Nick Kroll on returning to his filmmaking roots and the recommended age for starting "Big Mouth"

The comedian and Alexi Pappas appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the challenges of shooting "Olympic Dreams"

Published February 19, 2020 7:11PM (EST)

 (IFC Films)
(IFC Films)

What made Nick Kroll want to play a dorky dentist and travel across the world to shoot in the freezing mountains of South Korea with no crew?

"The further you get into your career, the farther you get removed from the way you started, which was you and a couple of friends making something with a camera. You become much more isolated from the entire process. It was exciting to go back and think about being involved at basically every step of the process," Kroll said during a recent episode of "Salon Talks." 

"Olympic Dreams," Kroll's newest film, in theaters now, is the result of that desire to revisit the nitty gritty, all-in approach to filmmaking. Along with Kroll, writer/actor Alexi Pappas – a former Olympic runner and his collaborator on the project – stopped by Salon to discuss the process.

Pappas was given carte blanche access to Olympic Village at the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, presenting a behind-the-scenes look at what the Olympics are really like —versus what viewers are used to seeing during the Games. "Olympic Dreams" is an unconventional love story and the first narrative film ever shot at the Olympics and inside Olympic Village, where the athletes live prior to and during their competitions. Kroll plays a dentist volunteering to monitor Olympic athletes' teeth during the games, and Pappas plays Penelope, a young cross country skier who doesn't do well in her event. Distraught Penelope and Nick form a bond.

Both actors recounted how unique it was to be inside the Village with a camera, yet largely going unnoticed, and how cold it was. Pappas, who competed at the 2016 Rio summer games, noted that even the winter athletes used to competing in frigid temps found the weather unbearable. "Olympic Dreams" is rather amazingly shot with a crew of just three. Kroll, Pappas, and director/writer Jeremy Teicher. 

The film is not a documentary, but it has the unusual hallmarks of a verite piece blended with a semi-scripted story. Both Pappas and Kroll, whose Emmy-nominated animated comedy show "Big Mouth" explores the emotional ravages of middle school, said it was refreshing to work without a rigid script. Both characters are awkward lonely hearts, and the format allowed each actor to bring out the emotional quirks and unpredictability of people trying to make a connection despite obstacles. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Nick Kroll and Alexi Pappas here, or read a Q&A transcript of our conversation below.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The film is built as a romantic comedy, but it has a lot of pathos as the characters sort of struggle to follow their hearts. Tell us about the film.

Alexi Pappas: This movie was inspired by some of my experiences running in Rio and the unlikely friendships you make when you're at the Olympics, the possibilities. And it's a love story, it's a romantic comedy set in the real Olympic Village and it's the first ever fictional movie shot in the village. Nick, Jeremy, who is the director, and myself made it as a three-person crew. 

Nick Kroll: Yeah, as Alexi mentioned, she is a summer Olympian and so the opportunity to go to the Olympics and be given basically carte blanche by the Olympic committee to go inside the athletes' life in the Olympic village, which is kind of, you don't ever really get to see. In an interview after someone wins a gold medal, you don't really get to see what it's physically like for them. So we were inside of the Olympic Village in the dining hall and the med center and the athletes lounge and the dorms and told a story that you don't normally see, which is that of what's it like to be an athlete at the Olympics even when you don't win or anything. I think Alexi's experience being an Olympian really informed us with so much and then the access, we had sort of elevated all of that.

You guys are freezing you're a***s off during filming. You shot during the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. What was an outfit that you'd wear? 

Kroll: I was playing a volunteer dentist, which is partly based on the Alexi's experience at the summer games where she met a doctor in the gym and he sort of asked her out to dinner and she was already with someone, so that didn't go forward, but it was a jumping off point that she and Jeremy had for this. What if that had become a real love story? So I'm dressed like a sort of a dorky dentist in my little tie and my volunteer jacket. Both of us had spent a lot of time in cold weather, but there was something specifically about it that –

Pappas: I think it was the waterfront cold. It was biting. It was so cold in fact that competitions were delayed.

