EIFF 2009: Bob Byington on Harmony and Me
Gail Tolley talks to Bob Byington, director of Harmony and Me on the making of his film and the emergence of a new wave of low budget film-making in the US.
In the last few years a smattering of films have come out of the US that some have lumped together and called Mumblecore. Defined by their extremely low budgets and lo-fi aesthetics they’re the antithesis of the major trend in American independent cinema which has been for studios to fund films with a quirky ‘indie’ style for popular consumption and big bucks (just think of Juno). The emergence of ‘Indiewood’ has left many advocates of the 90s independent film movement a little exasperated. But these new, tiny budget films (call them Mumblecore if you like) show that independent film-making, old school style, is still alive and well. And what’s more, they’re bringing creative and unique films to audiences the world over.
A few films at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival fall into this category: Zach Clark’s Modern Love is Automatic, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday and last but not least Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me. Starring the musician and actor Justin Rice as the film’s central protagonist, Harmony and Me is an ambling trip through the life of a recently dumped 30-year-old who is trying to get over a broken heart. He takes piano lessons, strums away at his guitar and tells everyone he meets about his ex-girlfriend, “she broke my heart but she’s still at it, she hasn’t finished the job… she’s breaking my heart”. The humour is dead pan and low key and coming away from Harmony and Me you feel like you’ve been hanging around some amusing friends, albeit not the cool ones. There’s a noticeable naturalism to Byington’s film which is reminiscent of Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation (which also starred Rice) and is created by the raw visual style, basic camera work and improvisational dialogue. These works could almost be documentaries … or should that be home videos?
I caught up with Byington during his brief time at the festival to chat about his film and the low-budget film-making scene that he’s involved in. As a starting point it seemed natural to ask him whether he was influenced by the aforementioned works by Bujalski. “They’re a point of reference definitely. I’ve spent a lot of time with that filmmaker [Bujalski] so he’s had an impact on me for sure. It’s a milieu that feels right. I liked Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation was the movie where I saw Justin (Rice) and I was like ‘oh, I’ll try and put him in a movie’. ” Harmony and Me leans at times to a more crafted aesthetic than Bujalski - Justin Rice, awkward and unanimated, framed in the corner of a lift, in an empty corridor or against a garish backdrop. There is also the presence of an almost Wes Anderson style dead pan humour which Rice perfectly puts across with his uncomfortable posture and slightly gawky expressions.
Both Byington and Bujalski are based in Austin, Texas which is also home to one of the fathers of American indie, Richard Linklater. His 1991 feature Slacker was one of the defining films of the movement; set entirely in Austin it captured the weird and wonderful characters of the city in bite-sized vignettes. His influence on independent film-making is still evident says Byington, “Linklater started a film society in Austin 20 years ago; it’s built up to where it’s a very supportive environment.”
Support for young filmmakers taking their first steps is particularly crucial and Byington also got help from the Sundance Institute for the making of the film. “They gave us some money and they assigned mentors to us who were legendary type film figures, the woman who wrote Nashville [Joan Tewkesbury] and the guy who wrote the scripts for Sideways and Election [Alexander Payne] and they mentor the project and watch cuts etc. When people assigned them to us I didn’t think much of it, but it was very valuable.”
Low budget filmmaking has its advantages, there’s creative freedom for one and working with such little cash can instil a resourcefulness that has often, as seen throughout the history of cinema, led to innovative and influential stylistic approaches (just think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless). Yet there’s a downside too, Harmony and Me and its low-budget contemporaries are far from the polished aesthetic that many cinema-goers are used to and there’s a risk that this might put off audiences before they get to experience the charm of the characters and humour of the story. As Byington says, “You don’t want to be too marginalised, you want to feel like you have a chance for people to watch the movie”. And that’s the important part, if audiences aren’t going to get to see and enjoy the film, the fact that its heart is in the right place doesn’t matter one iota. Yet Harmony and Me has been recognised by several film festivals (Los Angeles, New Directors New Films (in New York) and of course Edinburgh) which indicates that if programmers are keen to promote the oddities and charm of ‘Mumblecore’ perhaps audiences are opening up to them too.
Harmony and Me showed as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2009http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk