Recently I had the pleasure of stumbling across a new, independently released film called Beach Pillows, by first time director Sean Hartofilis. I got to talking with Sean on twitter and he graciously agreed to an interview to go alongside my review of the film.
Beach Pillows features Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Geoffrey Arend (500 Days of Summer, Super Troopers), Richard Schiff (The West Wing, Ray) and Anette O’Toole (Smallville, Superman III). It is a fantastic buddy comedy/odd couple style movie that is both endearing and charming, funny and heart warming. Head to iTunes to rent or buy Beach Pillows.
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Below is my interview with Sean Hartofilis. I hope you enjoy it and please hang around for my review of Beach Pillows.
Q. How did the project come about? What were your inspirations for the story?
A. One of my best friends, Brian Caslin, and I used to go to the beach every day after working with little kids at a sports camp/daycare-type job in our hometown on Long Island, NY. This was in the summer of 2001, I believe. We discussed movies and music and what we wanted to do with our lives, and we eventually came up with the idea of a Beach Pillow. Neither of us was particularly interested in going into retail (although we did spend the next summer selling shoes at the Adidas store on the Santa Monica promenade), but we did love the idea for this product, so I decided to make it the premise of this first film about where I’m from, creativity, individuality, comfort, friendship, family, and all the rest. And I wrote the first draft after graduating college in 2003. Other than the physical item of a Beach Pillow and all of my emotions and experiences that I wanted to get into the movie, I was inspired by bildungsromans (coming-of-age stories) from film and literature, or more specifically kunstlerromans (concerning the development of an artist), some examples of which would be This Side of Paradise, The Sun Also Rises, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Narcissus and Goldmund, On the Road, A Fan’s Notes, The Rum Diary, I Vitelloni, On the Waterfront, The 400 Blows, The Last Picture Show, Mean Streets, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, Stranger than Paradise, Do the Right Thing, Withnail & I, Bottle Rocket…Hamlet and The New Testament…stories like that. I was also specifically influenced by films of the British New Wave, or kitchen sink dramas, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar, If…, and those kinds of films. I love Somers Town by Shane Meadows too. And I’m sure there are plenty I’m forgetting. Other than that, again, the chief inspiration might have been my emotional perspective during the decade after college.
Q. About the film in particular. How would you describe it to would be viewers?
A. I might say some of the things I’ve said above. I’d also say it’s a brother’s keepers comedy about two very different personalities going in drastically different directions that probably could never have gone there without each other. But maybe I’d just say, “Watch it. You’ll love it.”
Q. Being a wannabe screenwriter and film maker myself, it can seem like it is an impossible goal to get to the point where you have a finished product in your hands. Could you enlighten us as to the process of going from writing a script to having a finished movie? Was there ever a time when you were ready to throw in the towel?
A. The most important stages of any process, I’m sure, are the starting and finishing. So think in detail about the story you want to tell, then the writing should be how you communicate that story–the unique and personal way you tell it–which should come fairly naturally. Don’t sit down before you have something to say. I imagine some people do that and it can be frustrating. It’s not about, “I want to write something; let me sit down and see what happens.” It’s more like, “I’ve thought long and hard and felt so much; I have something to say.” Then doing it won’t be as tough. It’s more fun. It feels good. It’s more like problem-solving or working through a puzzle than pulling things out of thin air, which no matter what anyone tells you is not the way creativity works. Sure, there is divine inspiration, but that almost always comes in answer to a problem. So if you don’t know the problem, don’t sit down. And once you do, start and finish.
All the subsequent steps are the same. What needs to be done? Start the process and finish it. As long as you know where you want to go and have prepared in every conceivable way to get there, there’s nothing wrong with learning a bit along the way. You should always be learning if you’re doing it right. But if you’re waiting for someone to show up and do these things for you, I’m afraid you’ll be waiting a long time. I might have waited a long time before I figured some of this out.