Kroll: Yeah, even the winter Olympians were like, "It's cold. You're not wrong. It's cold." And we also, because it was just the three of us shooting the movie, we had no crew. We had no like, all right, well we'll go get warm and then we'll go shoot. And then the crew will get to take a break. It was just three of us and we're kind of wandering around with not much of an infrastructure, no system, no one to drive us places. We were kind of waiting on the road at times trying to convince a volunteer to drive us to the next location or figuring out how to wait to shoot in an area.

And I'm a dentist, so we, at times, had a big mobile dentist chair that we were supposed to be seeing if we could use in different places. All of it was challenging with the weather, but that also made the experience much more unique and special and made us feel what it feels like to actually be there. Not in normal sort of films where you're waiting in a trailer, being called to set or anything like that. It was much more like, you are an Olympian, you are a doctor, you are in these environments just like everybody else is and there's no escaping it.

With the three of you making this film, it's like film hacking. How did you manage to get all your gear around in the cold given the condition?

Kroll: Jeremy not only directed the film, but was also the sound man and camera man and then we would sort of figure out our own makeup and he would tell us wardrobe, what we needed to bring for the day and then we'd bring it all in. The amount of things that he had to handle while we were trying to act was quite a feat.

Pappas: We befriended the team USA bobsled chiropractor to help us.

Jumping off of that, why are you a dentist versus the doctor? Was that funnier for some reason, or is that a thing like when people break their faces on the ski jump?

Nick Kroll: There are volunteer doctors, dentists, chiropractors who go to volunteer to be there for the athletes. I think largely because they're fans of the sports, the Olympics itself. And so it's an opportunity for them to get to the Olympics. 

Pappas: It was honestly a practical, a cinematic choice because we wanted Ezra to be a volunteer. The dentist offered the opportunity for him to naturally do what he does and also have the camera be on two people at once where this person is sort of right underneath him and he's treating them or talking to them. 

Kroll: There's something funny about dentists – they're inherently sort of comedic in some way or other and it was an opportunity. They really smartly chose a dentist, I think because it then allowed me to basically interview athletes. So it's this way for us to share a bunch of athletes' stories and people surrounding these teams stories inside of the story that we were telling. And there's something about that dentist chair, I mean the only tricky part was that I would have the little circular mirror thing and the little pointy thing in people's mouths. And I watched one YouTube video to learn how to be a dentist. So . . . 

My daughter's about to get braces. I'm scared.

Kroll: Be nice to the dentist.

What drew you to the role of Ezra and the film in general?

Kroll: Jeremy and Alexi approached me, I don't know, two, maybe three weeks before the games. And I saw the treatment, the outline for the film that they had written and watched their previous film called "Track Town," which is really wonderful look at what it's like for a runner who's trying to get into the Olympics. And so I knew they had a real clear handle on the material and as filmmakers they were incredibly adept and talented. And then I've just always loved the Olympics and I just didn't know if there was ever going to be another opportunity, one, to go to the games, two, to go and have this sort of backstage access to the Olympic games. And three, I kind of like a challenge and I like doing something that I've never done before and it sort of fulfilled all of those elements for me. 

Also, I just liked the story that they wanted to tell and was excited about trying to figure out this thing. Especially the further you get into your career, the farther you get removed from the way you started, which was you and a couple of friends making something with a camera. You become much more isolated from the entire process and it was exciting to go back and think about being involved at basically every step of the process.

Once they came to me with the outline, we sort of worked and started to add elements of things to add to the characters. And then the movie itself has largely improvised within scenes of us knowing where we needed to go with the scenes but knowing that the dialogue was flexible. And once we were there, we were shooting basically in locations. Jeremy had a long lens and we would get mic'd up and then we would sit in the dining hall and do a scene and people had no idea that we were filming because Jeremy was 20, 30, 40 feet away shooting us or we'd be shooting scenes and at a bus stop and nobody knew that we were in the middle of shooting a scene. They just thought we were having an argument.

Pappas: That's why the interruptions that you see are real. Nick is wearing the real volunteer jackets that all the volunteers really wear. Some athletes knew who Nick Kroll was and some were literally just trying to find their way or get directions and they need to get to their competition. They see a volunteer, they're going to ask them for directions.

