Things Are What You Make of Them

The deliciously cracked comedies of Bob Byington

Writer/director Bob Byington (l) with <i>Harmony and Me</i> star Justin Rice at the Traverse City Film Festival in August
Writer/director Bob Byington (l) with Harmony and Me star Justin Rice at the Traverse City Film Festival in August

"Hello, baby, hello/Open up your heart and let your feelings flow" – Elton John's "Harmony"

Let flow, Harmony does, with the well-practiced drip, drip of a breakup narrative conceived, finessed, and declaimed to anyone who will listen, including friends, family, and a Chinese herbalist: "She broke my heart. She hasn't finished the job. She's breaking it still." The first time you hear Harmony deliver his "I got dumped" speech, you think, okay, kinda corny, but sincere. We all know what it's like to wear your heart on your sleeve, and – when it's been smashed all to bits – to wear it even, as Dorothy Parker put it, like a wet red stain. But then Harmony gives the same speech a second time. And a third. And then you start to squirm, because this sad sack sounds an awfully lot like ... well, you: You when your heart's been smashed all to bits, and you're convinced it'll only get better by telling other people about it.

Welcome to the real and uncomfortably recognizable world of writer/director Bob Byington, who takes premises that might sound distancing –a sex offender newly released from jail, a shoegazer endlessly moaning about his jerky ex-girlfriend –and mines wickedly funny stuff from them. And then, just when you're about to write them off as just that –as in, only that –you snap to attention and realize how awfully likable even his awfulest characters are. These are shaggy, observational comedies, which sounds fairly run of the mill, but then how does that explain the giddy contact high of Harmony and Me? There's something going on there, something itchy and kicky and tricky to pin down; Michael Moore got close, I think, when he awarded Byington the Stanley Kubrick Award for Bold and Innovative Filmmaking at Moore's Traverse City Film Festival this summer. Byington – who is thoughtful and even unnervingly sharp – has trouble himself articulating how the film works.

"If the movie sneaks up on you and catches you off-guard as funny, it works better, right?" he asks. "But how do you [market] that?" He deadpans a mock slogan: "This movie will catch you off-guard. It's funny."

Harmony and Me is Byington's fourth film and his second to be released in two years, following last year's RSO: Registered Sex Offender. RSO was billed as "a story that will touch you inappropriately," which captures the film's impudent cheek but not its weirdly affecting afterburn. RSO debuted at South by Southwest 2008 and has puttered around since then, exhibiting on the Range Life Tour, for one. Harmony and Me has outpaced it, for sure, premiering in New York this past spring at the Museum of Modern Art's prestigious "New Directors/New Films" series, the only American film this year to lay claim to that honor. But it's of RSO that Byington speaks most affectionately.

"It feels like one of my kids. ... Even though Harmony's getting all these accolades and being well received, my heart goes out to this one. I think it's like the two kids, and one is the fuckup and one is the cool scholarship kid, and my heart goes out to [the fuckup]."

A week after RSO premiered at SXSW, Byington started production in Austin on Harmony and Me, the script of which he wrote at Foodheads, a cozy sandwich shop on 34th Street where we met in early October to discuss Harmony and Me in advance of its regional premiere at the Austin Film Festival. Byington is just getting over an ear infection, which he blames on all the recent air travel promoting Harmony and Me. ("Whenever I see kids on a plane, it's like they're terrorists to me," he grumbles.) He's been doing press for a while now, and although he's polite, it's obvious he's a little weary of the process. His answers are short, many of them drifting into an "I don't know" by the sentence's end. More than once, he wonders aloud what his job is right now in relation to the film. And he is not at all happy about having his photograph taken. "I haven't been to the dentist in a while," he says drily, "so this can remind me of what that's like." He steadfastly refuses to smile for the photographer.

Camera put away, Byington gets down to talking about the movie. The script was conceived, he says, when he stumbled into "a window of oddities" that informed both the film's story and its sensibility.

"A man asked me to sign a card for someone that he told me had a day to live – that happened. And I overheard a man being really, really mean on the phone, to the point where I assumed he was talking to customer service or something, just being really abusive. And he hung up, and he was like, 'My wife rented this steam vacuum, and she doesn't know how it works.' It was funny."

Both stories wound up as incidentals in the film, which follows a vaguely employed tech worker, Harmony (played by Bishop Allen frontman Justin Rice), as he ambles between piano lessons, a funeral, even his own coma, turning every conversation into a forum for his heartbreak over Jessica (played by producer Kristen Tucker, whose contributions to the film Byington says are "huge"). The cast comprises a mix of professional actors, like Kevin Corrigan and Pat Healy, and nonprofessionals, such as Austin musician Bob Schneider (as a wedding singer who puts the moves on the very pregnant bride), Keith Poulson (who now plays bass in Rice's band), and even Byington, low-key hilarious as Harmony's prickly older brother. It was a quick, even charmed shoot, although Byington seems pretty low-key about that, too.

"That's one thing I've learned from these two movies is, you know, not to despair over something that I think is bad and not to rejoice over something I think is good, 'cause I'm usually kind of wrong about it."

He seems like a man who doesn't comfortably cede control. (In a recent Web interview, he apologizes to the interviewer for the noise of a nearby car alarm: "Sorry, I wish I had more control over that.") Byington is meticulous about the conditions under which his films are exhibited –the format, the theatre – but he refuses to watch them with an audience. I ask him if he thinks about the audience when he shoots, and if perhaps experiencing his films with an audience would inform his filmmaking.

"That's what Kristen [Tucker] says: In order to think more about that, you need to watch them with the audience. And she may have a point.

"All I think about really is where it's showing, what's it showing on, what's the theatre like. That's all I think about," he says. "All that stuff is incredibly important to me – incredibly important – the technical stuff. All that stuff I can devote energy to. But then I'm pretty disconnected from that other thing."

This is going to sound confrontational, I say.

"That's fine."

Do you care what the audience thinks?

He pauses. "I care. And I know that I wanted to make a movie that had heart. I think [Harmony and Me] is a very open-hearted movie. We got one review that said the movie was mean-spirited. That's the one review that's really bugged me. 'Cause I don't think the movie's mean-spirited at all. We really consciously tried to make an open-hearted movie. And that's on behalf of the audience's viewing experience, right? I think it is."

Mentally, Byington has moved on to the next film, even if corporeally he's required to push this one still. The new film, called Seven Chinese Brothers, is a comedy about a man struggling to learn how to tell the truth; Jim Taylor (Sideways) will executive produce. Byington's voice lifts when he talks about the project; at the time of our interview, Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) had just been attached to the film. I ask Byington if he's excited.

"Yeah. It's the first exciting thing that's happened in a while."

You mean in relation to that movie ... or in general?

"Well, I'm really happy with how Harmony's doing, but like I said, it's more a PR job [at this point]. I'd rather make them than ..." he trails off, loath to reach the thought's natural conclusion.

Than talk about them?

"Maybe. But that's gonna be that stupid pull quote: 'I'd rather make them than talk about them.'"

I hadn't thought about that, but I'm open to suggestion.

"That's horrible. That's horrible." And then – just maybe –the faint flicker of a smile. Then again, it may have just been a wince.

Harmony and Me

Marquee Screenings, Regional Premiere
Friday, Oct. 23, 10:15pm, Texas Spirit Theater

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Bob Byington, Harmony and Me, RSO: Registered Sex Offender, Kristen Tucker, Justin Rice, Bishop Allen, Seven Chinese Brothers, Tunde Adebimpe, Jim Taylor, Austin Film Festival

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