Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hank & Asha - a dynamite no-budget film

It was my pleasure to catch the charming film Hank & Asha at this years Slamdance festival. I saw several films, all of which could be considered great examples of micro-budget filmmaking, but Hank & Asha was by far my favorite. And for once in my life, I am not alone, as I’m happy to announce that it went on to win the Audience Award at the festival.

Hank & Asha is a simple story about two lonely people, one a student far from home in Prague, and one an aspiring filmmaker, far from home in New York. Through video chats the two meet and fall in love. It sort of has a similar plot to Lost in Translation, which I personally didn't enjoy much. I think Lost in Translation was less about lonely people, and more about bored people, and I don’t think bored people make good subjects for movies.

 The entire story of Hank and Asha is told through their video messages. While this format could quickly become tedious, in the able hands of first time writer/director/producer James E. Duff it soars with personality, charm, and an innocence that I find lacking in most independent films.

Director James E. Duff directs Andrew Pastides (Hank)
Reading the brief synopsis in the program, I went in wondering if it would be just shot by the two lead actors, with just source light, etc. Happily it was a well-shot, well directed movie. Because the two protagonists are a filmmaker and a film student it’s plausible that their video messages are more than just chats. In fact, the film is one of the better looking that I’ve seen shot on the 5D, so a big shout-out to DP Bianca Butti.

 The biggest compliment I can ever give a film is that I’m jealous of it. I was definitely jealous of Hank & Asha. Jealous if the idea, of the skill displayed by its creators, and jealous of how much fun it seemed to make.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with James and his wife/co-writer/editor/producer, Julia Morrison, for a few seconds in Park City to get some of the details. James and Julia said that they wanted to make a movie that was personal and true to who they were. That said, they don’t seem to be cynical folks, but seem to be a genuinely happy couple with a positive outlook on life. Though the film isn’t autobiographical, it has autobiographical elements (Asha is a student at the Prague school where James and Julia taught for two years). The film that people seem to be comparing it to is Once, which James admits he saw four times in the theater.

The film was shot over twenty-one days: ten in Prague, followed by eleven in New York. Their DP, Bianca, came with them to Prague, but other than that, they had a Prague crew and a New York crew. That crew consisted of some co-producers, their DP, an assistant camera person/gaffer, a single person art crew and a mixer. Julia said her one regret was not having a location manager. This is a role that is so frequently overlooked. As a former location manager I am always cutting that line item thinking I’m going to save money if I do it myself. I vow to the world, right here and now, that I will never do it again. You want a location manager. You NEED a location manager. There’s so much you as a producer have to focus on, without worrying about the location, or staying behind to clean the toilet.

Their locations were mostly friends’ places, restaurants and bars where friends worked, etc. But both New York, and especially Prague, are shown off and exploited for all their gorgeous effect.

The lovely and talented Mahira Kakkar (Asha)
Holding the film together was the stellar cast of Andrew Pastides and Mahira Kakkar. This is a movie that is made of almost entirely of close ups on these two actors, so their performances are critical. James and Julia said that if they couldn’t cast it right, they wouldn’t do it. They were fortunate to know casting directors Elissa Myers and Paul Fouquet, who hit it out of the park. My hat is off to these two amazing actors who I’m sure will resurface in other things soon, and who I would cast at the drop of a hat (the hat I already have off, in fact).

So the takeaway: Make a movie that reflects your heart. Don’t worry about following the latest trend or worrying about what people want to see or what festivals want to program. Make it personal, and hopefully that personality and passion will reflect on the screen. James and Julia’s personality is one I’d be happy to return to again and again.

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