Rodney Evans’ Film Explores Openness in Relationships and Sexual Identity

On August 16, 2013, Rodney Evans’ Creative Capital Project, The Happy Sad, opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The film follows two young New York couples whose lives become intertwined as they create new relationship norms, explore sexual identity and redefine monogamy. Through the storylines of these central characters, The Happy Sad highlights the ethical dilemmas facing men and women who are trying to create ways to be in a loving relationship, while recognizing that monogamy might not be for them.

We connected with Evans to learn more about The Happy Sad and his process in bringing this story to the big screen:

Jenny Gill:
The Happy Sad was originally written as a musical by Ken Urban. What about the story interested you, and how did you go about turning it into a film?

Rodney Evans:
I found the characters really compelling and the issues of open relationships, trust and commitment that they were dealing with were definitely things that I saw playing out in my own life and in the lives of my close friends. The issues seemed so ubiquitous in my community but were never really dealt with in a complex way in film and television.

The adaptation process of going from stage to screen was really great and felt like a very organic outgrowth of my friendship with the playwright/screenwriter, Ken Urban. He wasn’t precious about the play and had a great commitment to keeping the heart of the piece but also transforming and reinventing the material so that it worked as a film.

It became much more realistic. The two central couples became much more foregrounded since their relationships were the elements of the play that resonated the most powerfully for me.

The musical aspects of the play also became more closely linked to the character of Stan, who is a musician. We were really fortunate to find Cameron Scoggins during casting for Stan—he is a very skilled musician and songwriter with a great band called The Whiskey Collection. Once we found Cameron, we decided to incorporate live performances of their songs into the movie.

After casting, there were extensive rehearsals with the actors, who were encouraged to improvise and make the characters their own. This was a process that continued throughout the shoot as well.

Jenny: As the characters in the film navigate complex relationship issues like shifting sexual identity and monogamy versus open relationships, how did you toe the line between drama and comedy?

Finding the balance between the drama and the comedy was probably the trickiest aspect of the film. I think Ken and I share a somewhat dark sense of humor. The thing that I love about the humor of the piece is that it is never mean-spirited and it was always clear that Ken had a very strong sense of compassion for the characters. The comedy really stemmed from the situations that the characters found themselves in and the choices that they made. These were choices that I could relate to so it made it that much easier to empathize with them. No one was ever trying to be funny, which I think in turn brought out the humor even more.

I also work with an amazing editor, Sabine Hoffman, and the balance between comedy and drama was something that we worked hard to find in the editing room. Sometimes we’d go too far with the comedy and it would start to confuse people in terms of the overall tone of the film. It was a challenge in that I hadn’t done a film that had so many comedic elements before, but that’s also what was exciting about it.

Stan and Annie, Still from The Happy Sad
Stan and Annie, still from The Happy Sad

What challenges did you face in getting this movie made and out into the world?

The challenges were the familiar ones of limited funds and time to get it done. We shot the film in 16 days mostly in small Brooklyn apartments during a record-breaking heat wave. One of the biggest challenges was keeping the actors from sweating during the takes in those interior apartment scenes! No matter how dry they were at the beginning they’d tend to be drenched in sweat by the end. Our amazing colorist, Sandy Patch at Final Frame, was able to reduce a lot of the sweat factor in the final color correction. It was pretty amazing!

I felt like I also had to really adjust my creative rhythm during post-production on this project as well. Since I have a full-time teaching job I could only edit one or two days per week for the first six months of picture editing. I did the first cut myself along with some great students at The Edit Center and then raised funds to bring Sabine Hoffman on for the final six weeks of picture editing.

There would be these long gaps in post-production (between picture and sound editing and post-sound and color correction) where we’d continue to raise funds and apply for grants to get over the next hurdle. You just have to make peace with the fact that it is going to be a longer process and keep the momentum going throughout it.

Jenny: I read that you used some of your former students from Temple University on the film crew, along with more seasoned professionals. Did you find that they had different generational values or relationship experiences that related to or influenced the content of the film?

It was a very small team and I’d say at least half of the crew were former students of mine from Temple University. If felt like a very natural extension of ideas that were discussed in the classes in terms of filmmaking.

I think it made the actors feel safe, comfortable and protected because there was a real familiarity and camaraderie among the crew members. It was a very relaxed, fun environment. There was a real sense of discovery that emanated from the crew and the actors really clicked into it and it influenced their performances.

I think it also helped that the characters are all in their 20s and in this stage where they are experimenting and trying to figure out their place in the world. A lot of the crew members were very close to those experiences so it felt like the right group of people to collaborate to tell this specific story.

In terms of generational values, I do think that the younger folks that worked on the film tended to be more comfortable with fluid sexuality and less apt to need everything to be very rigidly defined in specific categories. So the story and choices that the characters make in the film were not questioned as much as they tended to be by an older generation. So that has been interesting to think about. If a “straight” character was shown having a sexual experience with someone of the same sex as the film unfolded it didn’t shock them or take them out of the movie. There was definitely a generational difference there that I noticed in screening the film before we finished editing.

Actor LeRoy McClain and Director Rodney Evans on the set of The Happy Sad

Actor LeRoy McClain and Rodney Evans on the set of The Happy Sad

What’s next for you after The Happy Sad‘s theatrical release? Any other projects in the works?

The Happy Sad will be opening theatrically from mid-August through the end of the year and then coming out on digital platforms/VOD in January 2014, so I will be very involved with that.

I also wrote and directed a short called Billy and Aaron, which premiered at Tribeca in 2010. It was an excerpt from a feature length script called Day Dream, which was also supported by Creative Capital. The feature focuses on the lives and experiences of two groundbreaking jazz musicians, Buddy Bolden and Billy Strayhorn. I am going to focus on that and have recently been thinking about ways of expanding it into a four or five part mini-series. So I think that will be the next challenge.

The Happy Sad opens at IFC Center in New York at Sundance Sunset Cinemas in Los Angeles on August 16. Creative Capital is co-hosting a screening at IFC on Saturday, August 17 at 2:20pm, with a live musical performance by actor Cameron Scoggins and members of his band, The Whiskey Collection. Evans and actors from the film will be in attendance.