Features & Columns

Cinequest: Filmmaker
Matt Szymanowski

We're looking for audience response and feedback
to show us what's working, and what isn't
PURPLE'S PROSE: Comedian Edwin Li began as the subject of a documentary about comedians and ended up as a co-writer on a feature film about a comedian's life.

At Cinequest this year, the director of the feature film The Purple Onion, filmmaker Matt Szymanowski—working "just down the street from San Jose" in San Francisco—aims to get the audience to help him decide how to proceed. "It's a sneak preview of the rough cut, and we're looking for audience response and feedback to show us what's working, and what isn't. It's a great opportunity to showcase the film in an intimate setting." The Polish-born filmmaker already had a very good and intriguing 32-minute short, History of Solitude, at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival. He directed it at the famed Polish film school in Lodz, where Kieslowski and Polanski studied. Szymanowski had also worked as a volunteer at Cinequest years ago.

He sums up The Purple Onion, which he wrote at the MacDowell Art Colony: "It's about people figuring out how they need each other. In San Francisco, there's a struggling Chinese-American comedian, not making things happen—he's troubled by women and work. He's got one friend, really, and then someone shows up from his past, a motherly figure—is she his mom? His aunt? It's up to the audience to decide. Her presence is at first a distraction, but then she helps him find strength within himself: that thing that he needs to achieve."

Szymanowski had gone to San Francisco State University to learn filmmaking but dropped out after a few months. He promised himself he'd have a feature film done by the time he would have graduated. The idea for The Purple Onion came from some time Szymanowski spent working at Cobb's and other comedy clubs in San Francisco. He'd originally thought of making a documentary about Edwin Li (not to be confused with San Francisco mayor Edwin Lee), a local comedian who had just relocated to Los Angeles. He'd been hauling around video equipment recording Li's performance and offstage life.

"January 1, 2011, I woke up at 4am with an epiphany," Szymanowski said. "This film isn't supposed to be a documentary; this is going to be a feature film about the trials and tribulations of a failing comedian, a sad clown type." Li now has story credit on the film.

The director took the title of his indie film from a well known San Francisco nightclub that finally expired. "It's in honor of that very famous club on Columbus Avenue where Woody Allen and Phyllis Diller performed—it closed in 2012, and they're going to change it into a little restaurant. The original plan was to shoot there and have a grand finale scene, to ground the film in the city and reality. And then it closed. We figured the title was great, very abstract—it could mean anything, regarding layers or tears."

Coming in a little past the deadline he set for himself, Szymanowski is almost finished; clips of The Purple Onion are on YouTube already, though the $20,000 he raised on Indiegogo is depleted. One of the matters he'd like to discuss with the audience is an additional Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaign to finish this film. "We're bouncing around a lot of ideas," he says.

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