Mischa Webley’s feature debut The Kill Hole has been making the rounds at several film festivals this year and earning accolades along the way; the film last won the best narrative feature at the New Jersey Film Festival.
Just a few years ago, during the time Webley worked the night shift as a cab driver in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, he was also working on a short documentary piece about his grandfather’s experiences as a World War II veteran.
“He confided in me about a number of things and experiences during the war that he never told anyone for decades including my mother,” says Webley of his grandfather, whose stories served as inspiration for The Kill Hole’s fictionalized dramatic narrative, “I was humbled that he confided in me in that it sparked a curiosity about the wars that are going on now and I wanted to explore the world of returning soldiers.”
Webley realized early on that his project about a Vietnam veteran (Chadwick Boseman) suffering from PTSD and sent on a mission to annihilate an AWOL Marine Corps (Tory Kittles), was ambitious, especially for a first feature. He describes the circumstances of finding support serendipitous, “I moved back to Portland with the script, ready to beg, borrow or steal to raise a few bucks and do it on my own. I was connected to my producer, Zach Hagen, and he saw that it really needed more than that. Our budget wasn't a lot, but it wasn't a shoestring. I'm glad, because that allowed us to do the material justice.”
The filmmaker also says he was fortunate to get the support he needed with modest resources, and he took advantage of affordable, yet highly competent technology accessible to filmmakers, hence his motto to “Do a lot with a little.”
Part of the challenge for Webley was pushing the film’s envelope creatively and stylistically. The filmmaker developed three different aesthetics in the film, “There's a straight thriller narrative; there's a poetic, voiceover element too, and then there's a documentary element that takes place in a veteran's support group that the lead character, played by Chadwick, goes to.”
In order to film the veterans’ support group scenes, actual veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought on board; in those largely improvised sequences, these non-actors opened up to the counselor character played by Billy Zane, “What we caught on camera were some really powerful, raw, honest accounts of their military experiences. Some really great scenes,” says Webley.
Webley acknowledges the misnomer that Black lead characters will label a film as a “black film” or that such film wouldn’t have an audience, “It’s frustrating.” He says that race of the lead characters wasn’t a starting point for him, “My focus was just to try and draw interesting, complex characters, to sort of transcend that whole issue of race entirely.”
And although Webley anticipated some pushback from studios and distributors, it wasn’t a significant concern, “I think audiences in general are a lot smarter than marketers and distributors give them credit for and people respond to compelling stories, no matter what race the characters are. I just ignore the people who say that a black cast won't sell.”
An important and very relevant fact that Webley highlighted during our interview is that the military is largely comprised of Blacks and Latinos, “In movies, they’re almost always portrayed as white soldiers or veterans. There’s Reality and then there’s what is represented on film.”
To cast for the leads of Lt. Samuel Drake and the AWOL Marine, Webley worked with New York City casting director Adrienne Stern, “Chad [Boseman] had a read on the character that was just spot on,” says Webley. Tory Kittles, whom Webley talked to over an hour over the phone before casting him, “had an in depth understanding of the character without me ever meeting him.”
The director welcomed the actors’ own take to the material; he says he likes to be surprised, and indeed he was, after witnessing the way in which Boseman and Kettles brought personal elements to their characterizations, both quite challenging due to their intense emotional natures.
“They’re the type of actors who throw themselves completely and we’re dealing around issues of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Chad’s character had nightmares from what he went through. You sort of have to give them the space to really be there. It was interesting. There were some themes that we were asking and demanding a lot from them and they went all the way,” says Webley, who was impressed by how much emotional ground the actors accomplished to cover during a very tight 22-day shooting schedule.
Webley, who is currently working on a second feature film, and developing a comedy web series based on his experiences as a cab driver in Portland to begin production this winter, says he has seen a good amount of interest among distributors for The Kill Hole, “You have to be selective. I want to find the right company that will not treat it as one more title; you just want to work with good people. I found really good people in all aspects of the filmmaking process, so I want to continue to do that.”
Distribution prospects are bright, and highly plausible for this indie drama, if only the festivals’ reception of The Kill Hole this year are any indication – awards, packed screenings, and engaged audiences of all demographics. Webley says, “I remember a Vietnam vet in the audience stood up at a Q&A and told us we hit a nail on the head as far as representing military service men and their experiences, and that meant a lot because that’s hard to get right. Since then the ball started rolling, I just feel very fortunate we got some momentum and it’s been received really positively. I’m enjoying it and trying to continue to push forward.”