This Is Martin Bonner - the second feature from writer/director Chad Hartigan - has its international premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival this week. It's a thoughtfully made and beautifully acted dual character study of the titular Bonner (played by Paul Eenhoorn, who talks about his role here) and his growing friendship with ex-con Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette) - both in their own way trying to forge new connections.
I caught up with Hartigan and Arquette - friends in real-life - to talk about the film after its world premiere at Sundance in January.
Amber Wilkinson: I'm interested in how you came to write a film that didn't have any sex, any death or any violence?
Chad Hartigan: Violence I can tell you. I do like the idea of never making a movie that has a gun in it my entire life. Not that I'm super anti-gun but I just have lived 30 years on this planet and I've never even seen a gun. And yet every single movie that comes out has a gun in it somewhere, it seems really bizarre to me. I have seen guns in policemen's holsters but never 'out and about'. Your question is, why would I write this kind of movie? It came about because my dad had to move to a new town when he was 55 and he really moved to do that kind of work. And I just wondered what would he do all day, how would he spend his time and if he wanted to make new friends, how would he do that at that age? Those were ideas that I couldn't place in any other movie, I couldn't think of one that did that. So that's what excites me, if something pops into my brain and I can't attach it to any previous movie.
AW: I think it's a breath of fresh air. I kept thinking something terrible was going to happen to this guy because you get so conditioned to that sort of thing happening.
CH: It's been a surprise, the reception here, people responding to how nice the movie is. I didn't set out to do anything like that. I knew that I didn't want to have a lot of conflict, that was deliberate but having it be nice wasn't something I planned.
AW:Richmond, there is quite a lot of the film where one or other of the main characters is on their own with just their own thoughts for company, is that something you look forward to as an actor?
RA: To do scenes by myself? It's an interesting question...
CH: I can say something while you're thinking about it...
RA: OK, then I've got something...
CH: I had made a feature before - Luke And Brie Are On A Date - but it was just two characters and we shot for four days. But on this movie, I found it really fascinating because we shot the first six days just with Richmond, Paul didn't come until the seventh day. And every day there would be a different actor come in who you would work with on that particular day. It was strange. I tried to put myself in his shoes, where every day there's this new person.
RA: Yeah, you asked me about that while we were doing it. I feel like it's a challenge and you better have your character in place, to see where he is going. But it's also kind of exciting and inviting that you get to explore who is this guy in this moment and it's not all about dialogue. I think that I felt like Chad and I were on the same page about what story was being conveyed in terms of Travis' story, so I felt confident in what he wanted to see and that it coincided with my understanding of the character. So if I just was myself as the character in each scene. It's such an internal movie, so it wasn't all that different from doing scenes with other people because Travis is kind of trapped in himself. Even in the scene with his daughter.
CH: We were working on such a microscopic level of emotion with the character. There's the scene where Travis goes up to the bank and opens the door and it's locked and he looks at the hours. I wanted him to do another take where he looked at his watch and he said, 'No, that's way over the top.' [to Arquette] You call that 'Benny Hill-ing it'.
RA: I wanted to avoid indicating anything at all - indicating that this man is sorrowful or stuck in his own thing...
The reality of it is you're not alone. You have to find your solitude but at the same time you have a crew of seven or eight people an we were all really tight. We formed this really tight quick bond. I was really impressed with Chad and his crew. They're all much younger than me, they're all very inspired by film and very knowledgeable and beautiful, idealistic and inspiring and humbling, and that helped me a lot.
AW: That's interesting because in a way, the film could be called This Is Travis.
CH: He wanted it to be called This Is Travis.
RA: I want the sequel.
AW: Did you want these characters to be equally strong in the movie, because they are?
CH: It wasn't conscious. I came up with the idea of the movie and then I came up with the title. Then I started writing and as I was writing, that's how it came out, that Travis was incorporated more and more, and at the end I realised he even has the more dynamic arc. The title character is more like an anchor. And by the time I finished writing, people were telling me, 'You'd better change the title now, because it doesn't make any sense.'
AW: I think you're right not to have done.
RA: I think so too, because I really feel that the story is in Martin's mentorship. There is this arc for Paul's character where he's unsure of where he's at and what he's doing and having this job that may not be his dream job. But by the end of the movie you see he's actually making a difference in someone's life.
AW: How do you feel about watching yourself?
RA: I don't mind any more. I used to. When I was first acting and used to see myself, I was mortified to see myself and compelled to watch it again and again. Since then, I've done things that I've never even seen and with this, I was definitely interested in how my performance came out, but I was also interested in seeing what cuts they chose. There were scenes in the diner that were very different performances and I was interested in seeing the whole film and the flow of the film. I was really happy watching the movie.
AW: It must be good to get such a meaty role as someone who is, if you'll forgive me, no longer in their twenties, because a lot of films, especially here, are peopled with kids.
RA: And if they're not peopled with kids, then they're going to get Robert Downey Jr or Charlie Sheen or someone between those two extremes in my age group. So a guy like me doesn't really stand a chance.
AW: I think a film like this would suffer if it had a 'film personality' like that in it. It's much harder to suspend your disbelief if you're looking at somebody like that. Whereas with someone like you, we know you are but...
RA: I don't know people do know who I am and I'm happy with that. One thing I realised here is someone suggested seeing a movie and they named the actors in it and I said, 'Yeah, I'm not really crazy about that actor', and it made me decide not to go see that film. And we don't have that. Nobody's going to say, 'I'm not going to see that because I don't like that guy's work' because they don't know that guy's work. We have that advantage. I don't know if that plays out in the real world but I know it plays out at a festival.
AW: You weren't scared to take on the Christianity idea and do nothing with it. Doing nothing with Christianity except featuring it as a regular, non-judgemental part of the story is actually a brave manoeuvre.
CH: That was a deliberate challenge I set for myself because my parents were both missionaries when I was growing up and I was raised in a missionary environment. In high school, I started to lose interest in that and I'm not very religious now but I have a tremendous respect for my parents an the way they brought me up and the environment I was brought up in. When I would think of how Christinity is portrayed in movies, it was either the entire movie was trying to sell you on Christianity or the movie was going out of its way to show flaws or hypocrisy among those characters. So I made it a challenge to myself to have those characters in the movie and have it not be a big deal and show people living the way you're supposed to live if you're a good Christian, which films hardly ever do.
RA: What I liked about it was that we have so much of this 'judge the other person' and what's this other person's faith or lack of faith. Maybe what we need more of is more self-exploration and this film is about that. These guys are both struggling with their own issues of faith or no faith. I think that's a better conversation to have.
AW: In the case of your character, he's struggling with faith in himself. It comes across in the scene with his daughter.
RA: What I realised in that scene is, he knows, he's a smart guy, he knows he needs to show up for his daughter but he also knows he's emotionally incapable of it. He's so kind of destroyed by his own lack of ability to walk through life that he's just doing his best to hold on. That's why Martin is so needed.
AW: You ended up using Paul's own music in the movie. How did that come about.
CH: After I cast him, we became Facebook friends and he posted something about it on Facebook and I asked him if he could send me an MP3. He did and it's that song in the movie. I loved it so I wanted to incorporate it. It's a great song.
RA: And you used my house school picture, too!
CH: I love doing that, though. As soon as I have a cast member in place I do everything possible to incorporate as much of them as I can so that it no longer becomes the imaginary character that I was writing, what makes it a real person is when it's combined with other stuff.
AW: Did you find that helpful then?
RA: It's sort of how I work too. I'd much rather watch somebody who's having an actual experience than acting something. Although I do feel that there are actors who are profoundly talented in their ability to do these crazy things. But I am not that actor and I have never been that actor. I don't do good impressions, I'm not that guy. The best I can hope for is to try to set myself up with work beforehand so that when the time comes, I'm having an actual experience. I think, for me, the scene with Diana works so well because Sam was so vulnerable and beautiful all I had to do was pretend to myself, ask myself, if this was my daughter who I abandoned 14 yaers ago, how would I feel. She really affected me, she was really present. I think with Paul, I didn't feel like he was my mentor on set but when we shot together, he has a very lovable core and it's really easy to feel like this guy's safe and this guy can help me and so it's easy to play with that.
AW: Did it help that you had had time to settle into your character before you were acting with him?
RA: I had met him in audition.
CH: I wrote the part for Richmond because I knew him.
RA: What helps me a lot when I work is if I can feel safe to explore and to play. I walk around life feeling raw a lot of the time, so when I go onset the first thing I try to do is get the script supervisor's name and meet her or him and establish a relationship and with a few other people. I try to do that so that I at least know that I'm around other human beings and that I've looked them eye to eye and I think, ok, I can play here. And with this, it was such a tight group that by the time Paul came along it was a little like, 'Oh shit, we have to open up for this guy, let's make sure he feels welcome'.
CH: It was a challenge actually. The first week everyone bonded so well and in the second week, Paul came in and we had a first AD come and she had a difficult time fitting in too, because it's difficult showing up at a set that's already been running for a week and then start trying to tell people what to do. It's also difficult for Paul to come into a set that's already working. It's hard to get the dynamic. It just takes a little bit of time.
And I'd never made a movie that required more than one week of shooting so it's very strange but we did it and it was fine. And then the dynamic changes when Richmond left and we just have Paul by himself. When it was just Paul by himself, that's when he really blossomed. I felt there was a little bit of competition between you two.
If there was competition it certainly doesn't show on the screen, where both actors put in performances that draw you deep into their characters and make your root for both of them as they make a transition.