Drew Denny, Big Whup singer and performer and songwriter, is something of an L.A. underground superstar. She was once a non-musician, but through hard work and more than a bit of moxie (plus some very talented collaborators and some serious inspiration), Denny blossomed into a stop-you-in-your-tracks songwriting talent. But she didn’t pause there.
Now Drew Denny has written, directed and starred in her first full-length motion picture, The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On. With this latest masterpiece she has taken the DIY ethos—and soundtrack courtesy of collaborators like Emily Lacy, Actually Huizenga, Pizza!, So Many Wizards, and more—to it’s grandest, most ultimate extreme. It’s an outpouring of emotion and poetry, stitched together with the care of a craftsperson.
It was just announced that Drew Denny’s film has been chosen to premiere at the prestigious Seattle International Film Festival, which starts May 17.
Hey, Drew. Last year you told me you were thinking of making a movie…next time I hear from you, you made that movie! You are a fast worker. What is your film all about?
Two childhood girlfriends, Andy and Liv, reunite to scatter Andy’s dad’s ashes from L.A. to Austin where Liv will audition for the role of a vixen spy in a noir film. Between performing mini-funerals in surreal Southwestern landscapes, the girls practice being bad! Featuring mild military cross-dressing, a celebration of absurdity, and a totally awesome underground soundtrack, this mixed-media dark comedy interweaves autobiography, documentary, fiction and camp.
Okay…Did this come to you all in a flash?
One morning last May—almost one year ago now—I woke up in Lithuania with the idea for this film and wrote an email to my friends asking them if they wanted to make it with me. I didn’t dream about it. I just woke up with the knowledge that it must be made. I know it makes me sound like a silly zealot but ideas really feel like imperatives to me, and I enjoy submitting to them. I spent that month participating in a performance art festival on the Curonian Spit then playing music in Berlin and writing about another performance art festival in Denmark. I got home at the beginning of June, created the performance for Father’s Day on June 18 then wrote the script in July so we could set out to shoot in August.
This is a movie, but it is based on an actual road trip, right?
Well, we actually did go on the road trip! But the road trip is really the infrastructure—or shall I say the vehicle—for the fictional premise of the film. Ha! When I left the cancer hospital, all I wanted to do was move. I worked in Europe, Mexico—I applied for a teaching job in Pakistan! The great catharsis of the American road trip seemed like just the thing to do, so the impulse was based in my real life but the characters and their relationship is made up. That said, there is much in the movie that is “real.” Those really are ashes we spread—though they’re mostly my dog Lola’s and only a bit my dad’s. My real father appears in the film via a video I made of him singing to me over Skype when I was working in the Netherlands right before he died. We documented many real world events including the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial, a night out at Mike’s Road House, the migration of Mexican Free-tailed bats and the cycle of the moon. It creates an interesting tension because there are several very campy, silly moments in the movie but overall the tone is quite natural…
Where did you shoot this?
Some of the most beautiful locations in the Southwest US—or maybe planet Earth! We started out in Mojave, CA at the Mojave Airplane Cemetery, Red Rock Canyon State Park, Mike’s Road House, Jaw Bone Canyon Store and Saltdale—the abandoned salt flat you see in the dreamy sequence. In Arizona, we shot some breathtaking spots in Sedona—including a super secret swimming hole—as well as the Hill Top Motel in Kingman and a truck stop called Truck Stop somewhere on the side of the road. In New Mexico, we shot in Gallup at the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial and at White Sands National Monument. I am very grateful to Daryl Custer and Terri Frazier for allowing us to document the performances at the Ceremonial and to Chief Ranger Kathy Denton for giving us access to White Sands for nothing but the admission fee of $3 each—all night under a full moon no less! In Texas, we shot a lot on that eternal stretch of highway between El Paso and Austin. In Austin, we shot on Town Lake under the Congress bridge and the Lamar bridge, at my friend Crystal’s office, at my friend Lucy’s donkey house, and an old cemetery in Onion Creek.
How did you choose your cast and crew?
