Matthew Harrison makes movies. He makes movies because he enjoys working with
images, and actors, and stories, and emotions. And he's good at it, and what
makes him good at it may be that what matters most to him is the process, the
work. When the work goes well, he has described it as feeling as though his
heart has been exercised. And as we all know, only the work-out itself can deliver
good health. The equipment, the gym, the track, the attire - all are simply
facilitators and enhancements of the basic endeavor. Matthew Harrison makes
movies by hook or by crook. How they get made is a less dire objective than
getting them made. Until recently, that has meant that zero-budget financing
has been an essential part of his production strategy. Harrison started making
films as a kid in New York City, beginning with a two-minute detective thriller,
RIP OFF. Shot in 1994 and also in New York, RHYTHM THIEF is Harrison's second
feature film. (His first feature is 1993's Spare Me, described as a "bowling
noir comedy.") As the story goes, RHYTHM THIEF was filmed in 11 days on a budget
of $11,000. The movie's rich black-and-white visual look and the depth of the
performances belie the project's crimped circumstances. The gritty tale about
a street hustler who sells bootleg music tapes on the Lower East Side's mean
streets is a remarkable feat of modern neo-realism and is garnering the kind
of recognition that is propelling Harrison to a new plateau. The film won the
prestigious jury award for direction at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, as
well as the award for best dramatic feature at last year's SXSW Film Festival.
It has also won a host of other festival awards, in addition to catching the
eye of Martin Scorsese, who has helped secure financing for Harrison's upcoming
project, KICKED IN THE HEAD. RHYTHM THIEF is currently in theatrical release
and will open in Austin this Friday at the Dobie Theatre. We caught up with
Harrison by phone in California, where he's been working of late.
Austin Chronicle:What exactly is your company Film Crash?
Matthew Harrison: We don't really have offices, per se. We're more like a virtual
company. We run Film Crash out of our various apartments because the Film Crash
concept is filmmaker-driven, not producer-driven. We're not a production company.
We're not interested in maintaining any kind of physical plant. The concept
has always been "zero overhead" because as filmmakers we're only really interested
in making our movies.
Austin Chronicle:So what do you provide for each other?
Moral support, and really, a community of artists. That's pretty much Film Crash
in a nutshell. I started the organization in 1985 in the Lower East Side of
New York City. In 1988 I was joined by two other filmmakers. Since then we just
Austin Chronicle:How many people
Matthew Harrison: About 10 of
us now - directors, producers, and writers.
Matthew Harrison: What are you currently up to?
Matthew Harrison: My new script is called KICKED IN THE HEAD. It's being executive-produced
by Martin Scorsese. He very much liked RHYTHM THIEF. A friend of a friend got
a videotape to him while he was shooting Casino and he really dug [it] and called
me up. It looks like we will be shooting that this spring on a $3 million budget
in New York City with Kevin Corrigan [the sidekick, "Fuller," in RHYTHM THIEF]
in the lead. Mike Rapaport [Beautiful Girls, Mighty Aphrodite] plays his best
friend. Corrigan and Rapaport together. Pretty good combo; those guys are excellent
Austin Chronicle:Didn't you have
a longer title for KICKED IN THE HEAD?
Yes; KICKED IN THE HEAD: A New York City Love Story.
Austin Chronicle:What else is going on?
The other interesting project that I'm really excited about
(and this is something I do regularly, I try to do all the time), in the first
week of January I started shooting a feature film here in Hollywood. Right now
it doesn't have a title. It's called Project 61. It's a Film Crash-style production.
It's a zero-budget feature that we're shooting part-time. It charts the crash
and burn of a very talented actor here in Hollywood and he has his existential
crisis. We're examining the dark side of what it means to be a young actor or
actress in Hollywood and how this town consumes people. It's a lot of fun. It's
a tragic comedy. It's a comic tragedy.
Austin Chronicle:RHYTHM THIEF might be described similarly.
Matthew Harrison: Yeah, I think that's my thing, tragic comedies.
Right now the
cast is only five people. Usually we get together and it takes us about three
hours to shoot a scene that can range anywhere from two minutes to 20 minutes.
No matter how long or short it is, it always seems to take us about three hours.
I play a part in it. I play this outraged New York City film director in Hollywood
waiting for his movie to get green-lit. So that's a lot of fun for me. It stars
Shawn Andrews who was in DAZED AND CONFUSED. Project 61 is basically being made
for $20. Part of the story's hook is that Matthew Harrison is in Hollywood,
impatient with the Hollywood waiting game, and started making a $20 feature
part-time. Project 61 is the image of young people making their pilgrimage to
the Babylon that is Hollywood. The young actor has his crisis of faith, loses
his way. That's something I'm seeing a lot of here; filmmakers in Hollywood
losing their way.
