Making a movie is never a solo effort. For any film to simply happen, let alone succeed, multiple responsibilities need to be handled by multiple people with various types and levels of abilities. By inviting others to help realize a film, it’s possible that all the various contributors dilute the “true” voice of that project. Thus, in order for a true success to occur, a sort-of groupthink (but, you know, in a non-creepy, un-Big Brothery way) has to set in.
The Exquisite Corpse Project examines the tension and surprising harmony that can emerge from collaboration as six friends and former colleagues work together to make one movie. “Exquisite Corpse” is originally named for a party game in which three people draw one body — with one person in charge of the head, the other the torso, and the third responsible for the legs. The catch is that no one artist can see what the other two are doing until it’s all finished. Similarly, director Ben Popik charges his five friends and former collaborators with writing a movie with the following specific limitations/rules: Each writer writes fifteen pages, only getting to read the previous five pages along with a list of previously used characters and locations.
The sections produced have very little in common with each other outside of those recurring characters, and in effect the film becomes an anthology of these characters in various genres and circumstances. Like any anthology, some entries are far superior to others, creating an uneven film experience. The segments alone would be an OK, if somewhat trite, exercise for a film, but what The Exquisite Corpse Project does brilliantly is to use a documentary about the filmmakers’ history, process, and reaction to the film as a framing device that connects each segment and informs them. Popik interviews his collaborators before the film begins, while the film is written, and after the film has been viewed. By having this firsthand explanation of the author’s intent, we learn, for instance, that one section was written entirely ironically and came out of the bruised ego of the screenwriter after being told his initial pass was not very good. We are able to glean that Popik wasn’t too happy about this approach, as the segment is poorly filmed and edited, a passive-aggressive way for Popik to show his own reaction to his friend’s efforts.
The history of the six members (Popik along with his former Olde English comedy group consisting of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Joel Clark, Adam Conover, Dave Segal, and their frequent collaborator Chioke Nassor) slowly emerges as the film moves along: a small liberal arts comedy group that experienced great success in the nascent age of YouTube tomfoolery. But once they had money and a studio to make what they wanted, they found themselves constantly bickering and not feeling fulfilled by what they were producing. Now, as Popik prepares to immigrate to Belize (without any explanation given as to why, except that it does look quite nice down there), he brings all of his cohorts together again, along with their baggage. The movie would benefit from more details about their falling out or even more conflict than just the sensitive comedians trying (but rarely succeeding) to impress each other.
What’s remarkable about the film these former collaborators created are the occasional notes of synchronicity that occur, perhaps the echo of unconscious vestiges of their time spent creating together. Themes of disappointment, of something exciting turning stale, and of uncertainty run throughout each segment. And there’s a symmetric and unintended arc for the two main characters — even after they’ve passed through sections featuring snake ghosts, laser eyes, spurned lovers, and an ironic balloon picnic. There is also the flip side where each writer, instead of continuing in the perceived vein they just read, consciously chooses to do his own thing. In comedy terms, this group is less inclined to “Yes, and…” each other and more likely to “No, but…” — which speaks to the divide that now exists between each of them.
The Exquisite Corpse Project offers up some laughs and inspired moments within the written sections. However it’s the unscripted elements that should have taken a greater precedence in the film. These moments offer up a unique perspective into the process and price of collaboration and showcase how disparate voices can somehow merge into one vision.
The film is touring with occasional theatrical exhibitions, but can also be purchased for digital download here.