Unlike many of the rest of the projects in a director's career, first films are almost always a labor of love – an artistic or professional dream fulfilled via grit, determination, and a maxed-out credit card or two. Perhaps appropriately, then, Paul Gordon's filmmaking debut is not only itself a passion project, but it's about one: in The Happy Poet, Bill (played by Gordon) has a degree in Creative Writing, but aspires to open a health-food restaurant. That Gordon not only wrote and directed the film but stars in it speaks to the consuming drive he had to see his story realized on the big screen, as it will be shown this week at Austin's South By Southwest Film Festival.
Cinematical reached out to Gordon via email with some questions about his fledgling film. In addition to talking about his affection and enthusiasm for the film, which is a case study in deadpan humor, Gordon explained why he took on so many different roles himself, and offered some insights both on why his protagonist Bill, and he himself needed to bring their dreams to life on the big screen.
Cinematical: A lot of movies about young, ambitious people focus on goals that are arguably more self-indulgent – they have a degree in economics but they want to be a painter, for example. Talk about why it was important for him to start a business as opposed to, say, becoming a professional poet in 2010.
Paul Gordon: Eventually your credit cards get maxed out, and you can't defer your student loans anymore, and you have to find some way to actually make money-unless you're independently wealthy. This is a reality that most artist-types-myself included-come to terms with at some point. It's about survival and I guess quality of life.
Bill is a poet. The word "poet" itself makes some people giggle-a strange, obsolete being that hasn't yet caught on to how the world works and foolishly wastes time creating something that is boring, is of no interest to anyone, and won't get you anywhere in the world. You can't really earn a living as a poet, unless maybe you write for a greeting card company, and I doubt most poets would consider that poetry. I had a job as a writer for a little while-doing creative writing in a corporate setting, and decided I'd rather have a job driving a bus or something and save my creative energy for stuff I really wanted to write. I actually wrote The Happy Poet right after that job ended, and have been broke ever since. Many times I've wished I could get that writing job back.
Cinematical: How much of this was just an idea for a movie, and how much – if at all – was it wish fulfillment of an ambition to actually open a health food store or restaurant?
Gordon: I've mused for years about opening a pizza place-it would be called Pauly G's. The slogan on all of the green electric delivery cars would read: "Pauly-gee that's good pizza!" I would do lots of research and have pizza with the best sauce, crust, and cheese combination around. It would essentially just be really awesome pizza. One great thing about pizza is that vegetarians and meat-eaters both enjoy it. I've also mused about opening a coffee shop with only one really awesome dessert item-such as cinnamon rolls. I've always figured that if you have just one thing that's really really good, people will come just for that. I've never pursued it because I'm in so much debt already from credit cards and school loans. I'm not in a position to get any kind of small-business loan.
The foodstand in the movie would be my dream foodstand to happen upon when hungry and looking for healthy, tasty, reasonably-priced food. It's a constant quandary when I'm deciding where to eat-assuming I'm not eating at home. I'm always trying to balance price, healthfulness, tastiness, and probably location and ambiance. It always takes me a long time to decide where to eat, which can frustrate eating companions-but but they don't realize how much math I'm doing in my head. It's so hard to figure out because in reality the perfect place doesn't exist-a place that serves good, healthy, tasty food-and is in my price range. It's one of the things I daydream about-having enough money to eat wherever I want, all the time, without any worry.
Cinematical: There is sometimes a self-righteousness among health-food advocates. How tough or easy was it make sure that Bill was sufficiently assertive about his business without being pushy or sanctimonious?
Gordon: Despite his health food beliefs, Bill is a pretty vulnerable character, and I don't see him as ever being pushy so much as being enthusiastic and wanting to share the idea with other people. He just thinks it's a really good idea; when people are less-than enthusiastic, he doesn't argue so much as get his feelings hurt. The opening scene was the only one that required a bit of a balancing act, because I wanted Bill to be a little condescending here-to create conflict with the banker. During the editing process, it was decided that a little bit of condescension/pretentiousness goes a long way, and it's pretty subtle. Bill is a pretty subtle character, so it wasn't that hard to make it subtle.
Cinematical: How tough was it to find a comfortable rhythm with the storytelling given the low-key rhythm of the acting and the narrative? Was it a matter of writing a certain way, working with the actors to shape the scenes during shooting, or trying a lot on set and then finding the best combination of shots and performances in the editing room?
Gordon: Finding a comfortable rhythm for an audience was mainly just a matter of getting feedback from friends on cuts during editing. I had to cut out a fair number of long slow parts that I liked but that just slowed the film down too much for most people. It was a matter of keeping in just enough of that stuff. I discovered that my tolerance for a slow pace and is higher than most people's. The film is pretty tight now, and is pretty much as it was scripted-except that many scenes were shortened, and a couple scenes were taken out.
With the tight shooting schedule, and because I was acting in the movie, there wasn't much time for experimentation during the shoot. I try to stay open to discovering things, but with this film, most of the shaping of scenes with actors was done prior to the shoot, during rehearsals. We videotaped rehearsals and then I'd watch them and make notes. I'm really happy with the acting.
Cinematical: How did you make sure that the film's third act wrapped up in a way that was satisfying but didn't strain believability?
