Years ago, Trent Harris moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of becoming a famous director. Instead, he garnered cult appeal. But maybe it's better that way.
"Y'know, you can kill somebody in Hollywood and they'll forgive you," he told me in a recent phone conversation, "but if you don't make money, that's the worst sin of all."
Harris may finally receive his due: He's the subject of a traveling mini-retrospective that begins today at New York City's 92Y Tribeca. The series runs May 1 - 3 and will later travel to Los Angeles and Austin, among other places -- although when I spoke to him he was still in Salt Lake City, where he lives and works. It's also the place where he went to lick his wounds after committing Hollywood's cardinal sin with his feature debut, 1991's "Rubin & Ed," which opened to punishing reviews in the midst of the L.A. Riots.
Returning to Salt Lake, where he spent his formative years, was a homecoming for the filmmaker. After high school, he spent 13 years in Los Angeles, attending the American Film Institute at the end of the 1970s. "I was gonna be a famous director, I'd decided," he said. "I applied to AFI and I was very surprised when they accepted me, I think maybe they had to because I was from Utah, they couldn't just get people from New York and Los Angeles."
Part of Harris' application was a half-hour documentary character-study done at Channel 2 called "The Beaver Kid." It had its genesis when Harris recorded a chance encounter one day in the station's parking lot with a motormouthed amateur impressionist not long out of high school and desperate to find his big break. Richard LeVon Griffiths, who called himself Groovin' Gary, was a bundle of nervous energy.
Harris saw something in the kid's gee-whiz aw-shucks earnestness, and the deeper disquietude visible beneath it. Programming movies at the University of Utah, Harris had been drawn towards filmmakers with "an absurd sense of humor" -- Herzog,
Buñuel, Fellini, Kubrick. He even recalled renting a print of John Waters' "Pink Flamingoes," which didn't go over well in buttoned-down SLC. ("I was called into the dean's office, I remember the secretary in the art department crying and saying 'How could you do this?'")
Perhaps Harris saw the potential to make his own piece of homegrown surrealism from Gary's story. Whatever the case, Harris decided to follow up with Griffiths in his hometown of Beaver, where he was set to perform in a local variety show. Harris wasn't disappointed to find his star being made up in drag in the local funeral parlor, preparing to appear on-stage as Olivia Newton John, a bit too insistent in reaffirming that his cross-dressing was just all-in-good-fun. Griffiths' hissed, desperate performance of John's "Please Don't Keep Me Waiting" so resonated with Harris that, once at AFI, he twice filmed short, fictionalized versions of the Groovin' Gary's story, renaming his protagonist Larry Huff. The first starred a virtually-unknown Sean Penn, commuting from the set of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" in his Spicoli duds; the next starred Crispin Glover, not yet George McFly of "Back to the Future."
"I think Sean's a little darker," said Harris, comparing the performances. "You kind of had the sense that he might get on top of a building and start shooting people or something. And then I think that Crispin really nailed the naïvete of it." He fumbled. "Innocence maybe is the better word."
In both films, a smarmy director-substitute eggs Larry on, encouraging him to strut for the camera, then refuses when Larry decides he doesn't want the footage aired, driving him to contemplate suicide. I ask Harris about this caricatured self-representation -- was he exorcising some guilt over having, to his mind, exploited his subject?
"There was some guilt," he said. Shortly after production on the first "Beaver" film began, Griffiths attempted suicide. "I'd left a mic in his car, and I was trying to get the mic back," Harris recalled, "and then I called up and got a hold of his mother, and she said 'Oh, yeah, he's in the hospital, he shot himself.'"