Bob Byington, Harmony and Me
From Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez to Bryan Poyser and the Zellner brothers, Austin is a hotbed of gifted directors, and Bob Byington now emerges from there as another talent to be reckoned with. A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Byington studied at UC-Santa Cruz before going to graduate school at the University of Texas, where he used his American Studies major to indulge his newfound love for the movies. In 1995, he cut his teeth as a production assistant on the indie hit The Last Supper, and the next year wrote and directed his feature debut Shameless, about an Austin-set, Generation X love triangle. His next film, Olympia, the story of a Mexican soap star who dreams of competing in the Olympics, was the opening night movie at the SXSW film festival in 1998. However, Byington then all but dropped off the map for a decade, only reappearing briefly in 2005, when he won the Austin Chronicle‘s short story contest. In 2008, though, he returned with the edgy comedy RSO [Registered Sex Offender], which premiered at SXSW 2008 before getting a roadshow release as part of Todd Sklar’s Range Life Entertainment tour. Byington also had a cameo in Beeswax (2009), the most recent film from Andrew Bujalski, who himself had appeared in a small role in RSO.
Seemingly making up for lost time, Byington has rapidly followed up RSO with Harmony and Me, an offbeat comedy which was aided by an Annenberg Film Fellowship grant from the Sundance Institute. The film revolves around lovelorn Harmony (Justin Rice, the Bishop Allen frontman and Bujalski regular), who is still recovering from being dumped a year previously by his ex-girlfriend Jessica (Kristin Tucker) – and lets everybody know about it. Trying to help him (or not) recover from his heartbreak are a motley cast of friends and co-workers, and the members of his oddball, dysfunctional family, with Alex Karpovsky, Kevin Corrigan, Pat Healy and Byington himself turning in great performances in these roles. Harmony and Me, clocking in at a slim 75 minutes, has a real sweetness and freewheeling charm thanks to Byington’s script and Rice’s perfectly pitched lead performance. And though its subject matter, indie cast and loose, vérité cinematography are somewhat redolent of a mumblecore movie, its rich humor – sometimes dry, sometimes much more direct – recalls the New Hollywood comedies from the 70s.
Filmmaker spoke to Byington about the inspiration Harmony Korine provided the movie, the film’s musical aspects, and his “God-imposed” hiatus.
Filmmaker: Before the interview started, you mentioned Harmony Korine and said that he was an inspiration for the character of Harmony.
Byington: He was in my mind’s eye when I started. I had seen him at Telluride in the mid-90s, and his personality had a big impact on me. His demeanor in the world was one of the inspirations for the character. That was blended in with seeing Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation, and sort of writing it for him in my mind’s eye also. And then I was also writing it for the guy who was in Registered Sex Offender, Gabriel McIver. But then Justin basically emerged out of that rubble.
Filmmaker: Did you ever approach Korine about playing the role.
Byington: No. I don’t know him. But I think he’s a very compelling presence on screen. I know he’s in Gummo very briefly, and I wish he’d be more of a presence in his own work.
Filmmaker: Considering you partially wrote it for Justin, how much did you have to adapt it for him once he committed to the role? Were all the musical elements were already there?
Byington: There were musical elements, but it was truly an accident. I had tried to stay away from his music, except for Mutual Appreciation, where he’s a musician. I tried to stay away from Bishop Allen while I was writing it, for reasons I’m not super clear on. I just didn’t gravitate to it. Maybe I didn’t want it to be a like an indie rocker in the lead, But then when he got there, he was really good and really interesting when he’d play instruments. He was doing these piano lessons in the movie, and he was genuinely curious about the piano in a way that really worked for the scene. He genuinely wanted to learn how to play better with his left hand, and he wanted to use the pedals, but he’d never really learned how. So he took those two curiosities and really there was no acting or faking, it was all real. Those scenes have a real documentary quality: he comes in and says, “I want to learn this and this.”
