You may know him as Sandy Ryerson on Glee or Stu Beggs on Californication or Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day—the overly ingratiating insurance salesman Bill Murray punches. Face come to mind now? Bing!
But thanks to his popular podcast and subsequent PRI radio show The Tobolowsky Files, Stephen Tobolowsky has become almost as well-known a storyteller as a busy Hollywood character actor. And there’s a Seattle connection to his unlikely success: a Belltown techie named David Chen who produces The Tobolowsky Files and has now directed a performance documentary featuring Tobolowsky at the Moore, The Primary Instinct, which will premiere at SIFF.
Chen, who was born in Taiwan but raised in Massachusetts from age 3, began producing the then-weekly, now-monthly podcast in 2009. All the while he had a day job as a researcher at the Harvard Business School and contributed to a film-review podcast on Slashfilm.com. With no training in film production, The Primary Instinct is his first feature film.
Tobolowsky’s podcast has its roots in the memorable 2005 film Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, in which the actor regales guests with hilarious yet profound stories of his life, and in Tobolowsky’s subsequent appearances on Chen’s Slashfilm podcast. As Chen explained during a recent chat in the unusually bustling lobby of the Alexis Hotel, “I said, ‘Stephen, your stories are so good, and I bet there are so many more of them in your head just waiting to get out into the world. If we don’t do something to preserve them, they’ll be lost forever.’ A couple of weeks later we started the podcast, and now we’re here.”
Well, it wasn’t quite that direct. Chen invited Tobolowsky to perform a live show in front of an audience at Harvard, where Chen was then earning an M.A. in education. “People seemed to like it,” says Tobolowsky by phone from L.A., so he took the act on the road. An editor at Simon and Schuster attended one of those shows and proposed a book, which became The Dangerous Animals Club, published in 2012. Around the same time, KUOW’s Jeff Hansen approached Chen and Tobolowsky about turning the podcast into a weekly radio show, which brought his stories to a whole new audience. Meanwhile, unrelated to the KUOW connection, Chen was hired at Microsoft and in 2012 moved here from Massachusetts. Seattle became the new production base for the show. “It’s just kind of a fluke that everyone ended up in Seattle,” says Tobolowsky, who now calls our city “a home away from home.”
“All that spun from David saying, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ ” insists the ever-modest Tobolowsky—meaning the film, too. “David said, ‘What if we did a Kickstarter movie?’ ” Chen launched a campaign in early 2014 and 12 days later had $50,000 in crowd-funding commitments, enough to cover a modest production. He envisioned a documentary that attempted to answer the question “Why do we tell stories?” through Tobolowsky’s storytelling. The actor would talk directly to the camera, with an audience gradually expanding from small groups to a classroom and finally to a centerpiece performance in a full theater. While Chen hired a crew and booked the Moore for a May 2014 show, Tobolowsky turned to writing that centerpiece. “There was the idea of let’s do several small stories,” he recalls. “I thought, wait a minute, what we really have is a story about stories. And it evolved into one huge story.”
There’s a leap of faith when embarking on any film project, and The Primary Instinct is built on a foundation of trust—not just between Chen and Tobolowsky, but among fans who attended the one-off show, the artist performing, and a seven-camera crew working for a neophyte director. Though a dress rehearsal was filmed, yielding just a few editing patches, the 70-minute performance would be filmed live and continuously, with no safety net, no margin for error, no second night to fix mistakes. (Most comedy specials and performance films are compiled from two or more shows.) Reflecting back, says Tobolowsky, “We had one shot at it, which made it, I think, more desperate, and in a way more engaging, because the cracks in the leather are there. The times when I don’t come up with the next word are there and the audience is rooting for me.” It also helped that the vibes were right from the historic old Moore: “I love that theater so much. It’s like you’re on the inside of a violin.”
Tobolowsky says of his newbie director, “There’s always going to be a first time, and I figured that the first time with him making a movie, there were going to be problems.” But perhaps fewer than anticipated: That near-seamless Moore performance became the entire film.
“I happen to like to tell true stories,” Tobolowsky says early in The Primary Instinct. From there he launches into a couple of seemingly unrelated anecdotes, easing his audience into an evening that slowly creeps into matters of life and death without ever losing that easy, conversational engagement. Neither stand-up comedy nor traditional one-man show, the feels like an extension of the podcast. Tobolowsky tells true stories from his own life in a monologue that recalls Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia or Julia Sweeney’s God Said Ha!. These autobiographical tales and reflections ultimately converge in touching and resonant ways. The film’s title comes from motto his mother liked to repeat, “The primary instinct is self-preservation.” But come the end of the journey, Tobolowsky offers an alternate theory.
Chen, who’ll attend the SIFF screenings with his self-effacing star, hopes that The Primary Instinct will introduce a whole new audience to Tobolowsky’s warm, funny, and sometimes philosophical stories. It’s a movie that hews to the podcast’s motto: “True always trumps clever.”
SIFF Cinema Egyptian 801 E. Pine St., 324-9996, siff.net. $11–$13. 9:45 p.m. Fri., May 29 & noon Sat., May 30.
Read the rest of Seattle Weekly’s coverage of SIFF here.