Jeff Hammer Talks Intricacies of Indie Filmmaking
Jeff Hammer makes his feature film directorial debut with the crime inspired film titled; Live and Die in La Honda. According to IMDb Hammer has two Directing and Writing credits and six credits as a film producer. In addition to his film career, Hammer teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Screenwriting and Production in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC.
The following interview questions were composed by DecayMag Content Contributor Rebecca Kolodziej.
Ken Artuz DecayMag Founder
Related Article: Live and Die in La Honda Film Review
Rebecca Kolodziej: lHi Jeff, thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your debut crime noir film Live Or Die In La Honda. I watched it and I have to say that it is a very raw and powerful film. Can you tell me what inspired you to make such a powerfully driven film?
Jeff Hammer: My wife and I lived in La Honda while she was doing a fellowship at Stanford, and I wanted to make a movie there before we returned to Los Angeles.
“I knew I would have a shoestring budget, so I explored a few possibilities of what I could realistically accomplish.”
I was watching a lot of film noir at the time, so I started exploring ideas in this genre and decided early on that my femme fatale needed to be the character driving the story. The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and The Killing, in particular, have strong and captivating femme fatales, and I tried to follow in their tradition.
Rebecca Kolodziej: Blake and Vic are polar opposites yet this is what makes them work as a pair. Blake is enthralled by Vic and desire and lust is always present. He fights his feelings for his ex-lover all throughout the film. What was the idea behind Blake and Vic’s relationship? Was it always going to be toxic?
Jeff Hammer: Yes. Their relationship is rooted in the conventions of film noir that were established in the 1940s when a lot of these movies were being made.
“Many of these stories feature an attractive and seductive woman (the femme fatale) who typically brings trouble to the man who becomes involved with her”.
Vic is this story’s femme fatale, and Blake is the man who becomes entangled in his web of deceit. Oftentimes the protagonist in noir is a private detective, and even though Blake isn’t a PI, he certainly fills this role.
Rebecca Kolodziej: Throughout the film, PTSD was shown as well as the effects it can have on ex-fighters. I found this to be extremely touching and I’m glad that the illness has been brought to attention. How did filming the scene where Vic has nightmares about the past and breaks down affect you as a director? Do you have a personal connection to it??
Jeff Hammer: I do not have a personal connection to PTSD. Fortunately, the people I know who have served in combat have successfully integrated back into civilian life. As to the scene you referenced, it was an intense moment when we were filming it. Lili went all in, and it shows. I remember the DP (Mike Revolvalcke) and I looking at each other while she was doing it, and we both knew we had something raw and powerful.
Rebecca Kolodziej: How did you feel upon witnessing such a distressing moment?
Jeff Hammer: Lili was so convincing, I had the urge to call cut to check if there was anything I could do to help comfort her. It was a bit surreal. I only allowed the DP and sound mixer in the room while we were filming the scene, but I learned later that the rest of the crew was a little freaked out by what they were hearing in the bedroom.
Rebecca Kolodziej: As a film director is there anyone in the indie scene who has influenced you greatly as a director?
Jeff Hammer: Robert Rodriguez. His book Rebel Without A Crew, which chronicles his experience making his first feature El Mariachi, was a huge influence. He’s not my biggest influence overall, but he’s unquestionably the biggest influence for this movie.
Rebecca Kolodziej: What are your thoughts on the indie scene?
Jeff Hammer: On one hand, it’s exciting that there are so many filmmakers who have the tools to be able to tell stories without the traditional studio gatekeepers standing in the way. With the right story, you can make something special with a small cast and crew. It might take a while, but it’s possible.
“On the other hand, you ultimately want people to watch your movie, and distribution is an entirely different ballgame than filmmaking”.
Ultimately, someone has to pay for the movie, and if they invest in it, they want to know how they’ll get their money back. If you want to make more than one movie, you’ll have to figure out how to monetize your work.
Rebecca Kolodziej: What inspired you to become a filmmaker and why choose film noir as a genre?
Jeff Hammer: I’ve always loved movies, but it took me a while to figure out that it was something I could do. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and I didn’t know anyone who had even attempted being a filmmaker. I was on a different career path until I determined I’d rather pursue filmmaking instead of anything else, even with the job uncertainty that surrounds it. I really like film noir as a genre, but the reason I chose it for this movie was a practical one. I knew I wanted my movie to be distributed, and I knew that I wouldn’t have the budget to attract big-name talent that could pre-sell the movie.
“I did some research on microbudget features that got distribution, and while all indies face an uphill battle, horrors and thrillers had the best chance to see a return on investment”.
I’m a big fan of film noir, and I felt that I could make a thriller in this genre. I also knew that I needed really strong central performances to make the movie work, and the best way to attract talented cast is to write interesting roles for them. Film noir tends to have really strong characters, so then it was up to me to write roles that great actors would want to play.
Rebecca Kolodziej: Is Live Or Die In La Honda inspired by any true life events?
Jeff Hammer: Yes. I came across a story in La Honda’s monthly town newsletter in which local police discovered 1200 pounds of marijuana in a car that got stuck in the sand on Pescadero State Beach, which is about 15 minutes from La Honda (and featured in the movie). Pescadero is one of several remote beaches along the coast in between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, and cartels have been using these beaches as delivery spots. I wondered what happened to the person who got his car stuck in the sand, and the story took off from there.
Rebecca Kolodziej: If you had to make one great movie in your entire career and then die, what would that film be about?
“It’s already written. It’s a feature called Epicurus that’s completely different in style and tone to this movie, much more in line with independent film from the 90S”.
It’s about an AP Test tutor who befriends a high school valedictorian and takes it upon himself to make her into the coolest girl possible before she goes to college. But as she starts to fall for him, he meets and falls for her mother. Seeing this movie get made is a life goal.
Rebecca Kolodziej: Do you have any plans to dabble in the world of horror?
Jeff Hammer: Yes. There are two scripts I’ve written that have received recognition from screenwriting fellowships, but they both require larger budgets with special effects and sophisticated stunts – one with zombies and one with werewolves. Original content is a tougher sell in the current climate, so I’ve also been developing a more self-contained horror thriller. It’s a revenge tale revolving around the financial crash in 2008 that I pitch as The Big Short meets Saw.
Rebecca Kolodziej: I see that you teach screenwriting at universities. How does teaching a class of ambitious students compare to when you are behind the lense? Is it harder to teach or to film?
Jeff Hammer: It’s definitely much harder to film. From writing the script to all the pre-production as a producer and director to coordinating the madness of production to overseeing the multiple facets of post-production and finally to selling the finished product, there are a lot of moving parts. The vast majority of people have no idea how much it takes to make a movie, even a microbudget movie like mine.
“When it comes to teaching, I have to put in the time to create lesson plans and to choose relevant scripts and film clips that showcase good examples of the topic at hand, but most of the heavy lifting comes from the students”.
They’re the ones creating original content, and then I’m there to offer feedback and guide their work the best that I can. It’s much easier to give notes on a story someone else has written than it is to write something myself.
Rebecca Kolodziej: What film/book/director inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Jeff Hammer: Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Alexander Payne are probably my biggest contemporary influences. If I could steal anyone’s career who’s working today, I’d choose Linklater because he’s always working and doing it on his own terms in a variety of genres. I would love to meet him and pick his brain for as long as he’d be willing to talk to me.
Rebecca Kolodziej: To the rising talents of the creative world, do you have any advice that you could give aspiring filmmakers to aid them on their journey?
Jeff Hammer: Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to make your movie. Just make it. But have a clear plan of what you want to do with it when it’s done.