Filmmaker: Was there a lot of improv in the movie? There are not scenes that feel much more improvised than others.
Byington: It depended. For instance, the wedding singer was a friend of mine and I really like him a lot as a performer, but he’s not an actor, so we were much better off saying, “OK, we’re doing this and this in the scene,” than trying to use a script with him. [The woman playing] Justin’s mom is not an actor, so we were going to be much better just describing the scene to her, whereas with Karpovsky, Healy and Corrigan, you want to give them scripted material. They can improvise, but can also make good scripted material great, whereas the wedding singer would make great scripted material very bad.
Filmmaker: There’s a moment in the film where Jerm Pollett says to Justin Rice’s musical style is “playful and absurd,” sometimes desperate but with a lightness to it, and that for me summed up the movie as well to a degree.
Byington: Good, I think that’s what we were after, in a way. Playful, for sure. I know that I wanted to make an open-hearted movie, and I felt like I was able to put that idea into Justin playing the lead, extending across these scenes. You always want to try to create a tone for your movie, but you’re always leaving a lot up to accidental elements that make their way into the tone.
Filmmaker: What were your tonal influences?
Byington: A tonal influence, no question, would be Stroszek, the Werner Herzog movie. The way he worked on that movie, he was really interested in seeing how things would play out in a scene and he brought a rigorous curiosity to the process. And he cast a non-actor in the lead so he would have that [freshness]. I also talk about this other film, Days of Being Wild, the Wong Kar-wai movie. There’s something about the tone of that that really gets me. It’s so… [long pause] This interview could come to a screeching halt while I try to figure out the word! It just flows.
Filmmaker: When you mentioned Herzog casting a non-actor in Stroszek, it made me wonder whether Justin Rice can still be considered a non-actor.
Byington: I don’t know. Great question, great question. I think he brings a lot of qualities [of the non-actor], but he’s very good with scripted material and he was very prepared like an actor. You should ask him – I’d like to hear his answer.
Filmmaker: Do you feel Justin approached the material in a markedly different way from trained actors like Pat Healy or Kevin Corrigan?
Byington: We didn’t really talk about character at all. I gave him a Buñuel book, My Last Sigh, and that was really my only explanation for what I was after in the movie. He read the whole thing the next day on a five-hour flight, and once I knew that he’d read it I sort of felt like there wouldn’t be any communication issues about the character after that. He also pointed out my favorite paragraph in the book, so I was like, “OK, I don’t think we need to worry about this anymore.” And that turned out to be true. We got on really well too. I had made Registered Sex Offender and fought a lot with the guy playing the lead, so I had been bracing myself for fights with Justin, but we never disagreed.
Filmmaker: Is it true that the documentary style you used for RSO led to the way you shot Harmony and Me?
Byington: Yeah, no question. It was learning how to do that on RSO and then applying those lessons on Harmony. I shot RSO myself and then worked with a D.P. on Harmony, but ended up shooting about half of the film. We would hand the camera to the sound guy and let him shoot. People who like cinematography would probably slam the movie by saying, “It looks like the sound guy shot it,” and he did shoot some of it! He directed a couple of scenes too. He plays the little brother. He worked on RSO with me and we knew he was going to work his way into Harmony.
Filmmaker: The whole family were great, and really reminded me of more old school Hollywood comedies.
Byington: I wanted to play the older brother so that I could be mean to Justin without being mean director-to-actor. Instead, I got to be mean as an actor and he got to be mean to me back, so any potential fight we might have had would have been diverted and run off to those scenes. It’s a very effective method.
Filmmaker: You’re extremely funny in both this film and Beeswax, but in both you play seemingly rather dim characters. Or at least very laconic.
