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Know anybody in L.A. who could use a 1988 Nissan Sentra? Filmmaker Matthew Harrison needs to unload his this week, when he returns to New York City after a year in Lotus Land. New York native Harrison moved to the West Coast shortly after his remarkably accomplished low-budget feature Rhythm Thief landed the prestigious Jury Prize for directing at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Suddenly, Harrison, whose total budget for Rhythm Thief amounted to less than what a typical major-studio production spends in one day, found himself receiving phone calls from movie executives who wouldn't have allowed him to wash their cars prior to the festival.
"I figured I gotta move out here, give myself a year, figure out how [Hollywood] works," explains Harrison by phone from the L.A. residence he is preparing to vacate. "I was always upset by the crap that seems to flow from here. If I'm angry at something, it's usually 'cause I don't understand it. It's been like a one-year internship at McDonald's. And believe me that's what the business is like. They manufacture movies like cheeseburgers. They follow very specific formulas. Each genre has its little chute. If you can't make double-cheeseburgers the way they want you to, go away. They don't want to hear 'But I make the Matthew Harrison burger. It's special!' Because they can only sell maybe two or three hundred Matthew Harrison burgers versus two or three million globally of double-cheese."
Although Harrison hasn't sold billions and billions of burgers, his name may be familiar to close readers of this column. Three years ago his sardonic 30-minute film Two Boneheads crowned an exhibition (mounted by Florida International University) of award-winning student films from around the U.S. Harrison's twisted and wildly imaginative first feature, the world's premiere (and to date perhaps its only) "bowling noir" movie Spare Me, induced laughing fits in audience members with a taste for dry satire when it highlighted the inaugural South Beach Film Festival in 1994. Rhythm Thief opens this year's South Beach fest.
Despite garnering critical acclaim and picking up a fistful of awards along the festival circuit, Harrison's gritty, slightly absurdist urban drama -- a sort of spiky cross between Waiting for Godot and Mean Streets -- did little to endear him to Tinseltown executives who hadn't actually seen the film at Sundance but had heard a positive buzz on the movie's maker. The Jury Prize opened doors, but they slammed shut quickly after the studio honchos screened the film. Harrison's kinetic street vision was too original. Too difficult to pigeonhole. They couldn't envision prospective moviegoers flocking to the local cineplex to witness Harrison's vivid black-and-white tale of a principled pavement purveyor of bootleg music cassettes who runs afoul of one of the bands he has illicitly recorded. How do you market something like that? In a blink the transplanted New Yorker and Sundance darling found himself alone and jobless in the cinema capital of the universe.
"My first six months out here were horrible," Harrison laments. "Away from my woman, my friends. No support network. No work. These guys would take one look at my film and it would scare the hell out of them. I was the brooding artist. You'd think that in a town built around movies they would encourage creativity and diversity" A Harrison laughs ruefully A "but it's not that way at all. They discourage the indie scene here. This is a corporate town. They don't celebrate ideas. It's a harsh world. They worry about selling popcorn and sodas first, and work everything backward from there. I start with an idea and work forward from that."
So like Rhythm Thief's hardscrabble protagonist, Harrison remained true to his personal code while scratching and hustling to get by. Then, as if his life story were following one of those formulaic plots Harrison despises, just as his career and personal life appeared to hit rock bottom Harrison got his second big break (the Jury Prize at Sundance being the first): While filming Casino on location in Las Vegas, director Martin Scorsese viewed a tape of Rhythm Thief and loved it. Loved it so much he called the fledgling filmmaker and signed him up to a three-million-dollar deal to write and direct a New York City love story entitled Kicked in the Head. (Kevin Corrigan, who has a supporting role in Rhythm Thief, cowrote the Kicked script and will play the lead.)
"That's without a doubt the best thing that's come out of Rhythm Thief," Harrison reckons. "Marty saved my ass. I was so depressed six months ago. Marty taught me not to try to be something I'm not. I'm not a programmer. If I go to see popular movies, it fucks with my head. I feel like a failure because I'm not doing what my peers are. I'm cutting across the current. Talking with Marty made me feel a lot better about myself in that respect. This is such a product-driven industry. It may be cheesy, but I try to get at deeper truths. I want my movies to chart uncharted territory in people's minds. People whose work really excites me -- Fellini, Cassavetes, Scorsese -- try to explore areas of people's behavior that are hard to explain. Like a lot of people had trouble dealing with Casino because it wasn't this straightforward crime movie; it tried to get into the heads of its characters. That film will still be interesting ten, twenty, fifty years down the road."
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