It wasn’t the most romantic situation when Alex Holdridge found himself standing by the side of the road, en route to a city he hated. At a time when Holdridge recalls having “no margin for error,” there he was with his car flipped upside down and little recourse, except for a primal instinct. “As soon as I crashed the car, I found a camera and I knelt down and took that photo. I always knew that so long as that photo comes out, I could use it somewhere.”
When a character in Holdridge’s third film, “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” describes being involved in a car accident, there’s something poetic about the small poof of smoke and the clutter of the car’s undercarriage set against the open road, particularly illuminated by the film’s monochromatic palette. Most of the amusing and poignant moments in “Midnight Kiss” came from the professional and personal setbacks that beset the writer/director as he made his way from Austin to Los Angeles a few years back. After going through a breakup with his girlfriend, it was Holdridge’s foray into internet dating that became the inspiration for a script about two lonely Angelenos (Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds) who spend the hours leading up to New Year’s Eve together, strolling through the city after meeting each other through Craigslist. Holdridge talked to me about his latest film, his uneasy embrace of L.A. and the rocky road in real life that led there.
While “Midnight Kiss” takes great advantage of Los Angeles in many aspects, it also has a feel similar to the naturalistic type of films that come out of Austin — was this a film you had to get out of Austin to make?
It’s funny because it’s two-fold — it is a movie that we’d make in Austin, and that was something we kept talking about. It’s like everyone in L.A. is sitting around waiting for somebody to give them the opportunity to make a movie, and since we’d been on the streets and made movies from nothing with very little money, stealing locations, we knew that if push came to shove, we could make a little one and make it look pretty good. We just hadn’t done it. Then these HD cameras started to come into play that were small and discreet and yet looked great, and so the idea was that we could shoot a little one like [Holdridge’s first film, 2001’s] “Wrong Numbers,” but with more experience.
The physical environment of L.A. is fucking awesome. It’s gorgeous. It’s a mess. There’s sprawling crap and shit strip malls endlessly, but there’s also architecture that outshines anything in New York and there’s hills. Whatever you see behind your camera, it’s like getting a chance to see the city and how cool it is and then bring that independent spirit here.
I understand your affection for L.A. grew during filming, and I don’t know if that was only for the geography.
No, no, culturally, geographically, every way. I hated it when I was here. Hated it! Austin’s like a cocoon of love — beautiful, smart people who are engaged in the world and have a sense of social consciousness and love movies. You come out here and you feel like people make movies, they don’t even watch them.
Over time, you find your niche. You find your group that’s as obsessed with films as you are. [As far as being a filmmaker,] the vast general majority are just trying to survive. The worst thing to say is that you’re working on a screenplay in L.A., because even though you may really be or you may have directed three or four films, there’s 300,000 other people saying that exact same line.
You came out to Los Angeles because “Wrong Numbers,” about a pair of high school seniors going out on a beer run on the eve of graduation, was set to be remade by a major studio, but it didn’t happen. How did that experience lead into “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”?
I crashed my car on the drive out here. That was a real photo of my car upside-down. Everything fell apart. My girlfriend and I broke up. My laptop was stolen. I’d finished a draft [of the “Wrong Numbers” remake] and called my agent and said, “we’ll give it to you on Friday.” This is a Wednesday night. I had just gone to dinner with my sister and somebody biked by and took the laptop right out of my [nephew’s] stroller, just like it was in the movie. So it was one of these things where all this shit kept going awry and I couldn’t get a job to save my life.
But I stuck it out. I finally got into the rhythm, moved into this little room, started internet dating to get my confidence back. It took a year and a half to finish that draft, because I had to get an old floppy disk from my ex-girlfriend’s mother and dig back in from page one to rewrite the whole [“Wrong Numbers”] script from scratch. Two or three months into that process, I read about “Superbad” and it just defeated the entire purpose of making that movie anymore. I was completely devastated. My friend Robert Murphy, who’d shot “Wrong Numbers” with me, called me up and said “Hey, I have an HD camera, you want to shoot something?” And I said yes.
Were you looking forward to remaking your own movie?
I certainly burnt out on it. It took me four years to make it the first time. I liked “Wrong Numbers” a lot — I knew that the idea was strong and that it didn’t have to be just a tiny little movie. To me, it was like wow, if we do this right, it could be “American Graffiti.” I feel like they took our idea and just didn’t do it as well, which was really sad, because I loved the movie more than anything.
Was “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” a reaction to that experience?
I’d been conceiving of this New Year’s Eve in L.A. movie for about two years. I hadn’t put pen to paper and I kept like running into my actors and thinking, man, we’ve got to do another one where we’re on the streets and we don’t have to answer to anyone and we’re not waiting. We’re just picking up the camera and going. When [Murphy] called and said you want to shoot something, two weeks later when he arrived, I’d written the whole script and called up everybody I knew that I’d worked with before. I don’t even remember the writing process. All of a sudden, we had a 130-page script out of nowhere. We started shooting and it was just like we knew this is something special.
[Photos: Sara Simmonds and Scoot McNairy; Simmonds; director Alex Holdridge – “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” IFC Films, 2008]
“In Search of a Midnight Kiss” is now open in New York; opens in Los Angeles on August 22nd.