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Nick Thune On His Career, Taking Risks and The Making of ‘Dave Made a Maze’

Nick Thune has spent the better part of a decade honing his craft a standup comic. His hard work and determination paid off in spades as he quickly established himself as one of the most unique creative voices within the world of comedy. His absurdist view, deadpan wit and unique style of storytelling have continued to captivated audiences around the globe. Most importantly, he’s not never been afraid to take risks. His latest film project, ‘Dave Made A Maze,’ is no exception to the rule. In the film, Thune plays the titular Dave, an artist who has yet to complete anything significant in his career. One day, Dave builds a fort in his living room out of pure frustration (and cardboard, among other things), only to wind up trapped by the fantastical pitfalls, booby traps, and critters of his own creation. Ignoring his warnings, Dave’s girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) leads a band of oddball explorers on a rescue mission. Once inside, they are trapped in an ever-changing supernatural world, threatened by booby traps and pursued by a bloodthirsty Minotaur. The quirky and wildly imaginative film recently won the Audience Award for Best Narrative at the Slamdance Film Festival and is destined to become a cult classic. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Nick Thune to discuss his journey as an artist, the challenges he has faced along the way and the making of “Dave Made A Maze.”

I’ve followed your career since the beginning but let’s start further back. How did you get involved with the arts early on in life?

Well, it all started because I wasn’t good at sports when my neighbors were. I guess I had to find some other way to get attention! [laughs] That’s kind of how it all started! My dad grew up and was really good at playing the trombone. My grandmother was a piano teacher, so pretty early on I saw that as something important.

When did you start gravitating toward comedy?

I think my dad showed me “The Great Outdoors” or something pretty early on. It could have been one of the first things that I saw and that I remember. That really influenced me but once I saw “The Jerk” I was blown away in the sense that my dad, an adult, liked the silliness. I thought, “How fun to make something so dumb that you can make an adult laugh!” I think that’s why, at a young age, I started trying to make my parents laugh. I really enjoyed surprising people with something from out of nowhere.

What went into finding your creative voice as a comic?

I went to community college briefly and I had a class called DECA, which is kind of like a marketing class, I guess. We had to do a project and each student had a project throughout the year where they had to advertise to the group and get everyone involved. Mine was a homeless sandwich feed, which everyone in the class had to get involved with me. The teacher asked me the day beforehand to go up and update everyone on what was happening, what time to be there and all this stuff. I don’t know what came to mind or why I did it but I picked up my guitar and started writing this really stupid story about how peanut butter and jelly had changed my life in one night. The next day, the teacher introduced me and I walked up with my guitar. I started strumming and I’m sure she was really confused as to why I just wasn’t telling people, “Hey, tomorrow at 9 a.m.! Let’s meet!” I felt like I wanted these people to know why I was doing the sandwich feed and I really did love peanut butter. I made a real decision that we weren’t doing turkey sandwiches or ham sandwiches. There would be no mustard or condiments. It was just peanut butter and jelly! “It’s just peanut butter and jelly! That’s what we are giving these homeless people! And the reason because of this … ” I told this five-minute dramatic story about getting gum stuck in my hair on a bus. I remember the big laugh was, “I got home and my mom tried to use ice but it just made the gum harder. She had a pair of scissors and right as she was about to cut my hair out, my dad got home from work early, like he did every now and again. He grabbed the scissors out of my mom’s hand and threw them out the window. Side note: The window was closed.” [laughs] That was my first big laugh. I didn’t even mean to have that in there and I just came up with it on the spot. That was kind of a defining moment; when I saw people reacting but also listen, in the sense of, “What’s this guy doing right now?” In a way, it is a way of getting people’s attention and then surprising them. I think that is right where it started.

Comedy and entertainment aren’t easy fields to make a living. What are the keys to longevity and sustaining a career in this day and age?

