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The Protagonist Is, Uh, A Heavy Guy

August 17th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Tao of Steve, 2000, poster Tao of Steve, 2000, DVD

The Tao of Steve (2000)
Screenplay by Greer Goodman & Jenniphr Goodman and Duncan North, story by Duncan North
Directed by Jenniphr Goodman
Produced by Good Machine
Running time: 87 minutes

So, What’s This About?
At his 10-year high school reunion in Santa Fe, a chubby slouch named Dex (Donal Logue) and his married conquest (Ayelet Kaznelson) get it on in the library. Shuffling back to the festivities, Dex uses his knowledge of world religion to charm a student bartender (Dana Goodman), but it’s the avid blonde drummer in a band who catches his eye. Dex’s married friends (David Aaron Baker, Nina Jaroslaw) introduce the drummer as their friend Syd (Greer Goodman) staying with the couple while in town to design an opera set. Articulate, intelligent and confident, Dex neglects to recall Syd from a philosophy class they took in college.

Dividing his time between playing Frisbee golf with his buddies, teaching kindergarten part-time and bong smoking, Dex advises a goofy pal (Kimo Wills) on the art of seducing women if you don’t have good looks to fall back on: Eliminate your desires. Do something spectacular in their presence. Retreat. Dex refers to his dating philosophy as the Tao of Steve, as in the cool American male: “Steve McGarrett”, “Steve Austin” and Steve McQueen. With their motorcycles both out of commission, Dex plies his charms on Syd while sharing rides to work, but learns he’s dug himself a hole with Syd by completely forgetting he slept with her in college.

Tao of Steve, 2000, Donal Logue, Greer Goodman

Who Made It?

Jenniphr Goodman received her BA in creative writing and filmmaking from Pitzer College in 1984. She returned to her hometown of Cleveland to teach preschoolers art before earning a master’s degree from NYU Film School. In 1994, Goodman moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, who was earning his teaching credential. For two years, the couple stayed with a buddy her husband had befriended at St. John’s College named Duncan North. Goodman observed North — overweight and underemployed — seduce two of her friends using a set of unique philosophies on life and dating. She began thinking about making a film about him.

Her younger sister Greer Goodman — who’d been involved with North briefly before graduating Yale Drama School — considered giving up acting and going back to school for a degree in forensic psychology when she offered to help Jenniphr on her script, thinking there might be a role for her. After two and half years of writing, the Goodmans went into pre-production in 1998. Cinematographer and NYU alum Teodoro Maniaci took their script to New York based production company Good Machine, which was able to secure financing. When screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2000, The Tao of Steve proved one of the biggest crowd pleasers in the festival’s history.

Tao of Steve, 2000, Donal Logue, David Aaron Baker

How’d They Do It?

Duncan North recalled the origins of the Tao of Steve by stating, “When I was a teenager I was really into Eastern philosophy and had read about Taoism and its emphasis on desirelessness and waiting for things to come to you and not pursuing them. And I went to a bar when I was 16 with a bunch of friends of mine who were all thinner and better looking and a beautiful woman came in and they all started to hit on her, and I knew I didn’t have a chance of scoring with this woman. So I let go of my desire to score with her and later I got into an argument with her about politics, which I know something about.”

He continued, “And after the argument I left, went outside to smoke a cigarette and a few minutes later she came outside and gave me her phone number. And then like the apple falling out of the tree onto Isaac Newton’s head, I sort of discovered the Tao of Steve. Much like gravity I discovered if you let go of your desire and do something excellent in front of a woman and then get the hell out of there, then there’s a good chance she’ll be interested.” Jenniphr Goodman had known North for six years and never considered his life story to have movie potential. That changed when she spent two years sharing his house, watching the O.J. Simpson trial and talking philosophy.

Tao of Steve, 2000, Dana Goodman, Donal Logue

Jenniphr Goodman recalled, “I knew Duncan was smart and witty and charming, but there was a depth there that I didn’t suspect. When I lived with him, he and I spent a lot of time talking and hanging out, talking about a wide range of topics from evolutionary psychology to why women are women and why men are men. We talked about God a lot. I had never really had that experience, because, you know, I never really talked about God with my friends.” Greer Goodman added, “Here’s a guy who sleeps with married women. And then he’s so wonderful with children, and so wonderful with animals. He challenges your idea of what it means to be a good person.”

