On Being a Cult Filmmaker: An Interview with Trent Harris

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Trent Harris has paid his dues. The Salt Lake City-based filmmaker has made more films than he can count, mostly shorts, documentaries, and experimental films. But his narrative feature films are among the best examples of underground cult films, including three that will show tonight, tomorrow, and Friday at the 92 Street Y’s Tribeca location. Harris will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion every night.

The Beaver Trilogy (Wednesday), his best-known work, is broken into three parts, each filmed years apart. The first is a documentary about Groovin’ Gary (Richard LaVon Griffith), a young man from the small town of Beaver, Utah who unexpectedly performs as Olivia Newton-John in full drag. In the second segment a young Sean Penn plays the role of Groovin’ Gary in a no-budget remake of the documentary as a narrative film. The third section casts Crispin Glover in the role, increases the budget, and expands the narrative to include more plot developments.

Plan 10 from Outer Space (Thursday) is a satire of Utah’s dominant Mormon culture. It features a young woman who discovers a 19th-century artifact that reveals that one of Brigham Young’s polygamous wives was actually a space alien who is now returning to wreak vengeance on Earth. It’s both a brilliant send-up of Mormonism’s oddest beliefs and iconography (space aliens with beehive heads and monocular “all-seeing eyes”) and an homage to the B-science fiction films of earlier decades.

Rubin and Ed (Friday), also starring Crispin Glover, is one of cinema’s most unlikely road trips and a bit of the anti-Searchers, with two misfits setting off into the desert to find a place to bury a frozen cat. Decried as one of the worst films ever made upon its initial release, it has built up a loyal following and is being shown in a rare 35mm print. We had a chance to talk to Harris before the screenings.

Filmmaker: I’ve heard you say that you’re tired of talking about The Beaver Trilogy. But it’s the film that’s opening the series and that seems to be your most popular and enduring work. Why do you think The Beaver Trilogy is the first thing most people think of, when you’ve done so much other work as well?

Harris: Boy, you know, I’ve asked myself that same question. What is it about that film? To tell you the truth I’m not sure. I mean, I was completely surprised when it struck the chord that it did. Well, I wasn’t surprised that people liked it, I guess. What I was surprised at was how much critical acclaim it got. I’m not used to getting anything but bad reviews. It’s still a mystery to me why it’s so critically acclaimed and as popular as it is.

I know that in a way it’s a very different form that I don’t think anybody had seen before, so I think that’s part of it. And then the other thing is that the kid is just so compelling, the real kid. And his story is just so compelling. He’s also an outsider in his community and I think that resonates because so many people feel like outsiders. We all feel like we’re on the outside looking in, at least a lot of people do. In fact, I think people who respond to my work are usually outsiders, people who feel a little bit outside the mainstream—maybe they didn’t get invited to the prom or something. [Chuckles]

Filmmaker: Well, do you feel that way yourself? Do you see yourself in him?

Harris: Well I certainly see myself as an outsider. And I certainly understand, at least I think I understand, where he was coming from. I grew up in a very small town not unlike Beaver. You know, it was a small town in Idaho that had 2,700 people, so I sort of understood the social dynamic of what he was going through in a town like that. You don’t just dress up like Olivia Newton-John and expect people not to get cranky. I mean, it isn’t going to happen.

Filmmaker: So today, as you look at it in the context of your whole body of work, what are your feelings about the film?

Harris: You know, I can’t look at it anymore. Honestly I haven’t sat down and looked at it for a long time now because I just spent so long with it. You’ve got to realize it’s been over thirty years that this thing has been with me. And if there’s a screening of it the last thing I’m going to do is sit down and watch it again. (Laughs) I mean, I made it three times, and then when it became popular and people started to show it, and then when people started to ask me questions about it…you know, I can’t watch the movie anymore.

It’s funny, I realize I haven’t watched any of those older films for quite a while. I mean, you don’t after a while. I did recently look at Plan 10; I was surprised, I thought, “That thing still holds up.” After a while you forget the movie so you’re able to look at it freshly. Right after I make them, I look at them and all I can see are the mistakes. But now I’ve forgotten all of that stuff, so they’re kind of fresh to me. But The Beaver Trilogy is not fresh, to me. It’s something that’s just been such a part of my life for so long. I mean, there has been hardly any time in the last thirty years that it hasn’t been somewhere or other in the forefront of something that I’m doing. Even when it wasn’t being shown I was worrying about it not being shown, or I was worrying about what would happen if it was shown. And then people would say, “Show it,” and we’d have to say, “No,” and it was just a never-ending thing, it’s just gone on and on and on.

Filmmaker: It’s a bit of a mixed blessing because a lot of your fame and notoriety stems from that. Do you feel like it overshadows a lot of your other work, work that you might like better?

Harris: Well, I like all of my stuff. I think of them as children. Each one of them has a problem but you love them all. And a lot of people like Beaver Trilogy, but different groups like different movies. There’s a whole kind of special cult around Rubin and Ed, and there’s another one around Plan 10, you know. Sometimes they cross over and sometimes they don’t.

