Hue Rhodes (left of the photo with Saint John of Las Vegas producer Mark Burton) is a fascinating filmmaker to speak with. I had the pleasure of talking to him the other day about his debut feature film, Saint John of Las Vegas, which will open nationwide this Friday. It has an amazing ensemble cast and a lovable lead actor in veteran Steve Buscemi. Rhodes talked with us about his film, his thoughts on social media and what it’s like to light a guy on fire.
TFS: How does it feel to have you movie open nationally?
H: It’s overwhelming, you know. I’m definitely thrilled at this point. I’m hoping that people like the movie. These kinds of films are so dependent on opening weekend box office, so I’m hoping people go. I’m thrilled to be in the situation but I still have anxiety.
What do you think about traditional theatrical release?
H: I’ve watched this movie on a TV screen and I’ve seen it in a theater full of people and there’s a communal experience to watching a movie, an energy. I don’t think you can deny that even if you quantify it. We’re social animals and hopefully we find a way to preserve that communal aspect as we explore new channels. Having said that, if theatrical isn’t available it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. I just want people to see it. I think if you can get people in the theater it’s great. If you don’t want that and prefer the smaller screen great. There’s a lot of other options available to you, and if small screen’s the only thing available well then you do that too.
What do you think of social media in independent film?
H: I think the real change will come when people who’ve grown up in social media use it; when people who use it start making decisions. Because what you have right now is people who did not grow up in this environment adding it onto their old metaphors. So I think social media isn’t a channel to reach customers, I think social media reflects a new leap. The generation that grows up with social media expects to be heard. They have something to say. They may have a small audience but it’s their audience and I think you can expect people to expressively contribute. Everybody gets to play a little bit. For me social media has been effective because people use the content of this movie to communicate to their peers that they like the movie, they like the trailer. It doesn’t have to even do with me. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with my movie. It’s the content they are using to reach their audience. And I respect that. If they’re using our content to reach their audience and that helps us to promote the film, great. If people post the trailer, write their opinions about the trailer or the movie on their website, I comment. I thank them. If they have a negative opinion I try to address it because the important thing is they’ve created a little community around that content, that I can go and visit. I can’t make that community look at me, I can’t make that community pay attention to me by going ‘ooh look at me, follow me.’ That’s not what they care about. They care about themselves. But I can go join that community for a little bit, chop it up, talk, and get them interested. I think the way social media works is that the people doing all the twittering and the blogging are the ones who are generating content. I don’t know if that makes sense but that’s sort of how I feel about it.
How was the transition from software product manager to filmmaker?
H: I always loved movies but not the way a cinephile would. I feel like movies are where people learn how to be adults, in a way. I grew up in a multiplex but I didn’t have any refined sensibility and I certainly didn’t know what any of the people were involved in filmmaking did. [As] the co-founder of BlueLight.com, I worked as his product manager. I was responsible for the online music and DVDs. By selling DVD’s online I learned a little bit about the business. And from learning about the business, I thought ‘maybe I could make one of these.’ I started researching books on film, in my spare time, and I liked them. I just liked everything I was reading. I went and a bought a camera, I started taking pictures, I liked all the parts. One of the things I’ve learned from business is that success in the long run goes to the person who doesn’t get tired. You don’t get tired if you’re interested in something. The devil is in the details. For example, there are a lot of people involved in the internet and software who don’t really like technology. But ultimately the people who love technology excel in that business because they love the details. I knew that was true in technology and I thought it might be true in film. And, fortunately, I love the film details. I took a bunch of community college classes on filmmaking, at Berkley extension. Anything in the film catalog, I took. I took photography, storyboarding and filmmaking and writing. And I just loved it.
What inspired you to write a story inspired by Dante?
H: In between BlueLight and film school I sold software to insurance companies. Insurance is a surreal industry. I couldn’t get my head around it. It was so crazy, and so perfect for a surreal setting for an office movie. And I always loved Dante. I just liked that Dante would make a perfect structure. Reading Dante is a great ride and I just thought that writing a screenplay about Dante would be a great one.
What is the main theme of the film?
H: The theme of the film is the evolution of the accepting of yourself as you are for better or for worse. I think the traditional structure of a hero’s journey is that you think you’re nobody but then through some ridiculously stressful event you find out that you were more than you thought you were ever going to be. Our theme is a little bit different in that the purpose of the hero’s journey is a kind of exhaustion – in the end John gets to just settle down. That’s what happens to everybody in high school. You show up with these ambitions of who you want to be and it’s exhausting; just relax and you’ll finally get to be cool because you’re relaxed.
How was it working with well-known actors like Steve Buscemi?
H: It was great. When you deal with people who are professionals in a vocational sense they’re easier to work with because they’re so good. Steve [Buscemi] was great because he’s been in so many movies. If you bring Steve in the edit [room] for voice over he drops it in his mouth like he’s saying it for the first time. Steve is great. It’s a real, real luxury to work with people of this caliber because they all really knew what they were doing.
What was the toughest scene to shoot?
H: Logistically, we lit a guy on fire in a flame suit. We had to inter-cut that with footage of acting because we couldn’t light John Cho on fire. The script calls for him to be lit seven times. We could only afford to light him four times because its extremely expensive. I didn’t know this before the morning of the shoot. Stunt people charge by the amount of time they are lit on fire, and the duration. We could only light our stuntman on fire four times for up to 10 seconds. We had to block the scene with cameras and anticipate what the live action would be, and what Jon Cho would do, and then light him on fire so that the cameras couldn’t see each other while they were filming different parts of the scene, simultaneously. We had to face the camera so that one was capturing the second, fourth and sixth burn and the other camera was capturing first, third, fifth and seventh burn, which is extremely difficult blocking-wise. Extremely difficult blocking. We couldn’t do it again if we didn’t get it the first time. That was the hardest and most intense scene to shoot.
What other influences did you have for the film? You reference William Eggleston and Harold Pinter on your blog…
H: We watched a lot of Ozu. Very square plane, simple action straight at the camera, and 90 degree cuts rather than 180 degree cuts. The purpose of that kind of cutting is less about accelerating time, more about establish space. We did that pretty religiously, with pretty huge benefits, because it adds to the overall style. It also turns out that if you shoot geometrically, you don’t always have to shoot a master shot. Because if the framing is really consistent then even if the audience does not know what the room looks like, they know what the movie looks like. It has a geometry that makes us uncomfortable. So we have several scenes in the movie with no master shot and you wouldn’t know it. On a tight budget and schedule, not shooting a master can save you 1-2 hours. Master shots are exhausting to light …and you end up shooting something which you hope you don’t have to end up using, anyway. So by not having to shoot a master shot, every frame of the film had more attention.
What do you think about film festivals and the Cinevegas demise?
H: I think film festivals are really important for a couple reasons. First, they help you believe. I went to festivals before I brought a movie to one. To the outsider, movies are this impossible thing to make. Film festivals deconstruct them a little bit. ‘Oh, there’s a short. I can do that. There’s a feature that came from a short…’ – it maps out steps people can do. It’s also a wonderful community of people, investing their psychic energy in films. It’s also a great environment to build momentum for a film.
I had a wonderful time at Cinevegas. it was a dream premiere in a huge auditorium that held 1200 people. The festival also put on a fantastic show. I watched Yellow Submarine projected on a jumbotron while sitting in the beach of Manderlay Bay. It was the best! I think everybody loved Cinevegas and hopefully they’ll come back soon.
Last 3 films you saw:
Up in the Air
Top 3 Directors:
Paul Thomas Anderson
Francis Ford Coppola
Check out the trailer for Saint John of Las Vegas here: