Drew Denny discusses The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On
Filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter, actress, screenwriter Drew Denny's first feature film, the partly autobiographical The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On, was screened at this year's AFI FEST in Los Angeles. The film, a mix of road movie, (female) buddy comedy-drama, and, using Denny's expression, "communal exorcism," follows friends Andy (Denny) and Liv (Sarah Hagan) – and Liv's dog (Chloe) – as they cross the American Southwest from Los Angeles to Austin, spreading the ashes of Andy's recently deceased father along the route. (Image: Drew Denny at AFI FEST 2012.)
But why "communal exorcism"? Well, you'll find out why once you check out the q&a below (and on the next couple of pages), as Drew Denny has kindly agreed to answer a few questions via email for Alt Film Guide.
And make sure to read the q&a until the very end. That way you'll also find out whether or not Denny played Dean Paul Martin (that's Dean Martin's son) as a little boy in the 1979 romantic melodrama Players.
Official website. Drew Denny / The Most Fun I've Ever Have with My Pants On images via InclusivePR.
To go from performance artist and musician to filmmaker. How difficult / easy was the change? What were your biggest challenges as a first-time movie director / screenwriter / actress / producer / songwriter?
I actually went from filmmaker to musician to performance artist then back to filmmaker! I graduated from film school at USC, which is where I met almost everyone who worked on the film. My frustration with my lack of the funds and equipment necessary to make a film led me to tell stories and express myself with music which I could do immediately for no money with friends in my bands like Big Whup.
As my art practice expanded, certain material required more physical and conceptual materialization – I pursued those ideas through installation and performance artwork while attending the Aesthetics and Politics MA program at Cal Arts. During that time, I taught Art for LAUSD continuation and toured America and Europe performing music, installing large-scale artworks and presenting performance artworks.
I was on my way home from a Dutch artist residency when my father was diagnosed and given three weeks to live. Caring for him for those three weeks was the most intensely intimate experience of my life, but also the most absurd and the most frustrating. As soon as he died, all I wanted to do was run around, celebrate life and love and beauty in any way I could.
That impulse manifested in my art practice as a performance artwork I presented on Father's Day 2011 for an exhibition in Echo Park LA called "Tears and Ecstasy." I performed the story of caring for my father as he died, incorporating live music, pre-recorded score, projection, audience participation and a sing-a-long led by my dead dad singing "Swing Low." The performance was incredibly cathartic for me and the audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I took a step back from that work and realized – these are the pieces of a film!
Drew Denny Q&A: The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On as 'communal exorcism'
(Image: Sarah Hagan, Drew Denny The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On.)
(Cont.) I had already written [The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On co-producer] Clay [Jeter] and [co-star] Sarah [Hagan] asking them if they wanted to make a road film with me because I had a dream that we drove across the desert. They said yes, the crew saw the performance, and from there we set about adapting the artwork into a film… The change felt quite natural, though I learned that the expectations of a cinema audience are very different than those of a gallery visitor.
Our biggest physical challenge was simply living through the shoot! We shot a few 40-hour days. No joke. We drove all night, shot all day, then drove all night again. Most of the film takes place outside during sunset or sunrise.
Emotionally, the biggest challenge for me was making sure I was actually grieving the loss of my father while constructing a fiction and creating a character. The making of (and now the exhibition of) this film truly is a communal exorcism of that grief.
My biggest professional challenge is happening now – seeing the film and seeing its flaws, wondering what might have been different if we had more time or money or a crew larger than six… It's an incredibly humbling process to show my first film to a room full of strangers. I know I have a lot to learn as a filmmaker, but I am proud of what we created, and at every single screening the audience pours their hearts out, and shares stories of their deceased loved ones… That is unbelievably heartwarming and just makes me want to do it again – and do a better job next time!
Playing a role that seems to be quite close to your own real-life experiences. What was it like on the set? Would you say you were just "being yourself" or did you have to create a "film character" so as to bring to life The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On's Andy?
Andy is not me, but we have a lot in common – namely, the same dad. She's a character based on my 13-year-old self, a sketch of the girl I often wish I was in times of crisis. She's a lot tougher than I am, often to her detriment. So for most of the film I wasn't "being myself" – I was being the character I created. In the White Sands scene, however, [when Andy watches a video recording of a Skype conversation with her / Drew Denny's father] I am being myself. That scene is the little peek of reality in the film…
Drew Denny Q&A: Casting Sarah Hagan in The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On; and did Denny actually play Dean Paul Martin as a young boy in Players?
Image: Drew Denny, Sarah Hagan The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On.
Casting process: How did you find Sarah Hagan? At times, her dialogue felt "improvised" – as if she's actually describing her own experiences. Did she contribute to the screenplay or did she ad-lib on the set or ...?
I met Sarah Hagan a while back by way of Clay Jeter, one of my closest college friends (and one of my greatest inspirations!) I wrote the part for her, and she participated quite generously in the process – with her time, her personal history, and her professional persona.
There are reflections of Sarah Hagan in the film created though scripted metaphor as well as unscripted improvisation – [Hagan's character] Liv symbolizes the typecast nerd seeking to breakout as a multifaceted woman.
I wrote 65 pages for what became a 95 minute film, so that gives you an idea of the amount of improvisation in the film. The truckstop duel, for example is entirely improvised. The second scene, where Andy tries to get Liv to switch drivers while driving, is an example of a scene that was scripted as a situation with no dialog. Most of the scenes, however, play exactly as scripted. It's a testament to Sarah's acting chops that most people can't tell which are which.
Andy's dead father is a key character in the film. For you, personally, did making (and/or watching) The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On work as a cathartic experience? Or was your intent something else altogether?
The process of making and exhibiting the film has been a communal exorcism of the grief catalyzed by caring for my father as he died. It's almost a metaphor for a funeral – making the film was the ritual ceremony and screening it at festivals is the reception, where memories are related and new relationships rise from the shared experience of pain.
Every time I watch my dad sing in the White Sands scene, I cry. I don't watch the film anymore, though sometimes I stay just through the first scene to make sure the projection looks good, the sound is right – and to hear that first laugh! Making people laugh is my favorite thing to do. I feel my purpose as a human being and an artist is to create opportunities for surprise and for joy! So showing the film to audiences has been immensely cathartic.
During every single Q&A, at least one audience member shares a story of their own experience with death. Death and grief are most often hidden in our culture, so putting it out there and making myself available to talk about it have created some very immediately and powerfully intimate moments with complete strangers. Those moments when someone really gets it, when someone tells me they cracked up and cried and then cracked up again – those moments fill me with a profound appreciation for humanity, for our ability to tell each other stories and face the ecstatic and often tragic truth of existence. I can't wait to do it again!
Now, a question totally unrelated to The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On: Did you really play Dean Paul Martin's character at the age of 10 in the 1979 movie Players – or did the IMDb get that wrong?
Haha, the IMDb thinks I'm an old man! I don't know why they won't change it, but honestly I kind of like it. Makes me fit into the filmmaking community a bit better.