A Heroic Misfit: Filmmaker Trent Harris Talks Hollywood, Sean Penn, Mitt Romney, and Much More

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
When I heard that Trent Harris, one of America's premier cult directors, of such films as Rubin and Ed, Plan 10 from Outer Space and The Beaver Trilogy would be in New York for his traveling mini-retro, I couldn't help but feeling giddy like a little kid on his first day of school. I was an awkward kid, both growing up in Korea and later here in the US. So the outsiders, heroic misfits, if you will, in Harris's films, however over the top and ridiculous they are, always have a special place in my heart.

In person, I found Harris easygoing, guileless and incredibly open. The following interview is an excerpt from our hour-long lunch conversation: we talked about everything from his tumultuous career ("career sounds too successful," he laughed), Hollywood, Sean Penn, Mitt Romney and Mormonism, internet, guilt, art, love, to the future of filmmaking over bar food at Molly's on 3rd on a seasonably mild and sunny Saturday afternoon. In this profession, you get to meet your heroes for twenty minutes at a time if you are lucky. And I count myself very lucky to have had an hour with Harris, sharing fried calamari and even got a huge hug from him as we parted. There is nothing more I adore than never ending enthusiasm of a creative mind. Harris definitely has plenty of that.

Trent Harris Traveling show continues its journey to Austin, Denver, Seattle this summer and Chicago this fall.


Twitch: I just have to tell you that when I was in college in the 90s, RUBIN AND ED was always the most popular choice for me and my friends to put on whenever we got high. So it's a real honor to meet you.

Trent Harris: Oh well, thanks. (laughs)

How do you think the screening the other day went? This mini retro of yours is traveling from LA to New York and some other places...

Yeah I thought it really went well. Some places show two movies and some places show three. So it's gonna go, what is it, LA, New York, Austin, Denver, Seattle...

I believe Chicago is in there too.

You know this better than me. It's all Galen (Rosenthal, former film programmer of SAIFF and long time friend/supporter). That guy is amazing. He just sets everything up.

So it was Galen's idea.

It was totally Galen's idea. I would've never done it in a million years. You know,  his attitude is 'everybody thinks you are dead, so let's...' (laughs)

beaver trilogy.jpgI can't interview you without asking you about the Beaver Trilogy. For those who don't know about it, could you tell us how it came about?

I walked out into a parking lot one day, I was walking at a television station in Salt Lake, and I was testing a camera. It was the first time I picked up this brand spanking new thing called 'video camera'. I was just out there and I focused on this kid (Groovin' Gary) wandering around the parking lot. The first time you see him is the actually the first time I saw him. You know he is a funny guy, doing impersonations and stuff. Then he invites me down for a talent show and I come down.

Anyway, that movie, a little documentary, I thought it was great: it was the first time in my life that I was capturing something that was happening spontaneously in front of me.

You do a lot of documentaries though. You've been doing it for living, no?

Yeah I've done a lot. But seldom you get that kind of encounter, even in documentaries. It's usually like you interview people and they tell you about the past. Unless you were interviewing me and I was having a complete mental breakdown at that moment, then it would be a very different interview.

Right.

Anyway, he shot himself not long after I've done that original film. Then I moved to Los Angeles and I had the Beaver kid story that was bugging me that I wanted to tell, so I began to remake it. I made it with Sean Penn first and then with Crispin Glover. Each one's a little different yet all very similar. The last time I saw it ,I was thinking: you got the original kid impersonating Olivia Newton John and then you got Sean Penn impersonating the kid impersonating Olivia Newton John then you got Crispin Glover impersonating Sean Penn impersonating... you know. It's like this wild Möbius loop.

That's so meta. How did Sean Penn come into the picture? Did he audition?

I literally just called him on the phone. He was doing Fast Times at Ridgemont High at the time and he wasn't a big star yet. He wanted to work, and he thought it was an interesting idea.

Sean Penn was the choice among all the other actors you saw?

I couldn't find anybody. It was a very difficult role to cast because it comes across as pretty ludicrous if it's not done right. I read a lot of people, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, trying to find somebody that could do it. Sean Penn did it. He didn't want to audition. He told me he would be my cousin from Idaho and follow me around for couple of days in character. So he followed me around and I introduced him to people as my cousin. He did it really well. Couple years later people kept telling me, "wow, your cousin really got famous." And then Crispin came along. I was going to cast Crispin in a smaller part but when going for the third time, I thought of Crispin doing the lead instead.

rubin and ed.jpgI've been a big fan of Crispin throughout his career. You've made The Trilogy and RUBIN AND ED with him. How did you find him and are you guys friends?

