Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.
Back in March, Script magazine conducted an interview with Hollywood-Danish actor Lukas Hassel about directing, writing, and acting in his own films. After wrapping up production this past July of his winning script at HollyShorts’ Screenplay Contest for the short, The Son, The Father…, we caught up with Lukas to get the ins and outs of winning and receiving a production deal and grant from HollyShorts Film Festival (HSFF).
The Son, The Father… will have a world premier on opening night of HSFF at the Chinese Theater Cinemas on August 10th with John Stamos’ project InGenue-ish; 11th Hour, starring Salma Hayek; Jamie Mayer’s Crowbar Smile; Without Grace with Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale); and Control by Kimmy Gatewood (of Netflix’s Glow). Then, Hassel’s short will hit the film festival circuit, where it has already been accepted into the Austin Revolution Film Festival, Horrorhound Film Festival and others.
Managing director at HollyShorts, Nicole Castro says HollyShorts is looking for, “originality, fresh ideas. The story has to pop and be something that our team would want to see produced and on screen at HollyShorts. With that, naturally, quality of screenwriting in a concise manner as it’s 20 pages max.”
This year, they found that in The Son, The Father…, a story about how the events on a young boy’s birthday have consequences far into the future for himself and his family.
This is our email interview with Hassel.
The perks of winning are obvious. What were some of the contest restrictions and challenges of winning HollyShorts?
When I won the screenplay competition at HollyShorts, I had to go back and read the small print… and what it actually entailed. It seems that by submitting, I had given HollyShorts the rights to produce the short screenplay if it won (obviously not something I was too concerned with originally as the odds of winning are tiny). Seemed odd to me though, to learn that I simply had to hand over a great script, and was like, “Hey, wait a minute?!” However, when I was put in touch with the production company in Seattle who sponsors the first prize – Evil Slave run by Ben Andrews – as in carries the cost of the production, I realized that the previous year’s winner had been able to direct his script. Hence, I sent the production company my previous sci-fi short film, Into the Dark, and pitched myself as the director of my winning script. They loved the sci-fi and agreed to let me direct.
So, what was the final deal?
Everything would be done out of Seattle. The production company was eager to show that Seattle brims with talent, and that they could take a script and see it through from beginning to end. The Seattle production company did all the preproduction – getting crew, finding locations, setting up casting sessions – all in careful collaboration with me in N.Y. I talked to the folks at Mighty Tripod who cast the film, suggested the pieces to use for auditions, and eventually Skyped in for the actor’s callbacks. I didn’t pick any of the crew, including postproduction team, but in hindsight, was incredibly supported by a top-notch crew from top to bottom.
What was your experience like?
It was a real learning curve for me to land four days before shooting in Seattle, rehearse with a cast that I had only just met face to face, check out locations with my DP, AD and set designer, and then basically shoot with a crew of 30 or so, none of which I knew.
Thankfully, Executive Producer Ben Andrews was amazing. Incredibly trusting and supportive throughout the entire process. Of course, I tried to stay on top of things as much as possible from N.Y., so that when I arrived, every angle had been covered and would have no surprises on set. I hit the ground running, and it worked out beautifully.
I caught up with Ben Andrews who said that all the stars aligned on this project. “Lukas was so clear and communicated [his vision] so well,” he said. How important is it for a director to never falter or second-guess themselves?
As a director, you have to have answers – to everything. It’s okay to pull your DP aside, or AD aside, and go: “I’m torn on this one. This is option A, and this is option B. Each with pro’s and con’s. What are your thoughts?” Surrounding yourself with great crew is key in those moments, but at the end of the day, you, as the director, have to make the calls and stay true to your original vision. It becomes important for the cast and crew to see a leader who is confident in his choices.
What makes winning HollyShorts different from other contests?
Getting a script produced by professionals and learning how they handled matters was a huge perk. Getting an understanding of how a large-ish production is assembled has been a very valuable bit of intel moving forward. Of course, another perk is the recognition I receive from having won such a big screenplay competition in HollyShorts – an Academy Award qualifying festival – validating my writing skills in the world of filmmaking.
Oscar qualified means the Grand Prize-winning short film gets automatically qualified for Academy consideration and the Academy recognizes the winning film. Managing Director at HollyShorts, Nicole Castro, explains: “Without it, filmmakers trying to get qualified have to apply and four wall their film at a first run movie theater and do so on their own budget out of pocket. This process strongly enhances a films chance to be nominated for an Academy Award.” How exciting is this for you now?
I try not to get ahead of myself. I’m well aware that there are some mega-budget excellent short films from around the world out there with movie stars etc., and it will be tough to gather enough attention with our film to get nominated. However, screening in such a prestigious festival is a huge honor in itself. An Oscar nomination would be the dream.
