Robert Bleichner is just 16, but he’s decided to leave home, and no one is changing his mind.
Instead of returning to Princeton High School after Christmas, he’s taking a data entry job in the office of the public defender for Mercer County. And instead of finishing out his childhood in leafy suburbia, he’s moving into roughly half a room in a scorching basement apartment in Trenton with two sweaty older men and a boiler.
But when Robert’s not reporting for duty in the government office or talking to his perspiring roommates, he’s following his bliss, drawing cartoons.
His happy place: the humor he can wring out of people with his art. His Bible: Every panel of acerbic, silly and subversive alternative comics.
Director Owen Kline never worked for Mercer County, but he spent his childhood wanting to become a cartoonist.
The movie tells the story of Robert, a committed young artist trying to do his art and grow up way too fast. Underground and alternative comics are his religion, along with a DIY aesthetic.
“That was me in high school, in a funny way,” Kline, 30, tells NJ Advance Media.
The director grew up in the city but set all of “Funny Pages” in Jersey.
As a child, the filmmaker appeared alongside his parents (Cates, from “Gremlins” and “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” mostly retired from acting after the ’90s) in the movie “The Anniversary Party” (2001) and co-starred in the Oscar-nominated film “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). However, acting wasn’t necessarily his calling.
Like Robert, Kline adored underground comics and aspired to be a cartoonist.
“I kind of avoided show business and just stayed in New York and played in bands and made weird comics and put out stupid novelty records and prank call CDs, just kind of was a little bit all over the place in terms of just making homemade odd stuff,” Kline says.
For him, it was all about hanging out at comic book shops, playing people’s apartments and courting small presses and scene culture.
“I really thought that that was the way to live and be as an artist,” he says.
When Kline enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he didn’t move into a dorm.
“I found some $300 apartment around the block that was a nightmare with a slumlord and a lot of bad elements,” Kline says. “It was not good.”
Robert, Kline’s teen protagonist, played by Daniel Zolghadri (”Eighth Grade,” “Tales from the Loop”), pays $350 in rent for a sweaty existence with two older gentlemen named Barry and Steven in his new airless basement digs, complete with a shower that spits out awful brown water.
But he’s never more contented than when he’s sitting at the table, drawing his cartoons.
The art inside the art
Robert works shifts at a comic book shop called The Garage.
The place is home to a crew of older underground comics experts (including one played by Andy Milonakis) that make Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” look like a mainstream shill. (The director makes a cameo, too.)
Kline grew up wanting to have his own comic strip in the newspaper funnies and drawing a Mad magazine-style zine called “Goof-Up.” He delighted in the work of cartoonist R. Crumb and alternative comics from Fantagraphics. As a young teen, he’d mingle with cartoonists at Rocketship, a comic book shop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
He knew he had to get the art right for Robert and other characters in the film.
“Ideally, a drawing that a character creates on their own in their bedroom, that you’re seeing them create, uninhibited, could potentially say more than a line of dialogue,” Kline says.
He enlisted alternative cartoonist Johnny Ryan to draw cartoons that express the teen’s voice and comedic vision, like when Robert roasts his fellow basement dwellers in a “Boilin’ Barry and Steven” comic.
Rick Altergott, who created the character Doofus and drew for Cracked magazine in the ’80s, supplied the art for Robert’s Princeton teacher, Mr. Katano ( Stephen Adly Guirgis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright). The character is confined to the first few minutes of the film, but his advice has a tremendous influence on Robert.
“It’s not a path towards happiness that he’s searching for,” Kline says of the teen cartoonist. “It’s probably someone to guide him.”
When Robert meets Wallace ( Matthew Maher), a testy former staffer at Image Comics, it’s like a miracle to him. He’s obsessed with learning from the guy, even though he worked as a color separator, not a comic book artist. As Wallace becomes an unlikely and very reluctant mentor to Robert, Kline again showcases Ryan’s artwork, in a much different style.
Robert’s fellow teen comics enthusiast Miles ( Miles Emanuel) is always getting under his skin just by being alive. For his art, Kline drove home the amateur look by using an existing mini-comic that this friend, Charlie Judkins, made in high school. The images represent Miles’ innocence and unsullied hope for creative expression despite continual criticism from Robert, whose intense drive makes him impatient with his much more forgiving friend.
“Miles is almost like his inner child that he’s rejecting,” Kline says of Robert. “He’s trying this new life and this guy is reminding him of all his old embarrassing influences. Miles looks up to him and wants to draw like him and cares about him. I think Robert hates himself. He looks up to a guy (Wallace) who is difficult and hates himself. I think it’s like a weird self-hating food chain going on between the three of them.”
When he’s not entranced by art, Robert often comes across as an angsty, angry teen. And Wallace knows something about anger — he’s having a hard time controlling it.
“The real lesson there is that bitterness and pain is pretty all-consuming,” Kline says.
School of the Safdie brothers
When “Funny Pages” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it was the culmination of years of creative development, starting with the beginnings of a script nearly a decade ago.
Kline’s final product opens with a scene that ratchets up the awkward factor and signals a lot more uncomfortable moments to come.
Mr. Katano volunteers to strip down and pose naked so Robert can draw him, and proceeds to do so with little warning. Robert, half trying to sketch his undressed teacher but mostly attempting to hide his shock, rushes out in a kind of “saved by the bell” moment.
The frenzied tone and unrelenting focus of “Funny Pages” mirrors that of Kline’s own mentors and producers on the film — the Safdie brothers. The directors earned raves for their tense, edgy movie “Uncut Gems” (2019), starring a transformed Adam Sandler.
“It was just like this sickly baby I was nurturing under a rock,” he says.
The director started learning from and working with the Safdies when they were making short films.
“They really helped me teach me how to personalize and customize every piece of real estate in the movie,” Kline says. “If you’re shooting an insert into someone who’s looking at a comic, if you’re going to cut to the inside of that comic, what’s that insert? What’s that panel? It has to speak to the movie in some way. Is it too on the nose? You have to find the perfect panel. If someone has a T-shirt, that’s a piece of real estate to say something potentially. Every single detail is vetted and thought about.
“That’s sort of the frantic Safdie process that I definitely picked up in my head,” he says.
Every moment is a chance to carve out character or advance the story.
Like Mr. Katano tells Robert, even routine exercises like figure drawings need to have a point of view. To know what makes your own experience stand out and put that on film can be “pretty loaded,” Kline says. “You can surprise yourself.”
Another valuable piece of advice from the Safdies: don’t ask permission.
“That’s the only way to ever finish anything, really,” Kline says of the filming process, which saw him darting around New York and New Jersey.
New Jersey: Weird and film-ready
The juxtaposition of Princeton and Trenton in “Funny Pages” underscores Robert’s journey.
A Garden State backdrop sets the tone, alternating between the comic book shop, public defender’s office, sweaty, hellish basement apartment and comfortable suburban home.
“The original impetus of this movie, for some reason, was around New Jersey,” Kline says. “I knew a kid who haunted the Princeton Record Exchange, who grew up around there and looked up to the grumpy patrons. It was just a certain kind of kid that I was interested in creating a character study around. I just thought it would be funny.”
This Jersey flavor can also be found in the cast of “Funny Pages.”
Robert is “an obsessive researcher,” much like Kline, who worked as a researcher for books. The teen has a reverence for vintage and retro art. That appreciation shows up in veteran “Uncle Floyd Show” performer Michael Townsend Wright, an actor and variety artist from Red Bank. He’s hilarious as Barry, Robert’s skeevy but endearing roommate, whose damp combover streaks like a cartoonist’s exaggerated lines across his forehead.
Cranford’s Maria Dizzia plays Robert’s mother, Jennifer. She skillfully channels suburban panic when Wallace, who is in trouble with the law for a public disturbance at a pharmacy, turns up at their Princeton home on Christmas.
Kline originally had Robert working nights in a garage, with a lot of nighttime scenes.
“We were going to shoot it all in Camden,” he says. “But Camden proved to be not so easy. Camden got pretty scary.”
Some local visual cues were no-brainers, like the “Trenton Makes” sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge.
Kline found Wallace’s run-down apartment in Newark.
“I did a lot of the location-scouting myself with the line producer, and we drove out there and I remember pulling up to a postman in Newark, getting out of the car, freaking him out,” he says.
He told the man they were looking for “the area here where people don’t go.”
“That is maybe my favorite New Jersey location in the movie because for some reason, it looks like a backlot set,” he says of Wallace’s apartment. “It looks like a scene out of ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ (Otto Preminger’s 1955 movie, with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak) or something. You’d think it was just dressed but it was completely real, for the most part.”
“You could’ve just called this movie ‘ Weird New Jersey,’” Kline says. “Those books are incredible ... Weird N.J. books were an inspiration to this movie, in a way. I felt like that was sort of an aspect of New Jersey that hadn’t been totally explored.”
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