B.J. Novak is known for his work on the NBC, nine-season mega-hit series “The Office.” Almost a decade later, he’s written and directed his first feature film, the comedic thriller, “Vengeance,” in which he also stars along Ashton Kutcher, Issa Ray, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron and a cameo by NPR’s “Fresh Air” host, Terry Gross.
In the film, equal parts satirical comedy and brooding muder mystery, Novak plays the lead, Ben Manalowitz, a self-centered New York City journalist and podcaster who reluctantly travels to a small town in West Texas for a funeral of a woman he casually dated. He soon finds himself attempting to solve the real cause of her death for his podcast show. As Ben embarks on a twisty journey that turns dark and dangerous, he has to grapple with issues like the impact of social media and the cultural shock of the red-state, blue-state divide.
Early stand-up comedy
Novak had a sprawling career in comedy, starting as a stand-up comedian. Bob Saget saw one of Novak’s performances and hired him to write for his sitcom “Raising Dad.” During that time, Novak was put up at clubs to open for Saget.
But, he knew he wanted to write, become a director and “I did dream of being a late night talk show host,” he recalls. “I was still a 22-year old who had exciting dreams.”
First performing job
His stand-up routines landed him another TV job. During an open mic, an MTV producer saw him and invited him to try out to be a prankster on the tv-reality series “Punk'd” because their lead actor, Dax Shepard had become too famous to continue, so “they needed a new guy.”
Novak improved in the audition and got the job. “It was the most exciting dream come true because …[to have] Ashton Kutcher whispering in your ear, telling you what to say to Missy Elliott in a jewelry store in Beverly Hills, I have never been more starstruck and thrilled in my life,” he shares.
Following a stint on MTV’s “Punk’d,” Novak went back to the stage. He was performing at the Improv when Greg Daniels – who was hired to create the American version of “The Office” – saw him. Daniels asked to meet him, and “we really had a wonderful bonding conversation about ambition and comedy, and I wanted to do whatever he wanted to do,” Novak says. “I would follow Greg Daniels into battle anywhere because that was the conversation that I had been waiting for.”
He landed a defining role in NBC's mockumentary “The Office,” in which he wrote and starred in as shifty Ryan Howard, the guy who set off the smoke detectors at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. When they wrote that episode, writer Mike Schur joked that people would yell “Ryan started the fire” for the rest of his life. To this day, Novak gets people singing it across parking lots at him.
“So much so that it's not a surprise when it happens, I never feel anything but grateful for it… because we thought of it as a doomed little show,” he says.
The show was a remake of a British cult classic that used multi-camera shots to follow a group of office workers’ routines filled with ego clashes, inappropriate behavior and boredom. It became a huge hit in the United States and stayed on the air for nine seasons, during which Novak also worked as one of its directors and executive producers.
He recalls that after spending that amount of time in close quarters they became family, and “families fight, families get sick of each other, families love each other, families miss each other, families aren't separable.” However, it would be disrespectful for him to say they were ‘all best friends,’ who ‘always got along,’ and, ‘It's nothing but wonderful memories.’ It is mostly that, but I think it's even better that it has texture.”
And Novak and John Krasinski, who played Jim Halpert on the series, attended the same high school and they even played on the same Little League team.
“The funny thing about Krasinski in my life [is] that…he is everywhere I go. Everywhere. Krasinski is more popular, more [successful] for the same thing,” Novak jokes. “But he's not even an enemy. He's like a lifelong, friendly acquaintance. Which is not a good movie. That's not a good story.”
Novak was 24 when he started on the show, and he’s still proud and grateful to have worked on it. “To be a part of that, and to have those jokes that were just random ideas that were humming to each other… these are things that people will shout at me on the street 10 years later. That is the miracle of it. That is what I get to take home,” he states.
After the show ended, Novak became a popular author, including of the children’s book “The Book with No Pictures,” and he acted in such films as “Inglorious Basterds” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
But Novak’s foray into directing had a different path. He tweeted, “‘The Purge’ is the best premise since ‘Jurassic Park,’” he says, and Couper Samuelson, one of Blumhouse’s top executives, saw it and said they should have lunch. They met and Novak pitched “Vengeance.”
“I'm very grateful that that tweet got on their radar,” Novak observes because Blumhouse took a full all-in risk with the movie.
He sent Samuelson a script, who “loved it, but was hard on it.” And that is what Novak wanted because Jason Blum’s model was, “We will never tell you what to do. We'll tell you what we think you should do. It’s your movie,” he states.
The writer, turned first-time film director, also stars in the movie, and he is thrilled to have other talents like Issa Rae in it. “To me, she is one of the great mind producers, big creative deals,” he says. “So to just have her in the movie, as a co-star, was just really humbling and special.” Rae plays Eloise, the producer of the fictitious podcast “American Radio Collective.”
Novak also invited ‘Fresh Air’ host Terry Gross to play Robin Dylan, the voice of a podcast queen. He says he was on Gross’ show while working on “Vengeance” and when they wrapped the interview, he said he had a role for her. “She was so confused and surprised,” he recalls, and though she is only a voice, “it's a huge deal to my character when she calls and likes what he's working on.”
Novak got behind the camera and shot three-out-of-five weeks when COVID shut down the production in March 2022. They were able to come back and Novak finalized the shoot.
“I love directing. To me, directing is the same as writing,” he says. “I sort of have this mystical everything is music, but to me everything is writing.”
Focus Features will release “Vengeance” in theaters on July 29.