A Conversation w/ Elijah Hasan
The following email conversation took place in the Fall of 2014, upon the acquisition of ALL CAPS (2014) by Elijah Hasan for active Video Out distribution. This work will be shown as part of a Recent Acquisitions Screening at the centre in February of 2015.
Production still from ALL CAPS (2014).
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: ALL CAPS shares the careful attention to audio/visual detail and cinematic craft that’s in all of your work with Video Out. It did strike me though as a departure from your last work in distribution, Lying Awake (2012), in terms of storytelling. Lying Awake engages us with so much by showing and not telling (stuff about childhood, time and urban space, African American experience, colonial history and the present, and so much more). ALL CAPS seems to have a more specific, topical focus concerning communication, intimacy and technology. Was it a challenge to shift into a dialogue oriented narrative structure? How might ALL CAPS be related to your previous work?
Elijah Hasan: The challenge for me wasn’t so much the structural shift. Like my previous work, communicating my vision to the actors and being aware enough to know whether or not the goods are being delivered is always the heavy lifting for me. It’s true that this is a departure stylistically from my previous short films. However, I think in looking at, let’s say the six short films I’ve written and directed since 2009, I’d say that while they’re all essentially silent films, still each one has a distinguishing stylistic trait. Looking forward, my intention is to continue to tackle a bit more on each project as I inch my way toward producing some of the larger scale, more sophisticated works I’ve written. The majority of which happen to possess more of that dialogue oriented narrative structure you pointed out. Though it appears stylistically different, in reality I approached ALL CAPS the same way as I approached Laying Awake, BeSide MySelf, and even COINED. Like the others, the vision came and the film followed. That pretty much sums up my filmmaking formula. Without the vision I don’t know how I’d see a project through. Not to knock artists who actually set out to make an experimental, narrative or whatever style film before they actually have a story, if that works for you, do it.
If there is a common thread between ALL CAPS and my previous work, I’d say that in one way or another they speak to the human condition. I think that one of the things ALL CAPS does well is demonstrate the duality of our contemporary relationship with the smartphone. How is it that a device that in so many ways brings us closer together, also numbs us to our human condition? Things like eye contact, hearing someone’s voice in the hallway, seeing their lips move and of course body language are all examples of what gets lost in translation by these devices.
VO: Yes — the actors seem so integral to your works. There’s a consistent naturalism in the performances that reminds me of John Cassevetes’ films. It really works for the subject or focus of ALL CAPS that you’ve described. Do you have a sense of the people you’ll need as you’re developing your ideas? Do you have a pool of like-minded friends, colleagues and supporters to draw from? Do you do calls? I’m also wondering if your actors ever get involved with the writing or editing process?
EH: I’m not sure I have a formula for selecting actors. Often, as in the case of BeSide Myself (2012) and Laying Awake (2012) I’ll have my mind set on the actor I want early on. For example in the mid summer of 2011 I was walking in downtown Portland where I now live, just leaving a food cart. I passed by a young woman and as we glanced at each other, I was impacted by what I saw on her face in a way that’s hard to explain. Something about her seemed familiar, but there was also something else. In that brief moment in passing I connected with her and came away with something. It was not a physical attraction or anything carnal. Moments later after passing her I realized that she was the girlfriend of an actor I’d worked with on the film COINED (2011). I recalled her showing up with him on a couple location shoots. As realized who she was and recounted the look in her eyes, I went home that very evening and wrote BeSide MySelf. From the moment I began to write the film I envisioned her playing the main role. The problem was I didn’t know how to contact her, and the actor I’d knew her through from my film had changed his contact info. Fast forward two months later. The actor calls me out of the blue and of course I excitedly tell him about the script I’d written including how I’d got the inspiration from the look of pain I’d seen in his girlfriends eyes that day. The phone got quiet momentarily. He responded “Man, you’re prophetic, I’m sitting at the MAX (Metro Area Express) station with my bags just having left her place for good”. Shortly after we met and talked about the script and a possible role for him. He was all for it. When I told him who I had in mind for the main character, he was doubtful she’d agree to play the role. I insisted and got her phone number. I left a few messages and got no response. Another month goes by, I’m on the bus downtown, look out the window and there she is. I jump off the bus and got her attention just as she’s boarding her bus to go home. In classic stalker fashion I follow her on to the bus and give her my pitch. She’s at least interested enough to meet with me so I can give her a hard copy of the script. We meet, I give her the script she takes it home and calls me back that same evening. She said she loves it. The rest is as they say is history. Mind you this young woman had no previous acting experience but I was stubbornly attached to the vision of her playing the role. When I think back to what I saw in her eyes it was somewhere in the area of love and pain, and that’s what I longed to film for that particular project. Most of the actors in my films are amateurs at best. Talent has not been the prerequisite. I’ve been more interested in the look and feel of an individual’s vibe. So far that’s worked pretty well for me. I think it’s worked because so far I’ve been a pretty good communicator of what I need and more importantly very aware when I’m not getting what the camera needs. For ALL CAPS I thought it was important to meet with both actors as a group and go through the script. But really those sessions happened so the actors could get a feel for each other and for me. As the writer I like to take the opportunity to share the motivations behind, as well as the implications of the piece. For best results I insist these sessions be casual and candid.