Well, I think I met him in the casting. After I shot him in The Beaver Trilogy, We'd become good friends for at least 10 or 11 years. Then of course he was perfect for the role of Rubin  in Rubin and Ed. I like to work with the same people over and over again, if I can, you know. There is a notion of working with family: even the crew, it's the same people who are more like family.

So you worked in Hollywood for a while. How was that experience?

It was horrible. It was the worst 13 years I've spent in my whole life. I've never been more unhappy in my entire life. Every cliché you've ever heard about Hollywood is true: the cigar chomping producers, the big breasted bimbos, the back stabbing, dishonesty- being your friend a minute and then not... all of that stuff's true. After 13 years I have one person that I cared enough about to still keeping contact with. You know in Salt Lake I have a lot of friends. But making real friends in LA is impossible.

How is Salt Lake City as a film town?

Well, there isn't a lot going on in there. I mean, Hollywood crews come in there and shoot because of the location. But as far as filmmakers in Salt Lake, no. There is one other guy but  he kind of pulled back. I mean, there are a some filmmakers who come from there and have gone on. Oddly enough, Neil LaButte --

Huh, is he from Salt Lake?

I don't know if he's from Salt Lake, but he went to BYU, the big Mormon University. Isn't that strange? His movies are so tough.

Tell me about the time you almost ran over Mitt Romney with your car.

Your heard about that? (laughs). Yeah it was in downtown Salt Lake not too long ago. He came out of nowhere and I hit the breaks just in time. And there was Romney. My god, the expression on his face was priceless. He obviously didn't know who the hell I was, because you know, he is fucking Mitt Romney.

Does he have a house in Salt Lake?

Where doesn't he have a house? No, I think he has a house up in Deer Valley, a fancy resort town in Utah. He ain't 47 percent of us, that's for sure. It's funny when he was running for president, everyone was asking who the real Mitt Romney was. Always smiling and seeming totally disingenuous. The thing is, that's who he really is. That's how Mormons are!

How does The Mormonism fit into your career as a filmmaker? Obviously you made PLAN 10 FROM OUTER SPACE.

That's about it. I mean, it's not the subject I wanna repeat again. I had an idea and it was great fun to make and I liked the script. I think it might be my favorite one. People always say make Rubin and Ed part 2, make Plan 11. The thing is, I don't like to go back. I'd rather do something different every time I make new films. It's gotta really interest me to take on in the first place, because it takes a long time and energy. So I don't like to go backwards.

It seems the Beaver Trilogy wouldn't die though. It came out in 2000. Now it's coming out again. It doesn't want to let you go .

You know it's always continually playing somewhere. I mean there is no publicity behind it. It's all word of mouth. Yet there is a constant interest in that film.

How come it's not marketed widely?

There's all kind of issues- copyright issues, legal issues are not resolved because when I was shooting that I never thought anything would happen with it. It's not like we've signed bunch of papers or anything.

You didn't get the rights for the Olivia Newton John song? (laugh)

No. I mean it's so expensive. You can't even imagine. There was a DVD company which was going to do it and pick up the music rights then everything fell apart.

Was it because of Sean Penn?

Well, yeah. I couldn't quite figure that out. It's not like he doesn't like the movie. He likes the movie. I think it's because he felt like he is being exploited.

Oh come on!

No I think that's what he felt. You know that tiny piece of music, "The Happiest Girl in the USA"? Just for that section? 20 grand.

What?

Just for that. That's what they are asking.

The first time I heard of The Trilogy was when I listened to This American Life and you being interviewed there by Starlee Kine, then I saw the movie.

Oh really?

So I wasn't going in cold feet. So my experience must've been different then people who just saw the movie. The movie does have that symbiotic relationship with This American Life though. Since I've heard it before seeing it, I cannot separate the two. Listening to it has really strengthened the experience at least for me. So I hear your story on how it came about first. And that story is so fascinating. I was wondering if you were making the other two movies as a sort of therapy for yourself.

Yeah. I was trying to work it out in different ways. It's not necessarily a therapy for me. But I really wanted to give the kid a happy ending. And after I did the Sean one,  it still wasn't a happy ending. I basically wanted him to win. So I made the third one and he tells everyone to piss off and drives away.
 
Right, right.

So that was part of it for sure.

If you can tell us what really happened to the real "Gary/Larry (Richard Lavon Griffiths)" after you met him at Sundance -- which is also a great story by the way?

Well, he had a massive heart attack. I'm not exactly sure the year...it might have been 2009, 2010. I can't remember now. It was a couple years back. He had a massive heart attack. During that time, he was driving  a truck, carrying pigs to a slaughterhouse. There is a big slaughter house in Beaver. Beaver is known for those big factory agro-businesses. That was his job. There is not a lot to do there.

So he stayed there in Beaver.

He was actually living in the town next to it called Minersville.

Are you friends with his family?

I know his sister and her family but only through email. They seem like a very nice people. He had some close friends. He really touched people. They contacted me for his funeral. But I couldn't go. I didn't want to be seen as this big filmmaker and them paying attention to me. I didn't want his funeral to be about me or the movie.

He was such a charming guy.

I wish I had a picture of his gravestone with me so I can show it to you. It has the engravings of his car on it.

He drove the same car? The big Chevy Impala?

Yeah. Isn't that Something?

plan 10.jpgSomewhere I read that you were the one of the first filmmakers to embrace the internet.

You know I was. I can't say definitively that I was the first but I was one of the very first. Maybe someone was doing it all along then, but I don't know if anyone else did. (laughs) When I premiered Plan 10 from Outer Space at Sundance, I can't remember what year that was...1994? we actually had an internet press conference.

Wow.

And nobody had computers back then. So there were about 3 people in the world- somebody in Australia, somebody in LA and some geek at MIT or something and we had this little internet world conference for the first time. It was through University of Utah and they had satellite set up....

The way I got into that was because the special effects people who worked on Plan 10. They were the same people who were doing effects for Star Trek the TV show. Because they were my friends, they just did it for me. They called in to show me this new thing called internet. God, it was so slow. They were trying to load Rolling Stones site and it took them ten minutes just to load. (laughs) But these guys were techies. They knew what was coming. So they created a website for Plan 10. But nobody could see them because it was just that new.

I totally understand that this is a small scale traveling show where there are only three of your films playing- The Beaver Trilogy, Rubin and Ed & Plan 10. But I really want to see your other films. They are very hard to find.

There's a couple of them on my website. Delightful Water Universe and I made another one called The Cement Ball of Earth, Heaven and Hell. And I got this another one called Luna Mesa. It's done but I haven't put it out yet. I still...I don't know, I got some really ambivalent feelings about how I feel about the movie. Parts of it are fucking cool and then other parts are like boom!

Todd Brown, the founder of Twitch, the website I write for, saw it at Raindance and really seemed to like it.

Oh really? That makes me feel better, because many people told me, "oh this is a headscratcher, really."

I'm really curious about that movie. You shot it in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Thailand, Mexico, Tanzania ... How did this come about?

It's a very strange movie. I mean it's a narrative but also a documentary. There is this girl (Liberty Valentine) that I care, adore, love, am just totally head over the hills, just gaga over. But there is no relationship. I am 25, no, 30 years older than she is, practically. But we get along like crazy. We are interested in the same stuff and she is very talented. So we started making this movie.

What happened was that, I'd sell a story for a documentary in Cambodia and since it's paid by the show that I'm working on, I grab Liberty and go there and shoot their documentary and I get couple of days or weeks to shoot this thing on the side. In a strange way it's about this documentary about this relationship we had but it doesn't look like a documentary as it develops. That's part of the reason that it's hard for me to know what people think because I am so close to it. I am in this because I kind of had to be, because there is no way I can take the crew to all these places. So I fell into the movie more ways than one.

So it's a really personal film.

Oh absolutely. It's actually really painful. I mean, it's an unrequited love sort of movie.

luna mesa 2.jpgMay I ask what happened after the movie, with you and Liberty?

Oh we are still good friends. I don't see her much anymore. Because I just backed away from her. It was sort of hopeless. It's not that I dislike her. I still think she is great and she thinks I'm great. But I just had to get some distance from it. But she is incredibly supportive. She is an incredibly talented world class modern dancer. She worked with Nikolais, Ririe Woodbury and other companies. She injured herself at some point, as dancers often do. But I wanted to use her dancing skills in the movie and it's all there. I'll get you a copy. Just remind me.

I'd love to get one. So what are you working on now?

I'm doing a movie called Welcome to the Rubber Room. Galen is producing it.

Is it about High School teachers?

It's the second time someone asked me that. Starlee mentioned it. No. It's a kind of a strange beatnik nightclub that's full of eccentrics, and it's the last night that this place is open. It's going to be shut down and turned into a yuppified art gallery. So it's about that and their kind of wild efforts to save it.

Sounds great!


Traveling Trent Harris mini-retro continues:

Denver Film Society
Denver, CO June 7-8

Alamo Drafthouse
Austin, TX June 10-11

Grand Illusion Theater
Seattle, WA July 26-Aug 1st

Block Museum of Art
Chicago, IL This Fall


Please visit Harris's website for more information on his films.
Listen to This American Life Episode on The Beaver Trilogy by Starlee Kine here.


Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musing and opinions of the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com
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