"I didn't want to be that guy," says Joe Grisaffi, referring to the recent crop of writer/director/producer/star darlings of the indie film world. Turns out it's hard to make your first movie and not be that guy. As we watch dailies of Grisaffi drunkenly French-kissing the chin of his co-star and then yelling, "Cut!" he explains that he had to cast himself in the lead role of Laughing Boy because "I knew I'd be there every day."
Based on an unfinished play by local playwright George Douglas Lee, Laughing Boy is the story of a man with a wonderful wife and a not-so-wonderful obsession with a female higher-up at his company. Put this love triangle at an engagement party complete with a pregnant bride-to-be and a "vibrating" present, and, as they say in the biz, hilarity ensues.
Grisaffi decided to make Laughing Boy after spending a couple of years clerking in a local video store ("Hey, that's where Quentin Tarantino worked ...") and another couple of years schlepping as an extras casting assistant both here in Houston (Tin Cup) and in L.A. (Starship Troopers, Primary Colors). He watched celebrated low-budget flicks, such as Clerks, The Brothers McMullen, El Mariachi and She's Gotta Have It, and thought, "What's the big deal? ... They were good movies, but ... I can do this."
He soon learned that making movies wasn't as easy as it seemed. Laughing Boy has been shooting, not on some sound stage, but at places like the Malibu Grand Prix Castle, where the crew fights noise from go-carts next door and from Loop 610 just overhead. And since April, when Grisaffi began working on the film, one actor got pregnant, another died of a heart attack and a Sugar Land homeowners' association called the cops on the motley crew for making what they assumed was porn.
Grisaffi is financing the $25,000 picture himself -- running up his credit cards, living with his parents and selling "Joe's Crap" (his own collection of action figures, CDs, comic books and video games) on his web site. While he's made about $400 on the Internet, things are still a little tight: Cast and crew live on income from their day jobs, "deferred payment" and free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the all-day (or all-night) shoots.
But the filmmaker caught a few breaks working in his hometown, such as his link with Stone Soup Animation, one of Houston's few traditional cell animation companies. ("We're the nuts that actually hand-draw all the pictures," explains animator Ron Neal.) Stone Soup enthusiastically agreed to animate the main character's thoughts and fantasy sequences -- something Grisaffi thinks will make the picture stand out against other low-budgets. Grisaffi was also lucky enough to gather a cast and crew that he'd largely worked with before in other Texas indie films such as Singapore Sling (shot in Dallas) and Killing the Badge (shot in Houston). One important addition was Channel 2 cameraman Hassan Nadji as cinematographer. Big bonus: Nadji brought his own equipment.
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Shooting for Laughing Boy has wrapped, but there's still a lot of work to be done. Stone Soup is currently working on the animation, and then there's the editing and, perhaps most important, the problems of distribution and finishing funds. Grisaffi's $25,000 will get him only a rough cut; the final product might run to $80,000. So he'll be hitting the film festivals and markets, looking for a buyer. After all, Grisaffi says, "I don't necessarily want to give up my Batman stuff ... and my Ninja Turtles."
-- Lauren Kern