Day 10 of 16: Chad Hartigan and This is Martin Bonner
In This is Martin Bonner, Chad Hartigan’s second fiction feature, Martin (the wonderful Australian-born, Seattle-based actor Paul Eenhoorn), is heading into life’s third act and attempting to make something of it. Post-divorce, he moves West to Reno, Nevada, where he takes a job as an outreach counselor, offering spiritual guidance to recently paroled ex-cons. Enter Travis (Richmond Arquette), who, rejoining civilian life after doing time for a hit and run, finds himself adrift, unable to fully assimilate and to connect with his now-grown daughter. In Martin he finds an awkward but needed companionship. This is Martin Bonner‘s narrative is a simple one, centered around first steps and family reconciliations, some in person and some long distance. But Hartigan’s sure direction, the two masterful lead performances, and beautiful, formally controlled cinematography and editing, open up the film to a wide range of emotion.
This is Martin Bonner was shot in Reno on a tight, 16-day schedule. The crew was small, although Hartigan says it still represented a step-up from his first micro-budget feature. In this column, The Shooting Schedule, I look at a film and its production through the prism of a single shoot day, and Hartigan has chosen here day 10, a complicated one balancing large group scenes with long, intimate dialogue work.
Here are the scenes, with their page counts, found on that day’s call sheet.
Scene 16, Sports Complex. Martin watches the kids play soccer. 2/8s.
Scenes 60, 61, Sports Complex. Travis watches Martin ref soccer, tries scoring a penalty. 1 6/8s.
Scenes 20, 24, Bank of America. Travis sees the bank is closed, Travis gets his money. 4/8s.
Scene 58, Daily Bagel. Martin and Travis discuss religion. 4 2/8s.
Scene 59, Daily Bagel. Martin invites Travis to the soccer game. 4/8s.
The crew call was 6:00 AM, the shooting call was 7:00 AM and the bulk of the scenes took place in two principal locations: the Golden Eagle Sports Complex in Sparks, Nevada, and Reno’s Daily Bagel Cafe. This is Martin Bonner is now out on digital platforms and in theaters from Monterey Media.
Filmmaker: Often directors say, “The location is a character.” But in your case I really did feel like the location was a character, the third character in the movie. Why Reno? What brought the film there?
Hartigan: Well I am very familiar with Reno because my Mom is from there. I grew up overseas. Both my parents were missionaries; their story is sort of the same story that Robert Longstreet and Jan Haley’s characters have in the movie. We would come visit my Mom’s family in Reno every couple of summers, so that was my impression of America for the longest time — I thought that the whole of America was like Reno. When I was conceiving the film I was looking for a place that would not be a very attractive place to start over, and Reno had this natural beauty combined with urban decay that really fit the story thematically. Other films only go to Reno if they’re about gambling, but that’s not something that’s part of your day-to-day life if you’re a kid growing up there. Also, there were all these under-utilised places and locations I could be the first person to show on screen, and there’s something exciting about that.
Filmmaker: So many young filmmakers make films about people in their twenties or thirties. Could you talk a bit more about making a film about older characters?
Hartigan: The genesis was that my dad did move to a new town in his mid-fifties for a similar type of program. So I thought to myself, I can’t imagine what he is going to do all day, how he’ll make new friends. I couldn’t think of any other movie that explored that. That’s what got me excited. It became more exciting when I realized that it was going to be a big challenge for me. I have already made a feature about twentysomethings, about my friends. I didn’t want to do that again, but it was a challenge. I found my dad’s circumstances depressing — the thought of him eating a sandwich alone and going to auctions was depressing to me. But I think the real breakthrough came when [I] asked him what he does all day, and he said it’s not depressing to him. He’s living his life and enjoying himself. He’s doing what he has spent his life learning. That’s what he enjoys doing. So if the film was going to be effective at all I realized that I was going to have to completely eliminate my youthful perspective on this character and try and come at it from his perspective.
Filmmaker: So let’s talk about this day, day 10. I’d like to start by asking you about the size of your crew. In addition to you, your D.P. and the producer, there is listed a first A.D., a first A.C., a mixer, a boom operator, a gaffer, a production designer and two P.A.’s.
