with writer/co-director Joshua Cody
WITH JOSHUA CODY
(CO-DIRECTOR, SCREENWRITER, MUSIC)
James Baiye: I knew you in Paris as a composer
of modern concert music, so how did this movie, The
Standard Man, come about?
Joshua Cody: Unintentionally! Because I was writing strange modern
music, working on a doctorate at Columbia in composition, and I was
pretty active in producing concerts of modern music with a group I
started, Sospeso. Half the time, Sospeso would perform music by major
composers uptown at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, and the other
half of the time, we’d do smaller, more experimental performances.
That’s still how New York is divided. But before I’d gotten
into music, I had been really interested in film, and I even started
my undergraduate degree in film before switching to music. So that
was always an interest. Sospeso was trying to carve out an identity
in the arts scene in New York, so we started collaborating with filmmakers,
doing multimedia concerts, that sort of thing. And I guess we started
to get a bit of a reputation for doing those sorts of events, because
we got a call from the BBC asking if we’d want to produce the
American premiere of four short films with live music that they’d
commissioned. It was an unusual idea on their part because they commissioned
four composers first, and let the composers choose the filmmakers
they wanted to work with. So Stockhausen chose the Brothers Quay,
Herzog chose Taverner — a pretty heinous, mawkish piece, it
took me a long time to respect Herzog again — and Nicholas Roeg
chose Portishead and Louis Andriessen, a Dutch composer with whom
I’m pretty close, chose Hal Hartley. So that’s how I got
to know Hal Hartley a little bit. And their piece inspired me and
my friend Paul, a filmmaker I’ve known since college, to do
our own silent film with live music. So Paul and I put together this
thing, sort of a think-piece on 9/11, and he shot it and I did the
music and Sospeso took it around and performed it a few times. And
so as a film it got some good reviews, including a good review from
the New York Times, even though it was never presented as
a conventional film, but as a road-house type of thing. And I remember
picking up the New Yorker one day and in the “Goings
On About Town” they announced one of the performances, and it
said “and a new film by Joshua Cody and Paul Bozymowski,”
and if you were from Kansas you would’ve thought that we were
sort of established underground New York filmmakers, we got a kick
out of that.
What does all that have to do with The Standard Man?
Nothing, sorry. Just that that project, which was called The Kiss,
led to The Standard Man.
Because of its success?
No, it wasn’t successful at all. I mean, we never sent it out
to festivals, or maybe we did to a couple, I can’t remember,
but it didn’t get any play or anything, other than when we’d
show it publicly. But we had a good time doing it, and sort of got
the bug, I guess. Paul works at Radical Media, a commercial production
house, and we screened it over there, and everybody thought it was
interesting, and beautifully shot, but they didn’t really understand
it, it came off as very artsy, avant-garde. You know, part of it was
in Arabic, it had calligraphy in it, it was very oblique, it was supposed
to take place in 1978 even though it’s full of anachronisms
which we said were intentional but really weren’t because we
didn’t have a budget, that type of thing. And oddly, given that
I come from this very rarefied arts world of modern music, my taste
in film isn’t experimental at all, it’s totally mainstream,
I just like all the great films that everybody else likes. So Paul
and I said to ourselves, we should do another short, a straight-ahead
comedy, an ensemble piece we could just shoot over a weekend, and
the people that were a little confused with The Kiss might
have a good time and laugh. And Paul’s girlfriend had at one
time worked as a bartender at the Whiskey in Chicago, and she told
us this story where she showed up at work one night and the whole
bar was empty except for a bunch of guys in Santa suits getting ripped.
So I went home and wrote up a short film on that scenario, really
just a bunch of gags, except at the end, all the Santas leave, and
there’s a guy and a girl in there, and you can tell that they’re
ex-lovers and they haven’t seen each other for a while, there
were unresolved aspects to their break-up, and so they sort of resolve
things, and that was it.
So how did it become a feature then?
Well, it just sort of expanded. We started casting—
With a casting director?
