INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

MARSHALL

Full disclosure, I did read you whenever you wrote at In Contention right around the same time that I started writing, so…

CHAD HARTIGAN

I had a real grumpy reputation over there, I think.

MARSHALL

I didn’t think you were grumpy, I thought you were a realist.

CHAD HARTIGAN

I got a lot of people who thought I was combative, which is fine. It was a bit of a persona.

MARSHALL

Do you feel like that’s something that works against you now?

CHAD HARTIGAN

No, not at all.

MARSHALL

That’s good.

CHAD HARTIGAN

Actually, I think very few people ever come up to me and mention In Contention. Although, you know the actress Melanie Lynskey? I met her last week and was introduced and she was like, “Oh, I know who you are!” I assumed because she was going to be here, that maybe she had heard of “Morris from America” but she said, “I used to read you at In Contention.”

MARSHALL

What made you switch over fully from doing the sort of journalism to doing full-time filmmaking? Was it gradual?

CHAD HARTIGAN

Well, I would never say that I was a full-time journalist. At that time, my job was box office analyst, so I was predicting how much money movies were going to make. I was writing for Tapley on the side as a favor … not as a favor, because I was getting paid. But I liked his site a lot, I liked In Contention, and he was gracious enough to let me contribute. I only did like one column a week I think. The whole time though, I was really pursuing filmmaking and writing and trying to create vehicles for myself to make that my career.

MARSHALL

Do you think it was beneficial to have the background in analyzing box office potential, sort of gauging what audiences were responding to?

CHAD HARTIGAN

I think it is, but not in the way maybe you’re asking. I try to not think about any of that stuff if I’m writing a film or making a film. But what you learn very quickly is being a filmmaker is not just those things, it also involves going to Sundance or going to any festival, talking a lot, selling a movie, distributing the movie. For those situations, it does really come in handy to have that background and knowledge that I can bring to the table.

MARSHALL

Are there ever any times where you wish you could turn off that part of your brain?

CHAD HARTIGAN

I think I’m good at doing that when it comes to my own creative output. But in fact I quit that job, the box office job, because I was starting to really hate waking up early on Sunday mornings and looking at the box office and being like, ugh, these movies. It was kind of really bringing me down. What used to be a hobby that I would do even before it was a job…

MARSHALL

Wait, bring you down in the sense of like, what was being successful and what wasn’t?

CHAD HARTIGAN

Yeah, pretty much because I knew that the movies I was working on, which was “This Is Martin Bonner,” I was like, “This will never be popular, but it’s important to me, so…” I wish that the movies that I thought were important would do better. Everyone thinks that, I think.

IMG_0968

Hartigan from my vantage point at the Sundance premiere of “Morris from America.”

MARSHALL

You said that you grew up in Cypress. What made you choose to change [the setting] to Germany specifically? I know you said that you wanted to change things so that it wasn’t quite so autobiographical but is there any specific reason you opted for Germany?

CHAD HARTIGAN

I started writing it in 2011 and Germany was the most recent country I’d been to. I went in 2010 for five days and it was fresh in my brain. I was in a city called Dresden. It was kind of a weird town and I thought that this story would be great in Dresden so I started writing it with that in mind. But I’d never been to Germany before that and never thought about making a film there or anything like that.

MARSHALL

When along the way did you decide to change the race of Morris and Curtis?

CHAD HARTIGAN

I honestly don’t remember. It was early enough and I was thinking about situations that I wanted to include from my own life, which was the squirt gun and the humping the pillow. Somehow it just occurred to me and all of the sudden imagining a young black character in those situations was like, I’ve never seen that before. Especially because I knew that there was going to be a little bit of the hip hop stuff because of the rap lyrics that I really wrote. I’d become fascinated by that idea that there is a lot of pressure in the American community to be tough.

I was interested in putting a character like that in somewhere where all that posturing gets you nowhere. You can pretend to be tough all you want because nobody cares because nobody listens to hip hop there. It just became way more interesting and complex of a character of a movie when I made that switch in my mind.

It scared me, you know, I was like, what do I really know about that topic? How do I feel confident to write that? I do believe in those silly clichés where it’s like, if it’s not scary, it’s not worth doing. You should challenge yourself.

MARSHALL

So if that was a worry for you, how were you working to fill in the gaps or to persuade yourself that you were the right kind of person to tell that story?

CHAD HARTIGAN

I think the key was to try and keep it as specific as possible and not try to make any generalities or sweeping statements about race or about the experience of what it is actually like to be black somewhere, but keep it really specific and see how very specific events have a little ripple effect, then I think that’s the best you can do. Then I also get other people involved. Once I have collaborators, I kind of lean on them to be like, “Yo, this is bullshit, I wouldn’t say that, or I wouldn’t do that.”

MARHALL

There’s so many conversations in the industry right now about the lack of opportunities for black actors … I just think it’s fascinating that you can make a film that is so personal but at the same time so open to exploring points of view different from your own.

CHAD HARTIGAN

I mean, I did not anticipate being a part of that conversation when I started writing it four years ago. I think it does speak to that conversation that is happening. What excited me about it was that I felt like I hadn’t seen it in movies before because there aren’t enough movies made about that experience. If it was just another sensitive white kid in Europe coming to adolescence … I’ve just seen it before.

MARSHALL

It’s 20 movies at Sundance every year.

CHAD HARTIGAN

That might actually sound exploitative, but I really just wanted to find characters that I would be interested to watch no matter what they went through. That’s always what I’m looking for.

Chad Hartigan Morris from America

MARSHALL

It’s definitely a coming of age story for Morris, but I was also so fascinated to watch as the film unfolded … you see that [same storyline] in Curtis too, the way he is still growing up in many ways, still sort of finding his place. So if this started as a story about you, when did you begin to incorporate the father character and his journey in the film?

CHAD HARTIGAN

Probably early. I like to try as best I can to make every part feel real and have authenticity. I think the first scene I wrote was the fight they get in over the lyrics, which I really liked, and then I was like, I want to keep writing as many scenes as I can for this character because I like him so much. But even with the girl, there’s like a scene with the girl and her mom, and then there’s a little scene with Inka [Morris’ German tutor played by Carla Juri] and her boyfriend over Skype, I like the idea of moving away from the main character for just a little bit and giving everyone else their real world to inhabit and not just revolve around Morris the whole time.

MARSHALL

You’ve always been great at portraying natural-feeling scenes, but I feel LIKE “Morris from America” had a lot more stylistic flourishes, like the iris and the ways you were playing with time. Is that something you were visualizing at the script stage or production?

CHAD HARTIGAN

Yeah, script. Even the iris in on the porno magazine is in the script. Early on when I was thinking about writing it, I saw “Moonrise Kingdom,” and I didn’t really like it. What I didn’t like about it is that it is very rigid and very — it’s the opposite of spontaneous. I was trying to remember myself at 13 at that time, and everything was spontaneous. So I started to incorporate as many things into the script as possible that felt like the movie could go anywhere and do anything. So the castle scene where the statues come alive, that was one of the earlier things I wrote. That’s also another challenge for me, because that’s not something I naturally write. It was difficult to add fantastic elements to a story.

MARSHALL

Thank you for saying that about “Moonrise Kingdom,” I felt the exact same way.

CHAD HARTIGAN

I’d get a good shit on in contention if I wrote that.

MARSHALL

Anywhere on the internet there’s like the Wes Anderson posse that will take you down if you ever say a bad word.

CHAD HARTIGAN

Well, it’s on the record now.

MARSHALL

I presume you chose the title Morris from America, which communicates that you were sort of consciously thinking or including the name of country…is there anything you learned about America while making a film in Germany?

CHAD HARTIGAN

I did choose the title, but we had a working title and the script had a different title, but it had a curse word in it so we wouldn’t have been able to call it that.

MARSHALL

Are you allowed to say what it is?

CHAD HARTIGAN

Yeah, the script was called “Poor, Poor Fatty Fucko” because I actually had that title before I had a movie, and then after I finished writing the very first draft, I was like, “This doesn’t even fit anymore.” It alludes to a character that needs sympathy, and by the end of the movie I felt like Morris was going to be a-okay. But I had that title before I had a movie, and then I started writing it to that. Then it became “Morris from America” somewhere along the line.

The second part of your question—it did. I had to live in Germany for about nine months making a movie—pre-production, production, and post-production was about nine months. It was in the middle of the refugee crisis in Europe, and then also all of the police brutality and Donald Trump kind of rising into mainstream media here. The difference was so apparent. Whereas Germany was leading the world in welcoming these refugees, like you’d go to the subway and try to buy your ticket and there’d be something on the screen like, “Refugees, click here for special instructions about how to use these machines,” very welcoming and then to read about all the terrible things happening in America.

Obviously these are generalizations, but it puts you in an outsider’s view of what’s going on here [in America] and it’s very tough. I actually felt a little bit guilty, because here I am making this movie where the Germans are kind of dickheads, and in fact they’re being very kind in world politics at the moment.

Chad Hartigan on set.jpg

MARSHALL

I don’t mean to end on a down note, but I’d be curious because I’ll be writing up this interview but also writing a bigger piece about the state of Sundance more or less … so I was running the numbers and I’m sure you’re aware as someone who used to write about the box office professionally [mumble] sort of the trend in Sundance movies performing, I have high hopes that this will do well, but do you have any ideas as to why they’re not—

CHAD HARTIGAN

You mean like with titles that were bought out of Sundance last year that aren’t doing so hot?

MARSHALL

Well, even in the last five years, only one movie has broken $29 million.

CHAD HARTIGAN

Was that “A Walk in the Woods?”

MARSHALL

It was. I saw that and I was like, really? That?

CHAD HARTIGAN

In Germany they released that as “Picnic with Bears.”

MARSHALL

Gotta love European titles.

CHAD HARTIGAN

I don’t know. I’m blissfully ignorant of box office these days; ever since I left that job I’ve been happy to be. I’m sure it has something to do with the larger epidemic of movies becoming two things. One is the hundred million dollar movies you see in the theater and the other is everything else you watch on iTunes or Netflix. That’s been going on for a long time, since I had the job. It’s harder and harder for a movie to get bought out of Sundance and perform somewhere in between. There isn’t a lot of in between.

I tweeted once that “About a Boy” came out in 2002, why it made like $40 million … if “About a Boy” was made today, it would premiere here at Sundance, get sold for $3 million, and make like $800,000. But back then, it could gross $40 million. That doesn’t exist anymore. Real downer.

On that note, break the cycle! Go see “Morris from America” if it’s playing near you, or rent it on whatever VOD platform you use the most.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

One response

22 08 2016
Jay

Great interview! Cool movie too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: