CineVegas Interview: Sweaty Robot on HAPPY BIRTHDAY HARRIS MALDEN

     June 22, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

Meet the five guys behind Sweaty Robot, the Philadelphia-based production company that challenges the very notion of cinematic auteurs. Nick Gregorio, Juan Cardareli, Eric Levy, Ben Davidow and Matt Sanchez. Each shares a credit as writer/director/star (except for Matt, who stays behind the camera) and whose combined talent creates something beyond the standard definition of a director. While there’s a firm vision at work in their first feature, “Happy Birthday, Harris Malden”, it’s a shared vision to which each contributes equally.

Probably the funniest and freshest feeling film I caught at CineVegas, “Harris Malden” combines a fantastic sense of reality that just floats at the edge of the top without going over. Imagine if Wes Anderson directed “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. It’s a great team and one I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from in the future.

Collider: How did you guys come together as “Sweaty Robot”?

Nick: It’s a long, kind-of-complicated history. I’ll give you the straight-up facts and you can decipher the rest. Ben and I went to high school together. I went to Drexel University and met Eric, Juan and Matt through a friend-of-a-friend program. Ben became friends with all of us, post-college. We started making movies together and after about two and half years of making short films together, we decided to make our first feature, “Happy Birthday, Harris Malden”.

Collider: What was the fund-raising process for something like this?

Nick: All out-of-pocket.

Juan: Yeah, we looked into our bank accounts and said, “Hey, look! We’ve got some money. Let’s make a movie!”

Eric: We all kind of got together and said, “How much is reasonable for us to be able to put in and still have a home?” We found that number and went for it.

Nick: We had to kind of dream the impossible dream of college filmmakers with a $250,000 budgeted movie. We thought, “Yeah! Someone will totally give 20-somethings this huge budget. We’re gonna run with it and we’re gonna be the greatest filmmakers ever!” But that doesn’t happen so you have to kind of get real and then think of a number that you can make a movie and that you can provide yourself. So that’s what we worked with.

Collider: This one started as a short film?

Ben: Yes. We originally did a short based on a contest in Philadelphia for a documentary called “Little White Lie”. We wanted it be silly and kind of just be relaxed. It was a real documentary contest, but we made fake documentary about a guy named Harris Malden who fakes his mustache and his best friend doesn’t tell him. But everybody knows. And we won. The person that came in second place was a guy who didn’t want to admit that he was Arab to his friends and the other was a guy who admitted to his family that he had AIDS. So we were like, “How did we this, number one?” and I’m embarrassed. So that was how it started. We got a lot of recognition for that. We were walking down the street one time in Philadelphia and we had just put it on the internet and this guy was like, “You’re the guy from the internet!” Basically, we got the greatest response from the short than anything we’ve ever done.

Eric: People really connected to Harris Malden in a way that was more than “That’s funny with the fake mustache!”

Nick: People would say, “That’s my favorite movie!” and we would have just released a newer one with a better plot line and higher production values. We’d be like, “What do you mean that’s your favorite one? What about that thing we just made?” “That’s good, but ‘Harris Malden’ is my favorite!'”

Eric: There’s something more to it than just the mustache jokes. At it’s core, there’s an advanced story that everyone deals with. Especially coming from guys who weren’t the cool kids in high school.

Juan: Or now.

Collider: How movies have you made all-together?

Ben: Seven, I would say.

Nick: 14 to 16, depending on whether you consider some of our movies movies.

Matt: We’ve made some rubbish in our day.

Eric: This is our only feature and then we’ve done a bunch of shorts.

Collider: Do you know what you’re planning next?

Eric: It depends on the budget we can get.

Nick: We have a couple of different projects. We have a spec-script, “Chillers” which is kind of a rom-comedy about these lame con-men who are actually unethical business who sell get-rich-quick schemes and fat-loss pills and other lame stuff. We also have a superhero picture that’s also an adaptation of one of our shorts. We also want to do some character-driven pieces that are a lot lower budget.

Collider: How did you decide on the process of five guys directing together?

Matt: For this movie or just in general?

Collider: Did you do that on the other ones as well?

Eric: There’s some stuff that only one of us directed but, generally —

Matt: The reason we like to say that it’s co-directed is that everyone’s on-screen at some point except myself. We all have to kind of jump in.

Nick: I remember very one we would have just one person direct. It was a difficult thing to say, “We want to be in front of the camera and do you buy us as actors?” There were a lot of people and a lot of us were very critical so it was hard to say, “Everyone’s going to be in front of the character.” And we kept hearing the complaint, “You need one director! You need one director!” The more we worked together, though, we realized that everyone would be shouting stuff out during scenes. We would say, “Oh, wait! This is better! Let’s try this!” If we can stick with a singular vision that we build from the ground up and we all throw our ideas in and we’re pretty concrete on how it should be handled, the direction is always there. As far as character and story-wise. With camera, there’s a lot of leeway because no one’s ever married to one idea. There are things you want to do, but because Matt is behind the camera and he’s a maverick cinematographer, he can work with whatever constraints and whatever scenario he’s put in. And input you want to give him, we can all bounce ideas in.

