Chad Hartigan is an award-winning screenwriter and director. His second feature, This is Martin Bonner, received the Best of NEXT Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has since gone on to tour the international festival circuit. This is Martin Bonner, which stars Paul Eenhoorn, Richmond Arquette, Sam Buchanan, Robert Longstreet, and Demetrius Grosse, is now available on DVD, Video-on-Demand and Netflix Instant streaming services. Mr. Hartigan spoke via e-mail with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about the two revelatory performances that anchor his film, the large role Reno, Nevada plays in it, and the inspirational music of Porn Sword Tobacco. This interview has been edited and compressed for publication. It contains (very) minor spoilers.
Sean Malin: Perhaps the most discussed element of your second feature, This is Martin Bonner, is the casting of two unknowns for the main roles. Can you talk about the casting process, and, if there was one with either Paul Eenhoorn or Richmond Arquette, the “aha!” moment(s)?
Chad Hartigan: I wrote the part of Travis for Richmond, who I knew through a job I had a few years earlier working for his brother. I had seen him in some things and met him in person; I really wanted to work with him, so I was lucky that he liked the script and me enough to do it. For the parts of Martin and Diana [Travis Holloway’s daughter,] we held open auditions in Los Angeles and I posted on a number of acting breakdown websites. Paul came in and gave a strong read, but it wasn’t like we knew right on the spot. We wanted him to come read with Richmond for a callback but found out that he lived in Seattle and had flown himself down for the audition – even though he never does that and can’t really afford to do so – because something about the breakdown spoke to him. Which is crazy because the breakdown probably just said something like, “Martin: Late 50s. Nice guy, Good listener.” And it also said, “Authentic Europeans only.” So thank God he ignored that and we managed to get him back. He read with Richmond and their chemistry made him our first choice.
SM: The film world-premiered and won the Best Of NEXT Audience Award at Sundance this year. The NEXT section features (according to the official website,) “creativity that transcends limitations.” What limitations stood in the way of your making this film?
CH: Financial ones, of course. Movies cost money and where is it going to come from? None of us had any to put into the project so we had to either find it or come up with free alternatives to things that came up. That was consistently a challenge, but also a necessary part of the process at every budget level, I imagine. I don’t know that the movie transcends any kind of narrative limitations because I don’t really believe in narrative limitations. And when you’re working without someone else’s money and input, someone else’s perception of narrative limitations was never an issue. It’s a pretty straight-forward, character-driven film, which maybe makes it unique these days.
SM: How much of this process of stretching limited resources was luck and calling in favors for you, and how much intrepidness, hard work, and diligence?
CH: A lot of luck, a lot of favors and a lot of hard work. And some miracles from the film Gods or real God, whomever you choose to believe in.
SM: Your film goes beyond personal intimacy with its two central characters to the point of familiarity. Were these two men drawn from parallel figures in real life, or were they purely figures of your imagination?
CH: Martin has some elements of my Dad. His situation in particular, having to move to a new town for that type of non-profit work, is based on my Dad. He also likes to go to auctions, so there are some other character quirks worked in [to the character.] Travis is completely made up, but both of them probably have elements of myself in there.
SM: Martin Bonner and Travis Holloway are brought to life through extremely specific costume choices, conversations with others, set design. In a previous draft or version of the film, were there any personal traits that seemed to you too small or menial, and have since been removed?
CH: No. Nothing was too small, and the closer we got to filming, the MORE specific the details become. Once we got to Reno, we figured out what the set design for Martin’s apartment would be like, etc. Something like incorporating Richmond’s high school photo or Paul’s real band from the 60s occurred after casting and into filming. Once, we had a real DMV guy cast as our DMV guy; he changed some of his dialogue to make it more realistic.
SM: Other than Martin and Travis, the most detailed character in the film is Reno, Nevada. What was the inspiration to set your film there? Was Martin Bonner originally set there, or did circumstances lead you there serendipitously, a la Breaking Bad? Also, was the location scouting process completely smooth, despite the fact that Reno isn’t the star of many motion pictures compared to, say, Austin or Atlanta?
CH: I was very familiar with Reno because my Mom is from there and her family still lives there. So I spent a number of summers there growing up and still visit occasionally; it’s always struck me as an odd place. Reno is somewhere that someone invested a lot of money in 40 years ago thinking it was going to be the next hot town and then it never happened and it got stuck in a time warp. I set the movie there from the beginning because I thought it would visually and contextually be a match for the story and characters. Scouting and prep and the entire shoot were surprisingly easy, precisely because it’s not the star of many motion pictures and most places were excited by the prospect of a film shooting there, rather than suspicious.
SM: My instinct is to refer to your film as a two-person character study. However, ensemble players like Sam Buchanan, Robert Longstreet, and Demetrius Grosse have more time to shine than in a typical “two-hander.” By referring to this picture as a character study, would one be doing your film a disservice?
