AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2012
By Don Simpson | October 25, 2012
Like an absurd psychological study of the multiple personalities of modern life in Austin, writer-director Don Swaynos’ Pictures of Superheroes cleverly juxtaposes a slackerish man-child with a self-absorbed entrepreneur. Joe (John Merriman) and Eric (Shannon McCormick) reside in the same house together but have grown so far apart that Eric no longer recognizes Joe’s existence. Literally, Eric is so busy that forgets that he has a roommate; all the while, Joe stays around the house all day, haunting Eric by perpetually messing up the house.
On one fateful day, Eric discovers Marie (Kerri Lendo) hopelessly wandering down the street while donning the maid’s uniform in which she lives, sleeps and dreams. Eric hires Marie as his personal maid, thus dragging her into the absurd world in which he exists.
Swaynos’ script is saturated with dry and subtle humor built upon the surreal situation of someone no longer realizing that they have a roommate. Pictures of Superheroes delves deeply into interpersonal relationships, specifically focusing on the disconnections and selfishness that seem to have become inherent in our oh-so-hectic modern society. In Swaynos’ unique cinematic place, there is a moral responsibility to obtain a work/life balance, to pay attention to one’s surroundings, and to exist. Despite the fact that Eric and Joe’s approaches to work and life are so drastically opposite, their choices have stuck them in the same exact place. Their house is a surrealist limbo in which they must reexamine their life philosophies in order to escape.
I sat down with Swaynos for some Don-on-Don action — but not in a gay way — over a few drinks on the eve of the 2012 Austin Film Festival premiere of Pictures of Superheroes.
Simpson: How did the location that you used for Eric and Joe’s house motivate this story?
Swaynos: I wanted to make a feature, because I felt like I had been spinning my wheels for a long time. I had this script that was about two-thirds finished that had been on my computer for years. The reason I had started writing that script in the first place was because it was something I could shoot at my house. I had been working on some bigger more elaborate ideas, but I was having trouble writing them and even if I did write them, I would probably never have the opportunity to make them. So it was right before we were going to shoot Cinema Six, and a doc that I was supposed to edit fell through, so I had a window of time. So, I thought “well, why don’t I just shoot this script?” I knew I was going to be really busy for the next five months, so I figured I needed to do it right away. I called up the half-written script on my computer, fleshed it out and sent it to my friend Tate [English] — who I have written stuff with since college — to read.
The whole plan was that it was a movie that I could shoot in my house and I really imagined John [Merriman] and Shannon [McCormick] in those parts, and I know them. I called Kelly [Williams] and asked him if he wanted to produce two features (the other being Cinema Six) at the beginning of the year. Kelly lived across the street from me, so Amy [Mills] — Kelly’s wife — would heat up our lunch across the street in their house; our breaks would be on their front yard, then we would walk back across the street to my house and be back on set. It was just a perfect convergence of events.
I usually don’t have ideas that I can actually execute. They are usually really elaborate, like a period piece with Bob Dylan. The script I was working on before this had Andy Warhol as a character and Tate said “I don’t think we can make this.” And I was thinking we could just shoot interiors —
Simpson: — and cast John Merriman as Andy Warhol.
Swaynos: Exactly. John Merriman as Andy Warhol.
But, really, a big motivation for me was Mark Potts and the way he shoots movies. It is the shooting that always holds me back. I had written stuff and I edit stuff for a living, but it is the actual saying “hey guys, I wrote a movie, and I would like people to be in it.” That was the part I had never done before.
Simpson: John Merriman, Shannon McCormick and Kerri Lendo are so perfectly cast in this film and you definitely write to their strengths as actors — did you write these roles specifically for them?
Swaynos: I didn’t tell them that, but they were. John had played a youth minister in a short I had done with Tate and my friend Dano [Johnson]. And then Dano has a production company called Collection Agency Films; they do animation and we had worked on some really weird political ads together. We did this series in which a group of health insurance agency representatives crash into a train carrying zoo animals as a nuclear bomb goes off and they became the Insuranimals, a team of superheroes who convince people to not rely on their insurance. It was a big pro-universal health care ad campaign. Shannon played Deductabear, the leader of the Insuranimals. He kicked so much ass as Deductabear. So the fact that John and Shannon had both been able to make things that I had written funny was a big selling point.