Eric: The way that we chose to shoot the movie meant that Matt wasn’t tethered down and you could kind of change how a scene was set up. We were constantly like, “Alright, that didn’t work. Let’s do this.” We would just massage a scene into something we liked. We would walk into a room and there’s only two rooms and it’s written for like three and a hallway, we would change it. You can’t just try to fit that script into an area that doesn’t work.

Collider: Were you each responsible for your own character?

Nick: No, actually as we wrote the script, everybody wrote everybody’s scenes pretty much. We kind of concentrated on our own stuff but then we really branched out with the script.

Eric: First we had a really long period of just having conversations and building up this outline for a treatment. If you’re rewriting scenes, you get stuck with these little details that don’t really matter, because when you’re shooting they’re just going to change anyway. So we would discuss and argue and then reconsider. Eventually we came down to, alright, it’s time to write the script. We wrote it really quickly. Because everything was just kind of done in our head. We just had to type it down, you know? So that people can read it and understand it. It’s not just a set of bullet-points. Then it was, “I guess I’ll take this scene and you take that scene.” Then you put it back in and all read it together. Then you say, “Alright. Let’s think about changing this. I’ll take this and you take that.”

Nick: And a lot of things happen on-set when you’re playing the character and reading certain lines. We knew there was a goal for each character. Something had to be said along these lines at each point in the scene. We weren’t nailed down to a lot of the dialogue. When you play a character, you have to that person for 30 days. You start to realize how they’ll respond in certain situations. How he’ll react to a scene. When you’re writing them and have to come up with it from such an early stage and have to develop it through to the end, you know exactly what you’re doing with the character. There’s no surprises. You can play a character towards a different emotion, but it’s still that character.

Eric: When you’re doing scenes, you write dialogue that sounds good sometimes in your head but then you go and in the limited rehearsal we had or on-set and you go, “No, let’s just do it like this. That sounds more natural.” The whole key to this movie was that everything had to be very natural. Not theatrical. We had a very actor-y sound. When you have people in a situation, it needs to be believable. It’s not like you’ve got a main star there to distract you from bad acting. Everyone had to be good. You also had something that was very absurd. You couldn’t have something that was over-the-top or otherwise, you wouldn’t believe these were real people. That’s the feeling of having this real kind of close-knit south Philadelphia community. If people were really schmaltzy about the delivery, it just wouldn’t work. I’d rather have someone deliver a line in their normal voice than try to put on an accent to try and deliver lines in certain area.

Collider: In the screening, it seemed like there were certain lines targeted for different people. All over the theater, at different times, one person would just crack up at a certain line. You all seem to have a similar sense of humor, but do you think that comes about from collaboration?

Eric: Our senses of humor are like a five-sided Venn diagram. A starfish, I think, is how I’d describe it. With interlocked crotches. Matt will have something over here. Way, way over here.

Ben: For example, Matt came up with the fort. The big cardboard fort he makes when he’s trying to hide from everybody. Matt said that out loud and we all looked him like, “There is no way we’re ever going to do that. That is like the dumbest idea.” But it build and builds and builds and now we like it.

Nick: It yelled at him so hard when he said it.

Ben: I remember just looking at him and thinking, “I hate you.”

Matt: And then Nick looked at us as we were building it and he was like, “I really hate you.”

Nick: This is my grandmother’s house and my grandmother is very particular about her house. She ended up taking up all her carpet after we were finished and putting down hardwood floors.

Juan: But the hardwood does look better than the carpet.

Nick: Our styles really range. We like slapstick. We like gross-out comedy stuff. We like really subtle humor. Dry humor. We try to put all that in there. We don’t like to sacrifice one thing for another, but usually the drier stuff means that you have be paying attention or seeing the movie a second or third time. But we have it all in there.

Collider: Let me ask about the camera; It was all shot digital?

Matt: Yeah, we shot on the HVX200. It was DVCPro. HD. We shot on two cards. We also had the RedRock 35mm lens adapter clipped onto the front of it.

Collider: How does it compare to film? Have you shot on film?

Matt: Just on 16mm in college. I actually used to be such a proponent or very classic in my sense of filmmaking with film. I’ve turned almost 180 degrees now. I am such a proponent for the digital revolution and that’s all I want to do.