Capturing North’s act in a documentary was Jenniphr Goodman’s initial idea. Once Greer became involved, the sisters considered a one-man play before arriving on a feature film. Jenniphr Goodman recalled, “The hardest part was coming up with some kind of story. We knew we had a very compelling character, but we had no real story. Duncan wanted to make a car chase, drug deal, cops-and-guns road movie. We wanted to make a more personal odyssey film. We dragged him screaming into the personal journey story. And then we dragged him even further into the romantic comedy.” Jenniphr Goodman spent two and a half years conferring with North on a script while emailing her sister back and forth in New York.

Tao of Steve, 2000, Donal Logue, Greer Goodman

Jenniphr Goodman had a friend from NYU named Teodoro Maniaci who’d shot a Good Machine production titled Luminous Motion. On his own, the cinematographer passed the Goodmans’ script to Good Machine VP of Production Anthony Bregman, who offered to secure financing if the sisters would bump production back and work on their script. Refusing at first, Jenniphr Goodman would reconsider. Bregman recalled, “We went through more than 10 drafts. That’s one of the luxuries about independent film, you often have time to make the script perfect. You’re always waiting for something — an actor’s schedule to free up, more money to appear — so you have lots of time to reschedule, re-budget, and rewrite.”

To star as Dex, Jenniphr Goodman had her sights set on Donal Logue. Initially ignored because he was deemed too thin, Goodman’s casting directors mentioned Logue, who’d appeared memorably in MTV promos as a yik-yakking cabbie and in Blade as a pesky vampire. Goodman recalled, “I remembered him as the cab driver, and then I saw his reel and it’s extraordinarily diverse. He plays just sick creepos with the same ease he plays doctors. He’s sensitive and really funny, and he’s charming and sexy.” Goodman waited until Logue wrapped a role in Reindeer Games for director John Frankenheimer before starting production on The Tao of Steve.

Tao of Steve, 2000, Donal Logue

With Donal Logue packing on 30 pounds for the part– as well as performing in extra padding — and Greer Goodman making her screen debut starring opposite him, The Tao of Steve commenced filming July 1999 in Santa Fe on a budget of $1.2 million. The production utilized a local crew, as well as locations the director was familiar with. Jenniphr Goodman recalled, “Dex’s house is Duncan’s house. Dex’s friends’ house is my house. Our mother’s house is the rich people’s house. Our friends’ driveway is in it. We called in all the favors.” When screened at Sundance the following January, the romantic comedy was a crowd favorite, winning Donal Logue a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance.

North American distribution rights were awarded to Sony Pictures Classics. Greer Goodman admitted, “I think Sony Classics really wanted to get the film, but they didn’t know how to market it. Men like the movie and women like the movie, from what we’ve seen at the festivals. There’s no stars in it, and the protagonist is, uh, a heavy guy. So they didn’t know how they’d get people into the movie theater to see this movie. We know once we get them in, they’ll like it. But how do you get them in? We tried to find the right balance. There’s print campaign and it’s a platform release and it’s going to all the major cities.”

Tao of Steve, 2000, Donal Logue, David Aaron Baker, Greer Goodman

Maybe because it had been so hyped at Park City, critics were mixed on The Tao of Steve. A.O. (Tony) Scott, The New York Times: “Maybe too many movies celebrate extended adolescence, but Mr. Logue’s breezy and innocent hedonism gives Tao a roughhouse affability … If he has been biding his time and waiting for the chance to prove he can carry a movie, Tao shows he is up to the challenge.” Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “It’s the kind of film you feel like watching twice — not because you found it that engaging to begin with, but because you didn’t, and everyone else did.” Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times: “A constant, idiosyncratic pleasure that leaves us eager to see what the Goodmans and Logue will do next.”

Opening August 2000 in the United States and playing 189 theaters in its widest release, The Tao of Steve tallied $4.3 million at the box office. The Goodmans have yet to write or direct a new film. Jenniphr Goodman had no apologies in the fall of 2001 when stating, “There were offers to direct TV shows and commercials that I didn’t seize. My agent would tell me that so-and-so wants to meet me, or this other one wants to meet me — there were a lot of opportunities I probably squandered by living in Santa Fe and by having children. But I look at people like Richard Linklater and Victor Nuñez and think: ‘They work from Austin, they work from Florida, and they still make the kinds of movies they want to make.’ They are my role models.”

