Being an MFA candidate at UCLA means, among other things, not having to haul garbage to finance your films. So Silas Howard doesn’t regret his decision to go to film school, even if friends initially discouraged him.
He had already made a multiple-award-winning feature, By Hook Or By Crook, with longtime friend and co-conspirator Harry Dodge. The film was an Official Selection at Sundance and won audience awards from coast to coast and even abroad.
But Howard felt like there was too much time between projects for his to learn enough about filmmaking without going to school.
“Besides, I’m not independently wealthy, which, as it turns out, is how a lot of directors make it,” he says. “They’re already rich! Why didn’t anybody tell me that?”
Now Howard has HBO backing his latest project, Exactly Like You, a dramatic feature based on the life of Billy Tipton and co-written with Nina Landey. With no studio funding his first film, he and Dodge tuned to hauling. They drove around San Francisco picking up demolition refuse—from contractors who were expecting hulking musclemen, not the two scruffy little dykes who showed up and hopped out of a giant old Chevy pickup.
From it Howard and Dodge would make calls for their movie on their cell phones, trying to act like they were in an office when really they were sitting in that old Chevy, covered in dirt. The truck could be started with anything, even a library card, but was so hard to drive that one time it was stolen and abandoned just a few blocks away.
Bucking convention, it was only after making a successful feature that Howard turned to short film. In 2005 he made Frozen Smile, a comedy about a young dyke who pays a first visit to his grandfather’s grave. And Howard recently got back from Sundance, where he screened his second short, What I Love About Dying, and performed in a band he and friends Daniela Sea, Patty Schemel and Romy Suskin assembled just for the occasion.
Billed as “a documentary that puts the fun back in funerals,” What I Love About Dying is a portrait of Kris Kovick—an activist, author, prankster, and mentor to many Bay Area writers and performers—who died in 2001 after eight years battling breast cancer. The title is a play on Kovick’s collection of essays and cartoons, What I Love About Lesbian Politics Is Arguing With People I Agree With.
The film, which can be viewed on Sundance online, depicts Kovick as someone who blended fact and fiction in ways that always kept even her closest friends guessing. As Howard sees it, “She really taught us to laugh at ourselves, and there’s endless material once you realize that.”
Howard and Dodge opened up a performance space in San Francisco, The Bearded Lady Cafe and Truckstop, and Kovick sussed out their shallow pockets the first time she wandered in. Right away Kovick offered to do shows. Eager to catch Kovick and others at the mic, people were soon squeezing into the place like it was a clown car.
The shows paid the first six months’ rent for this tiny storefront, with its pirated electricity and lights that blew out every time they made toast. “It was the scruffiest little Our Gang hangout,” Howard recalls.
Howard and Dodge sold the place to make their movie, and once they wrapped Kovick offered up her Social Security check so they could get themselves and their footage to L.A., where an editor had agreed to work for free.
You get the feeling Howard has always had occasional jabs of luck that outmatch the hard knocks throwing sucker punches his way. Kovick was an important one, and like her, Howard is full of yarns. They often seem too outrageous to be true when really they just reflect the wacky good fortune that seems to pepper Howard’s life.
For instance, on the first day of shooting Crook, the ’69 T-bird they borrowed skidded across three lanes of busy traffic, but everyone inside was unscathed. And in the wee hours immediately after nailing the final edit of the film, a construction site across the way went up in flames. The six-alarm fire claimed 19 homes, but thankfully no lives, by morning.