Monday, January 08, 2007

Exclusive Interview With David Hewlett

Late last year, MGM annoucned that they had picked up the worldwide rights to A Dog's Breakfast, David Hewlett's directorial debut. The project's many Stargate links created plenty of web buzz, as did Helwett's successful YouTube promotional campaign, but for me the most exciting element was that an actor I really liked was now starting out as a film director - and on the basis of the clips and trailer available to me, a very promising one. This was obviously a film I wanted to see, and support as much as film ick can.

David was kind enough to take part in a pretty lengthy e-mail interview, answering many of my questions about A Dog's Breakfast, as well as dipping into the other expected topics - including his work with Vincenzo Natali. David even offers up a little nugget of information about a new TV show that's going to have the Stargate fans reading this going crazy...

Enjoy. The questions from film ick are in a dark grey, David's answers in the red.

As a first time director, this is also necessarily the first time you've directed yourself. How did the two halves of yourself get along? Did the actor like the director, and vice versa?

The director me was a bit hard on the actor me. You see, I found it terribly disconcerting that I couldn't move exactly the way I'd planned it in my head and on paper. Unfortunately gravity and other laws of physics tend win out in the end.

The weirdest part of doing both the acting and the directing was that all the stress and strain and split focus went straight into the performance. There really didn't feel like there was much acting to do!

The great part about directing yourself is time. That can be very valuable on a low budget shoot. Things tend to happen much faster than when you actually have to explain to everyone involved what is going on. Given the 14 day schedule and extremely limited funds, we just had to hit the ground running every day. It is amazing how every second counts on set. I've always known that to be the case, but it's quite another thing when it's your time and your money!

Directing is really about managing people and time. Jane was the biggest help in both of those areas. I felt pretty good about the visual side of things. Because I'd written the film purely to shoot it I had a lot of shots and blocking already in mind. I just wish that I'd been able to relax a bit more. I think I could have been a much better director if I wasn't quite so tense, quite so terrified... that said I didn't know what to expect, so I was questioning my abilities in every regard, even the acting! Now that I've done it and I know what to expect I think I'm better prepared to actually enjoy the process next time! I think that I'll give myself a little less acting to do next time, that way I'll get to focus purely on the directing without having to worry about my performance and all those pesky lines and make-up and acting stuff!

The online stories seem to go that A Dog's Breakfast was made on 'days off' when shooting Stargate Atlantis. Is this really how it happened?

Not exactly. We did shoot the Starcrossed portions of the film during the Atlantis season, but that just made sense logistically. Stargate was very kind to let us use their sets and the crew gave up one of their precious Saturdays. The actual main filming was shot in January, during the hiatus. We get almost 4 months off between seasons, and January is a bit of dry spell when it comes to film and TV shooting in Vancouver. It's also one of the wettest most unpleasant "dry" spells, so people don't exactly flock up here to shoot. By shooting when we did we were able to secure crew, cast and equipment that we would never have been able to get with our miniscule little budget any other time of the year.

Now, a cynic might say that you couldn't possibly have selected the best cast for the roles - it's too much of a coincidence that many of them also comprise a good part of the Stargate cast. How would you answer that cynic back?

Cynics, I spit at them and call them dog droppings!

Jane and I worked on three different scripts to get to "A Dog's Breakfast". I mean, I actually sat down and wrote three full length feature film scripts, including a gritty drama and a horror, before we decided on "Breakfast". Jane would read the scripts over and we'd go back and forth about how we could do each film with the limited budget and schedule. Eventually I just gave up writing a script and trying to fit it to our timeline and our budget and instead took an inventory of what we had available and wrote the script around that. I knew that Kate was a fantastic actor and I was determined to use her in the thing. There's not much chance of us getting cast as strangers given the many "Hewlettisms" that we share. The brother-sister side of things came from there. Paul and I were keen to work together, in fact I'd already written him a part in one of those previous scripts. We just put those characters together and went from there. Jane was the one who came up with the idea of the sister bringing the fiance home. The script was really just a riff on that idea.

