Interview: The Seventh Spectrum Writer/Director Chris Hartwell Talks ‘Prism of Love’ and ‘Mirror’
Anthony Parisi | On Jan 07, 2014
In addition to being the Online Editor of the Cinema & New Media Arts, I also collaborate with program director Joshua Sikora and his independent film company, New Renaissance Pictures. Last year we began releasing an anthology of short films online at Hulu and our website. I was the editor on each of the films along with being an executive producer, cinematographer, and director on select entries.
The series, entitled The Seventh Spectrum, imagines a universe made up of different “spectrums” of reality. The short films within the series chronicle mysterious events that occur when elements or creatures from other spectrums of reality intrude on our normal world. As an anthology, each film explores this concept from a different angle and the stories come to life through a variety of tones and genres. Some of the stories are light and full of humor, while others venture into darker, more suspenseful territory.
In this ongoing feature, I conduct interviews with key filmmakers from the series. Last time I spoke with screenwriter David Halberstadt. The following is my talk with Chris Hartwell, who wrote and directed the films “Prism of Love” and “Mirror”.
How did you come up with the idea for Prism of Love? Where did that film start?
The initial idea came out of having conversations with friends who were married or dating someone. We would talk about falling in love and they would say that while they could identify certain reasons why they fell in love (similarities, interests, etc), they all said that there was something indescribable about why they were drawn to this other person. I thought that was interesting and I started thinking about what could be a fun, whimsical take on that idea as to why people are drawn to one another.
That was the beginning of it. But I as I was thinking through a narrative I became more interested in what sustains a relationship rather than what starts it. I get annoyed by romantic films that only deal with that first chapter of relationship story that will ultimately include ten or twenty chapters! Many films cover that initial chemistry and what brings two people together but often that’s where the story ends. I didn’t want to make that. I wanted to explore something with more of a rounded, realistic viewpoint about how relationships are sustained over time.
Right. So even though this film ends in a wedding you wanted to cover that full spectrum of a relationship through conflict, disappointment, etc.
Yeah, even though this short can’t cover their entire life, I wanted the second half of the film to show that the dynamic you’re seeing in their dating relationship will continue. At the end, it’s not like everything will now be perfect and blissful. They will continue to have their ups and downs. But now we’ve explored what will sustain it on a deeper level. The film leads us forward from the initial chemistry and becomes about commitment and grace.
Why were you interested in making this a silent film? The film is scored with music but aside from that you chose not to use dialogue or sound effects.
Partially that comes from my love of silent films and partially I just wanted to challenge myself as a filmmaker. A trap I can fall into is saying things verse showings things which is especially unfortunate in cinema because it’s a visual medium. I wanted to challenge myself to focus on visual storytelling.
It also seems to lend itself to your style which isn’t naturalistic.
Yeah, exactly. Buster Keaton is one of my biggest silent film inspirations. In a similar way, my style tends to come out of caricature and I usually like heightened acting with strong body language. That’s just how I like performing and I gravitate toward that style naturally. And it’s really rewarding to hear people connect with it in a genuine way even though in the performances and tone there’s an intentional whimsy.
A lot of those Keaton films were also based on romantic plots.
Yeah, having seen all of his short films now… 99% of them are about “getting the girl” as the main story through-line. They just have varying obstacles: in-laws, long distance, money. It’s a recurring theme. But Keaton is a prime example of someone who can communicate perfectly using only facial expressions and his body language. He used dialogue title cards but really didn’t need them.
A major component of the film became the music. How did you approach that?
You’ve worked with him before so it’s no secret: having Brian Lemos as a composer is awesome. Awesome! I had sent some temp music to him which was very eclectic in style. Essentially what I told him is that I wanted the film to be unified by a few common melodies but be as eclectic as possible in the way those melodies are presented. He did that in spades. We’ve got some blues, some mariachi music, some jazz… which is huge because with this the music really becomes that dialogue. Brian kept the sound surprising and fun and it turned out fantastic.
We’ve both worked in many small crew situations but this was the smallest one to date. It was just me, you, and Brytni! It was made for less than $500. Do you like working that small?
I love, love, love working with this size of a crew. I’m kind of an introvert during the creative process and it’s hard and daunting for me to bring a large number of people into that headspace. Another really important thing for me on set is speed. Being able to shoot more quickly really helps me stay in the moment and feel the right pace and energy. Shooting faster helps keep everything moving and stay connected instead of becoming segmented.
You can be so much more flexible when you’re not having to deal with major transportation times, moving around huge amounts of equipment, packing a grip truck, etc. You can wrap a scene and in minutes be onto the next location. It also lets you be more incognito and pull of guerilla-style shooting. Because we were just filming on a small DSLR we were able to film at places we wouldn’t have been able to get into with a large crew. For the financial place I’m at right now, that’s a huge advantage.
Now let’s talk about Mirror. It’s such a different kind of film than Prism of Love. Was that an intentional change? Did you want to do something very different as a goal? Where did this story originate?
I tend to be rather eclectic in my tastes. I have so many random story nuggets bouncing around in my head and they’re all very different. Initially it was another doppleganger kind of concept like Prism of Love but it played out very differently.
The idea came to me one day just looking at myself in the mirror and thinking how creepy it would be if my reflection were to move apart from me. That visual seemed interesting to me and got me thinking about what could be done with that.
That screenplay went through quite the evolution. I went through numerous drafts as I corresponded with you and Josh. It was funny because each time I turned in a draft the part I had casually thrown in there was what you guys liked more than the visual center I had been pursuing initially. Originally the conflict of the film was going to be this “evil Peter”, this guy inside the mirror who would actually get out of bed, break the glass, and physically confront the “real” Peter. It was the same idea of this Ben character from the outside coming in to save him but it played out in a more overt, physical way rather than the spiritual, emotional angle we went with ultimately.
Each time I re-wrote the dialogue I went deeper into myself and kept inserting things from my own personal life. It’s really a hard look at what I might look like if I were to let key vices reign in my own life. I started thinking about how being alone with yourself is the last thing you’d really want in the end. A deathbed context led to verbalizing these ideas in a naturalistic way. In a way, this older Peter character is what I would become if I were left alone with my selfishness.
Did you write the part for Leonard Kelly-Young? What do you enjoy about working with him and Jeremy Hoffman?
Yeah, in 2012 I had worked with Leonard on a project that didn’t end up coming to fruition, but I had an awesome time working with him. I really wanted to cast him in something again. What I really love about him is that he’s equally as engaged about what I’m trying to do as I am. He’s so inquisitive and thoughtful about every aspect. Especially for a film like Mirror where I’d spent so much time walking through it emotionally it was really exciting to have him be just as invested. He really wanted to experience it in a genuine way. It was wonderful in the rehearsal process and on set.
Jer had the really hard job of largely reacting rather than speaking but he pulled it off so well. It was great that Jer and Leonard both have comedic experience that they could bring to the table. We ended up improvising some of the beginning moments to bring in some levity and they were just great together.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a feature-length screenplay where I’m actually trying to marry the styles of Mirror and Prism of Love. The script has a few sections that are very dialogue heavy but the rest will be very visually sculpted. I’m kind of taking my favorite elements from both of those films and putting them together.
Anthony Parisi (@AnthonyParisi) is an independent filmmaker, photographer, and writer. For many years he has collaborated with New Renaissance Pictures to create a variety of web series, feature films, and television series. He also has a prolific background in documentaries, contributing to many National Park films seen across the country. As an artist and storyteller, he is deeply passionate about the visual arts and new possibilities for cinema in the digital age. Visit him online at www.anthonyparisifilm.com