It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but it’s the ghosts of family drama, bad decisions and illicit pharmaceuticals that visit struggling magician Dylan as he marks a full year of sobriety. Instead of the celebration he’d hoped for, all his demons show up for a surreal, purgatorial journey through the looking glass of addiction. As written, directed, and edited by (and starring!) Shane Brady, Breathing Happy is one whopper of a debut feature, a whirling psychodrama shot through with pitch-dark humor and buoyed by a talented ensemble cast. The film is now streaming exclusively on Fandor, ho ho ho.
Brady is a member of the Academy of Magical Arts, which means you may have seen him playing a magician in Doctor Sleep or The Endless, the latter from filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Brady’s friend since childhood) who also share producer David Lawson with Brady’s project. As an actor, Brady has made frequent, colorful appearances in their otherworldly projects. “I was in Spring. I get my dick bitten off by Nadia Hilker. I was in Synchronic. I take the pill and die at the beginning of that,” Brady said during a recent Zoom conversation from the guest room of his home in Austin, Texas. “Moorhead and Benson say that I’m their good luck charm to kill off early in movies.”
Brady abides, however, in Breathing Happy. He spoke with Keyframe about the unusual way he financed his film, how he draws on intense physical trauma from his youth in creating Dylan’s story—recreating the personal episode in which he broke his neck in a hockey match—and the happy accidents that come when you’re forced to edit your own film due to tight budgets.
KEYFRAME: I watched the movie this week, which was quite the whirligig of craziness. Is this primarily your story or inspired by the experiences of others?
SHANE BRADY: It’s inspired by events. I personally have never had addiction problems, but the ideation came from a little over a decade ago. There was a Christmas Eve that was so wild and crazy that I had to type it into Final Draft. Then over the course of a decade in Hollywood, tinkering with the script every now and then, COVID gave me the opportunity to—excuse the pun—let it breathe and start figuring out a fun way to tell the story. It’s sadly based on a myriad of people and situations, friends and family and all this stuff just growing up in Florida, on the receiving end of having to deal with addicts. I thought, what would it be like if I was the addict? Many, many therapy sessions have suggested maybe I should try empathy as a way of dealing with addicts.
Where did you grow up?
Palm Harbor, just south of Tampa. So like Clearwater, St. Pete. I grew up making out on beaches.
Anything in South Florida’s party world.
And almost all of Florida is retirement land. It’s not like you’re going to get chased by the 80-year-old when you’re hanging out in a Jacuzzi at a public pool, you know?
Knowledge is power. What happened at that Christmas party in question?
A recurring theme in the movie is they’re saying [to Dylan] you need to not show up to Christmas parties where children are. If you do that, we’re calling the cops and sending you away. “If you can just be good for 72 hours” you get rewarded by getting to be around friends and family and yada, yada. For many years strung together, that was never the case. Somebody would screw up. It wasn’t always the same person, but—somehow, some way—Christmas would get “ruined.”
This was with extended family, as in the film?
My parents got divorced when I was 10. I have a very large extended family of step-this and step-that. My little sister is adopted. I love the idea of adoption in respect to “we choose for you to be a part of our thing.” There’s something sweet about that. So yes, I have this wild extended family. I fell in love with Hamilton and how it didn’t really matter if you were Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, whatever. I wanted to have that be an element. I asked Jake Warnecke—who, ironically, cast me in “Ballers“—if he would help with the casting process. As we were thinking of who to throw in during COVID, we thought: “What if we really lean into this hodgepodge cast and family?”
There are a million movies with freaky dream sequences. What sparked those in your film?
Evan Zissimopulos, my director of photography—anything beautiful about the movie is his fault, he’s like my lead guitarist—pitched the idea that we should be telling a visual narrative. In things that are real or memory, let’s [give it an] “A Handmaid’s Tale” look where it’s more handheld and we get the soft sunlight. Then we’ll stick with traditional filming with elements of weird. Whenever [more surreal moments appear], we get to go into Looney Tunes Land, playing with different light fixtures and applying filters. Then I want to step further. When we’re in the drug world, I accidentally stumbled upon this [technique of layering pitch-shifted dialogue of varying speeds over itself] that I called double-speak, and eventually I would hack it up. I had some people watch rough cuts early in the process and they’re like, “This drug scene is awesome.” My ego would go, “Yes, yes.”
How did you become a magician? The film’s origin myth for that is grounded in grievous bodily harm.
That is a true story. The broken neck and the mangled finger, that is.
Hockey is the broken neck. The finger was a boat trailer—I was eight years old. I got good at magic when I broke my neck because I could only do two or three things for a year of my life, which was play guitar and practice card tricks. People don’t realize this, but when you have a broken neck, you can’t look down. I would learn how to shuffle without looking at cards. Then you become an adult and people are into it, as long as you’re not weird about it. I coach kids in acting. That’s the main way I make money besides booking acting work. One of the things I always tell kids is, “What can you do that nobody else can do?” When you audition, if there’s something unique or dynamic that you can bring that no one else can, that’ll push you to the top 10% of the callbacks. I asked myself, “At what points during the movie can I further the story and articulate emotion through magic?” I’d never seen that before, a visual narrative of card magic. Hopefully, it works.
From a practical standpoint, how do you, as a writer-director and working actor, string it all together to make a DIY feature in the middle of a pandemic?
This is the thing I’m most proud of that I want everybody to know. So, COVID hits. Two weeks to “flatten the curve” becomes two months, which becomes whatever. I have bad anxiety. I take Lexapro. You saw my movie. I felt hopeless and helpless. As an actor, you’re waiting for the phone to ring or for somebody to put you in their thing. There’s a complete lack of control. I got certified to sell life insurance because what do I do for money during COVID? That crumbled to shit. My wife and I went to middle-of-nowhere Texas over the course of seven months selling Rainbow home cleaning systems—like, medical vacuum cleaners. They’re $4,000. We went door-to-door selling these vacuum cleaners and made $40,000.
That was going to be the budget for our movie because SAG had come up with their new COVID microbudget signatory, saying if your feature does not cost more than $20,000, you can use SAG talent. So that was it. $20,000 to make the movie, $20,000 to pay for post-production, buy a supercomputer and hard drives. That’s how we made the movie. I want everybody to know that we wore polos and sold vacuums to people in double-wide trailers in random homes in Texas to make our movie happen.
I hope that five years from now, I’m some lead in a kick-ass TV show able to not worry about the puppy food I’m buying. I get to be like, “Yeah, I was 33 and sold vacuums in order to make my feature and I didn’t have a budget to edit it, so I learned how to edit.” I had to convince all my friends to work for $125 a day, all the actors, which comes out to like $200 a day for SAG, and all of the crew worked for $250 a day. Everybody got paid, but it was grinding penny dust to make things happen and going to thrift stores in Florida to get crafty. You know, making deals with restaurants: “Can you please give us 30% off, please?” I risked everything to make this a reality.
[Breathing Happy is now streaming exclusively on Fandor.]