The film highlights winter sports, including a few that people might not know. What was the most esoteric Olympic sport that you both learned about that you maybe didn't know before? Because I don't think there's any like luge betting on the league or anything.

Kroll: In this last Olympics, curling seemed to take people's fascination. It used to be a joke to talk about curling, but then I feel like this time people got really into it. Then all the skeleton, all the ice slide stuff of like luge, belly luge, skeleton and all that stuff is wild. There's a scene in the movie where we're watching them running as fast as they can, getting on a slide, headfirst going down an ice slide. It's truly, it's truly wild.

Pappas: I think I learned more esoteric things when I was at the summer games. I remember I met this older gentleman who's in his 60s and he was a sailor. I knew sailing was an Olympic sport, but it was such an eyeopener to see like a 16-year-old and a 60-year-old all preparing for the same thing. Actually age really matters in sailing because it's about knowing the water, and experience matters more than age. That was really interesting to me. I think another thing, just understanding that it's out of the athlete's control if their sports get phased out. So for some athletes this is their only opportunity to ever compete because their sport won't exist at the Olympics the next year or it's changing from like singles to doubles canoeing. And so I just found it really interesting that the Olympic dream is a rare thing in that you have to prepare for it and timing has to be right and also the opportunity has to be there. It is quite an accomplishment that you're there.

What do you want viewers to take away from this movie? 

Pappas: I think for us it's been such an honor and exciting to let people peek into the village and see a compelling story that could have happened. And I think anybody who's chasing anything difficult, whether it's an Olympic dream or otherwise, there's always going to be a moment afterwards, after it happens. And I think that's Penelope's journey is what then? And what does it feel like the moment afterwards? 

Kroll: For my character, and in the movie in general, it's like you can be an Olympian or you can be a dentist who's in a weird moment in his relationship and think a lot of us feel at times like we don't know what's coming next or we don't know what to do with our lives. And this movie sort of speaks to that for two people in two very different points in their life. And on top of that, I really do think it's a very lovely sweet story, that also gives you access to truly a part of the Olympic experience that you've never seen before. We always just see the medals and the competition or the story of how they got there back at home. I think it provides people with a lot of insight and I think it's a very sweet and funny movie.

Nick, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I'm a big fan, of your Netflix series "Big Mouth," which was nominated for an Emmy last year. It focuses on middle school where everyone was awkward. I was going to let my daughter watch the period episode and then I watched it and I was like, ok, maybe not!

Kroll: Maybe wait a little time.

It's not for children, but it's about children-ish.

Kroll: Yeah, but also a lot of children are watching it.

Children how little? Should I let her watch it?

Kroll: How old is she?

She's 12.

Kroll: We tend to say that when the kids are the age of the kids on the show.

She's in sixth grade.

Kroll: Maybe when she's in seventh. Kids in the show are in seventh grade. I will say, it's very dirty. But, there's nothing on the show that your kids are not going to be able to find on the internet elsewhere with, I think, less of a sense of responsibility around the messages that they're sending. We are so dirty, but we're also very conscious of what messaging we're putting out into the world. If your kid is around the age of the kids in the show, they're going through it, their friends are, they can see various things like it on the internet. And maybe it'll give you a way to opportunity to talk to your kids about the things that are happening.

What's next for you both?

Kroll: I'm touring standup right now. I'm working more on "Big Mouth." We'll continue doing that. And I've got a standup tour that I'm doing. I'll have more dates this winter and into the spring and a summer. It's called the Middle-Aged Boy Tour. So you can go to and find out about upcoming dates around the country.

Pappas: I'm going to go to an intense training camp in Greece for a month and train. I might run in Tokyo. We'll see. But either way we're planning some kind of artistic project. Something very different than this. I have a book coming out in August with Random House called "Bravey," which is what my young fans called themselves when they're not watching "Big Mouth." It's a memoir in essays. It's about growing up without a mom, learning how to fall down and get back up. I think there's many ways that we fall down and I think I fell down in a very metaphorical way very early on and it prepared me to very gracefully fall down many other times and always get back up.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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