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“I Like the Idea of Comedy in an Uninhabitable Place”: Director Calvin Lee Reeder on His SXSW-Premiering TV Pilot, Harbor Island

Harbor Island

“Like an Abel Ferrara Jr., [Calvin Lee] Reeder meshes thought and design with genre storylines, like a Euro-filmmaker making ’70s drive-in films,” wrote Mike Plante in his 2007 25 New Face profile of the Portland, Ore.-born filmmaker. Sixteen-years later, the alt-horror auteur is still moving between the border spaces of various horror and science-fiction sub-genres, with his newest work — the SXSW-premiering independent TV pilot Harbor Island — being one of the most existentially offbeat yet. The festival’s program book provides the narrative gist but not the work’s extremely odd affect, which is something like watching Rupert Pupkin act in a U.S. version of Red Desert: “A van-living joke writer [Josh Fadem] wanders the industrial zone at night. He encounters ominous strangers and witnesses unnatural phenomena but that will hardly stop him from working up new material.” Reeder has appeared frequently in these pages over the years, and below he catches us up on his latest work, reveals its pandemic-inspirations,and discusses “using humor as a weapon.”

Filmmaker: You appeared in Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces in 2007 following the festival play of a number of shorts, including The Rambler, which you turned into a feature in 2013, and which Jane Schoenbrun spoke to you about for us. The last time you were in our pages was in 2017, being interviewed by Meredith Alloway after your 2016 short The Procedure won a jury prize at Sundance. You said then, “After the festivals, industry folks really don’t wanna watch entire feature films so if you can show off your vision in three minutes that will open a lot of doors. In some ways The Procedure has been better for me than my features which is oddly painful to admit.”

Now, in 2023, you’re at SXSW with the pilot for what could be a web series — the 15 minutes I watched is broken into three segments — or expanded into a 22-minute more traditional series. So I’d like to hear first about just your path as a filmmaker since we spoke last — what you’ve been up to — and then about this continual dialogue between various forms (shorts, features, web series, etc.) your work is navigating. Has the approach you’re taking to short-form work changed at all over the years? Are you seeking new things from the short form as its place in the industry is changing?

Reeder: Well, I might’ve been a bit short-sighted in saying that, though I’m sure I meant it at the time. But The Procedure is actually still playing festivals so it does have some staying power. Film instructors also show it, I get a kick out of that.

2017 doesn’t seem that long ago but the world has certainly changed. I’ve been mostly working as a writer since then. I went to the Sundance Episodic Labs with a pilot, and it was eventually optioned by AMC International. I did a couple of years of development there, but the project ultimately did not go to series. A handful of other jobs with similar outcomes preceded and followed. To offset that creatively I have been making shorter work. I directed a piece for Hulu and also a segment in the anthology feature A Field Guide To Evil.  There was also this family drama branching narrative I directed and had a lot of fun doing. It was an experiment for a studio that was never meant to be released and, just like they said, it was not.

I’ve been switching gears between features, shorts and web series as fluidly as I can. My brush with TV development I think helped inform that. My philosophy is pretty basic, I just make the film that I can make and I try not to let too much time pass between projects even if I have a little bad luck. I would say my approach to short-form changes from project to project. With Harbor Island, I was excited to explore these episodic programs that now exist at a bunch of the major film fests. I saw Linas Phillips’ The Ride which played the Sundance Episodic program and it really excited me. I wanted to see if I could do something in that zone.

Filmmaker: From your Kickstarter page, the project’s extremely accurate logline is “A dad joke comic wanders the industrial zone at night.” Which of those two halves came first, because one could imagine your comic doing these jokes in a stand-up set or simply a non-narrative essay film about Harbor Island. What was the impetus to fuse them?

Reeder: This is a very good question. About five years ago when visiting my mother in Seattle I deployed myself on a midnight mission to Harbor Island. I took about 200 photos ,and I decided I wanted to make something there someday. I  also thought whatever it is it should be funny because the landscape is so stark and humorless. I’m not exactly sure why I thought that, but I like the idea of comedy in an uninhabitable place.

Over the pandemic, I wrote a ton of jokes. I tortured everyone within social distance and bombed every parking lot, backyard and nature trail I set foot on. The world was my stage, and it was a rickety one. The burn of bombing became addictive, so I kept writing more jokes with no intention of doing anything useful with them, only more bombing. Then, and this is kind of weird, I started watching movies like Angst, Siere Noire, and Der Todesking, which are movies about serial killers, and I think they all do a great job of demonstrating how liberating it might feel to get away with murder even if only for a little while. I then thought to myself, “Hey, I want to get away with murder!” And to me, that meant finding a way to put all these jokes on Harbor Island. After that notion, the concepts merged pretty quickly.

