HHM 2015 Filmmakers in Focus

Zooming in for a Closer Look with Three Exceptional Filmmakers

Posted In:   From Issue 815   By: Robert E Martin

03rd September, 2015     0

Too Late • Opening Night Film

Narrative, 107 minutes • Thursday • September 24th • 8:15 PM • State Theatre

HHM Jury Nominations: Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Soundtrack, Best Supporting Actress - Vail Bloom •  Cast: John Hawkes, Crystal Reed, Natalie Zea, Dichen Lachman • Writer & Director: Dennis Hauck • Producers: Alexandra Barreto, Taylor Feltner • Recently Screened At: Los Angeles Film Festival. Scheduled to Attend - Dennis Hauck, Alexandra Barreto, Brett Jacobsen

Gangsters, strippers, a dame in distress and one wayward P.I. Sounds like a classic noir film, but Too Late is a contemporary L.A. noir that explores the tangled relationship between Samson (John Hawkes), a troubled private investigator, and the missing woman he’s hired to find. Like our leading man Samson, director Dennis Hauck takes big risks in his feature debut by telling the story in five continuous shot vignettes and in non-linear fashion, resulting in an unconventional and tension filled film with nods to Tarantino, Altman and P.T. Anderson.

Too Late is director Dennis Hauck’s first feature film. Previously he made two short films –a Western with Dean Stockwell in 2008 called Al’s Beef and a boxing/crime film in 2010 called Sunday Punch, which he says is actually connected a little bit to his new work.

According to Hauck, “The idea was always to have five scenes from the main character’s life that would hopefully add up to create some sort of portrait or character study while also telling a singular story.  The structure of the film was conceived before I even knew what the film would be about.  I sometimes find it can be creatively stimulating to set certain structures or limitations for myself when writing.  In this case I told myself that the movie could be about absolutely anything, as long as it takes place in five 20-minute scenes.”

“I began writing the five scenes without quite knowing what order they should go in, but the right sequence revealed itself to me as I went along,” he continues.  “While technically non-linear, the order of the five acts feels "emotionally linear" to me.  I think the best detective fiction is less memorable for its whodunit plots and more so for the emotions of the characters and the unique view of the world that we get through the detective's eyes.  I thought it was more interesting to ostensibly solve the case right off the bat and then delve deeper into whom these characters are and how they know each other.”

“Another challenge I set for myself was to shoot each of the five scenes in a long, unbroken take.  Too Late was shot in the old 2-perf Techniscope format, which is unique in that it can yield 22 minutes of footage from a single roll of film, as opposed to the standard 11 minutes of most other 35mm formats.”

“I had shot my previous short film in this format without really realizing some of the unique benefits.  One day it dawned on me that it was possible to shoot a 22 minute continuous take in this format, and I thought it would be a fun challenge to do something like that.  I could certainly be wrong, but as far as I’ve been able to gather, the shots in Too Late are the longest continuous shots filmed on 35mm in the history of cinema.”
“There were a ton of hurdles, obstacles, and disasters along the way, but I think the biggest challenge was a self-imposed one: My decision not to edit the takes or hide any cuts with digital stitching.  This meant I had to pick one long take for each scene and stick with it.”

“No matter how wonderful the footage was, I went through the Five Stages of Grief after each shoot because, inevitably, some of the best moments were in takes that overall just weren't up to par, and conversely, the best overall takes all had at least one moment that didn't turn out quite as magical as in previous takes.”
"Bargaining" was the toughest stage to overcome, as that devil on my shoulder would tell me how easily digital technology could fix everything and give me the best of both worlds -- just hide a cut in this pan through the trees or this dark spot in the hallway, and no one will ever know.  But that felt tantamount to failure, or worse, cheating.” 

“I don't want the audience to be distracted looking for hidden cuts; they have my word of honor that there are none.  Each of these shots are like little time capsules.  They're not just 20 minutes in the lives of our characters, but they're also 20 minutes in the lives of our actors.  It would have taken away from their brave accomplishments to monkey around trying to mix and match the best bits.  That's not what we all signed up for.  Ultimately, I moved on each time to "Acceptance," put the alternate takes back in the can, and really learned to love the takes that made it into the movie, flaws and all.”

Dennis cite his major influences for this film as being mainly literary and musical, drawn mainly from the golden age of hard-boiled crime writing and authors such as Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Mickey Spillane.  “The whole idea was to take the spine of the private eye genre and use it to tell a more personal and intimate character study.”

“I think Seinfeld was also a big influence, perhaps subconsciously,” he laughs.   “I’m re-watching the whole series right now for the umpteenth time, and I’m realizing just how much that show has influenced me over the last couple decades. The precise structure and multiple storylines coming together in the end; the almost lawyerly dialogue; the tendency to let the characters “talk about nothing” for long periods of screen time — I can see all of this in Too Late.”