I asked my friends, “Who wants to make a movie with me?!” My friend Steve Drypolcher and I had spoken about working together for years, and my friend Clay Jeter had just debuted a beautiful film called Jess + Moss last year at Sundance where I was presenting an exhibition of photographs I took for my Bolivian documentary project. I originally asked Clay to direct, but he —wisely—recommended I take the helm due to the extremely personal nature of the project. He became a producer in the most creative and spiritual sense throughout production. Clay’s girlfriend Sarah Hagan is a fantastic actress—you might know her from Freaks and Geeks or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought she’d be fun to work with and knew she could navigate both the super goofy and the quieter, more contemplative moments in the story. Not to mention the fact that she’s an absolutely stunning woman who looks like she should have her profile engraved on a coin in some long lost land. Will Basanta is the best cinematographer ever so that choice was easy. Isaac Hagy was a new friend to me but I saw his work on Jess + Moss and instantly became a fan. I must admit the choice for composer was much more difficult and involved some considerable heartbreak and drama but I’m thrilled to be working with Duncan Thum, who’s not only an insanely talented artist but is one of the first friends who encouraged me to play music way back in the day. I recorded all my original songs for the film the same way I’ve recorded all my songs—with Carlos de la Garza at Music Friends studio in Eagle Rock, which is like summer camp in musicians’ heaven. Carlos is my hero. I didn’t know any sound recordists but we luckily found Will Hansen via Craigslist—he not only survived the crazy conditions of our shoot but led us to some pretty amazing locations in his hometown. Matt Chavez, our AC, came so highly recommended by all my friends that I immediately trusted him with all my heart and now I must say he is one of my favorite people to work with of all time. There were only six to seven of us on the road during the shoot, and two of the bravest souls were Naveen Chaubal and Elana Summerlin. Elana is a fiery ball of energy and Naveen is one of the coolest cats I know. I’m just hoping he’ll hire me on one of his sets one day. In post, I got to work with the inimitable Carrie Schreck who demonstrated such disparate talents that we employed her not only as Assistant Editor but as Second AC a few times as well! After we had our first cut together, Jason Berman came on to produce and raised the money that allowed us to professionally mix the film. During that period, I got to meet Marc Steinberg who color-corrected the film at Bonnie Brae—that man is a magician! I’m proud to say our footage was gorgeous from the get-go but Marc showed me the possibilities allowed by color-correction, and he is quite the artist. In addition to being our Executive Producer, Steve has executed several visual effects and created a super cool title design using images that Will created of text I wrote with lipstick on transparency. Every step of this film incorporates DIY techniques, homemade technology, and lots of love.
Is this the first movie you’ve directed?
This is the first film or video piece I’ve ever directed outside of some shorts I made at film school.
Who were your inspirations?
My inspirations vary so much project to project though I’m always inspired by my loved ones and the absurd. For this film, I was particularly inspired by artists who attempt conceptual and experimental modes of working with intimately emotional content. I wanted to make something that was self-aware and pleasurable while remaining utterly—even embarrassingly—sincere. I was moved by a lecture Lauren Berlant gave last year at the Hammer in which she said, “Foucault was wrong to say that sex was the truth of modernity. It is feeling and affect.” Sex and sexual politics are always embedded in my work, but this time I wanted to try making something with no cloaks. In Big Whup, I sang really personal songs—but in different languages. In this film, I wanted to speak plainly and openly—and quickly! With no time to revise. I found great motivation and inspiration from Werner Herzog, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Gus Van Sant, Marina Abramovic, David Lynch, Lucrecia Martel, John Waters and Bruce LaBruce.
What did you learn from the process?
How to make a movie! Another way to process pain and create moments of joy…
How to work with friends to construct something that reflects their spirits and talents while nurturing the needs of the project as a whole. Also, that I want to keep making movies!!
I’m sure this was cathartic after your dad’s death, but maybe you could describe how that played out and how you feel about things now?
It is still playing out. Making work about life experiences as I’m experiencing them in real time can create a sort of trancelike feeling… I have to check in with myself to remember that there are—at least—two stories going on: The one I’m living and the ones I’m authoring. They have much in common, due to the nature of my work, so distinguishing between “reality” and the constructed scenarios of artworks can get confusing sometimes. It feels like two notes just barely off pitch from one another—I feel it in my body and in my mind as an all encompassing tension that pushes me to perceive and process my “reality” while cultivating a construction that allows for critique and celebration of that reality. I like this feeling because it permits me to maintain a dialog with myself and with the world that is very honest. I never attempt objectivity—I don’t believe in it! Spitting out my story as I live it is a celebration of subjectivity. The emotional effect of this kind of art making and story telling is incredibly cathartic. This film has been like a year-long wake. Now, as this project comes to a close, I feel ready to fill myself up with new content. It’s already bubbling up!
