Director Julian Goldberger drama “The Hawk is Dying” starring Paul Giamatti and Michael Pitt centers on a man out of place in the world and not comfortable in his own skin. Working as an auto-upholsterer, he lives with his divorced sister and her 20 year-old autistic son. He is also the unwitting case study of a “life-gone-wrong” for a young psychology student who works at his shop. George (Giamatti) seeks salvation in hawks, and dreams of capturing and training the noble birds of prey. During his quiet pre-dawn tracking of the birds, George feels like a man temporarily freed from the absurdity of civilized life. After several years of failed attempts, George and his nephew capture the most magnificent bird they have ever seen–the red-tailed hawk… “The Hawk is Dying” screened in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Strand Releasing began rolling out the film in limited theatrical release Friday, March 30.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was initially attracted to filmmaking back in the mid-’80s, after seeing “Down By Law,” “Blue Velvet,” “Paris, Texas” and “The Cook, The Thief…” I was a teenager living in Ft. Myers, Florida and these films rocked me. It was as if I woke up after seeing them, [and] they were my first exposure to the possibilities of cinema. Prior to that I wasn’t too discerning–my tastes were pretty low brow. I reveled in films like “Porky’s” and “Hot Dogs,” although I do maintain that “Top Secret” is one of the best comedies ever.
In the late ’80s, I started to investigate the acting work of James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and ultimately what had happened at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, which led me to Stanislavsky and the films and theater work of Elia Kazan. I was spending more time in NYC then, and I took some classes at Strasberg and got the acting bug out of my system. It was in New York, though, where I encountered the experimental theater of The Wooster Group. Seeing them perform was a key pillar in my artistic education–I remember a black and white short film they made that played on the local PBS station. It was just a grainy static shot of the woods with rain coming down and Barber’s Adagio for Strings playing. Knocked me out. To this day I am in absolute awe of the work they do.
I also have to give a nod to the work of Jim Herbert out of Athens, Georgia. Being an early REM fan I was mesmerized by his work and the videos he did with the band.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I wouldn’t mind becoming a studio head for a while. I think I have a good sense (of denial) as to what people are really craving in American cinema.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “The Hawk is Dying” came about…
A friend of mine gave me a copy of the book. I knew of it, but I hadn’t read it–it was one of Crews’ books that was out of print. Thematically it was exactly what I wanted to explore and it was a story that I was prepared to spend years living with.
Henry Miller wrote a critique of American culture entitled, “The Air Conditioned Nightmare,” in which he states that nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete. Sixty years later, I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t made any plans for reconciliation. I think that’s kind of alarming. It’s in the blood of this film–that kind of divorce, separation. It is something that we have to reckon with. [“Hawk is Dying” character] George Gatling definitely has that moment of reckoning via the hawk, his contact with the wild. George isn’t ready to move to Alaska and live out his Jack London fantasies, so instead “the wild” comes to him and functions as an intervention. Through the relationship George has with the hawk, he is able to express deep emotions–especially about the death of his nephew. All of us have dangerous, un-nameable impulses that we hide in order to appear civilized, rational. But death and grief are emotions that are savage and unorganized and irrational. The hawk provides George Gatling with an outlet for those impulses.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.
For me the challenge is always to retain as much “mystery” for myself as possible. I don’t ever want to know too much prior to shooting. The more I can discover through the process, the better.
Flannery O’Connor has had a huge impact on my work. One of the things she said that really stuck with me has to do with developing an anagogical vision–the ability to see different levels of reality in one image or situation that deepens the meaning of a story. It’s a way of reading nature that is definitely connected to spirituality, the divine, the transcendental.
As far as methods go, it all depends on the demands of the narrative (and the production “reality” you’re faced with). But generally, I prefer to work with a small, intimate crew. I try not to be put in a position where it becomes all about “the machine” and “making your days.” I resist anything that inhibits a more spontaneous approach. I like to stay open to chance and incidental inspiration. Unfortunately on “Hawk” I didn’t have that luxury. On one hand I was so grateful to be finally making the film and on then on the other hand I knew I was gonna have to make a whole lotta concessions due to the number of “shooting days” and actors’ schedules.