No, we just put ads in Backstage, a totally blind casting
call. I don’t remember exactly when it became a feature. I remember
that we were working on the story, and the thing about the Santas
was starting to drift into the background a little bit, and the main
interest seemed to be the relationship between the two kids. I also
remember that the script for the short was forty pages, which is way
too long for a short, obviously. But too short for a feature. And
I was trying to cut it down to a short, but then what got cut was
all the Santa stuff, which was sort of the original point, but of
course you take out everything that doesn’t drive the narrative
along. So then it just became the story of the two kids, which was
fine, but it just didn’t seem as interesting without the counterpoint
of the Christmas story, and Paul said, well, maybe it doesn’t
want to be a short, maybe it wants to be a feature. So I went back
and filled out what I wanted to know about the backstory of the two
kids, and kept a lot of the Santa Claus material in, and that came
out to be the magic number of 89 pages.
But how did you finance a feature?
Well, we had already talked to Radical Media about it, and they were
really nice, and they said we can’t give you money, but you
can certainly use our equipment, that sort of thing. And I went to
SAG and talked to them about it, and they were very reasonable. And
when we looked at the budget, it just didn’t seem to make a
huge difference, whether it was a short or a feature. I mean, if you’re
going to go through the trouble of making a short, which you really
have no hope whatsoever of ever doing anything with, you may as well
just go the extra mile and do the feature. So that’s what we
did. I remember Paul and I have discussions about raising tons and
tons of financing, that type of thing. But then I got some bad news,
a cancer diagnosis, and it was a little scary, so I think looking
back, I just sort of pushed it through because on some level I was
worried about mortality, especially when I did six months of chemo
and it didn’t work, so my survival chances plunged. I don't
think I would have been so foolhardy if that hadn't happened.
[***spoiler alert***] (highlight to read)
So you worked in the subtext of the disease
after you learned you had cancer?
That’s actually the totally weird thing, because — no,
actually, I had already written it. So what I had written came true
in my life. Or should I say — from the very earliest draft of
the short, I knew that the last shot would be Erica taking off a wig,
and she’d be bald. For some reason, that was it. I mean I know
where I had that image from, I had had an affair when I lived in Paris
that was devastating and that’s how things ended for her, and
the whole thing was sort of a heartbreaking thing, and that image
was reinforced by a character in Kiarostami’s Ten,
which is one of my favorite films, where a female character does the
same thing for the same reason. You know, the whole thing about cleansing
oneself, it’s a purification ritual, as it is for the Buddhists,
and for Muslims after Hajj, and also it just provided a cap for the
film, a final reveal. Maybe that would have been better, just to stick
with that. I don’t know. Somebody suggested that Erica’s
lost her hair because of a medical treatment. It ups the ante, of
course, and brings the film into the realm of melodrama, a women’s
film, a weepie, you know. But anyway once you make a decision like
that, obviously, there’s no turning back and so the whole backstory
changed. And I went with it ultimately, I guess, because it did reinforce
and work with the mosaic of themes and motifs that were already in
the script to begin with, having to do with transmission, radiation,
that whole theme.
[***end of spoiler alert***]
Like the guy in the bar who’s paranoid about cellphones?
Izzy, fantastic. Yeah, and the “standard man” himself,
which is based on reality — the government tried to create the
hypothetical “standard man” to calculate how much exposure
to radiation one could afford, but they based the standard on thirty-something
Caucasian males, forgetting about other genders, other races, other
As the guy with the glasses explains in the film.
Nathan Dean, right. So the central theme, again, is radiation, transmission,
everything in the film relates to that: nuclear radiation, and cellphone
communication, and even love, and obviously film itself, projected
upon a screen, are transmissions of waves and particles. So radiation
is good and bad. It can help you, but it can also hurt you. Radiation
can save your life, or it can turn you into a shadow of carbon on
a sidewalk. Love, same thing. It’s a powerful thing to be exposed
to. Like when Ryan, in the film, says, “I wasn’t built
to withstand you.” Now we’re in melodrama territory, but
that’s okay, I like melodrama. I’m a hysteric, personally.
Was the shooting difficult?
No. I didn't think so. All my friends in film school were like, what
in the world are you doing, you guys don’t know how to make
a feature, it’s the hardest thing in the world, you haven’t
gone to film school, who’s your AD, who’s doing continuity,
you’re gonna run out of money, you have no idea what you’re
getting yourself into. But actually it was just really fun. The cast
was great. Everybody had a good time. For me, it was terrific, because
it got my mind off the whole cancer slash chemo thing. We were pretty
well-organized, we never really ran over schedule — one time
we did, but that was it, and everybody was very gracious about it.
