At one point in the wonderfully enigmatic and improbable “Beaver Trilogy Part IV,” the cult director Trent Harris explains a desire to capture reality in film, not in the way we’ve become accustomed to the term with regard to naturalism, but in reference to time, showing a disinterest in chronicling what’s already happened, but eager to somehow reflect “what’s right in front of you.” To do so, filmmaker Brad Besser shows him traveling the world from Turkmenistan to Timbuktu in pursuit of making a film in the present tense, working on a new film called “Luna Mesa,” yet the primary reason Besser was following him was in some ways proof that Harris had already achieved his goal in making “The Beaver Trilogy,” the unlikely triptych about an ebullient young man named Groovin’ Gary, an amateur celebrity impersonator that Harris found in the parking lot of the Utah television station he was working at in the late 1970s.
After making an initial documentary short about Groovin Gary’s staging of a local talent show, Harris followed it up with a dramatization that employed a then-unknown Sean Penn while attending the American Film Institute, and subsequently remade it again with slight variations including having Crispin Glover in the lead. Perfect in and of itself, “The Beaver Trilogy” continues to persist as a living organism, a cult phenomenon thanks in part to the future notoriety of the stars of its second and third chapters and the surreal quality of Harris’ storytelling, which could be considered almost prophetic in how ideal it was to be rediscovered in the age of viral video. Still, Besser, like Harris before him, knew there was more to the story.
“I had this blind faith that no matter what we got, no matter where we went, it was all going to work out and probably be pretty interesting,” said Besser, who first met Harris through a filmmaking class he taught.
Beyond uncovering a fascinating history of the legendary underground film that will likely surprise even its most die-hard fans, Besser also discovers a filmmaker and his subject in Harris and real-life Groovin’ Gary, the late Richard Griffiths, whose lives parallel each other in interesting ways as cultural misfits whose passion for expressing themselves has been celebrated and cost them dearly. Through interviews with Griffiths’ friends and family as well as Harris and his colleagues, “Beaver Trilogy Part IV” ably contextualizes the undefinable thing they collaborated on together and honors its spirit by further extending its life. Shortly after their premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which has played nearly all of Harris’ films whether he submitted them or not, Besser and Harris spoke about what the latter learned about the film he made from the documentary, how narrator Bill Hader got involved and Harris’ likely futile desire to stop talking about “The Beaver Trilogy.”
There’s an explanation in the film of how you first met Trent in a filmmaking class he was teaching, but what made this something you wanted to pursue years later after taking the class?
Brad Besser: After watching the original film and [knowing] a little bit of the backstory, it was a story that stuck with me. In a way, “The Beaver Trilogy” is a vessel to get to the larger story of Trent and [Groovin’ Gary, otherwise known as] the Beaver Kid.
Trent Harris: He showed up in my office one day and basically he hasn’t left since. He’s been following me for four years now and I’m glad the film is showing at Sundance so he can leave me alone now. [laughs] I hope. We’ll see.
BB: This is just the beginning.
Trent, did you actually know about this entire other side of the story about the Beaver Kid [Dick Griffiths] that’s in the film?
TH: No, that was the interesting thing for me. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what Brad’s angle [for this film] was. He just kept filming and filming. Then when I finally saw the rough cut, I was flabbergasted at what he’d done. It was wonderful, but there were many, many things in the movie that I didn’t know. Brad had gone back to Beaver and had met people I had never spoken with before and I didn’t know how they felt about what had happened — the Beaver Kid’s sisters and his friends that Brad had interviewed about the whole incident. A lot of it was new information to me and quite fascinating.
I’m quite fond of Dick’s sisters. It was quite wonderful to meet them at the premiere and give them a big hug and they felt more like family than anything else. I think they had a little bit of a grudge against me or animosity because they didn’t quite understand what had gone on with me and the film clarified things for them and clarified things for me.
Brad, since your subject is also a filmmaker, did you take any cues at all from Trent’s work in terms of what you wanted to do with this film?
BB: The two big questions coming out of “The Beaver Trilogy” for me was who was the Beaver Kid? You have all these remakes, but who was the original kid and what really happened to him? And the other thing was looking at why did the filmmaker do it? “The Beaver Trilogy” is so unique, yet if you look at Trent’s career and Trent’s work, it makes sense. It fits that mold, so that’s what I was hoping the film would capture.
TH: I think what he’s trying to say there is that none of my films make any sense. [laughs]
BB: If you put all the films together, they fit like a wonderful puzzle.
How did you get Bill Hader involved as the film’s narrator? Was he a fan of the film?
BB: I felt Bill was a natural fit because was on “Saturday Night Live,” but he could also play it straight enough that there were hints of comedy. Actually, when we went in to the narration, Bill came in and said his friend Paul Rudd set up a little party to show the “Beaver Trilogy” to all his friends, so Bill Hader was really excited to do the project. He thought it was great.
I’ve actually read that there have been some pretty crazy requests to screen “The Beaver Trilogy.” Have there been any that stood out?
TH: There’s so many people. Tilda Swinton sent me a letter from London, saying how much she wanted to see this movie and asked, “How much does it cost?” And I said, “$25” and actually she sent me $40 in cash in the mail and said, “Keep the change, baby and buy me a drink.”
Trent, are you working on anything now?
TH: Yes, I just finished shooting a new movie last Sunday. It’s called “Welcome to the Leather Room,” so we’re going into editing next week. It’s about a crazy beatnik bar, it’s its last night and they’re going to tear it down and turn it into a Pottery Barn, so all these malcontents and misfits try to figure out what to do.
Of course, “The Beaver Trilogy Part IV” is a clever title for a number of reasons, but since it would suggest that Brad’s film is now an official part of the “Beaver Trilogy” canon, was that something Trent was okay with?
BB: That was always something I was wondering whether Trent was going to be okay with. It’s not an officially sanctioned version… [laughs]
TH: Oh, it’s officially sanctioned. [laughs] No, Brad did a great job on the movie. I’ve said this many times, but I’m just sick and tired of talking about the movie, quite frankly. It’s been 36 years that this has been a part of my life. For one reason or another, whether I was making the original movie or the second movie or the third movie, and I became friends with Sean Penn or ended up at Madonna’s wedding, [it was this] chain of events that happened because of this initial meeting in the parking lot and continued on up until this very second when I’m sitting here talking with you. It’s just gone on and on and on. It’s like the Energizer Bunny, it just won’t quit.