PATRICK HOELCK, “MERCY”
California native Patrick Hoelck had auspicious beginnings, but the corkscrew path he took through music, fashion, and commercial photography on his way to becoming a feature filmmaker belies his earliest and most abiding passion. Weaned on arthouse classics and American films of the seventies, Hoelck moved to New York City in his teens and became a music-video director before he was old enough to vote, eventually directing for the likes of Beenie Man, the Deftones, Ben Harper, and Alicia Keys. Over a decade ago, he turned to still photography and (with the help of pal Vincent Gallo) quickly made a name for himself as an artist with a knack for snapping celebrities in sultry, understated tones under bare-bones conditions. The entire time, he was writing screenplays and dreaming of helming a feature, encouraged by longtime friends like Scott Caan and Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom he produced Cigarettes and Coffee. For his debut feature, Mercy, which debuted at CineVegas last June, Hoelck directs from a script by actor-producer Caan, who stars as Johnny Ryan, a cynical L.A. novelist whose coarsely unromantic ideas about love and relationships are turned inside out when he meets Mercy, a British expatriate (Wendy Glenn) working as a book reviewer. A character-driven drama about surface and depth, conquest versus commitment, as well as the ways that rugged-minded men deal with sudden, unbearable loss (James Caan appears with son Scott in two scenes, playing Johnny’s hard-bitten father), Mercy showcases Hoelck’s considerable visual talent and twists an old storyline into a tart contemporary drama spiked with humor and heartache.
Filmmaker spoke with Hoelck about the films of John Cassavetes, the art of framing, and why music videos are boring.
IFC Films opens Mercy on Friday.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that cinema was a refuge for you when you were younger.
Hoelck: Yeah. I was an adopted kid so I was kind of a mess, and I found weird things like Cassavetes movies, and I’d always get taken with them and daydream, as if I was in a film. I’d go to retrospectives in New York City, where I saw Godard and Truffaut and early Kubrick. They were such strong filmmakers — they lingered with me for a long time. I got lucky to meet a guy in New York who owned one of the first video-rental stores called Time Ship Video, and he was a real scholar. We used to go to his place and throw on whatever—he had all the Antonioni—until I found what I loved. And that’s what it was, just getting lost in a director’s work from beginning to end.
Filmmaker: I think that’s a common experience among cinephiles of a certain age. But you drifted into photography later, instead of film.
Hoelck: Yeah, it’s weirder than that. I came here with a screenplay when I was 16 years old. I knew nothing about that step of getting to direct, but I started working on music videos and commercials, and the next thing I knew I was a video director before I’d turned 17, because hip-hop was expanding super fast. I worked with guys who were directing bigger and bigger videos, so I’d direct the little ones. Then I got into photography about 10 or 12 years later. I’d been a successful director in New York and I started doing a lot of drugs because it was around me. By the time I got clean, I came out of rehab and I had a dated reel. No one would really sign me as a director, so I went out on the Lollapalooza tour. I shot triads of street gangs, then turned that into musicians, like when Jane’s Addiction was a big band, and then melded in crowd shots and cut a reel together to direct music videos again. I got my career back, but I learned that still photography was a really free place to experiment. I would watch La Jetée … you know it?
Filmmaker: Yes, the Chris Marker film.
Hoelck: It was all still photos. So this was another idea. I didn’t find [directing videos] gratifying unless I knew the artist and was allowed to honor a concept. It got very political. Music video in the beginning was a mistake, and then it became management, product placement, interjections from 40 people, almost like a formula. That’s why everyone said, Why is it so fucking boring? And it got crazy. To get $10,000 after 18 days of work didn’t make sense anymore. As a still photographer, you could get $55,000 for a half day. What I did with stills was go off and raise enough capital to make my own movie, in my own way. And ironically, when I’d saved everything I needed for it, Mercy came about. [Laughs] A very weird trail, my life. It confuses everyone.
Filmmaker: You’ve been friends with Scott Caan for a long time, so I’m sure he knew you had an interest in film directing and were working on a project you wanted to develop with your own money. Why did Mercy seem like the right one for you to come out of the gate with?
Hoelck: I identified with the screenplay. I liked the idea of a love story, and I was an obsessive reader, so the idea of a character who’s a writer [appealed to me]. In New York, I knew Bret Easton Ellis and I used to go to his annual Christmas party and bug out on his lifestyle. These things attracted me. I loved watching Bret in the mid-80s and it all just made sense. Scott had given me a bunch of [screenplays], but this was the one I identified with. and I’ve got to give him credit. He knew I’d produced one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s first films [Cigarettes and Coffee], so my pedigree was Vincent Gallo and Paul and a few other directors. He’d always say, “It’s fucking insane, these guys used to PA for you and now they’re directing movies. Why aren’t you directing movies?” I had put a few projects together but I got heartbroken they didn’t work out my way. Scott was a really aggressive cheerleader. He’d say, Let’s do a film! We’d go on these surf trips to Costa Rica and it would always end with this really serious four-hour conversation about why haven’t I done a movie.
Filmmaker: You need a friend like that.
