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PARK CITY ’06: Hadjii: “Personal experiences and the experiences of others are always heavy in my wo

PARK CITY '06: Hadjii: "Personal experiences and the experiences of others are always heavy in my wo

Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.

In his new film “Somebodies,” director/screenwriter Hadjii tells the story of 22-year-old Scottie, an African American university student who’s just trying to figure out the mysteries of life as they hit him, sometimes all at once. When his “nonchalant approach towards life” gets him in trouble, his eccentric circle of friends and family comes to his aid, and Scottie embarks on “a hilarious journey of self-discovery” (as described by Sundance). The film has no political or social agenda, commented reviewer Roger Ebert, it’s just about ordinary guys: they’re “very, very funny, because they don’t seem to know they’re in a movie…they’re performing to celebrate themselves.” “Somebodies” is part of the Dramatic Independent Film Competition.

“Somebodies” director Hadjii. Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

Please tell us about yourself. Where were you born? Where do you live? What is your current job?

My name is Hadjii and I am the writer/director/and sometime star of “Somebodies.”
I was born and raised in the small town of Brunswick, Georgia, and I currently reside in Athens, Georgia, working as an adjunct instructor at the University of Georgia. I teach an intro to writing for radio, television, and film class. I also have a few part-time jobs on the side to make ends meet.

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? How did you learn about filmmaking? Did you go to film school?

Oddly enough, I never really intended to be a filmmaker. I only wanted to write. Even as a kid I would often write short stories, comic strips, and jokes to kill time. Then when I was in seventh grade I saw Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” and it set off a little spark in me. I mean, I had always watched movies before, like all of the Godzilla stuff and Eddie Murphy movies, and even other black movies like “School Daze,” “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka,” and the list goes on and on, but this was the first time I had ever seen black people on a screen who were unknown actors at the time, saying and doing the same things me and my friends sat around doing — complaining about how hot it was, cracking jokes on each other, and wanting a slice of pizza. Even though the film had this deep, heavy statement attached to it, to me it was just a simple reflection of how it is for young blacks, and it sparked something for me — filmmaking or at least screenwriting became something I was really considering.

Then a few years later, John Singleton’s “Boyz in the Hood” came out and I was hooked! That movie was so real to me! I remember sitting in the theater thinking, “I know what’s about to happen next.” Not in a “this is predictable” sense, but meaning the movie was so real. “That’s what you say in that situation. That’s what you do. If you do this then that usually happens.” Everything from the older kids taking the kid’s football to the dude lying about not being a virgin; I could completely relate to it all. That’s when I thought, “I want to try this!” Then that night on “Entertainment Tonight,” I see this seventeen year old kid, Matty Rich, who had just completed an independent feature and then I see him again a few hours later on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and I was like, “Okay. If he can do it, so can I.”

Unfortunately, I never went to film school. I wanted to, but my father never really bought into this whole “film thing” so film school was out of the question, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been mentored by and work with some very experienced and gifted people in this industry who know what they’re doing. So I watch, listen, and learn, and oddly enough, after you make the same mistake fifty times, you kind of start getting the hang of it.

In addition to that, you watch other films and observe how they’re put together, etc., but it’s the weirdest thing. When I first decided that I wanted to write, I ran out to the video-store and rented every black movie I could get my hands on. After about three days, I was finished. Or at least I had seen every “popular” black movie in three days. So then I saw this little low-budget movie with a black person on the cover. I picked it up and I didn’t recognize any of the people in the film, never heard of the director or anything like that. Flipped it over on the back and the pictures of the movie were all blurry and crazy looking and I thought, “Let me check this out.” So I rented it, and no offense to all of the great independent films and filmmakers out there, but man, I grabbed this movie, took it home, popped it in, and it was the worst movie I had ever seen in my life! Bad acting, bad writing, you name it! So bad to that it was hilarious! I used to call my friends over and say, “Ya’ll have got to see this shit.” And we’d pop it in and laugh our asses off! That’s when I discovered that bad films are far more entertaining than good films can ever be.

Now when I say bad, I don’t mean like, “Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs down.” I mean bad like, “My cousin Roger says, “How’d this shit get made?!” I’m talking about when you walk in the video-store and see those movies where a dude’ll be holding a gun in one hand, a chicken-wing in the other hand, with a black woman standing over one shoulder, and a white woman standing over the other shoulder, and the title will read will read something like, “Thug Odyssey.” I’m talking about the movies where they take the names from classic films and figure out a way to work in either “Black” or “Booty” into the title like, “Black Booty,” “Sleeping Booty”, “The Empire Strikes Black,” “American Booty.” Trust me people, I can do this all day. “Black to the Future,” “Booty and the Beast,” “Casablacka,” “Snow Black and the Seven Booties” and my personal favorite, “Their Booties Were Watching God…” But in all seriousness, I always felt that if I watched those classic films from the great filmmakers, I’d just end up mimicking their styles, and their voices, and what they were doing. As in, if you look at some of my first scripts, you’ll see me doing a very bad Spike Lee impression. So instead, I just watched my little funny films and tried to learn what not to do, and then let the chips fall where they may.

What are your biggest creative influences?

My biggest creative influences are my family, friends, and really just living life. Personal experiences and the experiences of others are always heavy in my work, and really I’ve just always felt like, “If my friends like it, it’s good.” I’m a very simple storyteller in terms of my approach. You probably won’t ever see a “Matrix” type of movie coming out of me. My style is more, “Two guys walk into a bar and one guy says. . .” I like to deal with real life. So you take an ordinary guy and throw him into a completely chaotic situation, or you take crazy people and try to work them into an everyday setting. Either way, it works.

Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.

Well, I’m not really an excitable person, so when I found out that we got into Sundance, I didn’t scream, . . but I made some type of noise? I was really surprised, because to be perfectly honest, I didn’t think we got in. I mean, I knew they were supposed to make the announcements during the first week of December. So I figured they would be notifying all who were selected some time in November. So when the middle of November rolled around and we still hadn’t heard anything, I knew things were looking pretty dim. Then when the week of Thanksgiving came and we hadn’t heard anything, I thought, “It’s a wrap. Onto Plan B. By the way, what’s Plan B?”

Then on Friday morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I was in my aunt’s basement putting a load of laundry into the washer when my phone rang. Mind you, I’m spending Thanksgiving with my family which means that by Friday morning I had heard the question, “What are you doing with your life?” seven hundred and nineteen times. Plus, it’s like 9:30 in the morning and I’m in the basement wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and one sock. Plus I’ve got gas from all that Thanksgiving food. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling like a winner.

So the phone rings and I see it is Nate Kohn, my producer, who never calls me early in the morning unless it’s to remind me about something I was supposed to do, didn’t do, or should’ve done. Not looking forward to the conversation I answered, “What?” and he said, “We’re in Sundance.” And I replied, “We’re in Sundance?” and he said, “Yeah.” And I asked, “Did they call?” He said, “Email.” And I was like, “Well, who the hell works on the day after Thanksgiving? You sure it wasn’t some of that spam shit? Ya know? Like Sundance isn’t the name of some stripper who wants to ‘get to know me?'” and he said, “No, looks pretty good to me.” And I guess this would be around the time where you could insert that strange noise I made. Then he told me that we couldn’t say anything until they made the official announcement, and I was like, “Cool.”

So I told my girlfriend. (Sorry Sundance, but I was in desperate need of some points at the time.) I told her, “Look, it’s very important that we not mention this to anyone until they make the official announcement.” And she said, “Okay. That’s fine.” And then within five seconds she commenced notifying the entire city of Atlanta! . . Again I say, “Sorry Sundance, . . but I really needed the points.”

What do you hope to get out of the festival?

As far as the festival’s concerned, this has already been more than I could have ever imagined and we haven’t even gotten off of the plane yet. So I’ve thrown all of my little expectations out of the window. I’m just hoping that the film plays well and that we have some major fun. All I’ve ever wanted is to work, and hopefully this festival is going to play a role in making that happen.

What is your definition of independent film?

I would say that independent film provides a vehicle for fresh stories and/or voices. I think independent film is everything that the movie business can’t afford or isn’t allowed to be, which is risk-taking, sincere, out of the ordinary, and unapologetic. I believe it sets the tone for Hollywood in many ways and often creates the new trends and discovers the new talents that eventually keep the film industry alive and moving. It also gives the established, major Hollywood filmmakers, writers, actors, etc. an outlet to do work that may not be as lucrative or whatever, but it’s work that they feel is important and means something and eventually it takes the art of filmmaking to higher and higher grounds. Independent film is the spirit of filmmaking.

What are your own goals for Sundance?

Just getting into Sundance has already been a dream come true. Like seriously, you know how you have a list of things that you want to accomplish? Sundance has always been on my list. So I just hope to meet people at the festival who come out, watch our movie and enjoy it. What more can I ask for? Anything or anyone else would just be the icing on the cake.

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

New Year’s Resolution: I’m not sure if this is a resolution, but I just want to get better. Better at everything. Become a better writer, better filmmaker, get in better shape, better at public speaking, better at my craft. Better in my life. I want to be sharper than I was in 2005.

[Get the latest from the Sundance Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Park City ’06 section]

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