Like an absurd psychological study of the multiple personalities of modern life in Austin, writer/director Don Swaynos’ Pictures of Superheroes cleverly juxtaposes a slackerish man-child with a self-absorbed entrepreneur. Joe (John Merriman) and Eric (Shannon McCormick) reside in the same house together but have grown so far apart that Eric no longer recognizes Joe’s existence. Literally, Eric is so busy that forgets that he has a roommate; all the while, Joe stays around the house all day, haunting Eric by perpetually messing up the house.
On one fateful day, Eric discovers Marie (Kerri Lendo) hopelessly wandering down the street while donning the maid’s uniform in which she lives, sleeps and dreams. Eric hires Marie as his personal maid, thus dragging her into the absurd world in which he exists.
Swaynos’ script is saturated with dry and subtle humor built upon the surreal situation of someone no longer realizing that they have a roommate. Pictures of Superheroes delves deeply into interpersonal relationships, specifically focusing on the disconnections and selfishness that seem to have become inherent in our oh-so-hectic modern society. In Swaynos’ unique cinematic place, there is a moral responsibility to obtain a work/life balance, to pay attention to one’s surroundings, and to exist. Despite the fact that Eric and Joe’s approaches to work and life are so drastically opposite, their choices have stuck them in the same exact place. Their house is in a bizarre limbo in which they must reexamine their life philosophies in order to escape.
I sat down with Swaynos for a few drinks on the eve of the Austin Film Festival premiere of Pictures of Superheroes to discuss the creation of self-reflexive, psychoanalytical comedies in Austin.
Where did the story for Pictures of Superheroes come from?
I don’t really know. I still have a roommate — my sister. I have had roommates way longer than I think adults are supposed to, but I just don’t want to pay that much in rent. I don’t want to pay twice as much. I want to save my money so that I can spend it on records and DVDs. A lot of my thoughts revolve around that insecurity; having a roommate is a metaphor for being immature.
I actually started writing this script years ago when Dano [Johnson], Tate [English], Cameron Petri and I had an idea for an animated series. One series I pitched was about a millionaire dinosaur who hires a maid to manage his mansion. It was basically the same scene that Shannon’s character hires Kerri’s character, but it was a dinosaur in a top hat. So, I had those five pages, and I thought that scene was funny. So what else could happen? I came up with the idea for the roommate, then it all spiraled out from there. Then I got too busy and could not work on the script for years.
How did the location used for Eric and Joe’s house motivate this story?
I wanted to make a feature because I felt like I had been spinning my wheels for a long time. I had this script that was about two-thirds finished, that had been on my computer for years. The reason I had started writing the script in the first place was because it was something I could shoot at my house. I had been working on some more elaborate ideas, but I was having trouble writing them; even if I did write them, I would probably never have the opportunity to make them. It was right before we were going to shoot Cinema Six, and a doc that I was supposed to edit fell through, so I had a open window of time. So, I thought “well, why don’t I just shoot this script?” I knew I was going to be really busy for the next five months, so I figured I needed to do it right away. I fleshed out the half-written script and sent it to my friend Tate — who I have written stuff with since college — to read.
A big motivation for me was Mark Potts (Cinema Six) and the way he shoots movies. It is the shooting that has always held me back. I had written stuff and I edit stuff for a living, but it is actually saying “Hey guys, I wrote a movie, and I would like people to be in it.” That was the part I had never done before.
The whole plan was to make a movie that I could shoot in my house and I really imagined John and Shannon in those parts. I called Kelly [Williams] and asked him if he wanted to produce two features (the other being Cinema Six) at the beginning of the year. Kelly lived across the street from me, so Amy [Mills] — Kelly’s wife — would heat up our lunch in their house; our breaks would be on their front yard, then we would walk across the street to my house and be back on set again. It was just a perfect convergence of events.
Did you write these roles specifically for John, Shannon and Kerri?
I didn’t tell John and Shannon that — but, yes, I did. John had played a youth minister in a short I had done with Tate and Dano. And then Dano has a production company called Collection Agency Films; they do animation and we had worked on some really weird political ads together. We did this series in which a group of health insurance agency representatives crash into a train carrying zoo animals as a nuclear bomb goes off and they become the Insuranimals, a team of superheroes who convince people to not rely on their insurance. It was a big pro-universal health care ad campaign. Shannon played Deductabear, the leader of the Insuranimals. He kicked so much ass as Deductabear. So the fact that John and Shannon had both been able to make things that I had written funny was a big selling point.
I honestly had no idea who would play Marie. Kerri was on the cover of the Austin Chronicle and Tate mentioned that John knew her. Then I remembered Sleep Study, a short film that Kerri and John had made together, and thought she would totally work. And Kerri does stuff with Shannon too, so she knew both of the male leads but in different ways.
What do you perceive as the benefits of staying here in Austin to live and work?
I think we have an amazing pool of talent; but unlike a place like LA, it doesn’t have the cynicism that comes with being part of the industry. People move to LA because they want to get paid to make movies; people move to Austin because they want to make movies, end of sentence. Doing this movie in LA, we would have had to deal with permits and unions, and it would have become a $300,000 movie for some reason.
With a film like this, I could get these awesomely funny people to be awesomely funny because they wanted to do it. The fact that people want to do something, rather than do it because they are being paid, really helps. The downside is that there is not a ton of work for all of these people to always do what they want to do. I constantly get stuck in that internal conflict — I can make movies and not pay anyone, but I don’t want to work on someone else’s movie for free. There is some paid work and hopefully there will be more. Hopefully people will begin to employ all of these amazing filmmakers and actors and crew to help them stay here, so we can continue to make these fun projects.
I just love that we are making movies here, and I really hope at some point we can start making money. There is this great independence here, and I would love for it to become a thing where we can make comedies and horror films here and it will be awesome.
Austin Movie Events This Week
10/22-10/25 – Various Venues – The Austin Film Festival takes over downtown Austin. (More info)
10/22 – Alamo Ritz – Music Mondays presents Phantom of the Paradise. (More info)
10/23 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’ Essential Cinema Ernst Lubitsch’s That Uncertain Feeling. (More info)
10/24 – Mexican American Cultural Center – Cine Las Americas presents ¡Ay, Carmela! (More info)
10/24 – Alamo South Lamar – Austin Beer Week: Strange Brew with Strange Brews. (More info)
10/24 – Alamo Ritz – BANGARANG! presents Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. (More info)
10/26 – Stateside at the Paramount – ColdTowne Theater presents Flipped Scripts: Bad Movies Made Worse – The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. (More info)
10/26-10/27 – Alamo Ritz – Late Night presents David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. (More info)
10/26-10/28 – Blue Starlite at AFS – The Blue Starlite’s Halloween series continues with screenings of Ghostbusters (with secret surprise second feature); The Shining; Christine; and Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Friday the 13th (Texas remakes double feature). (More info)
10/27 – Paramount Theatre – Halloween Film Fest double feature of The Exorcist and The Lost Boys. (More info)
10/27-10/28 – Stateside at the Paramount – Halloween Film Fest double feature of Trick ‘r Treat and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (More info)
10/28 – Alamo Village – Cine Las Americas presents The Strawberry Tree. (More info)