EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Screening as part of the Spectrum program, Tom Hines' "Chronic Town" follows Truman Korovin, a cab driver in Fairbanks, Alaska. Truman calls his car "Bessie" and his boss "Blowjob," and has a tendency to use drugs and alcohol to help him through his challenging existence. But one bad acid trip leads to what appears to be a suicide attempt, and Truman ends up in an institution. Sundance's John Nein finds that Hines "musters the exactly the kind of askew sensibility and broad-mindedness that takes seemingly dark subject matter and cracks it open without ever selling his characters short."
Director: Tom Hines
Screenwriter: Michael Kamsky
Producers: Lauri LaBeau,David Scharf
Cinematographer: Yiannis Samaras
Editor: Clay Zimmerman
Principal Cast: JR Bourne, Emily Wagner, Alice Drummond, Dan Butler, Garry Marshall, Paul Dooley
U.S.A., 2007, 96 min., color, Sony HD Cam
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Tom Hines. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, but spent most of my life growing up in Holliston, MA. I graduated from Boston College in 1991, and have lived in Los Angeles ever since. I had spent the past 10 years working for director, Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman", "The Other Sister", "Princess Diaries 1 & 2") before I left to direct "Chronic Town."
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
I started out in Los Angeles working as a PA on various odd jobs. I got into acting first and was fortunate enough to come across Garry Marshall when I was waiting tables at Timmy Nolan's Irish Pub in Toluca Lake, CA. I acted in a film of his and then he invited me to work in the office part-time (I could've taken that as a knock on my acting, but I thought it was a great opportunity either way...). Later, he offered me a full time Assistant job on "Runaway Bride" and that opened up the entire film world to me. He gave me the opportunity to act, write and produce. Directing was the next logical step and when I read "Chronic Town", I knew immediately that this was my first film. Garry's known as a hyphenate (Director-Writer-Producer-Actor) and I would very much like to continue in those footsteps.
Have you made other films? How did you learn about filmmaking?
I grew up making movies with my friends back in Holliston, MA. One of our friends, Marc Dube (now a Producer on "CSI: Miami") was the one who organized everything. We'd all get together on a weekend and make films on his 8mm camera. Eventually we graduated to a camcorder and made a few films that we showed at our high school variety show and on local cable. I also made some shorts when I was at Boston College, but my real education came with my 10 years spent with Garry Marshall. It was really like getting paid to go to film school. Directors, producers, writers, actors and crew that were already working in the industry were there for me to learn from. Garry wasn't just a great boss, he was a great mentor.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
I had sent my older brother, a novelist who lives in England, a final draft program because he had expressed interest in writing a script. A few years went by and he had casually mentioned that he had written a script with the program I had sent him. Unfortunately, he lost the program and hadn't saved the script on his computer. Eventually, he had his friends in Oregon send the one copy that he had, down to me in LA. It showed up with no cover page and the words "Chronic Town" written at the top of page 1. It was the most original, unique script that I think I've ever read. It took place in Fairbanks, Alaska (where I was born when my dad was in the Air Force) and I thought "what better way to go back to see where I was born?" So I gave the script to my girlfriend (now my pregnant wife) Lauri LaBeau; she read it, and agreed that we were going to be heading to Alaska to shoot our first film (she Produced and acts in "Chronic Town"). My good friends Michael Peterson and Tim Farley both loved the script and agreed to come on board as Executive Producers. I got another friend and former co-worker, David Scharf to round out the producing team. We had a great script, a great location and enough financing to get us off the ground, so we set our shooting dates for March of 2007 and never lost sight of it.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
Because this was my first film I tried to follow the Hines family "K.I.S.S." method that has been passed down from generation to generation in my family: "Keep It Simple, Stupid." My approach to "Chronic Town" was to find and hire talented, passionate people to fill as many spots as possible; and try not to over-complicate things (something my wife, Lauri, says I'm very good at). Because we had such a great script, it made it a lot easier to find people to work on a low-budget film in below freezing temperatures. My Director of Photography, Yiannis Samaras, was instrumental in creating the film's style. He sat down with me for months leading up to the shoot. We broke down each scene and discussed how we might approach the scene. We discussed everything from camera placement to the "feel" of each scene. We knew our time was limited and our prep time allowed us to hit the ground running when we got to Alaska. Yiannis' talent is limitless and his energy is endless. He was a true gift to this film.
In regards to casting, I knew that "Truman" needed to be someone special. He's in every scene and I wanted him to be a likeable character. Other actors could've taken Truman to much too dark a place to make the film I wanted to make. JR Bourne fell into our lap when Emily Wagner (she plays "Eleanor" in the film) introduced us to him at her apartment one day. I was still looking for "Truman" and JR had read the script. He read a few scenes with Emily and I realized then that no one I had seen to that point, had come close to the life that JR found in "Truman." It was a really great moment for me. Up to that point, I had found the supporting cast of Dan Butler, Paul Dooley, Garry Marshall, Lin Shaye and a whole lot of my talented friends I had made over the years in LA. Finding JR was the final crucial hole that needed to be filled. Getting Alice Drummond to play "Elizabeth" wasn't as big a challenge for me.
When I read the script, she was the first person I had thought of. I took a shot and sent the script to her agent Richard Schmenner in New York. I wrote a nice letter and explained that it was a low-budget film, but I had my shoot dates in Alaska and I hoped Alice might read the script. I got a call from Richard when Lauri and I were back in her hometown of New Boston, MI, for Christmas. He called and said Alice loved the script and she'd love to talk about it. I flew to New York a few weeks later and had breakfast with her and told her how much I'd love for her to play the part. She agreed and a few months later she was on a plane for Fairbanks, AK. She almost missed her connecting flight in Seattle and had to run to the gate. The poor woman probably hadn't flown coach for an acting job in over 30 years and now I had her running and begging for her coach seat in the middle of Seattle International. I wouldn't have blamed her for turning around, but I'm forever grateful that she sprinted for that connecting flight.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
We faced a lot of challenges in making the film, but I think that's what made the film so worth making. Most of our crew was from LA, but we had some great Alaska crew that kept all of us LA knuckleheads from freezing to death. Our Gaffer, Greg Kern, was from Anchorage and he brought his Key Grip, Billy Marr, over from Valdez, AK. Billy is not only a Key Grip; among other things he also picked up survivalist skills from a past career. When we were shooting JR with his shirt off during one scene, it was about 25 below freezing. Billy informed us that we had about 45 seconds until the exposed skin cells would begin to die.
To JR's credit, he still took his shirt off. To our credit, we reworked a 2 minute scene into a 44 second scene. To every person's credit on this cast and crew, the film came first. We preached safety and the only one that ended up in the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Emergency Room was me. After Day 1 of shooting, my big toe had gone completely numb. I hoped it would thaw out overnight, but Lauri finally took me to the Emergency Room around 4 am after I started to get real nervous. It turned out to be frostnip rather than frostbite, so my toe's feeling gradually returned sometime in July of 2007. About 3 months after we wrapped in Alaska.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
My goals are simple. To finally put my film in front of an audience and see how they react. I think "Chronic Town" has some surprising moments that I hope will get the audience to make a noise (for lack of a better term). Whether it's a groan, a gasp, a laugh, or a jolt, I think too many audiences have the same look on their face exiting a movie, that they do when they're entering. I hope "Chronic Town" gets people to talk about it afterwards; or at least have a funny look on their face on their way out...
Please share your thoughts on the state of independent film today.
I think that independent film today is in a great place. With technology as it is, there are more films being made, but it only benefits the world of storytelling. The more voices, the better; and the worthwhile stories will eventually find their audience.
What are some of your recent favorite films, or all-time favorites?
We've been so immersed in "Chronic Town" that I haven't had much of an opportunity to see any recent movies. But I did get to see "Lars And The Real Girl" with Ryan Gosling, which I enjoyed very much. Ryan always does great work. I also caught "Lions For Lambs" because I thought I'd better see Robert Redford's film before I came to Sundance. That way if he hasn't seen "Chronic", I can say "Come on, I saw your movie!" I really enjoyed that film, as well. I'd never seen Andrew Garfield before and I thought he was fantastic. Especially going up against someone like Robert Redford.
In terms of all-time favorite movies, I'll always tell people that haven't seen it, to watch "The Big Picture" with Kevin Bacon. It's hysterical and as much as it pokes fun at the film industry, I also think it nails some things on the head. "Smokey and the Bandit" is another must see. Classic Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason. I also love watching episodes of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" because sometimes there is nothing better than watching a bad movie and letting someone else make fun of it for you.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
My personal goals are fairly simple (again, the "K.I.S.S." method). Like many independent filmmakers, I would like to not go broke making my next film. I wouldn't necessarily consider that a success, but I would certainly consider it a step in the right direction. In all seriousness, I would love to have the opportunity to make films in the future and allow that to help me take care of my family. There's a lot of great stories out there that need to be told and it would be nice if I could have the chance to tell a few more of them.
Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to share?
My next project is an "Inspired by True Events" story of the Gallaudet University Women's Basketball Team and their incredible 1998-99 basketball season. Gallaudet is the only Deaf university in the world and the story is not just about their great season, but the story of the girls, their coach and their lives, as well. I co-wrote the script with my writing partner Bob Brunner and it's based on the book "Winning Sounds Like This" by Wayne Coffey. Gallaudet has been very open to the idea of shooting a film on their campus (located in Washington, D.C.), but we still have a lot to work on. My sign language is horrendous at best, so before we can start talking about shooting, I have to improve on my signing by about 110%.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.