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vol 7 - issue 04 (dec 2004) :: untapped
UNTAPPED TALENT: HUNTER ROBERTS
Interview by Vinnie Baggadonuts

NEITHER OF THESE GENTLEMEN ARE DIRECTOR HUNTER ROBERTS. ON THE LEFT IS ANDY PARKS, PORTRAYING OFFICER BYRON RANDAL. ON THE RIGHT? NIKITAS MENOTIADES, AS CULT FAVORITE DETECTIVE BLACK. BOTH ARE PIVOTAL CHARACTERS IN PLAYHOUSE, OUR INTERVIEW SUBJECT'S LATEST FILM, WHICH JUST GOT PICKED UP FOR INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION. VINNIE BAGGADONUTS SPENT AN HALF-HOUR CHATTING WITH THE MAN WHO MADE THIS CREATIVE MARK FROM BEHIND THE SAFETY OF A CAMERA LENS, ABOUT EVERYTHING FROM FILM FESTIVALS AND LIVING THE DREAM, TO THE UNDENIABLE CHARM OF THE "YINZER" ACCENT.

Vinnie Baggadonuts: Why donít you tell everybody what just happened to you and your film, Playhouse.

Hunter Roberts: You mean the business stuff? Okay. Well, we finished shooting the film in October 2002, and since it was kind of a one-man post-production show, I did basically everything except the soundtrack. That was done by a good friend of mine Iíve had for years, Seth Podowitz. He just finished a film with Malcolm McDowell called Red Roses And Petrol.

VB: No way!

HR: Yeah. Heís starting to take off. So, since we finished, weíve been rejected by just about every film festival you can name. We got into a few, and the few that we did get into, we were either nominated for an award, or we won awards. We got Honorable Mention for Best Feature at the Denver Underground Film Fest. We were also an official selection at Rhode Island, which impressed and shocked me a bit. It was one of the last film festivals that I applied to, and about six months later I got the call to come up. Theyíre considered one of the top ten in the country now, so that was pretty big.

VB: Wow.

HR: Yeah, we were shocked. (laughs) It tends to be one of the artsier festivals. They usually look for something socially inspiring.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Artsy films are the best way I can put it. (laughs) Thereís nothing wrong with a lot of those films. Thereís also a lot wrong with many of them.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Film festivals can be a very tiring experience.

VB: (laughs) I can imagine.

HR: So, yeah, we were shocked that they picked up our film, because itís nothing more than entertaining. We know what it is, and thatís all the film is supposed to be. We werenít really out to change your view on the world, just to make you laugh for about 80 minutes.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Once we got in Rhode Island, though, thatís kind of where things started. We got a couple more festival offers, but it was in Rhode Island that we picked up a sales agent. Iíd been sending the movie out to distributors for about a year and not getting any responses. We got a couple of offers for foreign distribution from some pretty shady companies. Not real legitimate deals.

Both: (laugh)

HR: So, we picked up this sales agent from Cut Entertainment Group. His name is Jeff Cooper. He used to be on the buying end of distribution. He has a lot of contacts in that industry, so we figured it was definitely worth it, going with him. Plus, he was really excited about the film. And within a week of signing with him, he got a deal for us with Vanguard Cinema, who had rejected us a week before. I was really weary at first, of going with a sales agent, because a lot of people told me I didnít need to do that. But I really felt like Iíd exhausted my resources. Iíd knocked on as many doors as I could knock on. And the blind screeners werenít getting me anywhere because I didnít really have any name talent in the movie, with the exception of John Yost, whoís from Children Of The Living Dead, if youíre familiar with that film.

VB: Nah.

HR: Well, (laughs) thatís a pretty obscure reference.

Both: (laugh)

HR: But, yeah, so we signed with Vanguard Cinema about two weeks ago for domestic home video release, and television, as well. Weíll be in the stores in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.

VB: Oh!

HR: Yeah. Itís exciting. I rarely finish things that I start, so this is nice. I started filming it three years ago with a group of people who essentially got paid nothing. Maybe some food and some hotel rooms. The only person that we really paid up-front was the effects guy, but thatís only because he had to pay money out of his pocket for supplies for the effects. So this is gratifying for me, and for all the people who helped out and believed in it, working 15 and 16 hour days for 14 days straight.

VB: Wow.

HR: Itís gratifying to know that these people who stuck by me are going to see a payoff, too. Hopefully things get a little easier now.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Our initial idea was to just go straight to home video, and make enough money to make the next film. Eventually, weíd have enough money and power to do some of the things we wanted to do in Playhouse, but couldnít. Every time I see the movie now, it just makes me cringe.

Both: (laugh)

HR: I keep thinking, "I should have done this! I should have done that!" But itís been three years since I shot Playhouse, and every film you shoot is like going to film school. Film schoolís great, I guess, if you want to learn how to expose film.

VB: (laughs)

HR: Thatís essentially what they teach you in film school. They donít spend enough time teaching you how to direct actors. When students are making their student films, they wind up using anyone who will work for pizza, which is essentially other filmmakers.

Both: (laugh)

HR: I think Kevin Smith is a prime example of this, too. When he was working with his friends, not actors, he made a great little film called Clerks. Then they threw a budget and some actors at him, and he didnít know what to do with them! I think that comes from the film school mentality that film is nothing more than using the camera to tell your story. But itís not. You still have to get your actors to do their job. I think thatís what makes Playhouse a success. The script is what it is, and itís clever, I guess, but itís nothing if I donít have the cast that I had in this film. Those guys are infinitely talented. Without them, itís not as funny.

VB: So, Iím guessing youíve talked with them the last couple weeks about whatís been happening.

HR: Yeah, yeah. I just got to see a lot of them. We shot the movie in Pittsburgh, where a lot of us went to school-- at Point Park Conservatory there. I took film classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, too. George Romero is a big influence there. The horror fans out there will know John Amplas. He was one of my professors. He played "Martin" in George Romeroís Martin. I think that was either his senior thesis, or first major film. It was a really supportive place for filmmakers, so we filmed out there. Even though Nick-- who plays Detective Black-- Andy Parks, and I were living out here in Los Angeles. And David Friday, who plays the third Pittsburgh officer with the really heavy Pittsburgh accent-- if youíre wondering, no, thatís not exaggerated. People really do talk like that there.

Both: (laugh)

VB: When I saw it, I was like, "Oh, man. Thatís so South Side."

Both: (laugh)

HR: Yeah. (in mock Pittsburgh accent) "Yinz ken go dahn to Donziís...."

Both: (laugh)

HR: And every time I put "Pappy" [David Friday] in a movie, I donít write in that accent for him. He just does it.

Both: (laugh)

HR: I think itís his favorite, as well. But, you know, we got everyone together in Pittsburgh to shoot it there, because itís cheaper than shooting it in Los Angeles. L.A. is a big problem for indie filmmakers, because of all the permit fees and everything. You have to have a permit to shoot in your own house! No kidding! And they will shut you down! I own property out here, but I canít even shoot in it! Most states, however, are permit-free states, and they encourage you to shoot there. They know that a film drops two, three million dollars or more into the local economy in two weeks; Pittsburgh especially. Giovanni Ribisi is shooting 10th And Wolf there right now. At least one or two major films shoot there a year. And I think thatís because they do so much to make it so easy to shoot there. They a have a list of free locations-- city streets and things like that-- that theyíll give you for free. Theyíll even give you street closures for free in certain areas, just for shooting there or putting that particular area on film. And there are a lot of cities like that.

VB: Does the success of Playhouse make you approach your next project differently?

HR: God... that question could be four or five pages of me talking alone.

VB: (laughs)

HR: I think the day I walk into a Blockbuster and see my movie on the shelf, Iíll probably break down and cry, though.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Really! When you do something like this, it really is a dream. Itís not something plausible. You donít invest in movies because itís a good investment.

Both: (laugh)

HR: You donít do it for that. You do it because itís a dream. You want to do this for a living. I donít know that I want to make epic films, but I would like to make a few comedies and make people laugh. Whatís overwhelming is that all the things I havenít done yet, that I still want to achieve, they all seem closer now. I feel like Iíve taken one big step that Iíll never have to take again.

VB: So, you work on this as a dream. And you didnít make it to make money, obviously, because itís a labor of love.

HR: People say that, and itís great to be bohemian and a true artist. But to some degree you need to figure out a way to make a living doing this.

VB: Yeah.

HR: But did I do it because I thought it would make me rich? No. And it probably wonít. Hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from Blockbuster and all of these video chains filters through a lot of people. It doesnít end up much when it gets down to us, but thatís why you someday distribute your own films.

Both: (laugh)

VB: Yeah, I said that knowing full well you hoped it would earn something, but you didnít make it thinking, "This is gonna gross as much as Pearl Harbor!"

HR: (laughs) No, no. Thatís another problem a lot of filmmakers have. They have this film thatís been in their head that they want to shoot. And theyíve wanted to shoot it all through film school. Everyone wants that first shot out of the gate to be their piece de resistance. Iím more of the Robert Rodriguez/Sam Raimi business model: make one movie to make the next movie. And make each one better. Your first film out, youíre not going to have the budget or the control you want. Especially if itís someone elseís money. With Playhouse, we were lucky. I funded that whole thing on credit cards.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Which is a Robert Rodriguez trick that Iím not sure I recommend. But, hey, it worked out for me!

Both: (laugh)

HR: I donít know that that really answered your question. But I did make this movie so that I could make the next one, and so on and so on.

VB: Backtracking a bit, you mentioned that a lot of the festivals rejected you. Do you know why?

HR: Yeah. I think itís because the film doesnít have any redeeming social value.

Both: (laugh)

HR: Itís not going to change your view of the world.

VB: But the weird thing is, itís pretty funny. It makes me feel better to walk away from a movie that makes me laugh than to walk away from something politically arresting.

HR: I think so, too. Thatís why I love trying to make people laugh. During the time youíre making someone laugh, theyíre not thinking about anything else, no matter whatís going on in their day. I think itís easy to make people cry, depressed, or politically riled. Itís too easy right now. For me, I have a hard time watching drama. Most of it ends up overblown or bad. Iíd rather just be entertained or laugh, and be entertained for 20 minutes. I guess Iím kind of simple like that.

Both: (laugh)

VB: I think weíre all on the same page here.

HR: Thatís what the movie is, too. Itís just a silly, fun time. Heh, I just wrote a quote for my own movie.

Both: (laugh)

VB: By that same token, were there any film festivals that accepted you specifically because of that?

HR: You know what? Most of the comedy film festivals turned us down, and most of the horror film festivals turned us down, too.

Both: (laugh)

HR: It was really odd. I mean, they loved us in Rhode Island, and we had a big audience. But someone could have really torn us apart, because there are definitely some flaws.

Both: (laugh)

HR: But I think people overlook that because they realize itís just a silly, fun time.

Both: (laugh)

VB: So, now youíre at this point in your life. Did you always want to be a filmmaker, or was there something that made you chase that?

HR: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to design the flying car.

Both: (laugh)

HR: But my mother claims to have known from the beginning. When I look back on it, it makes sense. Like, for my seventh grade math project, I shot a documentary on the Georgia Dome.

Both: (laugh)

HR: I was always acting. Itís been my true love. But I donít get a kick out of acting on film. I like the stage, because I need instant gratification, damnit! But I think from the time I was pretty young, I knew I wanted to be in this business.

VB: And what do you do now? The movieís on the way to Blockbuster, so whatís next?

HR: Iím currently working on six or seven different scripts. I think thereís going to be a call for Return To Playhouse, which will be more of an Evil Dead 2 than a true sequel, because we killed off everybodyís favorite character.

Both: (laugh)

HR: People really loved the Detective Black character.

VB: Now, I got one last question. Itís our piece de resistance: do dogs have lips?

HR: Dogs do not have lips. They have "liplets". I know, because my dog wanted a collagen lip injection last Christmas, and the vet said no dice. You can't inject "liplets" with anything.

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