The American Astronaut
with music by The Billy Nayer Show
Written and directed by Cory McAbee
Press Contacts at Sundance:
Jeremy Walker, 917-597-7286
Rudi Furstberger, 917-597-7269
Christine Richardson, 917-771-3668
SAMUEL CURTIS -- Cory McAbee
PROFESSOR HESS -- Rocco Sisto
THE BOY -- Gregory Russell Cook
CLORIS -- Annie Golden
BODYSUIT -- James Ransone
BLUEBERRY PIRATE -- Joshua Taylor
OLD MAN -- Tom Aldredge
LEE VILENSKY -- Peter McRobbie
EDDIE -- Bill Buell
HENCHMAN #1 (Hey Boy!) -- Mark Manley
HENCHMAN #2 (Hey Boy!) -- Ned Sublette
Writer / Director -- Cory McAbee
Producers -- William Perkins, Joshua Taylor, Bobby Lurie
Director of Photography -- W. Mott Hupfel III
Music Director -- Bobby Lurie
Music by -- The Billy Nayer Show
Sound Designer -- Doug McKean
Production Designer -- Geoff Tuttle
Co-Producer -- Michael Krantz
Editor -- Pete Beaudreau
Costume Designer -- Dawn Weisberg
Casting Director -- Ann Goulder
THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT
The makers of "The American Astronaut" have used flinty black-and-white photography, ingenious sets and the spirit of the final frontier to bring their film, set in the dirty, isolated vastness of outer space, to life. But it is the tradition of the Western, as opposed to the technology-heavy fantasies of science fiction, that informs "The American Astronaut" and the Homeric intergalactic journey upon which its characters embark. Touching down on an asteroid belt near Saturn, interplanetary trader Samuel Curtis discovers an all-male culture driven by song, dance, and the loneliness of the most remote prairie. Curtis is presented with a scheme: trade a gestating "Real Live Girl" to the all-male worker planet Jupiter in exchange for a sixteen year-old boy who will surely be coveted on all-female Venus. But after the journey begins Curtis discovers that he is being pursued by Professor Hess, an enigmatic figure from his past who is leaving a trail of death in his wake. The makers of "The American Astronaut" have spent several years crafting the film, all the while gaining a following all over America as the acclaimed rock-and-roll band known as The Billy Nayer Show.
Space travel has become a dirty way of life dominated by derelicts, grease monkeys, thieves, and hard-boiled interplanetary traders such as Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee), an astronaut from Earth who deals in a rare goods, living or otherwise.
His mission begins with the unlikely delivery of a cat to a small outer-belt asteroid saloon where he meets his former dance partner, and renowned interplanetary fruit thief, the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor). As payment for his delivery of the cat, Curtis receives a homemade cloning device already in the process of creating a creature most rare in this space quadrant...a Real Live Girl.
At the suggestion of the Blueberry Pirate, Curtis takes the Real Live Girl to Jupiter where women have long been a mystery. There, he proposes a trade with the owner of Jupiter: the Real Live Girl clone for the Boy Who Actually Saw A Womans Breast (Gregory Russell Cook). The Boy Who Actually Saw A Womans Breast is regarded as royalty on the all-male mining planet of Jupiter because of his unique and exotic contact with a woman. It is Curtis intention to take The Boy to Venus and trade him for the remains of Johnny R., a man who spent his lifetime serving as a human stud for the Southern belles of Venus, a planet populated only by women. Upon returning Johnny Rs body to his bereaved family on earth, Curtis will receive a handsome reward.
It all seems simple enough.
But while hashing out the plan with the Blueberry Pirate, Curtis is spotted by his nemesis, Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto). Possessed by an enigmatic obsession with Curtis, Hess is capable of killing without reason, unless his intended victim is someone with whom he has unresolved issues. Hess has been pursuing Samuel Curtis throughout the solar system in order that he might forgive him, then kill him. Along the way, Hess has executed each and every individual to come into contact with Curtis.
Unaware of this danger, Curtis sets forth on his mission.
After retrieving The Boy Who Actually Saw A Womans Breast from Jupiter, Curtis is contacted by Professor Hess, who makes his intentions known.
Fearful, Curtis and The Boy look for a place to hide. They come across a primitive space station constructed by Nevada State silver miners from the late 1800s. Inside they discover a small group of miners still alive, their bodies crippled and deformed by space atrophy. Unable to return home for fear that Earths gravity would kill them, two of the miners mated and give birth to a boy known as Body Suit (James Ransone). He has been raised in a suit of hydraulics to simulate Earths gravity with the intention of eventually sending him home. In trade for supplies and sanctuary, Curtis agrees to deliver Body Suit to Earth.
Once they land on the lush planet of Venus, the terrain dramatically changes, and Curtis is inspired by a plan. And it may just happen that in a solar system ruled by commerce and danger, sometimes good can prevail.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"The American Astronaut", which was workshopped in 1998 at the Sundance Writers Lab while still in screenplay form, has been in the making for over six years. Cory McAbee, the films writer, director, and star, who is also the front man for a rock and roll band with a devoted following, The Billy Nayer Show, began writing the script and composing songs for the film about a decade ago. Although The Billy Nayer Show is a band, it was never intended to be devoted solely to the production of music. The group is more like a creative think tank that launches multiple projects in a diverse array of media. The bandmates multifacted creative approach to "The American Astronaut" resulted in a film that featured numerous hand made elements as well as an emphasis on craft.
For "The American Astronaut," McAbee, Production Designer Goeff Tuttle, and artist Maria Schoenherr hand-painted every shot depicting the exterior of Curtis spaceship as it travels through outer space. As producer Josh Taylor explains, "We wanted to represent outer space in a way that no one had ever seen before". The look of outer space depicted in "The American Astronaut" was inspired by McAbees memories of his grandfather and father. An inventor, whiskey runner and freight train jumper, and a guy who could fix absolutely anything mechanical, McAbees grandfather was in many ways a holdover from the days when Northern California was still the Wild West. McAbees father, in turn, was an auto mechanic and cowboy from Booneville, CA.
Many of "Astronauts" costumes were designed, discovered and often hand made by Dawn Weisberg. Curtis outfit, The Boys outfit, and Body Suits body suit all reflect the personal histories of the characters and are meant to evoke the lonely routine of outer space. But Weisberg also created whole communities based on wardrobe, from the first men we see in the saloon to the legion of laborers on Jupiter to the all-female society on Venus. "Dawn really understood Corys notion of groups of isolated men and women and how fashion would get translated under those circumstances," says producer Taylor.
W. Mott Hupfel III photographed "The American Astronaut." He worked closely with McAbee to achieve a black and white that could help audiences suspend disbelief about an outer space where there is no atmosphere to filter light, while still leaving a lot up to the imagination. "We wanted the audience to see much of what is happening in shadow," explains McAbee. The Boys performance on stage was lit and photographed to create a massive shadow, which in some shots takes up much of the screen. Mott also lit and photographed The Boy like a silent movie star in the scenes that he and Curtis share in the space ship. Says McAbee," Mott worked on putting a little bit more light on Greg than on me. It was like a special effect that explained everything about our characters here was this dirty trader guy at the helm and next to him was this young hero. Mott understood what we were after and made the film look exactly right."
All of the music that appears in "The American Astronaut" was written and composed for the film by The Billy Nayer Shows McAbee, Bobby Lurie (on drums and one of the films producers), James Beaudreau (guitar) and Michael Silverman (bass). But as with all of The Billy Nayer Shows musical enterprises, McAbee worked to create a unique sound for the musical elements of "The American Astronaut"elements that not only advanced the films narrative, but fit the characters motivations and moods. Says McAbee, "One of the things about the film that makes it unlike other musicals is that the music is organic the people in the film arent just putting it out there for no reason. I wanted musical numbers to be fully integrated into the story. So one number happens at a dance contest, one at a rally of workers on Jupiter, and one number is even used as a kind of musical assault perpetrated against Curtis in a bathroom. Curtis uses song to make a grand entrance when he is in the open air of Venus, but even then he is serenading the ladies there to persuade them to do business. He is trying to charm them and soften them up."
"When we went to create the soundtrack," explained McAbee, "it was a more physical process than when we would record a new album. When I went in to talk with everyone about how I wanted a song to go, we would have to describe how the camera was moving, what the characters were doing, take into account choreography. Because of this, the ideas we had for the music going into the studio continued to develop, and the songs turned out greater than we ever anticipated."
Much of the film from the interiors of Curtis spaceship to the grand auditorium where the workers on all-male Jupiter rally was shot in an old ballroom in Maspeth, Queens. While providing a great "Art Deco gone wrong" space for such operatic moments as the song by the Boy Who Actually Saw a Womans Breast, the Maspeth location was a challenging place to shoot. Freezing cold, filthy with (noisy) nesting pigeons and located adjacent to a (noisier) major truck route, the production nonetheless had the run of their own soundstage for as long as they needed it, as well as an atmosphere that was as still and as cold and as dead as the face of the moon.
In the end, Music Director Bobby Lurie learned from making "The American Astronaut" that "People think that they can fix a film with music, as if music were a band-aid or something. It never works. But I also learned that you can take a good film and make it great with the right music. Our hope is that because we were able to listen to a lot of peoples ideas, and they were able to listen to ours, weve been able to come up with something really unique, really different, and really fun."
