Asterios Polyp and the shooting of the Happy Baby movie
We wrapped Happy Baby the movie at 4:30a.m. six days ago. On the last there night was a downpour, and the car we were using in every shot broke down, and we were kicked out of our holding, twice. Holding is where the cast and crew go. Like, when you're outside in the rain shooting through the driver's side of a car that won't move and fifteen or more production people have to be somewhere. If the weather's really nice you can do it outside, hence, Los Angeles. But not in the cold and pouring rain.
I wanted to talk about everything that went wrong on this movie, because it didn't make sense. So many things went wrong, all the horrible, unexpected things, and yet I think the movie is so good. The performances are amazing across the board. And the cinematography is beautiful.
I feel there is a lesson in here, but I'm not sure what it is. How could so much go wrong and still things be so right. I was told over and again that we couldn't do a movie this big for a budget this small. The thing is, when someone tells you you can't do something, sometimes they're right. Like, I was thinking of all the awards I stopped applying for because every time I didn't get one I felt bad, and I wanted to believe it wasn't a competition. But of course it was. It's that whole celebrity thing, wanting to believe some people are better than others.
Like, while shooting this movie, we suddenly did a scene in Word Books, Brooklyn, one of the great remaining American bookstores. Rachel was there from the New Inquiry and the girl behind the counter picked up a couple of lines. And they let us in on no notice and for no money with our giant camera and we did a couple of scenes that thread the story beautifully. And, on the bookseller's recommendation, I bought Asterios Polyp, one of the best, maybe the best, graphic novel/comic book I have ever read. And I read it while shooting this movie and it was a thing that kept me sane. A book, and the makeup lady's shoulder. And long talks at the end of the day with the cinematographer.
Asterios was an architect and things went bad. Really what happened was Asterios was a well respected architect, a university professor, but none of his buildings had ever been built. One day he admitted to himself that he was good, maybe even a little talented, but he was no Frank Lloyd Wright. After that it didn't take much for his entire world to come undone. His very existence was predicated on being special. It's much more complicated than that. You should read it.
But how did this movie turn out so well? I mean, it can still be poorly edited, and maybe there are holes in the script I won't realize until I try to drive a truck over them, and maybe there will be problems with music, or something else. But the footage, I am certain, is beautiful. Even if nobody likes the movie and I screw it all up in post-production I present this as a fact.
Here are some things that went wrong: We lost our sound mixer on the second day. We lost four major locations. Mostly friends of mine, mostly because their landlords wouldn't let us shoot in their buildings. Some movies only have four locations. We had a great locations guy and he scrambled and we arrived in other places. But on one of the days we actually arrived at the location, trucks and all, and were told we couldn't shoot, which cost us only a couple of hours because Phil had a hookup just over the bridge in the Bronx in a home filled with first editions by Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh and others. I had to write a line explaining why there were so many books in a crack den.
And there was the time we were shooting in the dungeon and the power went out. The fuse was in the super's office and it was the weekend so we couldn't get to it. We ran extensions up and down the building and finally out the window hundreds of feet while the dominatrix waited in a skin tight latex suit. It was supposed to be a closed set. One actor was tied naked over a wooden horse wearing a latex pig hood, another had white tape over her nipples. But eventually it was just electricians and grips and everyone from the movie working as fast as possible chords running every which way while three naked actors created magic in a maelstrom.
And there were scheduling issues, of course. Too much to go into. How to convene a large group of talented people. There was no money to cover for mistakes. Last night, when the apartment owner was trying to extort us for $600 and it was raining so hard he said, Yeah, it's a lot of money, but you don't want to take all these computers out in the rain. He was talking about data management, which is a big thing with the Red camera. I said, I'm not getting paid. Katch was right there I said, How much are you being paid. She said nothing. April was ten feet away. I asked, Hey April, how much are you being paid. I'm not, she said. And then I walked away. And then he kicked us out of his apartment.
So all these things went wrong and yet we were so supremely lucky. A very good sound mixer stepped in because he'd worked with the DP before and liked him. A friend of a friend gave us her apartment which we shot for five locations over two days. Great actors, talented and dedicated crew. Thinking of it now it reminds me of when I was kicked out of a bad group home and picked up by a better one, which is like getting kicked out of junior college and being given a scholarship to Harvard. Or any of the incidental decisions, even good decisions that didn't seem important at the time, that led to beautiful things. I know what luck is, and I know bad luck too. I once had a string of good luck that lasted ten years. Luck is as clear to me as an unobstructed view of a mountain. What if, for example, I had hired someone different to do the art, or if the first cinematographer hadn't quit, leaving room for Adrian Correia to step in. Without Adrian there is no movie. That's luck. The saying goes: Be luck available. But being available to luck is no guarantee. That's like walking around with an umbrella thinking you're available to rain.
Real luck is the day you shit your pants but for some unknown reason you packed an extra pair of pants in your bag. Those extra pants, that's 'Luck available.' That's what people really mean when they say you make your own luck.
Luck, in this case, is people. The costume girls and camera boys and scripty. A great assistant director always making everyone laugh. Great production team and volunteers. And strangely great catering from David who would drive up from New Jersey and feed the entire crew breakfast and lunch for $9 a person. He'd make omelets to order and pan fried fish right in front of you. It didn't make any sense.
When you write something and someone reads what you've written into a camera and makes it better than when you wrote it, that's the only thing I can think of that I know for sure is love. When that happens you can literally feel your heart swell in your chest. And if you're overly analytical, like me sometimes, you think, Fuck, I might have cast another actor and I wouldn't be having this moment. You might think — in the best times, and really, shooting Happy Baby, however it turns out in the end, was the very best times — I almost missed this.
So there's that little piece of perfection, in an otherwise imperfect world.