Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hunter Lee Hughes on "Guys Reading Poems"

What was your filmmaking background before making Guys Reading Poems?

HUNTER: Outside of my experience acting, I'd say my crash course in filmmaking began when I served as the writer's assistant to Mardik Martin (co-writer, Mean Streets and Raging Bull). I didn't feel I could afford film school, but that job paid me $20/hour to learn from a master, whose simple, effective wisdom on the subject of screenwriting still guides me.

The other mentor who shaped my early career was legendary acting coach Ivana Chubbuck. I trained in her master class for five years and slowly absorbed a method not only of developing characters as an actor, but of observing actors and communicating with them.

Previous to Guys Reading Poems, I wrote and produced the dark short film Winner Takes All and directed a 12-episode webseries called Dumbass Filmmakers! about a clueless installation artist making a difficult transition to directing films. It definitely felt like art imitating life.

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for getting the script ready to shoot?

HUNTER: My maternal grandmother passed away in 2007 and I ended up with her poetry books. She was an avid reader of poetry and would read her poems aloud to keep her mind sharp. When I finally got around to reading the poetry books she collected, they became like little clues to who she was, as she'd interacted with the poems on the page, like underlining this sentence and circling a certain phrase or writing a note in the margin. So that got me interested in how individual poems could be revealing of the psychology of a film protagonist.

Getting the script ready to shoot....honestly the answer for me of how to get the script ready to shoot is the shot list, which is for me the bridge between what's written on the page and what you capture on set. You're forced in the shot list to start visualizing the mechanics of how you'll shoot rather than just seeing these compelling characters in an imaginary setting running free in your brain.

I'm not a director that likes to leave things to chance on the set, so in this case, everything was shot-listed in advance and I always ask myself with every sentence I read in the final script, "How will the camera move to cover this? How will the people move within the frame? And why?" So for me, the shot list is the way to do a final revision of the script because you realize little moments you need or don't need.

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

HUNTER: I consider Guys Reading Poems to be an ensemble of 15 actors. Of those 15, I already knew 12 of the actors and made offers to them without auditioning them. Two came through the audition process, Luke Judy, our seven-year old lead and also Blake Sheldon, who was the youngest of the seven poetry guys. I met Lydia Hearst through her manager Oren Segal and knew within seconds of meeting her that I'd make her an offer for the role of "The Actress."

I originally was going to have the climactic scene between Patricia and Jerod silent, like so much of the rest of the movie. In the beginning, I was very rigid that the only "dialogue" should be the poems. But as we rehearsed, I started feeling that we needed to hear, in very simple words, the two of them resolve their relationship.

And once I added dialogue to that scene, I realized that the entire section of the movie that takes place as Patricia leaves the prison and returns home needed to have dialogue. So I added dialogue here and there - to her interaction with the prison guard and also when she runs into the young man with the guitar.

I realized that part of the movie that was taking place in the present needed that sort of ordinary, simple dialogue and that change was inspired by rehearsing with Patricia and Jerod.

What drove your decision to go with black & white ... and how did that decision make production easier and harder?

HUNTER: For me, the poetry lent itself to a 1950's boarding school kind of aesthetic and it wasn't a far leap from that to black-and-white. As a practical matter, black-and-white can hide a few things when you're dealing with a lower budget. I think it's easier to make a film look expensive with black-and-white.

I'm not sure it made anything in production harder as much as it comes up in the conversation about distribution. Some distributors just are not interested in black-and-white films.

What type of camera(s) did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

HUNTER: We shot on the Red Epic Monochrome and I think the image quality is really remarkable, the detail, the richness of the black tones. I think the camera inspired everyone on the camera crew, and especially our lighting team, because you know it's maybe once a year, if that, that they get to work on a black-and-white feature. It brought out the best in our team.

I suppose that because our costume designer Shpetim Zero is so amazing and Lydia and Patricia are both so beautiful, every now and then I'd look at one of them in one those beautiful costumes and wish we could shoot it in color, which of course you can't with the monochrome chip, but that was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of working with such an amazing black-and-white camera.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

HUNTER: Certainly, the movie evolved in editing. In fact, we shot the poems first and it was our editor Patrick Kennelly who convinced me that I had to find a way to take the poems and incorporate them into a feature film.

Including the poetry and the narrative, the entire shoot was 15 days, so we didn't have a limitless amount of options. We shot what was in the script and not a lot extra. But I think Patrick Kennelly (our editor) is just brilliant and I especially love the montage flashes in the Death chapter.

You might think a super weird film like ours changes more drastically in the editing. But we were remarkably close to the script in terms of what was shot and the scenes remained in close to the same order as they were designed on the page.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

HUNTER: We have an international sales agent, Patrick Holzen of Bodhi Tree Media Group and are repped domestically by Daniel Bort at Omni Media Arts.

National Poetry Month in April is important to us. We're screening at the Rush Arts Gallery in New York City on April 4th. We have our monthly open mic event in Los Angeles on April 6th and then we open theatrically for a brief, one-week run at Arena Cinemalounge in Hollywood on April 28th.

From there, we'll move to DVD, SVOD and VOD but the details of that are still up in the air. I can say this. We now see the feature film Guys Reading Poems as the most intense offering in the experience of a wider movement of " Guys Reading Poems.

Our open mic nights draw 40-60 people each time and we sell t-shirts there. We've built a respectable following on Facebook where we highlight the videos of our audience reading their own poems with plans to expand the open mic night to other cities. So we've designed the experience of Guys Reading Poems as a positive feedback loop between providing open mic nights for our audiences and the actual film.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

HUNTER: I committed. I have no regrets whatsoever about the kind of effort I made.

The shoot took so much out of me - mentally, physically, emotionally - but I honestly did give it everything I had. And I'm not sure I can take credit for this, but I noticed that so many people in the cast and creative team were just as driven to figure this movie out and to go out and shoot it.

As a director, you set the tone. So I think I set a good example in that way and that was smart.  I think the crew respects you more when they see how hard you're thinking and working and figuring it out.

The dumbest mistakes probably all centered around time management with a child actor. When they are seven, you have so little time with them when they can actually work. And, in our case, Luke is basically the lead of the movie. So one time, I remember I wanted him on set early to rehearse with him and that was super dumb because it ended up being two wasted hours and then he got pulled from set later at a crucial time because that was his limit for the day. But you sort of just adjust and somehow get the movie done.

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

HUNTER: I'm sure it's been said before, but I think a good analogy for directing movies is "the good parent." A good parent knows that their kids have own identity and sensibility and they will communicate that identity to you. So, more than anything, being a good parent involves being a good listener and observer and then fortifying your child towards the life they were meant to live.

I believe a film is like a child and our job as directors is not to control the child or force it to be something it's not. Your job is to listen to the film and what it wants to be and then lend the film your strength when it needs its essential qualities nurtured or protected.

I feel like I learned how that process feels through making Guys Reading Poems and will take the same experience to the next one.

The movie will open theatrically in Los Angeles on Friday, April 28th at Arena Cinelounge. Tickets are available here:

Also, for those that are interested, they've released several of the poems and some pr interviews for the actors on a YouTube site -

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