Pride On Film: The Happy Sad

Photos Courtesy of The Happy Sad Fan Page

“The Happy Sad” tells the story of two young couples in New York—one black and gay, one white and heterosexual — who find their lives intertwined as they create new relationship norms, explore sexual identity, and redefine monogamy.

Rodney Evans, the recipient of The Independent Feature Project’s Gordon Parks Award for Screenwriting for his screenplay, “Brother to Brother,” serves as its director and producer. Evans received his Master of Fine Arts in Film Production from the California Institute of the Arts. He is the founding director at Miasma Films and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Temple University. Evans’ films have played in film festivals around the world. He has received a plethora of awards and grants for his filmmaking endeavors, including the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association Grant (2012), the New York State Council of The Arts Grant individual Artist Program (2011), the NewFest Screenplay Competition (2008) and the Tribeca All Access Program-Honorable Mention-Creative Promise Award (2008). caught up with Evans for an engaging conversation about his background, the filmmaking process, and his latest film, “The Happy Sad.” 

PRIDEINDEX (PI): Thanks, Mr. Evans, for agreeing to do this interview with me on such notice. I am honored to speak with you. I wanted to talk about “The Happy Sad.” It’s going to be playing at Frameline 37 on June 25. 

RODNEY EVANS (RE): Sure, no problem, the pleasure is mine.

PI: Let’s talk about you and your background. Why did you become a filmmaker?

RE: I started off doing photography back in college, and I just fell in love with the medium, and that progressed into learning about the moving image. I dabbled into many art forms before that. I had done some training as a dancer, been in a band, and done some theater in high school. I felt like the medium of film encompassed all of these artistic forms of expression. I just fell in love with it in college and went to film school at California Arts Institute, and I have been pretty much doing it since I moved back to New York after grad school. I worked in post-production and the editing world, and I did a lot of shorts and documentaries. After that, it led to an interest in screenwriting and led me to write more fiction narratives. Then I started writing, which led to “Brother to Brother,” which I wrote in 2004.

PI: That was a pretty good film, one of my all-time favorites.

RE: Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.

PI: Talk about “The Happy Sad” and your journey to make it from conception to actualization.

RE: “The Happy Sad” is based on a play by Ken Urban. Ken and I met at an artist’s residence in 2008. We became friends, and he invited me to read it in 2009, and I found myself struck by the characters and their situations. I thought that it was well-written, moving, and funny. I was taken with it. After that, he invited me to the production of the play done at the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theater in New York. After that, we just started talking about how it would work as a film. He had already started to think about the adaptation process and had begun writing a screenplay version, and he sent me each draft for feedback. By the third draft, I thought that it was so great that I really wanted to direct it. He was excited to get the movie made. We shot the film in 2011 in 16 days in Brooklyn. Since things have been slow with editing and post-production, the world premiere will be in San Francisco at Frameline.

PI: Is there any reason this is a short film rather than a feature-length?

RE: It’s a feature-length film; it’s 86 minutes long, so it’s not a short.

PI: Talk about the casting process. How did you select the actors for the film?

RE: I worked with two great casting directors in New York named Susan Shopmaker (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Shortbus,” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Lois Drabkin (“Night Catches Us”). I sent Susan the screenplay; she liked it, and we cast the film in about a month (mostly in May and June of 2011). I have seen a couple of the actors on stage before or in other movies. The lead, LeRoy McClain, is someone I had seen in a production of “Othello” done by the Labyrinth Theater in New York. Leroy was in a show with Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Jessica Chastain, nominated for Best Actress for the lead role in “Zero Dark Thirty.” I found myself blown away by LeRoy’s performance. We met up afterward, and we became friends and talked about how we could work together. I sent him the script, and he wanted to do it.

Actor Jaimie Harrold has a smaller part in the film. He plays Neil. Jaimie played in an indie movie in the 1990s called “I Think I Do” and in a movie called “The New Tenants,” the 2010 Academy Award Winner of Best Live Action Short. Jaimie and I were friends, and I thought I could cast him as Neil. I could only imagine him in body and character, so it was very clear that he was a great fit for that part. LeRoy and Jaimie were actors I had seen in certain other pieces, and I offered the parts to them, and Susan helped me assemble the rest of the cast. For a lot of the actors, it’s their first feature. Cameron Scoggins, who plays Stan, had just graduated from Julliard, so it was his first job out of school. Charlie Barnett, who plays Marcus’ partner Aaron, is now a regular on the hit NBC show “Chicago Fire.” That was his first big role as well. Susan and Lois were great. Lois Drabkin worked on a film called “Night Catches Us.” They were amazing; they helped me find committed and interested actors in these roles, and I think they were right for the parts. They believed in their story, and we were fortunate to have found them.

PI: Talk about some of the struggles or obstacles you faced during the filming process and how you overcame them. 

RE: It’s a low-budget film, so the struggles are always how do you shoot an entire feature with limited resources in a limited amount of time? So usually, when it’s a lower-budgeted film, your shooting schedule can be quite compressed – that was one of the challenges. “The Happy Sad,” was shot in 16 days. I knew that I wanted to work with a skeleton crew. I did not want it to be a big production. I wanted the focus to be on the actors. I did not want to spend a lot of time worrying about technical aspects of filmmaking, so a lot of that is deciding what cameras you will use and how you’re going to shoot it. We shot everything with two cameras so that the actors did not have to do multiple takes. We rehearsed a lot so that by the time we got to the set, the actors were pretty much ready to go. But it’s always the pressure of time and limited resources, trying to make the best possible film as a low-budget filmmaker. Those were some of the principal issues in actually executing a plan that needs to happen within 16 days. We shot during the middle of a heatwave. We shot in very small apartments in Brooklyn; most of the flats belonged to friends, and we used mine too. Often, it was just sweltering and sometimes quite uncomfortable because we were recording sound, we could not have the air conditioning on. Sometimes we recorded night scenes during the day, and we had to black out the windows. That was challenging, but it was a great experience overall, and I feel fortunate to have worked with the crew we assembled. Many of the team members were students of mine. I teach full-time at Temple University, so it was great to bring my students to a movie set and give them real practical and hands-on experience.

