"I'll Wear The Loser Crown": A Conversation with Chris Kasick, "Uncle Nick" Director and Sad Cleveland Sports Fan
"Uncle Nick" is an anti-Christmas movie built around a scuzzy hornball uncle and the generation-spanning crappiness of Cleveland sports. It's a comedy, all right.
Courtesy Chris Kasick
Here's a fun holiday game. Sidle up beside a Cleveland sports fan and whisper, "The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The Modell. The Mesa. The Whatever Expletive You Want to Use for the 2015 Browns." Then sit back and watch them get pissed—and super pissed, if there's a four-pack of Great Lakes Blackout Stout near at hand.
Chris Kasick is a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan, one who has put in many a shift at the Factory of Sadness. He is also a first-time film director. His debut, Uncle Nick, combines the love-hate relationship so many of us have with our sports teams with the love-hate relationship so many of us have with the holidays, and turns it into one big, skeevy, furious, whiskey-soaked mess. Uncle Nick, the demon spawn of Bad Santa and Big Fan, stars Brian Posehn in his first leading giant man role. Mr. Show's resident freak is Nick, a character he described as "Diane Keaton in Love the Coopers if she was a scuzzy fat guy trying to fuck his step-niece."
I spoke with Posehn for one of them fancy lad websites, but he isn't much of a sports fan. Constructing an anti-holiday holiday film around the Cleveland Indians' infamous 10 Cent Beer Night wasn't his idea, so I knew I needed to hear from Uncle Nick's director. Kasick, who has worked for famed documentarian Errol Morris for many years, did not disappoint. He and I discussed unwavering civic pride, the upside of Draft Day, free beer on Christmas Eve, and LeBron's ill-fated destiny. Kasick, 37, knows the holidays can be rough, but being a Cleveland sports fan is much, much rougher.
VICE Sports: So, sad, angry, gross, naked Cleveland sports fans as the framing device for sad, angry, gross, naked Cleveland family at Christmas.
Chris Kasick: The Cleveland sports angle is interesting. Growing up, during my childhood, sports were just misery. The Drive and the Fumble left an indelible impression on me. Those two games formed a mentality that we had as a city: that Cleveland was never going to win the big game.
During the 80s, when the Browns were getting their hopes and dreams crushed by the Broncos, the Indians were brutal.
As a kid, I remembering going to games at Municipal Stadium, which was built in the 1920s and had seats for almost 80,000 people. It was huge, cavernous, and this behemoth of a stadium had a couple thousand fans in it, tops. It was so bizarre, the idea of watching a public event, a baseball game with its inherent cheering, but it was so dead inside. A living metaphor.
Lots of cities have crappy sports histories, but why does it seem to feel so much worse in Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo?
The depopulation of the cities over time is dispiriting, but it also makes the role the teams play that much more important, what they represent to the people who still live there. In Cleveland, we're always talking about the teams and the games, so when the franchises are losers year in and year out, what does that say about us? We all take on that quality. We're not winners like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and so on.
Nobody has combined sports and Christmas quite like you have in Uncle Nick. Where did that idea come from?
I wanted to make a movie about Cleveland, the sadness of the city, what living there entails. When I go home for the holidays, there's a lonely feeling. It's cold and dark, and the snow coming off of Lake Erie is so quiet, it's deafening. The Browns are usually out of it, baseball is too far away, so we drink the winter football games away watching a team going nowhere.
It does feel like the second go-round of the Browns has never been right.
It's a losing mentality throughout the organization now. They've had what, sixteen first-round draft picks? And they've almost all been terrible. How is that possible? There's a lot of anger about nearly everything the franchise has done since returning to Cleveland. Just look at the Browns now, if you can stomach it. Could you imagine paying for tickets? You'd have to be nuts.
And you had to sit through Draft Day.
Right. Actual Browns football is so bad, they had to make a movie about the fucking general manager. I will say one thing for Draft Day, though: the aerial photography was cool. They brought in some helicopter camera guy who got really impressive shots of Cleveland, ones I'd never seen before. I mean, they shot Major League in Milwaukee.
Did you and screenwriter Mike Demski have the idea to frame Uncle Nick around the infamous 10 Cent Beer Night from the beginning? Or was it two separate projects combined into one?
From the beginning. I've known Mike Demski since third grade. We played Little League together. We were the two fat kids who would alternate innings in right field. We were born after 10 Cent Beer Night, but it was this legendary event that everybody talked about. I wanted to make a lowbrow-highbrow movie, with a lot of vulgarity and grossness, but I wanted to shoot like a documentary, which comes from working with Errol Morris for all these years. So we used 10 Cent Beer Night in a black-and-white documentary style to frame the story of Uncle Nick. Everyone claims to have gone to the game. The glory of Cleveland—the night the city fought back, took on the Texas Rangers, and didn't back down.
Hold on, so you're saying that in Cleveland, 10 Cent Beer Night is celebrated?
Absolutely. A week before, down in Texas, the Indians and Rangers had gotten into a brawl, pitchers were beaning players all over the place. So leading up to the game, local radio was all over it. "We're going to get them back, show them what Cleveland is made of" kind of stuff. The city was on edge, ready to sock it to the Rangers, shut up Billy Martin's big fat mouth. It wasn't even the first 10 Cent Beer Night, but with the tension in the air, it became a free-for-all. In the 70s, there was no real security, so it was the perfect storm for anarchy.
It's become a monument to drunken civic pride. Kick us in the face, but we'll get back up. It's why we intertwined the holidays and 10 Cent Beer Night in Uncle Nick. The baseball stuff was written in the script, but it took on a life of its own as we were filming. It ultimately became the nine innings of Christmas, the aggression spilling out just like back at Municipal Stadium embodies Nick's long night.