What was the experience of winning HollyShorts like?
I didn’t go to the festival in 2016. Someone posted a note on Facebook saying something like, “Darn it, I didn’t win this year, but good luck to Lukas Hassel with his script.” I was like, what is this person talking about? And I checked it out on Google. Later I received confirmation that I had indeed won, and I was put in touch with the Seattle gang. However, now that the film is done… I shall be going along with many of the production team from Seattle. It will be a nice celebration after a lot of hard work.
What happened next?
Well, we shot the film in three days. Everything went very well. My main concern was that in moments of insecurity, I’d turn into a tyrannical monster on set – I’m a control freak and very detail oriented – but was happy to learn I had prepped myself well. My daily morning mantra was: Be Pleasant, Be Present. And I was. Subsequently, the atmosphere on set was wonderful and everyone worked hard and with great focus. Extremely professional crew with tight shooting days.
The script won some horror screenwriting competitions and was a finalist at D.C. Shorts Film Festival, which included a full casting and reading session with an audience.
I was kind of surprised how well the script faired in various competitions, as it was a script I had written some seven years back, and put aside thinking it wouldn’t work. In fairness, I was somewhat right – at least in my mind – as the difficulties I had in post-production stemmed from the script. I always knew this script reads extremely well, but wouldn’t necessarily translate into a coherent movie.
I saw the film, I thought it was done really well.
It’s a personal thing. Mainly, I always felt the film lacked a strong point of view – as in, it would not be a script I’d write today. It’s a clever script, entertaining, but what does it really say? For me, I just always look for something more. Something that gives the film an extra layer of complexity. With this script, I tried to impose that point of view just before production. We’ll see if I have succeeded, once the film gets out there. Also, it’s a tough script with which to get a flow going. It is a staccato plot and then there’s a ten-year jump in time. This is easier to get away with in a feature length, where you can really earn such a time jump. In a short, it’s a lot to ask of an audience. Keep in mind, I’m always hypercritical of my own, as well as other’s work. Hopefully, it will hold up.
How is this experience different from your CineStory Fellowship or being a finalist at D.C. Shorts?
Hard to compare really. CineStory Fellowship was my first major breakthrough for myself. Really gave me a huge boost of confidence that I could actually write. Made amazing connections in the industry – top folks I could never have met otherwise – getting mentors as part of being the fellow. Producer Susan Cartsonis in particular was in incredible mentor and continue to be a “friendtor” to this day. Many of the people I share my early drafts with as writers I met at Cinestory. D.C Shorts was great due to the chance at casting the piece and hearing it out loud with an audience.
You’ve directed your own scripts before. But how has this experience made you a better screenwriter and/director? How has it plugged you into a wider net of professionals?
Directing Into the Dark taught me a lot. Especially how time is a luxury. Shooting that film in my own apartment allowed me to take my time. With The Son, the Father… and a crew of 30 or so, I had deadlines, time crunches and I had to be super prepared and with plan A, plan B, plan C ready to go. There was no winging it. I had to have an answer for everyone coming at me with wardrobe issues, the drone master wondering what to shoot, my AD needing me to choose lunch locations, my set designer running into an issue with the wall covering in the next scene and if I could come check it out, etc… In terms of plugging me into a wider net of professionals, I’ll let you know sometime next year after this film’s festival run. I will say this – having made one successful short film, Into the Dark, it feels great to be able to back it up with a new film, very different in scope and to show I’m serious about my craft as both a writer and director. Not a one-hit wonder, so to speak, a fear many of us have.
What were some of the challenges, both acting and directing this film? You’ve done it before. Any new challenges or ah-ha moments?
Discovered a huge challenge during The Son, the Father… I had not foreseen. On Into the Dark, I was on screen the whole time (pretty much) and so I knew what I had to deal with (me), and knew what I wanted out of myself. Cut to, Seattle on the set of The Son, the Father... and I’m in a scene with my “wife and son,” however, I don’t enter until half way through the scene. So, I’m standing there, listening to the actors in the other room, suddenly realizing – crap, I can’t see what they’re doing! And I’m trying to stay in character, as I’m about to enter as an actor, not a director. Hence, I had to watch playback, and direct the actors in hindsight, but even then, it was tricky, because playback is time consuming and what you don’t have is time. So, after a few takes, I had to trust my excellent AD and script supervisor and let it be. I thought, wow, for my first feature, where I also plan to act and direct my script, I will have to think this through properly.
Did you have to do any last minute rewrites?
