Several months ago I reviewed the short film “Harold’s Gift” for Rogue Cinema (click here for my review). It’s a wonderful look at the everlasting power of love and tells the story of a young husband (played by Dan Hale) who has to come to grips with the death of his estranged father. What amazed me about the film is that it touches on real emotions without being syrupy and cloying. Wanting to know more about how this marvelous short film came together, I reached out to Chicago native Adam Orton who is the film’s guiding light. Orton, not only wrote and directed “Harold’s Gift”, but also composed its fabulous score which is so good that it can easily stand on its own merits.
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PS: Adam, where did your passion for film come from?
AO: Ever since I was young I had this thing for music and storytelling and film is probably the one art form that combines both of those in a way that’s timeless. I’d like to think that it’s a combination of both of these loves.
PS: That makes a lot of sense since “Harold’s Gift” is about the gift of music.
AO: Oh, yeah!
PS: Tell me about your background. Did you go to film school, or is filmmaking something you started doing completely on your own?
AO: I got started working at this local TV station and I was really interested in the production environment, so I went to film school in Chicago (Columbia College). I eventually discovered that writing and directing were kind of my thing. I made “Harold’s Gift” as part of my independent project class. Basically you’re in charge of making your own film and you do it under the assistance and supervision of the school. You get to write it yourself and take care of all the creative elements, but it’s done for school credit.
PS: So the film was like your final project? Almost like a master’s thesis?
AO: Yeah, that’s a good way to describe it.
PS: Hey, didn’t John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s master thesis at USC turn into “Dark Star” (1974)?
AO: That’s right!
PS: Was there anyone who was a great influence on you to go to film school?
AO: Probable my wife. When I met her I found that her family was made up entirely of extremely creative people. They all loved filmmaking. We had one person in her family who’s an actor and a visual effects guy; another is an animator and another one is a musician. So meeting her and her family really encouraged me.
PS: It seems like it opened up the possibilities of film for you.
AO: Right, definitely.
PS: So they’ve embraced your career path then?
AO: My brother-in-law was actually in “Harold’s Gift” (actor Dan Hale who plays the male lead Jim). And my other brother-in-law helped write some of the music for it. I also got production assistance and a little bit of funding assistance as well. They definitely embraced it.
PS: Are you like Jim in “Harold’s Gift”? Were you basing the character on yourself and your life?
AO: (Pauses) Yeah, I would say in some ways more than not. I created this character of a father who is very rarely seen in his son’s life. In my own experiences I have a father I never met which inspired that aspect of the film. But it was also the element of being a struggling artist who’s kind of lost track of what really keeps him going creatively and is caught up in the day-today monotony of life. He’s bored with who he is, and is stuck in a rut. That was inspired by what was going on in my life. I’d say that some of the similarities start there.
PS: One of the aspects of “Harold’s Gift” that I loved was that it’s a sweet film, but you don’t need a shot of insulin after watching it. So what was your thought process in making the film sweet without over doing that aspect?
AO: (Laughs) Well, the short answer is that it was extremely difficult. In fact, it almost kept the film from being completed because I was extremely worried that it would come off that way. I was afraid that it would be so schmaltzy that nobody would walk away from it with any kind of entertainment value. So I tried to make sure that I didn’t force-feed any kind of emotions to the audience. I only wanted it to be about the story, trying to explain what it would be like to be in Jim’s shoes. When you just tell the story, there’s room for empathy if you do it right. If not, people will spot what you’re trying to do and see it as fake. I didn’t want to linger on the sad elements of it. I was trying to make the film less about people crying and more about helping people who shared similarities with Jim (and his relationship with his father). It took a lot of careful editing and I had to be careful while shooting it. I’m not going lie about it. It was difficult.
PS: Well you did a great balancing job with that.
AO: Thanks a lot!
PS: I have to admit that while watching it I was afraid that it might go in that direction, but by not going there, it made the film much more invigorating for me.
AO: That’s awesome. I’m really happy about that.
PS: How long did the film take to complete?
AO: It took about 10 hours to write and about four days to shoot. But then it took about two and a half years to edit!
AO: Yeah, yeah. I just finished it this past April, which is when I premiered it. Part of the reason it took so long was that I went into this depression thinking, ‘How do I edit this thing? How do I make the music work?’
PS: So you felt you had this really tough task and you couldn’t figure out just quite how to pull it off?
AO: Yep. There was a lot of experimenting and I had some self-doubt about trying to make it work. One of the things that took so long was doing the visual effects. I did three different drafts of the effects. The first time I thought it looked too fake and the second time it looked too much like an 8mm projection. Finally I settled on a specific type of effect that sold it for me. When I saw it I said, “Finally, we’re going to get this movie done.” I was being careful and taking my time.
PS: You also wrote the music for the film. Was that a little easier for you than the actual filming?
AO: That was difficult as well. I felt that the original music was too schmaltzy. So part of the process was just writing a bunch of music. I think I wrote five times more music than what is in the film just to get it right. I didn’t know exactly what I was going for. It’s one of those things that you know it when you hear it, but that part was difficult as well.
PS: How did you find your actors (Dan Hale and Meredith Lyons)? Did you have Dan specifically in mind for Jim?
AO: Yes. From the start I had Dan Hale in mind for Jim. I auditioned seven other actresses to play the part of Alex and I eventually went with Meredith who I already knew (I met her at Columbia). She was great and I loved working with her. They both worked out great. They got it.
PS: Dan and Meredith have such a natural chemistry. I felt that they could have lived down the block from me.
AO: It was one of those things. It was serendipitous. They just worked together so well.
PS: Did you consider making the film longer? Or was it always going to be a short?
AO: The moment I wrote it I knew the reason why I liked it was that I knew that it wouldn’t work as a feature. It was suited for a short film. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be turned into a feature, but I really had no plans for that. I liked it as a 15 minute short.
PS: I thought it was great. It moved and it was balanced perfectly.
PS: What was tougher – writing or directing?
AO: Directing by far was harder. During shooting, this weird bout of depression hit me after the first day. I don’t know if it was due to stress or because of anxiety of how the film would turn out.
PS: Did you feel overwhelmed?
AO: It was overwhelming. I had gotten permission to shoot in someone’s house and they requested that they be in the house while we were shooting and I had no problem with that. But we (the film crew) soon came to realize that they would be making noise the entire day and that made it really difficult. That upped everyone’s anxiety a little bit. But we got it done.
PS: Who was your rock during filming?
AO: That was John Allen (cinematographer).
PS: You sure you don’t want to say your wife?
AO: (Laughs). Well she wasn’t there with me during filming, but oh yeah. But John is a great guy, but more importantly, John understands and can adapt to different styles of directing. Some directors don’t like to touch the camera and some like to be hands on. John was super great. He knew when to run the camera, when to step away and when to just let me think. Basically we vented to each other during the entire process. He knew the things that were going through my mind before anyone else did.
PS: Were you limited by your funding? Did you want to make the film bigger?
AO: Yeah, probably the major area was the lighting set ups, if we had had more money. And the first draft of the script had a scene in a church (the funeral for Jim’s dad). And there was another scene in the lawyer’s office. They were supposed to be actual locations, but we shot the lawyer’s scene in a bedroom. My production designer (Ellen Ranney) did terrific work for the basement set, but even today I look at that scene in the lawyer’s office and I wish we could have paid for a better location than that. And I wish we could have shot the film on a better camera.
PS: What did you shoot the film with?
AO: We used a Canon 7D.
PS: So “Harold’s Gift” has been hitting the festival circuit. What has the reaction been to your film?
AO: Just awesome. It’s better than I hoped. The first festival it premiered at (the Cedar Rapids Film Festival) someone told me that a reporter from the Des Moines Register was here and they really liked it and that they might feature it in an article. It felt really good that someone who didn’t know me received the film well. If people who don’t know you or care about you like your film, that’s a good sign.
PS: Are you still showing it at festivals?
AO: I’ve submitted it to a bunch of festivals and I’m pretty much waiting to hear back from all of them. I’ll hear from them in September.
PS: What other films have you worked on?
AO: Most recently I worked on a horror comedy. It’s a parody of romantic comedies. It’s about a vampire and a cannibal who fall in love. It’s called “Call Me Crazy”. That’s currently in festivals now. It’s going to be shown at the Macabre Faire Film Festival in Pennsylvania. It was a fun project.
PS: One last question – what one film can you watch anytime?
AO: (Chuckles). You might laugh, but it is Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” (2006). It’s just something I can watch every single night and laugh. It’s like “Futurama” meets “Wall-E”.
PS: Anything you want to add, Adam?
AO: Yeah. Follow “Harold’s Gift” on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/HaroldsGiftShortFilm) . The more organic interest I can gain for the film, the better chance I have of getting distribution with a subscription-based streaming service. Information on the film will be available there.
PS: Adam, thank you so much for your time and I hope “Harold’s Gift” is a great success.
AO: Thanks so much Phil.
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NOTE: To watch the trailer for “Harold’s Gift”, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA1wl5-ZVlk