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SXSW ‘10 | It Started with a Food Stand: Paul Gordon on His "Poet"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 12, 2010 at 5:9AM

Paul Gordon's "The Happy Poet" came out of his desire to do something and the appeal of making a film set in a food stand. "Bill, an out-of-work poet, puts his heart, soul, and last few dollars into starting an all-organic, mostly-vegetarian food stand. New friend Donnie promotes the business and helps Bill pursue Agnes, a poetry-lover who frequents the stand. Curtis, an enigmatic life-philosopher, buoys Bill's spirits with his positive attitude and love of vegetarian food. Complications with the business jeopardize these budding friendships and threaten Bill's dreams for a hot dog-free future." [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
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Paul Gordon's "The Happy Poet" came out of his desire to do something and the appeal of making a film set in a food stand. "Bill, an out-of-work poet, puts his heart, soul, and last few dollars into starting an all-organic, mostly-vegetarian food stand. New friend Donnie promotes the business and helps Bill pursue Agnes, a poetry-lover who frequents the stand. Curtis, an enigmatic life-philosopher, buoys Bill's spirits with his positive attitude and love of vegetarian food. Complications with the business jeopardize these budding friendships and threaten Bill's dreams for a hot dog-free future." [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

"The Happy Poet"
Emerging Visions
Director, Screenwriter & Editor: Paul Gordon
Cast: Paul Gordon, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Liz Fisher, Amy Myers Martin, Amy Myers Martin, Ricardo Lerma, Sam Wainwright Douglas, Carlos Trevino
Producer: David Hartstein & Paul Gordon
Cinematography: Lucas Millard

Paul Gordon introduces himself and his SXSW project "The Happy Poet"...

My name is Paul Gordon, and I wrote and directed "The Happy Poet." I’ve been into writing short pieces of fiction for a long time. Filmmaking seemed like a great way to make writing more collaborative. I love to collaborate creatively with other people.

It had been a few years since my last film, Motorcycle, and my producing partner (David Hartstein) and I were gearing up to make a film I’d been writing over a few years. We received a nice grant from the Austin Film Society, and pushed forward with finding locations and casting. Eventually when other funds we’d been hoping for didn’t materialize, I started thinking about how I could modify the script to make it more do-able—shootable—for a fraction of the cost. Then we decided to put the film on hold; this was very disappointing.

Director Paul Gordon. Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

But I really wanted to make something—preferably something fun; it had been a few years since my last film, "Motorcycle." I started thinking about fun stuff to do with friends—short films or even just improvised scenes. In brainstorming cheap places to shoot, I came up with the idea of a foodstand. I'd been trying to think of coffeeshops or something like that where I knew someone who knew the owner. Then I thought, "If I could make, or rent, or borrow a foodstand of some kind, it would essentially be a mobile location." I figured I could just park it in different spots around town, shoot for a couple hours, and move on.

Then I thought of actor friends who would be really into acting in something, and would play off each other well. I immediately thought of Jonny Mars as a great counter-balance to my personality (I also act in the movie); and Chris Doubek is just a great, funny actor who is always up for something, so I wrote a part for him too. Once I started writing, the whole story came very easily and quickly ended up being a feature. I got really excited about it, and had a lot of fun writing it. It took about a month to write, but I started asking people if they wanted to work on it before it was done.

We rehearsed a fair amount prior to the shoot, videotaped rehearsals, and then I'd watch them and make notes, since I was acting. Then we'd rehearse some more, and, going into the shoot we knew we'd be shooting fast and there wouldn't be a whole lot of discussion about things, since I was acting in it and we were shooting the whole thing in 18 days. Dave (Hartstein) who was also the A.D. and media manager in addition to producing, did a great job of giving notes when we needed them. It was very collaborative, and a lot of work, but never really felt like work, because we all wanted to be doing it so much. It’s actually very similar to the camaraderie that forms in the movie—friends jumping in and helping out to a degree that still amazes and touches me when I think about it. It was very exciting and everyone did at least three jobs.

Not having much money seems to be the main challenge in general, but I actually find it fun to adapt and find creative ways of doing things without spending much money. This project was developed in a very short period of time. I started writing the script in early-July and we started shooting in late-October. I was really pleasantly surprised by how quickly and enthusiastically people came on board. I think it actually had something to do with there not being much work for people in the industry around that time; people just wanted to work on something—even if it was for free or very little. There was a really good energy because everyone was really just doing it because they wanted to. It felt like a coup to get the whole thing shot how we wanted, in 18 days, with no pick-ups or re-shoots. If we can make back a little money and pay people the deferred pay they more than deserve, that would be the ultimate coup.

So, developing the project was fun. Post-production, on the other hand, has felt kind of like a really long hangover—like a year-long hangover. We had no money for post and it has taken me longer to edit than I would have liked. Editing yourself gets old pretty fast, and you have to force yourself to keep doing it. But now it's done and I'm really happy with it!

The movie is funny, well-acted, well-written, and has an engaging, universal story. The story is actually strangely, unintentionally similar to the story of the making of the film. It also involves food, which people seem to be interested in.

Gordon on his influences...

I don't know if there's a particular film I'd single out, but one thing I've always remembered is something Richard Linklater said in a panel I went to at SXSW in 2001, when I had a short film playing... To paraphrase, he said something to the effect of... If you want to make films, then make a film-- don't wait around for someone to give you money-- Show people that you can make something good on your own, and then people will be more likely to give you money to make one in the future... I'm kind of a do-it-yourself kind of person and had been thinking along those lines, so I loved hearing that and have remembered it. It was liberating and empowering to hear that from someone who had done it himself.

...and future projects...

I have a couple scripts I've written—the one I mentioned earlier that was put on hold—and another one. They’re pretty different from one another. One leans toward being a little more “serious” or “arty,” though still funny in parts, while the other is more of a straight-up comedy. Not sure if I’ll try to make one of these next or just do something completely new. I’m anxious to write something new and different from what I’ve done before and am confident now in my ability to write something fairly quickly.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews, The Happy Poet