“The lead role was written for John Hawkes from the beginning and I genuinely would not have wanted to make the movie if he had not come on board,” concludes Dennis.  “The only role that I wrote without someone specific in mind was "Dorothy" whom I had hoped to find an unknown actress to play.  Crystal Reed came in to audition and blew everyone away, and it wasn't until afterwards that I discovered she was the lead actress on MTV's "Teen Wolf" show.  But she was so good I threw out the idea of casting an unknown.  So I suppose she was cast despite her celebrity, not because of it.”


20 Years of Madness

Documentary, 90 minutes • Friday 9/25, 8:00pm, Delta College Planetarium • Sunday 9/27, 4:30pm, Masonic Temple.

Director and Producer: Jeremy Royce / Producers: Jerry White Jr, Kaveh Taherian

Recently Screened At: Slamdance Film Festival, Boston Underground Film Festival

SF Doc Fest.  Scheduled to Attend - Jeremy Royce, Jerry White Jr. Cast: Jerry White Jr., Joe Hornacek, John Ryan, Jesus Rivera, Matt Zaleski, Susan Pipper, Andy Menko

This remarkable documentary tells the familiar tale of how youthful clans sharing common ideals & aspirations become fragmented and distanced over the expanse of time.  Guided by friendship and uninhibited creativity, a group of Detroit teens bring their own brand of youthful irreverence to public access television in the early 90s.

20 years later a member of the clan seeks to recapture the magic by bringing everyone back together for one more episode, but differences in opinion force him to reflect on his image of the past, and how the realities of adulthood force everyone to confront their teenage selves. Moving expertly between then and now, this well-constructed doc is an affecting look at the unstoppable energy of youth.

Director & Producer Jeremy Royce says that the origin of this film came shortly after he moved to L.A. to study film production at USC and learned about an earlier work entitled 30 Minutes of Madness. “Jerry, the main subject of the documentary and the founder of 30 Minutes of Madness moved into the same house at the same time. After sharing our past work with each other he told me about his public access variety show that he and his friend Joe Hornacek created with their friends in metro-Detroit in the '90s.”

“I was blown away by the things they were doing as teenagers and immediately related with their adolescent passion for making movies,” he explains. “Two years later Jerry ran into Joe for the first time after over a decade of silence. Joe's life had gone in a very different direction and I was curious about what had happened to all of the other cast members. It turned out that a lot of the kids who played crazy characters on the show as teenagers grew up to have pretty crazy lives. It was fascinating and the 20-year anniversary of 30 Minutes of Madness was less than a year away. I told Jerry he should make a documentary and after a few days of brainstorming he invited me to direct it.”

“I was drawn to the story for a lot of reasons,” continues Royce. “Most importantly, there's a very special bond when you meet like-minded people in adolescence. Your life is completely changing and having close creative collaborators at that pivotal time is an experience unlike any other. When I was a teenager my life was extremely chaotic. I left home when I was sixteen. I ended up getting involved in drugs and ended up in a psych ward briefly. Many of the creators of 30 Minutes of Madness had very similar experiences. One of the main subjects was addicted to heroin for a long time, another was homeless while we were filming, and a handful of the subjects were struggling with mental illness. My goal for the film was to tell the story of this creative community, while also showing the power of art to work against the isolation that many people struggling with these life issues face on a daily basis.”

Jeremy says for any documentary the most important component is finding interesting characters, so in the case of this film, he was very lucky insofar as the cast members were fantastically interesting and charismatic. As for  challenges, the biggest one was figuring out what characters to follow.  “There were roughly twenty regular cast members on the show. I knew we couldn't do justice to the story if we followed all of them. After over a year of editing I was able to focus on four main characters with three more supporting characters. That was a difficult choice. You really want to tell everyone's story but there's just no way to do it in Ninety minutes.”

“Jerry had saved over three hundred hours of archival footage. The second hardest challenge was going through all of it and figuring out what to use and what to toss out. I had a wealth of options, but I guess it's hard to complain about having too much of a good thing.”

“In 20 Years of Madness it was really important for me to explore what it means to be outside the margins of society.  I think all of the characters have a unique perspective on life. Some of them are dealing with very real cognitive differences and art is one way to express their perspective. When I was putting the film together I wanted to use the archival footage they shot as teenagers as a commentary on the modern footage. Rather than flashing back to the past for context, I wanted to use the past footage to extrapolate on the present. It was an interesting way to get to the core of the more subjective experiences of the characters.”

