An Interview with Justin Hilliard – By Joshua Samford

Last month I was given the opportunity to review a beautiful little independent film called Wednesday, and have since kept in contact with the director Justin Hilliard. He’s a very smart and passionate guy, and I enjoyed his film immensly. To the point that I hope more and more of our audience can have the chance to enjoy it, because it truly is a magical little film. For anyone looking for more information on Justin and his future works, as well as Wednesday, please visit the Striped-Socks Productions website at http://www.striped-socks.com.

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 Q: To introduce you to the audience, can you tell the readers a little about yourself? Where you’re from, how you got into film, etc.

A: I was born and raised in Fort Worth, TX. From an early age, my parents have always been supportive of my choices and nurtured my development as an artist. My mother was always the one showing me films when I was a kid. She’d show me a wide range, everything from popular films in the theaters to classics and foreign films at home…always insisting that we watch the ‘widescreen’ version of the films, or make sure that it was the original aspect ratio, to preserve the director’s vision. This film education, paired well with my already growing love of storytelling. Starting in 2nd/3rd grade or so, I would write short stories & journals/gazettes (usually satirical), and sell them to the other kids in my classes for their lunch money. Eventually, my parents let me borrow their video camera and allow me to take it out with my friends. This is when I began shooting some of these short stories. Somewhere around 7th or 8th grade, we actually started to form these into intelligible narratives. We’d shoot all sorts of films, usually overly goofy and explicitly gory (or at least as gory as my homemade FX makeup would allow). I love storytelling and I’ve never wanted to be anything but an artist, specifically a filmmaker. I graduated from the University of Texas in Arlington in the spring of 2004 and set out to make ‘Wednesday’ soon after.

Q: When reviewing the film myself, I felt a lot of European influences (and not just from the English locale) within the film. Was I heading in the right direction with that assumption?

A: There is absolutely a European influence over ‘Wednesday’. When deciding what Striped Socks Production’s first feature film should be, I studied a lot of debut features. The ones that I related the most to were a lot of those with a European sensibility. Those films tend to have an intellectual backbone without sparing any of the artist’s passion. Equal parts passion and logic. This allows so much more depth, references, allegories and allusions to be layered throughout the film without sacrificing the passion and emotional resonance. As a filmmaker I’m absolutely influenced by European filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and especially Fellini. I mean, when filming the ‘Narcissus Flower’ segment, I pretty much had Nino Rota’s ‘La Passerella Di Addio’ playing through my head every other scene or so. Other than Mike Leigh, I can’t think of another British filmmaker that heavily influenced my directorial style. The influences over ‘Wednesday’ and myself tend to be a lot of the filmmakers from Spain, France, and Italy. Of course, having said all that, my favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick.

Q: As the DVD for Wednesday showed, a lot of the film is drawn from a very personal place. How have you felt about that? The reactions from people I mean, not only is it a piece of your artwork on the screen – but a piece of you; and it is a very self-analyzing piece.

A: There is an extra feature on the DVD that sheds more light on the deeply personal nature of the film. That experience was probably the most cathartic throughout the making of ‘Wednesday’. In fact, the whole film was practically written in a state of catharsis and necessity. There were several times when it would have been easy to let some of the pain and emotions get the best of me and take me to a dark place, but I never let. Instead, everything seemed to feed the story, the film, and all those involved. This is a film that cried out to be made. I had to make it at that point in my life. I’ll never be able to make that type of film again. I wouldn’t want to. It was the exact artistic expression that my heart and mind needed to share at that moment. I think that will make it timeless in the long run. It will always be relatable and affecting to someone. There will always be someone in those ‘dark’ places at one point in their life. Hopefully, ‘Wednesday’ shows them just that…hope. As far as the critics or audiences reaction to such a personal art piece, I really don’t take that too personally. Since ‘Wednesday’ is so self-analyzing, it really addresses any question, concern, or dislike that someone might have with it. Within the film, the artist ‘Julian’ is forced to answer all sorts of questions about failure, insignificance, loneliness, masculinity, artistic integrity, exploitation, and narcissism. ‘Wednesday’ is self-analyzing sure, but it’s also honestly self-critical as well. Love it or hate it, it’s the truth. It’s my heart. That means that the themes in the film will always be there to affect or provoke thought in someone, because those will never change. They will always be true real emotions…truth is eternally relatable.

Q: How did the section of the film that takes place in England come about? Was it originally written with
English actors in mind?

