Rodney Evans on The Happy Sad
An exploration of two couples — one black and gay, the other white and hetero — Rodney Evans’ The Happy Sad suggests with a light, deft touch the increasingly commonplace sexual fluidity that millennials are embracing as normative sexual categories fall away. Of course, there are difficulties. Partner swapping, open relationships, explorative homosexuality are nothing new, but even in the swingin’ hipster’d Brooklyn from which Evans tells his tale, complications arise, feelings are hurt, egos are shattered, these feelings only heightened by the ever present realities of race and class. A timely meditation on all of these things, the movie focuses on a black middle-class homosexual relationship with real poignancy and little sense that it has something to prove, to Represent with a capital R. That comfort has been hard won, but it’s here to stay.
Based on a play by Ken Urban, the film marks the return of Evans, who a decade ago won Sundance with his feature debut, Brother to Brother, which besides being Anthony Mackie’s pre-She Hate Me coming out party, was a wunderkind low-budget black-cast, gay-themed period piece. The newer film is, when placed in comparison, in many ways representative of the broader changes that indie film has undergone. It was made for less money in less time with less famous people in front of the lens in an era when, in large part due to the success of narratives like Evans’ previous one, films about African-Americans that encompass gay themes are much less taboo. From Pariah to Big Words to Mississippi Damned, we’ve been here already. This is largely a good thing; it’s less burdensome for the filmmaker certainly, and perhaps audiences are more likely to acknowledge the gallery of terrific performances and low budget filmmaking ingenuity on display.
The Happy Sad world premiered at this year’s Frameline: San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. It opens in Manhattan on Friday.
Filmmaker: What really spoke to you in Ken Urban’s play to the degree that you choose to embark upon adapting it with him?
Evans: We had become friends and he invited me to a reading at Playwrights Horizons a few months later. I was really taken with it. I thought it was a really great piece and he was a really talented writer and he was really funny and moving and smart. I was just with my friend. He’s a really great writer. He had a run of it at the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theater. He was in the process of adapting as a screenplay but had never written a screenplay before. He asked if he could send it to me to get feedback. I said, “Sure,” and so we went through a few drafts and I would give him feedback and we would go back and forth and then by the third draft I was like, “Whoa, I really love this. These characters really speak to me and they feel like people I know really well.” So at that point we started talking about having me direct it and how to make it in a really tangible way.
Filmmaker: It’s been nine years since Brother to Brother. I know you’ve developed a number of projects between then and now. What was the special alchemy of elements that were able to come together in order to get this project off the ground as opposed to some others?
Evans: I think the difference between this piece and some of the other features I’ve developed is that it is very small in scale. In terms of budget, the scope of the project, minimal amount of locations, a small cast, I knew I wanted to work with a skeleton crew. I had done this directing lab in Amsterdam called the Binger Film Lab in 2009. That’s a four-month lab; it’s similar to the Sundance Lab. At that lab I was developing a script I had written called Daydream. I ended up making a short that was a excerpt from that project that was called Billy and Aaron and I literally shot that with a three-person crew in eight hours. For me that was really galvanizing and invigorating and I thought, “Why am I not working like this all the time? Why does filmmaking have to have such a huge apparatus around it that makes it cumbersome and impossible?” My mode of thinking at the time was to do something lean and mean and really small. I liked that it had humor in it, I could see a way of doing it in a DIY fashion, shooting in 16 days during the summer. I had a full time teaching gig at Temple which I still have, so I had a lot of equipment resources from the department, so it was a nexus of factors that came together and made it really doable.
Filmmaker: The two films you’ve made are sort of perfect examples in a way of the old and new models of indie narrative filmmaking, from film to digital, from answer prints to grading on a Mac, working with a third of the money one used to, etc. What do you miss about the old model, with the larger apparatus we spoke of and what do you gain from working in a smaller fashion that you wouldn’t want to give back?
Evans: Both projects are so different in scope and scale. Not to say as I think of any of them as outside of the realm of low-budget filmmaking. Brother to Brother was also down and dirty. It was a 24-day shoot. It was insane in terms of logistics. Every producer that read it told me I was insane for trying to do it, that they didn’t know how the hell I was going to pull it off. It had 50 locations, 70 speaking parts, 40 percent taking place during the Harlem Renaissance, so it was period, it was under $1 million, way under $1 million. So in terms of how people define low budget filmmaking, I think Brother to Brother was very much within that model; I’ve never really had the luxury of working any other way. On some level, they are different in scope, but on another level it’s how I’m used to working and it’s actually how I’m comfortable working. I think the things you gain in terms of creative control you lose in terms of time and budget. Both films were done in these lean, mean and fast ways. There has never been a financier who has any creative input in what I’m doing. I can see the pros and the cons of that, honestly. But for better or worse, it’s always been the film I’ve wanted to make and I know there are a lot of filmmakers who aren’t in that position. So I tend to work in a similar way. This piece was faster, it was 16 days as opposed to 24 days. It was a smaller, younger crew, we shot with two camera on digital as opposed to one camera on 16mm. That was one way I was able to pull off a feature in 16 days. I don’t know how you do it otherwise.