Hartigan: That’s pretty much the entire crew you’re looking at on the call sheet. I think we had eight or nine people for the whole shoot. And actually, on the call sheet there is a first A.D., but we only had a first A.D. for one out of three shooting weeks. So it was really, really bare bones, a real skeleton crew. Despite that, or maybe even because of that, the shoot went extremely smoothly. Everyone knew what they were getting into, everyone was willing and happy to be there and to contribute, and everyone knew their role. I felt like everyone really bonded. We’d have six shooting days and then a day off, and the crew still spent that day together hanging out. That was something I was really proud of.
Filmmaker: Did you travel the crew or pick up local people?
Hartigan: The only local in the crew was the boom operator. Everyone else we brought, some from New York, some from L.A. Our lead actor came from Seattle. We all stayed in the apartment that we used as the location for Martin’s apartment. On the very last day of the shoot, when we shot [the scenes in Martin’s] apartment, we crammed all of our stuff in the back rooms and made it look like it was emptied and no one was there.
Filmmaker: Wait, you all stayed in Martin’s apartment?
Hartigan: Yeah, it was a two bedroom. There was a girls’ bedroom, a boys’ bedroom, and a few people scattered out in the living room.
Filmmaker: So you had two or three people to a room?
Filmmaker: There are other positions listed on the call sheet, but they don’t have crew names or call times. Positions like best boy grips and electrics, a makeup artist, a costume designer, additional P.A.’s. Were you day playing some of these people on other days, or you just didn’t have them?
Hartigan: The grips and the P.A.s were six local kids, either students or recently graduated kids who were volunteering. To make it not intolerable for them we said, “Any day that you’re free you can come, but you’re not required to come every day.” So I think that’s why their call times are blank. They were only called when they were available. Our costume or wardrobe person was also our production designer. And we had no makeup at all.
Filmmaker: And no best boy electric?
Hartigan: We didn’t have one of those. We just had a gaffer, so the D.P. wound up doing a lot of the lighting as well. The two of them are really good friends, and they’ve been working together a lot. They can light things together really quickly.
Filmmaker: What kind of lighting were you doing?
Hartigan: We had a small lighting package, a small U-haul truck filled with grip and lighting equipment that we took everywhere. But for this particular day, all of the soccer stuff we shot day exterior, so that was no lighting, except some bounce. Then we shot at a breakfast place, The Daily Bagel, later that day. We did have some lighting for that, but we tried to light the locations in a pretty naturalistic way, and in a broad way, so that when we moved the camera within the locations it was a matter of tweaking the lighting and not completely relighting every set up.
Filmmaker: Did you have lights on stands or were you using a lot of practicals or both?
Hartigan: We did have some stands, and so it was a pretty typical set up. The key was probably coming from outside, our daylight source, and then we’d set up a fill somewhere inside and an eyelight. Stuff like that.
Filmmaker: What camera did you use?
Hartigan: We shot on the RED One. It was my first time working with it, and the image quality and flexibility it offered were really great. There was only one downside: for whatever reason we were recording onto cards, and the cards we had could only hold about six-and-a-half minutes. So it was almost like shooting on film in that we would constantly roll out and have to change the card. That really affected us in some later scenes when ideally I would have done ten or eleven-minute takes. We didn’t have that option.
Filmmaker: I loved how formally controlled the film is. So many films with a short shooting schedule reflexively go handheld, and I liked that you didn’t do that. What kind of preparation did you do with your DP to prepare for this schedule?
Hartigan: It was just a lot of talking and referencing films. We’re already very close friends with very similar tastes, so I could just reference films and he’d know what I was talking about.
Filmmaker: What films?
Hartigan: The film that came up the most was Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which I feel is the most impressive movie visually of the last five years. I just loved the control of that movie and how every single shot felt so deliberate and confident. And that’s what I wanted to try and do as well. So we just had that in mind going in: whatever shot we decided to do, compose it, make it seem like we had no other choice but to shoot it and that it was the only shot it could be. I think people are so tired of the handheld style of shooting films that they’re eager to embrace something that’s on sticks. We have quite a few of shots that aren’t necessarily that unique or interesting, but because the whole film has that composed, deliberate form, we get a lot of credit. Which I’ll take.
