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How Trent Harris Became the Best Underground Filmmaker You Don’t Know — But Should

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

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.'”

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.”Persona non grata” in Hollywood, Harris decided to work on the cheap and away from the studio system. This is how 1995’s “Plan 10 from Outer Space,” also playing in the traveling retrospective, was produced. A grade-Z science fiction/fantasy film with musical numbers, “Plan 10” plays on the more outlandish aspects of Mormon doctrine: “Y’know, the Deseret alphabet and the fact that God lives on a planet named Kolob and Porter Rockwell and all those things I’d really liked,” Harris explained. “All my favorite things in Mormonism are the things Mormons don’t want to talk about.”

A cottage industry of movies by and for Mormons has come and gone since Trent Harris’ homecoming — “God’s Army” director Richard Dutcher even appears in Harris’ latest, “Luna Mesa” — but Harris continues to toil away, showing no regret for forsaking Hollywood. “If you keep your life simple then your passions can be more complex,” he says. “I don’t have a family, don’t have a wife, don’t have kids, don’t have debt, drive a 20-year-old car, a Subaru Forester. I can throw down the back seat and go out in the desert and sleep, it’s great fun.”

When I ask about forthcoming films, Harris described a currently in-the-works project to be titled “Rubber Room,” about “the last night of a Beatnik-y nightclub on its last legs, before it’s turned into a fancy art gallery.” Reaching for a description of the overarching theme of Harris’ filmography, I suggested “a study in various species of the American eccentric,” from Groovin’ Gary to Rubin Farr to Joseph Smith, Jr.

He wasn’t convinced.

“‘Eccentric’ can be derogatory,” Harris responded, after a pause. “You know what my brother called ’em? He called ’em ‘heroic misfits.’ I think I like the way that sounds.”

The 92YTribeca will screen “The Beaver Trilogy,” “Plan 10 From Outer Space” and “Rubin and Ed” between now and Friday. Details are available here. Future screening dates at the Cinefamiliy in Los Angeles and the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin are forthcoming.

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