PI: You mentioned earlier that you were an actor and a dancer. 

RE: (Interrupts) I should say that I am not an actor or a dancer. I would never call myself an actor or a dancer. (Laughs) To clarify. I’ve taken some dance and acting classes, and it was something that I was interested in, but I would never say that I am an actor or dancer. I have too much respect for the craft. (Laughs)

PI: Therefore, you were not tempted to play a part in front of the camera on this project. Is that a correct assessment?

RE: Yes, that is a correct assessment. I can’t say that I would never do it, but I was not tempted to do it at all. That idea never entered my mind with this project. It would have made my job much more difficult as a director. I was much more interested in working behind the scenes and with actors to shape their performance. I don’t think I would want to split my focus between acting and directing… at least not now.

PI: Not even a small part in your films playing an extra with one line, on the lines of what Stephen King or Stan Lee do in their movies. For example, either gentleman might play the part of a cab driver or a waiter with one line.

RE: Like I said, never say never. (Laughs) But up until this point, I have not been tempted to do that. Directing is challenging and has so many different components. Right now, it’s enough to deal with all of the tasks of directing and producing. I also serve as the producer on most of my films, so I feel like I already have a pretty full plate without adding anything more to it.

PI: Earlier, you mentioned that you are a teacher and brought your students on set to witness and participate in filmmaking. What did they think about the film?

RE: Not all of them have seen it because we have not yet screened it publicly. However, I have shown it to some of them privately. Some graduated either right before we shot or right after and have moved away to Los Angeles. It will be screening at OutFest in Los Angeles on July 20; my former students-crew will be seeing it for the first time on the big screen in an auditorium with a big audience. Those former students who did see it loved it and were proud of the work they did on it and the collaborative efforts they made on the film. I think that it gave them the valuable experience they could use as they moved on in the industry. One of my main goals was to bring students on set in crew positions to give them tangible, hands-on experience because that could be very difficult to get when fresh out of school. Many of them could use that experience and build on it and work professionally in the industry. I’ve always joked that they would be hiring me in two years. (Laughs).

PI: You stole my transition into the next question. You’ve mentioned that “The Happy Sad” will be playing at OutFest in Los Angeles. My question was going to be, where else do you plan on showing this film?

RE: It’s going to be showing at Philadelphia Q Fest. The Centerpiece screening at Philadelphia Q Fest takes place on Saturday, July 13, at 7:30 PM at the Ritz East. As I mentioned before, it will play at OutFest on Saturday, July 20 at 1:30 PM at the Director’s Guild of America on Sunset Blvd. And it is playing in Denver at the LGBT Fest. It will be showing in many cities on the festival circuit throughout the summer. I’m putting the pieces in place to distribute the film theatrically, so we’re looking at late summer early fall for theatrical release.

PI: Is there any possibility of turning “The Happy Sad” into a television series for LOGO or HERE-TV, etc.?

RE: I am open to it; that is something that I would need to discuss with those organizations. I think the characters are vibrant. Many people will feel connected to these characters in the film. The film is about two couples, a black gay couple and a white heterosexual couple, who are involved in open relationships. You’ll see their paths intertwined, exploring sexual identity, and redefining monogamy. It shows how prevalent those issues are because of the problems of gay marriage being such a dominant force within politics and culture. It seems like the right time for the movie to come out, and I think it is the first time you’ll experience what it is like for a black gay couple to live inside their experience. People do connect with these characters and empathize with their plights and their situations. Yes, I am open to having that conversation if anyone is interested in developing it further.

PI: Now that the film has been completed and you have spent time editing it, were you satisfied with the end result? Would you go back and do anything differently?

RE: I am really happy with the results. It was a rewarding experience regarding the cast that came together and the crew that worked on the film. It felt like a family; it was a very small cast and crew, and I feel like they worked to support each other in ways that I could tell made it feel were very special. It was an amazing experience for me. There isn’t anything that I would change about it or wish that I had done differently. I am proud of the film and excited for people to see it.

PI: What projects are you working on next professionally? 

RE: I have another screenplay that I wrote called “Daydream” that focuses on openly gay jazz musician named Billy Strayhorn, who wrote “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train.” Strayhorn wrote a lot of the Duke Ellington Orchestra classic jazz tunes. “Billy and Aaron,” was another short that I did in 2009. It played at Tribecca and many other festivals I want to make it into a feature-length film.

PI: Will there be a part 2 or a sequel to “The Happy Sad?”

RE: I do not think so, to be honest. (Laughs) I hesitate to say absolutely not, but I do not see that in the cards. I see the possibility of “The Happy Sad” becoming a television series more than the possibility of doing it as a sequel or continuing the story in the feature format. (Laughs) But I have learned never to say never because you don’t know when ideas will come up. As of today, there is not a sequel in the works.

“The Happy Sad” will be shown at the following film festivals:

At Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival-Showcase screening on Tuesday, June 25, at 9:30 PM.

Philadelphia Q Fest-Centerpiece screening on Saturday, July 13 at 7:30 PM.

At Outfest-The, Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival on Saturday, July 20 at 1:20 PM.