ABOUT THE BILLY NAYER SHOW
The Billy Nayer Show began in San Francisco about a decade ago and has since attracted a diverse and loyal following. Like a fat, brown trout, the band has thrived on the very edge of the mainstream. The bands following has remained consistent, perhaps because its members have worked hard to perform without pretense and maintain a high degree of integrity. Their live appearances have become legendary, as much for their energy as for their originality.
Lead singer and chief songwriter Cory McAbees writing and singing style has been called everything from manic to operatic. He balances a surprising core belief in the power of love, weaving pictures of affairs gone bad and redemption. McAbee's songs tend to be structured around a simple rock and roll paradigm, yet the bands devoted following seems to revel in the unique sound it creates for each new record it cuts. The Billy Nayer Show's dynamic sound may owe a lot to McAbee's main instruments: autoharp and ukulele. A rich carpet of harmonies and interplay with the band often creates a sense of otherworldliness in the bands songs.
Guitarist James Beaudreau has developed a reputation for playing like someone spinning a dozen plates at once. His unique sound -- biting, beautiful and melodic to the core gets to the root of the groups songs without relying on acrobatics.
Bassist Michael Silverman and drummer Bobby Lurie blast away on a hard groove one moment, then throw it all away at the next, so that sometimes they sound like an entire kitchen just got thrown out of a window from three flights up.
One of The Billy Nayer Show's great feats is to balance conflicting sounds, structures, and emotions. Like Lenny Bruce, the music can be funny and absurd, but beneath it lies a dark and human underbelly. And The Show rocks as hard as any one on planet earth.
The bands latest release, Return To Brigadoon, continues to defy categorization, moving from haunting ballads to full on orchestral anthems.
ABOUT THE CAST
Rocco Sisto has the fun role of Curtis obsessed nemesis Professor Hess. Sisto has appeared in such recent films as "Frequency," "Donnie Brasco," "Eraser" and John Turturros "Illuminata." He was seen recently on TV, as well, in roles on such programs as "The Sopranos," "Law & Order" and "Homicide." Highlights of his extensive career on stage include his work as Salieri in Sir Peter Halls production of Amadeus at the Music Box, and he originated the role of the Marquis de Sade in Doug Wrights Quills at the New York Theatre Workshop, for which he was honored with Obie, Drama League and Encore Awards, and for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. A classically trained stage actor, he is a founding member of Shakespeare and Co. In Lenox, MA.
Gregory Russell Cook
"THE BOY WHO ACTUALLY SAW A WOMANS BREAST"
Gregory Russell Cook may very well have a great 2001. In addition to his beautifully photographed role in "The American Astronaut," he will be seen in June of this year in Maggie Greenwalds "Songcatcher," to be released by Lions Gate Films. Cook made his feature debut in the independent film "The Prince of Central Park." He has been seen on television in "Law & Order" and in a recurring role on "The Babysitters Club." On stage, he has performed with the Steppenwolf Company in its Broadway production of "Grapes of Wrath" and was also featured in "The Kingdoms Coming," written by Jeff Daniels.
As Cloris, The Queen of Venus, Annie Golden gets to remind Samuel Curtis, after hes arrived on the all-female planet of Venus, that "If only you were twenty years younger wed all have our way with you." Golden can currently be seen on Broadway in the hit musical The Full Monty. Her other Broadway credits include On The Town, Ah Wilderness, and Hair. Her Off-Broadway credits include The Full Monty (at the Globe Theater), An Empty Plate, La Terrase, Saturn Returns,
On The Town, Assassins, and Little Shop of Horrors. Ms. Golden's film
credits include "Hair"; "The Pebble and the Penguin" and "12 Monkeys." Her TV credits include roles on "Law and Order," "Third Watch," "One Life To Live," "Cheers," "Miami Vice," and "House of Ramon Iglesia" for American Playhouse.
James "PJ" Ransone
"The American Astronaut" marks James Ransones motion picture debut. Well know to anyone familiar with Manhattan nightlife, Ransone, also known as "PJ," has worked for the last two and a half years as a photojournalist with one of the citys best-liked and highly published social photographers, Patrick McMullan. PJs work for Patrick has appeared in such publications as Interview, New York and Harpers Bazaar. A graduate of Carver Center for the Arts in his home town of Baltimore, where he studied theatre and fine arts, PJ moved to New York in 1997 to pursue a career in film. He will next be seen in "Ken Park," the new film from Larry Clark ("Kids," "Another Day in Paradise," "Bully"). PJ begins work on "Ken Park" in February. Ransone is also the lead singer for the neo-new wave rock band "The Misery."
