ILLSLEY, MARK: HAPPY TEXAS
SOMEDAY HIS FILM WILL COME
Mark Illsley, director/writer/producer of the celebrated Sundance hit, Happy,
Texas, tells SHANNON J. HARVEY how he beat the 'someday' syndrome.
Illsley explains it as waking up and realising he was a victim of the 'someday'
syndrome. "I went to film school at The University of Southern California with
[director] Kevin Reynolds," he says, "and was his second unit director on The
Beast, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Rapa Nui. Then Kevin went off to do Waterworld,
but the studio didn't want to hire me.
"I fell victim to the 'someday' plan," Illsley recalls. "Someday I'd be
a famous director. Someday I'd be rich. Someday I'd have the body of Arnold
Schwarzenegger. It wasn't until I found myself as a telemarketer for a hair replacement
company that I realised someday was today."
"We knew we needed to catch a major acting
Illsley began writing with Stone to a strict deadline. They'd stop at 8pm sharp each
night for The Simpsons - which might explain some influences recognisable in Happy, Texas.
Before long Illsley and Stone had more than a backyard project on their hands, and the
final draft caught the eye of top Hollywood actors, agents, and casting directors.
"We knew we needed to catch a major acting talent," Illsley explains. "A
big name would get the ball rolling. We were blessed to get William H. Macy. At the same
time, we wanted someone who we thought was on the edge of breaking through, someone with
the respectability of Macy, someone on the verge of being special. We loved Steve Zahn
from his roles in Suburbia and Out of Sight, and knew he was our guy."
It was a deft choice. Zahn steals every scene he's in as the vocabulary-deficient
slack-jaw. Sundance - who rarely give out acting awards - were so taken with Zahn's
titular physical comedy they awarded him a once-only special acting prize. Illsley went on
to cast Ron Pearlman, Jeremy Northam (in his first US starring role), Ally Walker, and
Illeana Douglas as the pageant girl's prim instructor. "We wanted to play with
well-known stereotypes," Illsley explains, "and based our casting on that. But
we wanted to twist the stereotypes into something else. That's why you end up with Ron
Pearlman hand-in-hand with Macy."
And who'd guess Northam would shake his English collar-and-cuffs roles for unshaven
freedom, only to end up barn dancing with Macy? Or Douglas' hayseed teacher, who reminds
Wayne not to swear in front of the kids ("particularly the G-D word!" she says)
yet later applauds his tuition with, "You're fucking great!"
"Rebel Without a Crew"
Widely praised at its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Happy, Texas is the
ebullient first film from director/writer/producer Mark Illsley and his longtime friend
and co-writer/producer Ed Stone. Though Happy, Texas steps into the often perilous and
dangerously unfunny territory of the 'offbeat comedy', Illsley and Stone have achieved
every first timer's dream; a low budget, big star triumph. How?
Producing the best from his low budget caper, Illsley admits to using Robert
Rodriguez's how-to-memoir, Rebel Without a Crew, as a reference guide. Rodriguez would be
impressed; Illsley convinced his family to finance it and his actors to work for minimum
wage. He even had it shot in just 26 days. "The actors worked for as little as they
could to still be in Screen Actor's Guild - as little as $2,500 per week," Illsley
reveals. "One day I had to re-shoot a single scene, but couldn't afford to bring
Pearlman in for the day to do it. He offered to do it free, but I couldn't even offer him
a trailer. He replied 'do you have a chair?' But by the time we took it to Sundance 3
years after we started writing, my family had committed $1.7 million. I was relieved when
we sold it to Mirimax," Illsley jokes. "I finally came out of the witness
protection program and repaid my family."
Happy, Texas is a lighthearted romp that works on stereotypes and anti-stereotypes.
It's a credit to Illsley's determination and creativity.
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When credit card con Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and dimwitted lifer Wayne Wayne Wayne jr (Steve Zahn) escape their chain gang, steal a caravan belonging to a gay couple, and break down in sleepy Happy, Texas, they decide to lay low and let the heat cool down. When they are mistaken as the gay couple themselves, Harry and Wayne go along with it, playing their part as gay organisers of a pre-teen beauty pageant. Wayne does his best as a horribly uncoordinated pageant choreographer, while Harry scopes the local bank and its pretty farm-girl manager Joe (Ally Walker from tv's Profiler). Happy's lonely sheriff (William H Macy) snoops about with a secret all his own, while State Trooper Nalhober (Ron Pearlman) launches a massive manhunt across the Lone Star State. Soon Harry and Wayne are in deep with the locals, coping with ridiculous situations; dancing like wounded storks, singing like trapped kittens, sewing pageant costumes together, showing 6 year olds how to throw a punch. Before they know it, the town has fallen in love with Harry and Wayne - and they with a local or two - and must decide their fate before the law closes in.