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Interview with DIY filmmaker Hannah Barlow: For Now, News

Interview with DIY filmmaker Hannah Barlow: For Now

Actress, writer, producer and director Hannah Barlow is part of a generation of DIY filmmakers who are lighting up our screens with their inventive and small budget films. Her film For Now, which is screening at For Films Sake Film Festival this month, is a collaboration with a team of industry friends who decided to play themselves in the film, a quasi-documentary aesthetic that blurs the line between reality and fiction.

 

For Now is having its Australian premiere at the For Film’s Sake Film Festival. How did it feel to be selected to screen at the festival?

I was really hoping to get into this festival. I’m stoked! I think now is a really exciting time for women in film, on a global level, so to be showcasing my work with the support of the women of WIFT and FFS means a great deal to me. These organizations are raising us all up, closer to that glass ceiling.

 

For Now, tells the story of four twenty-somethings, taking a road trip through California. While on this trip, their true feelings are revealed. You have previously said that the film is loosely based around the lives of you and your friends, who also work in the film. Why did you think this story would translate well to screen? (Do you think there is a demand for this kind of storytelling?)

Kane and I didn’t know at all if this story would translate to screen going into it but I was personally too frustrated with being unemployed not to try. I do think there is a growing demand for really honest storytelling. All of the major streaming platforms today are commissioning my favorite filmmakers to do exactly what they’ve been experimenting with for years. Most of what we watch is so far from who we are which means we’re too often consuming messages that leave us feeling empty. Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Miranda July, the Duplass brothers, Jill Soloway, Kevin Smith, Lynn Shelton — these are all artists who generate work that turns me on because I can’t hear the writing, the performances don’t feel contrived, and the stories are coming from uncomfortable truths they’re willing to share with their audiences. For Now is both autobiographical and fictitious - it definitely blurs the line through the style and story, which I think makes it palpable to watch. I think any story about someone trying but frequently failing to get out of their own way is fun to watch. That’s what we’ve attempted here.

 

You have previously stated that you wanted decided to make a film that was free of contrived circumstances? Do you think the film succeeded in what you set out to achieve (and if so how)?

By making a film in which the performances are totally improvised (based on a treatment), we were purposefully trying to avoid contrivance. From the moment I had the idea of the story to us completing production was a time period of only three months.  The Kickstarter campaign was a full-time job for us all, on top of our actual jobs, and once that finished we had three weeks to put the film together before shooting, which had to take place on a certain week as it was the only time we could get my brother away from his ballet company in Europe. Kane, Katherine and I were producing like mad just to get everything ready in time and it became increasingly clear that there was no time to sit down and write a 90-page script. When push came to shove, we decided to just make our treatment as thorough as can be and forget about writing dialogue or mapping out the specifics of what happened in each scene, which sounds insane but also turned out to be a blessing. Kane and I are greatly inspired by John Cassavetes, the godfather of American independent filmmaking, and during this time Kane was emailing us pages from this biography he had of him, to motivate us. At some point Kane and I decided it would not only be easier to work in the way that Cassavetes did (sans script/improvised) because of our limitations, but it was something we both really wanted to attempt as filmmakers. If we’d shot the film with fully written scenes that we had planned out to the tee with purposefully staged blocking and camera movement, it would have felt derivative. We knew we couldn’t compare to the production value of other films in the genre, so we had to be different. We’re both grateful that my brother Connor and Katherine agreed to play themselves in the film and work in this unconventional way.  Our Director of Photography, Anton Du Preez, who is a brilliant director in his own right, was also eager to experiment with us and if it wasn’t for his open-mindedness, vision and talent the film could have been a total disaster. He had to cover four, sometimes five characters with a single camera and no idea of where people were going to move in the space, or who would say what and where the shot would go. He often had one twenty minute take to capture an entire scene before we’d move on to the next with no time to spare. It wasn’t an easy way to work for anyone but all of that uncertainty and spontaneity undeniably translated to screen, which helped us achieve our goal. Looking back, I don’t think we could have done it any other way.

 

As you mentioned the film is improvised in many parts, can you walk us through the planning process for a film that bucks conventional planning?

We wrote a 30-page treatment, which provided a framework for the film, formulated a truly guesstimated budget and a loose production schedule that we adjusted as we shot and that pretty much sums up our conventional planning. The film is based on a road trip I took with my parents, Connor and Kane up the PCH in California a few months before we started pre-production in 2015, so Kane and I had technically done some unintentional location scouting and knew which areas of California we wanted to capture prior to shooting, but when it came to the actual production we were mostly gambling. For instance, we knew we wanted to shoot a segment of the film in the forestry of Big Sur, but didn’t know exactly where so I chose a hiking trail via yelp reviews and we just trusted that it would work out. Thankfully, it did.

