SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | March 29, 2010
After first watching The Happy Poet at SXSW, I immediately knew that it was going to end up being one of my favorite films of the festival. To be honest, this was the interview that I looked forward to the most during SXSW. I was really excited about meeting writer-director-actor Paul Gordon and having the other lead actors (Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek and Liz Fisher) along for the proverbial ride made it all that much better. The five of us met up at the Austin Hilton to chat about The Happy Poet, which screened as part of SXSW 2010’s “Emerging Visions” series. The interview goes off on some odd comedic tangents – but what would you expect from the hilarious team behind The Happy Poet?
DS: The Happy Poet appears to function as a metaphor on several levels for many things. I’m curious what your intentions were?
PG: Well, I think it can be about anybody trying to do anything basically – just working against the odds sort of thing. I didn’t consciously think about all the different metaphors but I wrote the movie right after we had struggled for about a year trying to get another movie made, so I think a lot of that came through in this story.
DS: How did you come to the idea of the food cart?
PG: Originally, just through trying to think of inexpensive locations to shoot at and then from there I just thought of the kind of food stand that I would want to eat at. It’s good healthy tasty food at a reasonable price – and that’s hard to find.
DS: In some ways good healthy tasty food at a reasonable price is a contradiction – as your film points out, the overhead associated with selling healthy food is so high that it’s difficult to sell the food at a reasonable price.
PG: Yeah, it doesn’t really exist.
CD: But it can!
PG: Yeah, it can, as you see in the movie…if you cut your sandwiches in half.
DS: Did you do much research in terms of eco-conscious start-ups?
PG: I didn’t do a whole lot of research really. I’ve always been kind of interested in things like biodegradable plastics. The food is just food that I like. It’s just stuff that I think about.
DS: It reminded me of the story of Whole Foods.
PG: Whole Foods would be an example of the big corporatized version of the stand at the end.
DS: Which could be the future for the Happy Poet…
PG: [To Mars, Doubek and Fisher] You guys can feel free to chime in whenever you want. Do you just like to watch me sweat?
CD: Oh, you’re doing great man!
DS: Well, my next question is actually for the group…How did you cast these guys and how closely did you work together in developing the characters?
PG: I wrote the script really fast and I wrote it with these people in mind. Jonny was the first person I thought of because I thought it would be really funny if we did something that I was playing his boss…because of our personalities. Chris is really funny… I’m not saying that Chris is a moocher in real life –
CD: – Are you going to eat that?
PG: Chris has been known to go into people’s houses –
CD: – With a Tupperware.
PG: With a Tupperware, go into your cupboards and ask what you’ve got to eat.
DS: I heard that he also likes dumping scallops into people’s toilets.
CD: You’ve heard about that? Yes, I have been known to do that.
JM: I have seen him go over to people’s houses with a roll of toilet paper.
PG: That’s good. He’s never bothered to do that when he comes to my house.
CD: Did I leave it there?
JM: No, I think you took it with you.
PG: I don’t know if I should say this, but Chris is the only person that has come over to my house and has actually taken a shit twice while he was there. Once is a given, that’s going to happen every time he comes over; but he even called attention to it after he came out the second time. “Wow that was twice in one visit. That’s more than usual.”
DS: Did you at least flush?
CD: I did flush.
PG: You don’t have to put that in your article.
CD: I met Paul maybe six or seven years ago…maybe eight? I felt like he was the funniest person I met in Austin because he has funny bones. I mean some of us are talking funny, but I just think he’s naturally funny. His bones are funny. I don’t know if you can x-ray for that, but…
DS: Pretty soon I bet you’ll be able to.
CD: So, I have a question for you. Yesterday was the first I had seen The Happy Poet, and there’s the amazing turn when the venture capitalist comes in. What I came away with was that in the space between that scene and the next scene was that even though you [looking at Paul] chewed him out, he realized how passionate you truly were. Is that what you got out of it?
