by Joe Uchill
Onscreen, James Bird’s Eat Spirit Eat is a story about missing fathers, ad hoc families and a tight-knit group of amateurs fumbling their way through a movie. Off screen, James Bird’s Eat Spirit Eat is a story about missing fathers, ad hoc families and a tight-knit group of amateurs fumbling their way through a movie. The film follows twenty-something orphan Oliver trying to meet his actor father by casting him in a movie staffed by a hastily-assembled, family-like team of film-amateur friends. It’s part screwball deconstruction of the film industry, part twee wish-fulfillment fantasy of a boy looking for a father but finding a family in his friends. Writer/Director Bird knows both well; he partially based the film on growing up with an absentee father and, like Oliver, staffed it with his own tight-knit cadre of under-experienced friends. Bright Wall/Dark Room spoke with him about families – real, fictional, natural and otherwise.
Bright Wall/Dark Room: You are touring with two very different movies you wrote that shot within a year of each other: Eat Spirit Eat and the straight-laced Danny Glover romance,Chasing Shakespeare. Eat Spirit Eat seemed to be a lot more personal, which is an odd thing to say about a movie with a zombie robot. Is it strange to transition between the two?
James Bird: Well actually, I write so much now. I really love to explore all different genres. The first one I wrote was a sci-fi. And then Chasing Shakespeare, a love story, and then Eat Spirit Eat, a comedy. I just wrote an action one. They all kind of follow the same message, that what matters most is friends and family. But I love to explore all kinds of ways to tell a story.
BW/DR: Are you going to keep writing in the cameos? You showed up as a reporter in Eat Spirit Eat and in Chasing Shakespeare.
JB: I’m actually going to try, if the movie doesn’t suffer. I’m not going to just throw a reporter in there, but-
BW/DR: You just wrote an action movie. You can blow up.
JB: Yeah, action movie for sure. I’ll be reporting during a shootout and have my head shot off. I’ll definitely kill myself off in that one.
BW/DR: Is being a reporter how you see yourself as a writer? As sort of like an observer to the story?
JB: Yeah. I never write outlines and I never obsess over it. If I write a script, I write it from page one until the end. I don’t edit. I don’t go back and read what I wrote. I want to be surprised by what happens, just like an audience. I don’t want to plan the story out so much that it becomes boring to write.
I would kill to do that. I would never finish a script because I’d get so obsessed with making each scene perfect that I’d just keep working on the beginning.
BW/DR: If you’re writing in literally every genre, how do you narrow that down to write a story? What about Eat Spirit Eat made it a story that you wanted to pursue?
JB: Well, it’s kind of autobiographical. I never met my dad. And the actors, a lot of them have stories about being removed from their fathers. Like [producer] Anya [Remizova] - her dad died during the shooting of Eat Spirit Eat. And Adriana Mather who played Vera, her father died before she came out to LA to pursue acting. Eze – Ezequiel Stremiz, who played Inny – he lost his mom. He’s a huge celebrity in South America and then he moved here and he had to start from scratch without a real support network. And this was his second American movie. Chasing Shakespeare was his first.
I just noticed that there were so many broken families and that it was really easy to view that immediately sad or negative. I wanted to show that broken families could be super positive because that means there would be open slots for new people to fill.
Chasing Shakespeare was a big budget, with trailers and Danny Glover and fifty people. Eat Spirit Eat was a group of my closest friends. So I got to really build my own family here, like Oliver.
BW/DR: Why hadn’t you met your dad?
JB: Well my mom’s from Minnesota. She met just some guy and they came out to California, and she got pregnant with my brother. Three years later she got pregnant with me and I guess my father didn’t want another kid and my mom didn’t want to get an abortion. So she chose me and my dad took off.
And then so from age one to maybe fourteen or fifteen we were homeless, I lived in a car. At the time life was fine, I didn’t know any different. But now that I’m grown up, I’ve realized “Wow man, life was tough.” Like how I always thought it was normal that a sheriff comes at the end of the month and throws all your stuff out. That was how people move, you know? Living in a car in a church parking lot I thought was pretty normal. And not knowing my father was actually pretty normal because basically everywhere we grew up it was a poor neighborhood. None of my friends none of them knew their father, you know? So I always thought movies were where dads were. Because in real life I didn’t know anyone that had a dad. But in movies everyone has a dad.
BW/DR: Is that why you made the father an actor in Eat Spirit Eat?
JB: Yeah. Young Oliver spending hours every day flicking through channels to find his dad is a more literal example of that. I only saw dads on TV. So Oliver keeps searching TV for his dad.
BW/DR: Those flashback sequences – the ones with young Oliver – were a lot less absurdist than the present day sequences. You go from these Muppet-y present day sequences to a slightly more somber past.
JB: When I look back at my memories, they’re actually more emotional than when I was experiencing them. So I looked at the past to as the sad part of your story. And realism is easier to view as a sad thing, but the point was to make sure that today, the present, you can be as naive and absurd as you want if you make that your reality.