As far as throwing in the towel, there were certainly times of frustration, disappointment, and doubt. But anyone who’s ever done anything great in the history of the world has, of course, not thrown in the towel. Sometimes you don’t throw in the towel and you get beaten to death, and that’s a shame. But at least you were trying to win. And, fortunately, throwing in the towel is a boxing metaphor. No one in the movie business is going to beat us to death. So I’d say a few things are indispensable for accomplishing any goal: the will to start, and the perseverance to finish.
Q. How did you get the likes of Vincent Kartheiser, Geoffrey Arend and Richard Schiff involved?
A. I’ve loved Geoffrey as a performer since seeing him in Super Troopers in college and feeling that he really stole the show in that opening scene. After having this script optioned at a few different places and never turning the corner, as can happen in this business, I decided, “People like this material. Let me try to attach the actors, make it a marketable commodity to investors, raise the money, and make the movie independently,” which I guess just meant without a studio or however I had to. I got Geoffrey the script through my friend and producer Jesse Hoy (who was also the drummer for the band The Deadly Syndrome who provided a lot of great music for the film). Geoffrey read it quickly, loved it, and signed on. I asked if he could get the script to Vinnie. He kindly did, and Vinnie eventually read it and signed on. I should maybe mention why I wanted these guys. I think people usually see them in opposite roles, and some people might have mentioned that when I discussed the casting. I thought with a quieter, more reactive lead like Morgan, it would be great to have such a reliably comedic performer. Geoffrey can do so much physically and with his eyes, he doesn’t have to say a lot. Plus he’s tall, and I thought he might be interesting as a leading man, more like some of those new faces from the 70s that were so inspiring for generations of actors and filmmakers. And Vinnie, because he behaves objectionably at times on Mad Men while staying, in my opinion, likeable and relatable, made me think, “That might be our guy.” Plus, there were a few episodes where he danced and smiled, I believe the Kentucky Derby and Christmas episodes, and something clicked for me there and made me think he could do this. Richard, that was through my casting director Kevin Kuffa whom I hired after we raised the money. I just thought Richard plays things so serious and straight–he’s such a great actor–that there’d be no chance of this father character veering into goofball or blowhard territory; he’d just be real. I got lucky with all of these people, including Annette O’Toole, and I’m very grateful.
Q. Being a first time director, and they being seasoned pro’s working on big productions, were they receptive and respectful of your ideas? Did you feel intimidated by the fact you were working with Pete Campbell?!
A. I think you have to understand as a first-time director that there’s a leap of faith involved, as these people don’t have an extensive sample-size of your work. Actors are sensitive people in general, but that sensitivity can be amplified on a new set, because although they love the script, they don’t ultimately know what the film is going to be. So you have to be sensitive to that and work with them and earn their trust and confidence, which I believe I was able to do. A few weeks of rehearsal with Geoffrey and Vinnie (and my best friend Pete, who plays Ed in the movie) in a little apartment in the East Village was helpful towards getting comfortable with each other prior to production, as well as lengthy conversations with the entire cast during the time leading up to the shoot. As far as being intimidated, I think I was excited like I’ve been before any big endeavour or challenge. There are nerves, but that’s just chemical, I guess. Thorough preparation made me feel comfortable and ready. Of course, I knew the story and characters better than anyone else, as I should have, so I felt comfortable leading these great artists to bring it to life and communicating whatever was necessary in order for everyone to understand what I was looking for. I may have been more intimidated or nervous, frankly, with less experienced or less talented actors. But, no, the pedigree of these performers didn’t intimidate me; it gave me confidence.
I’ll also say that Richard and Annette were such a wonderful, warm presence on set. Everyone loved them and looked up to them, and I think they had quite a pleasant, memorable experience working together, or at least they told me as much.
Q. This being your first film, did you already know how to direct, or did you learn as you went along? Did you discover what kind of director you are? Are you hands on or did you let the actors get on with it?