Filmmaker: When did you first encounter Harbor Island? It feels like the kind of place you’d explore as a kid and that would imprint itself on you. And were there any shooting issues? I kind of assumed that perhaps you were just stealing the locations, but then I saw the official thank yous and credits at the end.

Reeder: Another excellent question. I used to drive a forklift, and my job was loading 40-foot containers that were to be shipped north on Alaska-bound barges. We handled a lot of fishing nets and steel piping. It turns out, everything that ships to Alaska from the lower 48 goes through the Seattle Port Commission, and one of the ports they control is Harbor Island. So I had long known of the place but never actually went there. I also never envisioned a scenario in which I would name-drop the Seattle Port Commission in Filmmaker Magazine.

I’d say sound was our biggest issue shooting there. Barges, trucks, and trains run through there constantly and as an added bonus there is also a busy flight path right overhead. You’d think I would’ve noticed that on my scouting mission. Permitting was actually pretty easy. There’s also nobody down there so it’s unlikely we’d get busted.

Filmmaker: If there’s a kind of anti-humor humor going on here — Josh Fadem’s jokes often land with a thud — this effect is amplified by the depopulated desolation of the landscape. If these jokes were delivered in a comedy club, the audience’s awkward reactions would be part of the joke. But in Harbor Island, there’s a real existential bleakness to the humor due to the surrounding emptiness, one that’s only slightly mitigated when other characters enter the frame. Could you discuss your attitude towards the concept of the joke as it exists in Harbor Island?

Reeder: Telling jokes in a comedy club is way too straight a line for me, I bet there’s a show doing that right now. Alternatively, I would probably watch a Ken Burns-style documentary on the shipping ports of America, but I can’t see myself making one. I’m too bad a student. For me, telling dumb jokes in a place they don’t belong comes naturally. I also like my work to be a combination of things, and those things are usually a kind of subconscious choice. Poor Josh tries so hard to make these jokes work too, he makes me laugh, and the people I have shown it to laugh, but he never gets close to a giggle out of the misfits on Harbor Island. I relate to that struggle.

Filmmaker: The Procedure, as you told me in an email, is being expanded into a series by Japanese streamer Samansa. Could you tell me more about that? How did that come about, and what role do you have in the project?

Reeder: I’m still learning the plan myself but I’m very excited about the possibilities here. The Procedure and its sequel The Procedure Part II seem to have earned a following there. Samansa is a new company but they have been throwing around the idea of expanding The Procedure for a while, and t appears there is some gas in the tank now. My role would be to write and direct more Procedures.

Filmmaker: You worked on with Todd Rohal, who appeared on Filmmaker‘s 25 list a year before you, as an editor on Harbor Island, I believe. Tell me about that collaboration and what he brought to the project.

Reeder: Todd is one of my best buddies and filmmaking heroes. He also did not end up editing the film, he moved to Santa Fe for the summer, but he is the first person to read the script. Todd advised me all along the way from casting to picture lock. Lucas Heyne, who wrote and directed a brilliant Sundance feature in 2019 called Mope,  ended up lending his services as editor, and I was blown away by his talent. I love all that he contributed, and I think the project is a lot funnier because of him.

Filmmaker: In his 25 New Face writeup of you, Mike Plante described your style of “alt-horror” as being like “a Euro-filmmaker making ’70s drive-in films.” The American horror landscape has changed since then, and films such as We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and Skinamarink point towards an openness to outsider non-formulaic visions. At the same time, there’s yet another rebooted Scream installment out now. How do you view the horror genre and the horror movie industry at the moment in relation to the sorts of films you are making?

Reeder: Interesting dynamic there. I personally don’t think horror is one genre. It’s kind of like rock’n roll. At one point it was all very simple but now Chuck Berry, Judas Priest, and I guess Greta Van Fleet can all claim it. Those artists have almost nothing to do with each other unless you count Priest’s cover of Johnny B. Goode on Ram It Down and if you do I’m impressed. But the point is horror is not really a category much as it is a sales tool in my opinion.  Scream is a comedy to me and I appreciate that, even going back to my first feature The Oregonian I have always tried to use humor as a weapon. So, I can get down with both styles but for very different reasons. If there has been a shift and if it does relate to my work, I hope it comes in the form of more open-minded critics so that we might reach a more open-minded audience. I believe the smaller films you mentioned benefitted from that. I also feel like Mandy was a nice barrier-buster, I’d love to ride in that jetstream.

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