A: The segment ‘Purgatory’ developed from my personal goal to portray a believable, once passionate relationship between an older couple. I wanted to watch this couple feel the same emotions that I felt in my past relationships. I felt that love and loss were themes that have no bias against age. Sure, experience and life lessons alter future choices, but that pain, the burning of passion and love is still there. I can’t remember seeing my grandparents particularly intimate or passionate, but I always knew there had to be a love, honesty, and complete vulnerability within them that had kept them together in love, through the good and bad. I wanted the ‘Purgatory’ segment to give the audience a chance to see that universal range of emotions, and with that idea of being ‘universal’, I guess my pen just skipped over to the other side of the Atlantic. For some reason (I suppose between past literature I’d read and films I’d seen), I always visualized this older couple in London. I wrote it that way from the first draft, despite never actually visiting the UK before. My producing partner, Ryan Hartsell read the script for the first time and said, "London, really?" I nodded my head without hesitation and he responded, "Okay."

 Q: What was casting like? Were you already familiar with most of the cast or were there official casting
sessions?

A: The only role that was cast without an audition was Arianne Martin (now my wife of almost six months!). We had previously worked together on a student project of mine at UTA. I wrote the role of ‘Lucy’ specifically for her, with characterizations of my ex-fiancée and me combined throughout the character. I then started an extensive casting search for the rest of the ‘Luke & Lucy’ segment cast. I interviewed several Dallas/Fort Worth actors and eventually found what I was looking for. I cast Carol Anne Gordon and Sara Radle as Luke’s family members. The role of ‘Luke’ went to Ryan Hurst (now Jack Hurst). He had been in an acting class with Arianne Martin, and she referred him to me for an interview. As soon as I met him, I knew he would be the perfect (imperfect) ‘Luke’. After we shot the ‘Luke & Lucy’ segment, I moved to London and got a job at hotel, so I could get free room & board, food, and internet access. After finishing up the ‘Purgatory’ segment of the script and tailoring for specific areas in London, I started holding interviews with London-based actors. I contacted agents, firms, and put out several casting calls. I was overwhelmed by the amount of responses I received. After holding several meetings/interviews, I held a couple callbacks and cast all of the roles. I knew Philip Goldacre would be ‘Harold’ after only about minute of conversation, while sitting at a Starbucks in Leicester Square. I felt the same way about Adrienne Marks in the role of ‘Linda’. After shooting this segment, I returned to Texas to shoot the ‘Lyrics’ segment. Arianne also referred Holly Leach, who depicted ‘Norma’. I shot part of the ‘Narcissus’ segment before we shot ‘Purgatory’ and the rest after we shot ‘Lyrics’. When it came to casting Frank Mosley as ‘Julian’, I called him long distance from London and said, "You have to do it. You have no choice. If you don’t do it, then I’ll have to, and I can’t act. You have to Frank." Frank arranged the trip. And just like Fellini had his ‘Guido’, Truffaut had ‘Antoine’, and Kieslowski had his ‘Filip’, Frank was my ‘Julian’.

Q: Anything about the film or the process behind it that you would have done differently if possible?

A: Not at all. It was all well planned and intentional while still be so organic and ever changing. There is honestly nothing that I would want to change about ‘Wednesday’. It is the film that I had to make at that point in my life. It’s not perfect. It’s flawed. It’s human. It’s my heart and I hope that it continues to affect and provoke thought in people for years to come.

Q: If there’s any filmmaker’s career you would be happy with having a comparison made to, down the line
mind you, who would that be?

A: Well, any comparison in relation to Kubrick will always be a pleasing thing to hear or read. And while comparisons to the likes Kubrick, Fellini, Almodovar, Bergman, Godard, Cassavetes, Truffaut, Scorsese, Chaplin, Lynch, Romero, Carpenter, Van Sant, Soderbergh, and many more, will always be appreciated, my long term goal would be to make a specific name of my own. As an artist, I hope I don’t create work that only retreads on themes, thoughts, and works of the past. I aspire to create my own individual brand of cinema and art. Sure, some influences will be evident in future films, but I’d like for them to have my own personal touch and perspective.

Q: Going back to Wednesday itself, what started the process for you? Was there a sample of music that made your mind start turning, just life experiences, etc.?

A: Oddly enough, it was Brian Hyland’s ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ and Elliott Smith’s ‘Between the Bars’. I was already brainstorming what is now the ‘Luke & Lucy’ segment, but was planning on writing it as a full feature. My ex-fiancée Nicole Gray telling me about one of her favorite books ‘The Giver’ sparked the initial idea, and how after rereading it, it took on a whole new meaning from how she remembered it as a young girl. It was still very affecting, but in a much deeper and darker way. This got the Luke revisiting his family segment started. While thinking about that, the song ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ came on the radio, and I just had this image of Luke telling Lucy why he had to go, why she couldn’t go with him, and him just standing and walking away. So, as I was already toying with all the ideas of love and loss and how they affect this estranged son and his significant other, I just never felt like it stretched the film as universally relatable. It was important to expand it and add other people in different places and points in life. So, what got my mind turning? I guess it was a mix of a little Brian Hyland, a lot of Elliott Smith, and mostly a relationship seriously on the rocks.

Q: One thing I liked was the usage of extreme closeups of the actors within the film, any particular symbolism therein – or are you just as big of a Sergio Leone fan as I, hehe.

A: Well, definitely a Sergio Leone fan, but not as a direct influence on this film. The use of extreme close-ups was planned from early on. I even had little sketches on my original script of expressions, focusing on the characters’ eyes, mouths, etc. Ryan Hartsell (Director of Photography) and I always wanted this for a couple different reasons. First, there is a certain forced intimacy that happens with an extreme close-up. They may be off-putting to some, but that’s part of the point. We start the film with the ‘Luke & Lucy’ segment, what I call the ‘hell’ segment (in reference to ‘The Divine Comedy’). This is a couple going through a lot of issues and they are stuck in their own moments of forced intimacy. The initial conversation isn’t necessarily a pleasant exchange, but ‘the audience’ is forced to sit there, closer than normal and watch and share in the expressions, glances, and reactions. The second reason for the close-ups, was to allude to the final segment. We have a filmmaker putting close examination from pen and paper to camera on these different characters. The irony is that the closer he gets, trying to examine their problems, faults, characterizations, moving closer with the camera, the more he finds out about himself and his film that is falling apart. Because the artist and his own love and loss is scattered throughout all of these different characters. As far as the close-ups away from the face, they were there to enhance more intimate moments within the characters. Also, that’s how personally some of my artistic, stream of consciousness thoughts are translated in my mind. They come across as close little glimpses of something, much like a memory. Within the conscious and the subconscious, a memory tends to be a flicker focusing on certain details to me, and in Julian’s case in the film, those memories aren’t only translated, but adapted and depicted. Art imitates life, life imitates art…back and forth until the two combine and the memory becomes a hybrid of the two. So, as you can see, we had plenty of reasons for deciding on extreme close-ups being scattered throughout the film. To us it fit the personal nature of the story and the forced intimacy needed to get the viewers in a certain mindset at certain times.

 Q: What is next for you, and can you tell us a little bit about your next features such as Pale Horse, Elevators, etc.? Am I correct that all three films will be shot back to back?

A: Yes, we are going to shoot ‘Pale Horse’, ‘Blue Like Isolation’, and ‘Elevators’ back to back to back. We’ve got big plans for these films. We are currently in the development phase on these films. It’s going really well, and we will hopefully be going into production in January/February 2008. We can’t wait to shoot these very different films. These are going to be extremely different from ‘Wednesday’ in both style and theme. I do continue with an underlying theme of masculinity, loneliness, and isolation throughout the films though. ‘Pale Horse’ is a horrific drama that is going to revolutionize the horror genre and the way people think about horror films. It’s going to be an incredible piece that is going to take drama, art-house, mainstream, and horror fans by storm. ‘Blue Like Isolation’ is an intense character-driven contemplative drama. It’s Bergmanesque in nature and theme and will feature some incredible roles for actors to really shine in. ‘Elevators’ is a dark crime ensemble comedy with roots in a lot of my comedic influences, like the following: Blake Edwards, Fawlty Towers, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Elmore Leonard, and many more. It’s g
ing be darkly hilarious and at times surprisingly emotional and dramatic. After these we also plan on shooting my passion project ‘Enoch’, which I can only refer to as the film I hope will one day be regarded to as my ‘A Clockwork Orange’. We also have an experimental character drama called ‘Absolution of Europa’, which is currently being written. I’d like to have these all completed by the end of 2010.

Q: What is the future like for Justin D. Hillard, and what kind of goals are you setting for yourself?

A: Well, in the immediate future, I’d like to complete all of the films listed above. I will always want to make films as long as we are able to make them the way that we want to make them. Our goal with ‘Wednesday’ was to create a debut feature that would not only serve as a calling card for all the talent involved, but also would be a film that would resonate and only garner more attention after we’ve completed a few more films. We wanted something that would be revisited and would hold up under that critical examination, a debut piece that truly represented those behind Striped Socks Productions as artists. As far as the distant future, I’d love to be a position to nurture young talent (in school or not), and give those talented people, who may not have access to the best connections or resources, a chance to make films of their own. There is so much talent out there, so many passionate artists who only need that one chance or break to make a name for themselves. I would absolutely love to be in that position one day.

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Everyone please do visit the Striped-Socks website, and we wish the best of luck to Justin and thank him for his eloquent and intelligent responses. Check out Wednesday everybody, and make sure to check out http://www.striped-socks.com!