DS: I had actually taken away two things from that – the first one being what you just said; the second was that the venture capitalist actually gave Paul’s character ideas for the future of The Happy Poet. I also found it interesting that the venture capitalist winds up being the good guy and saves The Happy Poet.
CD: That’s interesting.
PG: Yeah. I hadn’t really thought about that.
DS: Not that it’s a bad ending! I really enjoyed the direction it took. And also, how – and this was brought up during the Q&A of the screening – the film ends with the two pregnant women and it plays as a satire of the stereotypical Hollywood happy ending. The women have to become pregnant at the end of films to exemplify happiness and success.
LF: And fertility means happiness for women?
CD: Ummm…at least in the general male sense.
JM: To go back to your original question, when I was reading the script I had asked Paul who was going to play Agnes. I had never met Liz but Paul had seen her doing theater.
PG: Yeah, that’s how I found Liz. And then she came and auditioned for the other movie we were trying to make. I kind of was thinking that I was going to ask Liz if she wanted to do this movie…
DS: Did the actors have much insight or input into their characters as you were creating them?
PG: It was mostly scripted and when we were rehearsing there were some changes –
JM: – I just kept getting pages in batches of 20 until Paul finished the script. Basically we shot whatever Paul wrote in his original draft, except that we added a couple scenes later. Whenever Chris decided that he actually wanted to use the script –
CD: – Oh, hey!
JM: But I don’t think Paul asked anybody what they thought about the script. He was always just pushing forward.
PG: The acting style that we were all kind of going for was more of a natural acting style. It’s not like I want the actors to say things exactly how they are on the page, I would rather that they say it the way that they would naturally say it. Every now and then a little something extra is thrown in there. Chris probably did a little more improvising that anyone, but then Jonny did a bit of improvising in the scene where he was handing out the fliers.
JM: We basically couldn’t shoot for two days because we had to break up our schedule. But we had to shoot something and that stuff was never really planned – at least I don’t think –
PG: – It just said on the page that there was a montage of Jonny going up to people and saying stuff like “Its good healthy shit, you should try it.”
JM: That was the one direction that he kept giving me. It was so stripped down. They didn’t have any way to hear what I was saying – they were way far away shooting with a long lens – so he just told me to say “healthy shit” and just say “shit” a lot. So I did, and there it is. There’s lots of “shit” and “dude” in that scene.
CD: Even when a writer-director writes something with you in mind, you’re still looking at…well this character has a life and there’s an essential question of your direct doing and you see it in you. I don’t want to let him down, I have been doing this. I have been maybe taking advantage of it a little bit. Paul writes in a very natural way but there’s still –
LF: – it’s not a simplistic character just because it’s written naturally. The level of complexity, for all of our characters, is really astounding the more you think about it. Why does Agnes like Bill? They have a lot of awkward moments but that’s one of the great things about the way Paul writes his characters, they are so endearing. A lot of things are going on with them, even though they may not be saying a lot. People can really identify with them because they are sort of iconic characters that everyone knows. The “dude and shit guy” and the “guy that’s doing yoga on the sidewalk”…
CD: I don’t know the “pipe smoking girl” yet.
LF: She’s so cool! You should hang out with her.
JM: I think that’s true with the plot of the story itself – on the surface it’s a comedy but it’s boiling over with great syntax. Once you scratch back the surface there’s a message there, which is cool. It gives it some gravitas.
LF: And we’ve all been at that place in our lives, or we’re going to it now.
JM: Exactly, half the country is there right now. I really hope we get a chance to get this movie out there – a lot of people are having to start over. Anybody that has ever been in a band or started a business, tried to do something on their own, attach their own set of ideals to it and their own reasons to find within it.
DS: I think it helps that The Happy Poet doesn’t make fun of the situation. And, like you were saying, this is great timing for a film like this. It is not going to depress people but its not making fun of the characters either.
JM: It’s not Will Farrell stripping down to his underwear.
PG: I think all of the characters are really sincere.
LF: Which is hard to do – true sincerity, true heart – it’s a delicate little flower. It’s very easy to make comments like, Look how smart we are.
