One sweltering night in June 2017, I was sitting in a bar with writer, actor, and bona fide Yankee B. J. Novak. We were in Pecos, in the heart of the West Texas oil patch, at the Red Iguana, one of the rougher watering holes in town. Unless you’re the brawling type or built like a drilling rig, the Red Iguana is not the kind of place to draw attention. And yet there we were—a table of roughnecks staring us down.
A few months before, Novak had emailed me, saying he was writing a movie called Vengeance set in West Texas. He’d read some of my work and asked if I’d be willing to show him around the region. “Sure,” I replied. Before coming to Pecos, we’d spent a few days cruising around my small hometown, talking with locals, snacking on homegrown peppers with my granny in her hay barn, dining at hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex joints, driving through the oil field while I tried to explain pump jacks, and nearly sweating to death in my truck when the AC quit on us. In other words, West Texas stuff.
Earlier that evening, we’d attended the Pecos Rodeo. J. Tom Fisher, a steer-roping buddy of mine, had ushered us behind the chutes. We snaked our way through stock trailers and horses until we arrived at his camp, where a bunch of cowboys were either readying their mounts or unwinding with cold beer. At one point, J. Tom introduced us to Trevor Brazile, a legend in the rodeo world who holds the record for most PRCA world championship titles. It turns out that Brazile is a huge fan of The Office, the NBC comedy series that Novak famously helped write and in which he starred as Ryan Howard, the show’s dickish bad boy. I felt like I was in some bizarro Texas version of The Twilight Zone as I watched “the king of cowboys” recite entire scenes to the guy who wrote them, Bud Lights in hand and a dapple-gray pony between them.
But I knew that Novak’s West Texas schooling wouldn’t be complete without a trip to an oil-patch bar. Which is how we found ourselves at the Red Iguana. The bar was packed with rodeo cowboys and oil-field hands, many still sporting their grimy work clothes. In this crowd, Novak painfully stood out. I was pretty sure his pure white Pumas were to blame for the stares directed toward us. Finally, one of the biggest dudes in the room lumbered over in his crude-spattered coveralls.
“Hey, man,” he boomed at Novak. I swallowed a sip of beer, contemplating the fallout of getting B. J. Novak maimed in a bar fight. The big dude leaned in. “You that guy from The Office?”
“Yeah,” Novak nodded.
A huge grin broke across the dude’s wind-chapped face. “Ah, hell!” he roared. “My wife loves that show! Mind if I get a picture with you?” Pretty soon half the bar was lining up for a selfie with Novak. Though he was an obvious outsider, everywhere we went, Novak made friends. It was clear that he wanted to understand this place and its people.
“I said from the beginning of writing it, I want this to be Texans’ favorite movie,” Novak told me recently. “I think people like seeing themselves on-screen. I just wanted to make sure I got it right.” Five years after our reconnaissance mission, Texans will get to see Novak’s interpretation of the state when Vengeance hits theaters July 29.
The film follows Ben Manalowitz (played by Novak), a shallow, rakish New York journalist, as he travels to Texas to attend the funeral of a former fling who died under mysterious circumstances. It’s both a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale and a revenge plot, replete with Frito pie, Tech vs. UT jokes, line dancing, cross walls, and Ashton Kutcher dressed like a member of the band Midland.
Given Novak’s talent for comedy, it’s no surprise that Vengeance is funny—and it is very funny. Though some stereotypes stray into eye-roll territory, not since King of the Hill have Texans been portrayed for laughs with so much affection and accuracy. (Coincidentally, KOTH was cocreated by another East Coaster, Greg Daniels, who gave Novak his break in The Office.) For instance, Ty and Abilene’s sharp-witted granny, portrayed by Dallasite Louanne Stephens (who also played Matt Saracen’s grandma on Friday Night Lights), reminded me of my own feisty West Texas granny. “I wanted to bring the same eye to West Texas that I would bring to Scranton, Pennsylvania, or anywhere I cared about the people feeling represented,” Novak said.
What is perhaps most unexpected about Vengeance is just how dark it gets. “This is really a couple genre movies,” Novak said, “a comedy and a revenge movie and a mystery.” The tensions between these narratives push the film beyond humor into broader social commentary, in the vein of recent horror flicks Get Out and The Invisible Man, which, along with Vengeance, were produced by Blumhouse Productions. The violence, conspiracies, and corruption found peppered among the jokes are every bit as real as the good, wholesome, rodeo-and-Whataburger-loving Texans portrayed in the movie.
Texas Monthly: Why set the film in Texas?
B. J. Novak: The idea for the movie came first. I literally looked at a map of the U.S. and thought, “All right, where do I choose? Iowa? Illinois? Idaho?” Then I saw Texas just staring at me. I thought, “Well, there’s a place I really don’t understand. If I want to take this New Yorker out of his comfort zone, I’ve got to take him to Texas.”
