The Daytrippers came out in theaters in 1997, back when I was in graduate school at NYU. That was a year when you could rent videotapes everywhere—at Blockbuster, but also at a Laundromat or a bodega. There were still phone booths and answering machines. People smoked. If you filmed an independent movie in Manhattan on the cheap, as first-time director Greg Mottola did, the World Trade Center would peek out from behind a corner, an anchor that let you know where you were, near Ben’s Pizza on Spring Street. I caught the movie at the Angelika Film Center, thinking it might be my taste: a scrappy, tender New York comedy starring actors I adored, including Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey. But it became something more to me, a touchstone and a talisman, for reasons that are still hard to describe. I watched The Daytrippers a bunch of times, until I’d memorized it—which came in handy, once the movie vanished, for a long time, from the cultural landscape in the era of streaming video.
At the time it debuted, The Daytrippers was part of a decade-long wave of intimate, dialogue-driven independent movies, in the tradition of sex, lies, and videotape; Before Sunrise; and Walking and Talking. Even among this cadre, however, the film was something of a shoestring miracle: Mottola, a graduate of the Columbia University film program in his early thirties, had filmed it in just seventeen days, using an initial investment of sixty thousand dollars, mostly provided by Steven Soderbergh and sex, lies executive producer Nancy Tenenbaum. It was the director’s second try, after a failed development process for another screenplay, Lush Life—and in contrast to that one, The Daytrippers was explicitly designed to be pragmatic to film. Half the dialogue takes place in a station wagon, while other scenes were filmed at Mottola’s family’s house on Long Island or at his SoHo apartment. The actors got a hundred dollars a day. It didn’t all go smoothly: on the first day of shooting, someone stole the production’s thirty-five-thousand-dollar Super 16 mm camera. Then the film had a rocky time getting distribution: it was rejected by Sundance, then premiered at Slamdance in January 1996, a screening that was plagued by technical difficulties. Still, The Daytrippers did end up winning that festival’s grand jury prize and got picked up at Cannes a few months later. It made $2,099,677 domestically—not bad, given its low budget, but not exactly a blockbuster.
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“Each actor gets multiple moments in which goofy slapstick and emotional pain overlap, each intensifying the other.”
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