Jeremy says that most of the film was shot in the summer of 2012 and reworked for the next two years. “When I set out to make a character driven documentary without any celebrities or obvious social issues,  I knew I was going to have a harder time finding a home for the film once it was done,” he concludes. “Thankfully, 20 Years of Madness has received a fantastic response on the festival tour. People genuinely love the film and there's nothing greater as a filmmaker than when your audience not only understands the film, but also relates to it on a personal level.”


Uncle John

Narrative, 113 minutes • Friday 9/25, 8:00pm, State Theatre • Saturday 9/26, 3:30pm, Masonic Temple.  HHM Jury Nominations: Best Feature, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Actor - John Ashton, Best Supporting Actor - Alex Moffat.  Cast: John Ashton, Alex Moffat, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins / Writer and Director: Steven Piet / Writer and Producer: Erik Crary / Executive Producer: Gary Jesdanun. Recently Screened At: SXSW (World Premiere), The Midwest Independent Film Festival. Scheduled to Attend - Steven Piet, Erik Crary, John Ashton, Mike Bove

A small town Wisconsin murder and a love story set in Chicago build different kinds of tension in this beautifully shot and directed film.  No one’s sure what happened to Dutch, a small-town bully who got religion and confessed his sins to everyone he’d wronged. John (John Ashton), is a kindly but haunted man, who comes under suspicion from Dutch’s brother after the small town rumor mill churns out scenarios. Meanwhile, John’s computer jock nephew Ben (Alex Moffat) is dealing with a recent breakup and potential new workplace crush. The film jumps brilliantly between the lives of uncle and nephew, as it subverts our images of city and small town life, but holds fast to the character of two men trying to minimize the effects of their actions.

The idea  for this film came when writer/director Steven Piet and co-writer/producer Eric Crary were writing scripts independently from one another and consequently started discussing collaborating on a feature film.  “Neither of the scripts we were writing at the time seemed appropriate for a first feature, which we correctly assumed would be made with little financing,” explains Piet.

“We began discussing possible stories and characters we’d be interested in exploring using resources we could likely make available. There are definitely drawbacks to having very limited financing, but there’s also an unlimited amount of creative freedom if it’s all on you. We both personally respond to character driven stories and we knew that would be our main focus, but we also wanted to do something that seemed new to us. If we have all this creative freedom, we figured let’s use it and do something that we hadn’t see before.”

“We kept revisiting the topic of city and urban living being polar opposites, which led to the idea of putting both locations in the same film and letting those locations influence the genre of the story being told. We also wanted this film to feel Midwestern. The Midwestern male is, by and large, an emotionally suppressed character.  Not externalizing your problems is seen as just a common courtesy. Having a character embody that trait was a really important goal for us and was performed so perfectly by John Ashton in the film.”

Although this is Piet’s first feature film, his previous experience mainly centered upon directing commercials, music videos and short films. “Every time I come on set as a director I really feel a sense of calm, like arriving home after a long vacation,” he reflects. “The whole experience is stressful, exhausting, and often times very challenging, but unbelievably satisfying. The biggest thing I’ve learned as a director is that it’s really not about you. Of course you have to have a clear idea of the film you’re making in your head, but it takes a lot of people to make a film possible. You need to be encouraging and allow people the freedom to work at their best. It’s a collaboration. Whether it’s an inclusive, supportive experience or a closed off dictatorship is up to you.”

As for influences that helped shaped his vision and what he feels distinguishes Uncle John as a unique experience for audiences, Piet says he is glad that he didn’t make a successful film in his early 20s, because the influence of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Cassavetes and Payne would have shown through much more.  “As a viewer, I’m very attracted to auteurist films and filmmakers. I love filmmakers that have a strong point of view, respect the viewers intelligence, and provoke more questions then they attempt to answer.”
“Having two seemingly separate stories about living in the Midwest, each of which represent a set  film genre, and then getting those two genres to ultimately work together is our intended approach. It felt unique to us and hopefully it works for the viewer. You never know though. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was like “Oh yeah, someone did that a couple times in the 60’s.” Dang it, probably the French with their experimental ways!”
“John Ashton has a great presence on screen. When we were writing the script Netflix had put Beverly Hills Cop up on streaming, and he just popped for me. His voice, posture, and overall salt-of-the-earth vibe translated perfectly for the character Erik and I were writing. On a whim, Erik sent him the script and a letter about what we were trying to do. Fortunately, he was immediately interested and signed on. Ronnie Gene Blevins was found in a similar fashion, and Jenna Lyng auditioned for us before we eventually joined forces with our great casting director, David O’Connor. David and his associate, Matthew Amador, brought in a slew of great Chicago talent to complete the full cast.”

“At times the scripted scene would be done, but I just wouldn’t yell cut to see what Alex and Jenna would come up with. Some really great moments were created in that space and we folded them back into the scene during editorial. As a viewer, you don’t know exactly what is improvised and what is scripted, which is a testament to them as actors.”


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