Forget the blockbusters, and take a chance this week on a low-budget, black-and-white comedy about two people walking around Los Angeles, reckons our film critic Alistair Harkness
ANYONE trying to sum up the huge appeal of the hip new black-and-white Los Angeles love story, In Search of a Midnight Kiss might be tempted to do a roll-call of its likely reference points. Manhattan would probably warrant a mention. Ditto Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Swingers? Maybe. Classics from the French New Wave? Why not? How about gritty, working-class Glaswegian Booker-winning author James Kelman? Erm … Yes, as it happens. "He was really important to me in my development," elaborates the film's effusive 32-year-old writer/director
Alex Holdridge over the phone from Los Angeles. "He came to the University of Texas when I was a student there and ended up being my creative writing teacher. I really liked him and really bonded with him."
What did Kelman teach him? "I guess because he's from that Scottish literary tradition he really just cut through the bullsh*t and constantly encouraged you to think about your humanity and the people around you. For instance, one day we showed up for class as normal, but he was like, 'None of you should be here.' It transpired that there was a campus protest going on because a cop had beaten up an African-American lady. All of a sudden Kelman was like, 'Who cares about this f***ing class? As a writer you should care about people.' His attitude was: how can you walk past people who are being taken advantage of? How can you do that so carelessly to pursue an idea of being a writer when being a writer is about being aware of what it is to be human? That was what he kept forcing us to remember."
In Search of a Midnight Kiss certainly displays plenty of humanity, albeit in a funnier, more ribald and less crusading way than Holdridge's experiences with Kelman might suggest. After all, what could be more human than suffering from heartache and undergoing the potentially painful humiliation of forcing yourself back out into the world in an effort to find, if not love, then at least a valid and meaningful connection with another person? That's the dilemma facing Wilson (Scoot McNairy), an aspiring screenwriter whose flatmate stages an intervention on New Year's Eve to get this desperate soul back on the dating scene. Posting a personal ad online, he meets the brash and beautiful Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a wannabe actress whose high-maintenance, head-messing persona leads to plenty of witty, confrontational and moving exchanges as they gad about a secret, beautiful-looking Los Angeles over the course of Hogmanay.
Full of frank sexual humour and unexpected tenderness, it's a thoroughly modern film with a zeitgeist-riding plot about the nature of romance in the age of texting, Facebook and MySpace. Yet it also has a classic, timeless feel thanks to its swooning monochrome cinematography, which not only handily disguises its credit card-funded microbudget, but thoroughly enhances its Los Angeles setting – a city that, lets face it, has never had the same head-over-heels appeal as New York. Thanks to the pockets of beauty Midnight Kiss locates, that might be about to change.
"There is this whole downtown that's completely abandoned, yet the structures I've seen, particularly the old theatres, far outshine anything I've seen on Broadway," says Holdridge, who found most of his locations accidentally while strolling the city with lead actress Simmonds. "They're unbelievably beautiful buildings, but completely dilapidated. And the financial district is right next to it and is just full of structures from the 1920s and 1930s that are perfectly intact. It's like someone dropped a bottle of anthrax and wiped everybody out."
Holdridge reckons the reason it's never really exploited is because no-one thinks of Los Angeles as a place where people live. "Everybody thinks of it as a set. Nobody is really interested in capturing the city as it is."
Such observations might be another consequence of Kelman's influence. As Holdridge says, the author always encouraged him to stay within the moment with his writing, using it to live through a particular experience – advice he certainly seems to have adhered to with In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Having been based in LA for the past four years, the film mirrors the "totally heartbroken place" he was in after moving to the city in an abortive effort to make a studio film based on an independent feature he'd shot on weekends while living in Austin, Texas (he actually taught himself film-making by making two features there).
"That was when my life started going a bit Midnight Kiss. I basically spent a year moving out here and rewriting that script, and during that time I crashed my car, my girlfriend dumped me and I ended up looking at Hollywood and thinking, 'Why the hell did I ever leave the comfort of Austin?' And then I read about this movie in the trades that was just so similar to what I was working on that it kind of defeated the purpose of what I was doing."
That movie would turn out to be Superbad, which is a pretty accurate description of how Holdridge felt after realising he'd just wasted a year of his life. Nevertheless, salvation came in the form of a Boxing Day phonecall from a friend who'd just bought a high-def video camera and was planning to visit him in LA a couple of weeks later. He asked Holdridge if he wanted to shoot something. "He probably meant a short," laughs the director, "but I basically sat down after he called and this 130-page script just poured out of me. I honestly don't remember writing it. Then I just called up everyone I'd worked with previously, asked them what they were doing on January 8th, and when my friend Robert arrived with the camera we started shooting Midnight Kiss."
Was it really that easy to get going? "Yeah," says Holdridge. "Filmmaking is a constant battle against reality; so much can go wrong, so it's rare to be able to say that a movie just willed itself, but this one really did. We were so focused and there was no ego. We'd shoot all day, watch the dailies at night, do one rehearsal for the next day, and then I'd stay up a little later and do some rewrites. Then we'd get up the next morning and start shooting again."
What makes this such a heartening tale for film fans and aspiring filmmakers alike is that it confirms not only that the DIY spirit – no stars, no permits, no pontificating – of the late 1980s and early 1990s US independent scene still exists, but that these kinds of movies can still break through at a time when film festivals such as Sundance are so clogged up with cheap studio pictures there seems to be little space for anything that is genuinely made outside the system. Holdridge agrees: "I know, I mean, I'm a film fan, so when I see young kids coming up and we're talking movies, I'm like, 'Don't listen to people who say you have to have this or that. F*** them! I want to watch your movies. Please, just do it, because it makes movies better.'" Kelman, it seems, has taught him well.
• In Search of a Midnight Kiss is released on Friday
"WHAT'S great about it is the way this blossoming relationship feels completely genuine. As Wilson and Vivian, Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds are both highly persuasive; you feel their relationship will develop in an unhurried, believable way."
"A TERRIFIC example of how no-budget film-making often produces the most effective romantic dramas. And this film has humour and charm to spare."
Shadows on the Wall
"SHOT in black and white to accentuate the dreariness of these lives, the bulk of the film has us follow Wilson and Vivian on their roaming date through Los Angeles. What begins as really awkward and nerve-racking winds up becoming charming, and that's where this film is utterly amazing."