June 3rd, 2012 | Interviews

Illustration by Dan Kern

Normally I try to stay objective when interviewing people, and to leave my own personality out of it—but Drew Denny has been a good friend and an inspiration to me for a couple years now, first as an L.A. RECORD writer, then as a musician and artist, and now as a filmmaker. Watching a rough cut of her upcoming film, The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On, was almost tear-inducing, not solely because of the complex emotions of its semi-autobiographical characters, but also for its vivid beauty, which almost slaps you across the eyes, demanding you soak it all in. And it’s a road trip film, a buddy saga that pairs up Drew with actress Sarah Hagan, who played Millie in Freaks & Geeks as a teen and recently starred in the Sundance hit Jess + Moss, directed by Clay Jeter, who also produced this film. As is her wont, Drew’s been super busy of late, finalizing the film while continuing to work on her art, her writing, and her new all-female French-tinged pop band. We finally both found time around midnight on a Wednesday at her place in Highland Park. After a hefty couple of swigs of whiskey and a strange Swiss moonshine she’s brought back from her travels, the interview was going great! I got so into the story of the film that, by the end, I was personifying some of its characters’ most misguided goofs … This interview by D.M. Collins.

I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful the cinematography of this film was and how gorgeous the landscapes were.
I had a political agenda in this film regarding my representation of nature, a thesis about public space and the environment. Almost the entire film takes place outside. My location producing involved speaking more to park rangers than to anybody else. Our production schedule was based around the cycle of the moon, the migratory pattern of the Mexican free-tailed bats, and certain events that were occurring along the way like the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial in Gallup. It was like, ‘No matter what happens, we have to be in Austin by this time cuz that’s when the bats leave.’ Or ‘This is the night we shoot White Sands because that’s the night of the full moon.’ Those phenomena were embedded into the script. That dictated our shooting schedule. The way in which we chose to photograph these landscapes—in vast wide shots and long takes—is meant to be a document of these disappearing spaces, a manifesto about the importance of time spent outside, a portal through which those stuck in offices and living rooms can viscerally enjoy some virtual experience of these spaces, and a way to make people seem like tiny animals, which is how I like to think of them.
You started the movie in Mojave, which is usually overlooked in favor of the more popular Joshua Tree.
We started at the Mojave Airplane Cemetery. My dad had told me about the airplane cemeteries; he loved to fly planes and flew around the world so many times. Visiting a plane cemetery seemed more appropriate then visiting a human cemetery. It’s really beautiful there, and the people that run it are very kind.
You know, that’s the last location in Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
That’s a dream come true! He’s one of my idols. Investors and studio executives need you to present yourself and your work to them as a comparison to something they already know about. Within this rubric, I’d say I aspire to be the queer American female heavy-bottom Herzog.
Heavy-bottom or not, what’s it like being a first-time filmmaker?
I really despised the conceptual constraints of filmmaking. I wanted to make a film that didn’t do any of the things a film is supposed to do. I didn’t want to have a happy ending or a sad ending and I didn’t want anyone to get what they wanted. I wanted it to feel like I did—frustrated! Critical of society. You know when you have an argument and you walk away and two steps later, the thing you should’ve said pops into your head and you’re like ‘Godfuckingdamn it! Why didn’t I say that!’ A film is the opportunity to say that thing. As much as it’s a movie about my dad or my mom, it’s a movie about why I want to make movies.
Your father, in absentia, is one of the biggest characters of the film. What was he like when he was alive?
He was a really gross, maybe misogynistic—no, he was an equal opportunity motherfucker. He was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam. He lived in 25 different countries in my lifetime and had at least that many girlfriends who were less than that many years old.
You titled the film after one of his favorite sayings.
‘Killing someone is the most fun I’ve ever had with my pants on.’ Which is to say that killing someone is really fun, but also the most fun thing you can ever do is have sex. So it’s kind of a double whammy when you’re a kid. It’s one of the first things I remember my father saying. Other choice nuggets include ‘You’re only as old as the women you feel.’
There’s a scene in the film when your character, Andy, watches a video of her and her father projected on a dune at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. You also filmed videos there with your former band, Big Whup. What’s the significance of White Sands?
White Sands feels like a heaven. It means so much to everyone who visits, but it’s so minimalist. You get to fill it up with your own meaning. It’s like being on a giant bounce card or a giant projection screen—I didn’t know if it would work, but I had this idea of using that space as a stage for a séance. I projected the video onto the sand dune and he came back for a few minutes.
The video is a real conversation with your father on Skype. He says some very sweet things, and then you coax him into saying really raunchy things. Did you know your father was dying when you recorded that?
No, it’s crazy … I was going to give a lecture in the Netherlands about the history of singing: why human beings began to sing, how singing would be evolutionarily beneficial, how singing is passed down. So I was interviewing my dad about how he sang and how I learned to sing when I was a kid. The conversation was going to be material for that lecture. I had no designs beyond that, but everything in my life becomes material. The day I got back to the U.S. from the Netherlands, I was supposed to meet my dad. While I had been flying, he had gotten diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given three weeks to live. When I landed that’s what I found out, and I went and stayed with him.
And you had to take care of him during his last three weeks of life.
Taking care of someone becomes a performance because you can’t tell them the truth. You’re thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got two weeks now. I know he’s not gonna eat even three bites, but I should go find something that I know is one of his favorite things and put it on a plate and bring it to the room just so he can see it.’ You waltz into the room like, ‘Look what they just happened to have downstairs!’ You lie. I lied. I was a show pony for living life. We both knew it was acting but we kept doing it. Otherwise, what do you do? You shoot your dad in the head. There were moments that I got angry and moments I wondered what I was doing. A friend asked me after my dad died, ‘Which stage of grief are you in? Are you in denial? Are you bargaining?’ And I was like, ‘Dude, that shit is way outdated. Cancer explodes that model.’ When you’re feeding someone, helping someone to the bathroom and back to bed, you become a little machine that’s keeping someone alive. It’s really dehumanizing, but it’s also one of the most basic and primal experiences you can have.
When people speak of ‘primal things’ they usually mean savagery, of nature red in tooth and claw. Are you saying the primal essence of humanity is eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom?
Yeah, but also sex and killing people and pain. Indulging curiosity, following intuition, getting fucked up! As soon as it was over, I remember thinking, ‘Fuck it, I wanna run.’ And I did. I went to Germany, Italy, Austria, Mexico, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland. I was just itching to move and did whatever I had to do to get from one place to another.
Is it more than a coincidence that your band, Big Whup, broke up around then?
It’s not a coincidence. I’ll always love Big Whup! That was my first band, I wrote all my first songs for Big Whup and came up with the name and made the crop tops and everything. But last year I sort of woke up from it and realized that Rand [Voorhies, drums/vocals] is getting a Ph.D. in robotics, Jenna [Eyrich, bass/vocals] is about to start law school, Geoff [Geis, vocals/guitar] and Morgan [Gee, viola/saw/vocals] are in tons of other bands and have the desire—and talent—to lead those other bands as they would like to. Big Whup was the most important thing to me for a really long time, but then came the moment that I realized, ‘I don’t wanna be in anyone’s hobby anymore.’
When did you realize you wanted to make a film about all this?
I was already planning a Father’s Day performance, but then I woke up one day with this knowledge that I had to make a movie. I wrote Clay Jeter and Sarah Hagan an email asking them if they’d like to make a film. We’d drive from L.A. to Austin, I would scatter my dad’s ashes, and Sarah would be on her way to audition for a role that’s really against type for her. The movie would take the autobiographical elements of the performance art piece and weave them into a story about female friendship—with one character who has to do something really sad but the other one who needs to get ready to be ‘bad.’
Tell me more about Sarah’s character, Liv.
Sarah’s character is based on Sarah. I wanted to make this pair of women and play with the good-girl/bad-girl trope. It provides so many opportunities for jokes and drama and toying with gender politics and societal conventions. I definitely have an agenda—I want to promote the good aspects of being bad. The bad girl needs a foil, and every bad girl can learn a thing or two from the good girl—often, to take themselves seriously and respect themselves. Sarah is such a great actress and was really generous with her own story—not only with her autobiography but her persona in the media. I love the story she tells about getting arrested. That’s a true story from her life! Not only did she actively participate in the creation of her character but she was shooting 90210 while we were shooting the movie, so she was flying back and forth to meet us in the desert. She really went through the shit for this movie! Jumping off of cliffs topless and flying across the country to work a twelve-hour day on TV after working all night on our film. Sarah’s tough.
The character, Andy, is based on you, but it’s definitely not the Drew I know. Is she your roaring id? What part of you is in that character?
