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SxSW ’10 Interview – “The Happy Poet” director Paul Gordon

The Happy Poet - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“The Happy Poet is a comedy about an idealistic poet who puts everything he has into starting a vegetarian food stand. What he lacks in business acumen he makes up for with enthusiasm. Bill’s new friend Donnie helps promote the food stand while tooling around the city on his scooter with a natural confidence and bravado rarely seen on-screen, and also helps Bill court Agnes, a poetry-lover who frequents the stand. Complications with the business and conflicting beliefs jeopardize budding relationships. It’s a film about going after what you want, despite the odds, and the balancing act between idealism and survival.” Director Paul Gordon on the film “The Happy Poet” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

I’ve had two films at SXSW in previous years; a short titled “Good,” in 2001, and a feature called “Motorcycle” in 2006. These both played at some other festivals. I am going to be in Austin for the screenings and am looking forward to it!

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I’ve enjoyed writing fiction since the third grade, and have also always enjoyed taking pictures and shooting video. That short “Good” was based on a short piece of fiction I wrote. After making that, I was hooked on filmmaking, because I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of it so much. I love collaborating creatively with people. Now I mostly write scripts.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like a grown-up. It sounds so terminal, like you have nowhere to go. I want to keep trying new things and learning about life and the world, and if being grown-up means you have it all figured out, then I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely like a grown-up, or want to.

How did this whole project come together?

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, but other funds we’d been hoping for didn’t materialize, and we put the film on hold; this was very disappointing.

I really wanted to make something, preferably something fun, so I started writing “The Happy Poet”. A food stand jumped out at me as an easy, cheap, mobile location. I wrote parts for actor friends and I based on what I thought would yield an interesting chemistry. The script came really easily, and then a group of friends jumped in and helped me make the film 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.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Post-production was the biggest challenge. We had no money for post and it took me longer to edit than I would have liked. Editing yourself gets old pretty fast -- I act in the movie -- and you have to force yourself to keep doing it. After the great communal energy of production, post-production felt like a year-long hangover. But now it's done and I'm really happy with it!

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Luke Millard, a good friend, shot the film. He did a great job with few resources and a very small crew. We managed to get a really good deal on a RED camera from a friend, and the image looks really great. As far as shooting style goes, it’s mostly static tripod shots. I like leaving the camera still and letting actors move within, and in and out of the frame. I’m an Ozu fan.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

From the minimal feedback screenings we’ve had during editing, the film seems to play really well with an audience, maybe better than it would for a person watching it alone at home because much of the humor is so dry that I think it helps tip people off to some of the subtle humor, if someone else is laughing.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

I think the film will play well with a festival audience. The film has a pretty conventional narrative structure, so a broader audience might like it as well. The film is very sincere, but is also often tongue-in-cheek in playing with elements of conventional comedies and romantic comedies. I see the characters themselves as more real, slightly off versions of archetypal characters you see in these kinds of films. This stuff is pretty subtle though, and the priority was for it to first work at face value, which I think it definitely does. So the boiled-down version of my convoluted answer is: I think many people will like it a lot, and some people might not be that into it… really, I don’t know. That’s why I’m so excited about the screenings!

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

Ozu, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Aki Kaurismaki, Robert Altman and Richard Linklater are ones that come to mind immediately—for varying reasons. In 2001 I saw Linklater speak on a panel at SXSW, when I was there with my short, and 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 maybe someone will give you money to make the next one.” I’m paraphrasing. I loved hearing that and having this idea validated by someone who had done it himself. I found it empowering and liberating.

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?


No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Write a script that you want to make, then save up some money and shoot it. If you make something good, then maybe someone will give you money to make another one.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/10 20:34:57
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