As far as specific influences for “Hawk,” Bobby Bukowski (director of photography) and I looked at the work of photographer Todd Hido–his lighting in particular–and the way he shoots night exteriors [as well as] Sally Mann‘s landscapes, the paintings of Rousseau, and revisiting the greatness of “Breaking the Waves.” I also looked at the work of Clarence John Laughlin–a photographer who shot the old South in Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Georgia. He is more of a visionary photographer who captured the dream-like aspects, the ghosts of the region and the environment. His interests were very much in line with Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual connection to place.
It’s a funny thing about tone and style. You talk about influences and look at photographs or paintings before shooting. When it comes to making the film though, you have to drop all that, and don’t look back, instead opening up a clear line of communication with the environment and the characters. We looked at the light in central Florida at that time of year. We observed the behavior of the characters in relationship to the environment in which they live. Through that kind of organic dialogue, a style and an aesthetic started to evolve. The difficult part is in trusting the road you’re on. If it’s not too familiar, you’re in good shape.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
My main concern (other than the number of shooting days ) was dealing with the hawks. Shooting four six-day weeks, we had very little margin for error. I had a lot of anxiety regarding the hawks and how they would perform. They could make or break this movie. We had three hawks performing different duties: Kermit was our flyer, Dre was our intimidator, and Safari was the wild man. At times I felt that the hawks had read the script and were improving upon it. Ultimately, they were good to me and they were good to Paul Giamatti. A lot of respect and gratitude goes out to our hawk trainer, Tony Suffradini.
As far as distribution challenges, let me say “The Hawk is Dying” is not “Sideways” with feathers. A lotta people wanted that to be true. Clearly it’s not. There is an opinion out there that Sundance is the only festival that matters for “American Independents.” I definitely don’t believe that. For some films it is, but not all. Some films are better served premiering at festivals like Venice, Berlin, or Toronto where the audiences are more receptive to daring and provocative work. At Sundance we had a horrible first screening. Ten minutes into the film I looked around the jam packed theater [and] half the place was lit up from the glow of all the distributors’ Blackberries as they tapped in “Pass.” The Variety review was harsh and undeniably smug. David Rooney? Who the fuck is he and who cares about Variety? Apparently a lot of people do. A filmmaker friend of mine who had similar experience with Variety had said that Gus Van Sant told him it was a badge of honor to receive a bad review from Variety. Fortunately, Marcus Hu at Strand had the necessary love and vision to provide us with a proper home.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
Via the producing acumen of Jeff Levy-Hinte, Ted Hope, Mary Jane Skalski, and Corbin Day. They never wavered.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
My family, Chris Marker, Robert Altman, Ross McElwee, Joel Sternfeld, Les Blank, Wong Kar Wai, Andy Goldsworthy, The Sun City Girls, Jean Painleve, Frank Zappa, Rudyard Kipling, Harry Partch, Skylab, Kenzaburo Oe, Frederick Wiseman, Francois Truffaut, Yasujiro Ozu, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ulrich Seidl, and Masaki Kobayashi. There are so many more, but these guys are rock steady at the top.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
With the exception of a romantic comedy, there isn’t a genre I don’t have an interest in. But you get pigeon holed and very few filmmakers can break out of that. I do have a strong desire to do a political satire or subversive comedy.
What is your next project?
I’d like to do a remake of Soderbergh’s remake of “Solaris.”
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
The term “independent film” has been bastardized to the point of embarassment. To me fInancing sources are irrelevant when it comes to being “Independent.” “Independent film” is maverick cinema. If it’s not maverick it ain’t independent. You shouldn’t be allowed to say you made an independent film if the maverick spirit isn’t there and in your work.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and what are some of your recent favorite films?
All time favorites: too many to list.
I don’t get out much now that I’m a recent father but my favorite films of last year would be “Babel” and “Inland Empire.” God bless David Lynch. He is the definition of “Independent Film.” A true maverick genius.
What are your interests outside of film?
Music. The Royal Geographical Society. The Eulipion Corps.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Trust your voice.
What is an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
Having the opportunity to have had barbecue ribs, mac and cheese, collared greens, and slices of wonder bread with Paul Giamatti at a real fine soul food establishment in Gainesville, Florida. That and receiving a personal letter from the American Ambassador to Brazil after winning both the Audience and Grand Jury Awards at the Brasilia international Film Festival. The ambassador wrote, “Works like yours demonstrate an often unknown aspect of American life and culture to foreign audiences. Your film has been an incredibly useful tool in creating mutual understanding between the United States and Brazil, making my job a bit easier.” Glad to be of service. No irony intended.