The world of independent film is full of unique stories both on-screen and off. Such is the case with writer/director Hue Rhodes. Not satisfied with his day job after the tech boom of the late ’90s, he took matters into his own hands and began to chase a dream. A fan of movies since his childhood, Rhodes decided to immerse himself in the world of filmmaking and fearlessly blaze new trails. Now in 2009, Rhodes’ directorial debut has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit and is set for a national release in early 2010. ‘Saint John of Las Vegas’ features a top-notch ensemble cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Tim Blake Nelson, John Cho, Danny Trejo and Emmanuelle Chirqui.
In the film, Buscemi stars as a compulsive gambler who runs away from Las Vegas and toward a normal job and life. Taking a position in an auto insurance company in Albuquerque, he tries to get ahead in the straight world, amid the ever-present temptations of scratch-off lotto tickets. When his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), asks John to accompany his top fraud debunker, Virgil (Romany Malco) on an investigation of a dubious car “accident” near Vegas, John sees an opportunity to get a promotion, though he’s concerned about returning to the gambling game. Before leaving he becomes involved with his eccentric co-worker Jill (Sarah Silverman), a dalliance that has the potential to become a real relationship.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with the intriguing first time director to discuss unique journey in the world of independent film, the challenges that he faced along the way, the potential impact of social media on entertainment in the years to come and what the future holds for this talented new director.
Let’s get started with some basic questions: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Riverdale, New York. I went to high school in Connecticut and I have lived in California and Montana, so I have moved around a lot.
I know that you had a life, a career before you ventured into the entertainment industry as a filmmaker. What can you tell us about that?
I was an engineer, undergrad and grad. Then I got swept up in the tech boom of the ’90s where I was involved with a bunch of internet software startups.
What attracted you to film-making?
I grew up in the multi-plex, like everybody, where movies were these magical things that appeared. I couldn’t have told you, when I was 29, what any of the credits at the end of the movies really meant, but I loved movies. I was managing the online music, video and dvd store for K-Mart, Bluelight.com, it was K-mart’s online company. I was in charge of the media. So, I got to go to the big conventions where the big box retailers meet with the studios and do advanced media buys that the studios then use to finance the movie itself. For example, Wal-Mart will buy three million DVDs in advance. Somehow, seeing the money flow demystified it for me enough, just enough, that I entertained this theoretical idea, “Hey, I don’t want to sell these! I want to make them!” Again, at the time I really didn’t know what that meant.
What triggered you to take that initial plunge and just go for it?
I was really bummed out at work. I found Power Point kind of soul sucking. I was looking for something to do, I didn’t even know what. I came up with a three book test. I thing that I think is true, that I found in business, is that no one really succeeds 9 to 5. If you are going to distinguish yourself, you are going to do so on your free time, in addition to your regular work. So I felt that you had to pick a path where you would be willing to devote your free time into doing it. I came up with this three book test, where I bought three books on anything that I had ever been interested in. Finance, Interior design, cooking, you know, any fantasy that you have every had where you have said to yourself “Yeah, I could do that!” The assumption was that if I couldn’t finish the books in my free time, then I wouldn’t be able to be devoted to it as a career. I couldn’t finish any of those books in my free time. I always just always wanted to do something else, except for the books on movies! I just inhaled them! I just couldn’t stop reading those books. Anything that I could find on producing or whatever. Again, I didn’t know what any of the titles meant, so I didn’t know which books to buy. I would just buy “a book” and I loved it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do within film-making. At that time, K-Mart bought Bluelight.com, they reabsorbed it and everyone involved made a little money.
So, I took a year and took all the community college classes that I could find, anything to do with movies, from story-boarding to photography, anything that they offered! I just figured that I would see what parts I liked. I liked all of them, ya know! [laughs] I like everything. I liked photography, film theory, story-boarding and editing. I shot a documentary and I loved that. Then I shot another short film which wasn’t really that good and I didn’t know why it wasn’t good, ya know? I was a little older. I was 30 at the time and I said “I know this is what I want to do. I am reading a lot of books and I am shooting but it is not clear that I am getting better.” So, I sent my documentary as an application for film school, I got in and I went to film school. I wrote ‘St. John of Las Vegas’ while I was in film school.
