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natural TIFF "The Happy Poet" Interview with Paul Gordon(Director) (10/30)

natural TIFF "The Happy Poet" Interview with Paul Gordon(Director) (10/30)

Paul Gordon wrote, directed, edited, and is the star of "The Happy Poet," a low-budget, very dry comedy about a quiet young man named Bill with a literature degree who decides to open an organic food stand in a park in Austin, Texas.
©2010 TIFF

---Do you have a distributor yet?

I met a couple of distributors in Venice, a Greek distributor, and a Polish distributor. So it looks like we have some distribution in Greece and Poland.

---Did they say what appealed to them about the movie?

They were just real complimentary. They liked it a lot, I guess.

---What's your background as a filmmaker and an actor?

I haven't done that much acting, really. I acted in a rotoscope animated feature called "Mars." It just played in the London Film Festival. That was the biggest part that I ever had before I did this. I'd just had a few really small parts in friends' movies and short films.
©2010 TIFF

---Was this your first feature?

I made a feature-length film called "Motorcycle" that played in a couple of festivals four years ago. But it was really three short films that were all connected. They had the same characters in all three of them. That played at a few festivals. Those were my three film school projects. And I had a short before I went to film school that played at some festivals called "Good," but that was 2001. So mostly I made short films. This is the first thing I've shot as a feature.

---Is "The Happy Poet" based on reality or is it completely made up?

It felt like something I pulled out of the blue, but actually we were trying to make this other film I wrote a script for. Me and my friend who helped me produce this film were trying to raise money for that other film. We got a pretty decent grant from the Austin Film Society but we weren't able to raise other money, so I just decided that that movie wasn't going to happen any time soon. But I really wanted to make something. The other film was just going to cost more, so I started with a new idea. I wanted it to be about a business, and tried to think if I knew anybody who worked in a coffee shop where their boss would let me shoot. Then I thought of a food stand, because it's a mobile business. I can park a food stand anywhere. If we got kicked out somewhere we could just move it and shoot for a couple of hours, then move somewhere else.

---It sounds as if you were shaping the movie in accordance with your financial situation.

Very much so. And I wrote the parts especially for the two other guys who were in it. I really like them as actors. They're friends of mine and I think they're funny. I thought it would be funny if I was the boss of Jon, the guy on the scooter. He really has a scooter, so I thought I could make him the delivery guy. I wrote the script in about a month and started rehearsing scenes while I was still finishing it. I realized when I was almost done writing that the story was very similar to the process of us trying to raise money for the film.

---Did you do research into organic food service?

I didn't do a ton of research. I like all the food. I just pieced together the menu from places where I like to eat in Austin, using combinations of sandwiches and things.

---What about the business part?

I did look a little bit into the process of how you get a permit to be a food vendor. But I decided not to focus on that in the film because I wanted it to be more about the relationships.

---Though the movie was selected for the natural TIFF section, probably because of the organic food element, it's more about capitalism than ecology or the environment. Did you want to say something about the business mentality?

I didn't consciously set out to say something about business, but the ending is supposed to be a ridiculous and over-the-top. I was having fun with the stereotypical happy endings you see in a lot of movies.

---I wasn't sure how the business suddenly became successful.

I thought about explaining that more, but I like having the ending suddenly just happen and you're in this new world. It's why all the women in the end are pregnant. In happy endings they always have surprise pregnancies to make it extra happy. I wanted to show that the main character thinks he's really happy because everything seems so perfect. But he's not really any happier than he was before. He's the same at the end, and he even says, "I've never been this happy before," but he doesn't look it. It's subtle. I don't know if people pick up on that.

---He's a subtle character, anyway. Most of the humor is derived from his dispassionate attitude. Bill obviously has principles but can't always stand up for them.

I thought of him as an idealistic character, but I never thought of him as being inspirational. I did want him to stand up for himself at some point in the movie. I thought it would be satisfying for him finally to stand up for himself and be a more active character. That isn't to say he isn't active at all during the rest of the movie.

---Actually, he's pro-active, since he started his own business. In that regard, it's a typically American story, especially when you have all these other people complaining about their jobs. Is that something you identify with?

Yeah. If you're trying to do something arts-related you have to have other jobs that you don't necessarily like very much. When he starts the food stand it's his attempt to finally do something practical. And, of course, he does it in a really impractical way. He can't help it. He's idealistic to a fault.

---Is that why he's so disappointed with Donnie when he finds out Donnie is selling drugs?

Bill sees it as a betrayal. It also comes at a time when the business isn't going so well. Things are getting worse in general, so he's extra mad at him. He thinks, "He's just been using me. He never even wanted to help with the business. He just saw this as an opportunity to be able to ride around town and sell weed to people." Bill thinks he's been taken advantage of, and they've gotten to be friends at that point, so he feels especially betrayed. Bill is pretty clueless in general.

---In terms of humor, who do you find entertaining?

I've always liked Richard Pryor. I like Alexander Payne's movies. I think those are funny. I actually like David Lynch movies. There's a lot of subtle humor in them. "Blue Velvet." There's some hilarious stuff in that.

---You're not interested in more obvious forms of humor, like slapstick.

Not much. But I did like "The Blues Brothers" and "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." As for present-day comedies, maybe a few, but not many. "Old School" was pretty funny, but it didn't strike me as funny as David Lynch's humor, or Steven Soderbergh's.

---What was the movie that you originally wanted to make about?

It was about a young African-American woman who lives in Chicago and steals a motorcycle. She rides out into the country and starts camping out on the abandoned farm on the edge of a white farm community. There's a retired priest who lives next door who she becomes friends with. It's a less conventional narrative than "The Happy Poet." With "The Happy Poet" I thought it would be fun to play with a conventional structure. That other script has a less conventional structure and more unusual characters. The characters in "The Happy Poet" are stock characters, but the tone, the sense of humor, the way it's shot makes it different from a typical movie.

---Do you prefer plot-driven movies or character-driven movies?

The two go hand-in-hand. The plot should come from the characters. I like playing around with characters. My favorite thing in the movie is the relationship between my character and Donnie. I like interesting relationships.

---Thanks to Richard Linklater's movies, Austin has a reputation for being a city where everybody is almost too relaxed. Your movie reinforces that reputation. Is Austin really like that?

When I was writing the movie I never consciously thought about trying to make is seem like a typically Austin story. It's a big college town so there are a lot of people who went to school there and just end up staying; people with master's degrees who are getting into their 40s and are still working at coffee shops. So, yeah, there are a lot people like that in Austin who hang around and philosophize and still live the life of a kid. They don't get married and have families, or have serious jobs.

---Is this your first time in Japan?

Yes, I've really enjoyed it. I've been trying to do some sightseeing during my time off, but I keep getting lost in Tokyo. I'm always getting lost.

(Interviewed by Philip Brasor)

The Happy Poet
©St. Chris Film

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