At last week's Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon, I served on the narrative jury, and was relieved at the quality of the competition films (winners here). But my fellow jury members (writer-directors David Lowery and Francesca Gregorini) and I had no trouble agreeing on the Best Feature: stylish crowdpleaser "Hank and Asha," a unique romance from the rookie husband-and-wife filmmaker team James Duff and Julia Morrison. The film is entirely comprised of a series of video letters from a man and a woman who conduct a long-distance courtship.
New York-based Duff and Morrison both write and produce; he directs and she edits. And like many indies, they supported themselves with a day job (a teaching gig) and self-financed their micro-budget film on the side. A mutual friend set them up in New York in 2008; they went away to teach at a Prague film school in 2010, returned in the summer of 2011 to get married, cast the movie, and went back to Prague to shoot the film during their honeymoon.
The duo also discovered --as many do these days--that it was easier to make and self-finance their first movie than to release it. "Hank and Asha" finally opened in New York this past weekend--after screening at over 25 film festivals--and played well enough to hold over for a second week at the City Cinemas Village East Theater. "Hank and Asha" will continue to roll out in Los Angeles this coming weekend followed by seven other cities thus far. Reviews are fresh.
The festival circuit started over a year ago at Slamdance 2013, where Duff and Morrison agreed to debut their film after Sundance passed. They did score some local publicity, and took home the audience award.
Duff and Morrison faced a steep learning curve on what to do with their film. They thought Slamdance was a great opportunity to launch the movie in crowded Park City, and decided to go with that bird in hand rather than risk not getting accepted as a competition world premiere at higher-profile festivals like SXSW or LAFF. That decision meant that they were destined to play a succession of lower-profile venues. "We had really great experiences at some smaller festivals," says Duff in a phone interview.
"We didn't know how to navigate it exactly," adds Morrison. "It was our first film. It was a step by step figuring it out as we went, talking to other filmmakers, friends and industry people...Sales agent Ronna Wallace opened a lot of doors for us. She went out with the film and got theatrical distributors to watch it. We got some nice passes: 'the movie charms our socks off.' But without recognizable stars it didn't fit their model."
So Duff and Morrison made a deal with digital distributor FilmRise, which handled various distribution platforms. And the filmmakers spent some time questioning how to tackle a theatrical release. Should they try a hybrid model? They ended up working with independent theater booker Steve Fagan and Emerging Pictures, which booked them into theaters in Utah, Nebraska and Oregon, as well as New York publicist Nina Baron at PMKBNC. "We're seeing what happens," says Morrison. "They're so many platforms to watch on different devices. The sky is the limit. We were editing on the laptop, working on a smaller screen: 'Does it play well small?' I can see someone watching the film on Netflix, streaming on the phone."
When Morrison, who graduated from Wesleyan undergrad and produced docs in New York, and Duff, who earned a Masters degree in film at USC, went to teach film in Prague, they felt lonely and isolated. "We were yearning to make connections, having a hard time," says Duff. "We thought back to when others in similar situations used to write letters. You took the time to get down thoughts about who you want to be, the anticipation of who you want that other person to be. We were thinking about doing something like that, and how to update letter writing: video messages. A friend courted his wife by sending video letters. We thought it'd be fantastic, like watching a movie, putting it inside a relationship, talking to her and talking to him, a cool way to make a movie, so that the characters are including the audience in the progress of their relationship."
They wrote a 30-page outline, writing out the content of the letters and scenes. "We decided that we didn't want to spell out all of the dialogue," says Morrison. "We wanted it to feel authentic and spontaneous, not pretend spontaneous. We had all the start points and the shape of the message. From there we wanted the collaboration of the actors."
A casting director in New York looked for theater actors who were strong at improvisation, and found Mahira Kakkar ("Blue Bloods," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") and Andrew Pastides ("Shadows & Lies"), who were both looking to cross over to their first film. The filmmakers did not have to screen test them for chemistry, says Morrison, "because they're never in the same frame in the film."
"We wanted to feel that they had chemistry with the camera, that's who they are going to be playing to," adds Duff. "Julia created chemistry in the editing room by editing the messages together."