B.J. Novak shot directorial debut ‘Vengeance’ in NM - Albuquerque Journal

B.J. Novak shot directorial debut ‘Vengeance’ in NM

B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz in “Vengeance.” (Patti Perret/Focus Features)

In June, B.J. Novak was getting his directorial debut “Vengeance” ready to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Yet, the journey to get the film to screen has been in the works for a few years. New Mexico played a role in getting the film done.

Novak brought the production to New Mexico in November 2020, where it filmed in Albuquerque and Artesia.

“(Though the film) is set in Texas, we filmed in New Mexico because it is extremely friendly to filmmakers,” Novak says. “(New Mexico) has legendary great crews and that is important to me. We filmed a lot in Artesia, which is in the Pecos Valley. One of the advantages is that we were able to import some people from Texas to give it the Texas feel.”

Novak wrote, directed and stars in the film. “Vengeance” also marks his first time in a lead role.

The film follows Ben Manalowitz, played by Novak, who is on a trip from Manhattan to rural Texas to attend his ex-girlfriend’s funeral.

Manalowitz is a writer for The New Yorker and he gets enticed by the deceased’s family to aid in investigating the declared overdose as a homicide.

He works on a podcast surrounding his detective escapades as he grows closer to the family. The film opens in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe on Friday, July 29.

From left, Isabella Amara as Paris Shaw, Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw, Louanne Stephens as Granny Carole, and Eli Abrams Bickel as El Stupido in “Vengeance.” (Patti Perret/Focus Features)

“I wanted to tell a story that was smart,” he says. “What I was figuring out is why are we so disconnected with other people. As I dug deeper, I began to find some answers.”

Novak says his character is very flawed but not irredeemable.

“I liked taking a character that you might not love right away,” he says. “He has a bunch of shallow traits. The idea that he travels to this place where everyone gives the benefit of the doubt and makes him live up to that is amazing.”

As Novak began the project, he was wearing so many hats that he became intimidated.

“As an actor, I rely on the director to help guide my performance,” he says. “I’m the director too and I’m taking on my first lead role, it really scared me. I knew I really wanted to do it.”

If that wasn’t enough, Novak brought in a cast that is just as impressive.

He is joined in the film by Dove Cameron, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook and Issa Rae.

Novak says having such a great cast also pushed him in all aspects.

“I like to act and really enjoyed myself. I learn from them,” he says. “I’ve sat across the set from Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz. It was scary, yet it was easy to set the tone. I knew the better actors I put myself around, the better I would do. Dove and Boyd have been so good in everything they’ve done. Ashton hasn’t ever really had a dramatic role he could sink himself into.”

B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz on set of “Vengeance.” (Patti Perret/Focus)

Novak says filming in New Mexico also did have a few challenges.

“We lost a whole scene,” he says. “The movie zips along and there was this flash blizzard. We tried to make the best of it. My character is this New York liberal and he’s trying to make a point about climate change. It just didn’t work out in the end.”

Novak also immersed himself in the community while he was staying in Albuquerque. He enjoyed the landscape.

“El Cotorro became my favorite,” he says. “I got addicted to New Mexico Piñon Coffee and I got to do a book reading.”

According to the New Mexico Film Office, “Vengeance” employed over 100 New Mexico crew members, over 20 New Mexico principal actors and over 50 background talent.

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