Chad Hartigan on the personal layers and professional rewards of 'This is Martin Bonner'

Posted by · 4:50 pm · August 16th, 2013

EDINBURGH – As we sit down in the appealingly tatty coffee shop of Edinburgh’s Filmhouse – the stone-built base camp of the city’s venerable film festival – Chad Hartigan admits feeling pleasantly bemused at being interviewed for In Contention. As well he might do. It’s not that long ago that Hartigan’s name appeared in bylines rather than headlines on this site – one of several where he plied his trade as a box office analyst for five years, while laying the foundations of an independent filmmaking career. 

I’m half-tempted to ask Hartigan for a projected gross for his own film; after all, it’s not every scrappy indie writer-director who can boast such cool-headed commercial instincts, even (or perhaps especially) with regard to blockbusters fare a million miles from their own. “A lot of people wonder if all that work has given me some kind of like secret code,” he says, with a dry laugh. “Like I could make the failsafe blockbuster. After five years, I still don’t know what exact science makes a hit. But I do know that ‘This is Martin Bonner’ is not it.”

He’s being both modest and entirely honest: “This is Martin Bonner” is Hartigan’s second feature film, and you’d struggle to make a more thorough counterpoint to everything that contemporary studio cinema seems to stand for. A gentle but clear-eyed character drama predicated on unfashionable notions of faith, charity and humble human goodness, its title character is a lonely, middle-aged Australian expat, recently relocated to Reno, who finds purpose and companionship as a volunteer for a prison rehabilitation program.

Its narrative is one of small, significant gestures rather than dramatic incidents; the friendship that develops between Martin (Paul Eenhoorn) and weatherbeaten ex-con Travis (Richmond Arquette) surprises mainly through its lack of typical conflict. It’s that unassuming but confident serenity, its unsentimental but unusually positive human oulook, that made “This is Martin Bonner” stand out against conceptually flashier rivals when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning an audience award an initiating an international festival run – Edinburgh, where we meet in June, marked the start of its European leg – that has exceeded Hartigan’s wildest initial expectations for the project. Ditto a slow-burning theatrical release in the US that today reaches full fruition, with the film hitting theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

“It’s just been a dream,” says Hartigan, not a man given to gushing. And even without theatrical distribution, the film’s festival reception would still have floored him. “That’s something I aspired to more than any theatrical success. I felt, for this movie, dreaming about theatrical success would be a fool’s errand. But dreaming of festival success was attainable.”

Still, he wasn’t expecting the endorsement of the flagship festival for independent film. “Sundance absolutely made this movie. I don’t think it would be here if it didn’t get into Sundance. I feel like it could very easily have fallen through the cracks and nobody would have played it. It really needed somebody to stand up for it and say, ‘This is worth some attention.’”

Hartigan knows from experience how hard it is for films like his to get that attention. His 2008 feature debut “Luke and Brie Are on a First Date” – made while he was still on box-office patrol – was a smart, spiky romantic comedy of sorts, expressly based on one of his past relationships, that played some smaller festivals, but never found US distribution. Its greatest, and unlikeliest, success was spawning a faithful Argentinian remake after appearing in a festival there, a progression that Hartigan describes as “surreal but cool”: “It contains lines that were verbatim from that movie, which in turn were verbatim from my real-life date. They don’t really belong to my personal memory anymore. It’s kind of like a distant memory that has been usurped by the movie.”

While not as directly autobiographical as his debut, “This is Martin Bonner” is nonetheless a highly personal work for Hartigan, inspired as it is by the experiences of his Irish-born father Gerry. Like Martin, Gerry had to relocate and rebuild his life as a divorced man in his mid-fifties; a former Christian missionary, he also found work in a similar non-profit program.

“I started to think about what he was going to do all day; how he was going to spend this time, if he was going to try and make new friends,” Hartigan explains. “And then I started to think about how I couldn’t think of any films about people of that age trying to make new friends. So that seemed exciting. Anytime I think of an idea that I can’t immediately assign to a bunch of other films, I think maybe I should work on that idea. So I did.”

Hartigan himself can relate to that feeling of placelessness: his parents were both missionaries, meaning he spent the bulk of his childhood in Cyprus, before moving to the States at the age of 12. “I wrote the character and I wanted him to be foreign. I feel like it subconsciously immediately lends itself to an observer’s point of view, which I feel was right for that character.” Does he feel foreign himself? “Everyone assumes I’m an American, but I still feel like Europe is home. The first year in America was the roughest year of my life. I mean, it didn’t help that the seventh grade is already the worst year of anyone’s life.”

Hartigan’s upbringing factored into the film in other ways, though. “I deliberately set out to capture the religious environment that I was brought up in with a sort of respect. By high school, I already knew that I wasn’t that religious, but I respect my parents and the way they raised me. When I started writing the film, it was just about Martin acclimating to a new life. But the more I heard about the program my dad worked in, and the more I wanted to incorporate a character in it, I realized I’d have to either ignore or embrace the fact that it’s a faith-based program. So I embraced it, and accepted the challenge of trying to include those elements in a way that was different from most movies.”

Hartigan has heard others describe “This is Martin Bonner” as a Christian film; he doesn’t agree with that categorization, but doesn’t object to it either. “I didn’t set out to make a Christian movie, but anybody can claim it for what they want it to be now that it’s done,” he says. “Faith is a really rich topic for a film and it should be explored more. But it’s so loaded a theme that nobody really wants to. So when it’s done with some level of nuance, people respond to that.”

Hartigan can’t imagine making a film without the degree of personal reflection present in his first two features. “I don’t know how I would sit down and write a fantasy movie,” he admits. “It has to start with some kind of situation that I know well. And then I try and mask it with as many elements that are different to myself as I can. I’m trying to move away from that a little bit more. The next movie I hope might have some more fantastical elements, but it has to start autobiographical. There’s nothing off-limits from my life. Actually the next movie has probably one of my most embarrassing moments in my life.”

The next film of which he speaks will be set in Germany – “hopefully,” he qualifies – and focuses on a 12-year-old falling in love for the first time, so it’s easy to imagine where that moment of embarrassment might stem from. Hartigan describes it as another character-driven drama, though he’s looking to branch out stylistically: “I want it to feel kind of light and floaty, with lots of Steadicam,” he says.

Can he see himself making a more commercial film at some stage? “I’m interested in making a movie that lots of people will see, yes,” he says. “But there are so few that are made by Hollywood that interest me at all. And it’s difficult for me to see myself making anything on the terms that exist now. But it’s not impossible. I didn’t love the movie, but I’m glad ‘Argo’ won Best Picture, because I think at least they’ll try a few other things in a similar vein. I wouldn’t mind doing something like that.”

A keen soccer enthusiast, Hartigan describes his dream commercial project as being an “All the President’s Men”-style thriller about match-fixing scandals in the World Cup. It’s a long way from the world of “This is Martin Bonner,” but he cites David Gordon Green – an earlier graduate of Hartigan’s alma mater, the North Carolina School of the Arts – as an example of someone unafraid to subvert expectations.

Indeed, Hartigan mentions Green’s acclaimed 2000 debut “George Washington” as a film that was held up as a kind of aesthetic model to Hartigan and his fellow North Carolina students, who included Aaron Katz and Zach Clark. “It’s the kind of artistic, strange, regional film that we were all encouraged to strive for. It’s a very interesting movie. But being away from everything in this tiny town in North Carolina, you kind of have no choice but to kind of develop your own style, do your own things.”

That post-graduate discovery process, of course, led Hartigan straight to Los Angeles and, eventually, into the unlikely sideroad of box-office analysis – via a Craigslist ad. “I did what film school sort of teaches you to do: get a job as a PA and work your way up in the industry. But I hated being a PA. I hate working on sets if I’m not in a creative position. So I very quickly figured out that that’s not going to be my route.

“I loved the box office stuff for a while because it was interesting. It’s fun, and it’s not hard. But all these companies were started before the internet, letting you know information which is now readily available. So there’s another reason why I couldn’t stay there forever. I worked there for five years until I quit. By the end of it, though, I was so burnt out from the depressing box office figures that every Monday kind of bummed me out.”

He tries, however, to keep his inner industry analyst separate from his identity as a filmmaker. “It would be detrimental to the products if I thought about the practical sides of things too early. I try to, as much as I can, make the movie only for me. Once it’s near completion, then I start to worry about how it will be received, how to get it best received. It takes so long to make a film that by the time it’s out, that bit of zeitgeist has moved on and nobody cares about whatever you thought people cared about.”

For now, he’s happy to see “This is Martin Bonner” playing to theatrical audiences at all. “I think this is probably my last chance to ever have a movie play in a theater, unless I make a huge movie,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have been predicting for a while now that there’s just no place for small movies in theaters in the very near future, unless something radically different comes along. I’ll happily embrace VOD. So be it. But I did want to try and sneak this one in.”

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