While director Hunter Adams may be relatively new the scene, he’s quickly begun intriguing audiences with his work and seems destined to leave his mark on the genres he explores. His latest creative endeavor is the slow-burning supernatural thriller, ‘Dig Two Graves,’ which stars the insanely talented Samantha Isler (Captain Fantastic, TV’s “Supernatural”) and the legendary Ted Levine (Shutter Island, Silence of the Lambs). Focusing in on 13-year-old Jacqueline Mather (Samantha Isler) who loses her brother in a mysterious drowning accident. Shortly after the tragedy, she is visited by 3 mysterious moonshiners who offer to bring her brother back to from the other side but at a grim cost. As the dark history of her grandfather, Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine) is unearthed the true intentions of the moonshiners come to light. The film examines the generational violence that plagues a small, backwoods town and dares to ask “How far would you go to save those you love?” Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Hunter Adams to discuss influences, journey as a filmmaker and the challenges of bringing ‘Dig Two Graves’ from script to screen.
What drew you to the arts early on in life and led to you pursuing a filmmaking career?
My mom is a big classic movie buff, so Turner Classic Movies was always on at our house! I also had very colorful in-laws; real raconteurs. I think I was drawn to storytelling through them. It wasn’t until college that I started to watch a lot of different types of movies. I spent a year in Paris watching movies and I really got hooked on the medium. That was the moment that I knew this was something I wanted to pursue. I’m a cinephile and I have very eclectic taste.
What types of films had the biggest impact on you and your creative vision?
Film-noir is probably my favorite genre, along with horror and any type of genre film. I tend to think the good ones really utilize the full spectrum of the medium. As a filmmaker, that’s the type of content that I aspire to work in and create.
In your formative years, who served as a mentor or sparked something in you creatively?
Yeah. Like I said, my mom being a big film buff really got me interested very early on in life. In college I had a professor named David Bordwell who, if you study film, it’s hard not to read one of his books at some point! He is someone that really opened me up to all kinds of film. It was also someone who was very nonjudgmental and you could talk about a Carl Dreyer film one minute and a Hong Kong action film the next! I really learned to appreciate all types of cinema through him. When I moved out to Los Angeles, my first roommate was a diabetic, alcoholic writer who worked on Saturday Night Live and had made a cult film back in the 1970s. He really got me into silent movies and film noir, so he was also someone who really expanded my cinematic horizons.
You were the writer and director on “Dig Two Graves.” How did the idea for this tale come about?
It started off as a pretty simple, straightforward conceit — a young girl whose brother goes missing and she’s offered a deal with the devil to bring him back. I was interested in the question, “How far would someone be willing to go to bring someone back?” We have all seen films that involve adult protagonists burdened with difficult choices, but I wanted to see this inner conflict reflected through the eyes of an innocent child. As the process unfolded, I eventually decided I wanted to build a back story involving her grandfather to add another layer to the story and to give the three moonshine characters a reason for making this proposition to the girl.
The story started as the short film “Jake’s’ Choice.” What made this story the one you wanted to pursue as a full feature?
It incorporated a lot of the genre elements that I’m attracted to without being an outright genre film, which is not horror with a capital H per se but something that has horror elements. It’s not a drama with a capital D but it has dramatic elements as well but it also has fantasy elements in addition to those of supernatural and thriller films. It had a lot of the ingredients of the films I’m drawn to and it was an opportunity for me to work in all of the genres simultaneously.
When you entered into the process of bringing the film from script to screen, was there anything you were anxious to try as a filmmaker?
Well, we kind of broke every golden rule of indie filmmaking in the sense of it’s not only a period film but a double period film. We worked with child actors, had live animals, fire and underwater scenes! [laughs] Essentially, we were making a multi-million-dollar film without anywhere near that budget! It was a challenging shoot but we were lucky that we got a lot of great crew out of Chicago. It was fortunate it was the middle of January, so there wasn’t a ton of production happening. Because of that, we were able to get people that probably otherwise would not have worked on the film at the budget level we were at. I was really excited to get all of these really great set pieces that we normally wouldn’t get on this budget level.
Let’s focus on the challenges you faced bringing this movie to life. What stands out as the biggest hurdle?
The biggest hurdle early on, apart from getting the financing together, was finding the young girl to play Jake. In the original script, it was a young boy named Jake and I discovered, rather quickly, that girls were far better actors than the boys, so I flipped the gender but I didn’t change the name because I was too lazy. [laughs] That proved to be the best decision I could have made because it’s far more effective with the young girl. Finding her, I knew, would be the most important decision of the film because if the audience doesn’t take that emotional journey with her then there is really no film there. We spent about half of a year searching for the right actress. We did a national casting call and, toward the end of the process, we were fortunate that Samantha Isler, who was living in Tulsa, sent in an audition tape. I knew pretty quickly she was the one! It was a terrifying prospect when you don’t have the most important character in your film cast!
Ted Levine brings a lot to this film as well. How did he end up in the mix?
Ted was somebody who was always on our short list. We had some specific requirements as far as age because we had to age the actor up and down because of the two time periods, so that limited our options. With that said, Ted is somebody, as a cinephile, that I have always been a fan of. I was excited by the prospect of giving him a leading role for once. Normally, he is a character actor, one of the greatest, and plays smaller bit parts for the most part. Giving him the opportunity to play a leading role and a role with a real moral complexity, as compared to some of his more iconic performances like Buffalo Bill in “Silence of The Lambs.” I was fortunate to get him and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing that part now!
Did the script evolve once things got rolling and you started dealing with locations and the magic these actors were bringing to the characters?
Definitely! For me, script writing doesn’t start and end on the page; it’s really just the beginning. It continues to transform all the way through the sound mix. As far as the actors, the right ones tend to have great instincts and they are going to bring those to the part and you would be foolish not to incorporate a lot of the gifts that they bring. It was a very collaborative experience and things definitely evolved over the course of making the film.
When you look back on the process of bringing this film to life, what are the biggest lessons you learned?
I certainly learned a lot of cinematic lessons in the sense of when they tell you that you should follow these golden rules of low budget filmmaking, you should probably follow them! [laughs] This probably took about five years altogether from start to finish. What you don’t have in money you make up for in time. That was their currency and that’s kind of why it took so long. I think the big lessons are to trust in the process, trusting in my instincts and the instincts of my collaborators. I think it comes down to understanding that making a good movie isn’t necessarily enough in this era. As a filmmaker, you really have to plan for the marketing, promotion and release of the film pretty early on. That’s been a really valuable lesson.
You are involved at every level of the filmmaking process. Do you gravitate to any part of the process?
I really like the sound design and mixing. Something that I think gets overlooked, especially in lower budget filmmaking. People often focus heavily on the visual design but not always the oral. I was fortunate to work with a really talented sound team. To me, diving into the sound and building a sonic architecture was a really fun experience. It’s something that you may not consciously realize when watching the film but something that’s affecting you on a more subliminal level.
Where do you see the journey taking you next as a director?
I have a handful of projects that I’m developing right now. I’m hoping to get one of them off the ground as soon as possible. I’m pretty anxious to get started with whatever the next project might be.
I’m sure you get asked for advice from aspiring filmmakers all the time. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
I think you have to make the film that you really believe in. It takes such an incredible amount of time and energy these days to make a movie. As I mentioned, you end up doing quite a bit of it on your own, so I think it’s important for you to make a film that you really want to make. It has to be a film that you are really passionate about getting up there on the big screen because the competition is fierce and there aren’t as many opportunities to get films seen and monetized. It really has to be a passion project! So my advice would be not to make something you think is going to sell or be popular but make something that you are really invested in.
Awesome! Thanks for taking time out to talk with us today, Hunter. We loved the flick and can’t wait to see what is next. Best of luck to you and I’m sure we’ll be talking to you soon!
Thanks, Jason! Take care!