THE BLUEBERRY PIRATE
A producer of "The American Astronaut," Taylor plays the role of the Blueberry Pirate, intergalactic trader and Curtis former Dance Partner. A graduate of Boston University where he earned a degree in dramatic studies, Taylor has been around film for many years, serving as a script consultant, executive producer and actor on several films, commercials and television shows. His directorial debut, "Dita and the Family Business," is distributed by First Run Features. In addition, Mr. Taylor has performed on stage in New York, regionally and internationally with such theater companies as Irondale Ensemble Project, Monkey Wrench Theater, HERE and Barrington Stage Company. Taylor has been the recipient of a 1997 New York State Council on the Arts grant and first prize at the 1994 Okrite International Theatre Festival in St. Petersberg, Russia, for his stage adaptation of You Cant Win.
THE OLD MAN
Tom Aldredge plays The Old Man, who will be remembered for his joke about a Hertz Doughnut. Aldredge first appeared in New York, Off-Broadway, as the Messenger in Electra in 1957. Since then he has enjoyed a career in an uncounted number of roles on Broadway, Off and Off-Off Broadway and in regional theatre; in many films, and on prime time TV and on the occasional Soap. On Broadway he has appeared in seminal works by Williams, Albee, ONeil and Sondheim. He received a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for Sticks and Bones and Tony Nominations for his work in Wheres Charlie?, The Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor and, most recently, the Sondheim-Lapine musical Passion. Aldredge has portrayed a wide range of Shakespearean and contemporary roles for the New York and Connecticut Shakespeare Festivals in such plays as Henry V, Loves Labours Lost, Romeo & Juliet, Trolious & Cressida, Hamlet, Richards II & III and King Lear. He received an Obie Award for his performance in Stock Up On Pepper Cause Turkeys Going To War and as Angelo in Measure for Measure. With much work on the small screen to his credit, Aldredge received an Emmy Award for his performance in the CBS Special "Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare." He has appeared in such films as "The Rain Peope," "Batteries Not Included," "See You in the Morning," "What About Bob?" and "The Adventures of Huck Finn."
Peter McRobbie has appeared in eight films by Woody Allen, most recently in "Small Time Crooks." He appeared in John Singletons "Shaft" and in the Sundance hit "Big Night," and has a new film development project at Sundance. On television, McRobbie has been seen in "The Sopranos," A fixture on the New York theatre scene, McRobbie has appeared in eleven Broadway plays and many Off Broadway productions.
As Eddie, the owner of the saloon where Curtis first lands and lead singer during the Dance Contest, Bill Buell seemed to enjoy working in a rock and roll musical. He has appeared on Broadway in numerous productions, including Anna Karenina, Titanic, Tommy, Taking Steps, Big River, Welcome To The Club, Annie, The First, and The Miser. Off-Broadway he has appeared in Nicolette & Aucassin (Westport Country Playhouse), Tartuffe, The Winters Tale (New York Shakespeare Festival), Picasso At The Lapin Agile and The Common Pursuit (Promenade Theatre), Bad Habits, Groundhog, and Aristocrats (Manhattan Theatre Club), On the Bum (Playwrights Horizons), Waste (Theatre for New Audience). He has appeared in such films as Darren Aranofskys "Requiem for a Dream," Todd Solondz "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and in the most recent version of "Miracle on 34th Street." On television, Buell has appeared on "Law & Order," "Cosby," "All My Children," "One Life To Live," and "Guiding Light."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER
Writer / Director/ "Samuel Curtis"
Cory McAbee was born in San Rafael, California. He began work on his first animated film, "Billy Nayer," in 1988, while simultaneously writing for and creating a musical performance group of the same name. The film was completed in 1992 and premiered at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. It screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the American Independent Animation Series. It won the award for Best Animated Short in the 1993 USA Film Festival in Dallas. It was featured in the 24th International Tournee of Animation and has aired repeatedly on PBS.
Work on the musical film, "The Ketchup and Mustard Man" followed, including live performances of the material that would eventually end up in the film. Like many elements of "The American Astronaut," "The Ketchup and Mustard Man" was a truly hand-crafted film; the furniture, paintings, and props created for the film remained on exhibit at the Pro-Arts Gallery in Oakland for the next two months. The finished film premiered at The Castro Theatre in July 1994. It has since received many honors, including best short film at the 1995 Chicago Underground Film Festival.
In 1992, McAbee completed his second short film, "The Man On The Moon."
This film was shot on a Fisher Price Pixel Camera and premiered in 16mm in
1993 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. A hand-sculpted prop from this film was displayed at San Franciscos New Langton Arts Gallery. "The Man On The Moon" has been exhibited throughout the US and Europe.
With McAbee as its front man, The Billy Nayer Show has released several albums and has been awarded the 1993 San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award for Best Musical Group and the 1994 SF Weekly WAMMIE award. They were nominated for a BAMMIE in 1996 and selected to compete in a regional GRAMMY showcase that same year.
McAbee has been a frequent guest lecturer at Stanford University and at
the San Francisco Art Institute.