PG: Yeah. When characters aren’t portrayed sincerely then it seems like they are being made fun of more often. If someone is just being funny, then what they are saying doesn’t come off as sincere. The actor has never really taken on the character; they never integrated with the character. So it’s more like they are making fun of the character.
DS: Do you find it pretty natural to write for yourself?
PG: I find it really easy. I just wrote it how I would say stuff. The character is pretty similar to me. I’m not exactly like Bill, but just the mannerisms and stuff – its how I would do stuff.
DS: What influence has Austin has on you as a filmmaker? The Happy Poet definitely has a very strong Austin vibe to it.
PG: None of it was a conscious decision – the characters or trying to portray Austin in any particular way – it just happened naturally. It’s just where I live. I live in Austin and I wanted to make something doable that we could shoot locally. The fact that I’ve lived here for eight years and I have a lot of filmmaker and actor friends made it so much easier for it to happen. Everybody in Austin helps each other out when you have a project – like we were talking about before the interview, about David Wilson’s short film that you worked on. There’s a lot of that back and forth, helping each other out on projects. It’s a really great community. It’s great for making films at this size budget.
DS: How did the score come about?
PG: It was just me playing around on a piano. Dave the producer, his fiancée bought a piano and was storing it in his garage. It was out of tune and I just started playing around on it. I don’t actually play piano. I just started playing a really simple melody with two fingers and Jonny came over and helped me record that and he also played parts on the piano.
JM: With two fingers – four fingers are better than two.
PG: Later in the project we got someone to play some of the more elaborate stuff.
JM: That’s Eric Friend who used to play keys in Spoon.
DS: Who was your intended audience when you were writing this script?
PG: I never really thought about it specifically. I figured it would probably be something that would play well at festivals. I was trying to make something fun and something good. I just thought of it as a movie that I would really like to watch.
DS: I typically hate “rom-coms” but The Happy Poet could very easily be classified as a “rom-com”…
PG: A lot of the stuff is supposed to be kind of tongue-in-cheek – it’s basically my version of the more conventional comedy.
CD: You might recognize some of the characters as characters that would be in a “rom-com” movie.
DS: But they would probably be more exaggerated.
JM: Yeah, this is like a much more subtle version of a romantic comedy. And it’s also a bro-mance, there is all kinds of bro-manticism going on.
PG: I was just having fun with the conventional narrative structure of those movies and those characters. This is my version – much more dry, with more real characters, and more natural acting. A little more “off” sense of humor and my characters don’t quite fit into the stereotypes of those movies, but you can tell that they are supposed to be playing those parts.
JM: It’s updating the characters of the romantic comedy.
PG: In the conventional romantic comedy or bro-mance the characters are more like caricatures. You can take a character from one movie and put them in another movie. But I feel like the characters in The Happy Poet are all really original and unique.
DS: What benefits are there for you to do the film festival circuit?
PG: Its fun meeting other directors and seeing other films that are original and that you don’t get to see anywhere else. You get some exposure to press and industry people, so that’s cool.
JM: I agree with all of that. Exposure, free beer…
CD: You know, I put on a badge every day for work; but when I put on this badge it’s nice, it’s different. It gets you into places, it gets you to talk to people that are sort of your age group.
JM: Nobody’s that old.
CD: Just to witness or see new aesthetics. I get to really catch up on documentaries. The price of regular movies…but you can buy a film pass for around $70 and see five movies a day for the week – what does that equal per movie? Well, it’s definitely less than $10 per movie. I like going to movies. On a more cynical side – and I’m not cynical – but is this where good movies go to die? I don’t want this to be a place where good movies die. I want to see this as a springboard for them. We haven’t even talked about Europe yet…I see The Happy Poet in Europe.
DS: What’s up next for you? Do you get to go back to the movie that you scrapped?
PG: I may try and do that one or I have another script that’s also a comedy or maybe something new – hopefully one of those three things.
For more information on The Happy Poet please visit: www.happypoetmovie.com
Don Simpson’s review of: THE HAPPY POET