Alex Holdridge remembers the moment when he didn’t quit; the moment when he found some faith to hold onto during the tsunami of hell that was swamping him. When his eureka moment arrived, Holdridge was crashing at the shabby apartment of his friend, the actor and musician Brian Matthew McGuire.
“I remember being stuck there in that shower in Brian’s place, and we’re under rent control, so he never wants to call the landlord because they want him out, because he’s paying way too low of a rent, and so the bathroom is clogged and he was afraid to call,” recalls Holdridge, who converses in run-on sentences and who has a thick heaping of blond hair on top of his pale face. “I remember standing in this pool of water, other people’s bath water, and I’m like, what the hell happened to my life?”
At the same time, Holdridge knew that all aspiring filmmakers, or artists, struggle on their way to the top. “Part of me was like, well, you’re here, you’re dealing with it, you’re really giving it everything you have,” he says “It’s easy to be safe and seclude yourself in a smaller place where you feel like people will reward you emotionally a little more.”
That safer, smaller place Holdridge thought of as the grungy bath water swirled around his ankles was most likely Austin, Texas. That’s where Holdridge and many of the friends (including McGuire) who comprise the cast and crew of his new film, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, first came together and started winning the accolades and validation that send dream-filled young men and women West.
Back then, Holdridge, who attended the University of Texas, was deep into the mix of art-house, coffee-culture and independent filmmaking that defined Austin in the ’90s, high on the good vibrations of locals Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Wes Anderson.
“Robert Rodriguez had just made his movie [El Mariachi] and Slacker had just come out and Dazed and Confused was just doing its thing,” remembers Holdridge, who still carries himself with the endearing awkwardness of a recent grad. “It was, like, a really good time to be 18 or 19, going to watch indie films and being, like, oh man, we can do it ourselves. We can tell our own stories.”
So he did. Holdridge’s first indie feature, Wrong Numbers, won the audience award at the 2001 Austin Film Festival. In 2003, his follow-up, Sexless, became the first film to win both the audience and competition awards at South By Southwest. Hollywood came calling, and, as it has for so many young men and women who leave the safe confines of home for the bright lights of the big city, the shit hit the fan.
I am sitting with Holdridge and his two Midnight Kiss leads, Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds, at Café Audrey in Hollywood, a strangely cheerless place that disappoints as both a coffee shop and an homage to Audrey Hepburn. The three have the easy manner of old friends about them, which they are, having worked together on Holdridge’s Austin indies and having spent much of the past 18 months on the road, as their latest collaboration wound its way through festivals around the world, winning fans and distribution deals wherever it went. They also carry the newfound joie de vivre of having survived their Hollywood horror stories, which they can now relate with something like good humor.
“When I moved here, I was on Mansfield and Fountain, and there were gunshots every night. I was in a one-bedroom apartment with three girls. It was so bad,” says Simmonds, who is from Houston. In this group dynamic, she plays the role of the younger sister to older brothers Holdridge and McNairy, who tease her in her absence when a call from her ex shows up on her phone while she’s in the bathroom.
For his part, McNairy remembers being isolated and lonely during his early days in L.A. “I’d just leave the house and go walk around town, for probably like a year, not knowing anybody,” says the actor, who wears a shirt and tie in a slightly disheveled way and speaks with the unhurried ease of an Everyman who knows he’s funny but doesn’t overdo it.
Simmonds and McNairy agree, though, that their own travails are no match for their director’s. Like McNairy’s character in Midnight Kiss, Holdridge crashed his car on the way here from Austin (the photos of a flipped and wrecked car on the side of the road seen early in the film are actually his). His girlfriend dumped him. A bicyclist stole his laptop from a stroller while he was out for a walk with his sister and nephew. Bad enough, but in this case, the laptop contained the script over which Hollywood beckoned him — a remake of Wrong Numbers. By the time Holdridge rewrote from scratch Wrong Numbers, a movie with a similar premise had recently been released. Meanwhile, he was confined to the living room of his friend’s apartment while the stoner roommate who was supposed to move out instead stayed stoned. As for work, the only gig Holdridge could get was a $7-an-hour job at a video store. “Like, all these actors are good-looking and they take all the table-waiting jobs,” he laughs. “I mean, I could do it, but I’m not quite good-looking enough to oust an actor.”
Oh, and somewhere in there, Holdridge lost a tooth and had a hernia.
“I’d hook up with him and I’d hear about how he got fucked over on that, lost his tooth, had a hernia, and I’d be like, ‘It’s all right man, things are looking up — you have your rewrite for your studio thing,’” recalls McNairy. “And he’d be like, ‘Someone else is making the fucking same thing.’ And I’d be like, ‘Well, you have your girlfriend.’ … ‘She left me.’ And I’d be like [laughing], ‘Wow, I don’t know what to say.’”
The accumulation of crises had the one-time indie wunderkind from Austin questioning his very identity.
“It’s feeling like you’re not going to be given an opportunity, not knowing if you have the energy to start over because every movie takes such a tremendous amount of energy — financially, emotionally, putting everything you have into it,” says Holdridge as he pecks away at something that resembles a club sandwich. “You feel like you’re exposing yourself and the intimate details of your life and putting it all on credit cards and you’re thinking, ‘God, if this doesn’t work out, I can’t do it again. I’m going to die doing this.’”
In Search of a Midnight Kiss, by turns a tender and coarse love story of sorts set on New Year’s Eve, when Los Angeles’ desperation is as thick as its traffic, trickled like blood from Holdridge’s open wounds.
“We had been talking about it for about two years,” Holdridge says. “I kept saying, ‘Man, we got to do one like we did in Austin, where we don’t have to wait for the money. You know, we can do it on the streets.’ When my friend called and was like, ‘I got a camera,’ I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ So, I wrote the script very quickly and called everybody and started shooting.”
“We were doing all this in Austin, just grabbing a camera and going,” seconds McNairy. “Then we came out here and I guess the studio system brought everything to a halt, and we were like, ‘Why don’t we go back to what we were doing before?’”
While Holdridge’s film is at least partly about the redemptive power of love, the filmmaking itself can readily be seen as a lesson in the redemptive power of returning to one’s roots. Everyone chipped in, like the old days, filling roles both on and off camera. McNairy helped to produce the film. Simmonds was conscripted into hair and makeup and even found herself holding the boom mike for some shots.
“When you watch the credits roll, the ‘thank you’s’ go on for 10 minutes,” she says.
“Yeah, and the crew goes on for two seconds,” Holdridge jokes.
The result is a cool little film, done the way they wanted it to be done, which is being hailed in some circles as nothing less than a return to the glory days of indie film. When I ask the trio if there’s a certain amount of trepidation that goes with standing on the precipice of the film’s theatrical release after it has spent so long as the darling of the festival circuit, Holdridge tells me he’s filled with a mix of pure excitement and fear. “You know, it’s gotten such an enormous reception … and it’s just beginning,” he says. “You’re at that phase where you’re hoping —”
“I’m scared to death,” Simmonds interrupts. “We’re at the point where it’s either going to happen … it just has to happen. I mean, we’ve been all over the world with this film. This has been our lives for the last two years. It’s kind of a bittersweet sadness, because it’s almost over in a way. You know, we’ve traveled together, sleeping in the same beds together, on floors. … It’s been such an amazing ride. I’m scared, but I’m also excited to see what’s going to come for all of us. And I think we’ll continue to make films together.”
“Yes,” Holdridge assures.
“Hey, I’m moving on to bigger and better things,” jokes McNairy.
Somehow, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this crew.