Alan Hruska is one of the more interesting filmmakers you will ever meet. For years he worked his way up the ladder in the field of law. His hard work and dedication to his career led him to the top where he became one of NYC’s most successful lawyers. Through the years, Hruska’s passion for film continued to burn inside of him and ultimately led him to leave his law career. His knack for exploring complex relationships and intimacy as captivated film audiences around the world. His latest film,’The Man On Her Mind,’ is no exception to the rule. Directed by Hruska and Bruce Guthrie, the film is a whimsical meditation on modern romance and boasts a powerful cast consisting of the actors who made the work spring to life in it’s stage incarnation.
‘The Man On Her Mind’ charts the unusual courtship of two lonely people, each of whom has a particularly active fantasy life. Nellie (Amy McAllister) is a seemingly prim young woman who, much to our surprise, is conducting a clandestine affair with Jack (Samuel James), a super-suave, fast-talking lawyer. It doesn’t matter that the pair seems mismatched because, as it turns out, Jack doesn’t really exist; he is a figment of Nellie’s imagination–someone she dreamed up out of bits and pieces of Leonard, a somewhat bland man with whom she had a blind date months earlier. Meanwhile, we meet Leonard (also played by Samuel James, though in a very different manner), and learn that he too has an imaginary lover (played by McAllister, again, in a very different manner), whom he has fashioned after the attractive attributes of Nellie. When the two characters come together again, they are forced to compare and contrast their ideal—but, sadly, nonexistent–partners, with their flesh and blood counterparts, in other words themselves. The question is, will Nellie choose the man on her mind over the man in her arms?
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Alan Hruska to discuss his influences as a filmmaker, the challenges of bringing ‘The Man On Her Mind’ from stage to screen and more.
What intrigued you early on in your life about the world of filmmaking and ultimately made you pursue it?
I got a treat at such an early age, I can barely remember it. The first movie I saw was a James Cagney prison movie when I was about 4 years old. My father, growing up in New York, was friendly with James Cagney, so we saw all of his films. I just got bit by the movie bug very early and always wanted to make films.
Who were some of the other influences who helped to shape you as a filmmaker?
I think it is collaboration of influences. I have enjoyed all of the great filmmakers through the years. If I had to pick a film from the thousands of films I have seen, it would be very difficult to do so. I might pick ‘Smiles of Southern Night,’ the Ingmar Bergman film. He did what I think is so hard to do, which is make a romantic comedy that has something to say and say it very well. I remember seeing that movie at The Lincoln Theater in New Haven, on what was probably its first run in the United States, and was bowled over by it. I have seen it many times since. There are just so many films that are wonderful, that is why it is so hard to choose. That is why I say the films and directors had a collaborative impact rather than an individual one. Film is a wonderful medium.
Your latest project is ‘The Man On Her Mind.’ What can you tell us about what sparked the idea for this story?
I get asked that question a lot and I find it difficult to answer because I can’t really think of an “Ah-Ha” moment when it really came to me. I have a lot of ideas in my head about stories and they are typically little embryonic things, conversations or beginnings of conversations where there might be a problem embedded which the characters have to deal with. If it is something in line with some theme that intrigues me, the story will go on and they characters will wind up telling me the story. I’ve always been interested in the interplay between imagination and happiness. Happiness is the great object of life and imagination is the great dream machine. It is so strongly contributive to happiness, yet it also impedes happiness. There are so many ways in which you can imagine your way out of happiness. That relationship intrigues me. The principal character, Nellie, is a young woman who is a junior editor of a publishing house. I founded a publishing house in 1986, Double Press, so I am familiar with that world. Double Press is now a pretty sustainable independent publishing company, which my daughter runs. That character, that theme and seeing that character kind of escaping reality with an imaginary lover is what lead to the story. That idea probably occurred to me at 2 o’clock in the morning some years ago.
What were your thoughts on your approach to this film before starting the process? Did you approach it differently than something you have done in the past?
This is the first film that I have done that is based on a produced play. We had a lot of ideas about how this story should be performed when we did the play in London. Translating that story into a film was relatively easy because it simply involved two things. The first was taking everything that could go outside and taking it outside. Obviously, the stage play was done internally. There were a lot of scenes that were done in a room in the play which we could take outside. The other thing was adding whatever could be added that wasn’t practical to do on the stage, such as the breakup montage at the end, which has some lovely scenes in it. The montage is quintessentially cinemagraphic and you can do it as well on stage. The scene in the mother’s apartment was a scene we didn’t do in the play. We could do it in the film and we did. The flashbacks were described in the play and in the movie but in the movie we actually see them; the character is narrating them but we see them. We didn’t do that in the play. There are a number of things that were pretty obviously things you would want to do in a movie that you couldn’t do in a play in a practical manner.
What can you tell us about casting the characters in ‘The Man On Her Mind.’ Was it difficult to find the right mix of people to bring the characters to life?
On stage it was hard because we auditioned close to 90 people, many of whom were wonderful actors, for these four roles. It was a simple matter to cast for the movie because we cast those same for actors. One of the main reasons I was so eager to do this film was because I loved the performances of those four actors. I thought they did a brilliant job in London on the stage. I thought it would be a shame to waste it, so I invited them all to come back here and do it as a film.
What were some of the biggest challenges of bringing this film from stage to screen?
There are the usual challenges of making independent films. Maybe I do this differently than other people, I don’t know because I have never done a film with anyone other than Bruce [Guthrie]. This was the first time I have ever shared directorship with anybody and he had never done a film before, so we kind of did it my way. I don’t do any rehearsals. I believe the rehearsal process is one where you get good performances at the beginning and it breaks down over the next two or three weeks and you don’t get it back until you have gone two or three weeks. Then you might get it back better but it takes a long while but that whole process is not very good. I think we don’t really have the time for that lengthy period of rehearsal in independent film, so there was no rehearsal. Typically, we don’t get the locations until the last minute, so you can’t even do the blocking until you are on set. The set is typically a real location. You don’t have that many days to shoot, you don’t have that many take, you deal with weather and traffic problems or you deal with the problem of the one person on the crew who is not as great as you would want him or her to be. All you need is one crew member who can’t do it and you feel the hole in the fabric very quickly. It is the usual array of problems you encounter on a film. I can’t think of one major obstacle to overcome one this project, just the general array of indie film problems we encountered and overcame them as they arose. When you come in with an absolutely brilliant cast of actors who are dedicated to the play and give 110%, you are going to be able to pull it off. We were able to shoot the film in 14 days.
How do you feel you have evolved as a director through the course of your films? Is there anything that stands out to you?
Lots of things! When I first came onto a movie set, I had almost no idea what I was doing. I knew what the end result was that I wished to achieve. As a result of seeing over 10,000 films, I knew what I wanted to see on the screen! [laughs] I knew what the performances should be. You know, there isn’t that much difference between preparing an actor and preparing a witness, except that you expect the actors to remember the lines better than the witnesses! [laughs] The process is very similar. So, I came on the set and I knew to say “Action!” and I kind of knew what the camera could do but I had a lot of instruction from the cinematographer. I needed an education in putting costumes together and set design. I needed an education in every aspect of filmmaking; even the logistics of bringing the trucks in and out or lighting and what have you. I had to learn the jargon. Every profession and community has its own jargon and I didn’t know what any of the words meant from “apple box” on up! I had to learn to speak the language. All of this is quite learnable and I learned most of it on the first movie. That was my film school and the crew were my teachers. I am still learning and I feel I will always be continuing to learn.
Where do you see yourself headed in the future? What projects have your attention at the moment?
There is another play I have written which I am not quite sure if it will go on the stage first or on film and it may depend on the cast and what they want to do. It is a play called ‘Ring Twice for Miranda.’ I did this play as a workshop in London, years ago, which is how I met Bruce Guthrie. Bruce was the director of the workshop. We had a wonderful cast for the workshop and Michelle Dockery played Miranda. She has since gone on to stardom as a result of “Downton Abbey.” We put it on for the theater owners in London and they liked it a lot and wanted to give us a theater. I won’t take you through the casting travails and the reason it didn’t happen. I definitely want to come back to ‘Ring Twice For Miranda.’ I will definitely do it as a film but whether I do it first as a play depends on some other factors but that is definitely my next project.
That is terrific to hear! I want to thank you for your time today, Alan! We look forward to seeing what you have in store for us in the future!
Thank you! Good talking with you!
‘The Man On Her Mind’ hits theaters on September 12th, 2014. Check out the trailer for the film below.