What can you tell us about the film plot-wise?
‘Saint John of Las Vegas’ is about an insurance adjuster who is a former gambler who left Vegas and moved to Albuquerque to settle down and live a “normal life”. He is kinda pulling it off, sorta. He has a house and he has a job but he still has these demons. He fools himself into thinking that playing scratch lottery cards isn’t gambling, but you can see that he still joneses. He gets an assignment to go investigate a case about a car accident located outside of Las Vegas. He and a partner set out to investigate the case. The whole time, Las Vegas is a sort of homing beacon for him, calling him like the siren song. Eventually, he gets to Las Vegas and he has to deal with the full implications of his suppressed addiction.
You mentioned writing the script in film school. How long did it take to bring the film from the written page to the screen?
I wrote it in the summer of 2005. We wrapped production in late May in 2008. The movie was world premiered at CineVegas in June of 2009.
You assembled a very talented cast which features Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Peter Dinklage and Emmanuelle Chriqui, just to name a few. What was the casting process like for the film and was it difficult to find the right mix of people to achieve the end product that you were aiming for?
I feel that there is something very organic about the movie. I don’t want to be glib, but it is almost like the movie made itself. I got a manager while I was in film school and he and I chased down every lead that we had and every connection that we had at an agency and we got nowhere. Meanwhile, I had given the script to an entertainment lawyer that I knew, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to Steve Buscemi’s agent, who gave it to Steve. Steve Buscemi’s agent called my manager and said “Hey, what do you think about Steve for this part?” It was like the script found the right person. I don’t know about the other people that you talk too, but I am sure for most movies there is a combination of insane sacrifice and effort that is totally futile but at the same time, in parallel, a very organic stroke of luck.
I don’t think you can have one without the other. I think that you actually have to exhaust yourself in order to appease the Gods!
Serving as both writer and director, what was the biggest challenge in making the film?
I think that the biggest challenge was excepting total responsibility for something that is completely uncontrollable. What that means is that in a way, if there isn’t enough budget, that’s on me. I didn’t raise the money but it is on me if the budget isn’t big enough. It’s on me if the days aren’t long enough. It’s on me if we go overtime. It’s on me if the performances aren’t clicking. It’s on me if one of the actors doesn’t understand what he or she is doing. Now, the circumstances might be and this is true, we had an actor, Tim Blake Nelson, who flew in on a morning flight to New Mexico. He rested for a couple of hours in his hotel and then came out to the set on the Navajo Reservation, shot all night in the desert and then jumped back on the plane the next morning. His entire trip was twenty four hours, right? And he is naked in the movie, [laughs] so it’s like he showed up for a walk-through. So what does that mean? Who knows if he is tired? We don’t have a lot of time to work it out. He is an experienced actor and I am a first time director, we have to find a way to talk about this movie, about the part, we have to execute and there is flame in the background and all these parts are moving, it has to work and there is no margin for error. All of that is my responsibility. That’s just twenty four hours in the life of the movie.
I think that once you get on top of that, especially for an indie film, things get better. There was an adjustment period. When I first started shooting, I felt uncomfortable and there we so many moving parts. The line producer sat me down and said “Hue, you really have to A.D. yourself.” “A.D.” is the assistant director and that is the person who is often in charge of the logistics. We had a wonderful assistant director but what the line producer was really saying was that “you really have to make this ship run. If it is not running, then you make it run.” That was kind of a lightning bolt for me, but that adjustment was very hard.
You mentioned the premiere at CineVegas and I am sure that you have seen the film with an audience several times by now. What was that experience like for you, putting your baby out there for the first time?
Terrifying! Ya know, people laugh heartily and I think they have a good time. We just showed it at the Denver Film Festival. It was the last film on the last night of the festival, on the weekend with two showings. The festival director told me that she was surprised and that both showings had sold out. Normally at a film festival, people stay for the Q&A and she said that a much, much larger group of people stayed for the Q&A then the typical average for the film festival, even though it was the last night. That is hardly a predictive data point and you can’t take that to the bank but it was encouraging to see. Hopefully it indicates a level of satisfaction.