Was it tricky getting the framing in sync with the Christmas Eve narrative in Uncle Nick?
It was. Originally, it was three longer segments of 10 Cent Beer Night—that's how I filmed it—but they felt too long and out of place. We had to spread the footage out more, so eventually it became nine innings. I edited this movie for two years, which is nuts because it's only 81 minutes, but it took a while to strike the right balance. At one point, Uncle Nick was a lot grosser. It had gotten too over-the-top. Every character barfed, there was an extended topless scene, Nick crossed more of a line with his step-niece in another...
I was wrapped up in the movie for so long that I didn't realize how far beyond the pale some of the cuts of the movie were. Thank god for my editor Kimberley Hassett, who pulled it back and reigned in my baser instincts. Having a female editor come in with a different aesthetic helped offset two gross Cleveland guys tremendously.
Without giving too much away, I didn't see the ending coming at all, but it was pitch perfect and, shall we say, of the holiday spirit?
Yes, something good came out of both of these drunken crazy nights, one with Uncle Nick, the other with amped-up Indian fans.
Living in Los Angeles, working in the movie business, do you feel a strong connection to Cleveland sports?
I'm a Clevelander at heart. I still watch every Browns game, nearly every Cavs game, follow the Indians. Once you leave a place, in some ways, the sports themselves become who you are, the most tangible connection outside of family.
Still, it can't always be easy to flip on the Browns when it's a sunny 80-degree December day.
This might sound odd, but I like the losing. At least it's an identity. If we're not going to be a city with multiple championships, winning all the time, I'll wear the loser crown. It puts a chip on your shoulder, makes you an underdog, better than being some wishy-washy town like Kansas City. It's a concept we try to embody in Uncle Nick.
Do you get together with the expat Cleveland sports community in Los Angeles?
Before I could afford cable, there was a bar on Sunset where I would go watch Browns games at 10 AM on Sunday mornings, but not anymore. Los Angeles isn't great for sports bars, but that's fine because I prefer to watch by myself. I have a personal connection to these Cleveland teams I love too much, but it isn't one of being among joyous fans and delirium. It didn't happen that way. It's sitting alone, as a kid, watching the Drive, the Shot, the Fumble in solitary. I prefer being by myself. Maybe that has something to do with my attraction to 10 Cent Beer Night, a great fun communal experience of idiocy I missed out on.
I feel safe in saying that Uncle Nick features the first middle-age male sports podcaster, played in all his pathetic glory by 30 Rock's Scott Adsit. Where did he come from?
Demski came up with the idea of the "Beat of the Drum" podcast. There's so many podcasts out there with no following, so here's this lonely guy in Cleveland talking about his beloved Indians to himself, basically. Adsit is trying to drum up support for the podcast—nobody cares—but it doesn't faze him. He loves it. He's got pride in the hometown teams. It gives him life.
You've worked with Errol Morris for a long time. He's the official Uncle Nick presenter. What was one thing you took from his tutelage when making the movie?
I've been working with Errol since I was 21 years old and he's always been supportive of my career, great in every way. I learned the "sick, sad, and funny" genre from him. His movies usually include all those elements. If you can balance all three, you've got something.
Uncle Nick comes out at a time when the entire way films are released has been upended—streaming, VOD, theatrical releases, etc. Is the new reality exciting or frightening?
There's one terrifying aspect to it, and that was that Uncle Nick would turn up online before it sold. It's a weird position to be in, sending off copies to screen agents and festivals, hoping that it doesn't appear on the internet for free. Dark Sky Films bought the movie and I want them to make money. It is a totally new world. Uncle Nick was shown in a dozen theaters, on one night, because that's how you get premium placement for VOD.
There was a random showing in South Dakota—they Skyped me in to do a Q&A. It wasn't at a theater; it was in a bar. There were two drunk dudes who wanted to talk to me about how much they loved Uncle Nick. I appreciate it, but it is bizarre how films are distributed now.
Do you have any long-term hopes for Uncle Nick? Holiday staple?
I know Uncle Nick isn't for everyone. It's an anti-Christmas movie with a tragic sports angle. We went lowbrow as counterprogramming against your typical holiday movie. I was down the Uncle Nick rabbit hole for so long, I sort of forgot how fucked up it is. There's a melancholy feeling to Christmas. It's when families seem to get all of the drama—usually with booze to numb emotions—so they can start the new year fresh. We went there.
So my idea in making the film was that it could become a cult holiday favorite. Maybe a few years down the line, Uncle Nick will have enough fans that I could fill a big theater for a Christmas Eve screening at midnight. We'll have free beer in the lobby, do the holiday up right.
What about LeBron, is he is going to be the one to bring it home?
In an earlier version of Uncle Nick, when Posehn is listing off all the sports heartbreak, he said, "The Drive, the Fumble, the Shot, the Decision..." I took it out because LeBron had come back to the Cavs by that point, and I thought he deserved a fair shake. He owes the city a little bit for ripping their hearts out, but I think he feels that.
How crazy will it be if LeBron James, the local hero, the guy who came back to Cleveland, doesn't bring a title to his hometown? It's entirely possible. Golden State is phenomenal, and young. San Antonio reloaded with Leonard and Aldridge. Those teams will be around for a while. Wait a minute, what if LeBron gets the Cavs close the next two years but then he turns 35, 36? You'll never get another LeBron. It's not going to happen. It's over. What a disaster.
That would be the most Cleveland sports thing to ever happen.