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 in the Dramatic Competition program at Sundance ’08, “The Last Word” is Geoff Haney‘s feature debut. A dark romantic comedy set in Los Angeles, it follows Evan (Wes Bentley), a writer who makes a living writing other people’s suicide notes. When Evan meets Charlotte (Winona Ryder), the free-spirited sister of a client, a romance develops despite secrets, and heading for some complex deception. Sundance’s David Courier calls “The Last Word” a “surprisingly touching, quirky, and wickedly intelligent” comedy that “confronts loss, redemption, and our curious need to leave a legacy.”
“The Last Word”
Director: Geoff Haney
Screenwriter: Geoff Haney
Producers: David Hillary, Tim Peternel, Alexandra Milchan, Bonnie Timmermann
Cinematographer: Kees Van Oostrum
Editor: Fabienne Rawley
Principal Cast: Winona Ryder, Wes Bentley, Ray Romano
U.S.A., 2007, 94 min., color, 35mm
Please introduce yourself…
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My name is Geoff Haley. I’m a 35 year old Camera Operator (specializing in steadicam), Director of Photography, and editor in the feature film and television industry. I grew up in a small village on the outskirts of the Black Forest in Germany, moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania at age 9, attended Stanford University, and then moved to Los Angeles, CA where I live today.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? What other creative outlets do you explore?
My two loves from early childhood were music and film. I began to play the cello at age 5, then added classical and operatic voice at age 12 and jazz drums at age 13. When I was 10 years old, my parents bought me a used super 8 millimeter film camera that became my deepest obsession until I went to college. Instead of writing book report assignments in 4th, through 8th grade, I received permission from my teachers to adapt the books I read to the screen and do mini movie versions of the books I was supposed to report on. On the day everyone’s book reports were due, I carried my film projector into the class room and premiered my film to my teacher and fellow classmates. When I was 15 years old, I produced and directed my first television commercial for a local charity that aired on cable. I made a few experimental short films in college, although my major was music and psycho-physiology, and I spent the summers between semesters at Stanford traveling to Los Angeles to work on movie sets in various sound departments.
Have you made other films, and how did you learn filmmaking?
In 2002, I wrote and directed my first 35mm short film called “The Parlor,” which won awards at Sundance and nearly a dozen other festivals around the world. This short film, which also became one of the most downloaded short films on the internet, garnered me representation at the Gersh Agency. Since I did not go to Stanford as a film student – in fact I took almost no film classes while I was there, I learned everything I know about filmmaking through working directly on film sets as a boom operator, camera operator, and editor. Many of my friends that graduated from school with me and moved down to LA at the same time that I did, decided to get into the business through the development and studio side of things. They became script assistants, they wrote coverage, they befriended executives and shmoozed agents. I strapped on a tool belt and decided to learn film making from the bottom up. Working in the industry as a crew person over the last 10 years has really afforded me a broad sense of the filmmaking process as well keeping me grounded and away from the somewhat schmarmy side of hollywood politics and vanity.
What prompted the idea for “The Last Word” and how did it evolve?
In college, a friend of mine and I talked briefly about the idea for a story that stuck with me for years to come. It was while I was the camera operator on the HBO television series “Six Feet Under” that I decided to write the screenplay during my time between camera set-ups.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
“The Last Word” is a film about people desperate to make a connection in the most bizarre of ways. Los Angeles itself is a character in the city. It was important to me to shoot the film in A, even though it quickly became apparent that shooting a film on this budget level might well be cheaper to shoot in other cities where locations, permits, and facilities might be cheaper. However, since I had worked in this city for a number of years, building friendships and relationships with people who could help me cut costs, (Panavision, for example, donated a 35 mm camera package for free) the benefits of shooting in this city began to outweigh the detriments. I was also very excited to shoot the film with anamorphic lenses, giving the film a very wide-screen, cinematic feel. In an age where more and more films are made on digital media, I stayed completely photo-chemical with the process, shooting on film, and finishing with traditional lab techniques rather than processing the image through a digital intermediate.
I believe this process gives the film a very organic and almost romantic flavor. The fact that I was operating the camera while directing really allowed me to have an intimate relationship with the actors and the scene. Looking at a performance through the eye piece rather than on a television monitor 2 rooms away really allowed me to hone in on the nuances of the performance and tone of the film. I allowed wide shots to play freely on the screen without a whole lot of cutting back and forth. Pace and energy are derived from performances and compositions, not frantic cutting techniques or energetic sound tracks. It’s a film that is allowed to meander through the course of its narrative. It’s not pushed or hurried – and for better or worse, I respect that about the movie.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Acquiring financing for independent films is always a tricky proposition. And “The Last Word” was no exception. We had various financiers come on board, then drop away, then re-emerge. Even when the financing was finally in place, cash flow was often lacking. There were many occasions where one of the financiers was so tardy in cash-flowing that the possibility of a shutdown became a common threat. After a while, the familiar chorus of imminent shut down didn’t really faze me anymore. I treated every day of film exposed in the can as a pleasant surprise. Keeping a sense of humor and perspective about the whole thing really helped me.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
My goals for Sundance are simple – show my film to as many curious people as I can and see as many other films as I can cram in.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
Success as a filmmaker is as varied as there are filmmakers themselves. In my eyes, having the ability to make a personal statement with a film is my ultimate goal. If that statement is heard by a large number of people, that’s icing on the cake. If that statement confounds or enriches the life of someone else, I feel like the most successful person in the world. Oh yeah, twenty million dollars would be a bonus too, I guess.
What are some your favorite films?
I’m not big on defining my favorite films, because every time I come up with a list, I remember another one that I should have listed.
Are there any upcoming projects you can reveal?
I’m currently writing a political thriller on spec and debating whether to paint my house.
What are your thoughts on the state of independent film today.
Independent film is alive and well today. With the digital revolution, there’s just a lot more noise to have to filter through if you want to be heard. The best tools are now at everyone’s disposal – the playing field is even. And in a world of stream- lined, consolidated, and sterilized information, there’s no better time to let your voice be heard.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.