“MY COMPASS AS A DIRECTOR is grounded in real, human issues,” Erin Elders says. “But I also love surrealism and dreamworld mysteries.”
Elders has combined those themes in his directorial debut The Cleaner, a family and crime drama that he co-wrote with the film’s star, King Orba.
Orba plays Buck, a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged man who has lost his job selling recreational vehicles and now cleans houses instead. He lives in a trailer park where he cares for his diabetic, alcoholic mother, Sharon (played by Shelley Long). Buck doesn’t have a car, so he lugs his cleaning products around on a bicycle.
Buck’s humdrum life takes a turn when one of his clients (Luke Wilson) tells him that money is tight and he won’t need Buck’s services for a while. To ease the blow, the client refers Buck to a neighbor who says she wants her house cleaned.
When Buck arrives at the neighbor’s home, he meets Carlene Briggs (Lynda Carter, star of the 1970s TV show “Wonder Woman,” who looks great at age 70). A former nightclub singer, Carlene still wears flamboyant clothing and insists on singing for the stranger. She tells Buck that she doesn’t want him to clean her house, after all. Instead, she’ll pay him $1,000 to locate her estranged son, Andrew (Shiloh Fernandez). She wants to reconcile with Andrew in the few months that she has left to live.
Buck thus becomes an unlikely shamus, and some purpose and excitement are injected into his life. Against the advice of his police-officer brother—but encouraged by his young pot dealer—Buck eventually tracks Andrew down in a seedy diner and implores him to visit his dying mom. Earnest and well-intentioned, Buck nonetheless finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Andrew, angered by memories of the mother he says abused him as a child, decides to rob the diner at gunpoint, with disastrous consequences.
I spoke with Los Angeles-based Elders by phone about The Cleaner, the film’s themes and inspirations, and how the opportunity arose for his directorial debut. Here’s the audio for part of our conversation: