Things don’t go well when Clark turns out to be as boring backstage as she is riveting backstage, and Brownstein starts demanding tweaks to St. Vincent’s offstage persona that eventually cause her to go into some kind of narcissistic fugue state. “From now on, I need more say in how other people are going to act,” the fictionalized St. Vincent angrily declares in one of the film’s most hilariously trenchant moments.

When “Nowhere Inn” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, some reviewers were confused by its shifting sense of genre and tone. But it’s finding its critical champions, like the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who wrote this week, “As you’d imagine, the entire shebang is so naggingly self-referential, and so noisy with in-jokes, that it should, by rights, disappear up its own trombone. But there’s a saving grace: this is a funny movie.”

He’s right: It is — maybe as funny a rock film as we’ve had since the days of rock Stonehenge. But if there’s a reluctance among the movie’s principals to actually call it a comedy, that may have to do with not wanting to mislead potential viewers about just how dryly straight-faced and ultimately dark it gets. If it’s possible for a film to land somewhere between Rob Reiner and “Inland Empire,” this may be that movie.

Now that the film is off the festival circuit and hitting theaters and streaming services this weekend, Variety caught up again with St. Vincent (who’ll be headlining the Hollywood Bowl Sept. 24, touring behind her “Daddy’s Home” album) to hear more about how far she and Brownstein were willing to go in playing alternate-universe versions of Carrie and Annie.

Variety: Have you had a chance to see it with audiences and see where laughs come or don’t come, and how people react?

St. Vincent: The only time I saw it with an audience was at Sundance. And I think professional actors don’t go to the screenings and sit there with the audience. I didn’t know that. I just thought that this is what people did! I was so green. So it was a harrowing experience, I would say, to watch the film with a roomful of people. [Laughs.] I don’t know why we didn’t just go get a drink and come back for the Q&A. It’s a wild film, and it will garner very different reactions. I think some people will love it and some people will hate it. But that’s good by me. I think that’s a sign that you were taking some chances.

It’s easy to imagine one audience where maybe people are rollicking with laughter, and then maybe another audience where people are very quiet, not knowing what to do with the psychological thriller places it goes.

It goes a lot of places, that’s for sure. It’s a lot about setting an expectation. I think we went into Sundance and didn’t tell anybody what to expect, and for some people, that was delightful, and then for some people, that was probably jarring in a way that they didn’t love — the people didn’t know what it was in any way, shape or form going in. I was  thinking about it like, you know when you reach for something to drink and you think it’s water, and you drink it and it’s Coca-Cola — and it’s not that you don’t like Coca-Cola, it’s just that you thought it was going to be water? So you’re unmoored temporarily.

You’re playing a distilled, fictionalized version of yourself. And maybe it can be said you’re already kind of doing that onstage as an artist anyway, and that’s part of what this movie plays with. But as far as an acting challenge for you in your first big lead role, did it make it easier or harder that you’re ostensibly playing someone, versus a wholly fictional role?

It was an incredibly warm and welcoming way to do my first foray into acting, because it was a script that I’d co-written with my best friend, and playing versions of myself. So it was as soft a landing as one could get. But not having some distance can be tricky, too. The other answer is: I don’t know, because this is what I did first, and I don’t know what the alternative would have been.

One of the things the movie does really well, in a lot of meta ways, is raise the issue of how documentaries or any sort of nonfiction have the potential to be made fictional, just by the felt presence of an observer, or certainly a filmmaker. It’s how the fly on a wall affects a situation.  

Yeah, that anything that is being watched changes its behavior. [Editor’s note: sometimes known as the Hawthorne effect or observer effect.] There’s that aspect to it, that people inadvertently or subconsciously — or intentionally — change their behavior when they know a camera is on them.

But then there’s also the (reality) that if you’re watching a film about a musician, commissioned by that musician, then they have final cut. They are showing you what they want you to see. And not that that’s nefarious, but it is shaped and it is through their own lens, and it is from their point of view, in large part. So we thought, in a funny way, it actually would be more authentic to script something than to try to make something quote-unquote “real.”

It does seem like, even since “The Nowhere Inn” premiered at Sundance, there’ve been an untold amount of Netflix documentaries about pop stars where that pop star is the executive producer. And there’s this great effort made to convince us that, even though they’re completely responsible for the documentary, and it’s meant to sell something, it’s completely real and authentic.

Yeah, I mean, essentially with that, you’re operating in the realm of propaganda. And that’s not what this film is. Carrie and I talked about how usually the purpose of a film about a musician or pop star would be to humanize them, and endear them to. With this, it’s possible that we both are playing unlikable people. [Laughs.] Intentionally so. The purpose of it isn’t necessarily to endear one.

There are certain scenes where your character is interacting with people that seem like they had to have come out of real life. Like the opening scene, in which your chauffeur asks to know who you are, and even though you’re being humble and saying “I’m not for everybody,” he’s really insistent on telling you, “No, I drive a lot of famous people and I’ve never heard of you before.”

Yeah, of course. There’s obviously some irony built into the premise, which is that, luckily, I’m a musician who has a career and has had some success, but I’m nowhere near a household name. Which I’m fully aware of. That’s part of the joke. But yeah, that’s absolutely happened, of course! I mean, it’s not Madonna in the back of the limo, it’s me. And I think too, just being a touring musician, half the game of getting good at what you do is knowing how to assimilate humiliation. That’s like half the game.

Going back to the tonal balance of the film, there’s a balance between comedy, a kind of poignance and then just total mind-f— territory. Is there any sort of those aspects that you enjoy most about the film as it turns out?

Yeah, I mean, we’re definitely in [the realm of] Lynchian dream logic. We go psychedelic. Obviously, there are big, big nods to Nicolas Roeg and films like “Performance.”

The most fun scene to play was the scene that, to me, is sort of the nadir of my narcissistic descent. A fan comes into the dressing room with a heartbreaking story and real emotion, and I hijack it in order to make it about me. Because I just can’t imagine a world where not everything is about me. And by the end of it, the fan is consoling me. Carrie has a joke [in the scene] where she says we can’t both be crying. And it’s sort of true! Like, if you’re crying and someone starts crying with you, you kind of stop. There’s some kind of osmotic relationship or some kind of yin and yang happening where you can’t both be crying. But anyway, that was one of the most fun-slash-horrible scenes to shoot. Because I see bad behavior, really narcissistic behavior, get lauded and called brave in this day and age.

Clearly some of the things that stardom has to offer are things that benefit you, boosting your ability to create and to build personas and iconography. But obviously you wouldn’t want to embrace the negative aspects of stardom and become as narcissistic as this character is. Watching other people maybe succumb to narcissism, gave you ever felt like you had to be on guard against accepting some of these trappings of fame as you create your artistic personas, or has it always been easy to stay, behind it all, humble Annie?

I think in different periods of my life, I’ve definitely been more attached or less attached to the earth. But I am lucky in that the arc and the trajectory of my career is that I’ve gotten a little bit more successful with every record that I’ve put out. So I’ve been able to learn how to be a person in the midst of being a musician and having more people know who I am. That part I feel really lucky about. And I have a great family, and I have people around me who would never let me go too far down the rabbit hole, so I feel great about that. But yeah, of course, I’ve certainly done or seen behavior that is just wasteful — wasteful of people’s energy, wasteful of people’s time. If you surround yourself with people who will only tell you yes, then that’s the beginning of your descent.

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