One of the biggest hits of the 1989 New York and Toronto film festivals was independent filmmaker Michael Roemer's "The Plot Against Harry," a black-and-white comedy starring a cast of unknowns that was made 20 years earlier.
Roemer, who wrote and directed the acclaimed 1965 film "Nothing But a Man," had thought "Harry" was a failure. After its completion, Roemer arranged screenings for cast, crew and friends. No one was wild about "Harry" and the film was never released. "Harry" never would have seen the light of day had Roemer not decided to put all of his films on videocassette as a gift to his children two years ago.
When the engineer performing the video transfer of "Harry" laughed hysterically at the film, Roemer decided the time was right. Roemer made two 35mm prints and sent them to the New York and Toronto film festivals. Both accepted the film. "Harry" was released theatrically to great acclaim in early 1990.
"The Plot Against Harry" premieres Wednesday on PBS' "American Playhouse."
Roemer talked about "Harry" with Susan King.
Are you still shocked over the success of "The Plot Against Harry"?
I suppose I am over it. It's been a year since it came out. I kind of put it behind me. It was 20 years old when it came out. I can't think about it now. You have to live with movies for a long time after you make them. That's the way the industry works. So I always try to get it behind me and get on to something new.
This has been a very good experience. I really assumed "Harry" was a failure.
Did people not understand "Harry" back in 1969?
They didn't get it at all. None of my friends got it. I only remember one person who really loved the film. Everybody else found it confusing and unfunny.
Have sensibilities and tastes changed over the past two decades?
I think so. I think a lot has changed. People in Europe said they thought the reason it went so well now is that the pace of the film is perfectly comfortable instead of looking dated like so many (older) films. They look so dated because they move so slowly.
I think ethnicity has become a lot more comfortable, you know. I think that was a major factor for people. They didn't know whether it was funny or not. And now people don't have any question about it.
Were there many independent filmmakers in the 1960s?
No. I think there was a much smaller handful of people doing that. There weren't really any film schools. There wasn't this enormous number of young people pushing up from below and behind, trying to do things that the industry wasn't doing. There's been tremendous change there.
Did you ever think of going mainstream?
No. We (Roemer and his co-producer and cinematographer Robert Young) weren't so hot. People liked our work and our first film was successful. But people weren't saying, "Oh, you must work for us." It wasn't like that, so it wasn't like we were getting offers from Hollywood.
Have you received offers to do other films?
A few. I don't have an inclination to do films as a director that I don't write. So the best thing that happened is that the same people who made "Tender Mercies" have taken an option on the last script I wrote.