Scott Prendergast, Kabluey
Like his much buzzed shorts, Scott Prendergast’s debut feature brings to the screen his poignant outsider’s perspective and talent for creating vivid comic characters. Born in Galveston, Texas but raised in Portland, Oregon, Prendergast attended Columbia University and then pursued a career as a comic writer and improviser at L.A.’s Groundlings Theater. He went on to develop his own one man comedy improv show, UNman, which had a two-year run in NYC. In the late 90s, he started making short films – grounded as much in performance comedy as cinema – which he wrote, directed, produced and edited, on top of frequently playing all the roles. He attracted a lot of attention with his two shorts, Anna Is Being Stalked (2002) and The Delicious (2003), idiosyncratic, bittersweet and often very funny films which demonstrated Prendergast’s mastery of shortform cinema and his development as an all round filmmaker.
Though Prendergast’s shorts were small, self-contained works, he conveys the expansive world of Kabluey, his debut feature, with surprising ease. The plot, inspired by incidents in his own life, revolves around hapless loser Salman (Prendergast) who is asked to help his sister-in-law Leslie (Lisa Kudrow) look after her two demanding sons while Salman’s brother is away fighting in Iraq. As Salman is broke, Leslie finds him a job – which turns out to be dressing up in a giant blue mascot costume and handing out flyers on a lonely, boiling hot highway. Kabluey continues Prendergast’s preoccupation with socially awkward men struggling to find their place in life, presenting an absurdist, melancholy perspective on the world. As he weaves together slapstick comedy and moments of profound sadness, he displays a confidence that belies his relative inexperience as a director. Prendergast gives a perfectly understated performance as the passive protagonist, Kudrow impresses as the dowdy, downtrodden Leslie, and there are also spirited comic turns by Conchata Ferrell and Teri Garr.
Filmmaker spoke to Prendergast about Kabluey‘s “Eureka!” moment, hitting rock bottom before making the film, and getting over excited about his first trip to a movie theater.
Filmmaker: I believe you were on an airplane when you first got the idea for Kabluey.
Prendergast: My brother is in the National Guard. He was in Iraq and I was staying with his wife, taking care of the kids. We were on a family vacation: she would sit on the beach and drink margaritas and cry, and we would take care of the kids. On the way back from that vacation, I was sitting on an airplane and I just thought, “Man in a big blue mascot costume.” I opened up my laptop and wrote “Man in big blue mascot costume – this is your first feature.” I turned to the guy sitting next to me and went, “A man in a big blue mascot costume,” and he went, “What? Who are you? What are you talking about?” I was like, “No, no, no, it’s amazing!” [laughs] So it just popped into my head, but at first it was just going to be an idea about the costume, like a whole wealth of jokes about him being on the inside and people not recognizing him, him having a pointless job, not being able to hold the flyers, the woman [who hired him] not caring. But gradually as I was working on it, I thought, “I should make my real story part of this story, so maybe this guy is taking care of his nephews and it’s going horribly like it’s going horribly for me,” and that’s how it came together.
Filmmaker: And where did the title come in?
Prendergast: When everything goes wrong, people say, “My whole life went kabluey!” But it’s also from Batman the TV show: when you punch somebody, it says “Kabam!,” “Kapow!,” “Kabluey!”
Filmmaker: There is certainly a cartoon element to the film.
Prendergast: I think that was like the number one issue for me. As I was on the airplane, I took a little cocktail napkin and drew out the suit, having him look as much like a cartoon as possible. Having him look as much like a weird, alien object was really important, so I did the initial drawing and then we had a graphic artist refine it. A company here in New York called Gepetto built the suit and I kept coming back to New York because we wanted the head to hang at the exact right angle so he looked depressed. We just wanted it to look totally surreal so that when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.
Filmmaker: You said that you decided that this would be your first feature, but was it the first feature script you’d written?
Prendergast: I’d tried to write another one. When I first got to L.A., my agents and managers were saying to me, “Welcome to L.A. This is what we’re going to do: you’re going to write a romantic comedy and we’re going to sell it. You’re going to get into the studio system, you’re going to earn a lot of money, it’s going to be amazing and we’re going to begin your Hollywood career as a screenwriter.” I, being an idiot, was like “O.K.” I’d never written a feature film, so I spent nine months writing this really horrible, crappy romantic comedy that I didn’t care about. And then it didn’t go anywhere and it was dumb and it was bad, and then I realized, “What am I doing? All I’ve ever done is make short films that I’m in that are about my life – that’s what I have to do for the feature.” So I wrote Kabluey, and that’s what worked.
Filmmaker: None of your short films feel like features in miniature, so how much did you alter your writing approach when you wrote Kabluey?
Prendergast: When I wrote short films, I would have an idea and it would be pretty simple – a woman being stalked by an albino, or a man in a red pantsuit – and I’d just sit down and write it and I’d be done. When I started writing features, I was like, “OK, I’ll just sit down and write it.” So I’d sit down and start writing, but it does not work that way. [laughs] I had great characters and great ambiance, but it just wasn’t going anywhere. Figuring out a plot and keeping the audience entertained for two hours is really, really hard. So I think part of the way that Kabluey worked was that I had the initial context (which was the mascot suit) but I knew that that wasn’t enough to sustain the whole and that’s when I started thinking, “Well, what’s going on in this guy’s life?” and that’s when the sister-in-law story came in. So really I had two stories and I think it worked that you had one slapstick story and one sad story and they’re kind of overlapping and they come together in the end. But it was hard. Let me tell you, writing a feature was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life, but now I feel, at least temporarily, like I’ve got it down.
