Self Reliance, the lively, funny, weird new Hulu comedy movie produced by The Lonely Island and directed by New Girl and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse co-star Jake Johnson, has a premise built for action. A schlubby guy named Tommy (played by Johnson) is so depressed and disengaged with his life that he agrees to be part of an underground streaming reality show where he tries to evade assassins for a month. If he wins, he gets $1 million. If he loses, he dies.
That may sound a lot like a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, or on Stephen King’s The Running Man, where desperate victims try to evade killers looking for kicks. But Self Reliance is a much smaller, odder, and more emotionally driven movie, focused on human connection over big set-pieces. Speaking to Polygon ahead of the movie’s premiere, Johnson says he wasn’t looking to any of the obvious “people hunted for sport” classics for inspiration.
“Two movies were an inspiration that I pushed together in my head, even though it’s a strange two to push together,” Johnson says. “I love Jacob’s Ladder. I saw it when I was a kid, and I’ve rewatched it a lot. I love the performances, I love the look, I love the way it’s shot. I love watching Tim Robbins go through this whole journey of trying to figure out what’s happening.
“And then I love [Wes Anderson’s] Bottle Rocket: I love the comedic tone of it, the feeling of it. I love how everything for Dignan [Owen Wilson’s character] is dead serious. I love that it’s a little sad. I love that he gets hustled, but he’s still optimistic. I love that he’s a little bit of an idiot, but he’s also a little bit right. I love the love story in that; I think the love story with Luke Wilson and the maid is just right, and I don’t need any more. So for me, it was trying to push those two movies into one thing. If there was something I was looking toward, it was Can I get it to feel a little bit the way I feel when I watch each of these? What if I watched them at the same time?”
Johnson admits that’s a strange double feature to turn into a single comedy movie about a life-or-death game. “Even in pitching it, I’d be like, You’re not wrong that it’s a weird mix,” he says. “It’s like putting spaghetti with sushi. But I think it tastes good together.”
Part of the point of making Self Reliance, Johnson’s feature debut, was to make a movie exactly geared to his personal tastes, a film no one else could make. As he puts it, he isn’t generally looking to make the leap to directing. “I’m not just looking to make a movie that I know is going to do pretty well with the critics and will do pretty well with the fans, and it’s a pretty safe bet,” he said. “I wanted to make the movie that I really wanted to see, because I might only do one of these.”
“For those who love it […] when I hear what they love about it, I’m like, That’s what I love about it too! And for those who don’t like it, it’s like, Well, it’s just not your dish. It is weird.”
While some actors making their own movie might have similarly seen the project as a way to design exactly the character they most want to play, Johnson says he didn’t consider either the chance to break into a new kind of role or to return to the kind of role his fans expect.
“I gave that zero thought,” he says. “Really. I mean, it’s a good question, it’s the right question, but personally, I give it zero thought. I just thought, What is the story I want to tell?” Part of that, he admits, comes from approaching his career as a writer first, and not thinking about Tommy in connection with any other character he’s played.
“When I did Stumptown and I was a bartender in that — I swear to God, I didn’t realize that my character was a bartender, and so was Nick Miller [in New Girl], until I did press. [Interviewers are] like, What do you like about playing a bartender? And I’m like, Nothing? I’m not making drinks, it’s just a set. So there’s a whole part of the game that I just don’t think about that I probably should. But it’s just not what excites me.”
Another thing that doesn’t excite him is the idea of making another movie with these characters. He’s joked about the movie ending with a cameo where his New Girl co-star Lamorne Morris shows up to invite him into the Self Reliance Universe, Nick Fury style. (Morris isn’t in the movie, but did appear in a pretty hilarious promo for it.) But he says that part of the pleasure of making exactly the movie he wanted to make is that he can move on from the story.
“I think it’s done,” he says. “I loved doing this movie, and I love these characters, and I would love to work with these actors again, but I don’t want to revisit this. What I love about TV — I love revisiting [characters]. If you build [a story] that way, it’s just the best. And as an actor, I love playing the same character — I love playing Peter B. Parker [in the Spider-Verse movies]. I love knowing that his story’s not done, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. But when you view [a project] as a one-off — the idea of writing another scene with Tommy? No. It’s over.”
Self Reliance is streaming on Hulu now.