Mark Illsley and Ed Stone, who are co-writers and (respectively) the director and producer of the 1999 Sundance favorite “Happy, Texas,” were at pains during a recent interview to explain why their picture–a comic fish-out-of-water tale about two escaped convicts who come to the eponymous town, where they’re mistaken for gay kiddie pageant coordinators–was shot not on location in the Lone Star Pandhandle but instead in Peru, California, some forty miles from Los Angeles.
“It’s all financial,” Illsley explained. “I went and scouted all over Texas. I went up to the Panhandle and drove 2700 miles in six days, and saw every little dot in the Panhandle. I saw the little town of Happy, and it truly was the best choice. The town was so perfect that I took photos, and when we wrote the script we were looking at them.”
But, Illsley went on, after two-and-a-half years of trying to find financing for the movie and eventually taking out family loans to film it, the makers reluctantly decided that they’d have to stay on the west coast to save $150,000 in costs. The California area wasn’t a perfect match–it was too verdant and had mountains–but Peru proved a reasonable facsimile. As Stone observed, when they’re asked where they found so green an area in the Panhandle, they respond, “We shot in West Texas–so west that we had to skip two states–in the Texas county of
Stone went on to express the hope that Texans wouldn’t take umbrage at the peculiarities of the townspeople in the picture. He grew up in the area and lived for a time in Happy, and said, “I know those people. People ask, ‘Aren’t those stereotypes in the movie?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know if they’re stereotypes, but I can take you and show you that person if you want to meet them, and you can ask them.'” He continued: “We have so much affection for these characters. Almost always we try to take a positive spin on what they’re doing. And people are eccentric everywhere.”
The film attracted a remarkable cast–Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn, Illeana Douglas, Ally Walker, William H. Macy, Ron Perlman, Paul Dooley–despite its modest budget, and the actual shoot, Illsley said, went very smoothly: “People ask me, ‘Wow, how did you get so many nice people to work on your movie?’ Any my answer is: ‘Because you can’t get bad people to work for nothing.’ They worked for the absolute minimum amount of money for which you can work and still be in the Screen Actors Guild.” Stone added that it was the quality of the writing that drew the performers: “There are still a lot of actors that are material-driven.”
Many of the performers worked long after the final wrap, too. After Miramax picked up the picture following its reception at Sundance, it was extensively re-shot and re-edited on the basis of audience reaction, a process urged by the filmmakers and supported by the studio. “That’s one of the great things about working with Miramax,” Illsley said. “They’re a company that actually has the depth so that if you need to spend more money in reshooting a movie, they’ll let you.”
A meeting with Harvey Weinstein gave the green light, and Illsley and Stone cut “Happy” by fifteen minutes and changed much that remained. “Within the last month we rewrote and reshot six scenes–that’s about eighteen minutes of the movie,” Illsley said. “We reshot 75% to 80% of the relationship [between the characters played by Jeremy Northam and Ally Walker]. Their characters are completely different.”
So even if you saw “Happy, Texas” at the Sundance Festival last winter, you just might want to catch it again. It’s a rather different flick now.