With The Purple Onion set for a series of work-in-progress screenings at the Cinequest Film Festival on March 9th, 11th and 15th, our own Allan Abelido got together with director Matt Szymanowski to talk about what it takes to make a home-grown, Bay Area labor of love into something that takes on a life of its own.
Do415: What was the ultimate goal you had for this film?
Matt Szymanowski: I wanted to tell a story about how people need each other, and how the relationships we foster give us strength, which in turn help us reach our own bliss. But because that sounds like some heavy-handed after school special I wanted to cloak that idea and fuse it with something a little darker. I used the characters of a struggling and tragic comedian and his estranged mother who mysteriously shows up after an unexplained absence, and then I made them have sex. Well, kind of. You have to see it to get it.
Do: What would make it a success to you/is it a success now?
M: People are fascinating: They’re filled with latent desires, tiny fixations, dreams, contradictions all that often manifest in strange ways. In our film, Johnny the comedian, stuck in an existential malaise, filled with loneliness, regret and longing, begins down a path to deviance and perversion, ultimately leading to his humanity. That was one of our goals to convey. And if someone can relate to our film on any of these levels, I think it’s a success.
Do: What made you chose an Asian American to have a the lead role?
M: I’m sharing a story credit with my lead actor, Edwin Li, a Chinese American. The process of writing started when Edwin and I met while I was working at Punchline comedy club. He was performing on stage and his comedy just hit me. The idea of this alter ego character of ours began to grow as we got to know each other. We would talk about tragic and funny scenes and situations that someone could experience. We shot a few skits where Edwin played the lead. And when the idea came to actually make a feature film, it felt natural to have him play in it. We had built up to that point together, so it would have been disingenuous to cast anyone else. And he just happens to be Asian American.
Do: So you met at The Punchline, but your film is named after The Purple Onion, an iconic SF venue that unfortunately is now a part of the city’s past. How did that come to be?
M: Since Edwin and I first began thinking about this film, we had The Purple Onion in mind as a location for the final scene, partly because its legacy, partly because of how catchy and absurd the name is. But as we were finishing the script, the club was bought out and forced to close it’s doors after about 60 years of business. We were really bummed. We even thought of scrapping the whole project at that point. We had already invested months of time and energy into the idea. We decided we would make our film like an homage to the club, which at that point we were going to explicitly refer to in the film. Then, as we were editing we ended up cutting out those few moments since they didn’t add enough to the story. Later I read somewhere that the club was named after a whorehouse the founder had heard of in Paris or maybe visited. I thought that seemed random.
Do: What would you want the audience to takeaway from your film?
M: I want the audience to say this to themselves after watching the film: “That was strange. A little twisted. I feel kind of funny. But I’m better now. And I want more.”
Do: Has the making of this film changed you in anyway?
M: Oh yes. This was a very great experience. I looked inward, deep within myself, and when I came out I was in debt.
Do: Why are these screenings so important?
M: Cinequest has allowed us to do test screenings of our unfinished film. When you work on something for so long sometimes you need to come up for a breather and see how everyone else is doing. That’s what this screening is about. It’s a way to check in with everyone. We’ll gauge audiences reaction by having them fill out short questionnaires and give us their two cents in mini video interviews after the screenings. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t. And what we hear may end up influencing how the film turns out.
For more info and to purchase tickets to the screenings, check out The Purple Onion on Do415