Austin Chronicle:Have you done any studio work while in Hollywood?
Matthew Harrison: I got hired to do a movie called Code 99, a Die Hard in Hospital
kind of story, but the option on me expires in about a week. I'd love to do
some studio projects. It's fun. I'd love to do work for hire.
Austin Chronicle:Code 99. Project 61. There seems to be a certain similarity
to these titles.
Matthew Harrison: Oh not
really. I just give films numbers when I don't have a title for them yet. Because
I find then I don't get locked in. If I give a film a title too early sometimes
I get locked into it and the movie changes and the title kind of holds it back.
So I try to give it a completely neutral title 'til it really takes form and
then usually the film names itself.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
Matthew Harrison: I'm working on my new scripts. I have a science fiction one
I'm doing, an action-adventure script I'm writing, a couple more personal New
York City stories, a romantic comedy that takes place in Florida - sort of a
screwball comedy. I find it's better for me when I spread my genres around.
Austin Chronicle:Don't we all.
Matthew Harrison: The thing I've learned during this time in Hollywood is that
if you don't have a marketing budget, a marketing plan, you're fucked. Nobody's
gonna see your movie no matter how good it is. Conversely, if you have a good
marketing plan and a good marketing budget, it doesn't matter how bad the movie
is, people will go see it and people will talk about it as if it's something
important. So that's been my lesson with making RHYTHM THIEF. But really when
the end of the day comes, I realize the only thing that really interests me
is doing the work. I find when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter whether
I'm making a film for $20 or $20 million. All I'm interested in is working with
talented actors and actresses and writing compelling dramatic scenes between
them and working those scenes through with them and getting it on film. I know
the difference between interesting work in that way - good work and bad work
- and there's no way to fake that. It's been kind of good for me to re-root
myself here. Starting Project 61 has completely re-grounded me in what is really
compelling to me about making movies and what I really care about and what I
really respond to. I get into the ring with my actor and my actress and we discuss
that scene. And at that point all the rest of everything else just drops away
and vanishes. It's like, "This is great. This is what it's about. We're getting
to something really truthful here." I can feel the emotions and so can my actress
and so can my actor. And then we all just light up and we want to do the work.
It's such a great feeling. And I go home at the end of the night completely
exhausted and I feel so good. It's like, "Wow, I really exercised my heart.
All the emotions were happening." If you had called me two months ago, Marjorie,
I would have been like "this sucks, Marjorie, I'm dying. Get me out of this
fucking town, Marjorie. It's a fucking nightmare. I don't ever want to make
a movie again. I hate it." But since I started this movie in early January,
I'm like, "This is great!" You know, it doesn't matter where I am. I could be
here, I could be in New York, I could be in Austin. I don't care.
Austin Chronicle:So it's the process that matters to you?
Matthew Harrison: The mechanics of the maneuvering here and the game-playing
here, eecchh. I realize it's been good for me to confront this stuff and to
learn about it, and be here and watch how my agents work and how my manager
works, and my lawyer and my PR guy, you know, just learning all that. But staying
in this arena, though, boy, there's nothing like Hollywood to make you feel
inadequate as a filmmaker. They don't care about filmmakers, they really don't.
It's not what it's about. It's like [Harrison begins spitting out the syllables
here], "Can you make a double cheeseburger that will fit in the box on the rack
at McDonald's? If you can't do that, we don't even want to talk to you." And
I'm like, "No, actually, I don't. I make the Matthew Harrison Burger. It's very
different. Could you guys, like, make a special plate? Can you make a special
place in your McDonald's for a Matthew Harrison Burger?" "Well, no. Will it
fit in this slot? Why should we build a new slot for your weird hamburger? No.
We got cheeseburgers; we got the Quarterpounder; we got the place for the hot
apple pie. Do you want a large fries or a small fries?" "Well, that's not how
I work actually." "Well, then, go somewhere else." Hollywood really is a McDonald's
chain and when you walk into the McDonald's In Moscow you want that burger to
taste exactly the same as it does in Austin or in L.A. That's the point. It
tastes the same. You don't want to have a different-tasting thing.
Austin Chronicle: I just read that one was opening up in Sarajevo. Bring peace
to the country.
Matthew Harrison: Everything will be unified and okay again.
So, if you're shooting Project 61 part-time and KICKED IN THE HEAD begins in
the spring, you're going to be concurrently working on two movies on two coasts.
Matthew Harrison: I haven't made anything
since finishing RHYTHM THIEF two years ago. I want to catch up now. But I've
learned an awful lot.
I guess I'll hang up now so you can get off to that day job and earn another
20 bucks to make another movie.
Yeah, I've got to go out and get another Hi-8 cassette.