Oliver makes everyone around him believe in this off the wall weird plan, because in the end, they all just want to be kids again. That’s what the whole entertainment industry is, a bunch of adults trying to play. Trying to be kids, you know?
BW/DR: It’s hard to overstate how much of a family Eat Spirit Eat’s cast is. You had a huge group travel to the opposite coast for the Orlando Film Festival screening – I think four actors, you and Anya – and all of them got emotional telling the story of Anya and her father. Leah Briese, who played Vill, was the first one to try and tell it and she couldn’t get all the way through before getting too choked up to continue.
JB: Yeah. I met Anya on Craigslist and she became a roommate. It was me, Adriana, Anya and I think Ezequiel might have lived with us at that point. And we wanted to make this movie,Chasing Shakespeare. Anya and her father were never close. They had never bonded. Her family is in Russia, and she’s the only one that moved to America. They wanted her to pursue business and you know take over the family business, which is factory work and all that. But she met us she really developed this love for art and for her passion, music.
Since she never got to be close with her dad, I think this was an opportunity for him because he got diagnosed with cancer. It’s sad but pretty sweet that her whole life she didn’t really have a father she could talk to, but in the last days of his life he became the best father in the world. So he gave her money for us to make Chasing Shakespeare. And that’s unheard of, really. So we actually madeChasing Shakespeare. And then the cancer got worse, and he went to the hospital, and as a goodbye present he gave us the money to make Eat Spirit Eat.
BW/DR: Was it just a coincidence that Eat Spirit Eat was this story about fathers?
JB: I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence, I would say it was fitting that it came with all these family stories. We were all pretty tripped out about it too. We’re making this movie about fathers and her father gives us the money to do this and then dies. So it was kind of meant to be, you know.
BW/DR: So this movie really is the family you said you built.
JB: The entire, the entire cast was all friends. I mean, my mom is in there, my brother is one of the cops. The entire cast—we cast it ourselves, we didn’t have a casting director—didn’t have audition. I just met with all these people that were really good friends. I was like, “you’re perfect for this.” And I would just need to make sure that you could do it.
In reality we were a bunch of kids that were thinking, "Okay, we’re going to go make a movie.” We’d never done it before independently. I’ve never directed before, and she’s never scored a film before. Adriana’s never had a lead role before. We went into it thinking we were going to have so much fun learning how to do this. We were like Oliver and those orphans. We were so naive about everything.
The crew actually, like within the first, maybe four days of filming, they thought we were absolute bananas. They didn’t know, like, what was going on. They said, “This is not how you do it. This isn’t how you make films.” After week one they were all super, super on board, saying, “I’ve never had this much fun making a film before, this does not feel like work at all” you know. So it was cool, we just had to recruit them into our belief system. And the movie came out beautifully because everyone believed in the same thing: We’re all doing this because it’s fun. There’s not a lot of money, no one’s here for a paycheck, it’s all because we want to enjoy this and you know, the whole crew got behind it.
BW/DR: You’ve said at film festivals that on the soundtrack, some pretty big bands literally gave you songs for no paycheck and just because it’d be fun.
JB: The Watson Twins live pretty close to me, so I just walked up and talked to them about it. You know, walked to their house. Once they read the script, they were like, “We have to be a part of it, because that’s what the movie is about, you know? You’re supposed to come here and we’re supposed to join in and be super naive about this, right?” And I’m like, yes. So we got them. They completely waived all the fees for everything – publishing and marketing.
And then they’re like, “Okay, what other bands do you like? We’ll help you get them.” Well, I really like the band Everest. And they’re friends with Everest. When Everest , “I guess we kind of have to do the same thing as the Watson Twins, right? The whole movie is about just doing it for the love, and if we say we need all this money, we’d be evil.” So they jumped on and they gave us a song. And then Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros did the same thing. They didn’t ask for money. Mishel, who’s Ana Banana, is really good friends with that band now.
We found out if you become a human, if you don’t just do this on email and then say, “Direct me to your publishing rights guy,” if you’re actually human about it, if you actually tell them what the story’s about if they’re able to see your passion about it, they’re musicians, they’re artists; they want to be that passionate about what they do, too. So the second we became humans to them is when everyone just offered up their stuff. It helped that being human went along with the message of the movie
BW/DR: Is there a way to replicate any of this on your next movie? You sort of lost the nativity, just doing it for fun thing with the success of Eat Spirit Eat.
JB: The next movie is called Honeyglue. It’s about a girl who has three months to live. She meets this cross-dresser ex-junkie guy that’s the polar opposite of her, and he shows her how to live life in the three months that gives her a whole new perspective on life. It’s a little bigger budget and we have offers out to some really good actors.
For Eat Spirit Eat we were pretending we knew what we were doing, and now we’re figuring out, "Holy shit, what we were doing is right.”
Joe Uchill is a journalist and screenwriter. He contributes to outlets ranging from Milwaukee’s largest weekly to The Encyclopedia of Women and American Popular Culture. B-Side, a film he co-wrote with director Amos Posner, recently won both “Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking” in its category at the Newport Beach Film Festival and “Breakout Film” at the Flyway Film Festival.