This article contains mild spoilers for Night of the Coconut.
In the words of its creator, Patrick Willems, Night of the Coconut is "a very silly movie."
It's hard to argue with that assessment. The Nebula-exclusive film stars Willems, Chloe Holgate, and Matt Torpey — friends since high school who all play versions of themselves — in a movie where they team up to defeat Charl ("like Charles, but singular"), an evil universe-hopping, clout-hungry robotic coconut bent on achieving global genocide. Sillier still, the feature film is the finale to a "season" of YouTube video essays with titles like "Is Mama Mia: Here We Go Again the Best Sequel Ever?", each of which weaves narrative content — starring Willems' friends, parents, and real-life agent (and Nebula CEO), Dave Wiskus — throughout their analysis. Oh, and Night of the Coconut is a multiverse movie, so Willems and Holgate both play multiple versions of themselves to boot.
On Friday, the film launched exclusively on Nebula, the niche streaming service frequently used by YouTube creators to expand their body of work. Nebula functions a lot like YouTube Premium— the videos are ad-free, and there is no system in place for comments or likes — but freed from the concerns of having to play nice with YouTube's all-powerful algorithm. Willems, who shot, edited, co-wrote, and starred in Night of the Coconut, hosts ad-free versions of all of his videos on Nebula and has also used the streamer as a place to post videos that aren't a good fit for his YouTube channel. That includes "A Long, Disorganized Talk About THE BATMAN," a significantly more casual video than the tightly scripted essays he usually makes.
"To use a kind of gross, corporate-sounding term: I don't want to feel like I'm diluting the brand. I want each video to feel special and to feel like it has the [same] level of care put into it," Willems tells me during a wide-ranging conversation over Zoom on the eve of Night of the Coconut's Nebula release.
If that Batman video is too low-effort for Willems' channel, Night of the Coconut is too high-effort. Primarily filmed from May to August 2021, Night of the Coconut is a feature-length finale to the season of videos Willems uploaded from January 17, 2020 through May 14, 2021. Originally planned as a short film, its scope expanded significantly until Willems was "accidentally" creating his feature directorial debut. "On the one hand, we have a feature-length movie," he says. "On the other hand, that feature-length movie is a conclusion to a long narrative that is on YouTube. So basically I made a movie that almost requires more homework going in than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."
Willems alludes to Multiverse of Madness again later when he says that Night of the Coconut, which was financed by Nebula, cost ".006% of what Doctor Strange cost." So, not a big budget, but definitely a budget, something Willems had never really had before. That meant he could expand the crew, pay the cast, and film part of the movie on-location in the Virgin Islands. The project is a culmination, not just of the season, but of work that Willems has been doing with his high school friends for 18 years. But the exact shape this project took was influenced most by the events of the past two years. You may have noticed that, above, I said that the season began in January 2020, which means that the first video went live about two months before COVID-19 shut the world down. For Willems, and writers Michael Curran and Jake Torpey, that meant a rework for some elements of how the season would play out — including nixing all in-person filming and pivoting to a Zoom talk show format (which went by various names, including, my personal favorite, "Patdemic"). But, according to Willems, the rework wasn't as significant as you might expect. He compares it to how the outline might look "if I take my glasses off and everything is suddenly blurry."
"Certain things stayed the same, but just changed shape," Willems said.
"For instance, we did not expect Matt to move out of the city, and I think that was partly brought on by the pandemic, and quarantine and all that. And so initially in the full arc that we had, we weren't anticipating Chloe becoming a new cast member or playing two characters and becoming the lead of the finale. That was something that developed because of circumstances and the way things were going. But that said, the role that she ended up filling, we were going to have a vaguely similar character in there… And, if you look at the original outline, it's still pretty similar to what we ended up making. It's just some of the details changed and things got shifted around a little bit."
A few days before our conversation, Willems and Nebula hosted a premiere for the film in New York City preceded by a five-minute video with the noble goal of recapping the entirety of the season's events. Two weeks ago, Willems put out a nearly two hour-long super cut assembling all of the narrative content from the season's videos. It's remarkable watching scenes from those early videos and seeing just how early into the season COVID hit, and how well Willems and co. were able to keep the story on track despite being locked down. Maybe even remarkable is the idea that a debut feature film needs this much set-up. There's a messiness to it that might make a filmography-obsessed filmmaker, like Quentin Tarantino who has famously committed to only making 10 movies, balk. But, Willems comes across as pretty egoless when discussing his career.
"When you release a lot of stuff on a fairly regular schedule, you become less precious about each specific thing. Especially now in the age of the internet, when people's careers are more complicated than they used to be. People are hopping around [between] film, TV, streaming stuff. And people do a lot more than they used to, and can make a lot more than they used to. And because, like, audiences consume so much more stuff than they ever used to," Williams said.
"It doesn't feel how it used to when I was growing up, the pressure [that] each work must be so important. To be clear, I'm not saying, 'Oh, be lazy, just toss off these projects without giving [them] the care they deserve and move on to the next one. [But] producing a lot of creative work and releasing it on the internet in pretty quick succession definitely has changed the way I think about a career. … And it's definitely given me a sense of freedom that wasn't there before. Because you can make a wide variety of things. It is okay if not everyone is the perfect masterpiece you hope it is. And I think audiences have adjusted well to that, as well."
So, it's okay if Willems made a very silly movie. Opportunity comes in many different forms. This time it looked a lot like a coconut.
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