God, I wish I knew! [laughs] I think it’s about taking risks. Standup is all I can control because it’s just me and I’m my own business, boss and the only employee. I can control that and no one can tell me how to do it. The audience, in a way, is a partner with me because if I’m not listening to the audience then I’m failing big time. I take risks and I try new things and hopefully they start to work or I learn how to do that better. Over the years, now that I’ve been doing it for not as a long as some people but longer than others, I might go do a show in Des Moines. Some girl comes up, who is about my age, and says that she has been following me since the beginning. When you see someone like that, who didn’t just hop in on the last album because it may have been a little different, it’s cool. She was pretty aware of everything I have ever done and that was kind of cool but, at the same time, I was like, “Wow! I’m glad she still likes it!” [laughs]

As a fan, one of the things I love is you take risks. Your latest film, “Dave Made A Maze,” is a great example. How did the project land on your radar?

I got an e-mail from David Wain, who has nothing to do with this movie. I’m sure you are familiar with him, I would assume. I had worked with him before and I really, really respect him and all the guys from that group who are behind “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer.” He said, “Hey, listen. A guy that I worked with who edited this movie that I did is friends with this guy who wrote a script and they like you a lot. They want you to be in this movie. I think you’d like it.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take a look!” So, I see this e-mail with the script and I see that it’s being directed by a guy named Bill Watterston. I thought, “Jesus, man! I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes, every time I pooped!” [laughs] That got my attention and I started reading it. I remember, as I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow! This is so Bill Watterston, man! This is insane! I can’t believe he is going to direct a movie!” I call my agent and I say, “This guy sent me a script and I like it. I want to meet with him. At the very least, I’d love to meet Bill Watterston.” They said, “Okay, great!” As I’m driving to meet him in North Hollywood and I was on the freeway. I thought, “You know what? Maybe I should just double check one thing.” I call my agent and I say, “This is Bill Watterson from Calvin and Hobbes, right?” The assistant goes, “Yeah, yeah. That’s the guy.” I say, “Okay, cool. Well, why don’t you just double check with one other person … ” A couple minutes later, he came back and said, “No. It’s a different Bill Watterson.” [laughs] I was already getting off the exit and figured, “What the hell! I like the script. I will meet with these guys!” I basically pulled into some weird warehouse parking lot and inside this warehouse were 15 people working their asses on cardboard and drawings, trying to figure out how to make their passion project. When you see that people care, that should be your first inclination that this should be something you want to be a part of. I have been on so many things where people just don’t give a shit. It’s like, “Yeah, we’re making money here and that’s great.” On “Dave Makes A Maze,” I guarantee no one made any money! [laughs] Maybe there is money to be made in the future, who knows, but you don’t make it for that reason. It was also shooting about a mile from my house every day and we shot in the same warehouse for about a month, so it all kind of came together!

You mentioned the people behind the scenes pouring their heart and soul into the project. That is evident when you watch the film, which is really inspiring. What was it like experiencing the world built for “Dave Made A Maze” for the first time?

It was crazy how well done it was! When you hear cardboard, you don’t think of anything serious or artistic but when you hear about where these guys got their ideas and this cardboard college where someone got a doctorate in cardboard or something … There are a lot of different stories going around. Basically, you would pull up to the set and outside there would generally be Steve Sears, the writer, who came to the set to help cut cardboard every day! One of the main art guys would be out there as well. There are outside! There in an area they aren’t supposed to be! Then you walk in and they are building a set in there as well and putting the final touches on another set. There were basically three sets at all times being rotated in and out per day. Some days we would shoot in four different sets that they had built. It was incredible! When I tell people, “The Maze is the main character of this movie … ,” it really is! I’m definitely maybe the second or third! The Maze is the movie — Dave is not!” [laughs]

The Origami Swamp from “Dave Made A Maze.”

What is your process for fleshing out a character before stepping on set?

I wish that it was very intense but I have an acting coach who is my friend and I think I was maybe his second client, 12 years ago, when I did my first movie. Now, he’s big time. When I get a role like this, I take it into him and try to think about what part of me can I put into this guy and put the pedal to the metal with. Is it this part of me or this other part of me? Right now, I am pacing around this studio space I rent in Glassell Park in Los Angeles and I have 15 projects on a board here that I’m going to eventually finish one of them! [laughs] I can look at that and say, “That’s what I see in Dave.” He’s the guy who doesn’t have a boss or someone saying, “Do this today.” In that situation, you just have to figure it out and maybe one day you get a fire lit under your ass and start running full speed in one direction but another day you can’t get off the couch. I think what I saw in Dave, after reading the script a few times, was that this guy started something one day and just couldn’t stop. I’ve been there when it comes to stand-up and stuff.

