Patton Oswalt on his 'addiction' to film, the Sony hack and threats to speech

Patton Oswalt: Sony hacks were 'diabolical'
Patton Oswalt: Sony hacks were 'diabolical'

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Patton Oswalt: Sony hacks were 'diabolical' 02:18

(CNN)When Patton Oswalt says he once had an "addiction to film," it's one time this comedian isn't joking.

Oswalt is now a comedy superstar and actor, but when he moved to California in the mid-90s he was "training" to become a director by watching as many films as possible. His story begins in May 1995, inside the dark New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, where he caught a Billy Wilder double feature of Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. From then on, movie watching became an all-consuming obsession.
His new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning about Life from An Addiction To Film, recounts a period of his life guided by a steady flow of celluloid and popcorn, while he navigated his career through comedy clubs, television, and ultimately, the Big Screen.
"To the majority of the planet," he writes, movies "are an enhancement to life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I'm the other way around. I'm the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I'm about to drink."
    And boy did he drink in a lot of movies. Between 1995 and 1999, Oswalt consumed nearly 700 films, from classics and obscure independent quirks to summer blockbusters. He kept track of each one on his calendar and by marking them down in film encyclopedias.
    The comparison to alcoholism is no accident. Over time, Oswalt began to use films as an excuse to avoid a social life: He left parties early and cut people out of his life. His love life suffered. He justified the hours spent alone in the theater buy telling himself that it was part of what he need to do to become a director.
    There were plenty of warning signs: According to the calendar of films, Oswalt binge-watched 11 movies straight in a single weekend in October 1995. Ironically, it was just three days after seeing The Addiction, a film about a vampire enslaved to his bloodlust. And when Oswalt finally got his first shot at a speaking part in a feature film—part of his goal, realized!—he spent hours brooding on the set, wishing he was back inside the comforting walls of a movie house.
    "Being on a movie set dawn to dusk was making me miss movies at the New Beverly," he writes. This was the first of many ignored warnings...that maybe my movie addiction needed to be handled and quelled rather than stoked."
    Nearly sixteen years later, Oswalt says he is over the obsession, but Hollywood—and media as a whole—are in crisis. Late last year, hackers purportedly with ties to the North Korean stole troves for private e-mails and information from Sony Pictures Studios and released them publicly. The act of "cyber vandalism" as President Obama called it, has roiled the industry, and it derailed the release of The Interview, a buddy-comedy flick about celebrities secretly tasked to assassinate the leader of North Korea.
    The Sony incident has raised questions about whether the threat of another hack will force studios to think twice before pursuing sensitive or controversial stories.
    Should this make cinefiles—or as Oswalt describes his ilk, "sprocket fiends"—worried about the impact such fear will have on the future of film?
    "I was worried about the future way before the Sony hack happened," Oswalt told CNN during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., where he spoke about his book. "I was worried about it because of the level of finance and level of money they seem to put at stake for these things. It's so diluted through the studio's corporate structure that the Sony hack is the eighth thing on the list that has me worried about movies. But again, movies as an art form have been battered from the get-go by television, by video games, by the Internet, and they're still out there straggling along, and they mutate and adapt."
    Oswalt suggested, however, that by temporarily pulling the release of the film, Sony sent a signal that intimidation can be successful.
    "There was cowardice in the studios. But it also didn't help that the public so eagerly devoured people releasing private people's email," he said. "It was done so diabolically that it's almost like it's a blueprint for how to do that in the future. ...It was not a good precedent to give a foothold to people like that."
    What came next would make Sony's multi-million dollar fiasco look small. Just a month later, Islamic terrorists in Paris stormed the offices of a French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve people because the publication parodied Islam.
    What happened at Sony and the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo weren't connected, but both have sparked debate worldwide about whether satirists and artists should use more restraint from making certain types of jokes.
    For Oswalt, the call for restraint just makes him want to tackle controversial topics even more.
    "I'm not in fear for free expression. I'm in fear for satire, and mocking, and fun. That seems to be what's under attack these days," he said. "It's terrifying to know that anyone can take whatever they want out of context and make it an outrage and go after you. I've been a comedian for almost 25 years and I just know when you tell comedians not to talk about things, not to do things, we just do it twice as hard. ...There's a comedian fantasy to live, as awful as it must have been, but to live in the times that Lenny Bruce, and then George Carlin and [Richard] Pryor came up in where you have people trying to restrict things and you get to push against them. Well those are back now, so we have even more stuff to punch against and try to work around. I actually kind of, in a very perverse way, I welcome it. It makes it more fun. It makes it more scary, but it makes it a lot more fun."
    While the film industry lurches forward, Oswalt said he remains optimistic about the future. He continues to see movies in theaters—he saw The Imitation Game right after Christmas—but not nearly as much as during his "training" days.
    "I still haven't directed a film," he says, "but films don't direct my life, either. So that's something."