JAMES: My first film was a documentary that I made just after graduating college, a cross-country bike trip about Generation X, which ended up being broadcast on PBS (POV). That led to a job shooting documentaries in West Africa for the next two years, everything from HIV education to circumcision to women’s rights.
But my dream has always been to direct narrative feature films, so I returned to the States where I earned my MFA in film production at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. My short narrative thesis film ended up playing over 40 festivals around the world.
Currently, I teach film directing and production, including two years at a film school in the Czech Republic. I have taught workshops in Kenya, at a refugee camp in the Sahara Desert and Vassar College. I’m also a theater director, and have directed more than 20 shows since I arrived in New York. Hank and Asha is my first feature film.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JAMES: My wife and I were teaching at a film school in the Czech Republic, feeling very lonely and isolated, and longing to make deep meaningful connections with people. We decided that we wanted to make a film about two lonely people who make a deep meaningful connection from a long distance, and how their connection gets them through a difficult time in their lives.
We were both nostalgic for a time in our lives when we used to write letters. Taking time to get thoughts down on paper. The delicious anticipation of waiting to get a letter in return. You could create yourself to be the person that you wanted to be. And you could project your fantasy on who you wanted the other person to be, and this correspondence could get you through a rough patch in your life.
We decided to update the idea to 2014, by having the characters send video messages rather than letters back-and-forth. The idea crystalized when a friend of ours told us that he courted his now wife by sending her video messages. He actually let us watch them! We discovered that in watching these intimate videos, while he was meaning to address his wife, since we were the audience he was actually addressing us. We felt like we were on the inside of growing relationship.
We thought it would be cool to make a movie where we put the audience on the inside of a relationship, to really put them in each character’s shoes. You really feel like they are talking to you.
The script was basically a 30-page outline. We wrote the intent of each scene, but didn’t write much in the way of specific dialogue. We wanted this to be a very collaborative process with the actors, and make it feel as real and authentic as possible.
I’m also a theater director, and so we cast theater actors who were very good at improvisation. We didn’t rehearse, because we wanted to capture the awkwardness of the characters talking to the camera. We knew what we wanted out of the scenes, but gave the actors free reign to input their own ideas and personalities. We did around 10 takes for each scene, doing it a different way every time, to give us ample choices in editing.
JAMES: From the beginning, we knew that we were making a micro-budget film. This was by design. We planned to raise funds from family and friends, so that we could be free to take risks and experiment and not be under pressure to pay anyone back.
We gave ourselves the constraints of making a movie with only two characters and a documentary style crew, which also kept the cost down. We managed to do it, thanks to the amazing contributions of cast and crew.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JAMES: We shot with it with the Canon 5D Mark III. We really loved it – not only a really great image, but also very unobtrusive, which was essential for production. We could shoot out in the street and people would think that we were just taking still images, and no one would interfere.
It also suited our story. Both characters, who are budding filmmakers, would shoot their video messages on the Canon 5D. An affordable camera, so it’s realistic that a young filmmaker could own one.
JAMES: The biggest challenge was creating chemistry between the two actors who aren’t on screen together. We shot Asha’s material first. The actress who plays Asha, Mahira Kakkar, didn’t have any footage to respond to.
We worked to create the emotion behind the video messages, and in making them, how she wanted Hank to feel. Then she used her own brilliant imagination. Since we shot Hank second, we were able to show the actor, Andrew Pastides, some of the clips, but not very many. Like Mahira, Andrew worked with the objective of each letter and how he wanted her to feel in making it. It’s such a tribute to both of them that they could pull this off.
Another big challenge was then putting it altogether in the editing room. Since we did around 10 takes for each scene, there was a pretty massive amount of material. Our first cut was two hours and 45 minutes! Now it’s 75 minutes, so we had to cut a lot of our favorite stuff, which was agonizing. We forced ourselves to stay on track with the emotional story between the two characters and keep it as streamlined as possible.
JAMES: The movie changed daily in the editing room! There were many puzzle pieces to fit together. There was a possibility of each message fitting into different parts of the story, depending on the context and the content of the message. So we did a lot of shuffling around. Juxtaposing messages with each other could create different meanings. If we wanted to use take three of a certain message, the content and context was entirely different then take one of the same message. If we discarded a take because we thought it didn’t work and then moved the message to a different part of the film, often we discovered that it would then work.
JAMES: The smartest thing we did was hire an excellent casting director, and a top-notch crew who had a passion for the story. We would not have made the movie if we hadn’t had such amazing people to work with.
The dumbest thing we did was that we only made one backup of both the Prague footage and the New York footage. So all of our original footage was basically on four hard drives. We edited the movie in Prague, and then when we came back home to New York, three of the four hard drives crashed. We thought we had lost our movie. We spent an agonizing three days waiting to see if the footage could be retrieved. The technicians at TekServe finally managed to retrieve the material. Thank you TekServe!
JAMES: I learned that it’s very important to try to work with people who are better than you, who have more experience and can really heighten the level of the movie beyond how you originally saw it in your own mind.
Making a movie is so difficult and consuming, it’s essential to have absolute passion for what you’re doing. Before the stress of each day, I would take a moment to remind myself how lucky I was to be doing what I love to do.
Most of all, be kind. Spreading the joy is infectious!
Most of all, be kind. Spreading the joy is infectious!