There was a really great sense of camaraderie on the set, and we did
it and then that was that. I was always waiting for something horrible
to happen, as Alex says in Clockwork, but it never did.
How was the cast and crew?
Everybody was just terrific. SAG was terrific. The Mayor's Office
was terrific. The boom operators turned out to be geniuses. They probably
should have rewritten the script. Nobody could have been any nicer.
I was gearing for battle and it turned out to be some kind of love-fest.
No egos, nothing like that. I shouldn't be saying this but I think
the good vibes sort of come through, there's a nice energy sometimes
on screen. And again, we were asking a lot from the cast and the crew.
We had a very short schedule and limited resources. But it really
had an Andy Hardy type of "let's put on a show" feel. There
might be problems in the film industry but there's certainly no lack
of talent and enthusiasm. I mean our make-up artist, Mandy Bisesti,
is not only superb, but for our only reshoot she was working another
job - bartending - so we sent our actors out to Brooklyn, and between
serving customers she did their makeup, including Jeff's black eye,
which is not easy because it has to match perfectly! Then the actors
took the subway back to the set. And we still owe Mandy part of her
fee! I think about this every day! But I'm totally broke now because
my hospital bill was almost $1,000,000.00, bone marrow transplants
are really expensive, and my insurance claims were misprocessed so
the hospital's suing me. But if I hadn't done it, I'd be dead now.
Anyway it'll all sort out, but that's what I call commitment to a
What did you use for locations?
They’re all real locations, everything’s below Fourteenth
Street and mainly below Canal. Paul used to live in Battery Park and
I’ve been living in Tribeca for a few years, so most of the
locations are in Tribeca. Bars, friends’ lofts, streets welike.
There’s no one in the film that’s not from New York City,
and we have a few non-actors in there, some real-life neighborhood
characters, an ex-marine, a narc, a retired garbage man, a schoolteacher
from Brooklyn. So a certain flavor comes out, of course. Benbella
is actually played by Lance Cain, an Emmy-award-winning editor. He’s
always around. Tribeca and the Lower East Side are in a certain sense
the only remaining neighborhoods in Manhattan – everybody’s
always around, you know where everybody is. Also, everybody was living
down here when 9/11 happened — Paul was actually right under
the towers when they were hit — so the film’s references
in that direction, which I hope we didn’t overdo, spoke very
clearly, very personally, to everyone.
How was the edit?
We didn’t have as many coverage problems as you might think,
but we did have problems with story, and structure. The first rough
cut was a total disaster. Of course I didn’t know that they
always are, so I was horrified. It was like three hours long, and
it moved slower than Pangea. But we just kept working on it, and we
went back and did a few pick-ups, mainly to make the story points
clearer, and we condensed a few things, and one very long elaborate
scene ended up being totally eliminated which was too bad, because
I liked the scene a lot, and the acting was great, but it just totally
slowed the movie down. Actually, that was the biggest thing. When
we cut that scene, then the movie appeared.
What was the scene?
Well the whole conceit of the film is that Ryan’s in this bar
and he owes someone money, and he doesn’t have it. So that’s
the set-up. And as Jonathan Gray, our lawyer, and a great producer
himself, pointed out, it makes no difference why and how Ryan is in
debt, the only important thing is that Ryan’s in debt. Could
be gambling, maybe somebody lent him money, who cares. In the film,
it’s a drug deal, where Ryan cuts the cocaine he’s delivering,
and the buyer finds out, and calls him on it, and won’t give
him the money, but he keeps the drugs. So this whole subplot became
extremely complicated and unnecessarily baroque, and that’s
really what we had to simplify, and to some extent it’s still
a problem in the film, but live and learn. But we shot a whole scene
where Ryan delivers the drugs to the buyer, who turns out to be a
off-Broadway theatre producer sort of based on a Richard Foreman type,
and also on a Lebanese opera producer I was acquainted with when I
lived in Europe. It was full of in-jokes, stuff about the art world
and the theatre world, the buyer was played as an Iraqi by a really
great Egyptian-American actor, Ramsey Faragallah, and it was a strange
scene and the most experimental scene but also poking fun at experimental
scenes. But Faulkner’s dictum about writing as killing babies
really came true with that, it just, for some reason, didn’t
work within the film, so we cut the whole thing out and then the structure
of the movie was more clear. But
I hated cutting it, but that's the type of thing you always read about.