I do look forward to collaborating with other writers/actors on future projects. I’ve just yet to have had the opportunity to experience that. I’m working with a couple instructors on building curriculum around Coined, BeSide MySelf, Laying Awake, and ALL CAPS. Anyone who’d like to contribute to this effort I’d welcome with open arms.
As for the cut, I seldom have the opportunity to involve anyone else in the process as most of that work is done between Midnight and 4 a.m. Unless I’m doing a work for hire, I’m in way too much of a zone to be playing team ball when I’m in the cut. We’re talking deep concentration, and focus, and rhythm. With me it’s an essential flow to the cut and it’s important not to break that flow once I get in it. The other reason I may resist sharing the task of editing is that I don’t believe it’s a subjective process. In my mind, either the cut is working or it’s not.
VO: Speaking of reference, I do find it very hard to place or identify your output in relation to a particular history or approach to filmmaking, video art or independent new media work of some kind. It’s an aspect of what you do that really stands out to me and commands attention. Are you interested in breaking down or rejecting divisions or boundaries (expectations maybe?) around art and entertainment-oriented commercial forms and processes in your work? How do you identify what you do – or do you?
EH: Growing up I never aspired to be a filmmaker. Filmmaking is the culmination or evolution even, of me expressing myself as an artist. I was shooting 35mm film on an SLR and working in a darkroom at the age of nine. I was writing poetry before that. My mother told me repeatedly “you can get paid for that”, which was, in my mind, her way of saying that it was really good work. So I think in one way or the other I’ve always been an artist. Fortunately when I’m in any part of the process of creating I’m not thinking about things like style and approach. I’m an artist, a real artist. And I’m convinced that a real artist is just days away from the insane asylum. What keeps her or him outside those matted walls is their ability and the opportunity to express their vision in one medium or another. When I have a creative vision sometimes it’s so intense that I go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. I must write it out, or score it, or do what ever it is to get the idea out in order for it not to consume my being. All projects, I approach as an artist, and by that I mean I look for angles or perspectives that are appealing, that stand out to me, or the ideas that inspire me. I leave it to others to rate my work or describe it’s particular style. I think that this approach helps me retain a bit of sanity as I continue to survive in a Capitalist society as an artist. I have observed many artists of various disciplines succumb to the psychological pressures of including the idea of financial profit into their creativity. Most have traded their stool for a seat in the cubicle or are on that trajectory. Once you begin to think about money and profit the spiritual element of your creativity goes bye-bye. When I speak of spirituality, a lot of folks begin to shut down, as they don’t understand how the two can be connected. I’ve pondered this idea for sometime and truly believe that creativity at the highest levels is a pure spiritual experience. As an artist, when I’m in the midst of the creative process be it envisioning, writing, shooting, scoring or cutting, I’m connected with an energy and a consciousness that is apart from my physical appetites and urges to dominate and amass wealth and power. If I let those ideas creep into my creative consciousness, my creativity immediately becomes an agenda. I’ll roll up my yoga mat with this point here. I left my day job in 2007 with no prospects. I decided to leave because I was convinced it was literally killing me and after my doctor offered me psych drugs to, as he put it “take the edge off”, I went back and gave my notice. On paper the job was better than most, great benefits, profit sharing, 401K at a progressive and growing company. But all day at my workstation my mind was somewhere else. I was always jotting down ideas or recording rhythms and humming melodies into my smart phone. Looking back, I now know that was the artist in me. And though I had positioned myself to kill it by succumbing to the urges to simply make money and be a consumer, the artist in me fought to live. Sitting in the doctors office was the crossroads for me because “the edge” he spoke of was in fact my creative consciousness. I had a choice, and I chose my artist life. All