This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand presents “Bam Bam and Celeste”, starring and written by comedian Margaret Cho. The first feature film made by Cho and her long-time creative partner Lorene Machado, “Bam Bam” is a hilarious road-trip, buddy movie that follows the exploits of social outcasts Celeste (Cho) and Bam Bam (Bruce Daniels), as they leave their mid-Western hometown for the bright lights of New York and a shot at winning the reality make-over show “Trading Faces.” Director Lorene Machado sat down with us to answer a few questions about the film
You’ve directed all of Margaret Cho’s stand-up concert films as well as “Bam Bam and Celeste”, her first narrative screenplay. Can you tell us a bit about your creative partnership? How did you begin working together, and for “Bam Bam”, what was the process like creating something very different, like a feature film, after making several concert films together? Margaret and I met in 1992 when I was a producer on the “Bob Hope Specials” for NBC, and I booked her for our “Ladies of Laughter” episode. That was before “All American Girl,” and I’d seen her do a five-minute set on a cable show. From that point on, we remained friends and always saw each other out and about at various comedy clubs in Los Angeles. We share the same sensibility when it comes to stand-up comedy, and actually, comedy in general. Both of us were hugely influenced by Richard Pryor’s stand-up films, and when she wanted to do her first concert film, “I’m the One that I Want,” I was really happy to get the call. That was 1999, and we had no idea at the time that we would still be producing these films over a decade later. At this point, our collaboration comes easily. I feel like I have a good sense of how Margaret wants her shows to be captured, and there’s a lot of trust between us.
“Bam Bam and Celeste” was a completely different direction for us. Again, I was very flattered that she asked me to direct this film. I clearly remember reading the script for the first time in an airport, laughing out loud, and drawing a lot of stares. It took about a year to get our final funding in place, and during that time, I worked very closely with Margaret and our amazing producers, Eva Kolodner and Yael Melamede, to develop the project. So in a sense, we had a long pre-production period where we got to map out a game plan for shooting the film. We were also able to get a top-notch crew on board. Our DP, Matthew Clark, went on to be the DP on “30 Rock” and is in huge demand these days. There was a lot of talent on this film and we all loved working together.
“Bam Bam” was made in 2005 and features an all-star cast, including: Jane Lynch (in her pre-Glee days), Alan Cummings, John Cho, Wilson Cruz, as well as its leads, Margaret and Bruce Daniels. Tell us about how the film was cast, and how it was to harness all of that talent into the film. Margaret wrote this script with certain actors in mind, and while we held auditions, we also did a lot of the casting by simply offering the roles to the people she wrote for. And for the most part, everyone simply said “yes.” One of the great things about “Bam Bam and Celeste” is that it’s very cameo-friendly. So we were able to shoot everyone out in a few days, which also opened our options as far as the cast was concerned. We also had the chance to read-through the scenes with cast before we shot. That was invaluable, because we had so little time when we were shooting. We pretty much shot two takes at the most, and then we’d have to move on. But when you’re working with such amazing actors, they can nail the scene in pretty much any way possible. Everyone knew that this was a low-budget film, and they were there because they wanted to be there and because they loved the script. There was a lot of pressure on us in terms of our shoot schedule, but it was not a tense set. In fact, it was very playful. We let the cast improvise, and Jane, in particular, would just slay us with with every take. With Alan, we were just in awe of what he could do, and he’s a pleasure to work with. The last scene we shot was with Kathy Najimy, and it was all we could do not to laugh out loud the whole time. I loved this cast — they’re all total pros. They brought so much to the table and I’m honored to have worked with them.
How did you approach creating the comedy in “Bam Bam”? It has been described as campy film, was this something you intended? My approach was to play it straight, and not play it campy. We wanted the performances to be straight-forward and not exaggerated, and that just made them funnier. Elaine Hendrix’s character, Jackie, could have easily been a caricature if she’d been yelling and screaming, but Elaine’s even-tempered choices made Jackie so much more three-dimensional and funny and scary. We never intentionally played to the camp factor.
The 80s, road trips and buddy movies all seem like they were inspirations for “Bam Bam”. Were there any films in particular which inspired the tone, aesthetic and energy of “Bam Bam”? Would you believe “Withnail and I” was a huge influence on this film? It was. Also, Margaret and I like Australian comedies like “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” There’s something so honest about these films and I appreciate how they’re silly, unapologetic, and free-spirited. We wanted to make a fun film about the journey of these two best friends, and the deep love and deep pain that comes with those relationships. Margaret made 80’s mix tapes for each character, and we watched films like “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Valley Girl” to stay true to that 80’s vibe. Of course, we’re all pretty much 80’s geeks, so that era is already in our blood.
What is next for you? Right now we’re doing the film festival circuit with Margaret’s latest concert film, “Cho Dependent,” which will soon be airing on Showtime. We’ve had some amazing screenings all over the country, and we’re happy that we’ll be able to get the film out to a broad audience. As for myself, I have a huge love for documentary films and I’ve been offered a couple of documentary projects that I’m really excited about. I’m drawn to stories about oddballs and outsiders, and these projects are right up my alley. I’m not sure which one is going to ramp up first, but it’s nice to have the choices. I wear a lot of hats as a writer, editor and producer, as well directing, so luckily, I always manage to stay busy.