An Accidental Masterpiece: Trent Harris' "Beaver Trilogy"
by Aaron Krach
Trent Harris' "Beaver Trilogy" is by far the most exciting and heart-breaking piece of cinema this critic has seen in years. The film/video hybrid (on display at the opening of the New York Video Festival last Friday) begins in 1979 in a parking lot outside a television station in Beaver, Utah. A young man, known only as the Beaver Kid, begins a conversation with a cameraman, whose footage you are now watching. The conversation leads to an upcoming talent show at the local high school where the Beaver Kid will perform a personal tribute to Olivia Newton-John in drag. The camera follows The Kid from make-up to performance, capturing a transformation that is as incomplete as it is all encompassing, at least for the Beaver Kid.
Before the viewer is allowed to figure out what is going on, the story begins again. This time in scratchy black and white, and now The Kid is played by a very young Sean Penn. There are slight changes to the story, but they are enough to send the viewer's mind racing, trying to figure out just what the differences are and why. The story reaches the same basic conclusion before beginning again, a third and final time. The story is now in saturated color. The inimitable Crispin Glover is now the Beaver Kid. By the time Glover gets to his Olivia Newton John performance, the story of the outsider finding his voice through the pop star's words has folded over and inside itself so many times that it becomes almost unbearably touching to watch.
Harris is a filmmaker ("Ruben & Ed," "Plan 10 from Outer Space"), professor and writer who lives in Salt Lake City. He was the cameraman who happened upon the original Beaver Kid in 1979. A year later, so taken by the story and living in Los Angeles trying to make it as a filmmaker, he shot the first fictionalized version, ("Beaver Kid #2") with a then unknown Sean Penn. Four years later, after moving back to Utah, Harris shot the version with Glover and called it "The Orkly Kid." As a short, "Orkly" screened at several festivals. In the '90s, Harris made "Ruben & Ed" for Columbia Tri-Star and "Plan 10," which premiered at Sundance 1994. Then last year, exactly 20 years since meeting the original Beaver Kid, Harris decided to put all three together "to see what would happen." He was, quite simply, "amazed" at the result: a feature made from three shorts, so powerful that you can't imagine the pieces having ever been separate. indieWIRE spoke with Harris about the "first-person camera," Penn, Glover and making movies that don't fit the mold. "Beaver Trilogy" will screen in Edinburgh later this summer.
indieWIRE: Who is the original Beaver Kid? He isn't identified anywhere, not even in the credits.
Trent Harris: He's just a guy. Actually he asked me to keep his name private. He's an incredible guy, though. He knows all about the film.
iW: By never giving any explanation as to what is going on during the film, of what is documentary and what is fiction, or even saying when each part was shot, viewers are really left not knowing what is going on.
Harris: Well, join the crowd. That's been my experience with the whole thing. I don't know if there is such a term as "first-person camera," is there?
iW: There is now.
Harris: It's when you are seeing things at the same time I'm seeing them, and the audience is discovering things at the same time I'm discovering them. I've actually been expanding on that a lot. That's all I shot, or all I've been trying to do now. It's like following your nose and seeing where it goes. The whole project has been like that initial meeting in the parking lot. It's all been fascinating and it's all been interesting enough to just ride with it. It's like, Don't argue with it, and just ride with it. Opportunities present themselves and you just have to go with them. You don't get a chance very often.
iW: When did you realize that you had something so special in this story?
Harris: I've done, Oh God, I bet I've probably worked on a hundred documentaries and very seldom do I ever actually film something that is real. You just never really do. I think maybe that's happened twice or three times in my life. That encounter in the parking lot was definitely the first time and I think the best, that I actually got something that developed on film as opposed to filming something that happened in the past or filming someone talking about something that happened in the past. You are actually filming something happen, this transformation of character.
iW: It is also different from when you film someone who knows they are on camera and performs for it. They change. This guy was just so on.
Harris: Oh, he's an incredible person, just incredible. And then there is the subtext of what's going on. He's saying something and we are reading something else. I think that's what makes it work.
iW: Then there is the Olivia Newton-John song, which sounds so cheesy at first, but after hearing it several times becomes devastating.
Harris: Oh I know. The words are incredible. That's why I wanted to stick with the song and not switch to another song. I have a whole new appreciation for Olivia after this.
iW: Has Olivia Newton-John or "her people" seen the Trilogy?
Harris: I hope so. We invited her to it. Oddly enough, Sean (Penn) bought Olivia's house. Actually it was when he was married with Madonna, they bought their house in Malibu from Olivia. I tried to get her to look at it and I can't remember if she ever did or not.
iW: Penn made Beaver #2 right after he was in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," are you still in contact with him?
Harris: Yeah. I don't think he's seen the Trilogy, but he's seen "The Orkly Kid" and the one he did, #2. In fact, someone just sent me an article from Canada where they were interviewing him and asked, "If people didn't know who you were and you wanted them to see one film to get a sense of who you are, which would you tell them to watch?" He said, "The Beaver Kid" by Trent Harris. He said, "If people looked at that thing, they'd leave me alone in restaurants." No, he was really supportive of the whole thing. That shoot was like three days. I used that piece to do the film version. Sean was going to do that version, but in the mean time he got famous and ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone. I kind of lucked out though, because I think Crispin did a really good job.
iW: Each part looks drastically different; what formats did you shoot in?
Harris: It starts out on 3/4 inch video with a camera. The second one is another kind of video. The reason it is black and white is that, well, video does not hold up particularly well. What happened was, when I went back and looked at that stuff years later, it had degenerated to such a point that I put the stuff into my computer and digitized it. I tried to clean it up. But what happened was I ended up taking the color out of it because it was just so "scawampus." The last part is film. The kind of abstract scene in it is, as well. That scene looks pretty funky on film, too. It is actually Crispin on top of his roof, but it came out like you're up on that mountain.
iW: What happened to Crispin Glover? He's had a very low profile lately.
Harris: He's here in Salt Lake. We have a mutual friend, David Brothers, who's kind of a genius at building sets and stuff like that. Crispin is making a movie here, that he's producing and writing and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes he's on to something and sometimes he's not. I think he might be on to something with this one. There's a friend here that we've all known, named Steve Stewart, who's a paraplegic. What's he got? Oh, cerebral palsy, that's it. And he's kinky. He's a kinky son of a bitch and funny too. He has all these fantasies about washing newswomen's hair. Crispin is doing the movie with Steve as the lead character. So look out. Crispin and Dave are co-directing it. They are shooting the whole thing on these built sets. I think this one will rattle a few cages.
iW: Your earlier films are classified as "low art," albeit the best kind of "low art." Now "Beaver Trilogy" is playing at Lincoln Center, the epitome of "high art." How comfortable are you traveling back and forth between those unfortunately segregated worlds?
Harris: I don't pay a bit of attention to it. I find that usually my stuff is too weird for mainstream and not arty enough for museums. To me, that's kind of a good place to be, somewhere in this realm. Basically, I've given up thinking about that stuff and just try to make movies that I like. That's really the point. If I can make something that I like, I am quite happy.
[Aaron Krach is a contributing writer to indieWIRE.]