Filmmaker/writer Rhys Southan presently resides in Brooklyn and has one goal in mind: to beat his high school arch rival -- Napoleon Dynamite producer Jeremy Coon. When not competing against the critically-acclaimed Idaho filmmaker, this 26-year-old former editor manages to write and direct indie shorts, ads, and well-received musicals, which have been featured in playhouses as well as Siskel & Ebert. Most recently, Southan publicly criticized actress Parker Posey for ordering too much tofu at East Village eatery Angelica’s Kitchen.
Please explain your emotionally-charged project/website BeatJeremyCoon.com, which intends to prove you better than high school arch-rival Jeremy Coon by your H.S. reunion in 2007.
I’ve always had a vision of myself as somewhat of a genius, or at least special and destined for importance. “That kid is going to do something important,” is something people have said about me throughout my life. But I’ve given them nothing. And now here comes Jeremy Coon - who is the same age as me and went to all the same crappy public schools as I did – producing one of the most culturally relevant movies of 2004. When that came out and made millions, I was chopping vegetables at a macrobiotic restaurant in Austin. It was hard evidence that if I was ever going to do anything with my life, I was way behind schedule. And what’s a better motivator than healthy competition?
Another point of contention between me and Jeremy Coon: he was roommates with my ex-girlfriend’s brother Jonas in Utah a few years ago, and Jonas quoted him as saying, “Rhys? That kid was so weird in high school, he was an untouchable even to me.” When I heard that - which was before Napoleon Dynamite was a twinkle in anyone’s eye - a rivalry was born. Of course it was the success of Napoleon Dynamite, and discussing the looming reunion with some old high school friends, that crystallized the idea for Beat Jeremy Coon, which I started in June, just before I moved from Texas to New York.
While we could understand how some would view Napoleon Dynamite as overrated, we’ll admit we loved it. Did you honestly not enjoy it? Forget for one moment that Jeremy Coon ever existed.
The first time I saw Napoleon Dynamite, I already knew about Jeremy Coon’s involvement, and went to the theater wanting to hate it. Also hurting it were rumors that it was a rip-off of Wes Anderson, my least favorite director. But the opening credits won me over, mostly thanks to the White Stripes song, and when it got to Jeremy Coon’s name on the box of Lemonheads, I actually got misty-eyed. “You did it old buddy,” I thought.
The hate went away and I was as ready to embrace the movie as Jeremy Coon’s soul mate would have been (if he had one). And for the first 20 minutes, I was in love. The movie was original, refreshingly unstructured, and hilarious. Since it has no plot, it did drag by the end, but when it was over, I was proud to call myself a Napoleon Dynamite convert, despite the Jeremy Coon hang-ups.
My brother got me the DVD for my birthday, however, and I’ve watched it so many times since then that I can’t help but catch every single flaw. The big one is that Jared Hess isn’t good with actors, and doesn’t know anything about his characters beyond the surface. The only actor who really overcomes the movie’s problems is Aaron Ruell, who is hilarious as Napoleon’s wimpy brother Kip. Admittedly, I can’t help laughing when Napoleon says, “Six dollars? That’s like a dollar an hour!”
But you believe you could definitely “make something better?”
I know I can make something more insightful, more meaningful, more intellectually stimulating, and more accomplished. What I don’t know is if I can make something as loved. The genre I’m best at is satire, which guarantees me some amount of critical acclaim if I ever finish anything, and would probably mean I’m making people question the world and so on. But sometimes I think I’d rather be capable of making silly, mindless comedies that people would want to watch over and over. My favorite movie is If…., a “Social Drama” that most people can hardly get through once. I doubt I would ever make a movie quite that serious, but I also doubt I’ll ever make a film that spawns action figures and quote books that get sold at Urban Outfitters. And I’m not proud of that fact.
You became a rather notorious figure in the news for your genius short documentary -- the Sean Connery Golf Project, in which you snuck into the Sony studios lot to “borrow” and edit a fresh Hollywood screenplay (in which everyone's favorite 007 plays a mobster-golfer), and then filmed your own version of it. How did you come up with the idea? What was the motivation behind the project?
