How "Somebody Up There Likes Me" Came to be Made

Photo Credit: Tribeca Films
August 9th, 2012

How "Somebody Up There Likes Me" Came to be Made

-- The indie film "Somebody Up There Likes Me" marks the fifth writing/directing effort of Bob Byington, an Austin filmmaker who began his career in 1996. If you're wondering why it took Byington over 15 years to make just six films, it's not because he is a slacker.

After Byington graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in American Studies, he decided to stay in Austin, which was a hotbed of young, idealistic people who shared the same world views. He decided to become a filmmaker, and set about making the low-budget "Shameless," which came out in 1996. Two years later, he would release the little-seen "Olympia."

His third film was "RSO (Registered Sex Offender)," a faux documentary about a registered sex offender trying to find his way back into society, which was released in 2008. That leaves a 10-year gap between "Olympia" and "RSO (Registered Sex Offender)." It wasn't that Byington had a crisis of conscience or decided to switch careers. All he would tell those curious enough to ask was that he went on a hiatus that was "God imposed." He resurfaced in 2005 to collect a prize for writing a short story, and then he went back into hiatus until he began filming "RSO."

His status within the filmmaking world took a giant leap in 2009 with "Harmony and Me," which went on a 2-year tour of the world, screening at several independent film festivals. The success of this film helped make "Somebody Up There Likes Me" a reality.

Up until "Somebody Up There Likes Me," Byington had been lumped in with a group of directors who are a part of a genre called "mumblecore." Mumblecore films are marked by the chattiness of their dialogue and often don't have a strict script, if they have any at all. Some or all of the film is generally improvised to make the verbal exchanges seem more realistic. Some of the more noted filmmakers of this genre include Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers.

Though Byington admits to owing a debt to trailblazers like Bujalski, he also feels that his work is not really mumblecore. When "Somebody Up There Likes Me" premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in March 2012, critics and fans who were used to the low-budget, improvised style that had marked Byington's previous efforts were taken aback by how conventional the film was.

However, fans who love the more eccentric side of Byington's work shouldn't fret. "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is still weird to the core, though very accessible to a wider audience. The way that Byington manages to deftly balance weird and accessible is a testament to how much he has grown as a filmmaker. It also can serve as an example for other indie filmmakers on how to make a scripted film that still feels improvised.

The film centers on sad sack Max (Keith Poulson), a man who doesn't age, possibly due to the contents of a mysterious briefcase that shows up throughout the movie. The briefcase is very "Pulp Fiction" in its portrayal, until the animated sequence happens. Yes, there is some animation that occurs randomly in the film, which helps up the weird ante significantly. Max has a best friend, who is also his only friend, in Sal (Nick Offerman). The two bumble through life together with no real aim, watching time and life pass them by without really thinking about the lost time. They aren't exactly slackers, because they do manage to hold down menial jobs, but they aren't exactly go-getters either. They both take a shining to the mousy Lyla (Jess Weixler), who Max meets when she dines at the restaurant he works at.

Max impulsively asks Lyla to marry him, and she agrees despite the fact that they barely know each other and neither of them seem too enthused about marriage. You get the feeling these two are getting married because they are supposed to and not because they want to. Ironically, their sham marriage might be the most conventional thing any of them do. The film then takes you on the journey of these three characters as they try not to figure out what to do with their lives.

Will Byington become the next big thing in Hollywood? Not likely, because he has expressed his desire to stay in Austin, but he doesn't rule out making a big studio film. The big studios may not be ready for Byington's eccentric take on life, but here's hoping that they at least give it a try.