Film puts the “yee-haw” back in America

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By Kevin Ritchie

Of all the movies that purport to be “America” – The American PresiddentAmerican Psycho, American Beauty, American Werewolf in Paris – none of them deserve the title as much as The American Astronaut, which is screening in the Tronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series. 

While the formula for most Hollywood flicks has been adobted by filmmakers around the world and simply remade, The American Astronaut is about as American as it gets. It’s as if director Cory McAbee translated an old cowboy TV show into the solar system. The inside of the spaceship looks like a cheap motel room and there’s a run-down barn floating aimlessly in space. The cowboy spirit of the wild west never died in McAbee’s future.

It’s already been labelled “retro-futuristic,” but that’s misleading. It’s just flat-out retro. The space suits look like Mercury program fare of the 1960’s, not like a 60’s version of what space suits would like in the future. Growing up in Boonville, California, and trips to his grandparent’s mobile home in Nevada makes McAbee a pretty good authority on American cowboy nostalgia. “I had a Honda 150, a pistol, a small mobile home in the middle of nowhere,” he remembers. “That was sort of paradise for a young lad.” In fact, he’s a good authority on all things distinctly American – at age 40, he’s only left the country three times, including his trip to Toronto.

He structured the movie like a record, but instead of tracks, the viewer is guided through a series of weird situations. McAbee stars as Samuel Curtis, an interplanetary trader from Nevada who is on a strange mission involving a planet of all sex-starved men and a planet of horny women who desperately need to reproduce. All the while, he’s being pursued by his nemesis, Professor Ness – a depressed psycho (and all-round loser) with a disintegration gun.

The screenplay for The American Astronaut got attention at the Sundance Film Institute’s screenwriters lab before McAbee had shot one reel of film. The lab only accepts 15 scripts out of 500 submitted. A director by day, McAbee also works as a bouncer around New York to pay the bills. “I ended up working at this tiny strip joint and I never saw the daylight,” he recalls. “Suddenly, they fly me to this mountaintop with waterfalls and everyone was really nice. to me. My screenplay was treated like a completed project.”

Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause and Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, provided tips that ultimately helped McAbee with casting and direction. They talked extensively about the script and each morning, the experienced writers gathered to discuss the newbies’ work over breakfast. One thing that remained the same was the title. McAbee didn’t want to change it and betray the spirit of the movie just because a wave of films had “American” in the title. That wasn’t the case when he started writing the script and he’d already written the musical numbers accordingly. “I was trying to make a musical that wasn’t like any musical I’ve ever seen,” he says. “The feeling was right for scene, but they weren’t but they weren’t singing about the actual situation.” McAbee writes songs for his band, The Billy Nayer Show, in the form of short narratives, but the musical numbers in Astronaut have no relation to the on-screen action.

McAbee formed the band in 1989 with drummer Bobby Lurie and scored the music to his short films. The Billy Nayer Show performances have been called theatrical, disturbing and, like the film, hard to explain. But they’ve attained cult status in McAbee’s home town, San Francisco. He’s toured the United States extensively with the band and visited Moscow to promote the movie. His trip to Toronto will be his first Canadian experience.

McAbee found a way to promote the movie in New York, his curent home, for free. He made 40 ads using chalk and charcoal on city sidewalks to advertise the films theatrical run in New York this month. (He is also responsible for the paintings of Samuel Curtis’ space ship which appear in the movie.) “Surprisingly, I had a wonderful time. Yesterday, some people asked if I would watch their two 13-year-old golden retrievers.” All together, the sidewalk drawings will add up to an 80 by 90 foot mural spread across the city.

The movie makes its Canadian debut at midnight Wednesday and repeats on Friday morning. Again, the plot is bizarre and defies attempts at comparison. One comparison McAbee particularly liked was to Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show – another black and white midwestern epic and fond reflection of old-fashioned cowboy sensibilities.

The American Astronaut has the same sad romanticism, but a lot more wackiness. The inspiration for Samuel Curtis comes from his dad, a cowboy automechanic in Boonville and all around nice guy. “Up in Boonville, there were all these cowboys. Really old cowboys,” McAbee says. “And if they liked you, they would acknowledge you.”

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