Byington: I really wanted to play the character in Harmony like he’s a Republican and give him an obduracy – the way he looks at his brother is very narrow. And doing that was really fun. It was not to make fun of anything or because I hate Republicans, I just wanted to play my idea of a very narrow perspective. It was like, “This is my brother. I think these four things about him, and everything I say is a subset of those four things.” It was fun! Like him asking me for money – I’ve asked so many people for money that it was so fun to play the guy that was being asked for money. “I get to play that guy?! Awesome, let’s go!”
Filmmaker: The subtitle of the movie is “A physical comedy about yearning.” Can you explain that a little more fully? It’s not a physical comedy in the traditional sense, but my take is that it refers to the physical manifestations of yearning.
Byington: That’s very good – that’s way better than I could say. I’m serious! That phrase popped into my head, and I was aware that it’s not in the strictest sense a physical comedy, but then I like the notion of wearing your heart on your sleeve in a physical way. I like the physicality of his journey: I wanted to do a wedding scene, I wanted to do a funeral scene, I wanted to do a scene in a hospital. There’s a physical element to that, and that’s why it’s a “physical comedy.” When we want something and we can’t hide it, it’s awful, in a way. But there’s a lot of humor in that too. When you’re trying to get over somebody and you’re talking to your friend about it for the tenth time and want to rephrase it so that they’re interested this time: “OK, I know that I bored your ass off about in this past, but this time I’m going to say this in a way that you’ll actually get it, you’ll understand everything.”
Filmmaker: Looking at your bio, you made a couple of movies in the 90s and then had a decade-long hiatus.
Byington: You always want to have a story for a hiatus, but I don’t know if I have a story for the hiatus. I could make one up, but there’s no real story. Should I make one up? Maybe you could make one up!
Filmmaker: Was it a “self-imposed” hiatus? Or was it just things not working out?
Byington: If you believe in God, it was imposed by God. If you don’t, I guess it was self-imposed.
Filmmaker: All I have down as happening in between you making Olympia and Registered Sex Offender is you winning a short story contest run by the Austin Chronicle.
Byington: Yeah, I spent all that time working on that short story! I really wanted to win, so I spent seven years on that story. One word per week. That’s a great story for the hiatus!
Filmmaker: It suggests a Knut Hamsun-like dedication to your craft.
Byington: Well, winning that contest did give me a little boost of confidence going into RSO. RSO was off the ground already, but out of over 300 entrants it was nice to win. I think I won because it was the shortest story that they had to read. That’s my recommendation for a short story contest: keep it really short.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Byington: I don’t know what the first one I saw was. I remember seeing Star Wars – everyone remembers seeing Star Wars, right? (I don’t want to date myself… I saw it in the womb.) I remember seeing Chinatown when I was a freshman in college and I had never experienced the feeling that there was an intelligence behind a film until I saw that. When I was walking out of the film, I thought, “Somebody made that movie.” I remember seeing Annie Hall again and then thinking, “Yeah, somebody’s making this movie.” And that was weird. And cool.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Byington: Wow, great question. I’ve romanticized that Dostoevsky was writing in during the late 1800s, and the Russian milieu he was writing in, and I’m very interested in the comedy in his work. He’s a very funny writer to me, so I think I would like to make a Dostoevskian comedy in that era. The Idiot is a tremendously funny novel. Everyone talks about how bleak it is – which it is – but it’s also hilarious.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?
Byington: I saw Failure to Launch on an airplane and there’s no question that it’s hands down the worst I’ve ever seen.
Filmmaker: I interviewed Rob Siegel recently, and he said that there’s a subset of movies that you see on planes that star Matthew McConnaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson and…
Byington: …Sarah Jessica Parker! It’s a miracle I remembered who’s in it, a miracle.
Filmmaker: Finally, which film do you wish you’d directed?
Byington: Chinatown came to mind when you said that. I’ve now seen it 30 times. I’m in awe of how accomplished that movie is. Oh, and I wish I’d directed the first scene of Inglourious Basterds. You’re like, “Holy motherfucking shit, this guy’s a motherfucking director!”