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It’s huge and hairy, with a skin-irritating fiber frame, fake black fur, and a severe shedding problem. It’s got smelly rubber hands and feet, a mask with tiny slits above painted-on eyes, and a god-ugly rubber breastplate of wrinkled skin and thick, protruding teats.
It’s also the reason John Hanshaw is making movies.
“I bought this gorilla suit for the 48 Hour Film Project,” says Hanshaw, a 36-year-old digital-technology licenser living in Logan Circle. “Now I have to use it for everything because I made the investment.”
The $115 eBay purchase first showed up in Hanshaw’s 2003 48 Hour entry, The Big Squeeze, a film noir featuring a “killa gorilla” who preys on crooked D.C. cops. The movie he’s working on now, The Gorilla Chronicles, stars a delusional office worker who just happens to dress like an ape.
Today, Hanshaw is shooting the opening scene of Chronicles’ first installment, Dave Goes Ape, which he’ll merge with future episodes into a feature-length film. His crewChris Hale, publications specialist at the American Historical Association, and Brent Hurd, Voice of America correspondent (Todd McCombs, the film’s editor, is absent)is in a dank storage room in a South Arlington apartment complex, moving out old bike racks.
Having cleared the space, they set down a table. Hanshaw, playing Chronicles’ protagonist, sits at one end, while Hurd, as Dave’s psychiatrist, occupies the other. The gorilla suit is nowhere in sightit’s outside at the moment, quietly stinking up Hanshaw’s carbut this scene is crucial nonetheless.
In it, Dave’s shrink diagnoses him as repressed, prompting him to undergo a severe identity crisis. “I realize that who I really am is a gorilla, trapped inside a man’s body,” explains Hanshaw, speaking for his character before shooting starts. “And to express my inner self in an outer way, I buy a gorilla suit.” Dave’s openly simian lifestyle, however, freaks out his girlfriend, who dumps him, and his boss, who fires him. Dave retaliates by going on a crime spree, making him a wanted man in D.C.
Hanshaw grabs a bunch of bananas and tears one off, slipping it into a briefcase on the table. He then hides his script out of camera range. “If you screw up the lines, keep going,” he tells Hurd. “Make up the script in your head.”
Hale hits the Record button on his Sony Digital Handycam.
“I’ve got your test results,” says Hurd, dressed in Wal-Mart-bought scrubs. “You’re a complete psychotic.”
Hanshaw opens his briefcase and extracts the banana. He peels it, then stuffs it into his mouth. “Are you sure?” he asks, chewing heavily. “I mean, I may be a little quirky, but”
“Absolutely sure….You’re obviously hiding the real you, and it’s eating you up inside.”
By the seventh take, Hanshaw is visibly ill. His jaw muscles strain to break down banana flesh. He turns to Hale: “How many bananas we got, four? We got to finish this in four takes.” Hanshaw wipes the sweat from his face with a bath towel and reaches for
“This has got to have negative health consequences,” Hanshaw says. “Potassium overload.”
Hanshaw’s work hasn’t always been so dangerous. In the ’90s, the Rochester, N.Y., native taught English at Oberin University near Tokyo. On the side he wrote English-language speeches for Japanese parliamentarians, not to mention weighty essays such as “Divestiture and Deregulation Issues in the American
and Japanese Telecommunications Industries.”
When he returned to the United States in 1995, he snagged a job with NHK, Japan’s version of the BBC. He did research and television interviews for programs on trade issues and nuclear testing in Asiaan experience that didn’t exactly prepare him for the director’s beret. “I was out with the crews, but not doing real technical stuff,” Hanshaw says. “They didn’t want a guy like me messing around with their $1,000 cameras.”
Sensing he could get only so far as a stringer for a Japan-ese conglomerate, Hanshaw quit NHK in 2000 and joined the program-underwriting department at PBS. At the same time, he was writing screenplays, though with no real idea of producing them. “I took a film-criticism class in college and enjoyed it, but I’ve never really been a film aficionado,” he says. “I just like telling stories.”
Hanshaw didn’t get into filmmaking until 2002, when a co-worker at PBS asked him to help out with a 48 Hour Film Project flick, Fotographia Golovy. “She said the team could probably use a few extra hands, so I showed up prepared to lug some camera equipment around,” he recalls. “When I got there, though, it turned out that the male lead had gone AWOL.” The director grabbed Hanshaw from the crowd and made him the star.
The experience, says Hanshaw, was a good one. “So the following year I thought, Hey, I’ll organize my own team.” But digital-to-video conversion pushed his film 10 minutes over deadline, and the judges wouldn’t take it. So this past June, Hanshaw created his own event, the Guerrilla Film Fest, and used it to screen The Big Squeeze and eight other local films at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge.
“It was something I had so much fun doing that I decided to keep that team together, keep the momentum going,” he says. To that end, Hanshaw also created a production company, Monkey Biz Films, which he uses primarily to coerce members of his extensive social network into his movies.
Not that most people need much coercion. “There’s a power about the gorilla suit,” says Charles Kovatch, an EPA scientist who played the serial-killing silverback in The Big Squeeze. “You see yourself in the mirror, and you’re like, Yeah! You can shake all the hair and it flows. And when you see yourself with the mask on for the first time, it’s like, Oh shit, it’s the gorilla.”
“When you put on the mask, you just take on another reality,” says Hurd, one of six people so far to don the getup for Chronicles. “It sort of makes the acting process easy. First of all, you almost can’t see anything: You’re just looking through two little dots. Everything’s black. You feel the suit. You kind of feel not like a gorilla…[but] like an animal. I kind of miss it when I take it off.”
“I think it does bring on a certain aggression in people,” says Hanshaw. “It makes you a bigger person, I got to say. Certainly in the hair department it adds several inches.”
Hale is alone in his dismissal of the suit. “After you’ve been in it 10 times, the power is gone,” he says, “because you’re basically bathing in your own sweat.”
Hale’s stint in the costume happened to coincide with Washington’s exceptionally humid spring. “It was constantly raining, but it was still massively hot in there,” he recalls. “The black rubber inside gets all over your skin, so you just look totally dirty. You’re literally scrubbing it out afterwards for, like, two days.”
And the smell, says Hale, “is terrible. Two or three days afterwards, that’s all you can smell: gorilla-mask-rubber smell.”
“This is a holdup!” yells Hurd, who’s playing Dave so Hanshaw can direct. He waves a plastic Uzi clutched in his big ape’s mitt. The toy gun gives a pathetic rattle.
Hale, standing on a stool, drops a sheet of plaster and some talcum powder onto Hurd’s masked head.
“Great!” says Hanshaw, camera in hand. He and a crew of about 15 are crammed inside a Marvelous Market in McLean, finishing Dave Goes Ape. Hanshaw knows everybody in the room in some way or another. He went to law school with the woman behind the cash register. The guy playing the tourist he met at one of the happy hours he used to organize for local professionals.
Over by a bank of refrigerators stocked with organic juices are bit players Helen Smith and Claire Flynn, who met Hanshaw through a mutual friend. They discovered their involvement in Chronicles after Hanshaw e-mailed them a cast list. “Huh, we’re in it?” Smith remembers thinking. “We didn’t even know.”
“I’m sure we’ll be drafted into something else,” says Flynn.
Hanshaw moves extras under a table in preparation for the next shoot. It’s dark down there, and a nearby food cooler gives off a noisy, constant blast of hot wind. The actors all practice their screams, which seem to come from every direction inside the tight space. “I feel like we’re in a cheap haunted house,” says Kovatch, hugging his knees.
The filming continues. “This is part of a reaction to what the gorilla has after being rejected by society,” Hanshaw says. “He starts out small. He steals toasters, moves up to microwaves, guitars, and a Star Trek ceramic piece. This is sort of the pinnacle.”
After shooting off his fake Uzi, Hurd storms over to the deli counter and demands a smoked-duck sandwich from the counterwoman, played by documentary producer Emily Hodges. At this point, she’s supposed to drop a jar of mayonnaise. But Hanshaw cuts the shot short and accuses her of putting the jar down “like a princess.”
“You’re right,” Hodges says. “I just got to let it go.”
On the next take, she drops the jar, which bounces off a safety cushion and shatters on the floor. “That’s all right!” shouts Hanshaw. “It’s heavyheavy with symbolism. It’s highly symbolic of Dave’s break from society.” He crawls around Hodges’ ankles, filming the oozing condiment from different angles.
While Hanshaw finishes the sandwich shot, Hurd moves outside. He shakes clouds of talc from his fur and picks a piece of plaster out of his ear. Then he freezes.
“See, here they are,” he says, looking down. Hurd neglected to wear the rubber ape boots today, and evident between his sandal-clad toes are clumps of artificial hair. “Three days later you’ll find it in your food,” he says. “Or right after you take a shower you’ll find it in your sideburns.”
Also eyeing Hurd’s feet is an employee from the music store next door. He’s having a smoke while waiting to see what unsold foodstuffs the market’s owners are throwing away.
“Man,” he says. “Wearing sandals for a robberythat’s bad. You need sneakers.” CP
Dave Goes Ape premieres at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, 812 Seventh St. NW. For more information, call (202) 234-2889.