In the summer of 2001, I had an internship at Reason Magazine in Los Angeles. I was thrilled to be in Hollywood, and thought maybe I could find my big break. I quickly stumbled into the world of focus group screenings, where studios invite young film viewers to the studio screening rooms to watch doomed movies that they are trying desperately to fix, or at least market well.
At the second free screening I went to, I wasn’t selected to be on the paid discussion afterwards, and I felt cheated. Out of revenge, I pretended to leave the lot, but then didn’t, sneaking back around to explore the studio. I stole a giant American flag from the top of the Sidney Poitier building (still on my wall to this day), and then found the Story Department, which was unlocked, and filled with scripts. The most interesting looking one was tentatively titled Sean Connery Golf Project. So I took it. The next day I told my co-worker Sara Rimensnyder about my adventure, and she told me, “Rhys, you have to take that script back!” Talking about it a little more, however, we decided that we should take it back. But not until we’d re-written the ultra-generic script to make it a lot better.
We made a documentary about us doing this, and the response after my first screening was so good, I couldn’t stop pacing with excitement. This, it seemed, was going to be the big break I was looking for. Our movie got into some film festivals, and eventually led to Sara’s arrest, which was a horrible experience, but obviously got more attention for the film. She pled guilty and got 400 hours of community service (mostly cleaning trash off Venice Beach) and a $500 fine.
We were all over the media for a little while because of it, most notably Celebrity Justice, which did a bunch of over-the-top tabloid journalism pieces on us (“The scripts they stole were worth ONE MILLION DOLLARS! Sara Rimensnyder was apprehended, but her partner in crime is still at large…”). We even got offered our own reality TV show. But ultimately, we had no follow through on it, and that door closed.
A post script to this: I have a friend who works at Sony now, and he claims that you need a thumbprint scan to get into the Sidney Poitier Building, Post Sean Connery Golf Project.
You also gained a bit of attention when you mocked “vegan pig” Parker Posey for ordering too much tofu at your workplace - Angelica Kitchen. Do choices at vegan restaurants really carry that much weight?
Maybe I was too hard on Parker Posey. Liking tofu doesn’t make you a monster, per se. I guess I’ve been overly food conscious since I read George Ohsawa’s You Are All Sanpaku, the macrobiotic classic that claims that bad food choices blacken your soul. Even before Parker Posey stopped by Angelica Kitchen, I’d had theories about the souls of customers who order extra seaweed (the healthiest food we have), versus the souls of customers who order extra tofu (arguably the least healthy) - and the tofu people weren’t faring too well. Also, I hated Party Girl.
So you interviewed Brad Pitt, were profiled on Celebrity Justice, recently banned from editing on Wikipedia, and wrote a small hit play. Why aren’t you a household name yet?
Because I have no follow-through. I’m good at the creating part, but when it comes to networking, sending out press releases, and parlaying one success into a new project, I’m terrible. I think I can write a brilliant script, not have to show it to anyone, and the world will somehow get wind of my genius and come knocking.
I’m also completely disorganized. I found a job listing on Craigslist to be a writer for a video game. The job seemed pretty perfect for me. They wanted writing samples, so I was going to email them three scenes. One from a play I wrote, one from a sitcom I wrote, and one from a short film I wrote. Then I hit a little snag: I couldn’t find any of these scripts anywhere. Eventually my girlfriend emailed me one of my scripts, but it was too late to bother. Even when I do get jobs, though, I botch them. I was a theatre reviewer for The New York Sun in August for about four glorious reviews. Then I got fired for irresponsible reporting. I ridiculed a play that I had only seen part of. In retrospect, what I saw of that play was actually pretty good. My worst problem is that I burn all of my bridges. Sony Pictures will never hire me, obviously. And Jeremy Coon, for instance, might have been a great ally, if it weren’t for this whole Beat Jeremy Coon thing.
You’re a former child model, your peak being photographed for a small Dallas Observer article about the freshness of the Twinkie. Do you ever get frustrated & feel tempted to drop film to return to the camera?