CH: I don’t find that to be an insult or disservice. To me, there are two main characters, but they and the actors playing them shine because all the smaller parts feature actors who stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. We had a lot of local Reno actors dayplaying some parts, and they all just brought so much life and integrity to the roles that they make everyone look good. In that sense, the ensemble elevates the leads. However, I can’t really separate Richmond’s performance from Sam’s performance because they define each other so much.
SM: The Church and its work with former prisoners is one of the major topics of the film. With so many international scandals involving the Vatican and different denominations of Christianity over the last few years, did you intend to counter the abundantly negative images of faith-based organizations in the media since the turn of the decade, or was the presence of a Christian organization in your film coincidental in its timing?
CH: It was no coincidence. Christianity and faith didn’t have anything to do with my initial idea for the project, which was to follow a man acclimating to a new town and job at Martin’s age. But as soon as I decided to incorporate this non-profit prison rehabilitation work into the story, I had to either ignore the fact that it would be faith-based or embrace it. I decided to embrace it and took up the challenge of presenting it in a way that was neutral or respectful, because that’s a stance that is sorely lacking in all film, and especially contemporary, American cinema. Christianity is a really loaded topic for many people so I can understand the urge to avoid it, but faith and religion are also such rich topics that many stories aren’t being told, or told well, because of them.
SM: This is Martin Bonner deals with the human difficulties of religious belief and practice. How often does your belief system (or lack thereof) influence or find its way into your filmmaking?
CH: I’m not particularly religious so that doesn’t creep into my filmmaking generally, but I grew up in a religious environment that taught me a lot about treating others with kindness and generosity and gratitude that I bring into my work. Particularly with independent filmmaking and working so closely with a small crew, there’s really no room for ego or entitlement. It’s as important to me that the crew all has a good time and feels some ownership and pride over the film as it is to make a quality finished product.
SM: Martin could be seen as a sad sack loner or an inspiring, vital man picking up the pieces of his life. The same could be said for Travis Holloway. In which way do you see them?
CH: It was my job as a filmmaker to not put my own judgment on either. I originally approached the story of a man that age living alone as being depressing but as soon as I realized that was just a young person’s perspective on something he knows nothing about, I figured out how to approach the story. I’m happy you, as a viewer, can see it in a few different ways.
SM: At the end of the film, it’s left uncertain whether Martin will recover from his crisis of faith or if he’ll find a lover as he gets older. Similarly, Travis’s meeting with his daughter was healthy but shaky, and he seems to have some difficulty with spiritual belief as well. Where are these guys a year later?
CH: Travis has probably gone back to jail for stealing French toast from Denny’s and heating it up the next morning. No, I’m not sure. I think they’re both doing okay.
SM: Both of your fiction films have characters struggling to communicate normally and effectively at their centers. Is this something you struggle with in your life as deeply as Luke and Brie, or Travis and Diana?
CH: I don’t think so, no, though I am drawn to those kinds of characters. But I think at some points, Luke and Brie really connect and hit a groove, and so do Martin and Travis – there has to be both or it’s boring.
SM: Before you made Luke and Brie Are on a First Date, you made a feature-length documentary [All the Stage is a World, 2005.] This is Martin Bonner is in many ways a Realist film and, in the wrong (or right) eyes, could look like a verite documentary about fictitious people. Are you moving further away from or back towards your documentary background?
CH: Further away. I still want to have real and relatable characters front and center, but I’m trying to incorporate all the tools of filmmaking in more interesting and sophisticated ways. For example, using sound design in the 360-degree shot [of Reno] to convey that Travis feels isolated and overwhelmed on his first night out. The script for the film I want to do next dips into full-blown fantasy sequences. I love the possibilities of those tools so I’m curious to explore them.
SM: Your IMDB credits speak to a wide production background. Like are you a better filmmaker because you worked as a production assistant on the World Poker Tour?
CH: I’m not a better anything because I worked on the World Poker Tour. Thankfully, it was just a week, but my job was to sit on the rafters above the game for two or three hours and then dump confetti on the table when someone won. Then I would have to go down and sweep up the confetti. Those kinds of experiences really only give you a generous perspective of all the people working on your crew and what they do for the sake of the product, and a drive to make sure that you never have to be in that position again.
SM: To whose work did you look as a filmmaker and screenwriter on this film?
CH: I was inspired by Steve McQueen’s Hunger; Roy Andersson’s recent films; Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit; Radu Muntean’s Tuesday After Christmas; all of the films my friends were making; the music of Porn Sword Tobacco; Pink Floyd’s “Green is the Colour;” Chuck Colson; the blocking in Jaws; Robert Altman’s California Split; Brian Regan’s standup; the photography of Caitlin Dennis; and countless other strange things.
SM: Martin Bonner has undoubtedly begun to open doors for you as a filmmaker. Can you speak at all about projects you are now or will soon be working on?
CH: I’m trying to get a new film going about a 13-year-old’s first love that would shoot in Germany. It’s also about hip-hop. It’s a tough sell, but the success of this one has definitely gotten me some positive attention and I’m optimistic that we’ll get it done.