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Does Reality Bite?

Submitted by MBergeron on May 24, 2012 – 4:05 pmNo Comment
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Reality chomps down hard on four twentysoemthings on the eve their college graduation. Raised on a steady diet of The Brady Bunch, Psychic Hotlines, and MTV the four find themselves on the brink of crowning achievement. Or, better still, career avoidance.

Lelaina (Winona Ryder), the college valedictorian rents an apartment with Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), herself the manager of a local mall Gap. Would-be musician and cynical philosophy major Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), chain-smoking Camel straights, moves onto the girls’ sofa when he loses his job (it seems he thinks the establishment owes him a Snicker’s Bar). Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), though he lives at home with his parents, always seems to be in the company of Vickie. Lelaina and Troy obviously want to sleep together, but don’t; meanwhile, Vickie walks out on her dates before they can walk out on her. Sammy practices celibacy and decides how best, in an improvised scene with Vickie, to come out of the closet to his parents. In a nutshell, a perfect cross section of today’s twentysomething Anglo adult. Add one fast rising video-network executive, Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), who’s piqued the romantic curiosity of Lelaina and the stage is set for the seasons’ smartest comedy-romance, Reality Bites.

Has anyone ever rung up a $900 tab on their father’s gas credit card? Do you know someone who mutters slang-like television commercial slogans? Are you ready for a movie where guest cameos include Evan Dando (“I hope he doesn’t drink and drive.”), Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm) selling designer gangsta-inspired headbands and a figurine of Dr. Zaius? Reality Bites contains all of that. However, don’t confuse Reality Bites with other run-of-the-mill young-love movies that pit the now generation against their own marketable soundtracks. Reality Bites manages to take a few cynical swipes at the whole concept of ’80’s success merged with ’90s living in front of MTV wearing grunge clothing turned inside out. As Troy dutifully reminds Lelaina, who thinks that life should be like The Brady Bunch, “Mr. Brady died of AIDS.”

Partridge Family, Brady Bunch, Bewitched, and then maybe Six Million Dollar Man, I may be going on,” director/actor Ben Stiller said remembering the shows that influenced his youth. “It’s a fantasy of what we want our lives to be.” Stiller grew up in the show biz glare of his parents, the comedy team Stiller & Merea. “Nightclubs, performing in summer stock theater across the county, or doing t.v. shows and specials and game shows,” he recalled. “We were privileged, well fed and my parents supported themselves very well but they were away a lot. There wasn’t a lot of sitting around the table together. I watched a lot of t.v. and disciplined myself which I wasn’t too successful at.”

Much of America’s television mentality beams off the characters of Reality Bites like electrons from a cathode. Sammy may be secretly in love with Troy, but Troy is definitely in love with himself. Vickie adds drama to her life with her AIDS test while Lelaina eventually has to choose between the duel affection of Troy and Michael. Reality bites in Lelaina’s case because both suitors have something positive to offer her.

“I wanted there to be a question as to whom would she end up with and not just have one guy who’s obviously right,” Stiller said. As for his own interpretation of Michael Grates, who was originally older and with an ad agency, Stiller maintains the guy is “sometimes dorky and obviously had his priorities screwed up, but he also had a sense of what he was missing.”

Principal photography on the film included ten days of location filming in Houston after an initial seven weeks in L.A. The script by former Houstonian Helen Childress (Garofalo also resided in Houston) was set in the Space City. Stiller felt the city’s importance for background atmosphere although the film’s budget of approximately $11-million wasn’t enough to mount the entire production here. “I thought it would be cheaper too. I guess what it comes down to is how much of your crew and cast you’re going to bring with you from L.A. or New York,” Stiller explained “When you have to travel with a lot of people and put them up that can be where most of the expense is. That’s what ended up happening. It was too expensive to bring the all the crew and actors that we wanted to for the amount of time we would need to shoot the movie. We brought a scaled down crew at the end of the shoot and picked up crew people in Houston,” Stiller said about the 30 or so local technicians employed on the Houston end of the shoot.

On the afternoon of the day Stiller and crew arrived they were whisked to the top of One Shell Plaza, where the film’s opening sequence unfolds. Walking along the window-washing railing that borders the roof of One Shell, itself once the tallest building in the Southwest, Stiller let the film’s spontaneity run loose. “We shot that in about three hours. That was six pages of dialogue.” Normally this would alarm a film’s assistant director as one page of dialogue translates into one day of shooting “No, it’s fine,” Stiller told his staff, “We’ll just shoot six pages and run the camera.”

Some of this sequence appears as video footage, part Hi-8, part Betacam, within the film but Stiller found the video to film transfer yielded almost too good an image. To give it a more grainy feel he just set up the camera in front of a television and shot it off the screen. Many of the film’s locales had been scouted in Houston earlier last May only to be reestablished in L.A.

A club in the movie called The Joint where Troy’s band, Hey, That’s My Bike, plays was modeled on the now defunct Cätäl Hüyük.

Keep you eyes and ears peeled and you’ll spot other Houston fabric in the weave of the film. There goes a Gallery Furniture commercial. Towards the end of the film, during the U2 song All I Want Is You, a folded issue of Public News can be spotted on Lelaina’s living room table.

Stiller found early in his career that he’d have to be thought of as a full time director if he wanted to achieve his goal of directing features. In 1989 he was hired as a featured performer and writer with a five-year contract on Saturday Night Live.

“Sometimes they hire writers for a couple of shows, going through many writers a year. I came off the end of the ’89 season and I wanted to make short films. They already had someone who made short films for them. That summer, I directed a special, on MTV for Collin Quinn, called Remote Control and I loved it so much I asked them to let me out of my contract on Saturday Night Live. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want spend the next couple of years kind of trying to break in,” Stiller intoned, “I knew I had to start working as a director if I wanted to be able to direct features eventually.”

The Ben Stiller Show debuted on MTV and was developed for 13 episodes for the Fox network. Centering on satirical take-offs of well known movie trailers and musical acts Stiller showed his true comic range doing mock portrayals of everyone from Bono to Daniel Day-Lewis (the Mohican Master 2000) to Bruce Willis (Die Hard 12: Die Hungry). Compared one on one to SNL the skits on The Ben Stiller Show were, more often than not, funnier. His stint at Fox netted him an Emmy, and a bad taste for Fox.

“Just to give you an idea of where they’re at,” he recounted, “I’d heard rumblings that they’d be interested in working with me again. We worked very hard on the show and they didn’t give us any advertising. They put us up against 60 Minutes and never gave us an ad-campaign.

“I’d rather work on another film or another network, or an HBO special.”

Reality Bites gave Stiller an opportunity to utilize talent he’d worked with during his career, like Garofalo who’d been a regular on his television show. More importantly it gave him the chance to prove, and quite well, his solid directorial skills. Delving into a scene, Stiller would take an important line (like Vickie’s quip to Troy and Lelaina: “Why don’t you two screw and just get it over with.”) and accent it within the sequence by, at that point, changing the camera set-up. Even having Danny DeVito as one of the film’s producers couldn’t guarantee instant inspiration though.

“Sometimes you turn and there’s nobody there,” Stiller declared. His independence was a double-edged sword that allowed him to “be loose enough to improvise and have the freedom to try stuff on the set.” Reality Bites, a Universal release, plays this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This piece originally ran in Public News in 1994.

- Michael Bergeron

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