Brent Butt is a TV comedy icon in his native Canada, where he created, wrote and starred in the long-running sitcom Corner Gas. Making a feature film, however, was an entirely different beast. We had the opportunity to sit down with Brent last week to discuss his debut film, the comedic murder mystery No Clue, and his progress on another big-screen project: the already highly anticipated Corner Gas movie.
What was it like for Brent to step away from television and into making movies? "It was exciting, but a little daunting," he told us. "As you say, my background is TV comedy and stand-up, which are shorter forms of storytelling, and with this film I really wanted to make a deeper, darker, grittier comedy – something that had more shades and layers to it. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I surrounded myself with some truly talented people in terms of cast and crew, who had experience making feature films, and it became a learning experience for me. As new things should be."
He shares the movie with two people who you'll recognize from this past season of FX's Justified: the beautiful Amy Smart (the actress who played Raylan's love interest Alison Brander) and the hilarious David Koechner (who played a Miami-based U.S. Marshal and is also known as Champ Kind from the Anchorman films). We asked Brent to dish on his co-stars.
"I knew David personally, from having done some live comedy with him over the years, so I knew we had a good comedic chemistry, and you’re right – he is truly and honestly hilarious," he said. "I was able to write dialogue for him, knowing his voice and his rhythm and his unique qualities. And then he added some hilarious stuff too – like his character always asking me if I had told the beautiful woman about him. That cracked me up.
"I had never met Amy Smart before, but we (the producers) are all big fans of hers and knew she would be able to play both sides of this character – the vulnerable damsel in distress, and the dark, mysterious ass-kicker. And she nailed it. She is also a blast to hang around – a lot of laughs."
Aside from just the accomplishment of making his first movie, what is he most proud of about No Clue? "I’m proud that we were able to mix comedy into a dark, gritty mystery," he explained. "From the outset, I knew I didn’t want to do a zany, wacky, goofy comedy. I wanted this to be a real, actual murder mystery. Then the comedy would come from the fact that the main character doesn’t really know what he’s doing – and [we'd] play that in a realistic way.
"And it wasn’t an easy sell to our partners – they weren’t sure how were were going to blend that. But we walked that tightrope, and kept true to our plan, and the end result is something we’re very proud of. It’s a true murder mystery, but it’s also truly funny."
"You can’t really control whether something is going to be commercially successful or critically acclaimed or win awards, so those things were never our goals," he added. "We always only had one goal: make a movie that we’re honestly proud of. And we did that."
Comedy is often very subjective, especially when you add in it being from a different country. We asked Brent if he thinks there's anything US audiences should know before watching a film written by a Canadian comedian, or if he thinks it plays pretty much the same on either side of the border.
"I think it translates well," he reflected. "I mean, it’s basically a detective story, which is a very American genre. I’m a fan of murder mysteries and film noir, and this movie is a tribute to those stories, so it should be no problem there. And I’m a big believer that people are more the same than they are different, so why spend so much time worrying about our differences?
"The response to this movie from Americans who have seen it has been great," he added. "It just played at the L.A. Comedy Festival and our director, Carl Bessai, won the award for Best Feature Film Direction, so it’s translating well. The comedy plays well. It’s a pretty universal notion - a guy in over his head who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Those guys are in every country in the world. In fact, they’re often running the countries."
As he was speaking to us, Brent was preparing to begin filming Corner Gas: The Movie, the big-screen extension of his long-running and very beloved television series. Naturally, we had to ask him if there was anything he wanted to share about that passion project.
"It is scheduled to release across Canada in December, maybe late November," he said, "and then we’re looking to have it play in the States too, so that’s definitely on our radar. We get a lot of fan mail from folks across the US who used to watch Corner Gas on WGN Superstation, so we believe there’s a market for us there." For updates on the movie, you can visit its official website (cornergasthemovie.com) or follow Brent on Twitter (@BrentButt).
But what about after that? How difficult was it for him to break away from his Corner Gas character to play the hero in No Clue, or to consider what his career is going to be like after he's officially done with the show that made him a comedy star?
"It was a bit daunting," he admitted, "but the characters I play all have some aspect of me in them, so I can hang my hat on that and keep things real. The more real the comedy is, the better it is, so that helps. It was most difficult to go from playing Brent Leroy on Corner Gas to playing Stan Dirko on my next series Hiccups, because Hiccups came so close to the end of Corner Gas that I think people had a tough time in some regards.
"But difficult is good. Doing things you’re unsure of is good," he added. "Creativity is all about creating, and you can’t create by going backward or staying in the same place."
"I love classic comedy from TV’s Golden Age – The Honeymooners, Jack Benny, I Love Lucy. I’m a fan, even though much of it is far broader than what we’re used to today," Brent continued. "They committed to comedy in those days and I admire that. Big, broad and loud.
"But most of all, I love stand-up. I knew at the age of 12, I was going to do it," he said. "I can’t get enough of it doing it or watching it. I love comics like Dave Attell, Boyd Banks, Derek Edwards, Louis CK, Maria Bamford…all original thinkers. That’s what attracts me and makes me laugh. When people have thoughts that make you say 'In a hundred million years, I would have never thought of that angle' - looking for those angles is what keeps me in the game."