One unwritten rule for any novice filmmakers is to never tackle a period piece. Why is that? With the cost of props, costume, and even obtaining an authentic location – any production budget can inflate to unimaginable proportions. It isn’t often that a filmmaker can pull it off so effortlessly without having to compromise the scope of their project. Music video director Justin Hannah is that exception – capturing a slice of 1950s suburbia and blurring the lines of reality with his latest short film Consignment.
Consignment is a terrific short film debut that has picked up a ton of good press and flashy reviewer quotes, but I wanted to begin before all of that. On your official Vimeo page I noticed you have predominantly worked on music videos – from a colourful explosion for ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys to smaller lesser-known bands (each video still retaining a personalised element to them). What I’m curious about is if you feel that these music videos have helped you hone your technical proficiency leading up to you writing and directing (amongst producing and editing) Consignment. With that in mind, how long have you been planning, or should I say writing, Consignment?
First off, thank you so much for the kind words! I’m thrilled that you liked the film. As for your question, you’re totally right: much of the work I’ve done prior to Consignment has been in the realm of music videos. I do think that working on music videos helped develop the skills needed to make films.
For me, the goal has always been to progress in terms of ambition – a music video (at least in theory) is a bit easier than a short film; a short film is typically easier than a feature. Of course, with Consignment being a period piece, there was so much preparation involved, and care taken in that preparation, that it sometimes felt like we were working on a feature. To that point, Consignment took around a year to produce, from start to finish. Maybe a little more.
I feel as if I have to ask this question, but I am curious myself. What training or experience did you have that has awarded you the writer/director role? Did you attend any film schools or did you grow up shooting little shot films with your friends? How did you get to a point where you have short on IMDB with the impressive score of 8.6?
I didn’t know Consignment had an 8.6 on IMDB, that’s really great to hear. I’m honestly not sure how that happened!
As far as training… there’s a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron that talks about creativity in terms of audacity. Her thought was that audacity is what separates an artist from a non-artist. All it took to be an artist was to proclaim it, and believe it. I honestly think that is how I ended up in the writer/director position; I just decided that that was what I was going to do, and the universe started moving with me to help make that happen.
I’ve always been interested in visual media – I originally started out in photography. In fact, I went to college with the intent to study photography. While I was there, I was exposed to a lot of films, filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, and became entranced by the aesthetic beauty, the atmosphere, the layers of meaning that were possible. So I started trying to figure out how to make those kinds of films, mostly from reading books, watching films, and making my own. I’m definitely still figuring it out!
Coming back to the short film – Consignment takes place in sleepy 1950s suburban American town with the stark black and white imagery setting the tone right away by limiting the frame to what is important. What is it about that time that drew you to this setting for the short film?
I was drawn to the aesthetic of the films of that time, particularly the 1940s and 1950s. There’s something very interesting to me about the aesthetic of films from that period, particularly noir films – the lighting, the music, the performances. They almost have the feeling of a different reality, an alternate, exaggerated black and white world. I wanted to make a film that lived in that other world, and came from that world.
The cinematographer Lee Clements managed to capture the setting and atmosphere perfectly for the film. With the budget you had and the resources at your disposal what difficulties did you face with shooting a period piece? I caught myself looking around the frame for any timely inconsistencies but found none and fell under the spell of the authenticity of the locations.
I actually do the same thing when watching period pieces, and I’m really glad you didn’t catch any inconsistencies. That was probably the most difficult part of the movie – searching for these period-specific and period-appropriate props, clothing, and locations that would create the illusion of this other world. I spent months scouring antique shops, thrift stores, Craiglist, and Ebay for things like matchbooks and rotary phones.
It was actually through Craigslist that a lot of these pieces came together. I started posting listings for antique props, locations, vehicles – anything that I thought we might be able to use. I met a fantastic local businesswoman named Christy Atkins who led us to an entire town (Stanford, Kentucky, USA) that had been refurbished to match the style of the 1950s. She also introduced us to the owner of a 1950s dress shop (Pink Door Boutique, Louisville, Kentucky, USA) and an antique car dealer (Powell Martin Antique Autos, Stanford, Kentucky, USA). Craigslist also introduced us to La Toy Bondurant of TKO Hair Studio (Lexington, Kentucky, USA) who recreated the hair and makeup styles of the time.
Sorry to plug those people so unabashedly, but I’m just incredibly thankful for all they did to help make this film a reality, and to create the reality of the film. There’s just a huge debt there.
I wanted to note the subtle nods to surreal television shows of the era such as The Twilight Zone. Especially with the ‘ominous box’ prop which is a key motif in the short along with the noir lighting throughout. I also was briefly reminded of the work of David Lynch specifically with Mulholland Drive and his consistent interest in 1950s Americana. Where either of these an influence on your work? If they weren’t, what were your inspirations in regards to this short film?
You know, I like The Twilight Zone but have never been a very active viewer (I tend to lean towards Alfred Hitchcock Presents), but several people have made the comparison, so there must be something to it. I do respond to films and television shows with a surreal quality to them, and David Lynch is one of my absolute favourite filmmakers. So I’m sure those influences bled into the film (whether or not they were intentional) along with the 1950s aesthetic elements.
One thing that stood out for me which is something a lot of young editors early into their career cannot get a grasp on is the fluid edit and more importantly (at least to me) the title and credit font. It might sound contrived but I feel a film’s font says a lot about a film and the font in Consignment was superb along with the whole arrangement of the end credits. My question would be about the small details in the film, for example the Roman numeric timestamp at the end of the film. As the editor did you know from the beginning that these little nuances (such as the font and end credits) would really set this apart from other period pieces?
I feel like a film – any film, but especially a period piece – is like a magic trick. You’re essentially trying to trick the audience into believing in your world, and all the little details either help to build that illusion, or disrupt it. I feel like fonts are one of those subconscious details, and I definitely had that in mind from the beginning as a way to further the illusion.
You’re actually the first person to comment on the font choices. I spent a lot of time deliberating over the fonts, and I’m glad you responded to them, and that they felt appropriate to you. I’m also happy that you noticed the Roman numeric timestamp (“MMXIII”) at the end, which is also something that is typically seen in older films. It also helped to obscure the “real” production year.
What can you tell us about Manic Baby Studio? I assume it’s a production company that you started yourself with Consignment as its debut, but what does the future hold for the company? Do you plan on producing more shorts under the Manic Baby Studio banner?
You’ve got it exactly – it’s the banner under which I produce films, music videos, photography, or pretty much any other creative projects. It’s sort of my sandbox, and the place where people can keep up with whatever project I’m working on (right now, Consignment).
This might possibly feed into my last question but what do you have planned over 2014? Are there any new short films and/or music videos in your foreseeable timeline?
I would love to make another short film in 2014. I’ve got three or four different ideas, and one of those will probably be the next film. You might have noticed this, but I tend to be fairly deliberate in terms of details, so it might end up being 2015 before something is finished and ready to see.