I honestly had no idea who would play Marie. Kerri was on the cover of the Austin Chronicle and Tate mentioned that she knew John. Then I remembered Sleep Study, the short that Kerri and John had made together, and thought she would totally work. And Kerri does stuff with Shannon too, so she knew both of them but in different ways.
A lot of the other people… Byron [Brown] we had found while auditioning for Cinema Six. Kat Ramzinski is a stand-up [comedian] who John and Kerri know. Everything just fell together with people recommending someone.
Simpson: Where did this story come from?
Swaynos: I don’t really know. I still have a roommate — my sister — but I have had roommates way longer than I think adults are supposed to. I just don’t want to pay that much in rent. I don’t want to pay twice as much. I want to save my money so that I can spend it on records and DVDs. So a lot of the thoughts revolve around that insecurity and having a roommate is a metaphor for being immature. Both of the characters are like me in different ways.
I actually started writing this years ago when Dano, Tate, Cameron Petri and I had an idea for an animated series. This one series I pitched was about a millionaire dinosaur who hire a maid to manage his mansion. It was the scene that Shannon’s character hires Kerri’s character, but it was dinosaur in a top hat. So I had those five pages, and I thought that scene was funny. So what else could happen? I came up with the idea for the roommate, then it all spiraled out from there. But then I got too busy and could not work on the script for years.
Simpson: And that is sort of fitting considering that is similar to Shannon’s character.
Swaynos: Exactly, I am just too busy. But I am also like John’s character, in that I just would not finish anything. I would write 55 pages of a screenplay and say “well, I know what else happens…” At the same time, if I have a job and I have to do it, I will work 80 hours a week; I won’t see my friends, I won’t go to movies, and I will miss out on all of my social life completely. The script did sort of come from self-reflection and self-hatred, but I think it is an internal conflict within a lot of people — working and doing that thing or not doing that, and the fact that there is no middle ground between having a life or having a job that consumes your life. My view on everything is very cynical. I hope people get it.
Its a surrealist reflexive thing in which I am analyzing myself. I don’t know… I think I could over-analyze it, because I told myself that I could. I wrote it and I made it, and now I can look back and analyze it. “Oh, I was dealing with that back then. That’s weird.” I like the fact that it is all kind of vague and cynical and sad.
Simpson: And even Kerri’s character is so immersed in her job that she lives and sleeps in her uniform, and even dreams of work.
Swaynos: I sort of see her as being in between, or at least having the potential for being the balanced medium between them. That’s at least where she goes at the end. And when we discovered that the maid’s uniform didn’t wrinkle, we decided that Marie would totally sleep in her uniform. Of course she would. And I have dreams of the TV show that I am editing. You just get consumed by work, and it becomes a routine that takes over your life.
Simpson: How much of the dialogue was scripted versus improvised?
Swaynos: Most of it was written. Most of the best lines are improvised, but for the most part everything is in the script. Any time that Shannon is on the phone, he was just totally winging it and it is amazing. Just like a little things that are really funny to me, were totally improvised. There is one part where John asks Kerri out on a date, and she says “maybe,” and in the script John says “cool” — but John went “cool, cool, cool.” That has just become part of our vernacular now. Now it has gotten to a point that people who were not on set but are in my life started saying it, which means that I am saying it that much.
Simpson: That’s something I really appreciate about both Pictures of Superheroes and Cinema Six — the quotability of the dialogue.
Swaynos: I was comfortable with writing stuff that I think is funny, and I am comfortable as an editor, but everything in between those two things was totally alien to me. But I knew what shots I needed and I know when people are saying something that is funny, so I guess that’s all I needed. Having it all on the page helped a lot, and then having awesome funny people who could come up with even funnier things was great. There is one scene in which Kerri visits Byron for dinner, and when she leaves Byron improved a song called “Tacos for One” while we were still rolling. If we ever needed to make the movie longer, we could include “Tacos for One.” It just never quite felt right, but the fact that you have to cut out something that funny really hurts.