Filmmaker: Was the fact that one plotline was autobiographical a help or a hindrance to you?
Prendergast: Well, I told my family “I’m writing a movie about a mascot costume – it’s going to be so funny!” and then gradually I realized I was going to write about the family and I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want them to get upset or know. It’s true when they say “Write what you know,” because it’s helpful: some of the lines that Lisa Kudrow says in the movie are lines that my sister-in-law actually said, and some of the things that happened – like her watching the news during dinner – my sister-in-law did every night. So I put in a lot of real emotional subject matter, but I didn’t tell them until the movie was all ready to go. Right before we shot, I went and visited my sister-in-law and said, “Hey, so I have something to tell you… Yeah… So… You know that movie I was writing about the mascot costume? Well, there’s this other character in the movie who’s a woman and she’s got two little kids and her husband’s at war and her brother-in-law comes to help her…” She sort of gave me this very thin look, but kept folding laundry. I said, “And she sort of does some questionable things and she’s sort of an unlikeable character and she really makes some mistakes, but I dramatized it all because it’s a movie and we have to have a fictional plot so she does some things that didn’t really happen…” My sister-in-law, without missing a beat, said, “Who is playing me?” I said, “Lisa Kudrow.” She said, “OK, fine, whatever you want.”
Filmmaker: How driven were you to make Kabluey?
Prendergast: Well, I had made a bunch of short films, I could see that I wasn’t going to get to the next stage of my career until I learned to write a feature script. I was living in New York and I lost everything: I quit my temp job doing word processing for law firms in the middle of the night, I was in a relationship that ended, I lost the apartment, I spent all my money and everything ended because I just had tunnel vision where I was like, “If I’m going to get this movie made, I need to give up everything to get there.” I lost everything and ended up moving back to Portland, Oregon, and living with my family. I had no money. My mother’s a real estate agent and she had this house for sale, so I was living in this empty house and I was going to the library every day and writing the script. In a way it was gorgeous because I would be working in this tiny study cubicle and I knew that script was good, and even though my life was collapsing and I was $25,000 in credit card debt and I had no money and I had crashed my mother’s car and I had no job and I had ended my relationship and I was living in a city where I didn’t know very many people, every day I would go to the library and I had this undeniable, hot, burning joy because I was thinking “This script is going to be awesome!” I knew it was going to work.
Filmmaker: It seems almost like an act of masochism to cast yourself as the guy inside the blue mascot suit who stands all day in the extreme heat. It looks hugely uncomfortable in the movie, but was it as bad for you in reality?
Prendergast: It’s all absolutely true. The funny part is that in the script there are jokes about him not being able to use his hands and being trapped inside the suit when it’s really hot and sweaty, but when we first got the suit they brought it in and we were in this conference room and they put me in it. Then everybody was like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get the producers to show them,” so they all left the room and closed the door. I couldn’t get out of the room and I couldn’t open the door, and they’d just sort of forgotten. And it’s very claustrophobic inside that suit, and I was laughing at myself, like “Oh my God, it’s real. You wrote it, and now it’s actually happening. You’re trapped inside this suit and you can’t get out.” It was weird. It was awkward because there were times when I was on camera and I couldn’t see anything because the suit is actually blind – there is no peephole (we faked that in the movie) and you can’t see anything. We’d do a take, then we’d pop the head off and someone would run up with a clamshell to show me the footage. In terms of the performance, it was very helpful because I was living the exact factors in the movie: it was really weird and claustrophobic and shut off. You can’t be in that suit for more than half an hour at a time, because you will die. I mean, it’s 100 degrees in Austin, Texas and you’re in giant blue foam suit. It was not medically possible to stay in there longer than that.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Prendergast: I think the first film I ever saw in a theater was Snow White, which I recently rented again because I got this book about earlier Disney animation. I remember that I was so excited about going to that movie that I popped popcorn and dyed it with food coloring and then made these cones so we could have our own popcorn. I think I even made costumes for all the kids that were going. It was a big production. I was six or seven. All the kids in the neighborhood went as a group, and I think I drove the parents crazy. I remember getting in trouble for being too excited.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Prendergast: The strangest experience is probably being in a giant blue mascot costume out by the side of the road in Texas. When we were shooting the wide shots, the suit would be standing there and the camera would be half a mile away. Real cars would drive by on the road and people would stop and be like, “What the fuck are you?” and I was like “No, no, no, it’s part of a movie.” They’re like, “There are no cameras here,” and I would say, “No, they’re right over there. Please, you’re disturbing the shot. Could you just keep going.” I was worried that people would try and kill me, would try and hit me like in the movie.
Filmmaker: Finally, what phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
Prendergast: Be prepared. Well, that’s not true, that’s my philosophy on work. I’m a Boy Scout, so I have to say “Be prepared.” I don’t really have a philosophy on life, just “Weird shit is going to go down.” It’s true, though. Weird, weird, weird things will happen.