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SXSW: How a weird in-joke turned into 'Uncle Kent 2'

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You might think making a sequel to 2011’s Uncle Kent is a strange idea. Actually, in all likelihood, you’ve probably never even heard of the original, micro-budgeted comedy. But that hasn’t stopped actor-writer Kent Osborne and directors Joe Swanberg and Todd Rohal from creating Uncle Kent 2, which premieres at the upcoming SXSW Festival. Indeed, it is the comically odd nature of the project which helped inspired the idea in the first place.

“It started as this running joke,” says Osborne, who in addition to his acting career (School Ties, the Swanberg-directed Hannah Takes the Stairs) has also worked as a writer on a slew of animated shows, including SpongeBob SquarePants and Adventure Time. “The idea of putting a ‘2’ after that particular movie was really funny to a lot of people.”

The absurdist nature of Uncle Kent 2 also informed the film’s poster, which you can exclusively see above and which misleadingly gives the impression that the project is some kind of science fiction thriller. “When you make a small independent film you usually have to fight to avoid the DVD designers from putting out a cover that intentionally misrepresents the real ‘heart’ of the movie,” says Rohal. “I thought we could just embrace the idea of false advertising and try to make a sale in Poland or Russia based solely on the poster image. I wanted to re-title the movie AAA#1 Uncle Kent 2 to keep it at the top of the VOD lists, which is the new trend in making sales now. I guess we’ll just wait and see if any distributors have any ideas and just say ‘Yes’ to everything.” 

The origin of what we can now, rather marvelously, refer to as the “Uncle Kent franchise” dates back a decade or so and the initial meeting of Osborne and the prolific, Chicago-based Swanberg. “We were introduced by a filmmaker friend of ours named Dan Brown from Austin, Texas,” Swanberg recalls. “He said, ‘Kent has an acting style I think would fit with your stuff.’ I brought him and Greta Gerwig to Chicago a couple of months before we did Hannah Takes the Stairs and we made a short film together and I just loved him straight away. He could be naturalistic but also improvise within this comedy framework. After that, I wrote roles for him in Nights and Weekends and then Alexander the Last. We just got on this rhythm where it felt strange to me to not have him there and be part of the ensemble.” 

As if all this wasn’t strange enough, Osborne and Kent decided that the universe of Uncle Kent 2 would be one in which the original film existed. The sequel actually opens with Osborne watching the first movie on his computer and then unsuccessfully pitching the idea of a sequel to a playing-himself Swanberg, who in real-life ultimately agreed to direct the first 12 minutes of the film before handing the baton to Rohal. “They called me and said Todd Rohal was going to do it, which I thought was very inspired,” says Swanberg. “I’ve loved every movie Todd’s made—I’m like a super fan.” The result is a movie whose opening scenes very much resemble a Joe Swanberg film but then transforms into an almost completely different beast which, without giving too much away, boasts animation, apocalyptic themes, and the strong possibility that Osborne’s character might be losing his mind. “It’s really fun to see Kent theoretically playing that same character but existing in such a different world,” says Swanberg. Rohal shot much of that world at Comic Con in San Diego—an experience which left the director flabbergasted. “I’ve never seen shopping bags as big as the ones people were carrying around there,” he says. “Seeing a grown man sitting in a restaurant dressed in a Steampunk outfit and knowing that he booked a flight and paid for a hotel to be there—it’s something you’ll never be able to explain to someone that fought in a war or paid their own way through college.”

All of which just leaves one question: who will direct what we’re going to go ahead and describe as the now inevitable Uncle Kent 3? While Osborne and Swanberg both, independently, nominate Bujalski for the job, Rohal has a completely different, and much more detailed, vision for the future of the franchise. “I’d like to put a sign-up sheet on the door at the premiere and just let people reserve their own slots,” he says. “It’d be great to release five or 10 of these a year. Or do a TV series.” Also? “I want Matthew Barney to make Uncle Kent 34 and at some point I’d like Gus Van Sant to remake the original, but with an A-list cast.”