In Features, Issues

INSECT ASIDES

By Chuck Stephens

Directors Matt Manfredi (left) and Phil Hay (right) with
Grant Heslov (middle). Photo: Arlene Pachasa

WHEN THE SKIES are as clear as they were one morning last May, you can see everything from the rooftop heliport of the California Federal building: the banking and business-filled high-rises at the far eastern end of Los Angeles’s polycultural picnic destination, Echo Park; the Pacific Ocean in the distance; the Hollywood Hills off in one direction; the freeway to Tijuana in the other; and, 50 yards of so from a tethered-down helicopter said to belong to a pilot who flew second-unit camera runs in Apocalypse Now, a man in a giant bug suit, waiting to jump over the edge of the roof.

The man in the bug suit isn’t there every day, of course, but then, neither is the crew for first-time co-directors Phil Hay’s and Matt Manfredi’s Bug, an intricately plotted comedy about the interwoven lives of several characters in the funky Los Angeles neighborhood of Silverlake. An unassuming hipsters’ ground zero not so very far from the dreams and derelicts of Hollywood Boulevard, Silverlake is the place many neo-native Angelenos automatically point to when some displaced New Yorker starts whining about the megalopolis having "no sense of community." Bug – a million-dollar-budgeted chain-of-events farce in which doughnut shop employees, city health inspectors and a wayward pig named Kevin Bacon all meet up with the fickle finger of fate – takes the sometimes claustrophobia-inducing proximity of neighborly life as its premise.

"Silverlake," says Hay, the blonder, reedier director of the pair, "is the fate capital of the world. And Bug is all about the way that these characters are connected to the flow of things in that environment. They’re always crossing paths with one another and getting into situations where the most minor things, like someone saying something about their shirt, can end up changing their whole lives."

"It’s also about the susceptibility of these characters to fate and destiny," adds Manfredi, who wrote the film. "Diverse connections in compact spaces: that’s what a neighborhood is. And Silverlake has that the way the rest of L.A. probably doesn’t, except for maybe the Fairfax district, which is where I first lived when I moved to L.A. Now that’s really a neighborhood where people live right on top of one another ..." "And," Hay contributes finishing his partner’s sentence; "sounds and conversations carry from one apartment to the next."

Hay and Manfredi have been dovetailing each other’s thoughts for a while now. Ask them how they split their directing chores, and Manfredi will tell you that they simply "meet each other on the focal plane." The creative partners first met at Brown University, then migrated to Los Angeles and began to crank out one screenplay after another. John Stockwell’s Crazy/Beautiful was the first of them to be produced, but the duo have also sold a special effects-laden live-action version of MTV’s early foray into animation, Aeon Flux to Paramount. "There’s one line in that script," Manfredi notes, "that reads, ‘And then reality shifts.’ Just that one line will cost probably Paramount 15 times the entire budget for Bug."

The team have also sold a pitch to Jackie Chan called The Tuxedo, a Pink Panther—esque spy caper about a bumbling secret agent who has to rely on a gadget-laden set of evening clothes. "Jackie sat there stone-faced during the meeting when we pitched him," Hay laughs, "and we thought we were sunk. But the minute we finished the pitch, Jackie clapped his hands together, jumped up on the table and started improvising and improving on the gags and the stunts we’d just described. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment."

Bug’s shoot has gone just about as smoothly, much to the pleasure of producers Brian Gerber, Lysa Hayland and Kate Margolis. Never mind that there were certain absurdly protracted frustrations on the first day of shooting, which called for an elaborate Steadicam shot involving a dog that is supposed to bark on cue, a nervous bug wrangler from Rolling Thunder Ranch, a child actor who had to be stopped from squishing an expensive trained insect, and a pig that wouldn’t stay on its leash. "Pigs don’t have necks," Manfredi observes.

Eventually the Steadicam continuity the directors were hoping for had to be broken up with a cutaway or two, although the blame came to rest not on the neckless swine but on the pooch who kept missing his barking cue. Fortunately, most of the other mammals in the movie have been more cooperative. Among the numerous cast members are Jamie Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch (Frances McDormand’s husband in Fargo), Ed Begley, Jr., and Brian Cox, who plays the germophobic proprietor of the Silverlake doughnut shop that served as what Manfredi describes as "our main thrust stage." "The pig gets hit by a bullet that falls from the sky in front of that doughnut shop," Hay grins, "but it’s very tastefully done."

Matters of taste are relative: the pig goes down with a juicy splat, and the puddle of blood it leaves behind prompts Cox’s character to order an underling to get outside and "hose down the death." "None of these characters are in any way related to the entertainment business," Hays notes as he takes a break from Bug’s cramped editing cubicle in North Hollywood. "A lot of them have jobs that require them to wear name tags," he says. "They just haven’t gotten beyond that point in life."

Maybe they’re wandering through the avenues of fate with the same sense of constant befuddlement and sudden surprise that Manfredi describes as the main visual attitude the partners adopted to tell their story. "The camera tends to find situations and just follow them to their conclusions," he explains. "Most of the time it’s as if the camera had just happened on some situation that it couldn’t quite believe and, at the climax of the situation, just kind of goes, ‘Huh?’"

Adds Hay, "We were looking for ways to keep the shots anchored in reality, a little bit like a documentary, so that the visuals could somehow try and keep the hecticness of the story in check." It’s a description that sounds more than a little bit like the trajectory of Manfredi and Hay’s career path so far: stone-faced and observant one minute, jumping up on the table and exuding high-velocity chaos the next.

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