Filmmaker: Let me ask you about Plan 10, or first let me tell you a story about it. I’m almost finished writing a book about Mormonism and cinema and, in 2006, I taught a class on it at BYU. I opened the first evening with a documentary by the Church—Called to Serve, directed by Blair Treu—about calling missionaries and preparing them to go out and be clean-cut with white shirts and ties, and most of the students had actually already seen that. And then I showed about ten minutes of Plan 10, centering around the nightclub scene. (Harris laughs) I wanted to show the breadth of what we were going to talk about in the class. Then we took a short break, and three people never came back, out of fifteen students. (Harris laughs) They dropped the course right then. I wanted to show the strangest moment of cinema related to Mormonism, and Plan 10 was the best example I could find. So where did it come from in your mind? What were you trying to say with it?

Harris: Well, it came from a lot of different places. I mean, I grew up Mormon so I knew quite a bit about Mormon doctrine, and when I began to make the film I started to dig a little bit deeper. And to me, all of my favorite parts of Mormonism were the parts that the Mormon Church didn’t want to talk about: you know, Porter Rockwell and polygamy and the planet Kolob and the doctrine of eternal progression and the Deseret alphabet—all of that stuff was my favorite stuff. I’m kind of disappointed that when I went to church when I was small no one would ever talk about any of that. (Chuckles)

You know, I could see that there was a certain kind of denial about their own history. And I thought this was the special stuff, they shouldn’t be denying it. So that was part of it. It was never meant to poke fun at the Mormon Church, and I don’t think it does, and a lot of people agree who really watch the whole movie. You know, most of it’s based on actual Mormon doctrine. I made up a few things but most of that stuff’s real. Part of what had happened was after Rubin and Ed came out, it got such terrible reviews and was yanked out of theaters quickly. And I had another project that I was working on that had been green lit, we were doing location scouting, they just immediately pulled the plug on that. Basically I got extremely angry at L.A. and Hollywood and the whole thing, and I said, “I’m just going to go back to Utah and make a film with my friends that we want to make, and everybody else can just go fuck off.” So I went back and I put that film together so quickly. I mean, it was written, shot, and premiered at Sundance in about eighteen months. So that’s pretty dang quick. You know, raising money and everything.

Filmmaker: It was on 16mm?

Harris: Yeah, 16. This was pre-HD video.

Filmmaker: Yeah, it was 1994 at Sundance, right? What kind of response have you gotten about it in the years since then?

Harris: Well, I mean there’s the initial Sundance premiere and then everybody went, “Well, you’re out of your mind making a film about Mormons.” And I thought, “Why?” And then it went on immediately and took first prize at the Raindance Film Festival. People said, “Nobody’s going to understand this unless they’re a Mormon,” and I said, “I don’t think that’s right. People in London liked it.” So you don’t have to know about it in order for the film to operate. And since then it plods along. There’s a certain little cult that likes it. One thing is that it was extremely difficult to show a 16mm film or distribute it in any fashion at all. And then there’s no money for publicity or anything like that. And now it’s twenty years later and The Book of Mormon’s the number one thing on Broadway.

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Trent Harris

Filmmaker: Well there’s the Mormon element but there’s the Ed Wood element as well, starting right with the title. Were you embracing the campiness of your lack of a budget?

Harris: No, not at all. Actually what I was saying, since the critics gave me such a bad time for Rubin and Ed, was, “I’m going to make a movie and call it Plan 10, I mean what are they going to say, `It’s worse than Plan 9‘?” I thought it would be great publicity. And that’s really where the title came from.

Filmmaker: That’s a great marketing strategy.

Harris: I actually got sued by Ed Wood’s estate. They came in saying, “You can’t use that title,” and I said, “Oh, come on.” It wasn’t Ed Wood or anybody, it was some guy who had bought the rights to Ed Wood’s films. I can’t even remember his name now. But it was ridiculous; you can’t copyright a title, but they sure tried to make me stop. Which turned into good publicity there for a short period of time. I mean, gosh, getting sued by Ed Wood? (Laughs)

Filmmaker: Not many people can put that on their resume.

Harris: No. You know, I think he’s kind of gotten a bum deal, too. I look at some of his movies, like Glen or Glenda, and it’s a really good, wonderful piece.

Filmmaker: I even really enjoyed Plan 9 from Outer Space. There’s a lot of heart, and it’s a great little film.

Harris: Well, hell, people are still talking about it, and that’s been fifty years.

Filmmaker: The other film that’s showing this week is Rubin and Ed. You’ve mentioned its initial reviews, and the 92nd Street Y’s website calls it “underappreciated.” Do you feel like it’s still underappreciated? What do you appreciate about it as you look back on it?

Harris: Well, I think it’s taken twenty years that it finally has gained a following. And I‘m happy that it’s as appreciated as it is at this point.

Filmmaker: But at the time it wasn’t.