Not rewrites, really, but cutting bits and pieces. A hallway scene we didn’t need. An adjustment of a VFX prop that didn’t materialize and simplification of the shot to save time. Nothing that ruined anything. Probably for the better, actually.
How long did it take you to complete, from the very start to finish?
Preproduction was three months, one week of rehearsing and shooting, and then a very fast postproduction over two months. We had a deadline for HollyShorts and so had to rush post a tiny bit more than I’d like in an ideal world. Thankfully, I was lucky to work with a lovely editor, Kaitlin Larson, who worked very hard with me to make it happen.
What was the extent of your involvement in this film beyond directing?
Super involved. In every detail, every decision. From how many buttons on the Mother’s pajamas to the color of the poster font to credits length, etc. Couldn’t see it happen any other way. If I’m involved in a project, whether as an actor or writer or director, I’m in 100%. Just the way I operate.
So HollyShorts gave you that option? (To be involved 100% or not involved?)
Yes, in a way. The production company would have found an in-house director to do it had I not pitched myself as the director backed up by Into the Dark. HollyShort or Evil Slave LLC could not have expected that the winning writer was also a director, or had any interest in directing, let alone feel comfortable leading a crew of 30.
How did you get the fly to debut in the opening scene? (For those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, keep the fly scene in mind).
The Seattle production team put me in touch with award-winning CGI artist, Ben Pohl, and he was incredible. I was ready to ditch my fly idea if it didn’t look right, and I was blown away by the quality of his work. A lesson, actually, for future productions and scripts, as to what is doable with CGI.
Did you get any film guidance?
I talked with a few people before shooting. Director and writer Jeremiah Kipp is my go-to colleague whom I completely trust. He kept me calm with some grounded advice before I flew to Seattle. My good friend Henry B. Lee who shot Into the Dark, helped me with advice on my storyboarding and time planning.
The acting was all great. What was the casting like for that?
Casting is always tricky. Made especially tricky due to doing it remotely via Skype. Casting director Angela Dimarco and David S. Hogan lined up a great roster of Seattle talent, and I got to pick the callbacks. Then, I Skyped in and could talk to the actors, give them adjustments and generally get a sense of who they were. Then, the casting directors would send me the tapes in low resolution files later, so I could see what they looked like on camera (couldn’t tell in Skype). I was lucky to find my young Luke, Lucas Oktay. I could tell straight away he was a real actor, able to listen, be present, and actually take my words and make them his own. Older Luke, Chris Morson, just nailed his audition. The mother was the hardest to cast but thankfully Colleen Carey decided to audition and she was just so professional, I knew we spoke the same language. Casting myself as the father was mainly to have one less actor to worry about. I knew what I wanted from the Father character, and that I could produce it. It was the easiest part of the filming. Experience helps, without the pressure of worrying if the director likes what I’m doing…
What were some of the great moments filming?
The very last shot we needed, without which we wouldn’t have a movie, was done under extreme stress. It was an SFX shot involving many moving parts. We decided to scratch the test shot for it, due to time constraints, and just went for it. No time for a rest if it didn’t work out, but thankfully it worked out beautifully and everyone applauded at the end. I was a very relieved director…
What inspired this short?
A friend of a friend entertained me with a story about his crazy mother over dinner that blew me away. I took one particular incident and went with it. Developed the rest of script from there. My point of view was to explore the notion, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Put little touches in the film, which probably no one but myself will notice, that is a direct reference to what happened with the recent election.
What attracts you to horror stories?
I’m attracted to super honest, pragmatic takes on life and death, the hard questions many people choose to avoid. Leaning in to the darkest corners of human insecurities or behaviors tend to skew as horror but really it’s drama at heart. Hence, my scripts take on multiple genres. Common for them all is a certain darkness.
How long did it take you to write?
I brought The Son, The Father... into my writing group, Present Tense, once. Got notes and did some rewrites. Then, put it aside for six years. Then rediscovered it, sent it a friend, who loved it and told me I had to submit it to competitions. I cleaned it up, with the knowledge I had gathered over the six years since I last read the script, and sent it out. To my surprise, it got a great response.
Who are some horror writers you admire?
I don’t have writers I follow particularly. I have specific scripts, which I find incredible – Alex Garland’s Sunshine, or Kubrick’s version of King’s The Shining.
Would you recommend this contest and why?
I’d fully recommend submitting to HollyShorts. Obviously, no can expect to win, let alone, end with a fully produced short film seven months later (from winning notice). But just the mere chance at getting what I got, is rare. Also, HollyShorts is a very highly respected film festival and with the subsequent film screening in L.A., it’s an added bonus. Now, how the actual festival and screening turns out, I will have to let you know in a few weeks.
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