Interview with writer/co-director Joshua Cody



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 ages.

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 project.

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 see.

One guy I was talking to tonight said it wasn’t an indie film.

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 meant!

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, in general?

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.