An Okie-Dokey Deadpan
Oklahoma director Mark Potts on his suburban comedy 'Simmons on Vinyl'
"I started off thinking I was going to be an architect," says Mark Potts. "Thank God my 11th-grade math teacher was an asshole, which made me not want to do anything with math. Like architecture."
So Potts' architectural career did not go according to plan. The 26-year-old Norman, Okla.-based director of nanobudgeted Austin Film Festival audience favorites The Stanton Family Grave Robbery (2008) and last year's Simmons on Vinyl is unlikely to make Le Corbusier spin in his grave, nor is Frank Gehry, so far as is known, overly concerned. The Norman skyline remains blemished by an absence of gleaming, Potts-designed erections.
Architecture's loss, however, is indie filmmaking's gain. Shot for prices so low they're – as New York gonzo advertising fixture Crazy Eddie famously exclaimed – insane, Potts' suburban Okie comic sensibilities might at first strike some cineastes as slight or even disposable. Not so: They end up sticking around in your head, mouthing off, cracking wise, and expressing, with a forthright comedic eloquence that's frankly tough to explain in print, the basic truisms of exurban life in small-town America. Small-ish, anyway.
On the face of it, Simmons on Vinyl is an anti-hip buddy comedy revolving around a trio of slacky friends (spot-on performances from Potts, co-writer Cole Selix, and William Brand Rackley), a missing LP record, and 24 hours of guy-centric yuks. But behind that too-obvious facade is a serious (and seriously funny) exploration of twentysomething friendship, family, and the single coolest dance battle you've never seen. And then there's that hard-to-pin-down-unless-you've-lived-there Okie. So are Potts and his partners at Singletree Productions a bunch of budding regional filmmakers? Or are they just trapped in Oklahoma?
Potts is silent, on the phone from Norman, for a moment before he answers: "I guess that, yeah, sure, you could call me an Oklahoman filmmaker. I love this area. I think this area of Oklahoma and Texas is a very pretty land, and you don't see a lot of stuff shot in this area. Everything is shot to look bigger and more metropolitan, but honestly I like the look of the land. So maybe I am a regional filmmaker?"
It sure feels that way. The people in Potts' films are so well-crafted, -written, -acted – so true to life in that pseudo-snarky way of male American lower Midwest 20-year-olds – that despite the comic chaos that engulfs them, they're less caricatures than full-blown, fully realized characters. There's an almost instant likability factor at play, even when the characters aren't entirely likable. And with Simmons, for sure, it's all about Potts and Selix double-team screenwriting:
"Cole and I both came from Enid," explains Potts, "where we worked at a movie theatre and then hung out there for 10, 12 hours a day. It was during that time that we started talking about movies and eventually making them. While, you know, my education at Oklahoma University has been pretty good, I can honestly say that watching terrible movies has almost been a better education."
Terrible movies being ...?
"Oh, man, for some reason The Sweetest Thing, that Cameron Diaz movie? That sticks out. I mean, we're no experts, we're not even close to it, even now, but at the time, I remember watching that film and just learning so much about things to avoid when making a film. Things like jokes that went on forever or ridiculous scenarios that just didn't work. That movie in particular was an education in itself. And then of course we watched Gigli three times."
Yikes. That's bordering on the masochistic.
"Well, it also has a lot to do with how boring Enid, Oklahoma, is. When I moved there, it had a population of around 50,000 and now it's down to somewhere like 35,000. If that Air Force base closes, that town is just going to disintegrate."
Well, there is a war on. Or two. So not to worry. But let's get back to the writing, which, for all its comic overtones and outright spit-take-inducing moments, is almost always underpinned by the more serious aspects of life: love, death, friendship, and Star Wars references. How exactly do Potts and Selix manage such fluid, naturalistic, occasionally moving, but above all funny and character-driven stories without tipping over into either the ridiculous or the maudlin? That's a balancing act that even Hollywood can't seem to pull off anymore.
"I think the way that [Selix] and I write together is unique in the sense that usually we take a long time to even put things down on paper. With Simmons on Vinyl, though, that wasn't the case. We got that idea and wrote the screenplay within three weeks. But usually what it really comes down to, for us, is Cole and I sitting around a talking a lot, generating ideas, rejecting ideas.
"We talked about The Stanton Family Grave Robbery for six months before we wrote a word of it. And the feature we just finished – S&M Lawn Care – began as a series of conversations that went on for four or five months before we wrote anything. Essentially, Cole and I have an idea for a movie and then it's down to the conversations we have that generate the script. And a lot of that's done with e-mail. We have some ridiculously serious conversations about jokes. It always dumbfounds me when we get to that point. I always get very nervous [when] we start doing the actual writing."
Which actually comes through, in a way that can only be described as sweet (but never cloying), in Potts' performance in Simmons. His Zeek is the portly love-struck loser who's actually a winner, surrounded by absurdity on a grand small-town scale, speed-bumping through the first night of the rest of his life while chasing a pretty girl, a 12-inch piece of vinyl, and a dream. "Men do stupid things for women," goes Simmons' tagline, but that's not stupid. That's life.
Simmons on Vinyl screens as part of the AFF Presents series on Thursday, May 27, 7:30pm, at the Alamo Lake Creek (13729 Research). Admission is free for AFF members and $4 for the general public.