Filmmaker Interview: The Happy Poet

Tickets are now available for Friday’s screening of The Happy Poet, with appearances from cast and crew, including writer/director Paul Gordon.

The Happy Poet, Paul Gordon’s second feature film, is a deadpan comedy about a novice food cart vendor (played by the writer/director) whose veggie-food idealism puts him at a loss with park customers who just want hot dogs.

(Read Rooftop’s preview of The Happy Poet here.)

Shot in Austin, The Happy Poet premiered at SXSW earlier this year. Now the film brings Gordon back to New York City for Rooftop Film’s Summer Series. His previous feature “Motorcycle” played at Rooftop and Slamdance in 2006. I talked with Gordon ahead of his Rooftop screening.

Rooftop Films: In terms of low-budget filmmaking, basing The Happy Poet around a food cart is ingenious. You have a set and it’s mobile and that’s it! Where did that idea come from?

Paul Gordon, writer/director of The Happy Poet: I came up with an idea for a location that would be cheap to shoot. I figured it would become a mobile location that I could just park in different places around the city and shoot for a couple of hours, then move — if necessary. And I thought it would be funny. I thought it would be comedic if this person (Bill, played by Gordon), who wants to open a vegetarian food stand, ends up having to do it out of a hot dog stand.

RF: One of the appeals of The Happy Poet is that it’s so much more than just a film about a guy who tries to run a successful food stand. It’s an archetypal story.

PG: It’s a film about a guy who starts a vegetarian food stand, but it could be about somebody who’s trying to do anything, really, and throws themselves into making it happen.

RF: That sounds a lot like the story of you making The Happy Poet.

PG: There’s definitely a strong metaphor to independent filmmaking. And I didn’t realize that I was doing that until I was halfway into the script. I realized that I was writing about trying to make a movie, basically!

RF: I know you were trying to make another feature film first. How did The Happy Poet come to be?

PG: We’d been trying to make another movie for more than a year, my producing partner David Hartstein and I. I had this other script that I had worked on, off and on, for years, and we were trying to make that. We got a good grant from the Austin Film Society, but the other money that we were hoping to raise didn’t pan out, so I just came up with this idea for doing something locally that I could do with friends — for cheap. I starting thinking of some of my friends who are actor friends and would be up for acting in something. I thought of Jonny Mars to play Donnie (the delivery man), and Chris Doubek (of the 2010 Rooftop Films entry, Lovers of Hate) is another actor friend, and he’s funny as well. Making something locally with friends — that will help immensely, if you have a good group of people and a good energy.

RF: And did you pick up any lessons on food cart entrepreneurism you can share?

PG: I guess, keep your overhead down, don’t spend too much on menus, don’t give away too much free food.

RF: Bill, who runs the food cart, does that, perhaps unwisely. Would you have done the same thing? I see a lot of similarities between you and Bill.

PG: I’m not that different. I’m probably a little more of a practical person than Bill. He’s very idealistic and there are certain things he doesn’t quite get — the love interests. I’m not quite as socially awkward as Bill. Not that I’m not socially awkward…

RF: But you both think a vegetarian food stand is a great idea.

PG: The food stand in the movie is what my ideal food stand would be if I were out and about and wanting something healthy, tasty, reasonably priced. It’s hard to eat healthy when you’re out — unless you spend a fair amount of money, and go to a sit-down restaurant. There are more and more places like that in Austin. Since we shot the movie there’s been a big food stand boom here.

RF: You can take credit for it.

PG: Okay. [But] I think it’s an economic thing. To buy a cart new, like the one that’s in the movie, is around $2000. Licenses, when I was looking it to it, the total, with the food handling license, came out to around $350. So not a huge amount of money.

RF: Did you buy a cart?

PG: I put an ad on Craigslist looking for a cart. A guy loaned it to us. A guy that had a cart that he’d bought with friends and hadn’t ever used.

RF: Did it become the catering truck? Did you use it outside of what we see on screen?

PG: Not while we were shooting. But we did utilize the cart at the wrap party. We had veggie dogs and all-beef dogs.

RF: In the movie, the customers just want the regular hot dogs. Did the cast and crew go for the veggie dogs out of respect?

PG: No… More of the regular ones got eaten.

RF: Do you still have the cart?

PG: We had that cart for a year and a half, and [the original owner] finally wanted it back because he wants to open a food stand — an egg roll stand on 6th Street (in Austin) where all the bars are, at night, and sell egg rolls to drunk people.

RF: If there’s a film tour in Austin, there could be a stop. This is “the cart” from The Happy Poet.

PG: Yeah, I assuming he’ll put a sign on there. Maybe not.

Watch The Happy Poet this Saturday at 8pm on the Lower East Side. Get tickets and information here, and for updates on Rooftop screenings and news, follow @rooftopfilms on Twitter.