We found each other by way of social media and that is how this interview came about. Coming from the background that you did, what role do you think social media will play in the future of film-making and how has it been working for you?
I am very excited about this. I know that there is a lot of doom and gloom in the independent film world right now, but I think it is an opportunity. I think that there is a misconception about social media which is that traditional marketing and advertising use social media as another channel to talk to the audience. When an ad plays on TV it is talking to you. When a trailer plays in a theater it is talking to you, or something like a billboard, it is all very “broadcast”, ya know?
I think that traditional advertising makes the mistake of thinking “Ok, here is another opportunity for us to broadcast content.” I think what social media is a result of is a new kind of need. I think people need and expect to be heard, not to be spoken to but to contribute and jam. It is like a big jam band and everybody has a little instrument.
Very well put.
What’s exciting for me is when people see the trailer, they have something to say and I have something to say back to them and then we talk about it. That’s great! I am not interested in social media so that I can broadcast, hopefully there is a new type of dynamic that can emerge, a dynamic where the whole of watching the movie becomes this greater interaction.
Looking back on the entire process of making your first film, what is your fondest memory of the project?
Ya know, we lit a guy on fire! [laughs] Which is absolutely surreal! I think the way that we shot it looks pretty mellow but to light a guy on fire! He’s got this chintzy flame suit thing, the stuntman has to be slathered in this sub-zero gel and he started to go hypothermic, he’s wearing an oxygen mask so he can’t hear you. You have to shout at him with a bullhorn. There are ten guys angling around him and ambulances and it’s really scary! I remember watching it while we were lighting this guy on fire, I turned to the assistant director and said “What kind bastard wrote this! Oh I did!” [laughs] It is crazy! Definitely one of the highlights!
I know you will soon be premiering the film nationally but I was curious to hear what other projects that you might have on the horizon?
I am probably about halfway through a new script. Someone recently asked me about this and my description was that it involves weddings and guns. It is a little early to talk a lot about but it involves a weekend wedding and with the kind of family wedding guests that nobody really knows. Some of those guests turn out to be really, really problematic and violence and chaos ensue!
Well it sounds like you will be doing a little bit more than just lighting a guy on fire next time! [laughs]
I honestly don’t think that I would have seen something quite like that in my life! [laughs]
Having heard about your interesting career path and your work as a first time director, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to get involved in the entertainment industry in any capacity?
People say it’s not what ya know but who ya know, but I would say the more I know, the better it has gotten for me. I heard this when I went to film school. Somebody said “The thing about Ang Lee when he was in film school, he could do every job on the film set better than the person who’s job that it was.” I think that if you are in it for the long haul, in it to make something that resonates and has that feeling of quality and that spark that catches people, if you totally immerse yourself in it, you totally control all of that. A person can watch movies or read as much as they want, they can practice and that is totally under their control. The great thing about writing is that it is free! Just grab a pen and a piece of paper. So much of this business is out of your control and it can feel really needy and kind of scary, so I think it is good in the long run and it is empowering just to focus on chops and getting better. That way you will at least feel that you are in control of your own destiny.
Anything else that you would like to say to the movie-going public about the film before I let you go?
Ya know, I feel like the movie is funny and people laugh. It’s not g;ib. We watched a lot of silent film while making this movie, specifically Buster Keaton. Steve and I are huge Buster Keaton fans and Romany Malco watched him as well. The thing about Buster was that he was dead serious. You laugh but he doesn’t laugh. I think that was our attitude on set. We were so fierce and focused. It looks absurd but just because something is funny, it doesn’t mean that it is casually made, ya know?
For sure! The trailer looks amazing and I know we are very much looking forward to seeing your work and we wish you all the best in your career!
Visit the official site for the film www.saintjohnmovie.com.
‘Saint John of Las Vegas’ is set to hit theaters on January 29th, 2010, in limited release.