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netribution > features > interview with noam gonick > page one
Few first features can boast characters named Happy, Spanky and Sabu and get away with it. Kas Graham grilled Noam Gonick, the director of Hey, Happy!
A bizarre, destined for cult status bag of nuts set in the apocalyptic gay flood-threatened Winnipeg, Canada; his film bursts with so much energy and lunatic logic that it transcends genre limitations to entrance anyone with half an open mind.
| by kas graham |
| photos courtesy of |
| in london |
You were once called "a Hebrew pornographer of the most dangerous kind", who said that? I expect you were rather pleased?
I hate to start out an interview by admitting to a lie, but that’s the only piece of myth-making fabrication in our press kit (I promise). I was reading a Wilhelm Reich biography and some Nazis called him that in Scandinavia, and I really identified with the label. Maybe its wishful thinking, but I do have a bit of a reputation in Winnipeg for porn, which isn’t entirely undeserved. And bitches can be dangerous. Some filmmakers make up fake pull-quotes that glow about their work, but I decided to make up negative comments to arm my detractors. However, only my fans have latched on to it thus far.

Hey, Happy! Sits on a very thin line, a few moves to either side and you could have alienated chunks of your audience…
Well, Kas, small chunks of the audience have fallen off, like those who want a middle-of-the-road gay love story, or viewers so anaesthetised by watching mainstream pap that they start seeing triple sixes in their field of vision anytime a movie throws a curveball over the narrative horizon. Hey, Happy! really is a roller coaster ride and you’ve got to be in a very open frame of mind because we smash genres together, cutting from romance to camp to gore to magical realism like a child on Ritalin with attention deficit disorder. The classic re-telling of established genres is just too sad for a first feature, at least for me. When you follow the bouncing ball and submit to the strange reality we’re depicting, it is a very fun, emotional and entertaining experience.

Did you find it easy to raise finance for such an off-centre film?
Not at all. Funders were really scared off by the script and the rough-cut. Getting into Sundance really helped our cause. At one point I thought I’d have to shoot the whole thing for $10,000 — which in the end became a great help because it forced me to re-write the whole script as an outdoor movie which is a big part of its apocalyptic look. Laura Michalchyshyn, my producer, wrangled incredible deals on equipment and services, which is why such a low budget film looks and sounds so slick.

Introducing the film at Raindance you said the shoot had very much been like documenting Winnipeg: it must be the maddest place in the world.
Winnipeg is flung out in the frontier — a place that seems illogical to have settled in at all — and because of that isolation a weird culture has germinated. We’re the home of the legendary general strike in 1919, we’ve had our share of communist mayors — and the province was founded by an anarchist insurrection. The cast are friends (not particularly unlike their characters in reality) and many of the off-colour episodes do come from real life experience, albeit slightly trumped-up. Even though it’s cloaked in an astro-camp sensibility, it is a film about a small hometown, which is universal. The evil character Spanky, this totally outrageous viscous queen, may on the one hand seem impossible, but audience members have told me that he reminds them of their resident high school faggot.

Your cast included an organic farmer… and some very odd characters. What’re they like in real life?
None of them devote a lot of time to becoming actors. Using actual people does add to that documentary feel I was trying to lace over an otherwise nut bar story. Happy (Craig Aftanas) hangs out on a rural hippie commune (where he has a son). These days he’s a baker in a granola café. DJ Sabu (Jeremie Yuen) lives and works in Ottawa as a roofer. He’s really into the Goa Trance scene there and wants to import it here. Spanky (Clayton Godson) is swiftly moving up the ranks of the telemarketing world, but his best job was as a senior citizens’ tour bus operator travelling to casinos in the States. He has a penchant for terrorising this city, so when you go out of the town with him you’ve got to be ready to fight or run at all times.

The acting has been described as John Watersesque.
I’ll take that as a compliment. When I was eighteen I spent the summer in Berlin and slept in an all-night John Waters film festival. There is a correlation between Winnipeg and Baltimore — they’re both marginal places that paradoxically have a close place in the heart of the national psyche and many people here can recite the dialogue from a Waters film by heart. Spanky is a sort of inverse Divine — rail-thin but still vying to be the most disgusting person on earth.

Do you identify with any of the characters? Are you, like Happy, shouting ‘take me, I’m ready’ at the skies?
I don’t share Happy’s belief in UFO’s. I take Sabu’s side, that what he really needs is a cock — but he’s searching for cigar-shaped objects in the skies instead. But lately I have been wistfully yearning for an outside entity to take me away, or at least offer me another feature to direct. As I wrote the script, there’s a part of me in all the characters. That’s what makes it so difficult to watch the film if I’m not in the mood. It’s like watching my multiple personalities entangled on screen.

Did you find working almost entirely with non-actors restrictive or freeing?
I was really lucky because the performers were able to take direction and give me everything I wanted. Even without training, they were great at ADR and remembered everything we went over in rehearsals on the day. A big part of the trick was to make them feel comfortable so that they could be themselves on camera and to write parts that allowed each actor to show their best side. I don’t think professional actors would have worked for Hey, Happy! but I’m not against using pro’s on principle.
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