INTERVIEW: The Graduate; Joel Hopkins Jumps from "Jorge" to "Tomorrow"
by Anthony Kaufman
After his New York University 30-minute graduate thesis film "Jorge" won the school's top prize, showed at Sundance 2000, and won a $100,000 grant from a university production fund, it was only a matter of time before Joel Hopkins jumped to feature filmmaking with "Jump Tomorrow" (which opened in theaters over the weekend), a broadening of the themes, story and style reflected in his short. The British-born Hopkins finessed his English roots and grant money to persuade British broadcaster/film producer Film Four to come up with the remaining financing. The result, a romantic road comedy infused with the spirit of Mike Nichol's "The Graduate" and Blake Edwards' "The Party" and "The Pink Panther," tells the story of a shy African American man who falls for a young Latina woman. That his leading man, Tunde Adebimpe, is an animation student at NYU, not an actor, and that Hopkins' knowledge of the film's major locale, Niagara Falls, comes not from experience, only fascination, has only helped this minimalist story of love and awkwardness win audiences over. Hopkins recently spoke with indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman about adapting short to feature, influences, production design, and his transatlantic connections.
indieWIRE: So do you think you could have made this feature without making "Jorge"?
Joel Hopkins: No, I couldn't, less from a practical, production shooting level, but more on a script level. "Jorge" is a half an hour and does have a three-act structure, and the shorts I had made before that were more slices of life that I don't think were totally successful in telling a whole narrative. And so, structurally and script-wise, "Jorge" was hugely important for me to do, and gave me the confidence to do something bigger. But as far as the nuts and bolts of shooting, I feel like that was less of a leap for me.
iW: How was it different, production-wise?
Hopkins: I managed to make "Jorge" with a group of friends. It was still made with a student spirit, so that changed. Suddenly, it was daunting when you show up and there's six trucks. It becomes a bigger beast; it gets a little frustrating when you know what you want and you just want to grab it and run. On "Jorge," I did some subway stuff and it was just me and Tundai and a Bolex. That sort of thing was gone. To get the simplest pick-up shot, you definitely would have known we were there.
iW: In "Jorge," you were able to establish this nostalgic world with the black and white cinematography, but in "Jump Tomorrow," it's all about this '60s production design. How did you make that happen?
Hopkins: The number of times I have seen low budget films pull off a genuine party, nine times out of 10 it feels like a director and his group of friends. So I thought let's go the opposite way. Let's make it bright. Looking at "The Party," that's the sort of inspiration. As far as getting the furniture, production designer John [Paino] did a great job. We shot the party in an art gallery and John painted those wonderful stripes on the wall. It was partly out of financial restrictions. Once we decided to go this not-quite-real world way, we went with it. We looked at some photographers, Williaim Eggleston, Gary Winogrand, David Byrne's "True Stories," Jarmusch's "Down By Law," and the "Pink Panther" movies and stuff like that.
iW: After seeing the movie, I kept thinking of "The Graduate." Do you admit to that?
Hopkins: I'd be a fool if I denied it. I think the tone that they strike in that movie and at the end, where it's a happy ending, but it's real life. We meet the girl of our dreams, but what's going to happen in the morning? That was always in my mind with this. I definitely wanted to try to find some lingering thoughts. I wanted to try to find a tone that wasn't all roses and had some sort of life goes on thing. Throughout the movie, I hope that it mixes elements of farce and the more thoughtful stuff. Another movie that would be right to say was an inspiration was "Billy Liar," early John Schlesinger. It's about a young man in a Northern town and has this desire to go to London to be a screenwriter. It's this sort of Walter Mitty scenario and I looked at that for the wonderful tone in that movie.
iW: How do you feel about this being the latest indie romantic comedy of the summer?
Hopkins: I went to see "Say Anything" at the American Museum of the Movie Image recently and I think it's terrific. I do think it's a genre that deserves to hold up its head higher. So I do think it's the way to go. I do think IFC Films has a good poster campaign, as long as we can stress the hipper aspects of the movie.
iW: Looking ahead at your future career, how do you see your transatlantic identity working as an advantage to get your films made?
Hopkins: I did the financing for this movie from Film Four, so that relationship is continuing. Film Four has been backing British filmmaking for quite a while, but I think they want to be seen making American movies, too. So my producer, Nicola Usborne, who is also British, and I, are quite a good halfway house for them. And they want to continue doing that. I've definitely taken advantage of that, of being English, but having been here eight years, I have my green card and I know New York. Now I'm being paid to write for the first time in my life by Film Four. I'm working on an original screenplay, which is another tale of neurotic men. I'm also looking to adapting a well-known children's book. I'd quite like to do a children's film, so I'm waiting for that to happen.