That’s how we shot the entire film. We’d show up to the location on the day and hope for the best. The cabins we used were Airbnb rentals that we doubled as shooting locations and accommodations for the seven people totalling the cast and crew. We hoped that Anton and Kyle Stryker, who shot our two day pickup shoot 6 months after the original shoot, would capture the performances in a really exciting way, with only the one camera and no grips/lighting/crew to support them. We were truly placing a bet on their talent and perseverance. We hoped that all four of us would be open enough to confront each other and ourselves during our performances - Kane and Connor do not consider themselves actors but I think they did a remarkable job in front of the camera.

We only had enough time to shoot one take for each scene so we could have had nothing to work with in the edit and we didn’t know what we had shot until we returned to Los Angeles because there was no time to review the footage. Connor ruptured three ligaments in his foot a few days before he flew to LA so we had to improvise his dance sequences around his serious injury and make room in our already micro budget for an inevitable reshoot that we weren’t planning on, six months down the line when he would become available again. Our rental car got broken into in San Francisco, which caused us multiple issues we had to push through. We hoped that we’d all survive the grueling process of traveling through California in seven days, six of us crammed into one minivan with camera and sound gear, while shooting a feature length film. We almost didn’t.

 

The film is a comedy/ drama shot in documentary style and uses real footage of you and your family as a child. How did you come to the decision to incorporate your own footage into the film?

As Kane was editing and we were working through rounds of notes, we weren’t sure whether we had effectively demonstrated Hannah’s grief, which is a really important theme in the story. Connor, as a character, is shooting home videos throughout the film, which could be symbolic of him inheriting our dad’s role of videographer for our family. At some point, after watching the film too many times, that idea clicked. I suggested to Kane that we use my home videos for flashbacks so we got my parents to digitize the few VHS tapes they have and send the files over to us. The footage was one of the last pieces we added and I think it ultimately elevated both the fictitious documentary style and narrative trajectory we were aiming for.

 

The film is also shot on a shoestring budget. We are seeing more young and emerging filmmakers following this course. Do you feel like there is a new wave of storytellers using these pathways to establish themselves in the industry?

If there aren’t many viable positions in the industry and you’re too impatient/determined to wait for somebody else to hire you, then micro-budget filmmaking is your best course of action. What’s the point in remaining creatively frustrated or allowing yourself to be defeated by things you can’t control? It’s either you let your self-doubt get the best of you and quit, which is totally fine and healthy because it’s brutal out there, or you put the onus squarely on yourself. Our generation has to make noise in an intimidatingly oversaturated market if we want to survive. The best way to do this is to tell stories with the resources and talent available to us, and bet that it will lead somewhere. To me, it’s a lot less painful than not trying.

 

 The film ran a successful Kickstarter campaign. Can you tell us how you did it?

A fortnight after I proposed my idea to Kane and Katherine, we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign but didn’t know how to approach it because why would anyone give money to our bizarre, amateur-looking collaboration? Kane and I were about to celebrate two years together and Kane asked me what I wanted to do. I asked him if we could go to San Luis Obispo for a weekend and shoot a completely improvised short film, just the two of us, with my 5D. That footage as well as some we shot the following weekend with Katherine at our local nightclub and our apartment ended up being our Kickstarter campaign video. That video was hugely instrumental in funding our campaign, figuring out our chemistry as co-directors and giving us confidence that we could work this way, because our financial backers responded to that Kickstarter footage in a really encouraging way. Also, we harassed the heck out of everyone we knew via social media to support us. We were nice but I’m sure very annoying; pride has no place in indie filmmaking.

 

What did you most enjoy about making the film?

As you will see in this film, I’m somewhat of a masochist so I really enjoyed the self-therapy aspects of working out my issues on screen. Not everyone likes to do this obviously and I think we all went into this process totally blind but in some way we have collectively captured what it’s like to be self-sabotaging millennials. I equally enjoyed and disdained not knowing if anything we were attempting was going to work out because my adrenal gland was pumping for seven days straight but I also didn’t sleep a wink. Working with and being mentored by Kane, who is a wonderful emerging filmmaker, was probably the best part of the entire experience for me. As a couple we’ve built something unique together and that makes every minute we’ve spent together worthwhile. And of course, capturing my relationship with my brother in this period of our lives was incredibly special to me - so I’m massively grateful to Connor for surrendering to my process, and letting me boss him around.

 

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching the film?

I hope that anyone who watches this film will be able to reflect upon their own relationships with their loved ones and possibly release some expectations they have of those relationships and most importantly, themselves. We don’t know what’s ahead of us and often the way we deal with that is by launching our insecurities at the people who habitually pick up the pieces as we cyclically tear ourselves apart. This isn’t wrong; it’s human… but perhaps what will release us from the chains we bind ourselves with is learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That is something I will always strive for.

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