SIFF 2012 Interview: THE MOST FUN I'VE EVER HAD WITH MY PANTS ON Director Drew Denny Talks Laughter, Tears, and Eating Her Dad's Ashes
Drew Denny is easily the most talented lady I know.
Her CV is unreal -- she's arts editor for L.A. RECORD and a contributor at countless print and online magazines, songwriter and performer in Big Whup and Bon Bon, and a teacher of public art in continuation schools. She's engineered a Brain House, researched the Movement of Landless Workers in Brazil and the relationship of sweatshop labor and the sex trade in Southwest Asia, and constructed a Terrarium installation in the Netherlands. And she's just getting started.
Now Denny's written, produced, and starred in her first feature film, which will premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 6. The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On is a gorgeous road movie about two childhood friends who travel from Los Angeles to Austin, performing mini-funerals in unusual and beautiful locations across the American Southwest. Part dark comedy and part autobiography (the film's based on Denny's life and her father's death), The Most Fun... is a hilarious and honest exploration of life and death and love and friendship.
After receiving her SIFF acceptance, she came over to talk about laughing through tears and eating her dad's ashes.
Twitch: What were you doing when you found out your dad had three weeks to live?
Drew Denny: It's so bizarre; I was doing a residency in the Netherlands during which we created a giant Terrarium for humans inside of a 500-year-old chapel with an artist collective we founded at Cal Arts. We actually got in some trouble -- we got censored and had to hurry out. Then I went to Iceland for a little while. I bought a return ticket, and was going to meet my dad in New York. He lived all over -- in India, China, the Philippines, and finally Colombia--and it was really hard to see him in person.
But this time he said, "If you land October 21st in New York City, I'll be there." So when I got off the plane, I called him. He said that that day he'd been in a meeting and one of his partners said, "You don't look so well. Maybe you should go to the doctor." He went and the doctor told him he had pancreatic cancer and three weeks to live. He was in Boston -- he'd been planning on taking the train to New York to meet me -- so I just said, "OK, I'll get on the train now. See you in a minute."
He had no idea he had cancer?
He had no idea. He also was a crazy man. He wouldn't have been open to anything that would've meant he'd have to slow down. He was an obsessive workaholic. He was somewhere else most of the time and not taking very good care of himself. If he noticed anything, he was probably in some pretty serious denial about it. I'm just happy that, of all the places I've been in my life where it would have been impossible to reach me for way longer than three weeks, I was planning on being with him. I stayed with him until he passed away.
What was your relationship with him like growing up?
Ah... well... it was weird. My dad left when I was pretty young. Whenever he chose to be around, he was really fun to be around. He was always telling stories, telling jokes. He was an entertainer. The most important thing to him -- I know he cared about my sister and me a lot -- but his work was his passion. That's what he wanted to do all the time. And also have sex with lots of young women all around the globe.
The title of the movie is a quote my father always used to say: "Killing someone is the most fun I've ever had with my pants on." Which is a pretty fucked up thing to say. But really, what he was saying was that sex was his favorite thing to do. And then killing someone.
When did you realize you finally understood your dad?
I remember when I chose to leave my home for good. My mom was married to a man who was really mean to me. It wasn't good and it wasn't safe. I gave her the option to continue being with him or to continue being my mom, and she said "Cheers."
I was so pissed about that, but when I got a little bit older, I saw them for humans. I just happened to have these two totally insane people for parents. My father's form of insanity was pleasure, his obsession with pleasure, and his inability to stay still. There are good and bad things about both of those impulses. When I thought about it with some detachment, I could celebrate the way he was. I could enjoy the way he could captivate a room with a story, switch the tone of an entire event from being something awful to being something people will remember forever. That's magic; I respect that.
Have you always wanted to make films, or was it this particular story that pushed you to make one?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a filmmaker and an Olympic equestrian and a doctor.
At the same time?
In my mind those three things went together. I realized, after several encounters with people who were overdosing, that I probably don't have the right personality to be a doctor. I became an EMT after film school, which was really interesting, but I learned that I prefer making stories to responding to emergencies. I'm always open to that and if you ever have one you can call me, but I'd rather make artwork. I eliminated horseback riding around 12 and medical ambitions fairly soon after. Filmmaking sort of stuck.
[But] the funny thing about film school is it made me really not want to make films. I had some amazing professors at USC -- my cinematography teacher [William A. Fraker] shot Rosemary's Baby. And my writing teacher, Anne Shea, gave me the opportunity to create the first performance that worked just as I imagined it. But overall that school didn't seem to like me or my ideas. I left USC and took a leave of absence to drive from Panama to Canada doing research on the relationship between sweatshop manufacturing and the sex trade, and then I went to Asia for several months to continue that research. I didn't go to my graduation.
And then I started making music because I wanted to sit in a room and make an idea come to life without having to encounter 12 levels of bureaucracy or fundraising. I was interested in songwriting and performance. I was extremely excited by the immediacy of that medium. So I made Big Whup, and Big Whup was really fun. The first time I wrote a song and sang it to someone and they understood me and enjoyed it -- that was bliss. Then, of course, I found out about all the shitty parts of playing music: playing in bars all the time and hustling; sweating and crying over your keyboard for hours just so some drunk guy can yell, "Take your shirt off." And you're like, "I'm singing about my dead dad! Pay attention!"
