Interview with Director Hunter Adams
I had a chat with fellow Wisconsin native turned L.A. filmmaker, Hunter Adams, about his new release, Dig Two Graves, which is available to watch on iTunes and at a theatre near you. His film is a suspenseful thriller that is summed up perfectly by its tagline. ‘A young girl’s obsession with her brother’s death leads her on a nightmarish journey where she is faced with a deadly proposition to bring him back.’ I was excited to speak to him and could have talked to him all night but administered some self-control and kept it short. Here is some of that chat:
Me: So you’re from Wisconsin, I see.
HA: Wisconsin has a long history of serial killers and great directors.
Me: (I resisted asking him if he were also a serial killer.) A lot of great actors, as well.
HA: Yeah. I’ve met a lot of crew out here in L.A. who are Wisconsinites.
From my experience, Wisconsin schools always encourage the arts and most Midwesterners are escaping the cold so this makes sense to me. Moving on, I asked him where his fairly unique and bizarre story came from.
HA: It started off as a simple story about a young girl who loses her brother and then makes a deal with the devil, by way of these three hillbillies. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to give them more of a concrete narrative… to be messing with the girl. They were originally drawn in the Shakespearean tradition (the witches from MacBeth) where you just weren’t quite sure how much supernatural power they had or if they were just being manipulative. I kinda wanted to walk that fine line. But in the final version, we do have an actual reason for messing with the girl.
Me: Where did you originally get your love of films?
HA: From my mother. She’s in my first film, The Hungry Bull.
Me: That’s a nice thing to be able to do. What does she think of this film?
HA: My mom passed away while I was writing the script so she didn’t get to see the final product, unfortunately.
Me: I’m sorry. She’s with you, though.
HA: She definitely influenced the film.
Me: Did you go to film school?
HA: I didn’t really have a film school education per se. Its been mostly a hodge-podge of classes and self-teaching and just watching as much as I can.
Me: How long does it take to get a film like this made from script to screen?
HA: We started in 2011 and we went through a program called IFP (Independent Feature Project) New York, which is a big non-profit program. So, we did their– we went to this film week in New York. We went to a script lab and after that, we made some connections that led us to some investors and we ultimately started shooting in 2013. It was about a year of editing afterward. We shot for four weeks in January in the dead of winter and we went back for a few days in the summer for the opening shots of the two kids in the quarry. And then the underwater sequences, which are at the end, we did that here in L.A.
Me: You clearly love both writing and directing, is there one you’d prefer over the other if you could choose only one?
HA: Directing. I like to have the control. I love being on set and the collaboration, working with actors… the whole process; post production, working with the sound team. All that stuff. And I love the technical side as much as I do the artistic side.
Me: Do you have a say in editing your projects?
HA: I edit a lot on my own for a living. That’s how I pay the bills. It’s something I’m heavily involved with but I had a good editor who worked with me on this one.
Me: I loved the tone, the color, and the overall feel that the landscape gave the film. Where was this shot?
HA: We shot it in an interesting part of the country called Little Egypt. It’s in southern Illinois. Everything there is Egyptian themed. Down there it isn’t flat and boring, it’s really wild and it has swamps and hills and cliffs and lots of slivers. It’s a really interesting place; a great backdrop for a supernatural setting. It’s about six hours south of Chicago.
Me: What was the most difficult thing to shoot in this production and what was the easiest?
HA: It’s sort of hard to narrow it down. There were so many difficult shots. So much of it was shot at night in very rural locations in the dead of winter and during one of the coldest winter spells on record in Illinois. That made everything pretty challenging; pretty grueling. But there were a couple of really technical things that were hard to achieve. There was a fire scene… and the underwater sequence was really hard both for the actors and for me because as the director, you’re giving over control to the underwater technicians and it’s a really slow process. That was really frustrating because I like to keep things moving. So, I have to say the fire and the water. They were the most technical and the hardest to pull off. I think the easiest were the scenes between the grandfather and granddaughter. They had such a natural chemistry together. There wasn’t really very much I had to do except just get out of their way and let them be great actors together. They’re the real heartbeat of the story. They’re the real emotional arc and I think that they both did a terrific job. That makes me look good and makes my job easier.
Me: Are you ever going to direct someone else’s work?
HA: It’s possible if the right script came along. There’s nothing in the works at the moment. I have a few projects that I’m developing but those are things that I’ve also written… but I definitely have my eyes and ears open. If something came along I would not be opposed.
Me: Tell me about your writing process.
HA: To me, because I’m writing, directing and am involved from the conception to completion, the writing process is pretty fluid and doesn’t just start and end on the page. That’s one part of the process. I also went down to southern Illinois, spent a couple of months down there… scouting locations and talking to locals and incorporating some of the folklore that I heard, into the screenplay. Some changes come when you’re on set and you’re with the actors and they’re bringing their instincts in, it continues to change. Then in post (production) we significantly re-shaped the storyline, as well. But when I’m specifically writing, I try and set hours, you know? I’ll get up at three in the morning and try and work; try to be as diligent as possible. I have to really be regimented or I won’t get anything done. I consider the writing process to be throughout the entire filmmaking process. I was making changes right up until the last day of the sound mix; cutting shots out. It’s an evolution, for sure.
Me: Congrats on doing such an amazing job of casting.
HA: We knew casting the girl was going to be the most important decision we made on the movie because it really rests on her shoulders and if the audience doesn’t take the journey with her than there really is no movie. So, we spent a long time looking for the right actress to play that part and pretty late in the process we had a tape in the mail from Sammy (Samantha Isler). She was living in Tulsa OK, had never been in a movie before and when we got the tape I knew, pretty much right away, that she was the one. She had great instincts, she was smart and understood the subtext… had a real intention behind the words which is pretty rare to see in someone of that age and still have that innocence, you know, that wide-eyed look that we needed. So, we got pretty lucky that we found her and a lot of the other cast were Chicago-based. We were trying to cast locally as much as possible because of the budget. So, we tapped into the local T.V. and theatre scene there and got some great actors and then Ted Levine was on our short list of actors we were looking at. Short because the actor had to be a pretty specific age because we age him up and down for the two time periods. And I’ve always loved his work. He’s played some pretty iconic roles, Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs being the most notorious, but I was excited to see him play a meaty role for a change. We gave him a chance to dig into a morally complex character. We got lucky with him. He’s a real method actor; he gets into the part… pretty obsessive about wardrobe and costuming and all that kind of stuff. It was an honor to work with him. I can’t even imagine another actor playing that role now.
Me: Tell me about your next project, Blue Palms.
HA: The guy that did the storyboards on Dig Two Graves is a cartoonist friend of mine and we concocted a graphic novel that’s best described as a demented version of Three’s Company. So, it’s kind of a wacky comedy about these eccentric artists living in a dilapidated apartment in Hollywood. And we’re getting ready to publish the first volume of that and try to spin that off into an animated comedy series. It’s very different in tone from Dig Two Graves but sometimes you gotta swing the opposite way and keep in interesting.
Me: Give me some words of wisdom for any budding filmmakers who may be reading this.
HA: If you want to be a filmmaker, it’s important to watch movies. To watch a lot of great movies; old movies and really understand the potential of the medium. I think, a lot of times with a first-time filmmaker, they can be a little bland in a cinematic sense. Sort of shot after shot of talking heads. They don’t utilize the full vocabulary of the medium. When you’re ready to make a movie, my advice is, it’s such a laborious, time-consuming process that you really have to make something that you’re passionate about, not something that you think is going to sell or be popular cuz chances are it’s not going to necessarily make millions of dollars. You’re going to be spending years of your life on this. You gotta invest your time in something you really believe in. And enjoy the process as much as the final product.
Me: How do indie filmmakers get their films seen?
HA: We played the festival circuit and then the last year or two had just been trying to figure out the wild, wild west of independent film distribution. We finally got that sorted out. It’s now releasing in theatres and on VOD. Its been a long journey. We’re doing an iTunes exclusive for the first four weeks and then it’ll be available on all VOD platforms; Amazon, Playstation… all of them. That’ll be April 21st. All VOD platforms. Just search Dig Two Graves right now on iTunes and it’ll pop up.
What are you waiting for?! You heard the man. Go check it out and watch this little gem. If you’re a horror fan and like a good indie film, this is a strong story with great characters that is filmed beautifully be someone who appreciates a good movie and wanted to create something for his audience to remember. Hunter Adams was a joy to talk to. I believe he’s a director to watch out for and a name you’ll hear more of in the future. Start now and don’t miss a thing he does.