INTERVIEW: Brett Haley, co-writer and director of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”

12 06 2015

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) has produced many a successful alumni from its film program: David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Craig Zobel … and now, Brett Haley.  In the decade since his graduation in 2005, Haley’s had quite the wild ride – making short films, working as assistant to an established director, and cobbling together a debut feature on a few thousand.  Now, he’s garnering serious mainstream attention for his second film, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it found warm audience support as well as a distributor, the upstart new label Bleecker Street.  Prior to its May 15 release, the film hit the regional festival circuit hard; I got the chance to speak to Haley prior to a very special screening at his alma mater back in April.

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Brett Haley (center)

“It feels great to be back,” he began. “I loved going to school here.”  Haley vocally gushed about the education he received at UNCSA and knows that it produces quality film craftsmen on a regular basis; the Nichols and the Greens are hardly flukes.  “I’ll go out of my way if someone says they went to the same school as me. I have lifelong collaborators.”  Indeed, the Winston-Salem Journal counting a whopping eleven UNCSA alums credited on “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

What, exactly, does the school do so well with its students?  Said Haley: “[UNCSA] throws them into the bear pit and says, ‘Go make movies.’ And I also think they show great movies. They made you collaborate, they made you work, they made you learn every job.”  (Haley not only co-wrote and directed his newest film; he also edited it.)

I'll See You In My DreamsThis education rooted in doing certainly emboldened Haley to make a big leap from his freshman to sophomore feature.  He made his first film, 2010’s “The New Year,” on a mere $5,000 with friends and no fancy equipment.  But turn the clock forward five years, and Haley got to make what he called a “real movie.”

“You’re working with legends, people who have done this longer than I have been alive,” remarked Haley in wonder.  “That was the big difference, we had a little bit more money and people who are recognizable.”

Working with people like Blythe Danner, June Squibb, and Sam Elliott hardly seemed to intimidate him, though.  Turns out, directing a Tony and Emmy winner is no different than working with no-name actors.  “Every actor is different,” said Haley, “you read them and then you get into it. You figure out how they work, and then you adjust.”  He added later that, visually, he just wanted to get out of the way and let their performances be key.

He called the making of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” a really fun, positive experience, though he was hard-pressed to say the same about the process of fundraising.  Haley, with the help of actor Martin Starr, turned to Kickstarter in order to raise $60,000.  He quickly found out that crowdfunding was a full-time job, but all the work paid off as the campaign met its target.  “It was a month of pure stress,” Haley reflected, “but I’m glad I did it.”

Brett Haley on setThis money, along with a fair amount of individual equity raised by producers Rebecca Green and Laura Smith, made up the entire budget of the film.  No foreign sales, no production company.  So in spite of what the presence of Blythe Danner might suggest, getting “I’ll See You In My Dreams” to screen was no easy feat.  And Haley insisted, time and again, that I refrain from referring to it as a “big film.”

“It’s certainly bigger than $5,000,” he admitted, “but it’s not a big film. It’s not a studio film, it wasn’t made with a production company; it was made completely outside of the system. The only reason it gets to be a big film is because of the cast.”

The story of the film’s funding is hardly its only anomaly, either.  With its focus on the vibrant lives of senior citizens, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is the rare independent film made for one its core demographic blocs.  And Haley, at the ripe young age of 30, is certainly not the kind of person anyone would expect to tell this kind of story.  I asked him whether this dearth of representation was because younger people don’t understand what senior citizens go through – or because they don’t care.

Haley’s response?  “It’s probably a bit of both.”

Blythe and SamFurther unpacking his ideas, he continued, “I just think we’re a very self-obsessed … everything is me, me, me all the time. With this Kardashian-esque obsession with fame and how you look, it’s kind of disturbing. It’s also just the way of the world, it makes sense that we’re going through this ‘me’ phase. I don’t even think they have the energy to think about anyone other than themselves.”

“I think younger filmmakers aren’t interested in older people,” Haley posited, “and I think that’s totally normal. I’m probably a little bit abnormal in the sense that I made this film, and I’m so young. I get it.”

As opposed to something “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which I affectionately dub the AARP-vengers, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” feels like a humane story curious about a rich interior life rather than a marketing ploy.  “I just made what I truly wanted to make,” Haley declared, “from the heart and the gut. Now it’s a great benefit that there might be a built-in audience for the film.”

DreamsAs I press publish on this post, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” has amassed over $2 million from under 250 screens in a manner of weeks.  That number might not sound particularly large, but there is still plenty of gas left in the tank for Haley’s film to become a true summer sleeper.  And as more fall releases begin to show their hand, Blythe Danner’s performance is certain to keep “I’ll See You In My Dreams” in the awards conversation.

But just because Danner reaps the lion’s share of attention for the film should not ghettoize the film as solely for those who receive the senior discount on their ticket.  Haley said he believes “I’ll See You In My Dreams” has universal themes, and when I asked one topic that hasn’t been brought up on the press tour that deserves attention, he was quick to highlight the younger actors in the cast.

“I think Martin Starr should be getting more attention,” Haley replied, “I think he and Blythe’s relationship is, for me, the heart of the film. He’s doing something that people have not seen him do before.  And Malin [Akerman], too. My older actors are getting a lot of attention, and boy, do they deserve it. But my younger actors are doing stuff that they normally don’t do.”

“I’ll See You In My Dreams” is now playing in select theaters.

 

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