‘Pipe’ filmmaker’s real experiences led to his faux director

Special to The Times

John Walsh is still processing the last few years of his life, the ones that took him from aspiring writer-director to writer-director verite. After years of making a film “out of bubble gum and spit,” his debut, “Ed’s Next Move,” was picked up for distribution in 1996.

It was surreal, Walsh, 40, recalls, as he, a “Joe Schmo struggling to get a movie made, suddenly had people acting like I was a director.” The reverent way he was treated -- during casting sessions, at film festivals, by old friends -- struck him profoundly, and out of his desire to explore what he calls “perception categories,” his second feature, “Pipe Dream,” was born.

Walsh’s new film, which opens today, centers on David, a plumber who has become increasingly convinced that people only see him as his job. “I’m the serving class. I’m invisible,” David (Martin Donovan) explains to his friend RJ (Kevin Carroll), a casting director.

Walsh and co-author Cynthia Kaplan, herself an actress-writer, know of what David speaks. Over the years, Walsh has been a busboy, bellhop and waiter, and Kaplan, a waitress. Donovan, too, worked as a drapery installer “for longer than I care to admit,” he says.


“I’ve ridden up a lot of service elevators. I’ve been there. Most people were nice, but I can clearly see where David is coming from,” Donovan says.

In the film, David’s mood has been exacerbated by a woman, his neighbor Toni (Mary-Louise Parker). After a drunken yet tender one-night stand, David awakens to hear Toni on the phone whispering to a friend, “I don’t know where my brain was. He’s a plumber.”

Wounded, David visits RJ at work, where he is briefly mistaken for a director. Floored by the winning look he receives from an attractive actress, David basks in her incorrect perception until RJ breaks the spell. With that, David’s mind is set. He’s going to pose as a director at a fake casting session that RJ will set up. He’ll barely speak; people will just assume he’s deep in thought. For a script, he’ll steal from Toni, a corporate video writer with her own pipe dream of selling a screenplay.

David’s deception succeeds, but not in the way he expects. Toni’s script turns out to be a find, and both the project and its inscrutable director become buzz words overnight. With the help of Toni, who sees an opportunity and offers Cyrano-type directions to David through a headset, the ruse perceived as a film actually becomes a film.


As “Pipe Dream” unfolds, Walsh and Kaplan introduce several variations on their theme: the power of people’s perceptions. At the center are David and Toni, dragging their feet toward affection in the tradition of the romantic-comedy genre. Inspired by such directors as Howard Hawks, George Cukor and Preston Sturges, Walsh and Kaplan aimed at what kept their films timeless.

“The great romantic comedies really do have something to say about people, society and relationships,” Walsh says. “Comedy is going to have much more resonance if there are real social issues underlying the comic situations.”

Walsh admits some people read “Pipe Dream” and “didn’t quite get it,” particularly its elements of farce. “If you do something that’s a throwback to an older style, they don’t know quite how to take it,” he says.