On both films I was able to rehearse with the actors for weeks in advance. I broke both scripts down by relationship and rehearsed the relationship and casted for the relationships at the center of the piece, Marcus and Aaron and Stan and Annie. I would rehearse for a few days with Marcus and Aaron and then for a few days with Stan and Annie and then with Marcus and Stan, just making sure these principal relationships work. It was a very similar mode in Brother to Brother, where I worked with Anthony Mackie and Roger Robinson a lot to make sure that that relationship made sense and a lot of the questions that had to be asked about each scene were asked in the rehearsal process. That [meant that] I wasn’t under the pressure of production and the ticking clock while answering these crucial questions; all of that happens before we start rolling. Once we get to set, we’re pretty much ready to go and the actors get the heart of each scene and how each scene fits into the larger structure. We had a real dialogue about the characters and relationships and then they go off and do their own research and work to get prepared and then it’s really just about turning on the camera at that point. I think with The Happy Sad, we averaged maybe two takes per setup. That’s definitely part of it, the way that I work. I have an interest in working in television so on some level I feel like it was a bit of a test that I gave myself about how to have some cinematic style while still executing the thing within the confines of what is basically a TV schedule.
Filmmaker: You must have also done a lot of the aesthetic design in advance as well? There was little time to sit around like Antonioni, waiting for the space to speak to you sort of thing I imagine, yes?
Evans: That definitely was not happening. [laughs] No waiting for the news, or the magic hour. The d.p. and I sat in my apartment for three or four days, went through the script, shotlisted the whole thing, storyboarded some of the more complicated setups. For about 50 percent of the locations we were able to go in beforehand. For instance, the subway sequence is at the Ditmas Avenue train station three blocks from my apartment so we just spent an afternoon their kind of talking about how we were going to do this eight page scene with multiple characters that was very complicated with a skeleton crew in an afternoon. What kind of setups were we going to get, what we were going to do first, etc. It’s a good example of something more complicated that we spent time storyboarding and talking through about how it was going to go down and once we got to set everyone knew what they needed to do and it just moved. There were a lot of scenes like that, such as the concert at the end. That was done on the same day as a lot of the comedy club performances. It’s the standard very fast, very crammed, low budget production schedule.
Filmmaker: How much did to deviate from the source material?
Evans: It did change from stage to screen in huge ways. Ken Urban was a really great collaborator in terms of not being precious about the play and his willingness to reinvent the material so it worked as a film. None of us wanted to make a film that felt like a play that’s shot in five locations. Nobody on the team was interested in doing that. We all had an aversion to films that feel like that. So it was real testament to Ken, to his openness to collaboration and faith in the process to really transform the material. The play was much more of an ensemble piece, a seven-person ensemble piece. One of the first thing that Ken and I talked about was that the two central couples were what I was really connecting with in the piece and it really was about bringing those two relationships to the foreground and making some of the other characters secondary characters but still making them feel like they were fully fleshed out. That was the first challenge.
The play also had a lot of songs in it. Ken referred to it as a play with songs. It had a lot of burst-out-into-song moments in the play. We both decided we didn’t want to do those for the film, that we wanted the film to have a realistic tone, so a lot of the musical elements of the film became linked to the character of Stan, who is a musician. It felt like a much more organic way to have music be a part of the film. We were fortunate to find Cameron Scoggins, who is an incredibly talented actor and musician and songwriter, who just brought so much to the table in terms of that part and wrote these amazing song with his band The Whiskey Collection. He gave me a CD of their E.P. that hadn’t come out yet and there was a song on the E.P. called “Oh, Darling” that I just kept playing over and over again. I thought it was really beautiful and moving and powerful and I remember talking to one of the producers Ezra Saydum one day and asking, “Why is that song not in the film?” and she’s like, “That’s a good question.” We were already shooting a rehearsal scene with the band and I knew that Cameron’s band members from The Whiskey Collection were going to play his band in the movie so we decided to shoot them playing “Oh, Darling” in my living room, because Stan’s apartment in the film is my apartment in real life. It just became part of that day’s shoot. In the back of my mind, I did conceive of how that would work as an opening to the film. As I was conceptualizing it and shooting it, I knew I wanted to try it as the opening, I knew I wanted it to crosscut introducing the two couples and particularly Stan and Annie’s breakup scene in the cafe. I knew that those two scenes had a really great way of reverberating against each other and setting the tone for the film in a lot of ways and giving us access to backstory and Stan’s interior life and all the things that a musical performance can bring to a film. It was a great collaboration with Stan and his band.
Filmmaker: What was most surprising about how the material developed in the edit?
Evans: On set there was a lot of improvisation from the actors. I think 85 percent of it is written and 15 percent is improvised. Working with two cameras and having coverage on each of those improvised moments allowed us to have ways to cut those scenes and shape them. I did the first pass myself on my laptop myself. I have a full-time teaching job, so I was only able to cut on the weekend. We worked in conjunction with this school called The Edit Center, so a lot of the students did first cuts of those scenes as well and some of those ended up being the cuts that are in the film. For the last six weeks of post-production, I brought on the editor of Brother to Brother, Sabine Hoffmann. I literally just handed the drives over to her and said, “I can’t look at this material; it needs a fresh perspective. You should just take three or four weeks and do your pass on it, I won’t have any input, and then we’ll reconvene and I’ll give my input.” That’s very different from how we worked on Brother to Brother, where Sabine was cutting as I was shooting and we had the luxury of having a editing room going for six to nine months on a daily basis where she was always working and I was coming in three times a week. It was a much more traditional process back then.