Friday, June 19, 2015

Q&A with Christopher Hansen, Writer/Director of Where We Started

Writer/Director Chris Hansen
Photo by: Minerva House

1) Tell us about your film Where We Started.
Where We Started is a very contained story of what happens when two strangers connect with one another while they’re both stopping for the night at a motel.  Their initial attraction deepens as the night goes on – but they’re both married, and the events of the night force them to confront the realities of their respective marital situations.  It’s a romantic drama that deals with questions of fidelity and attraction, about what drives people to have affairs when they clearly know they shouldn’t.

Check out the trailer here:

Where We Started (official trailer) from Chris Hansen on Vimeo.

2) What was your inspiration behind the story of Where We Started?
There were a couple of things that inspired me. First, my wife and I had known a lot of couples that had gone through divorces.  There were various reasons, but infidelity was definitely one of those reasons that came up several times.  And so I’d just been thinking about that.  And about that time I had read an article, some time after the death of filmmaker John Hughes, about a project of his that never got made.  It had something to do with two people who connected over musical taste and other things during a night when they were stranded in a motel.  So I kind of put those two things together in my mind and created a story.  And I layered in a bunch of references to John Hughes movies as a nod to the inspiration for this story and also to the role his movies played in my life when I was younger.

3) What made you decide to make it independently?
Where We Started was my third feature as a writer/director, and I’ve made all of them independently.  I’m based in Texas (and I have my family here as well) – so it’s hard for me to try to sell stuff to Hollywood. I tried that for a number of years before focusing on making my own stuff when it became a lot easier to do so thanks to the digital revolution.  Part of it, then, is necessity, and the other part is creative control.  I really like being able to make what I want and not have anyone forcing it to be something else.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have collaborators or that I don’t take creative advice from others; I do!  I just choose them carefully, and we’re all in on what we’re trying to do together.  The downside, of course, is that my films have all been done on really small budgets.

4) How did you cast your lead actors, Matthew Brumlow and Cora Vander
Matthew and I went to college together.  We lost touch (back in the days before email and Facebook), but he pursued acting as a grad student at Northwestern, and ended up building a solid career as a theatre actor in the Chicago area.  A mutual friend read a script of mine and suggested I see if Matt was interested.  That project was my second feature, Endings, and Matt was one of the three leads.  He was really good, and the experience of working with someone with whom I already had a great relationship was so good that I immediately knew we’d want to work together again.  He married Cora soon after the Endings shoot was done, and since she was a well-regarded stage actor, too, I thought it would be great to do something together. So the project was really written specifically for them.

5) What was the best experience making Where We Started
The best part of it was the way we worked on it from concept to production.  Rather than me writing a script, casting actors, and going into production, I involved Matt and Cora all the way back at the concept stage.  They contributed notes and ideas as well as character backgrounds, some of which they pulled from their own lives and experiences. I felt I needed to credit them with some of the dialogue, because several key lines or speeches came directly from them or were seriously revised by them.  And once a solid draft was done, I went out to visit them and we spent a long weekend workshopping and rehearsing the script.  It improved dramatically from that session.  I was able to see easily some things in both action and dialogue that were killing momentum or that seemed really too abstract and theoretical.  The whole collaboration made it one of the best creative experiences of my life.

6) What was the most challenging part of creating Where We Started?
Any micro-budget indie film shoot is a nightmare.  Ours was particularly challenging.  We had several things go wrong that made us think we were cursed.  For example, our motel interior was on a soundstage, but the exterior was a nearby motel.  We had booked I think six nights shooting exterior scenes there.  These were to all be overnight shoots.  It doesn’t get dark in the summer in Texas until nearly 10pm, so we would prep and then shoot from 10pm to about 5:30am.  On the second night of shooting exteriors at the motel, the owner revoked the deal because we were disturbing what we believed to be some… ahem… illegal business dealings in a particular room. And short of bringing a lawsuit, we just didn’t have any recourse even though we had a signed agreement.  He gave us the rest of that night to shoot five more nights worth of scenes.  It was a moment of sheer panic. But thanks to a very calm producer, a dedicated crew, and actors who were ready to go, we shot a ton of material that night (sometimes with just a single setup instead of doing coverage).  Several of those scenes ended up being my favorite things in the film. But I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.

7) How did you finance your film?
A combination of methods.  I launched a Kickstarter – which failed.  We fell short of the money we were trying to raise, but I emailed all of the backers and explained we were going to make the film anyway and just asked if they’d be willing to donate the money they had pledged.  Almost all of them still sent the money.  I teach film at Baylor University (and I’m currently the chair of the Film & Digital Media Department, though I wasn’t back when we shot Where We Started), so we used some department funds that were set aside for faculty film projects as well. And Baylor has internal grants for faculty projects of all sorts, so I secured some funding there.  We used Baylor film students as most of our crew, hiring professional department heads to teach them and make sure the key things were getting done.

