John Merriman and Steve Collins Admit I've Got Issues

But hey, who doesn't?

Strange times ahead in Austin-made soulful comedy I've Got Issues, premiering this week at Austin Film Festival

Is there a truer friend and collaborative partner than one that would dress you up as a giant pizza slice? Maybe one that will let you do that to them. Yet that's just a glimpse of the heartfelt oddities in I've Got Issues, the strange and wonderful new Austin-made comedy from Steve Collins, starring John Merriman as that cheese-drenched treat.

Timmy, aka Mr. Pizza, is one of the desperate, lonely, love-filled, love-crushed and empathetic parts played by Merriman and a coterie of Austin's finest, including Macon Blair, Sam Eidson, and Courtney Davis. Some characters are instantly recognizable archetypes: others, like Timmy, are still just regular folks under the strangeness. "I think some of these characters are based on me," said Merriman. "At least that one, but Steve assures me its not."

Merriman and Collins have worked together on a series of shorts, equally surrealistic and strange. They've even done a couple of features, Merriman noted, "But they were more traditional, more linear."

Not that I've Got Issues is an anarchic jumble. While actors play multiple characters across a back-and-forth timeline, there's a thematic unity and evolution that makes it more than simply stringing shorts together. However, those shorts undoubtedly lead to the feature, and not simply because of the shared cast. Collins recalled, "At a festival screening at Slamdance, someone suggested, 'Oh, you should make a feature,' and I explained to him why it wouldn't work. And then I went home and it just stick in my head, and I thought, 'Maybe I could make it work.'"

The idea, Colins said, was for a story "dealing with despair on comic terms, and then healing it." His previous feature, 2014 documentary The Secret Life of Girls gave him the confidence to play with theme, rather than narrative, as the driver for the film, but what ultimately convinced him to make the jump was that he could still have freedom to go in diverse, absurdist directions: "I liked how distant the different episodes are, how they go all over the place, but they end up coming around. To me, the movie is about these sensitive, tenderhearted misfits, locked in their own isolation. So to have something that, structurally, seems like it's separate but then comes around, to me really fits."

“I find that very uplifting, that you can dig through the garbage and find these little roses.”
What binds the film together was what the director called "a spiritual through-line of disillusionment and epiphany, like a cycle where they are heartbroken but then they are reinvigorated or inspired. There's a despair/hope pattern." Even when the character is a pizza/human hybrid? Absolutely, said Collins. "You can find grace in the strangest places, and that's the pattern of the film – that something grotesque or absurd suddenly becomes touching. I find that very uplifting, that you can dig through the garbage and find these little roses."

What Collins proposed to Merriman was more vignette based, so filming I've Got Issues was much more like making a series of shorts on one run. Merriman noted, "And with the shooting schedule, it was just all over the place. One day you're covered in a prosthetic Mr Pizza Man, the next you're doing something else completely insane." However, there was what he called "an added pressure that, hey this all has to add up to something, so what can I do on my end as an actor to try and make this all work as a singular unit."

Collins called the actual filming "really delightful. Everyone remarked that no one had had such an easy fun shoot, and nothing went wrong, which never happens." However, the real moulding happened after production was finished – what Collins called "my comeuppance" as he entered the editing suite to craft something that carried the audience along with its quickly-switching characters, but was also streamlined in reaching its thematic resolution. "Getting this thing done, cutting out about 20 minutes, and then struggling to get over the hump, get the audience through. Because once things connect, they have to still be willing to meet new characters, and push to the end, and that was hard to do in the editing."

There was a cut within a couple of months, but fine tuning took almost seven months, and that meant several vignettes had to be cut completely. However, Collins plans to eventually give them new life as separate shorts. "That's the cool thing about this compared to a traditional feature," said Merriman. "Yeah, you can release deleted scenes as a special feature, but these are pretty much standalone things."

Now it's finished, and Merriman said he was thrilled to take this strange, wonderful invention out in public. "I've seen various edits as we've gone along, but to see it on the big screen with an audience, it's going to be something else."

But what about that pizza suit? Merriman looks back on his first time in a full-body prosthetic with fondness ("although the practice of wearing it for the movie, and being under that and under the lights was a different story.") Now the whole ensemble, complete with strings connecting it to a table and TV that have also become pizzafied, are in his garage. "I'm tempted to bring that out for the festival."

But how is it not the ideal Halloween costume? Merriman chortled. "It's a little unwieldy, but I could just hold court."

I've Got Issues

World Premiere
Fri., Oct 25, 10pm, Rollins Theatre
Wed., Oct. 30, 9:45pm, State Theatre

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Austin Film Festival, Austin Film Festival 2019, I've Got Issues, John Merriman, Steve Collins, Sam Eidson, Macon Blair

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