There are hints of Thelma and Louise in the trailer, but perhaps you could list the most inspirational road movies for you?
Yes! Definitely Thelma and Louise! Also: Paris Texas, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Something Wild, Midnight Cowboy, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Weekend, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Beavis and Butthead Do America, Bonnie and Clyde, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Natural Born Killers, Tommy Boy, Dumb and Dumber, Boys On The Side, Mad Love, The Trip, Old Joy, True Romance and Borat.
Some non-road movies that served as inspiration for the film include Persona, Secret Ceremony, and Heathers.
You are such a cool musician, so I’m assuming this has a great soundtrack. Describe who/what we can hear in the film, please.
Aw shucks… thank you. I’m very proud of our film’s soundtrack and will forever be grateful to the artists who donated songs: Emily Lacy, Julia Holter, Nite Jewel, So Many Wizards, Laura Steenberge, Pizza!, Actually Huizenga… Their songs create so much emotion and meaning within the film. There’s also an old song that Duncan Thum and I made together many moons ago, and four new ones that I wrote while taking care of my dad.
Which came first: the music or the visuals?
I gave some crappy demos of the songs I wrote in the Cancer Treatment Center to our film editor, Isaac Hagy, as well as an archive of all the songs my friends had given us permission to use. He was listening to the music that would be in the film while we were shooting, and then he edited to that music much of the time. Most of those music choices remain in the final cut of the film – including some of my crappy demos! I wanted to take them out or re-record them but Isaac and the gang insist that they allow for some very earnest emotional moments… So they’re in there even though they make me cringe. This is a good example of collaborators forcing me to stay true to my intention even when it hurts.
One journey leads to another: you made a film, now you have to present it and tour it around. How’s post-production been?
Post-production, like production, has been an incredible learning experience. Making a film is like a durational performance artwork! It has been one of the most humbling experiences of my lifetime—and one of the most ecstatic, painful and addictive. The most interesting part of post, for me, is the staying still. Going in to the office every day to edit, visiting the sound house, the recording studio, and Duncan’s house for sound and music then back to the office to work on credits and look at effects. I’m used to running around so staying in L.A. and working indoors has been interesting. I found that containing my desire to move creates a tension which begets some pretty wild ideas. Wait til you see my next movie…
Where can we see the final movie and where will you be taking it?
We’re premiering in Competition at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 6th. My new band, Bon Bon, is touring up the West Coast with Crown Plaza (Nima Kazerouni of So Many Wizards) to celebrate. After that, we’re submitting the film to festivals all over the globe and will have an L.A. premiere sometime soon. I’ll keep you posted.
What’s the funnest part of making your own movie? And the worst?
Wow…um… Projecting video of my dad onto a sand dune under a full moon at White Sands, jumping off a cliff to go skinny-dipping, playing in the cockpits of gutted airplanes, shooting fireworks with—and at—my friends, participating in a dance for deceased loved ones at the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, climbing up an oil rig to write on it, shooting a million bats swirling through the sky at sunset on Super 16mm film… Hunkering down in my friend’s office to connect all these blissful moments together, recording new songs, listening to the score develop over time, curating our amazing soundtrack, incorporating field recordings into our sound design and mixing the movie on a big stage… It’s impossible to locate the funnest part.
The worst part… Well, the worst part of any project is the end. I kept tearing up in the studio yesterday when I was recording my last cue, and I suddenly realized—‘this is the end of this’. A year of my life has been concentrated into the creation of a 94 minute movie and all the adventures and relationships it catalyzed. I can think of a few things I wish hadn’t happened, and there are a few things we tried for but couldn’t achieve. Mistakes and missed opportunities are part of life and art-making though… I’m okay with those feelings and learn a lot from them. The worst part is something that feels bad and teaches you nothing. There is something like this that happened in the making of this film but I’d rather keep it to myself. Maybe I’ll learn from it in time. I must say I was afraid the worst part would be finishing the process by which I had set out to grieve the loss of my father only to realize I hadn’t grieved at all but rather had simply distracted myself. I’m happy to say that’s not true. For better or worse, making something—a song, a performance, a film—is the way I understand, accept and learn from the world and my experience of it. I choose to embrace this condition and am working to develop my instincts towards a more critical, nuanced, and effective practice. That said, I’m a stubborn impulsive loud-mouth so my work will always be as much guts and heart as cerebral cortex—and that’s a condition I’m learning to embrace as I go…
Teaser edited by David Gelb of City Room Creative