Eventually my performance artwork included video projection, scripted narrative, pre-recorded score, and audience participation. I created a performance for my father and suddenly realized: This wants to be a film. In a film I can write, perform, create environments, explore concepts, tell stories, give myself to audiences and invite them to play with me. So that's what I did.
Why is The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On the best way to honor your father's memory? Most people grieve in private, but you made yours public -- almost like you're performing your own grief.
On a personal level, the practical answer is -- or the really impractical but totally personal and emotional answer to that is -- I've never really privately done anything. Anytime something happens to me I want to talk about it or perform about it or sing about it or do something about it because -- just because. A dear friend of mine once told me, "You use art as a means of disposal. It's almost like something happens to you and you're just like bleh! A song comes out." I didn't like that. ... But if I had the choice -- if I had been born one of those people who can go to their room and process things alone, I don't know if I would want to.
At one point in the film, Liv [Hagan] asks Andy, "How can you laugh so much when you're so sad?" and your character doesn't really answer. How can you tell this story with a constant smile on your face?
You know that line from Steel Magnolias from Truvy, who was played by Dolly Parton in the movie version? "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." I just love that. There's something really gutteral and basic about laughing. It feels good to laugh! Your face gets all warm and sometimes your eyes tear up and it makes this beautiful sound and when you do it, someone nearby is probably gonna start doing it too, which is amazing! I think it's really good to notice and celebrate what's funny about an experience. If I'm ever confronted with the option to laugh or to get upset, I'm gonna laugh, even if I am upset.
Things suck. Everybody's dad dies. Everybody who has ever been born will go through this. It's not special nor is it unique nor is it inherently tragic. One moment there's a human being in the room with you and the next moment there's only a body. It's just a thing that happens.
If you're using your own life and footage of your own dad, why did you change your character's name from Drew to Andy?
I knew that I wanted to make this movie and that I wanted to honor the spirit my dad had, which was a really wild and extremely flawed spirit. I wanted him to be in there cuz he's really charming and charismatic and I thought he would like to be in a movie. So I cast him. But I didn't want to be myself because I wanted to play pretend a little bit. Andy is like 13-year-old me. She doesn't give a fuck -- she's a wild child. I hope I'm a little more self-aware now, but I wanted to play with that personality.
So there's some separation between Drew and Andy -- but what about those ashes? Were they really your dad's ashes?
I went to my dad's funeral just before we shot the film. My sister and my three gay uncles and I put my dad's ashes under a bush called a Rose of Sharon cuz we thought he'd like to be laid to rest under a bush named for two women. I kept a handful of his ashes -- I knew I was gonna use it in the film, but we needed a lot of ashes because we had a lot of locations to sprinkle them in and sometimes had to do multiple takes. The only other ashes I had were my dog Lola's ashes. She got bitten by a snake at Runyon Canyon and died. So I put my dog's ashes in with my dad's ashes and we used them in the movie. It's the best thing I can imagine doing with that material. I don't like to hold onto things. I'll hold onto something until it becomes a material. It never stays the thing that it is.
I have to ask: Did you really accidentally eat some of your dad's ashes during filming?
Yeah, I think we both did. I feel bad for Sarah [Hagan] cuz it's my dad and it's weird enough for me to eat him, but she's not even related. That was a joke that I had written--I wanted to introduce this new Oedipal comedy where I eat some of my dad.
I laughed. I felt kind of bad about it after, but it was pretty funny.
It makes me so happy when someone gets the jokes. It makes me feel like I found my people. We have a dark sense of humor and we like it!
I know this was a very low budget project, but you shot at some amazing locations -- the Mojave Airplane Cemetery, caves in Sedona, sand dunes in White Sands National Park. How'd you make that happen?
I called the Chief Ranger of White Sands and told her I was making a film about my father, an Air Force pilot who had recently passed away, and that I wanted to come to White Sands to project a video of him singing "Swing Low" onto a sand dune under a full moon. She said they get calls from people who want to make the next Gladiator. They want to have shiny leathery men on horseback fighting with one another across the sand dunes. But she said she never got a request like mine. I asked her, "Doesn't it sound beautiful?" And she said "Yes." Thank you Chief Ranger Kathy Denton! Normally people have to pay $200 just to apply and permits run thousands of dollars, especially if you want to be there after closing hours, if you want to use a generator, or if you want to be there during a full moon. And we wanted to do all that! She let us in for the price of admission: $3 each for our crew of seven people.
I look at that fucking shot of the full moon and it still thrills me. That scene is really special to me because that's actually my dad in the video, which I made when I was in the Netherlands. I was going to do a lecture on the history of singing -- how humans learned to sing and why singing was useful to early humans. I interviewed my father about how I learned to sing and asked him to sing songs he sang to me as a child. He sang "Swing Low" and that dirty-ass pilot song "Mary Anne Burns" from Vietnam. I had that video and thought that projecting it at White Sands would be the best way to memorialize his voice, to sort of bring him back for a second. I didn't even know if it would work, to be honest. There was no way to test that. I just hoped really hard and figured it would work out. I do that a lot.
The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On will have its World Premiere at SIFF on June 6 and will screen again on June 8. Check the festival site for ticket information.