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Filmmaker Interview: Bette Gordon Digs Into “Handsome Harry”

Filmmaker Interview: Bette Gordon Digs Into "Handsome Harry"

They call him “Handsome” Harry Sweeney (Jamey Sheridan). At 52, the Vietnam veteran has kept his rugged good looks. Everyone likes Harry, an electrician by trade who loves to sing – but for some reason he never lets anyone get too close.

One day, Harry gets a call from a former Navy buddy, Tom Kelly (Steve Buscemi), whom he hasn’t seen in some thirty years. On his deathbed and terrified of going to Hell, Kelly convinces Harry to seek forgiveness on his behalf from a comrade they betrayed long ago, David Kagan (Campbell Scott).

At first, Harry wants nothing to do with Kelly, Kagan or the remnants of his murky past. But guilt and memories have a mysterious grasp on Harry, and he finally relents, driving down the East Coast to call on his old comrades. One by one he confronts the rugged Rheems, (John Savage) the intellectual Porter, (Aidan Quinn) and the soft-spoken Gephardt, (Titus Welliver) about the long ago crime. Though they’ve all grown older, it is clear they are haunted by their past.

“Handsome Harry” is a psychological mystery about lost love, forgiveness, and the stifling effect the “code of silence” has over men and their relationships. Each encounter both clarifies and further clouds the truth that haunts Harry. But can Harry confront that truth? Can he ever attain forgiveness and regain a love he believes he has already destroyed? [Synopsis provided by the film’s website]

“Handsome Harry
Director: Bette Gordon
Cast: Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Mariann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Youngs, Campbell Scott
Producers: Jamin O’Brien, Marilyn Haft
Executive Producers: Fred Berner, Elizabeth Kling
Screenplay: Nicholas T. Proferes
Cinematography: Nigel Bluck
Editor: Keiko Deguchi
94 min., U.S.

Director Bette Gordon on her unconscious decision to become a filmmaker…

My name is Bette Gordon. I was part of the groundswell of downtown independent cinema. I made my own films as an artist, and I was part of The Collective For Living Cinema, the first real cinema in Tribeca. It was an exhibition space, a loft in downtown Manhattan, that was run by a collaborative group of young filmmakers dedicated to making and exhibiting non mainstream films. Currently, I am a film director, I’ve worked in television as well. I also teach directing at Columbia University’s graduate film program. I am most known for my film “Variety,” which is a film about looking, and about a young woman who sells tickets at a porn theatre and ends up following a man through Times Square’s sleazy bookshops to the world of men and money in lower Manhattan.

It is no accident that as a young high school student, after attending a screening of Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” at the Brattle Street Cinema in Cambridge, I consciously decided to live in Paris and unconsciously decided to become a filmmaker. Godard believed in the transformative power of cinema, in its ability to promote a creative viewer as opposed to a passive consumer. Having grown up through the ’70s, I could not have found a more appropriate mentor. His radical approach to the use of sound and image helped shape me as much as the questions he asked the viewer to consider, most importantly, the relationship between truth and fiction.

Gordon on how “Handsome Harry” came to be…

My good friend and colleague Nick Proferes wrote the script and asked me to collaborate with him. I was drawn to the male characters in the story because of their rawness, possessing a male energy reminiscent of actors I grew up watching and loving – Lee Marvin, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen, and Robert Mitchum – men who didn’t say much but exuded a physicality I was also attracted to the idea of masculinity as a way of examining gender dynamics, which has been a consistent theme in my work. In “Variety,” I explored notions of female sexuality and desire. “Handsome Harry” allowed me to explore male sexuality through a female lens.

My films have always focused on the visual aspects of storytelling. I’ve been drawn to stories in which color, texture and mood are as central to the narrative as character and plot. In order to create an honest and personal character film, I wanted to explore a different method for achieving an understanding of human behavior. I allowed the camera to be guided by performance so that scenes would unfold organically; I refrained from forcing or dictating the pace. I wanted a raw, emotional feeling in the film, not a fixed set of behaviors. Faces, bodies and voices guided the composition of the image. The perpetual search of the camera to find moments of discomfort was key to my understanding of Harry as a character in motion, striving to come to terms with himself as a man. I wanted the audience to share his subjectivity, but also to watch him closely as his life unravels.

Gordon on some challenges she faced in bringing her film to the screen and what she hopes the audience will take from it…

In addition to the difficulty in financing a low budget film, or any film for that matter, the challenge is to hold on to your passion, your vision, in spite of the bumpy road ahead, not to lose faith when people say “no”. On “Handsome Harry” my shooting days were limited, so I had to move quickly, think on my feet. We had lots of locations and just under three weeks to shoot. Sometimes we had twenty or more set ups in a day.

Director Bette Gordon. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Also, I was shooting for the first time with an HD camera, so I had to get used to a new set of circumstances and an unfamiliar post work flow. Because we chose to use anamorphic lenses to get the image quality we wanted, focus was crucial and exactitude important.

The audience hopefully will enjoy the delicate and restrained performances of the cast, an incredible ensemble of actors whose rawness and physicality are so visceral. I think the film gives viewers a chance to think about psychological questions of betrayal, forgiveness and what it means to live a truthful life. There is some
unexpected humor as well.

Gordon on her many inspirations and what’s coming up…

Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” for the way in which he doesn’t say everything, he focuses on what’s not said, what is not shown, the spaces in between the story and the characters. R.W. Fassbinder has always been a great inspiration for his dark look at relationships, forbidden love, and lush framing, use of mirros and
frames within frames. John Cassavettes ability to draw upon male friendship in “Husbands” and in “Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” I studied Ben Gazarra’s character,
Cosmo. William Wyler’s “Best Years of our Lives” for its look at guys returning from war and their inability to feel comfortable in their own skins.

Hollywood films from the ’70s like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Last Picture Show” and “Taxi Driver.” And I always love Catherine Breillat’s work, especially “The Last Mistress” with Asia Argento. I would love to work with Asia.

I’ve optioned a book called “Border Crossing” by the British Booker Prize novelist Pat Barker. It’s the story of a forensic psychologist who is dragged back to the case of a child murderer he helped to put into prison twelve years earlier. It’s a psycholgical thriller, a cat and mouse story about the young man who demands to be saved from himself before he crosses the fatal line again. We’re setting the story in New Bedford Massachusetts, and I am currently working on the script with a co-writer. I’ve partnered with two of the producers from “Handsome Harry” – Jamin O’Brien and Elizabeth Kling.

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