Reeling 31 Part 2: The Happy Sad

Photos Courtesy of  “The Happy Sad” Fan Page

Reeling 31: Part 2

Back in June 2013 I had the honor of speaking with filmmaker Rodney Evans about his film “The Happy Sad.”   It will be screened at Reeling 31 on Friday November 8 at 9:00 PM at the Logan Theater 1. (For ticket information click here.) Evans will be in town for a Q&A Session following the screening.

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 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 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 speak with you this evening to talk about The Happy Sad.”

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 really 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 just 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 and that lead into an interest in screen writing and lead me into writing more fiction narratives. Then I started writing which lead 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.” Talk about your journey to it from conception to actualization.

RE:  “The Happy Sad” is actually based on a stage play by a playwright named Ken Urban. Ken and I met at an artist residence in 2008. We just became friends, and he invited me to a reading in 2009, and I just found myself to be struck by the characters and their situations. I thought that it was just well-written, moving and funny.  I was really taken with it. After that, he invited me to a full production of the play that was 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 actually get the movie made.  We actually shot the film in 2011 in 16 days in Brooklyn. Things have been slow with editing and post production ever since, so this is going to be the world premiere in San Francisco at Frameline.

PI: Is there any reason this was made as 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 and 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,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). A couple of the actors I had seen on stage before or in other films so the lead LeRoy McClain is actually someone who I had seen in a production of Othello done by the Labyrinth Theater in New York. Leroy was in a production with Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Jessica Chastain, who was just nominated for Best Actress for the lead role for in Zero Dark Thirty.  I just found myself blown away with LeRoy’s performance.  We met up afterwards, and we became friends and were talking about many projects and how we could work together. Then I sent him the script, and he wanted to do it.  There’s one other actor named Jaimie Harrold who plays  Neil which is a smaller part in the film . He played in an indie movie in the 1990’s called “I Think I Do” and in a film called “The New Tenants” – the 2010 Academy Award Winner of Best Live action short.  Jaimie and I were friends, and I thought that I could cast him in the part as Neil. I could only imagine him in body and in character, so it was very clear to me 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 to assemble the rest of the cast. For a lot of them, it’s their first feature. Cameron Scoggins who plays Stan had just graduated from Julliard, so it was literally 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 to find actors that were committed and really specifically interested in these roles, and I think they were right for the parts.  I think they believed in their story and we were fortunate to have found them.

PI:  Talk about some of the struggles or obstacles that 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, an entire feature, [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 are going to 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 principle issues in actually executing a plan that needs to happen within 16 days.    We shot during the middle of a heat wave. We shot in a very small apartments in Brooklyn; most of the apartments were friends of mine, and one was my own.  A lot of times it was just incredibly hot and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable because it was so hot. Because we were recording sound, we could not have the air conditioning on.  Sometimes we were recording 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 really fortunate to have worked with crew that I was able to assemble. A lot of the crew that worked on the film was actually students of mine.  I teach full time at Temple University, so it was really great to bring my students on the set of a movie and to 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)  Just to clarify.  I’ve taken some dance classes, and I have taken 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 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.  I think that it would have made my job much more difficult as a director.  I guess that I was much more interested in working behind the scenes and working with actors in terms of shaping their performance.  I don’t think that 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 the films that I do, 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 that you brought your students on set to witness and participate in the filmmaking process. 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 of them 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; some of the crew that were my former students will be seeing it for the first time on the big screen in a huge 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 did on the film. I think that for a lot of them it gave them valuable experience they were able to use as they moved on in the industry. That was one of my main goals in bringing students on to the set in crew positions to give them tangible hands on experience because that could be very difficult to get when fresh out of school. I think a lot of them were able to use that experience and build on it and are now working professionally in the industry. I always joked with them that they will be hiring me in two years.(Laughs).

PI: You stole my transition into the next question.  You mentioned that “The Happy Sad”  will be playing at Outfest in Los Angeles next.  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. It’s the Centerpiece screening at Philadelphia Q Fest on Saturday July 13th at 7:30 PM at the Ritz East.  As I mentioned before, its’ going to play at OutFest on Saturday July 20th at 1:30 PM at the Director’s Guild Of American on Sunset Blvd. And it is playing in Denver at the LGBT Fest.  So I am going to be showing at a lot of 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 for HERE-TV, etc?

RE:  I am open to it; that is something that I would need to discuss with those organizations. That is something that I am open to. I think the characters are really rich.  I feel that a lot of people feel very connected to these characters in the film.  The film is about two couples, a black gay couple and a white heterosexual couple, that are involved in open relationships and you see their paths intertwined and their exploration in terms of sexual identity and redefining monogamy.  It shows how prevalent those issues are because of the issues of gay marriage being such a dominate 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 really get to experience what it is like for a black gay couple and to really live inside their experience.  People really do connect with these characters and  empathize with their plights and their situations, so that is definitely something that I would be open to so we will see.   Yes, I am open to having that conversation if anyone were interested.

PI: Now that the film has been completed and you have spent time editing it, were you satisfied with the end result, and if given the opportunity to do anything differently, what would you do different?

RE: I am really happy with the end results.  Like I said earlier, it was a rewarding experience in terms of the cast that came together, the crew that worked on the film, and it really felt like a family; it was a very small cast and crew, and I feel like the cast and crew worked to support each other in ways that I could tell and could feel were very special.  I would also say the shoot and the entire amazing feel of the movie was a special and rewarding experience for me. There isn’t anything that I would change about it or wish that I had done differently. I am really proud of the film and really 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 and wrote a lot of the Duke Ellington Orchestra classic Jazz tunes. There was a short I did in 2009 that played at Tribeca and many other festivals that was an excerpt that is being made into a feature length film.  That is the feature that I am looking to shoot next year.  I am putting the pieces into place to be able to do that in 2014.

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 actually see the possibility of  “The Happy Sad” becoming a television series more than I see the possibility of doing it as a sequel or continuing the story in the feature format.   (Laughs) But I have learned never 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” screens at Reeling 31 on Friday November 8 at 9:00 PM at the Logan Theater 1. (For ticket information click here.)