A. I’ve studied this for more than a dozen years and have been deeply interested in it my whole life, watching old movies with my dad, drawing and writing stories and making shorts and all the rest, so that was a good foundation. I think it helped that I wrote the script, so I was already coming from a position of authority as the storyteller. I also drew detailed storyboards, so people could see I had a visual perspective on telling the story. Other than that, I just tried to always be the person I’ve been raised to be, respectful and kind and compassionate, especially considering that all these people were working for much less than their going rates because they believed in me and this story. And I think that gave me confidence too, their confidence in me. I mean, this is my dream, so I’ve thought about what it all might be like and how I’d be at the center of it. Thinking about it all probably helped, just like thinking about these stories all the time helps you write and then direct them.
On that last question, I’ll say that after we’ve discussed the characters and story and given scene, I’m relatively hands off. I let them create it. And we keep working until it’s there. But I’ll really only give direction if I feel like they need it or it might be helpful to steer them in a different direction than where they’re headed. Otherwise, I prefer that they not be thinking about what I’m saying, or at all. That’s why sometimes you just have to do a few takes so everyone can simultaneously lock into the rhythms and lose themselves. It may sound a bit mystical, but the short answer is these people know a lot more about acting than me. I’ve studied it a bit, but my field of expertise is these characters and this story. So I can give them that. And their talent and craft can give me what I need. I’m very thankful for that and feel blessed to witness it. It’s a lot of fun.
Q. What or who were your key influences on the look and tone of Beach Pillows?
A. That’s tough to say, because hopefully I’m processing all of the influences and putting out something that’s my own. That said, the color palette (and the stripes of color on our poster) were inspired by Snow White, specifically her dress. I’ve always loved those colors, and I think most of my personal clothing falls within that palette. To that end, Geoffrey and Vinnie wore a lot of my own wardrobe in the film, so I think that helps make it personal and specific. I’m very influenced by all those films I mentioned above and the directors who made them. The Odd Couple has a great look that was very inspiring. The Squid and the Whale and Scarecrow were big, as was The Last Detail, specifically the Naval uniforms influencing our Midwood Furnishing uniforms. Looney Tunes was something I watched pretty religiously growing up, and I think maybe this central two-character relationship defined by conflict and humor might have come from that a little bit. As far as the tone, I’m really hoping that’s just my life and family and friends and all my experiences and relationships fused into some sort of perspective on things or sensibility that’s very specific to the way I write but also relatable to people from every background and walk of life.
One more thing I’ll say about any sort of aesthetic approach is that I try my best to create beautiful, expressive images in the vein of more classical styles like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, and then I hope, along with the actors, to infuse it with a John Cassavetes sense of emotional realism or high human stakes. That always seemed to me to be the approach of Martin Scorsese, who should probably be a hero to anyone who wants to do this and certainly is to me. At some point I thought to myself, “That’s what he’s doing.” I believe I’ve subsequently heard him say as much in some old interview, so I guess I didn’t discover anything novel there, but it was very helpful in terms of conceptualizing an approach to making something as beautiful and authentic as I could make it.
Q. The characters of Morgan and Nick are kind of like the traditional ‘odd couple’. You get the sense they are friends more out of a sense of loyalty rather than actually liking each other. Are these guys you know, or completely fictitious?
A. I think you get that sense because a film typically focuses on a boiling point, or you construct the scenes to focus on moments of conflict or tension, so everything’s curated and concentrated, otherwise there’d probably be a lot of boring stuff. In other words, there are plenty of moments outside of the parameters of our story where everything was hunky dory, but that’s not very interesting to me or the audience. We’re looking for the meat, I think, so I try to make it comprehensively as real and organic as possible within a propulsive and entertaining story. And as far as Morgan and Nick, specifically, I created them as different sides of one personality, probably my own. You have the ego and the id: someone who looks inward and kind of contemplates their existence in relation to their surroundings, and then someone who just DOES…someone who IS the surroundings. I found that more interesting than staring at one person struggling with himself the whole time. For me, a film, or those films I love and that have inspired me, is a great opportunity to focus on these two very different perspectives, the yin and yang of life. It’s also, in terms of the brother’s keeper idea, an opportunity to consider more religious notions of responsibility, sin, and self-sacrifice. Finally, plenty of me and my friends is in there. One friend, specifically, spent time in jail, and that may have inspired Nick’s criminal predicament.
