This weekend, Chad Hartigan's "This is Martin Bonner" beat out a stellar lineup of low-budget films to win the 2013 Best of NEXT Audience Award. The film, the second feature from Hartigan, centers on Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn), an older man who moves to a new city, Reno, Nevada, to work for a Christian prisoner rehabilitation program. There, he meets Travis (Richmond Arquette), a man who must reconnect with his daughter after years behind bars.
Before he found out he won, Indiewire spoke to the up-and-coming director about his film.
So far you've had two screenings. How have they gone?
The vibe of the screenings was wildly different. There was lots of laughter in both, but the second had a quieter, local crowd.
I know this film comes from your own experiences. What made you know you had to make it?
The idea came from real life. When he was 55, my dad had to move to Virginia for a job. He was divorced. I was worried about him, bored and lonely and sad. How he would even go back to doing it, making friends? I realized no movies took that approach to that age group. The job he had was with a prison fellowship company. The more I worked on the script, the more it made sense to include a character that had the same experiences. All the specifics with the actual characters were invented.
So was your dad an important player in making this film?
I never really got into it emotionally with him. I never really asked "How is it making you feel?" I didn't want him to know to much about it. He knew it was about a guy doing the kind of work he did. My own breakthrough was that I was taking a condescending perspective to his life. Whatever my dad is doing, I may think he's lonely. But he's telling the truth when he tells me, "I'm really busy, went to an auction, read a book." That was the breakthrough. I had to eliminate my youthful perspective, and make it from the perspective of the character.
Did making this film help you understand him better?
I don't know if I would say that — he's still a mystery to me in the same ways he was before. We're close though. He saw the movie for the first time at the first screening. I don't think we'll ever talk deeply about what he thought.
This film is in the NEXT Competition, which means it has a certain budget level, but this film is beautifully shot, and the performances are amazing. How did you pull that off?
Visuals were important, and performances were important. The performances were amazing; we had no rehearsals from the actors at all. That was something that was nervewracking when you're there. Sean [McElwee, the film's cinematographer] and I were good friends, we both knew that this story seemed to indicate a formal, deliberate style. We wanted to be confident with the visuals. Pick a frame. That's your frame. The action needs to happen without the frame. The fact that it's so pretty, it's not something we talked about. On the set, on location, it looked as good as it could possibly look. I wasn't like "Make sure it's pretty!"
And how did you find your actors?
I wrote the part of Travis for Richmond [Arquette] because I knew him and knew he was a great actor. Paul [Eenhoorn] and Sam [Buchanan] came from open casting calls in LA. Paul's audition was really warm, a likable person that you could confide in. I called Paul back and found out he was from Seattle. He came down from the one-sentence breakdown. We flew him down again with Richmond to do a read and we knew he was right. A weird inkling he had led to him being one of the breakthrough actors of Sundance.
What was important for you when creating these characters? There is a brilliant scene, at the diner, where Martin really comes through for Travis. You really seemed to care for these characters.
What immediately became important to me, essential to me, was portraying a specific kind of Christianity. I wanted to do a movie, where there would be Christian elements, Christian characters that were neutral. There are movies that try to convert you to Christianity, or the movies went out of their ways to show Christians as villains or flawed. My parents were missionaries, and I'm not Christian anymore, but I had a good upbringing. These characters do what you're supposed to do if you believe in the teachings of Jesus. If you'e doing nice things to people, you can't really argue with that. That's what John Calvin called making the invisible kingdom invisible. It was a cool concept for me. He can't really argue with the fact that this company is doing good things. That's how he finds peace by working there.
And how has it been having your film as part of Sundance?
Sundance is a dream come true. It has a lot of implications for my future and the movie's future. Here, people want to discover films. It's a savvy audience. It's not a festival where I as a filmmaker need to worry about people showing up. People just show up because it's a movie at Sundance. Specifically, what's been great about our screenings, is people are really responding to the optimism, the positivity in the movie. I wasn't trying out to make something that was overtly positive. I like that a lot.