Embrace the Limitations: an interview with “Parts” filmmaker Scott HansonMarch 20th, 2012 | Posted by in IndieFlix filmmaker | Interview | Movie Reviews
cott Hanson’s “Parts” (2008, 20 min) is an exercise in style: in telling a story largely with visual cues. Much of it is shown in closeup—I’m not sure there’s a single establishing shot in the whole film. This gives the movie a distinctly claustrophobic feeling. An oppressively gray color scheme, with lighting that shadows everyone’s eyes, adds to the sensation that this story is set in some future dystopia. Watching the film a second time, I realized that there is nothing that explicitly places “Parts” in such a setting; it’s done completely with tone and style.
Into this setting walk a mother and son. Or at least that’s what we guess from the closeup of a little boy’s feet walking next to a woman’s, and a shot of their clasped hands. They stop against a rough concrete wall, and the mother, whose face is never allowed to enter the frame, pins a note to the boy. Then she sends him off to hide, while she begins to count. A game of hide and seek—until the mother suddenly melts into the moving crowd, leaving the boy behind.
The contents of the pinned note lands the boy in the household, such as it is, of a middle aged couple sharing a life of denial and disappointment. They deny themselves not just luxuries, but necessities, in order to save. But we quickly learn that what she is saving for is at cross purposes with what he wants: she’s saving for the possibility of one day having a child, and he’s saving to feed his dog-fight gambling habit. The sudden appearance of the child in their lives offers them characteristically contradictory opportunities. For her, a child to care for and love. For him, a means to pay off his gambling debts, with the black market sale of the boy’s organs.
That’s the setup. The story that follows is told largely without dialog. By telling the story (also divided into Parts) in this manner, Hanson allows the plot to grow organically from the characters and the relationships and situations they find themselves in. This is a rare gift in a director these days, when most filmmakers seem to move their characters around in service to the plot, like game pieces, with little or no convincing effect on their surroundings or each other.
Impressed as I was with “Parts,” I recently sought out filmmaker Scott Hanson for an interview.
Charley Cvercko: To begin with the general, when did you decide you wanted to make movies?
Scott Hanson: I think I knew that I wanted to tell stories for a long time. I explored all kinds of things from journalism to radio to live theatre and finally settled on a film when I realized I wasn’t a very good actor, had a face for radio and a voice for newspapers.
CC: Was the choice really by elimination? Or was there something special about film and how it fit the way you wanted to tell stories?
SH: In all honesty I got to direct some live theatre and realized the creative experience belongs to the actor in live performances. I had an actor go blank on stage once, poor guy, and all our work was unseen because he had a rough moment on stage, and it was live, and there was no going back. So that led me to film. I enjoyed the choices and the process of deciding how to tell the story and where you can have some control over what the audience will experience. And probably why I am an editor by trade.
CC: Was there any particular film, or filmmaker, that helped you figure this out? Or was it purely your own experience?
SH:. Yes, there are certain films for sure. One of the most potent movie watching experiences I had growing up was Cinema Paradiso—I think it hit me at the same time as the lead character was going through that coming-of-age story. Influences are from all kinds of places. Films of course, but also great writing, great storytelling, really, in any form, is what I draw from and get excited to see. Writers like Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, etc., are huge for me. But also Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. I think Our Town is just brilliant. I know it’s cliché and every high school does it—my high school did it; I got to play the milkman—but it says and deals with a lot of heavy things. Lots of those themes are universal across lots of great storytelling. I think I’m just drawn to this the strongest because they were probably some of the first pieces where those themes were introduced to me. These days I find a lot of the truth those authors touched on in real-world events and find myself reading more non-fiction, and really enjoying documentaries now.
CC: Williams was so melodramatic, fantastical; I can see the line from Wilder to documentaries, but it’s harder for me to see that line from Williams. I mean, his stuff was purely emotional in its reading of the world.
SH: I think the Williams thing is more about the gothic dark Southern themes for me. That’s what I responded too: how dark a story could get.
CC: One of the questions I always ask when I interview an artist, of any kind, is what kinds of things outside your chosen field have been influences. You’re the first to anticipate the question and go into authors. But are there painters, musicians, or anything really, that you feel has had a strong influence?
SH: Oh for sure. Edward Hopper is my favorite painter. Hands down. The mood and context in a single image that he puts down is just great. And then his landscapes are so impressive because much like music, you get the tone right away. And the tone is an opinion, and often I think tone gets made vanilla—not intentionally—but by not being intentional about it.
CC: Yes, I can see that; lighting was obviously very important in “Parts.”
SH: We looked at Hopper’s stuff as a source material: a reference. But all that credit falls at the feet of Mark Thomas , the DP. Just amazing job. And we shot on 16mm. So not digital at all. Well, once it was shot there’s a digital process of course. But that’s all shot on film.
CC: It has a very solid look; it has none of the sense you get from a lot of indies that the director ignores production value, figuring he’ll get a pass due to a limited budget.
SH: Well, we certainly didn’t have much of a budget for sure. No one ever does I don’t suppose, but we made the choice early on to embrace the limitations and play to the strengths that we did have. A lot of natural light sources and all the interiors in one building.
CC: About the setting: the first time I saw “Parts” I labeled it a post-apocalyptic film; it seems like it’s set in a dystopian future. When I watched it again, I saw there was nothing concrete to suggest that, beyond the oppressive grayness that’s kind of standard issue in post-apocalypse films. Were you thinking of it as set in the future? Or present day?
SH: We had two goals in regard to the location of the story. For the art department and others we told them it was the Great Depression meets the Cold War in Eastern Europe. For the actors we told them to play it straight—no accents or anything like that. But we deliberately set it “not in America.” Urban environment for sure, but I was hoping to put the story outside of the modern world so that we could just tell the story and not have to also try to explain any legalities or logic problems the audience might trip over if it was set in a modern-day American city or some such.
CC: Right: so almost all the exterior shots were closeups of faces or hands or feet, with almost no clues as to location. The way the characters treated the idea of a black market in organs so matter-of-factly was effective too; they live in a world where this idea is not that horrifying.
SH: Yeah we shot that on one street that was a leftover set from the TV movie for Saving Jessica Lynch. It’s some Middle Eastern facades on a street near downtown Dallas. We shot in Dallas in the summer. Ugh. It was 100 degrees and the film is set in the winter of course. The interiors were in an old slaughterhouse, then warehouse, with no electricity, no A/C and no running water. But the crew was awesome.
CC: Where did the story of “Parts” spring from?
SH: It started out after reading a couple of news stories of people selling kids for organs. In some cases their own grandkids or nephews or whatnot. That seemed like such an awful thing. It was hard to believe. And I was wanting to write something that ended in a hopeful moment. And the thing is, to show a small hopeful moment and for that to be enough of a change at the end of a story, then the story has to start out in some pretty dark territory. So I wrote something and then put it on a shelf. Couple years later I was telling Ken Kloser—the co-writer—about it, and he wanted to take a stab at it. I knew something was missing so I sent it to him and he made it much stronger. Really built up the family and that leads to a stronger emotional investment in the story.
CC: Yes, I was struck by the ending. Up to that point, you’d have to call it pretty pessimistic about humankind.
SH: Yeah, It’s always awkward for a moment when people ask me what it’s about. Most shorts are either funny or experimental and this plays heavier than that.
CC: Right—most people making shorts don’t want to be making shorts; their heart isn’t really in the material and it shows. “Parts” is that rare short that feels solid and whole
SH: Thanks, that’s very kind. We worked really hard to make it a story that can stand on its own. In fact it wasn’t until after we finished the film that we took a crack at writing a feature-length version, which we have finished a script for.
CC: That’s one of the things I was going to ask you about. Is that an actual project yet? I mean, are you going to shoot it now that you’ve written it?
SH: We have a finished script, and are using it as a writing sample. I’d love to see it get made, but there’s also something about the short that feels complete.
CC: Yeah I can see that; if you make the feature, then the short becomes somehow orphaned.
SH: Ah ha! A PUN!
CC: Pretty clever, no? But seriously; then the short becomes somehow lesser than, where now it’s its own thing, a whole unto itself, if that makes any sense.
SH: Yeah, to decide to make the feature version would be a huge commitment and part of it would be to go back over ground we’ve already harvested in some sense.
CC: How do you think working as an editor affects your work as a director?
SH: Huge. I learned so much from so many directors. Being in the editor chair, serving their projects—I learned a ton.
CC: You get to see what’s wrong or right about the footage without having to shoot it yourself.
SH: Everything from efficiency with the camera, to a few in-camera techniques, to performances, etc. And when they experiment and succeed or fail, then I’m involved in either helping to take the idea somewhere else, or I sit back and admire their choice and chalk it up as a lesson.
CC: Do you think you’ll always be your own editor, even when you graduate to features?