So I do think they love each other very much, and that bears out, but you’re certainly seeing a rough patch. Or, honestly, a break-up. That piece of music that my great friend and composer Mike Hughes made for the cheating scene, I also decided to use that for Morgan and Nick getting in a fight outside the bar next to the Beetle. So what you essentially have is two break-ups, although they obviously part on different terms.
Q. Both Morgan and Nick, despite some of their uglier aspects are actually pretty loveable, Nick in particular. He is the archetypal loveable rogue actually. Was it fun to see him come to life? Did Vincent add anything to the character outside of what you had written? I was also digging his style, who came up with his ‘look’?
A. Vincent really embraced it, and I couldn’t think of anyone better for this part…for all the parts, really. Oddly enough, Vinnie is probably personally closer to this character than a lot of characters he’s played, so it was very exciting to see him bring it to life. It was also emotional, because the character is funny, but he’s also very volatile. You’re almost looking at an exposed nerve on screen, and you’d feel that way at times watching him on set. Very thrilling, really. I couldn’t be happier with what he did, and I’m proud of him for doing it. One specific thing he came up with was that “Remember the Alamo…” line. He said that in real life when we were preparing, and I loved it and asked him to use it. His look was inspired by Buddusky from The Last Detail and maybe the Sundance Kid a little bit. Also Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid. I have a mustache too, and my Dad always had a great one. My Dad is the customer in that last scene at the furniture store.
Q. I’ve discussed in a previous feature my love for the band Deer Tick. They feature heavily on the soundtrack to Beach Pillows. Are they guys you know personally, or you just put the idea to them and they were happy to get involved?
A. I didn’t know them personally at all. I’ve been a big fan for some years now, and I got in touch with their manager and got very lucky. I’ve still not heard specifically why they allowed it or how the movie affected them, but I’ll just assume it all worked as intended because here we are. I’ll say that I was inspired by music from films like The Graduate or Harold and Maude or Midnight Cowboy, where you kind of feel like the songs are representing the inner thoughts or feelings of the main character. But in our brother’s keeper story, I thought it’d be cool to have a different band represent each of our two main characters. So Deer Tick is Nick (Vinnie) and The Deadly Syndrome is Morgan (Geoffrey), and I think by the end they kind of switch a little bit.
Q. What tips would you give to someone who perhaps has written a script and doesn’t know where to go from there?
A. While hoping not to convey a lack of compassion for the struggle, I’d say that not knowing is never an excuse, especially for a director. Attach the actors, raise the money, hire the crew, and make it. If you don’t know where to go, you have some work left to do. But all the information is available, and there are plenty of people who want to make movies.
Q. What can we expect next from you? Any projects lined up for the future?
A. The next one is ready to go. I’ll hopefully be gearing up for production on that within a year. I have plenty of stories I’m excited to tell, and I think it makes sense to tell each of them at a certain time in my life so that I can bring as much to them as possible. It’ll just be about raising the money necessary to make them. But I think I can make these movies in a financially prudent way and still do high quality, original work that moves people. And this planet holds its share of millionaires, so hopefully we can find each other and work something out.
Q. If you were told to pick three films, and you were only allowed to watch those particular films for the rest of your life, which three would you go for?
A. I think I’d be pretty bummed by this proposition, and it’s going to be somewhat arbitrary, but here goes: The Last Waltz (I’d happily cement this on the desert island list), Rio Bravo (because that one has live music too), and Husbands. Again, this is sad though, because you’d presumably sour to some of your favorite things in the world. I should probably have something that’s a little more explicitly a comedy on here. Or It’s a Wonderful Life, which I love so much.
Thanks for your time Sean.
Thank you, Tom. All the besthttp://vimeo.com/85742484″>Beach Pillows – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/gravitasventures”>Gravitas Ventures</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>