Harris: No, it really wasn’t. (Laughs) I mean it was really crazy at the time. It actually made me angry: it wasn’t that the reviews were bad; they were mean. You know? It was like, why are you trying to kill this little film? If you don’t like it, fine, but there’s no reason to, you know…it really felt vindictive in a strange way. “The worst movie of the decade,” I mean, come on. Actually when they said that I thought, “God, I’m on to something.”

Filmmaker: Do you think that you were? Because that kind of originated the “Trent Harris film,” your genre or style.

Harris: Whatever my genre is. I’m not sure myself. But yeah, I like that movie. Actually the one that I’m working on right now has gone back to that, it has the same wild absurd dialogue, strange people in strange locations. It’s something I enjoy doing. The last movie I made was called Luna Mesa, and it was a complete departure from everything. It was me trying to make a real serious movie in a strange documentary form. I’m not sure how successful it was. But it took me a long time and it was very painful and right now I want to get back to more fun stuff that I was doing earlier.

Filmmaker: I believe I heard Richard Dutcher call Luna Mesa hands-down the best thing you’d ever made.

Harris: Well, he was in it. (Laughs)

Filmmaker: Did it not get a good response beyond that?

Harris: Well I just haven’t had a chance. It’s hardly been shown. I showed it in London, and that’s just about it. I actually showed it in Orem once, and there was a little sneak preview in Brooklyn. Really it hasn’t been shown. I sent it out to various festivals and nobody wants it. I think Seattle’s going to include it as part of their retrospective. But again it’s a very different kind of film and I’m not sure it’s accessible to people. What I think is going to happen is that in about ten years they’re going to look at it and say, “Oh yeah, that’s fine.” I mean, I think it’s one of those. That seems to be what happens to my movies. They’re never popular when they come out and after a while they gain a following—through word of mouth only.

Filmmaker: So how do you build a career like that? What does it mean to be a cult filmmaker in the days of the Internet?

Harris: Cult filmmaker means that you don’t make any money. That’s what a cult film is: a film that makes no money. (Laughs)

Filmmaker: So people aren’t necessarily talking about your newest work, but the things you made ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

Harris: Yup.

Filmmaker: I saw a trailer for Luna Mesa a few months ago and it’s wild and zany; it looks like it would fit in with your other films quite nicely.

Harris: It’s not what I’d call a funny film, so I think that’s the difference. But I’m not sure Beaver Trilogy’s a funny film, to tell you the truth. I mean there are funny moments in the first part. But Luna Mesa was a different thing. I was actually going to make a narrative, dramatic film, but I was going to make it as if it were a documentary. So what I did was I went out and started to document what happened to me, traveling around the world for a year and half with this beautiful girl, and turned it into a narrative. It’s a very strange experimental documentary, it’s almost like a diary in some ways. So right now I’m too close to it and I don’t want to look at it for a while, but I’ve got a suspicion that it’ll rear its head again.

Filmmaker: It feels like they all do. One that stuck out to me today that I had never heard of before was The Cement Ball of Earth, Heaven, and Hell. Is that a straight-forward documentary about the Khmer Rouge?

Harris: Well, it’s kind of about the Khmer Rouge. It’s really about a young man who was in the Khmer Rouge. He laid landmines, and now he goes out and clears them. You find out a lot about the Khmer Rouge through the film, but it’s really more a story about his redemption. I mean, he was like eight years old when he was doing it, but he laid thousands and thousands of landmines and then he decided he was going to clear landmines. I mean, he’d go out in an afternoon and he’d get forty. They’re not hard to find. And he goes out and clears them with a stick and a pocketknife. There’s one video I had that actually went viral of him clearing landmines. You know, it’s just a short clip of him digging one of them up, and it’s pretty frightening.

Filmmaker: Which is what I was going to say. When I think of the “brand” of “a Trent Harris film,” wherever that came from, I don’t think of a documentary about clearing landmines in Cambodia.

Harris: If you see it, I think you’d recognize my style in there.

Filmmaker: I suspect that you have a broader view of what is fair game for your filmmaking than a lot of the rest of us have.

Harris: I started making films when I was eighteen, and I’ve made so many films I’ve lost count, in terms of documentaries, experimental films, and I think I’m on my seventh feature now. They’re all different and they’re all the same; it’s hard to describe. Except for the TV work I do, that just is cookie cutter to make money. I just try to make movies that I would like to go see; that’s really it in a nutshell. And I just have fun making them. I mean, that’s the reason I make them. I’m not going to make any money off of any of this stuff. I just enjoy it. I wouldn’t quit doing it for a second.

Filmmaker: So what’s next?

Harris: The next thing is called Welcome to the Rubber Room, and it’s a kind of a strange beatnik nightclub that’s full of eccentrics, and it’s the last night that this place is open. It’s going to be shut down and turned into a yuppified art gallery. So it’s about that and their kind of wild efforts to save it. I’m just working on the script, but if all goes well we’ll shoot it this summer so it can show at a retrospective of my work, including my paintings and collages, at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art early next year.