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How Trent Harris Became the Best Underground Filmmaker You Don't Know -- But Should

By Nick Pinkerton | Indiewire May 1, 2013 at 11:41AM

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.
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Griffiths survived to see a measure of the fame he desired. In 2001, when the documentary and the two shorts were packaged together and screened at the Sundance Film Festival as "The Beaver Trilogy," Harris and Griffiths were reunited, and remained in contact until Griffiths' death in 2009. But while the "Beaver" films' cult cachet is well-secured today -- I first saw the Glover segment on a third-generation VHS dupe, a hotly-traded item -- no plaudits were immediately forthcoming after Harris left AFI.

"I'd been in Los Angeles for a long time, an incredibly frustrating place to be," he said. "I'd had one project after another fall apart, and I just decided to hell with it, I’m going to write a screenplay that's so simple I can just go back to Utah and shoot it with my friends." That script would eventually turn into "Rubin & Ed." Harris showed it to his agent, not expected much to come of it. Instead, she thought it was funny and passed it to a producer who optioned it. Before long, the script was purchased by Columbia Tristar. "It was crazy," he recalled, "after all these years of nothing happening, this happened really quickly. Once I got the script finished it was like bang, bang, bang."

The resulting early nineties feature is one of the more idiosyncratic, uncompromised debuts of its era, completely self-assured in following its own beat. But it's not difficult to see why the movie has been divisive, for it consists of stranding the viewer alone in the desert with two aggressively grating characters. Ed, played by WKRP in Cincinnati's Howard Hesseman, is a divorced, middle-aged wash-out with an anger-management problem and a gift for mangling folksy turns of phrase, presently trying to turn his life around in a self-help seminar that seems quite like a pyramid scheme. Rubin Farr, played by Crispin Glover, is a shut-in with a penchant for skintight polyester and platform shoes; his only friend is a dead cat. Under the pretext of attending one of the seminars that Ed is hawking, Rubin commandeers Ed and his car to chauffeur the cat, on ice, into Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, where they will stumble among the red rock mushrooms, looking for the perfect burial place.

Discussing the origin of the Farr character, made infamous in an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" in which an in-character Glover nearly kicked the host in the head, Harris said that he and the actor "used to go to movies on Hollywood Blvd. There was an usher who was just a very strange duck, but I kind of liked him, there was something about him that I took to Rubin."

The film consists of Rubin and Ed's mostly contentious exchanges, which often comprise of arguments over relative meanings of success -- as in one exchange prompted by a piece of graffiti reading "Andy Warhol Sucks a Big One."

"That isn’t funny!," Ed protests. "Andy Warhol is a successful artist!"

"He sounds like a fraud," says Rubin.

Harris recalled actually meeting Warhol in an oddball encounter. "I actually met him at Madonna’s wedding of all places," he said, "and I told him I was making this movie and that I'd like to say that, and he said, 'Oh, that sounds very nice.' And then he kind of looked over and said, 'Ooh, a big one?'"

Then Trent Harris, who'd gone west to become a famous director, who'd hobnobbed with Warhol at Madonna's wedding, returned to Salt Lake City.

This article is related to: Trent Harris, Sean Penn, Crispin Glover, The Beaver Trilogy