Matthew Harrison
A Conversation with Filmmaker Matthew Harrison RHYTHM THIEF Rap Sheet
by Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle February 1996.
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?

Matthew Harrison: 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 keep growing.

Austin Chronicle:How many people are involved?

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 together.

Austin Chronicle:Didn't you have a longer title for KICKED IN THE HEAD?

Matthew Harrison: Yes; KICKED IN THE HEAD: A New York City Love Story.

Austin Chronicle:What else is going on?

Matthew Harrison: 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.

Austin Chronicle: 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.

Austin Chronicle: 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.

Austin Chronicle:Well, 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.

Matthew Harrison: Yeah, I've got to go out and get another Hi-8 cassette.

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