Gordon: I think Bill's character progresses pretty naturally, so if you're with the story and the main character, the ending will work for you. I kind of wanted the ending to-not strain believability-but make the audience think for a minute. Among other things, the ending comments on a certain kind of ending in many movies. I don't want to give away the ending, so am not sure how much detail I should go into.
Cinematical: As the writer, director and star, how similar or different are you from this character? It seems as if getting a movie made would require a little more drive or assertiveness that Paul seems to possess for much of the movie.
Gordon: I'm pretty similar to the character, but I'm not Bill. It's a lot more fun to play a part if you're playing someone else, and I've always thought of Bill as someone else. As far as assertiveness goes, I've always thought that words are less important than actions. I'm not generally that outwardly, verbally assertive, but when I decide I want to do something, and get excited about it, I work really hard on it. So I guess working hard is my way of being assertive. I'm only verbally assertive when I really need to be, which I guess is pretty similar to Bill.
During the filmmaking process, I have been very fortunate to have some good friends-Dave Hartstein (producer), Jonny Mars (co-star and co-producer), Caroline Karlen (production/wardrobe designer and associate producer), and more recently Chris Ohlson (executive producer) and Jason Wehling (associate producer/graphic designer)-who have been very supportive and have taken on some of the stuff that requires more outward assertiveness. I'm really thankful for these people and feel indebted to them.
Cinematical: Why did you elect to fill all three of those roles? Your performance as Bill worked beautifully to convey that sense of hopeful inertia – the anticipation that something could work out, but the fear of failure that keeps a person from actively trying – but was the decision to act in it in addition to writing and directing something you wanted to do, or was it purely necessary?
Gordon: I wanted to play the part. I enjoy acting and I wrote these parts for me and my friends to play. I thought Jonny and would balance/contrast my personality really well, and I thought Chris and Jonny would contrast well. I'm happy with how well the chemistry worked.
Cinematical: The score was interesting in that it was minimal, to say the least, but seemed to indicate the momentum of Paul's life. For example, the single piano note almost signified staying in the same place, while, multiple notes and melodies indicated he was moving forward or backward. How did you decide what the music would be, just musically, and then how it would comment or enhance the action?
Gordon: Jonny and I played the piano stuff on an out-of-tune piano in Dave's garage; it's his fiancee Emily's piano. Then we went back and worked on making the piano stuff build throughout, and got someone who actually knows how to play piano to record some better-sounding stuff for some parts, and did some stuff on a piano that was in tune. Some of the out-of-tune stuff is still in there.
Originally, I saw the single-note stuff as kind of an anti-score; it's there and it's music, but it doesn't tell you how to feel. That single note ends up taking on different meanings at different moments in the film-and takes on different meanings for different people. In later cuts, we worked on making it build from beginning to end, in a cohesive way. I agree that the multiple notes and melodies give more of a feeling that something is changing. It was largely a process of just playing around on the piano and trying stuff out.
Cinematical: Who are the filmmakers or what are the films that inspired you to become a filmmaker? Are there any people or films that fueled you creatively when you started working on this?
Gordon: The obvious ones that come to mind right away are Ozu, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Aki Kaurismaki, Robert Altman and Richard Linklater. There are lots of others...
Cinematical: As an independent filmmaker how free are you to create stories that simply go where you want them to, and which yield to conventional structure? How much do you see this as a film with a conventional narrative, and in what way do you think that enhances its impact?
Gordon: I feel like it's such a crapshoot as an independent filmmaker-as far as anything happening with your film-that you might as well just make what you want to make. In a way though there's more pressure to make something that will get you somewhere, because you want to get your foot in the door somehow.
This film does have a conventional narrative structure-and has fun with it. The film is very sincere, but is also often tongue-in-cheek. It's a fine line to walk; I didn't want to make something that was in-your-face ironic, so the tongue-in-cheek-ness that's there is so subtle that it sometimes goes un-noticed. I see these characters as more real, slightly off versions of archetypal characters that might appear in more conventional comedies and romantic comedies. Making something within a narrative structure that people are familiar with gives the audience a frame of reference and allows you to comment on elements within the structure. I've written scripts that experiment more with narrative structure, but this film was more about having fun with elements within that structure.
Cinematical: Ultimately, what is this film about for you? Is this "just" about a guy with a dream, or is it about the way that our dreams still need to have shape and discipline in order to become real?
Gordon: The film is definitely about a guy with a dream, and is also about survival versus kindness/generosity/idealism-and how life is often a balancing act between these things. Bill is a somewhat impractical, idealistic dreamer, and Donnie is a survivor. The character of Bill is similar to me in that he believes that if you stick to what you believe in and work hard at it, even though it might make life harder for you-at least in the short-term-everything will work out somehow.
As far as dreams becoming reality, I think most people have some fantasy in mind for how their future will be if everything works out as planned. But things never actually work out exactly the way you plan. I'm inclined to believe that Bill's dreams don't come true in the end, even though by most conventional expectations it would seem that they have, and he appears to have bought into it himself.
The Happy Poet screens at The Alamo Ritz in Austin on Sunday March 14th at 2pm, and again on March 15th at 1pm and March 18th at 6:15pm. Check out the film's official SXSW page for more.