Eric: Some of the new cameras coming out, it’s essentially film. You go watch “Superbad” and you’re not like, “Digital!” It’s shot on an HD camera and the HVX is more compressed than that. It handles highlights a little bit differently. If you understand how the hardware works, you can make it work. When we saw it projected in HD for the first time yesterday, we were like, “Wow! That’s, like, sharp as a tack. That looks as good as any of the movies we saw.” Maybe it’s a slightly different type of grain, but nobody notices that. I remember when Eric first proposed, “We can mod this camera and this whole setup and it’ll look like film,” and everyone was like, “That’s impossible. This camera is strictly for making MiniDV short films. It can’t be taken to the level of a well-produced Hollywood feature film .” I don’t think you can sit there and dispute that it doesn’t look on the level with a 35mm picture.

Collider: Who handled the computer-generated opening credit sequence?

Juan: Conceptually, we all did it together. But then in 3D Studio Max, I modeled it and animated stuff and Eric rendered it. Our backgrounds are digital media, so we’ve done a lot of 3D stuff. We’re very into things like that. Photoshop.

Eric: Like putting a funny head on Juan’s body.

Nick: Or Eric’s head on a fat, naked guy.

Juan: But yes. 3D Studio Max and it was all 3D.

Nick: Juan, that’s his drawing style. I think it’s brilliant because it looks like a five year old did it but it’s the mind of a grown man so you have so much more detail than a five year old. For the superhero flick we made, “Hero Worship”, he drew himself in his costume. We looked it and were like, “What in the hell is that?” We knew in “Harris Malden” that that just had to be part of it. People love it. They’re like, “Look at it! He’s like a little kid!” Juan actually drew all the pieces and then scanned them in to a 3D space. Which is really interesting. It’s almost like making a stop motion or making a little diorama in the computer.

Ben: We considered actually building a set and shooting it, using tracking markers and all this stuff. Then we started doing a couple of tests and then we were like, “Let’s do it all 3D.” We’ve done 3D stuff for years now. Even in our short films. Also, the key was to shoot this like Matt would shoot it. When Juan was doing camerawork in the 3D thing, that had to look like the movie. We had kind of a similar lighting style. The shots are very similar.

Matt: Really shallow depth of field.

Collider: Who are some of your influences as filmmakers?

Eric: I know I love Cher‘s work. (laughs) Her songs are great.

Nick: Personally, I love Martin Scorsese. That’s a true independent filmmaker who is doing things in his vision and has just continued working in that style. He’s going to do pictures that he likes no matter if there’s funding or not. Just making quality movies consistently. I can really respect that from a filmmaking standpoint.

Matt: I think our sensibilities are kind of related to Cassavettes as well. A lot of people cite him as an influence but the way that we work is very much like him in a sense. He had a scene but he let his actors play. It’s scripted, but it’s allowing them to not be hindered by technology or anything like that. You’re telling a story. That’s just fundamental to us.

Nick: You could even cite things like “Singin’ in the Rain” and 40’s and 50’s musicals. Because we like the long take. We like acting. We like character interaction. There’s a lot of cutting. There’s a lot of jumping around from character to character. The spatiality is lost with closeups. In long shots, you’re playing off each other’s body movements. It’s a lot more reactive and it allows you to immerse yourself in that scene a lot more than you can when you have a whole crew of people and cameras and lighting right in front of your face. The more you’re cutting away, the harder it is to hold onto the feeling of the scene.

Eric: I remember when we tried to do some short films and tried to make it look more like a modern movie with standard coverage. It would be a like a shot on Juan. “Okay, Juan, say the line”. “That’s not a banana!”

Juan: “That’s not a banana!” That’s an orange!”

Nick: And plus, part of the appeal is how we interact with each other. We have to put that into the movie.

Ben: One of the things we do is, me and Nick, we go to the theater and we just sit and talk through the movie. And most of the time, we’re saying how insulted we are because they’re making us feel stupid. And one thing we didn’t want to do with this one is make anyone feel stupid. We’re not trying to insult your intelligence by giving you this story. We’re not trying to give you something that’s unbelievable. We’re trying to make you a movie that will make you feel smart while you’re watching it. You just want to enjoy the movie. Sometimes you sit in a theater and say, “I feel smart because I figured this movie out,” but you’re not because it was terrible.

Matt: And it was force-fed to you anyway.

Nick: With Harris Malden, there is the back story of how he got burned. We didn’t want it to be like a 15 minute exposition. We were able to integrate that scene. It worked. It felt like it was needed. But in the original script, we didn’t want to have anything that was too in your face telling you. It wasn’t about the burn scar and the fire. It was about a certain time in their lives and how they all reacted to the same situation. That’s the story we wanted to tell and we didn’t want to distract with a sort of hyped-up, convoluted backstory. Is the movie about the backstory or what’s happening right now?

Collider: Where can people check out your stuff?

Nick: and

Eric: And they can friend us on facebook. There’s tons of pictures from the production and stuff like that.

Nick: You can check out ericmbloggie.

Ben: Oh, yeah. There’s spillover. Eric’s personal life with a spillover into filmmaking. It’s interesting.

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