Hoelck: Yeah, he’s great. The Caan family, I can say, is bigger than love. They’ve really got your back.
Filmmaker: Since Scott penned the script, how did you go about finding a balance between your own voice and the film’s, both visually and in the editing process?
Hoelck: Well, you can force your point of view in the shoot days, you can force it in the performances and in the edit, but something begins to happen that all my friends who are filmmakers can’t explain verbally—and that is, the film starts asking you to go in a certain direction when you start putting footage together. It has a voice that’s really loud, so you get out of your controlling ways. It’s a feeling, you know, and as corny as it sounds, a vibe. But it’s true. The film starts telling you what’s going on. I like to come in overprepared, even in stills, knowing I have a backup plan to let reality come in sometimes and take over as much as [possible].
Filmmaker: One of the things you’re known for is unglamorous Polaroid snapshots of famous people. How did that principle apply here in creating and crafting a feature film?
Hoelck: The thing I got from photo is that it really deals with the frame. And I was lucky to work with a great set designer who understood that – I had extensive waste from video and commercials—and when you have $700 days with a whole crew, you really have to think about making the story happen within your reach, and that’s where photo helps greatly. I had a cinematographer who said something really profound to me. He said, “You really have a hard job. I have a lot of frames to tell a story, you have one.” So I think it helps in that sense. But at the same time, I didn’t bring the slickness of my photography in, because I felt that it would be distracting. I felt like it should be a really simple Hal Ashby visual, not where it’s like oh, the visuals are obnoxious. I have friends like Paul Anderson who’ll come out of a theater where everyone was saying “That was amazing.” And he’d say, “No, man, that was like a long Nike commercial, I don’t know what the story was.” And I didn’t want him to come after me on the visual side. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: I think you avoided that pitfall.
Hoelck: Well, I read one review that said “when he concentrates on the actors and not the architecture of space, it’s all right.” You never can win. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned both Cassavetes and Hal Ashby, so I wanted to ask…
Hoelck: They’re heroes of mine! Those films linger for years. It wasn’t subtle, it was like getting socked in the face. When I first saw Death of a Chinese Bookie or Love Streams, I was a talker. I walked around New York trying to be a cool kid, and then I just decided to listen. I think I learned the most when I did. I said, You need to shut the fuck up and listen to people around you and hear point of view. So John [Cassavetes] is a hero.
Filmmaker: What did those films teach you about directing actors?
Hoelck: I think to become a hypersensitive listener and understand the subtext. The thing I needed to do on this job is dig the deepest I could in performance. People would say, “Oh, Scott’s playing a writer? Hahaha.” That’s why I had homework to do. I didn’t want him to be out there and vulnerable, so I just paid a lot of attention to performance. Guys like Cassavetes would just roll and roll and roll until he got to a deeper place of reality. I felt like this cast, Erika Christensen and Troy Garity and Scott and Jimmy [Caan], had that. They have that ability to be unpredictable. I think the goal is get a performer to be unpredictable with dialogue. I always like that, when someone goes left instead of right. You need to sit back and let things happen. I was really nervous about that aspect, so I’d write tremendous amounts of subtext for everybody, lines and punctuation and cadence, because coming from commercials you’re like, “Stand here, go faster,” and I understood that there’s no way that this flies. Me being a video director and then making a feature, it’s almost like an actor waiting tables to be in a film, that’s how much you can learn from video.
Filmmaker: That extends to the way you capture the atmosphere of Los Angeles too, which is not glitzy and glamorous, or just the seedy underside either, which is how we normally see the city depicted.
Hoelck: The Long Goodbye to me was a well-shot Los Angeles. What we know of L.A. can be so different from the palm-tree shots and signage. And when you see New York, thank God for Woody Allen, who doesn’t see it as the Statue of Liberty and two bridges. There’s so much more to places.
Filmmaker: How much did the way you use lighting here contribute to the depth you wanted to give to the characters? Did you decide this more than your DP?
Hoelck: We had three weeks together before shooting and I think we were all on the same page. It was very seamless. I focused on story and performance, and I didn’t want to play the visual dictator. Phil Parment, the cinematographer, has shot 60 movies, so anything I had to tell him he could do quickly. That was all thought out before we even got to the set.
Filmmaker: Other still photographers with successful careers have moved into feature filmmaking. Larry Clark and Jerry Schatzberg, who snapped the cover of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, both came from that world.
Hoelck: I love Schatzberg. His films are amazing. I didn’t know that he came from photography.
Filmmaker: Were photography and cinema completely different processes for you, drawing on skill sets that weren’t necessarily compatible? Did you find at the end of the day you had a lot to learn about filmmaking?
Hoelck: I think good framing is good framing. That wasn’t a big learning part. It was more focusing on performance. You blast music on the set of a video and people get crazy [laughs], so it was more … nuance. I felt really safe. Once again, what’s exciting for me about photography is you never arrive, it’s a medium you never master. People always say, Oh, you’ve got your thing and you’re done. And it’s like, no, it never ends. I picked something that will never stop. I’m still a kid compared to the greats.