I started looking it up on Wikipedia, like anybody would. And I see the story of the Alamo, which is this formative myth in Texas. I realized, “Oh, the Alamo is a revenge story. They lose the Alamo!” I didn’t know that. The Alamo set off this Texas pride in the spirit of vengeance. I thought, “Well, vengeance is in the DNA of Texas. This has to be a Texas movie.”
And then I visited Texas with you and on other trips as well. I was completely blown away by this surprising paradox, which is that Texans are the most intimidating people from a distance. Close up, I have never been more welcomed as a stranger.
TM: What were some of the highlights on those trips?
BJN: My first rodeo—literally, my first rodeo—was in Paducah [about a hundred miles northeast of Lubbock]. The beauty of the sky, the spirit of this small town, and then the honky-tonk after: it felt so homegrown, so close-knit. I had never been part of anything like that.
TM: You directed your first movie in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m assuming that presented some unique challenges.
BJN: We were three weeks into a five-week shoot before we were shut down for COVID. No one knew what it was except Ashton Kutcher, who was scheduled to shoot in week four. He emailed me long before anyone was talking about it and said, “Are you still filming despite COVID-19?” And I thought, “Who is this tech investor guy who is nerding out on this COVID?” I didn’t even know what COVID-19 was. I was a little offended by the question. I just wrote back one line: “Yes.” I’m not going to cancel a shoot because someone’s scared of this germ. Of course, the day before he was going to shoot, the whole state was shut down, and we had to break for seven months. In that time, I got to edit and really meditate on the movie. It was a godsend, creatively, because I could take stock of things and learn what pieces I wanted to emphasize.
The rodeo scene was the last we shot before the shutdown, and it was about to rain. We had spent so much of the budget replicating an actual rodeo, with tons of people in the stands and horses and bulls and real riders. If it had rained that night one hour earlier, there’s no way we would have ever gotten that scene, because in COVID times, there’s no way that would have been allowed.
TM: Why did most of the film end up being shot in New Mexico?
BJN: I wanted to shoot in Texas, and we did shoot some in Texas. But New Mexico offered us a tremendous tax break, like 30 percent, and Texas did not. I mean, it was the difference between filming the movie properly or not.
I took the key crew to Texas on a research mission. When we got to Pecos, everyone agreed, “Okay, this is the look, the feeling. The movie takes place essentially in the Pecos Valley.” And then we found Artesia, New Mexico, which is only about two hours from Pecos. It’s in the same geographical region. I thought, “Well, that’s good: geographically there’s no distinction. We can base ourselves there and get a unit to do exteriors [scenes filmed outside to establish the story’s setting] in Texas to supplement it.”
TM: Vengeance walks a tightrope between celebrating Texas culture and poking fun at the stereotypes. How did you approach balancing the two?
BJN: I told someone, “I want to make two movies that are both good versions of themselves.” I want to make the sort of classic, Woody Allen, intellectual–New York movie for Ben and Eloise [played by Issa Rae]. And Ty [played by Boyd Holbrook] is the star of a completely different movie. He’s avenging his sister. So I want each movie to be accurate to its characters.
I don’t do satire. I do comedy, which to me is as honest as drama, because a drama is inaccurate when there isn’t comedy. To show only Texans’ or Brooklynites’ good-hearted natures isn’t honest. I think it’s important to show what’s funny about people as respectfully as what’s serious about them.
TM: Speaking of Texas stereotypes, Whataburger plays a major role in this movie. What’s your order?
BJN: Look, I don’t like the burgers that much personally, but I love the other things. I love the honey butter chicken biscuit, which, if they’re reading this, they should make available before 11 p.m. I love the sauces. I love the seasonal, special-edition shakes. And I love the vibe. I love the spirit.
That’s something I picked up on: that people cannot explain why they like Whataburger. People love Whataburger. I’d say, “Why? What do you like about it? Tell me.” And they didn’t really have a reason. They just loved it. And I thought that was very funny and true to these characters as well.
I also love chain restaurants. They have become, for better or worse, Americana and worth embracing. Showing characters at a local diner is what you do in a movie set in the sixties. People go to chains now. I told my director of photography, “I do not want to do this Hell or High Water thing, where we shoot in a mythological Texas. I want to shoot in real Texas.” Of course, plenty of the old mythological West is still alive, but there are also huge truck stops and vape shops.
TM: About a month ago, I was traveling out west, and I stopped in San Angelo at a Whataburger. There were high schoolers in there eating their pre-prom dinner decked out in their fancy regalia. It felt like, “Yeah, that’s us in 2022.”
BJN: Being from Boston, I remember when Dunkin’ Donuts was shown in Good Will Hunting. Bostonians were so excited. We’d never seen Dunkin’ Donuts in a movie before. So I made the pitch to Whataburger: “This is your Dunkin’ Donuts moment.” They let us do it. I think they should have paid us, because they came out so well.
And that’s another thing. Most of the positive responses I have gotten from the trailer have to do with Texas Tech and Whataburger. I think I’ve been invited to Texas Tech about a thousand times on Twitter.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Funny.” Subscribe today.