I thought the cast of this film, yourself included, brought some real magic. What was it like working alongside this talented group?

It wasn’t a very comfortable set, you know. We had one room to change in and one room to sit in and wait! A lot of us were together in scenes but you’ve got to also realize that I’m not in the first 20 minutes of the movie but my voice is. Bill even said, “You can do this ADR, if you want.” I think they were worried about me being overworked or something. It’s kind of funny the communication between the agents and them because there is sometimes a wall. I might not even know there is a wall but they might be afraid to work me too much because my agents are going to yell at them or who knows what. He said, “You don’t have to be here on these days.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Of course I do!” They just mic’d me in my regular clothes and I was sitting off set screaming my lines at them! [laughs] We would go back and forth! Somebody told me a story once about Woody Harrelson. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I want to believe it’s true. Somebody was on a movie with him and they were outside smoking and waiting to be called in. “Hurry up and wait … ” is what people like to say is the actors mentality. The guy just casually said to Woody Harrelson, “I wonder when we’re going to get out of here?” Woody Harrelson said, “Where the fuck are you going? You’re making a movie!” My point is sometimes you are on a set where people are itching to leave but I don’t think any of the actors in “Dave Makes A Maze” were itching to leave. That makes you want to be in it even more! Meera [Rohit Kumbhani] was amazing and also so prepared and on point. Adam Busch as well. I remember, before my big monologue that the movie starts off with and then comes back, we were outside and he came up to me. He said, “How is it? You got it down?!” I was like, “Uh, yeah. I’ve got it down.” He said, “Okay, let me hear it.” I was like, “Well, I mean … no.” [laughs] He said, “Come on, I want to hear it.” I did it and he said, “Okay, we’ve got to work on this.” [laughs] He went and grabbed two scripts and for an hour out in the parking lot, as we waited to get into the set, he made me work my fucking ass off! I think it paid off, ya know?!

Dave and Annie in the Kubrick Corridor (Meera Rohit Kumbhani and Nick Thune).

I agree wholeheartedly! Was there was any room for improv on this project?

There was a lot of room for improv! Bill is a very open person. He would never come in and say specifically, “Don’t do that. Do this.” It was kind of funny because he was smiling most of the time and in his head thinking. You’d be standing there like, “Spit it out, man! What were you going to say?” [laughs] He would be like, “I like it. Let’s do it again.” You would just watch the guy think for a minute and think, “I thought he was going to say something.” It was those instances that made me realize, “Oh, whatever I did there wasn’t wrong.” I also didn’t want to give them the same thing twice. I mean, if he didn’t get it and he wanted it again, he would’ve said something. In the actor’s head, you just never know what people are thinking. It was those moments that allowed me to say, “OK, you know what? He trusts me and he didn’t tell me not to do something, so let me try something else.” It was never like I was going to take the scene in another direction. It was more like, “What’s another way to say that, that maybe comes out of me a little more comfortably?” Or, “Maybe I should pause on this or think.” It was that kind of stuff.

Every project presents challenges. What were the biggest challenges in bringing this film to life?

From my side, it was set up very nicely. I knew that I was working five days a week for a certain amount of time. [laughs] But, when I was in there, I could certainly see the challenges happening within the production, which are money, time, location and the question of, “Where are we going to get more cardboard?” It was all of those kinds of things. I would see that happening but, in a way, it’s not my responsibility to even think about that stuff and if I do then I’m not doing my job right. My job is just between “Action!” and “Cut.” Nothing else from that movie will last except for what happens between “Action” and “Cut.” That’s what everyone is going to see and my one job. If they say, “Action,” and I’m not ready, then that’s a worry! [laughs] I remember something from the first day and it’s so funny. The first day that James [Urbaniak] was on, he came in and someone introduced me to him. I had never met him before. He kinda walked over to me and goes, “Hey listen, I don’t know who I spoke to but I need to be out of here by 5 o’clock today.” He had a pre-existing show that he was performing on that the production had OK’d. He thought that I was a producer! [laughs] I was like, “Ya know, you might want to talk to John [Chuldenko] about that! [laughs] I’m Nick Thune. I’m Dave.” [laughs]

Nick Thune as Dave in “Dave Made A Maze.”