Filmmaker: Were there any shots that you wanted to do that for any reason you couldn’t do?
Hartigan: Yeah, definitely. A few weeks before shooting my producer came to me and said, “We only have enough money for a zoom lens or a dolly and track, which would you prefer?” That’s not a decision I ever wanted to have to make, but I decided to go with the zoom lens. So, in an ideal world we would have had a few small dolly moves. And even after I made this decision to get the zoom lens, we wound up not even getting it until the third day of shooting. So there was some stuff on day one and two that I had wanted to zoom on that we couldn’t. So in general the film is a bit more still and a bit more rigid than I had even wanted.
Filmmaker: Were you using the zooms to actually zoom or were you using them for sizes and closeups?
Hartigan: We used them mostly when we were zooming. Otherwise we would use a prime. There are quite a few zooms in the film, but they’re hopefully subtle. The soccer scene starts with a zoom out. Martin blows his whistle, and then we sort of zoom out and you get the lay of the land as he’s refereeing the soccer game.
Filmmaker: So the day is seven pages, and you shot the film in 16 days. Where does this day fall in terms of the page count and the work load?
Hartigan: In terms of the page count, that’s slightly more than average, but the actual day itself was actually one of the most challenging because there were three different locations and two company moves involved. We started off the day with soccer scenes involving about 35 young girls and all their parents.
Filmmaker: I was wondering if you had found an existing team and game, or if you had stage it.
Hartigan: It’s a real team but they weren’t playing a game that day. We organized a fake soccer game with their coach, and this group of girls who play together all the time came. They had their own uniforms and equipment. We just asked them to play a game, and we put our actor in there.
Filmmaker: That’s a pretty short scene.
Hartigan: Yeah it is, but it took a while. There was a lot of different coverage, and there was a scene we shot that’s not actually in the final cut. We see Martin having a job interview to become the soccer referee, and at the end of the interview he asks if he can go down and watch a game. That involved getting all the girls in different clothes.
Filmmaker: How long did you spend on these scenes? Were you out before lunch?
Hartigan: No, we broke for lunch at the soccer field and after lunch maybe did one or two more set ups. The gaffer then took the grip truck and went straight to The Daily Bagel to start lighting while we went to the bank as that was another exterior and we weren’t going to need any lights. So we went and popped those shots off in about an hour. It was just Martin staying in his car while Travis tries to go into the bank but it’s locked. We had always talked about moving [that scene] to another day if we were running behind with the soccer stuff, and even on the day it was a discussion: “Can we make it or should we push it?” And I decided that we should just do it and that it wouldn’t take very long, and it didn’t. Then the rest of the crew headed to the Daily Bagel which was almost set up by Nate, our gaffer, by the time we got there.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the rest of the day. As a producer, I feel like I’ve been where this call sheet is going. You start with logistically ambitious work at the beginning of the day and then end with a subtle dialogue-based scene at the end of the day. That afternoon scene only involves two actors and a waitress, but it’s over four pages, and the actors have to establish a rhythm and hit their beats. Did they have the space and time they needed? Or were you rushing to get there and you had to count on them to bang it out?
Hartigan: I think we probably got there around 2:00 PM, so we didn’t have a ton of time. And you’re absolutely right — that’s actually something that I wasn’t aware of, the implications of doing a taxing logistical scene first and then expecting your actors to mellow out. I do remember that it was a challenge for them. If we had shot those scenes at the beginning of the day I think it might have been easier for them to comfortably slide into the feeling and tone of the scene. They had to be in a certain zone because it was their first conversation together, but it’s also one of the scenes with more mundane dialogue. It could have easily been a scene that [the audience] might check-out of, so the actors needed to bring a certain level of A-game to get it going. So that’s something we know now, that you wouldn’t necessarily schedule a big acting scene at the end of a busy day. But, as testament to them, they did pull it together, and we did knock that scene out pretty comfortably, and we did wrap on time.
Filmmaker: What was the coverage on that scene?
Hartigan: We did a wide of the whole thing, two mediums and an insert. That was it.
