Film editor Don Swaynos goes behind the camera for his feature directorial debut, ‘Pictures of Superheroes’
Don Swaynos kicked around the idea of directing his first feature film for years.
But the University of Texas Radio, Television and Film graduate who stays busy with freelance film editing kept dragging his feet, never finding the time or sense of purpose.
Then he saw the light.
Well, actually what he saw one day at lunch with friend and producer Kelly Williams was a distortion of light. His vision was folding in on itself. Something was wrong.
It turns out Swaynos was suffering from the symptoms of a detached retina. That condition led to surgery, months of recovery and the need for an eye patch. A repeat performance with his other eye followed.
It also led the funny, self-effacing New Jersey native to a realization.
“It kinda would have sucked to have gone blind and for people to go, ‘Look … he edited like six movies,’” Sawynos said with a laugh recently over coffee. “So I was like maybe I should direct something in case that happens again. That way I could at least be like, ‘Oh, remember …’”
Swaynos’ joke reflects a sense of futility and ennui that encapsulate the lovable losers in his comedic farce “Pictures of Superheroes,” which makes its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival Saturday.
The film stars Austin comedian Kerri Lendo as Marie, a frustrated young woman pinballing between an apathetic and emotionally stunted ex-boyfriend (Byron Brown), an unscrupulous boss (Chris Doubek) and a pair of dimwitted fools.
When Marie, a maid, stumbles into the employ of Eric (Shannon McCormick) and his roommate Joe (John Merriman), she finds herself an object of obsession and manipulation of the two hapless men. Joe fancies himself a superhero masquerading as a comic book artist, though he has a staggering lack of ambition. Eric, who seems to be unaware that Joe is even living in his house, plays the role of would-be businessman, a high-status boob who covers his ignorance with confident laughter and non-sequiturs.
Swaynos added Brown’s ex-boyfriend character and Doubek’s boss late to the script in an effort to ground the story a bit more, but the dry performances just add more layers of weirdness to the comedy and more exhaustion for Marie.
“I kinda failed there,” Swaynos says with a chuckle.
The film is as absurd as it sounds, but it does not feel haphazard or meaninglessly silly. It’s like an extended “Mr. Show” sketch with a sloppy heart.
Lendo’s performance elicits empathy and offers an easy point of entry for the inanity. The deadpan Marie serves as a reflection of the foolish men for the audience, though the male characters, given to fits of delusion and selfishness, see only distorted funhouse images of themselves.
Merriman and McCormick bring a believable obliviousness to the two male leads who are much more alike than they care to recognize.
Swaynos said it was his ability to relate to the man-children in the movie that inspired the story.
The bearded filmmaker, who’s given to thoughtful pauses that often end with a laugh at something unsaid, started writing the script years ago as an animated web series. When he found the time and motivation to finish the script and start shooting, he decided out of necessity to take his first stab at directing a feature.
“I realized nobody’s gonna make my weird scripts,” Swaynos said.
Swaynos’ years of editing helped shape his understanding of the storytelling process and informed his manipulation of tone and pacing.
“With filmmaking, when you get to editing you learn what you did wrong. It’s sort of where you get everything together and actually see it and see what’s actually working and what isn’t,” Swaynos said. “So I feel like I’ve learned a lot off of other people’s mistakes … and not terrible mistakes, just little mistakes that help you as a writer.”
Once on set, Swaynos recognized the practical needs and possibilities a director must confront during shooting. He also realized it’s a lot easier to assail a director when you aren’t the person behind the camera.
“It’s frustrating that there’s no one else to blame, because that’s always part of the editing process, saying, ‘Man, why didn’t that idiot get the shot?’ And now that idiot is me,” Swaynos said.
Swaynos says he enjoyed his first foray into feature filmmaking, working with smart actors who “got” the material, and says he wants to make more of his own features. What should we expect?
“Everything I write seems to turn into comedy, even if I want to write a horror movie or thriller or something, it always ends up a comedy,” Swaynos said.
“I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out. I might need to talk to somebody about it.”
“Pictures of Superheroes” screens Saturday at 3:45 p.m. at Alamo Ritz and at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Texas Spirit Theatre at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.