I do, and in fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I had my roommate Brooke take some photos of me for a comp card. Modeling just seems like it would be so much easier. You don’t have to think or create anything really. You just have to look good and swagger, and you make tons of money. Plus, I might not always have these looks (I could be burned in a fire), and I’d like to take advantage of them while I still can.
You once wrote “New York is a misanthrope factory. Here's why: Every single action, statement or thought that anyone does, says or has here is in some way pretentious, self-aware, or calculating.” Is it safe to assume you have a love/hate relationship with NYC?
Yes. Mostly hate, but it’s not New York’s fault. I have bouts of depression, and I tend to blame the place I’m in, which happens to be New York. I hardly let myself experience the city at all, so there’s not much I can honestly hate about it. I don’t go to parties, I don’t go out to eat (I only eat the free food I get from Angelica), and I don’t see movies, I don’t hang out with my friends, or do anything social that could in any way be called “New York.” The only superfluous thing I do is watch the WB’s Supernatural every Tuesday night, but even that is work-related. It stars Jensen Ackles, who also went to my high school.
I just go to work and go home, look for jobs on the internet, write blog entries, and try to write screenplays. All of this unhappiness would be fine if I were at least being productive through it all, but I’ve hardly accomplished anything. Sometimes while waiting for my train, I fantasize about leaping in front of it. Realizing, of course, that this would be highly undesirable and counter-productive to my goal of being a filmmaker. At first things seemed to be going great in New York. I got the Angelica job within a week, then was editing children’s books for a rich old woman, was writing for The New York Sun and had some great leads for careers in writing. Then all of it fell through. The only thing I have to show for it is my job at Angelica Kitchen, which is okay, but makes me think I might as well be working at a macrobiotic restaurant in Austin, paying no rent.
I like Central Park, though.
Preferred NYC eatery?
Quintessence. There’s nothing I deplore more than raw foodists, but I love the foods. Plus, the owner was caught masturbating on the subway, something the owner of Angelica Kitchen would never do.
Favorite movie quote?
A dialogue exchange, from If…. Jonny: Two coffees please. Girl: Black or white? Jonny: White. Mick: BLACK.
Robert McKee, who wrote Story, is the big recent influence, as is Charlie Kaufman. Probably the biggest influence, though, is Roger Ebert, since I’ve read almost all of his reviews. I finally met him last year, and after learning about my creative stagnation, he gravely intoned, “You’re behind schedule.” I have the quote on my wall.
If you were penned to adapt Paris Hilton’s Confessions of a Heiress, would your film be a comedy, tragedy, heavily edited music video, or sensual porno?
Tragedy, mainly because the set-up begs for a comedic or pornographic treatment. Also, I think that beneath the surface, her life is a tragic one. Can Paris Hilton ever truly be happy? I doubt it.
What if… Universal Pictures asks you to direct a romantic-comedy/thriller involving a hectic day at Disneyland, in which the animatronics (including those from It’s a Small World, Star Tours, & Tiki Room) come alive to attack unsuspecting visitors, specifically Midwestern tourists. What is your tagline? Which three actors would you cast?
My tagline would be: “The Sun Will Not Come Out… At Tomorrow World.” I would cast Chloe Sevigny as the disaffected 30-something who realizes What Really Matters, Matthew Perry the father of her children who wins her heart all over again, and Malcolm McDowell as the evil mastermind behind it all.
The soundtrack to the movie of your life would consist primarily of:
Your next move?
Documentary filmmaking, it seems. I just got back from a trip to D.C. where we (me, my roommate Joseph Weisenthal, and our friend Greg Newburn) met with someone who is starting a production company. That guy believes the three of us are his “missing piece,” and already has investments lined up. If the funding comes through, which he is sure it will, we will be getting paid to make a “documentary about progress” starting in January. Which would basically solve all of my problems.
Obviously, a documentary - even if it is better than Napoleon Dynamite - is never going to be as insanely successful. But getting paid to make a movie I like will be pretty fantastic, and of course I’ll still be screenwriting whenever I have spare time. The only flaw is that in April, I may have to finally leave the Big Apple, which I’ve grown to love so much. I’ll be back, though.