It doesn’t take too much convincing to get filmmaker Chad Hartigan to start ticking off the similarities between himself and the charismatic young character at the heart of his latest film, the Sundance crowdpleaser “Morris From America.” While the eponymous Morris — played by breakout young star Markees Christmas — faces his own unique challenges in the film, which follows the teen and his father (a revelatory Craig Robinson) after they move from the U.S. to Germany, the feature grew out of Hartigan’s own awkward adolescence.
“It actually started on the set of ‘This Is Martin Bonner,'” Hartigan recently told IndieWire. “I told the crew a story from my real life, where I put clothes on my pillow to dance with it and then hump it, and the reaction that that story got made me think it could be a funny scene in a movie.”
That scene — or a version of it, pulled right from Hartigan’s own life — is in the final film.
“It’s From My Own Life”
“When I was 12, I really wrote the lyrics, ‘Fucking all the bitches, two at a time. All you can take for just $10.99,'” Hartigan said, referring to a particularly memorable scene in the film. “I really got squirted in the pants with a squirt gun when I thought I was getting a kiss from the girl I liked.”
The director has a great sense of humor about the whole thing — he’d have to, right? — and laughed when thinking back on the painful memories from his own teenage years that helped shape the final film.
“Basically, if there’s anything in the movie that’s horrifically embarrassing, it’s from my own life.”
Although Hartigan loved the idea of making a coming-of-age story filled with his own stories and experiences, he recognized the freedom afforded to him by packaging them in a feel-good film with its own unique leading men. Robinson’s character, well-meaning widower Curtis, was born from just that. Young Hartigan also penned his own expletive-laden rap lyrics, but when Morris does the same thing in “Morris From America,” the fallout is quite different (and a whole lot funnier), as Curtis actually takes him to task not for writing his rap, but for writing a bad rap.
“My teacher found it in my notebook, gave it to my mom, and I got in big trouble,” Hartigan said of his own lyric-writing experience. “That was the birth of Craig’s character, was me thinking of that story and realizing how stupid those lyrics are now and wondering, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I got in more trouble for how bad they are than anything else?’ Then I had to think, ‘Well, what kind of parent would that be?’ And that set me on the path to writing Curtis.”
That’s hardly the only similarity between Hartigan’s adolescence and Morris’ onscreen experiences.
Not Just Making an Autobiography
Hartigan’s parents hail from Ireland and the United States, but the filmmaker was born on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and lived there throughout his childhood. After conceiving of the bare bones of the film during his “Martin Bonner” shoot — a drama that premiered at Sundance in 2013 and follows a man as he tries to reintegrate into society after a prison sentence, it’s little wonder that Hartigan would want to find some levity during its production — Hartigan was also excited about the possibility of shooting on the Continent.
“The idea of making a film in Europe came to me,” Hartigan remembered. “I thought this could be the one, and just started building from my own life. But, at some point, I want to make sure that I’m not just making an autobiography, because who cares?”
Hartigan concedes that there’s plenty of “little Chad” in Morris, but he also believes that Christmas — who the director found thanks to a series of YouTube videos that showed off his remarkable charm and easy manner in front of the camera — brought his own flair to the role.
“It’s when you cast people that it really takes on a life of its own, I think,” he said.
That same thinking applies to Robinson’s work as Curtis, which earned him a Sundance Special Jury Prize back in January, when the film debuted at the annual festival. Hartigan wasn’t initially sold on Robinson for the part, but the actor — typically known for his comedic roles — offered up the one thing Hartigan couldn’t pass up: trust.
Taking a Chance
“I feel like we had to take a chance on each other,” Hartigan said. ” We just found each other at points in our careers where we were willing to take those leaps, and it’s paid off for both of us.”
For Robinson, it’s a calling-card role that he can continue to point to as evidence of his range. For Hartigan, it’s the unique satisfaction of having found the right actor for a challenging part and helping push him to new heights.
“He was so incredible to work with and nailed everything, because I think he really wanted to show that he had that in him and he had a serious side,” Hartigan said. “He turned down a Hollywood comedy that would have paid him much more money to do it. I felt a lot of responsibility for him and I’m very happy that it worked out.”
Despite his growing body of work — both “Morris” and “Martin Bonner” address questions of loneliness, growth and friendship through startlingly different tones and stories, proof positive of the range Hartigan himself possesses — the filmmaker isn’t too hung up on taking some sort of big step into blockbuster filmmaking. Plenty of other Sundance alumni have done it, from Jon Watts to Marc Webb to Colin Trevorrow, but Hartigan isn’t sweating it.
“It’s not really happening, and it’s probably because I’m not that interested in it,” Hartigan said when asked about the potential for him to jump to bigger fare. “I’ve had some meetings that are general, and it’s like, ‘Well, what kind of stuff are you interested in?’ If maybe I was like, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, I would love to do ‘Godzilla,’ it could be possible, but I don’t really want to do ‘Godzilla.'”
Still, he’s not entirely off the idea and, more than anything, he’s hopeful he’ll be able to tell his own stories in his own way.
“I’m a patient and optimistic person, and I think that there are movies to be made by me in Hollywood,” Hartigan said. “I’m willing to just try and find them. If I have to make one or two more indies to do that, that’s fine. I’m very used to being poor and being an indie filmmaker. I’m in no rush. I’ve never been in any rush to get to a certain place or level.”
Not too bad for an awkward kid from Cyprus.
“Morris From America” is in theaters and On Demand.