Tao of Steve, 2000, Greer Goodman

Should I Care?

At A.V. Club in 2008, Noel Murray and Scott Tobias ranked The Tao of Steve #7 on a list of movies that ignited audiences at Sundance and were extinguished by audiences everywhere else, alluding that between Clerks in 1994 and Napoleon Dynamite in 2004, this indie slacker comedy fell between a crack in the couch. In hindsight, the first and perhaps final film by Jenniphr & Greer Goodman deserves to be remembered more fondly. In defiance of its adult subject matter, the movie does play things safe, lacking any real edge and making it easy to put out of mind. But it’s smartly written, well cast and handsomely shot on very limited resources. Hardly great, it pulls off a great feat: it does slackers everywhere proud.

The Goodman sisters deserve credit for making a movie the Goodman brothers might not have, giving the dick and fart jokes a rest and studying their enigmatic protagonist, or, why a dude with such lax ambitions and exercise routine could be so desirable. The Goodmans — and their subject Duncan North — obviously had library cards. Their script is intelligent and articulate, breezy and enjoyable. A supporting cast of local actors and friends of the Goodmans may not have set the screen world afire, but they work just fine. The reason to watch this is Donal Logue. Late of many a failed sitcom, Logue exhibits more than enough unassuming charisma to be doing comedies with Paul Rudd.

Tao of Steve, 2000, Donal Logue

Where’d You Get All of This?

The Tao of Steve – Production Notes

“The Tao of Donal Logue” By Susan King. The Los Angeles Times, 3 August 2000

“The Goodman Sisters’ Tao of Steve
By Beth Pinsker. indieWIRE, 4 August 2000

The Tao of Steve. DVD audio commentary with Jenniphr Goodman, Greer Goodman, Duncan North and Donal Logue. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2000)

“Don’t You Forget About Me”
Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 2001

Tags: Master and pupil · Unconventional romance

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 moviezzz // Aug 17, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I saw this theatrically. If it only played 189 theatres, I’m surprised it was at my mall multiplex. When I bought a ticket, the ticket seller had no idea that the film was playing. She even though it was called “The Toe of Steve”.

    I didn’t care for it (found the lead irritating and not believable and bothered by the fact that this guy was smoking pot before going out to teach kindergartners), but now that I read the director name dropping Linklater and Nunez, my favorite, I might have to forgive her for it.

  • 2 J.D. // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Big fan of this film and it’s nice to see it get some well-deserved love. This is easily Donal Logue’s best performance to date and it remains a mystery to me why he isn’t a bigger star. This guy really needs to hook up with Judd Apatow. Seth Rogen really has his career.

    At any rate, this is a nice, character-driven film that features some truly wonderful performances by the entire cast. While we are clearly meant to empathize with Logue’s character, the filmmakers don’t let him off the hook for his negative attributes and show that he is willing to make an effort to change.

  • 3 Tommy Salami // Aug 19, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I enjoyed this one and finally rented it; it felt very 90s indie and it was hard to forgive it some of its excesses. But overall it was enjoyable, and still different. Unfortunately Donal Logue didn’t rise much from there. He’s currently on the TV show “Life” if it hasn’t been canceled. He’s sort of lost his looks, and I’m sure that’s affected the roles he’s offered.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Aug 19, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Jim: Sharp observations, as always. I won’t debate drug policy or obesity with you, but I think we would both agree that the director’s decision to stay in New Mexico has to be respected. It shows that not everyone who hits at Sundance has to become Steven Soderbergh and there’s more than one route to take. Thanks for commenting!

    J.D.: Donal Logue has carved out a niche for himself as a character actor. He was almost unrecognizable in Zodiac, but yeah, it’s sort of disheartening to see personalities like Seth Rogen on billboards while someone with demonstrated range and talent remains anonymous. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who enjoyed The Tao of Steve. Thanks for commenting.

    Tommy: I think your two-sentence summary of The Tao of Steve is probably more on the nose than the Leonard Maltin version. You gotta love all the flannel guys wore in the ’90s. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

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