the films we’ve referenced in this interview and other work I’ve created have been produced since that moment. I’m thankful to the Creator for providing me the courage to make that decision at that time. That’s not to say it hasn’t been a struggle. I mean hey, we (at least here in the States) live in Disney Land, meaning everything costs money, and you need money to live on just the basic level. So as an artist I’ve made many sacrifices and I work more hours a day now than when I had a day job. My life as an artist is stressful for sure but, it’s what I call good stress. I have fairly diverse skill set which means that I may find myself working as a Photographer, 3D Logo or Graphic Designer, or Animator all in the same week for different individuals. I also teach all of the above to middle and high school youth. Out of most of the media hustles I do on the side to supplement my existence as an artist, by far, teaching is the most rewarding. A good amount of my inspiration comes from the energy and interaction I get during our sessions.
As far as breaking down boundaries, if this is what I’m doing, it’s happening involuntarily. My intention is to get the work out there and move on to the next thing. I remember watching Clint Eastwood say in an interview that he made the movies he wanted to see. As a writer and director I agree with his statement 100%. I do enjoy watching films on the big screen, including blockbusters. I enjoy the whole experience, especially the popcorn, red vines and whatever other delicacies I managed to smuggle into the theatre. It seems however that the films for the most part coming out of Hollywood are predictable and disappointing. If I can watch three minutes of a film and predict where it’s going and how it ends, that makes me disappointed. My response is the usual rant to my wife, but It’d be insincere for me to say that it doesn’t affect my writing, at least in reference to my feature length scripts. If I’m writing and nearing the finish of a story and have yet to decide an ending, I resist including an ending that I’ve seen on the big (or any other) screen already. That’s a no-no on my short list of rules as a writer. If the alternative is contributing to these so called boundaries which seem to be perpetuating the regurgitative cycle of productions coming out of Hollywood, then that is a boundary that I would happily bulldoze and trample.
VO: How did you come across VIVO Media Arts Centre and Video Out and what do you think of the organization?
EH: I believe it was November 2010 during the Northwest Filmmaker’s Festival here in Portland. It was a good time for me. COINED (2010) was screening there and I had just won the Oregon Media Arts Fellowship which helped to fund the production of CYCHO (2012). I wanna say I met Sharon Bradley (who represented VIVO/Video Out at the time) at one of the conferences held during the festival. I gave her a reel containing Is That Me (2009) And COINED (2010). A couple months later I was signing the distribution contract. Since that time I’ve been fortunate to have my work screened in North America, Canada, and Europe — all as a result of VIVO submitting my work. This has by far been the most valuable benefit for me as an artist. Getting eyeballs on my work in parts of the world I have yet to visit has been paramount. This worldwide response to my work has added to my confidence as a fairly new filmmaker. It’s also broadened my gaze as an aspiring artist.
VO: Can you talk about some projects in development?
EH: Right now is a busy time. I’m continuing work on multiple fronts. In the interest of time I’ll talk about a few of the projects in front of me me right now. Right now I’m writing 2 films that are significantly larger productions than any of my previous works. Both are narratives, ‘A Gang of Time’ involves time travel and ‘Green Grass’ is about friendship, family, love and emotional illness in the 21st century. Both these stories are examples of issues and scenarios which have played on my mind pretty heavy and are both close to my heart in so many ways prompting me to write them.
You may be pleased to know that there are a couple of experimental shorts on the horizon as well. One of which, entitled ‘CUTE’, will be part still sequences and part motion film playing out on the screen at the same time. I’m excited about this one as it includes approaches in filmmaking that I have envisioned for this story but have yet to try.
VO: Thank you Elijah for your thoughtful responses. It’s been a pleasure and will surely serve as an informative compliment to the new work. We look forward to your next submission at Video Out.