Out of the always huge, dizzying crop of Sundance films this year, Chad Hartigan’s second feature This is Martin Bonner is a terrific, sturdy, little film—the kind and type that used to make independent film completely compelling. What’s even better, This Is Martin Bonner nabbed the coveted NEXT Audience Award this weekend at the Sundance Closing Award Ceremony. The quietly stunning film, set in the bleak, urban sprawl of Reno, Nevada—its mountains slumping high in the background suggesting greater things—is where we meet a kindly, older Australian man: Martin Bonner, (a truly terrific, 60-something ‘newcomer,’ Paul Eenhorn) who has just relocated to Reno for a new job at a non-profit. Martin helps men who have freshly come out of prison.
A likeable and truly sweet-natured and calm soul, Martin fills his days—when not working on the phone with his daughter who lives out-of-state, coaching a girl’s soccer team—worrying about his successful artist son whom he appears to be estranged from, and knocking around local flea markets looking for eBay finds. Basically, he is generally feeling quite lonely in his new surroundings, trying keenly not to show it. He meets Travis, (Richmond Arquette) a man who is creased over with disappointment and recently out of jail. Although he is not Travis’s assigned mentor, the two strike up a strangely unique friendship, occasionally meeting for coffee, somehow fully connecting with each other between the lines of their often stilted conversations. When Travis tells Martin that he is having lunch his daughter whom he hasn’t seen in twelve years, Martin finds himself involved in a much different way than he initially imagined.
These tiny moments throughout the film reveal both the characters deep loneliness, as well as their struggling will to overcome them. One gets the sense that they are both, in their own way, trying to achieve much more goodness in their lives. This is what really gives his small film such a lovely and powerful resonance. Imagine the last time you were making up a story in your head about the people dining a few tables away from yours at a restaurant. The film is one of these mental pictures come to life. Hartigan is wonderful at conveying the vivid, simple humanity in all of us, and especially, those desperate moments of true vulnerability.
Hartigan’s first film, Luke and Brie are on a First Date, also has some great, sweetly potent and revealing moments, although it’s set in the hipster California enclave of Silverlake. (It’s also well-worth seeing on Netflix. I promise.) I had the chance to discuss him how he made the tiny marvel This Is Martin Bonner.
First of all, congratulations on your NEXT Audience Award at Sundancee. Can you tell us what your first Sundance experience was like?
Thank you! Yes,Sundance has been an amazing, transformative eleven days. I'm going to the airport now, and don't even want to leave. I mean, how do you go back to everyday life after this? The films, filmmakers and audiences were all so inspiring, and the dialogue that our film struck up with its viewers was a wonderful, beautiful surprise. I made the film thinking it would have a limited audience, given that it was a slow-paced, character study about older men with religious undertones, but people of all ages and backgrounds seemed to just respond to the optimism and positivity of the characters. I couldn't be prouder of all the actors and crew that helped us get to Sundance, and leave with (The NEXT Audience) award. It'struly unbelievable.
What was the genesis of your first film, Luke On Brie Are On a First Date?
That was based on a real first date I had that always went over really well when I would verbally tell the story to people…So, I started to wonder if it could be translated to film. I had just moved back to LA from New York, where I was living on Aaron Katz's couch while he was shooting Quiet City, and I was really inspired by what he was doing so I knew I wanted to make a film but had very limited resources so that's how it came about. I decided to do it in January, and was shooting it in June so it was a very fast process.
This Is Martin Bonner is a departure in scope from your first film, but not in tone. It is such a delicate, beautifully rendered character study. Have you always been drawn to explore life cinematically in this way?
Not always. When I was a teenager, I already knew I wanted to make movies but I wanted to make Jurrasic Park and Independence Day. At some point during film school, my taste changed dramatically and I realized the potential of the art form to really capture subtle, everyday beauty in people. Seeing films like All the Real Girls and You Can Count on Me really sparked something inside of me and it wasn't just movies either- it's around the same time I stopped listening to Sugar Ray and started listening to Donovan. College was completely transformative for me. That's not to say that there isn't value in making an entertainment that is beloved my generations across the world, but what really interests me right now are characters or circumstances that aren't represented in any other movies that I can think of.
Tell me about the experience of finding and casting Paul Eenhorn as Martin, as well as Richmond Arquette's participation as Travis, and what each one brought specifically to the production?
I wrote the Travis part for Richmond. I had met him while working on a promo tour of his brother David's movie, The Tripper and I thought he was a really fun, interesting person. I wound up renting a room in his house for a while right around the time I was writing so he was part of the fabric of the film from the beginning for me and his performance is exactly how I imagined it would be. Even though he's nothing like that person in real life, I knew he was talented enough to bring that character to life in the right way. For Martin, we held open auditions in LA and Paul was one of the people who came in to read. He was really natural and warm and so I called him to ask if he'd come back and read again, with Richmond this time. He said he'd love to but he lived in Seattle! Apparently he had read the breakdown for the part online and flown himself down for the audition based on a hunch that it could be something special. I was blown away by that and actually thought that him getting the part was a sweet justification of that feeling he had, but now seeing him blow up with all this Sundance press and buzz is even more rewarding and unbelievable.
This project is such a soulful, heartfelt film. How long did it take from idea to finish? I know you really made this film the hard way; can you tell us about what challenges you were able to overcome?
I wrote the movie in 2009. It took probably nine or ten months to bang out the first draft and then I sent it to all of my filmmaker friends that I trust for feedback. I met Cherie at SXSW in 2010 and showed it to her and she came on board to produce. Then we spent about a year and a half trying to figure out how to raise $250,000 to make it. Needless to say, that proved difficult and finally I was just so sick of waiting and not doing anything that I quit my day job and moved to Reno where I would have literally nothing to do but figure out how to get the movie made. That decision and mentally switching from trying to raise a hypothetical $250,000 to just figuring out how to pay for things as they came up were the foundation for getting it done. From there it was surprisingly easy. Aside from having to recast some supporting parts last minute, production went suspiciously smooth.
Would you recommend film school for the aspiring, young director or actually, what would you recommend?
It’s hard to say. My film school experience was invaluable, but that had more to do with the lessons I learned making terrible films, and working with my fellow students than it was from the faculty or the curriculum. So I would only ever recommend film schools that let you make movies from day one. I shot shorts on 16mm, VHS, Mini-DV, everything, and having that safe place to try and fail was wonderful. It also connected me with a group of people that I still collaborate with today and those are my most cherished relationships. But if you can find a group of like-minded collaborators and make your own movies all day long without going $60,000 in debt, that's probably a better option!