Filmmaker: The scene had a tiny moment I loved, when Martin orders an everything bagel and he says it in a way that makes it seem like he’s been coming here for years. And then he says to Travis, “This is kind of my place, I’ve been coming here for a month.” It’s kind of like what the whole movie is about, really: people finding these spaces for they can call home. Travis says, “Oh this is a very cool place,” which I liked too, because it’s not a Dunkin Donuts or corporate chain. It’s this funky arts cafe that I can imagine these older men really digging.
Hartigan: That was really dictated by what locations we could get. We were in Reno for about a month of pre-production and diners became one of the hardest [locations] to get. It didn’t help that there are three big diner scenes in this movie, and I wanted each of them to take place in a different location. Because I was doing quite a few shots of people sitting across from each other, any chance we had to mix up the visuals I wanted to take. We stumbled across this tiny hole in the wall, The Daily Bagel, that is really off the beaten path in Reno. They close every day at 2:00 PM, so that’s how we were able to make it work.
Filmmaker: So let me just ask you about the actors, Paul and Richmond. How did you find both of them?
Hartigan: I knew Richmond because I worked for his brother, David Arquette, doing promo stuff. David directed a movie called The Tripper a number of years ago, and he went on a nationwide tour promoting it. I got hired to work behind the scenes, and I had an amazing time. I met Richmond through that. I realized that he was an actor and that all of his brothers and sisters are famous actors, and I was like, “Man, why isn’t this one famous? He’s so good.”
Filmmaker: So he’s an Arquette?
Hartigan: Yeah. And I wrote that part with him in mind. But then Martin I had open auditions for. Paul came in and did a good read, and when I asked him if he could come read again with Richmond, he revealed that he actually lived in Seattle and he wasn’t going to be able to come again. It turns out he read our breakdown online — it was on Actors Access or something like that — and he saw something that made him feel like he needed to fly to L.A. and audition, which he never does. I think that’s so absurd because the breakdown probably just said: “Martin Bonner, late 50s, nice guy, wants to help people.” But there was this weird kismet that made him come audition. He was great and we did work out a way for him to come back, and he was great again.
Filmmaker: Is he Australian, or is that part of the story?
Hartigan: He is Australian. I made the character Irish in the script because that’s what my Dad is, and the film is based on circumstances that my dad was in. It wasn’t important to me that he was Irish, but I did like the idea of the character being foreign because it subconsciously hints that this character has already uprooted himself and started over in a new place once before in his life.
Filmmaker: Is your dad still living?
Filmmaker: Is your relationship with your dad one that mirrors the relationship between Martin and his son in the film?
Hartigan: I get this question a lot in Q&As. People ask me if I call my dad back. Yes I do. I talk to my dad a lot. So, if anything, I’m more like the daughter in the movie. I’m the one who is worried about him and trying to hook him up on speed dates.
Filmmaker: One last question. I’m looking at the call sheet’s quote of the day.
Maggie: “What’s the big metal flag thing called?”
Cherie: “Shiny board.”
Maggie: “Shiny or Chinese?”
What’s that all about?
Hartigan: I have no idea. Cherie [Saulter] was the producer of the film, and she also did the call sheets and had a quote of the day every day. I think 12 out of the 16 days I would look at it and be like: “When did this happen? I don’t remember this.” I think that the quote of the day was just something that amused Cherie.
Filmmaker: How did you hook up with her?
Hartigan: I met her at SXSW in 2010. I can’t stress enough to young filmmakers how beneficial and important it is to go to film festivals, even if you have no reason to be there. I had gone to SXSW the last five years in a row, just to support friends with films, and to try and meet other people. That particular year Cherie was there with The Myth of The American Sleepover. I saw it, liked it, and had just finished writing my script. So I gave it to her to see what she thought. She immediately responded to it because her parents work in a similar field, in prison programs, so she was immediately drawn to it and wanted to start producing it right away. Through her we got Julio Perez to edit, because he had already done Myth with her. I guess that’s what networking is, but I didn’t really feel like it was that. You just insert yourself in those environments and meet people naturally that you like as people. Because you’re at a film festival they’re all going to be interested in film, and you can just make friends and then collaborate with your friends.