Maybe it can be its own short.
So what kind of reception has the film been getting?
Nothing yet, we’ve done some very private screenings like tonight,
and people seem to like it, some people like it a lot. We’re
in a weird position because I think the typical scenario is that somebody
comes out of film school and they want to make their first feature,
so they’re very strategic about it, and they raise a lot of
money, and they try to get that great Steadicam operator on board,
and try to get name actors, and do a concept movie with a clear log
line — we honestly never had any of that, the whole thing was
a lark, really, just this pure intuitive reflexive thing, but now
it turns out to be something that people seem to like, so we’ll
One guy I was talking to tonight said it wasn’t an indie
Yeah, that was my friend Aaron, he said the same thing to me, and
I don’t really know what he meant by that. I think maybe what
he meant is that it’s not Wendy and Lucy, which was
written by an old acquaintance of ours, Jonathan Raymond, who is a
great writer, I haven’t seen him in ages, but anyway, Standard
Man certainly isn’t - I mean at least, it’s the opposite
of "mumblecore," in that all the characters are quite verbose,
they’re very smart and not shy about it, like a lot of my friends.
Honestly, I don’t have any friends that take a dog in a car
and drive up to Alaska with no money. I wish I did, but I don't. And
we didn’t use any improvisation, or very little, and we blocked
stuff out and did a lot of rehearsal, really like theatre, we would
run scenes for a long time, twenty minute takes, that sort of thing.
It was just intuitive, that way. I’m not saying it’s better
or worse, but that’s just the way we did it. Sometimes I'm really
afraid it's overwrought, and overdone, but then I read the other day
that Raymond Carver was the most pernicious influence on my generation
of writers, so that was a little consoling. Or maybe that's what they
Are you guys doing another movie?
Yeah, we want to, I’ve been writing a lot. We’re trying
to do something this year. I have a bunch of screenplays I’ve
been writing, in my spare time.
What do you think about the independent film industry, currently,
I have no idea. You’d have to ask somebody with a lot more knowledge
about the industry. I mean obviously, what strikes everybody about
Sundance and the indie festivals is that a lot of the films aren’t
indie films in the sense that ours is, or in the sense that the indie
films in the eighties were, when you had Whit Stillman and Hartley
and Spike Lee and Sayles and Jarmusch. Those guys were really way
out of the mainstream. I mean, when you have the New York Times
doing a story on an indie film at Sundance called Bottle Shock,
which has Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushku and Dennis
Farina, and the director is Danny DeVito’s nephew, and something
like fifteen producers, you know, that’s just not really my
idea of an indie movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with
that. But that’s a far cry from Courtney Hunt and Frozen
River. But then again Frozen River did really well at
Sundance and won the prize. So that’s great. I don’t know,
honestly you just start to go nuts when you think about these big
questions. I had a coffee with an entertainment lawyer the other day
and she went on and on about how tough it is out there, how hard it
is out there, nobody’s buying, nobody’s distributing,
features are the worst, you should do documentaries, blah blah blah,
film’s over as a medium, it’s dead. But then, you know,
I was reading this thing written by an Englishman in 1180 when he
went to Paris and heard early polyphonic music at Notre Dame and he
was basically saying the same thing, oh, that’s it, music’s
over, it’s done for, this stuff is unlistenable. I think you
just have to play dumb, and be a little naïve, which is hard
for me, because I’m from Wisconsin. Louis Andriessen said the
truly great artists just aren’t that smart. Just do your thing,
which is stupid and senseless, but fun, and try to keep going. Otherwise
it’s like getting home from a chemotherapy session and googling
survival statistics. What’re you gonna do? When I was in the
hospital having a bone marrow transplant I asked to see the hospital
priest, rabbi, and Imam, but I only got to see the rabbi. He comes
in and he goes, “What’s up?” I said, well, you know,
I’m having a bone marrow transplant, and obviously, I could
die. He’s like, yeah. I go, well, what if this is it? He nods,
solemnly, and then he says, “If this is it, then this is it.”
And we sat there for a few seconds, and then he gets up, smiles, and
says, “Okay, I gotta see a lot of other patients today.”
And he left, and I said to myself, maybe I’m not as much of
a hysteric as I thought.
James Baiye is a composer and journalist based in Paris, France.
He spoke with Joshua Cody in January, 2009.