SH: I don’t think so. I love editing—it’s a lot like writing for sure. But I think that the benefit of a cold eye, that wasn’t invested in the shoot, and doesn’t carry the preconceptions, brings a lot of fresh energy and ideas and insight to the project. In fact I had an editor lined up for “Parts.” I told him—it was a mentor of mine named Jack Waldrip, who taught me a ton—that I wanted him to look at cuts and give me notes. If I was going to edit, and I found I couldn’t resist the temptation to try—mostly on a budget front as well as creative—then I would need to submit what I was doing to another person to know I wasn’t letting myself off the hook easy. It’s like when you show a cut to a client or a director, the minute you watch it with another person you feel differently about it
CC: Another thing I noticed about “Parts” is how little dialog there is; much of the story is told purely visually.
SH: Thanks. We tried very hard to do as much as we could to tell it visually. In fact we gave the character of the kid nothing to say at all, because we weren’t sure what kind of choices we’d have for kids to play the part. Turns out we got a huge break when Keeton [Green] came in to read. But not knowing that would happen, and knowing that anything that character said would be enormously magnified because of the role the character has in the story, we made a rule when we were writing that the kid says nothing. That led us to a place where we derived a lot of visual cues. As for the story, it’s pretty straightforward. I’d like to say that it’s an intentional allegory or metaphor and there are certainly things in it that can be extrapolated, but I focused on trying to tell the best story possible and as distinctly as possible, and the universal truths in that story—that are in so many others— would present themselves without me trying to be too clever about pointing it out.
CC: The best way to go about it, I think. So did you take “Parts” around to a lot of festivals?
SH: Yes. I think 26 was the final total. Great experience. Met lots of other filmmakers I still keep in touch with.
CC: Having gone through that, what are your feelings on the indie film world today—from filmmaking to festivals to distribution difficulties? Any thoughts?
SH: Well the web changes everything. I think it’s great to go see and support good storytelling anywhere. And one side effect of the web stuff is these super short shorts (3 min and under) are really getting more views then they ever would have gotten otherwise. People pass ’em around etc. So for aspiring filmmakers I think that’s a built in audience. As for indie filmmaking, I don’t know if it ever would or could feel like it’s on solid ground. Festivals and such are still great places to see material that may not come to the multiplex, and shorts are a part of that, but it used to be a fest was the only place to see shorts. Now, if it’s good enough material, it’ll get a million hits on youtube. Its certainly not any easier. And I think that’s something people kind of secretly hope happens: that by there being more access to shorts and such—festivals, web, etc.—that it would somehow get easier to get seen. And yes that’s technically true, but it doesn’t make the storytelling any easier. Still a lot of hard work. A bad short on you tube is still a bad short.
CC: Right: no matter how distribution changes, the bottom line is you still have to make a good movie.
SH: And I also think people are awfully quick to turn their noses up at Hollywood, and I get where that comes from, but I’d ask those same people to step back for a minute and really look at what they are seeing. Yes the stories might be watered down—lowest common denominator type of things—but there’s some great inventive craft happening there. Lots to learn from and frankly a lot to respect. I’d say that the biggest difference is choices; choices made in deciding how to tell the story.
CC: So what are you going to do next? Will you be able to get studio backing for Parts: the Feature?
SH: Next on my list are a couple of things. Writing a new piece now and also cutting a short doc about a village in Kenya that dug a ditch for nine miles to get water in the village.
CC: Were you involved in shooting the doc? Or did they bring you on as editor?
SH: No it’s my own project. I shot it there over two different trips to Africa the last two summers. It’s about a group of women in this village that got tired of the kids and themselves having to fetch water (3 miles each way) and miss schooling and only living on subsistence farming. So they pooled their resources, got an engineer to plan it, and dug by hand for a couple of years. And I mean literally by hand. In 2009 the village was brown dirt. In 2010 lush green. It’s amazing.
I should also mention to you that the lead actress in “Parts,” Aleisha Force, is starring in a premier of a new play by Kim Rosenstock called Tigers Be Still. It’s quite the coup for Dallas to be putting it on. Also I’d like to mention that the crew and cast really did incredible work and I wish I could mention them all by name. But know that I was sent to the hospital with bacterial pneumonia during the shoot and the crew pressed on. This whole film thing is a huge collaborative effort and Erin Fairbrother, Mark Thomas, Lynne Moon, and the whole cast deserve a lot of recognition for the free heart and soul they put into it. No one does this alone.