How have you evolved as an artist?

I think I have just learned to listen. As a standup, that can be pretty hard to do, especially when you are first starting out. I don’t mean listening to the audience at a standup show because if you are performing it’s hard not to. What I mean is listening to the people around me and not just jumping in and thinking I know what’s happening. I guess it’s humility. When you start out, you get a little success and you might get a little full of yourself and that’s a lot of people’s demise. I’ve found that partnering with people has been a great experience. I sold a TV show that I’m working on with one of my best friends. I just realized, “Hey, who knows me better than this guy, who also happens to be a writer. He has my best interests in mind. We love each other. We laugh at each other. Why aren’t we working together?” It’s not like I’m trying to go out and get Judd Apatow to produce or write my show. I don’t care. I mean, I love Judd and it would be great if he wanted to! [laughs] I learned over time that the people who are closest to me are going to help me the most and are the people I want to be around! If somebody big wants to hop on board, that’s great! It’s just trusting the people who you are your best friends and knowing that they want you to be your best!

What’s the best way fans can support your career and keep the momentum building?

Buy my product! [laughs] I don’t know, I mean, I guess it is just coming out to my shows or whatever. In the end, like I say to people, if you want to listen to my stand-up, it’s actually for free and it’s on platforms like Spotify and all these other things. If you like it, God, I hope you buy it because that’s all I have. That’s just me. That’s my product. This is my thing and I put thought into it. I’ve realized that I finally care about trying to sell my product on the road, like my vinyls or CDs. I even made a t-shirt and I thought, “How do I sell this t-shirt?” I’m not a salesmen, really. I said, “Why don’t I just get an older dude who’s not afraid to show his dick and have him wearing my t-shirt and have his penis just poking out. It would be a picture of that and that’s what I will use to sell the shirt!” [laughs] I found a guy on some crazy, weird website. He’s a nice guy named Jerry. I had him over at my office with my friend who’s a photographer. We are taking a picture of him kind of Terry Richardson style against a wall. He has shoes, socks and a t-shirt on and that’s it. I go, “I think we got the photo. Let’s try something different. Maybe tie your shoes … ” He gets down on one knee and he’s not even untying or tying his shoes. Basically, he’s sort of pretending to untie his shoe. I say, “Come on, Jerry! You’re better than that! Untie it and retie it, man!” [laughs] As he unties it and starts to tie it again, I go, “And now look to camera.” He looks up and my friend took, at that moment, one of my favorite pictures of all time. At that same moment, I thought, “What the fuck am I doing with my life!? [laughs] How did it come to here?” [laughs] I hadn’t even told my wife that I was doing it at that point. I was like, “This is going to seem so weird when she sees this. I’m paying a cameraman and I’m paying this guy. What am I doing with my time right now?” I said to my friend Scott as he was leaving, as he’s an artist that I really trust, “Man, I don’t know. I’m sorry I brought you into this. It’s kind of a weird thing.” He was like, “No, man. It really inspired me! I don’t know what the hell you are doing but I do know you are doing something and I like it!” That’s kinda my motto … not knowing what I’m doing but just trying!

Awesome! I want to thank you so much for your time today.

Yeah, man! Here’s a pulled quote for you, if you don’t mind, “Make me sound cool.”

Absolutely, go ahead.

No, no. I’m saying, “Make me sound cool.” That is the pulled quote. [laughs]

Oh, OK! Gotcha! [laughs]

[laughs] Thank you, Jason! See ya!

Catch Nick Thune in ‘Dave Made a Maze’ when it hits theaters and VOD on August 18th. Visit his official website, www.nickthune.com, for all the info on his latest projects and tour dates.