I had originally wanted a really nerdy loser for the date in the film and it was a tiny one scene role. After the first draft Jane suggested Chris Judge and then we just howled about how funny it would be if he was to play a loser who resorts to cheap internet dating websites to meet women. We just thought it was the funniest thing. When we did the reading he blew us all away. I sat down that night and wrote him two more scenes, he is a comedy God! It was also important to us that we give the fans something that they could have fun with, a little nod to all those people who had kept the world of Stargate alive all of these years. Poor Rachel got stuck as another sci-fi alien, but she was just so funny, her delivery is so dry and heartfelt. You really can't lose with that combination of looks and talent! I'm dying to write her something a little different.

Is that wretched cynic mollified yet!?

And of course, the same cynic would have a question about nepotism too. How would you address that?

What can I say, the Hewlett's work cheap! It's under "special skills" on our resumes.

The trailer went over VERY well on YouTube. What do you make of YouTube... I'm trying to use it currently to promote a music video and I wish it had some kind of hit tracker so I could see how visitors were being referred and where from. What doesn't it do you'd like it to?

The key advantage that YouTube has over other video sharing websites right now is audience. The sheer volume of people uploading and viewing clips is staggering. They are also media darlings, so their influence has moved into mainstream press as well. For us, it was a cheap and easy way to post clips and the trailer and get a sense of how people responded to what we were doing. We had 20,000 hits in less than a week when we put up that Comicon sneak peek! We're now looking at a combined viewing number of something like over 150,000! It's hard to get that kind of traffic on your own! The nice thing about YouTube's popularity is that those numbers mean something to distributors. They know how hard it is to stand out in the sea of content out there and they take notice of that kind of thing. If it wasn't a known site, people wouldn't value those viewing numbers. That said, you still need to let people know that it's there. That needs to be done both on and off the web!

My only real complaint about YouTube would be the content. It's so hard to actually stumble across something of any quality. Most of the clips that interest me tend to be taken from traditional TV and the majority of those are copyright infringements anyway!

The camera in the Dog's Breakfast trailer is very fluid, and inobtrusive - very rare for a film by a first-time director. Very assured. But you seem to have a way with it - I was very impressed. What is your approach to camera, to compositions, tracking and so on?

Thank you! I was actually quite surprised to find out how much I loved the camera side of things! I am a big fan of the old style comedies going right back to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I also love those talky Howard Hawks films and the original Pink Panther, Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards, the way they used sound and things happening off camera, I would just wet myself watching that over and over again. Slightly more recently, Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda and Withnail and I. From them I got a sense that comedy works better in the wide shot. Effectively the camera is telling the joke, so if you waggle it about too much and draw too much attention to it you're not going to "hear" the punch line! That said, there were definitely times when the camera position WAS the punch line. The key for me was not having to worry about the "technical" side of things and just concentrate on telling the story. The only reason I could afford to do that was because I had so much support up there by the camera. Jane watched every take and was my eyes and ears during the whole shoot. And Jim Menard! He was our director of photography and was incredibly fast and smart and a pain in the ass! He questions everything! He will find any logic hole, and force you to defend every decision you make, but once you do, he's the most loyal and dedicated DOP and friend you could hope to have. That was hard for me at first, but then you realize that he's not questioning you, he just wants to make sure that it works and makes sense and makes you laugh. He saved me every day with how quickly he could light and turn around each scene and still make them look beautiful. He was also responsible for adding some really funny touches to the film. I really admire Jim's work and his attitude to things and I am honored to be a friend of his. I want Jim on everything I ever do, poor man! The other angel was Will Waring, who is a great director in his own right. He was like having a film school sitting behind the camera. He was the camera operator when he could easily have been directing the film and yet every day he was incredibly patient and giving. I'd get confused about something and he would tirelessly explain and demonstrate with the camera until I had it straight in my head. Those guys are real artists and there's a very good reason why they work as much as they do and why they are such a valuable part of the Stargate crew.

Your chemistry with Paul McGillion is well noted. How can we look forward to this being exploited in the film?

There is nothing I enjoy more than making McGillion's life misery, this was the perfect venue for that! As I said earlier, I was determined to write him into this thing in some way shape or form and so I really went out there with the role(s). I had so much fun turning him into my own Peter Sellers! There's nothing like exploiting McGillion, it would have been great, even if we didn't have tape in the camera!

I loved your work with Vincenzo Natali - actually, if I was gonna fault Cypher, the first thing that'd come to mind would be that you were not as up front. Nothing in particular was a real crowd pleaser when I gathered folks around my DVD... any more work with Vincenzo on the cards?

Vincenzo and I got into this business working together and I think, chances are we'll be going out the same way. He's got so many projects in the works that I can't keep track of them all. The thing about Vincenzo is that he doesn't even ask anymore if I want to be in these things, he just tells me where to be and what to say! I can't wait to do it again, he's poised to be the next Kubrick and I want to be riding those coat tails!

And, regarding Nothing, I had to import my disc from Canada. No hope for a UK release?

Good question! Unfortunately I'm not the person to ask ;-)

An imdb post suggests that A Dog's Breakfast is most likely suitable for family viewing. Was this intentional? Did you set out to make a family film? (And I mean, in the Pixar sense of the word, not Ordinary People)

Very much so! I've written all sorts of horrible violent stuff that I'd love to make at some point, but I avoided all of that with this film. I wouldn't even let anyone say "damn"! This was a movie that was meant to get a laugh out of our dads... once we've accomplished that, everything else is gravy!

What's next for you as a writer and director? Do you have a screenplay in the works? Anything you'd like to plug?

We've got a number of things in the works, we've got a few scripts written and a few more in the works. I think the focus is on getting another fun low budget horror comedy out there, this time with the focus on horror. There's also a TV project that the Stargate fans are going to get a huge kick out of. Look for that to be announced any day now!

Your speed reading is legendary and seeing as this is an e-mail interview and I can't test that, how about a bit of speed typing? You can say WHATVER YOU WANT and I'll post it verbatim, but you only have 30 seconds to type it. No cheating!

I taught myself to type with my first laptop (it was the size of a house). I didn't allow myself to buy any software until I'd figured out DR DOS and learnt to type with using this space invaders game that rained letters down at you. You zapped them by hitting the corresponding letter...Spare me the carpal tunnel would ya!?

Done? Good. Next question... When was the MGM deal done? What's the release plan?

The MGM deal came through just before the L.A. screening November 16th. They've got a number of ideas as to what to do with the film. Right now they've got a photo shoot scheduled that will be used to get some key art for the poster and the press. I'm also hoping to do a bit of interviewing as well!

Who is the Dog? Yours?

Mars the wonder dog! We found him at the pound, rather he found us! We went to walk dogs and feel good about ourselves by helping out at the local animal shelter. This wretched creature came bounding out of the fog, dragging some poor volunteer behind him. He ran straight up to me and sat on my feet. He then proceeded to ignore me, it's hard to move with 60 pounds of mutt on your wellingtons! He was scheduled to be destroyed that week. Nobody wanted him because he'd been diagnosed with crippling Hip Dysplasia. We were warned that he probably wouldn't be around for long and that we were really just looking after him until he had to be put down. No more than 10 minute walks, no stairs, he was a mess! After a couple of days at home we caught him bouncing around and jumping up to say Hi. We took him in for a second opinion and it turned out he was just a strange combination of rottweiller, terrier and corgi (that must have been one hell of a party!). Now he's the star of a movie, a real rags to riches tail!

Simply put - Families: Discuss.

You can't choose your relatives, turns out I couldn't have picked a better bunch if I'd tried.

Spent a good Christmas week with the whole Hewlett clan, Mum lives in Italy so we'll see her when we go to England this month. Babies everywhere, that's all I really remember! That and sneaking an engagement ring into the old sock Jane had for a stocking... I figured that being as Grinch-like as I am and professing such distaste for the idea of marriage, it would be a surprise for her... it was.

I can't wait to see the film. Any clues as to how we might get to a screening on this side of the Atlantic would be greatly appreciated.

We're trying to get a screening of "A Dog's Breakfast" sorted out in London for February 1st...hope to see you all there where you can see me teetering around with a couple of pints on a soapbox live!

Watch this space for further updates. And thanks once more to David Hewlett for taking the time, and for making it so interesting, I didn't want to cut it at all.


Trishkafibble said...

Thanks so much--that was a great interview! Plenty there that I hadn't heard David's views on before, and yes, now I'm just busting with anticipation of all these upcoming DH projects!!

Thanks again!

Brendon said...

No trouble, Trish. I'm going ot do my best to cover A Dog's Breakfast on the site, so if you subscribe to the daily e-mail, there'll be lots more coming your way.