La La Love You
Alex Holdridge does the impossible – by making Los Angeles impossibly romantic – in 'In Search of a Midnight Kiss'
Alex Holdridge has never been shy about reflecting his real life in his art, and when he flipped his car on I-10 on the way to Los Angeles and away from a decade spent making movies in Austin, you better believe he filed the experience away in his mental "To Be Used at a Later Date" file. In fact, when he kicked out the window of his car and crawled away from the wreckage, the first thing he did was reach for a nearby disposable camera (scattered, with all his other belongings, along the highway). The snapshot he took shows up in his breakout romantic comedy, In Search of a Midnight Kiss; the moment is cataloged as just one in a long list of bad hands dealt to his onscreen doppelgänger, a struggling screenwriter named Wilson (played by Scoot McNairy), who has left a life, and a love, in Austin for the so-called sunnier, sexier climes of L.A.
Before he left town, Holdridge was something of an indie-film prince in Austin, having won raves for his 2001 debut, the scrappy Wrong Numbers, about two underagers trying to score some beer (also starring McNairy, in the first of a long collaboration), and his 2003 follow-up, Sexless, which has the distinction of being the first film ever to win both the jury award and the audience award at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Like so many before him, Holdridge figured it was time to play with the big boys, so to speak, so he headed to Hollywood. But distribution hopes for Sexless got derailed by contested ownership rights, and a studio rewrite for Wrong Numbers was rendered obsolete overnight when Superbad broke big, and Holdridge found himself, like so many before him, stranded in Hollywood, in a very bad place.
"In that car crash, I got a hernia," he says, "and then when I got here, I lost a tooth. It was this crown that fell off, so there was this, like, gap, and I'm like: 'I'm a fucking homeless person. I have no job; I'm broke as shit; I don't have a car; I fucking lost a tooth. Like, what is wrong with me?'"
But so often out of frustration, great art is born, and that's exactly what happened to Holdridge when it came to what he counts as the utterly charmed life of In Search of a Midnight Kiss. It began with a call from cinematographer Robert Murphy, another longtime collaborator, whom Holdridge met at the University of Texas.
"It was December 26," Holdridge recalls. "He said: 'Hey I bought an HD camera. I'm coming to L.A. for a week; do you want to shoot something?'"
Holdridge banged out a script in two weeks and immediately started phoning up a cast and crew that had largely been with him from the start. "Everyone dropped what they were doing, and on January 8 we started shooting. It was an absolute charmed movie. From day one, we knew this was something special. Because we were all so fucking hungry."
Burned by past experiences – overbearing producers, intrusive script notes, small-minded agents, the usual – Holdridge and company decided to make In Search of a Midnight Kiss as fast and as loose as possible, shooting without permits on the streets of Los Angeles, lining the sound gear in a coat pocket, and calling up favors from their own regular haunts, like La Poubelle, the Hollywood coffeehouse where Wilson meets Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a troubled, wannabe actress he meets on Craigslist and spends one tumultuous New Year's Eve with (hence the title's modus operandi).
Then a funny thing happened on the way to making the movie that would win him raves at its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, earn enthusiastic reviews from the likes of Variety, and turn his career around. "When I started, I thought this whole thing was gonna be my 'I hate L.A.' movie. Like, 'Fuck you!' It was originally called If L.A. Fell Into the Ocean, I Wouldn't Miss It."
Ironic, then, that In Search of a Midnight Kiss is a valentine through and through to Los Angeles. Not in a fawning or mythologizing way – it's simply at ease with the town and lingers in places, such as the subway and the old theatre district, that most filmmakers gloss over. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film doesn't try to pretty up L.A., because it doesn't need to: Downtown really is a thing of staggering beauty – a study in contrasts, as with the historic Million Dollar Theater, featured in one of the film's key scenes, which is situated right next to Skid Row.
Of course, Holdridge hasn't completely cut loose the ties to Austin. The soundtrack is chockablock with local bands (see "A Little 'Midnight' Music"), that's I Luv Video in the opening scene, and an "us vs. them" sensibility infuses the whole thing (as with a very funny riff in which Wilson's best friend cautions him about sex with Los Angeles girls: "They're dirtier here").
But when it comes right down to it, this is an L.A. story – about a filmmaker who made a funny, heartbreaking, gleefully profane film by plumbing the depths of his depression and playing by his own rules, thus winning accolades in the process. In short: Hernia aside, Holdridge got his happy ending. How Hollywood is that?
In Search of a Midnight Kiss opens in Austin on Friday. See Film Listings for review. Austin Film Society will host a free, members-only screening on Thursday, Aug. 28, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, with writer/director Alex Holdridge in attendance. Visit www.austinfilm.org to reserve tickets.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the September 5, 2008 issue: In last week's profile of filmmaker Alex Holdridge, "La La Love You," Screens, Aug. 29, the Chronicle reported that Holdridge's second film, Sexless, won the audience and jury awards at the Austin Film Festival in 2003. In fact, Sexless won the awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The Chronicle regrets the error.