My 13-year-old self. Andy is like that part of you when you were totally not self-aware and really confident. Really young, like, ‘Fuck it, I can do whatever I want. I don’t give a shit.’ That’s the part of you that you obviously have to get over but when something really fucked up and shitty happens, that’s a part that keeps you going. I wanted to celebrate that part. Of course, I also point out how flawed and how needy it can be—or just dangerous—but also that it’s fun and very important to maintain some part of you that’s unsophisticated, wild, immature and impulsive.
There’s an attempted seduction between your character and hers. You’re wearing your dad’s Air Force cap and his jacket, and you’ve got the fake mustache painted on.
Sarah’s character, Liv, has to prepare to audition for the role of this vixen spy, so the two girls keep rehearsing the audition scene over and over. Liv is nervous about the sexual nature of the scene, which of course is very exciting to Andy. Liv is dedicated enough to try it but is quite disturbed when she realizes Andy’s ulterior intentions. I watched a bunch of movies from the 30s and 40s to get in the sexist romance zone. That’s where my favorite gender politics jokes lie—lines like ‘I never trust a woman to do a man’s job’ and ‘I ain’t your baby, daddy.’ Liv makes me into a man so she can be the vixen and seduce me. But, of course, my character is the queer character and her character is the straight-laced straight character so I’m actually hoping I can seduce her by letting her pretend to seduce me. There’s a lot of metaphor and a lot of politics. I thought it would be fun to put on this persona of the macho man, the military uniform of my own dead father. I tried to be butch when I was younger, but I just can’t now, no matter how hard I try. So putting on this big costume and speaking this clichéd outdated language was really exciting! Of course it has something to do with this man who made me and then left and then came back with twenty Colombian teenagers who had boobs bigger than my head. What else can you do about this than cross-dress like your dead dad and kiss a beautiful girl? In S&M people are making these agreements with each other about things they can do during ‘play,’ like bondage or hitting or raping, whatever. In play you experience something very real that you wanted to experience because of your real life experience. Movies are just like S&M. It’s a joke about performance art—performance artists are always hurting themselves. I definitely have this urge and enjoy hurting myself. It’s often silly. Like the Father’s Day performance: I wasn’t physically hurting myself but making myself the most vulnerable I could be. I was doing something extremely personal in front of a big group of people—and with the overt desire to entertain them. I wasn’t just hurting myself forcing them to watch me like ‘Look at my pain, strangers!’ I was like tap-dancing with jazz hands and smiling as big as I could, saying, ‘Look at my pain! Look at my pain! Isn’t it funny to look at my pain? Please laugh.’ The making of this film was incredibly painful. We drove from L.A. to Austin and back in the hottest month ever, and making a movie. Dealing with sincerely emotional content with a crew—all six of us—really going through something and making a construct about it at the same time. We got trapped in White Sands. They closed the gate on us! We got stuck in a lightning storm—that’s real lightning! And knowing that it’s all my fault when these things happen, because it was all my idea.
You seem eager to place blame on yourself. Do you know how to take a compliment?
Ugh—what is a compliment? Nice words make me nauseous. That’s how I understand my need to be constantly working. I enter into social situations that puzzle me, which makes me think, which gives me a lot of ideas. And then realizing the ideas allows me to enter into social situations with a purpose that allows me to enjoy the situation.
In life or in the movie?
In life. If someone asks me to hang out, that scares the shit out of me because I don’t know what I might do to them. I have no idea what could happen! We might be hanging out, and then all of a sudden we’re having sex, or fighting, or I’m running out of your apartment screaming. I try being myself all the time, but it seems to really upset people. So what I’ve found that does work is to only leave the house when I understand and enjoy the social contract that’s awaiting me. I’m like ‘Do your thing, let people watch, then talk about it. Or you watch and then you talk about it.’
I feel like I can’t hang out with a friend unless I have an excuse—like doing an interview.
I never go out unless I’m performing or watching someone else perform.
You’re driven.
I just need to know what the interaction’s about. The setups are too uncomfortable for me for me to deal with unless I know what the relationship is gonna be about. I have to be in charge of myself if I wanna keep participating in society. I had an ex one time who said, ‘I figured out your problem. You’ve never been civilized. No one raised you. You don’t know how it works, so you’re always just fucking it up.’ I kind of appreciated that.