Thursday, September 1, 2011


Meet The Welcoming Committee:
Have Arrived

An EXCLUSIVE interview with director Archie Gips and
producer Matthew Hunt

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     If you’ve ever been a tourist in a strange, but exciting city (and I’m sure most of you have), then you’ve seen them in practically every tourist town in America, from theme parks to fried chicken stands: average people dressing up as famous cartoon and movie characters, enchanting the kids and posing for pictures with the family. Most of the time, these ‘characters’ are minimum wage employees sponsored by local businesses and theme parks with the sole intention of entertaining patrons.
     If you walk down Hollywood Boulevard, you are likely to come across a myriad of these costumed characters along the way, especially in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater. Often times, these may be the first people to greet tourists as they take their inaugural stroll through one of the most famous cities in the world. For better or worse, these are the unofficial ‘Ambassadors Of Hollywood’.
     From Elmo to Batman, Snow White to Captain Jack Sparrow, these ‘characters’ that mingle with hundreds if not thousands of people daily are not employed by the city of Hollywood or any of the businesses that line the street. They work strictly on tips and this most likely is their only source of income. While some of the faces behind the masks are out of work actors and comedians waiting until their next paying gig, most of them are homeless and, in many cases, emotionally unstable. Welcome to Hollywood!
     In Ambassadors Of Hollywood, filmmakers Archie Gips and Matthew Hunt take an intimate and often-times uncomfortable look at the real people behind these characters. From a troubled, semi-racist ex-con to a former Wall Street banker, each and every one of the film’s subjects is fascinating. Even though a few of them are as down-to-earth and likable as anyone you could meet, there are a handful of them that probably should not be allowed to mix with the general public at all. Some of these misguided miscreants have uncontrollable tempers while others are aggressively seeking money for their next fix. The reason that Ambassadors Of Hollywood is so successful is that it takes an unbiased look at each of the individuals and leaves judgment up to the viewer.
     While there have been similar films made about this very subject, including the excellent Confessions Of A Superhero, this is a film that offers up a gritty, humorous sometimes disturbing but always fascinating glimpse into these seemingly innocent characters and the real people behind them.
     Growing up, almost every kid has a dream to become a rich and famous celebrity, but at some point, we’ve all abandoned those dreams and pursued more realistic goals. In Ambassadors Of Hollywood, we meet a group of people who have never given up on their dreams although society has all but given up on them. The film manages to show a darker, but still hopeful, side of the American Dream that we all can relate to. While some may seem delusional on the surface, if you look hard enough, you will notice that they have never lost hope that their big break is just around the next corner. And perhaps it is…
     In many ways, Ambassadors Of Hollywood is a reflection of life in any town. From the once-successful to the ne’er do well, these are the same types of people that you meet every single day. The only difference is these guys and gals are wearing costumes!
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with filmmakers Archie Gips and Matthew Hunt to discuss the film…

SPAZ: The Ambassadors Of Hollywood is just about ready to drop. How are you feeling about the film and all the hard work up to this point?
ARCHIE GIPS & MATTHEW HUNT: It’s been such a long time in the making… over four years.. that we are both just thrilled to finally have the film out and available for people to see. The movie really delves into a crazy and special world that has never been shown in its proper light until now.

SPAZ: What was the initial inspiration for the film?
AG & MH: We were working on an indie feature, Loveless in Los Angeles, (Archie wrote/directed, Matt produced) shooting a scene in front of the Chinese Theater where our lead actress was dressed like Wonder Woman. At the time, we both just assumed that the costumed characters were employees of the theater or the city. We didn’t realize they worked freelance. Our actress was confronted by a woman dressed as Fiona from Shrek who gave her a hard time saying, ‘You're cutting in on my spot!” It was literally a turf war down there. We both turned to each other and at the same time said this is our next movie!

SPAZ: Tourists love them, but the city of Hollywood hates them. Which side of the argument were you on when you started filming and did that opinion change over time?
AG & MH: First off, we wouldn’t say that all tourists love them and that the city of Hollywood hates them. There are definitely some tourists who aren’t fans and some businesses in Hollywood that appreciate the characters' value. We actually took great pains to trying to stay as neutral and balanced as possible . When it came to discussions about certain scenes, Archie was concerned for the welfare of the tourists on the boulevard and Matt for the well-being of the characters. That difference helped us craft a balanced film.

SPAZ: When you decided to make the film, did you already have a clear idea of what you wanted your message to be? Or did It change over time as you got to know those people and became part of their world?
AG & MH: We both decided we would try to be as open minded and non-judgmental as possible. We knew this world was unique so we just started shooting to see where these characters would take us. After amassing over 200 hours of footage and interviewing over 100 people – both characters and Los Angeles business people and police- it was obvious which characters and stories stood out. We continued to follow those stories and put together a flow chart. We feel we captured stories that told personal narratives yet had universal themes.

SPAZ: Was it easy to get to these folks involved with the project?
AG & MH: Not at first. No. It took a while for the characters to gain our trust. We started shooting right away with city officials but It took over a month of hanging out on the boulevard until we finally were able to get our first interview with a character, Donn Harper who plays “Elmo.” Once Donn spread the word to the other characters that we were “cool” all of a sudden the flood gates opened. We wound up interviewing over 80 characters and many of the most bizarre and outrageous ones didn’t even make the cut of the final film.

SPAZ: What were the criteria you had when choosing which characters to focus on for the film? There must have been plenty of folks who wanted to partake?
AG & MH: We were open to interviewing any and all characters. If someone wanted us to interview them, we would do it. No questions asked. The characters we choose to highlight in our movie were the ones that had a story that the audience could relate to and had a complete arc of some sort--uplifting, soul searching, or tragic.

SPAZ: You shot the film over a four year period. Why did it take so long to put this project together?
AG & MH: Two reasons. First and foremost we wanted to really document the evolution of the people on the Boulevard. That cannot be done in a snapshot. We prided ourselves on not manufacturing any stories. To get these real stories it took time. Secondly, like most independent projects, money or lack thereof was an issue. As a passion project, we along with our terrific editor, Kevin Kearney had other jobs to pay the bills so we were limited in how much time we could devote to the film on a weekly basis. Fortunately, being forced to stretch out the making of the film resulted in a better end product.

SPAZ: Were you surprised by the fact that so many of these ‘characters’ were so serious about what they do and consider themselves performers and artists?
AG & MH: Not really. It seems like everyone is coming to Hollywood to fulfill their entertainment dreams, the two of us included. It seemed to us that dressing up and performing for tourists was a way some of these people can feel that they were indeed acting here, which they are. What did surprise us was the number of people who dressed up in character to make money to just survive and keep a roof over their heads.

SPAZ: Did you find that there was animosity between those that are serious about their ‘art’ and those that view it as a way to make money?
AG & MH: There definitely are some characters out on the Boulevard that take their craft very seriously and are appalled by the behavior of other characters. One of the big pet peeves is taking off your mask in front of the public-- especially children-- and smoking in costume. Violent and aggressive behavior is also frowned upon by the majority of characters. Ultimately though, anyone is free to put on a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard so there’s not much that they can do to regulate each other.

SPAZ: You offer a fascinating view into the private lives of these people. When putting the film together, was it difficult to remain neutral and unbiased when choosing what made the final cut?
AG & MH: We are great friends but we tend to disagree… a lot! Our not seeing eye to eye was a great thing for this project because when we did agree we really knew what was worth making the final cut. We did shoot one specific sequence where Archie dressed up in costume and worked on the Boulevard to see what it was like to walk in the characters' shoes. Although the footage made for some entertaining material, ultimately we felt the scene would have been more about the filmmakers than the subject matter so we decided to scrap it. But for the record, Archie made $86 in three hours.

SPAZ: Some of the characters are grounded and seemingly normal, while others are obviously troubled individuals. Were there any uncomfortable moments that you experienced that you chose NOT to put in the film?
AG & MH: We captured plenty of uncomfortable moments which made it in the film. However, there was one character who revealed some very disturbing details about his life but he turned out to be a less than reliable subject. It was difficult for us to ascertain the truth from fiction, so we decided not to include the majority of his story.

SPAZ: Do you feel that The Ambassadors of Hollywood parallels life in any part of the country, whether it’s people dressing up in costume or average people who are just trying to make ends meet?
AG & MH: Absolutely. The film, we feel, is such an amazing blend of people trying to fulfill the “American Dream” of a rags-to-riches success and the “Hollywood Dream” of becoming famous and beloved by fans. I don’t think you can find a single person in this country that doesn’t aspire to at least one of those dreams. Other aspects of the film like racism, health care and homelessness all apply to any town in America.

SPAZ: The film is a sometimes uncomfortable look at the darker side of the American Dream. Was it difficult to walk that thin line between exploration and exploitation?
AG & MH: We would have many conversations about how far we could go without feeling like we were making fun of these people instead of just exploring their lives, but since we are both decent human beings – or at least we like to think so—we always felt that we were showing everything about this world and the characters lives in a very fair light. When we wound up screening the film for a bunch of characters and city officials and both groups came back to us saying that not only did they enjoy the movie, but that it was honest and fair, we were thrilled.

SPAZ: By the end of the film, the city of Hollywood has all but cleared the streets of these performers. What is the situation as of July 2011? And are you still in regular contact with these people?
AG & MH: As of right now, the characters are once again allowed to pose for pictures on Hollywood Boulevard by a judge's order. . but there are still ongoing discussions on what to do there: the struggle continues!. And yes, we stay in touch with about a dozen or so of the characters. Mainly, they want to know about the DVD release of the film and any upcoming screenings because of course, they still are hoping to become rich and famous!

SPAZ: What’s next for Archie Gips and Matthew Hunt?
ARCHIE: I have been working full time in television. I’m currently the Executive Producer for Braxton Family Values on We TV. In film, I am sending out my latest feature script, Trailer Park King, to actors and financiers.
MATTHEW: I am cutting my Indie feature F.A.T. for release. It has Katie Featherston from Paranormal Activity, and Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family in it. I'm also preparing two reality pilots and one hour long drama, as well as running after my 3 year old, Romero!

SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD and DVD players?
ARCHIE: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros always puts me in a good mood. I just recently watched the re-issue of Ace in the Hole. Billy Wilder is my idol. Talk about a dark movie! That film makes Ambassadors of Hollywood seem like The Muppet Movie.
MATTHEW: If we can get Romero down, we have Winter's Bone to watch. I just listened to a Philip Glass collection while I was writing.

Thanks to Archie Gips and Matthew Hunt

Special thanks to Doug Dohmen and Lauren Watt

No comments: