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In 'Funny Pages,' a teenage cartoonist throws himself into his drawings

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Funny Pages," a new film by Owen Kline that opens in over 30 theaters this weekend, has already been acclaimed a cult classic. It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, has raves on Rotten Tomatoes, albeit after just a few reviews. And it took years to be seen. It's the story of Robert, a 17-year-old cartoonist in Princeton, N.J., who doesn't want to be a college student because he fears it might stall and corrupt his creativity. He moves to a barely habitable basement in Trenton, gets in modest trouble with the law, is uncommunicative and sullen with his parents and throws himself full time into trying to become as subversive as his drawings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FUNNY PAGES")

MATTHEW MAHER: (As Wallace) I don't really understand what you guys see in the funny animal comics.

DANIEL ZOLGHADRI: (As Robert) You can't appreciate any funny animal comics? - Pogo, the Ducks.

MAHER: (As Wallace) The Ducks?

ZOLGHADRI: (As Robert) Donald Duck and his nephews, Daisy, Scrooge McDuck, Fethry Ducks. Some of those Carl Barks Duck comics are actually pretty sophisticated.

MAHER: (As Wallace) Are you guys [expletive] Martians? Those are for 10-year-olds in the '50s.

SIMON: The film stars Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Miles Emanuel and writer and director Owen Kline, who happens to be the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates - joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

OWEN KLINE: Thanks so much. I'm honored. That was wonderful.

SIMON: I have to ask, to what degree is this story drawn from your own story?

KLINE: I think everybody has a bad bout when - in their - you know, 15, 16, 17. You know, just coming out of puberty is pretty uncomfortable and awkward. And those hormones and the teenage mind just kind of interact and explode in an - in all sorts of interesting ways. I don't know if - did you have kids?

SIMON: Yes. Yes. And they're teenagers, conveniently - 19 and 15 - but, you know, models of deportment. But go ahead. Yeah.

KLINE: Yeah. Well, brace yourself. It's coming.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, believe you me. I do know...

KLINE: Fifteen - at the rumblings of - you know, anyway. I mean, I wanted to be a cartoonist as a kid. So that fabric - I just - I put that into this film.

SIMON: Yeah. There's a - I don't mind calling it - a surprising and shocking kind of unexpected turn in the first few minutes of the film. At least I certainly wasn't expecting it. Were you out to, if I might put it this way, subvert the usual flow of storytelling like Robert's teacher tells him to subvert?

KLINE: I think really the lesson at the beginning of the movie - there's a drawing lesson at the beginning of the film from a sort of irascible, possibly manic mentor figure who's helping the kid with his drawing portfolio. But he tries to get the kid to sort of wake up and observe the things that the kid is already preoccupied and inclined to be observed and connect him a little bit more to his particular voice.

SIMON: What do Robert and his acquaintances find in comics?

KLINE: You know, I was - I drew comics as a kid and - you know, comic strips. And I guess just seeing your immediate fingerprint in terms of your inclinations on the page, I think it - they come through in surprising ways. It's just probably the most self-reflexive medium. And it's one voice. You know what I mean? It's one voice in doing everything visual, all the dialogue, all the - everything.

SIMON: You were still at that point in your career where you are introduced as the son of two great performers. This movie might put you over that hump. But you were also you were in a celebrated movie when you were 13, "The Squid And The Whale." But I have read that you grew up in show business, but reviling - and that's the word I think I saw attributed to you in a, quote - reviling show business. Could you help us understand that?

KLINE: At least being maybe a bit exaggerating. No, I just never had any kind of inclination towards show business and sort of - I guess I was a little bit repelled by it, but only by virtue of growing up in New York. I didn't grow up in Los Angeles. I was kind of protected from show business a little bit, you know? And then doing "Squid And The Whale" as a kid certainly pointed me toward 16-millimeter personal filmmaking, you know? That movie pointed me towards that, which pointed me towards Anthology Film Archives, where I worked as a teenager and interned for the archivist and discovered that whole body of experimental work and the Kuchar brothers and just more personal experimental cinema is what I connected to just on the East Coast.

SIMON: I found myself touched by the scenes in which Robert and his parents try to talk to each other, but it doesn't quite work out.

KLINE: Well, that's interesting. How did it touch you?

SIMON: They're both trying. They're all trying - all three of them.

KLINE: Yeah, it's a communication breakdown in some way. But I think the character of Robert is in more control than they are in every scenario that they're in. You know, he also is fueling the fire there.

SIMON: Tell us a bit about Robert's friends. I'm going to refer to them - they love cartoons that seem rumpled. And by that, I just don't mean their hair or clothes. Something seems to have, you know, rumbled their hearts a little. They're all trying to reach out in different ways.

KLINE: I love rumpled. It's, like, a very - that's a phrase that hasn't entered the conversation around this movie. I like - I'm going to hold on to rumpled. You're saying the comics that they're attracted to drawing or to reading? Or both, I guess.

SIMON: All of it, yeah. All of it - their - you know, their lives.

KLINE: Yeah. Yeah. I guess there's just a certain level of homemade work in the comics that are sort of - there's a messiness to, I don't know, uninhibited underground comics or something. And people want to either embrace in that mess or not. I imagine, you know, it's the same thing for people watching this movie. But the comedy is the thing that I think people are really responding to and actually kind of - I don't know. The amazing thing about comedy is it opens people up. I don't know. You're more vulnerable if you're laughing to get - it's easier to, like, stick the knife in in a way.

SIMON: This film was shot in 2019. What's been happening to it since then?

KLINE: Actually, the film was shot in 2017, 2018 and pieces between then and now pretty - you know, I mean, and up to...

SIMON: Wow.

KLINE: ...Pretty recently. You know, this was a movie I spent about 10 years - it was really - it was very difficult to make. Nobody wanted to make it. I spent about two or three years trying to get anyone to read it. And the right people read it. It was a slowly evolving - it was not a regular production model. It was never designed to be. It never was meant to be.

SIMON: Your characters raise a question towards the end of the film. Somebody says, isn't imagination more important than craft? Well, let's put it this way. I thought the question was pointedly left unanswered. Wonder what your feelings are about that.

KLINE: I think craft and imagination are sort of in a complicated kind of tango with each other. I think that you can't have one without the other.

SIMON: Owen Kline - his film "Funny Pages" is in theaters now. And I enjoyed this one. I'll look forward to the next one. Thanks so much.

KLINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.