8) How did you secure distribution and where can we see your film?
We initially went out to festivals, hoping maybe we’d get into one of the prestigious ones. When that didn’t happen, we still wanted to screen at some good regional fests, many of which I’ve screened at before with past films.  After that, I explored a number of options before working with Linda Nelson and Michael Madison at Indie Rights.  They’re very filmmaker friendly in terms of the profit split, and they got the film distributed in several places.  After a one-week run at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and positive reviews from LA Weekly and The Village Voice, we launched online at Amazon and Google Play.  It’ll be up on iTunes soon as well.

Watch the film on Amazon Prime here.

Watch on Google Play here.

9) What's next for you in independent film?
I’m in postproduction on my fourth feature, a drama called Blur Circle that tells the story of a woman dealing with the grief over the disappearance of her young son two years ago.  When a mysterious man with a camera and his own tragic past comes into her life, it changes both of them in significant ways.  And I’m going to be directing a documentary about the British sci-fi show Doctor Who, specifically focused on fans who have done extraordinary things with their lives or for other people as a result of the influence of the long running show.

10) What made you want to write/direct a movie?
Because I’m a glutton for punishment?

Seriously – it’s a punishing experience at times, but it can be incredibly rewarding.  I have always wanted to tell stories, ever since I was a kid, through the time I was an English major in college, through film school. My focus has always been storytelling.  At some point I realized that the stories and storytellers I had started to really idolize were filmmakers.  I remember standing on the set of my first film, moments after we’d done the last take of the final shot of the entire shoot, thinking, “I did it.”

I was so wrong, though.  I hadn’t done it yet.  I’d just gotten through production.  
Thinking you’ve done it because you got through production is like equating a wedding to a marriage.  The wedding is just the opening act.  The marriage is where the work starts.

11) What advice can you give up and coming independent filmmakers?
Where should I start?!  I’ve learned a lot from making these films.  Some of what I’ve learned has been about filmmaking itself.  None of my films are downright bad, but it wasn’t until I’d made a couple that it really started to all click.  Much of what I learned has been about the process and about the marketing. 

In terms of process: I’ve learned to focus (or to TRY to focus) on the journey and not just the end product.  Where We Started taught me that I should be trying to make the process one that is creative and collaborative and enjoyable.  If that happens, the product itself will improve, but that can’t be the sole motive.  If I’m going to spend months in production and post production and then a year on the festival circuit etc., I need to enjoy what I’m doing. 

In terms of marketing: I’ve learned that marketing the film is the hardest part of the process, and it’s the part that indie filmmakers talk and know the least about (myself included). As much as we might denigrate the marketing efforts of various films, the fact is that it’s extremely difficult to sell films to an audience unless there’s some really obvious draw.  What are the obvious draws?  Recognizable actors, genres, things like that.  If you make a movie like Where We Started, a small, contained drama with actors who are not known to the general public, you face a huge uphill climb. I was told more than once by a festival programmer that they loved it but were facing pushback because it wasn’t going to bring people into the theaters the way a film with a bigger name or more excitement around it would.  You can argue until you’re blue in the face about why it’s wrong for festivals to do that, that they should support good indie filmmaking, but it won’t do you any good. Festivals have to keep the doors open, too, so they have to get butts in the seats.  I’m not happy about it, but there it is. Again – it’s all in the marketing.

I could make films all the time if I didn’t have to worry about marketing and distribution.  These things wear you down.  If I could just hand the completed work off to someone to begin marketing, with me commenting on the plans, that would be ideal.  But that’s not reality.  So you just keep doing it. 

The past month, on my next film, we’ve been trying to deal with workflow issues between our editor, our visual effects artist, and our colorist.  At the same time, I’ve been trying to get Where We Started properly prepped for iTunes, which is a very technically-oriented task.  Some audio wasn’t in stereo, some files were exported in the wrong codec, the closed-captioning file (which is now required by the FCC for all films being distributed online) wasn’t complete.  It feels like one emergency after another, but there’s nothing you can do.  If you decide you’re too worn out to deal with it, it just won’t get done.  So you dig in, get it done, and hold your breath until the next problem comes along, and you hope you can solve it or know someone who can!

I don’t mean to paint a picture of futility.  I am very fortunate in that I get to make films, and I’ve made four features now.  Not many people can say that.  I’d like them to find bigger audiences, and Where We Started has probably found the biggest audience of any of my films thanks to its availability on Amazon Prime.  I feel my job as a filmmaker is to keep building my audience a little at time so that some people are anticipating the next film I’ll make.