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 comedy revolves around the misadventures of Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest), a New York Jewish man involved in the small-time numbers racket. Just released from prison, Harry can't cope with the world around him: call girls, bar mitzvahs, lingerie fashion shows, Mafia barbecues and hotel pajama parties.
"The Plot Against Harry" premieres Wednesday on PBS' "American Playhouse."
Roemer, a professor of film at Yale University, also wrote and directed the "American Playhouse" dramas "Pilgrim, Farewell" and "Haunted."
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.
What I was doing doesn't seem that out-of-the-ordinary at all. It seems quite mainstream now.
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.
But isn't it true you were asked to direct "Goodbye, Columbus"?
Yeah, that's right. (Paramount Pictures President) Stanley Jaffe is a friend of mind and that was his first film. He had liked "Nothing But a Man," but it was just as we were geting ready to do this Jewish film ("Harry"), so I couldn't do it.
Did you turn to teaching film at Yale because you were discouraged with filmmaking?
No. I started teaching there before "The Plot Against Harry." That's how I made a living for the past 24 years. I can't do it, you know, making movies, not my kind of movies.
We have three children and at the time they were ready to go to school. My wife had always worked, but she's a schoolteacher and you don't make a lot of money. So between us, we just barely sort of squeaked through. Teaching, the way it's done on the college level, I was allowed to condense all of my teaching time into two days a week which left me five days to work on my own. That was a tremendous blessing.
My first class at Yale had Sam Shepard, John Guare and at least one or two other people who became well-known. I should make it 100% clear that I didn't teach them anything (laughs).
Sam Shepard only came to my class about three or four times. He was a likable young man, terribly nice.
How did your students react to "Harry?"
Students are very adroit. They were delighted, but they weren't going to swarm around and fuss. We showed the film on campus and they came and enjoyed it. But you know, I mean even if Marilyn Monroe would come they would stay cool. I remember when on one occasion Paul Newman came to Yale. I think it was more the faculty than the students who were in awe of the occasion.
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.
"The Plot Against Harry" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET and Friday at 9 p.m. on KPBS.