Hank and Asha is an epistolary film about a filmmaker in New York and an admirer in Prague, who correspond solely through video messages – with actors who never met, though their characters fall in love. Director, James E. Duff, and writer, Julia Morrison, recount their experiences developing the concept and maximizing their story within the constraints of its form. The end result is both charming and creative.
Hank and Asha is an unconventional romance that unfolds subjectively through the video letters that the two main characters self-record and send to each other. Asha (Mahira Kakkar), an Indian film student in Prague, sends a video message to Hank after seeing his documentary at a festival. Hank (Andrew Pastides), a lonely new transplant to New York City, responds in kind, and they begin an unusual correspondence—a long-distance, virtual friendship that quickly blossoms into something more. As their desire to connect intensifies, they must decide whether or not to take the chance on meeting face to face.
A few years ago, we were teaching at a film school in Prague, and were feeling a bit lonely and isolated. We became interested in making a film about the thrill of making a deep, meaningful connection with someone who lives far away and is different from yourself, and how that connection can get you through a moment in your life when you’re feeling lost.
From the outset we wanted to explore this theme through the dynamics of a correspondence, and capture that giddy, buoying feeling that “somebody out there gets me.” We felt that in spite of all of the ways in which we are so hyper-connected now—especially with social media—so many of us are longing for something more. We used to write letters—imagine that!—in which you could really take the time to express yourself, and then enjoy the anticipation of waiting for a response. The distance and delay allowed for self-reinvention, and you could fantasize about who you wanted the other person to be.
When we embarked on the project, we decided we were going to make a film within the next year. Period. Since we were living in Prague, about as picturesque a location as one could possibly hope for, we extended our contract there for a second and final year. We knew we’d kick ourselves hard later if we didn’t shoot something.
So the film took shape within a set of micro-budget constraints: only two lead actors, a small, documentary style crew, low-cost equipment, and locations that we had access to… but only for a limited time. We’re also from New York City, so we had a support network there. Those were the givens, and the story was written around them, and the two locations we had access to: Prague and New York.
“Hank’s Talking to Me!”
We wanted the viewer to feel inside the relationship, with a privileged (and limited) point of view. Like you’ve found a bundle of love letters in the attic—and can press ‘play.’ We hoped to construct it in such a way that the audience would feel like a vicarious participant in the story, share that sense of longing, and get to know and fall for the characters in parallel with the characters getting to know and falling for each other.
We made the choice to limit the film only to video letters made by the characters. By speaking into the camera, the characters aren’t breaking the fourth wall, but directly addressing each other—and, by extension, the audience. The storytelling would be limited to what the characters would choose to tell each other; what they would choose to reveal.
We’d never seen anything quite like this in a romance. Our gut was telling us it might actually work; our inner critic was telling us it could be an utter disaster.
We looked outside of film to recent popular epistolary novels like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the wildly successful Griffin and Sabine trilogy to bolster our faith in the premise. Ultimately, what cemented things was the generous offer of a friend, who let us watch the video love letters with which he courted his wife. Watching them felt like watching a movie. They were intimate, honest, and compelling; we felt a sense of vicarious participation in their relationship. Since then, numerous people have come up to us after screenings to share with us the ways in which the film mirrors their own long distance relationships and virtual correspondences.
Once we committed to the premise and understood the underlying dynamics of it, everything else followed.
Testing the Premise
While we were still in the writing phase, we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes and recorded some video letters to each other. In addition to embarrassing ourselves, we learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t. The shaky-cam found-footage aesthetic wasn’t going to work in a romance, for starters. We discovered it was a lot more engaging when we spoke directly to camera, rather than ‘shooting what we saw.’ (Most of which felt like watching your uncle’s home video of his trip to Harrisburg—i.e., interesting for about five seconds.) This is when we decided to make the characters aspiring filmmakers. We didn’t especially want to at first, but it needed to be plausible that the characters would not only be able to shoot nice footage, but also to edit it.
Later we tested various cameras, phones, and digital sound recorders to design a low-profile equipment package for guerilla shooting scenarios, yet still delivered the quality image we were looking for. We ultimately shot on the Canon 5D Mark III, which the actors occasionally operated, but mostly our acrobatic DP, Bianca Butti, is supporting and operating the camera as if the actor is holding it.
We knew that for the idea to have any chance at success, it was critical that the video messages feel real and unscripted. The film would hinge on the authenticity of the performances. So we worked with a casting director in New York, Paul Fouquet, to cast theater actors with strong improvisational chops. The auditions were basically improvisational storytelling exercises. Both actors blew us away, as they were natural raconteurs. Mahira Kakkar and Andrew Pastides deserve so much credit for the verisimilitude of the film.
The film was shot in 11 days in Prague, and 10 days in New York City, during breaks in our teaching schedule. The script was thirty pages with 158 ‘scenes’/video letters outlined. The biggest challenge was that we were shooting a love story in which the two lead actors were never in the same room—let alone the same country—and had never even met each other. We knew what we wanted out of the scenes, but gave the actors free reign to input their own ideas and personalities. We did around 10 takes for each scene, doing it a different way every time, to give us ample choices in editing.
It became clear almost immediately that the defining principle of the edit was going to be making it feel like the two characters were having a conversation, and getting rid of pretty much everything else. At this stage, the modular nature of the premise was such a blessing. Because all of the scenes are completely stand-alone, there were infinite permutations and opportunities to rewrite and reshape the story. And we had a lot of material to work with, some of which had been shot spontaneously, without a clear idea of where it might go. We edited off and on for six months, and eventually got to the point where we realized we were just making it different, not necessarily better. That’s when we knew we were finished.
“Roll With the Punches.”
There were times during the edit when we hit major sticking points. Frustration would set in. Singing along to Lenka’s “Roll With the Punches” was quite therapeutic: “Suddenly everything’s thrown in a spin/no time to grow a thicker skin/what kind of situation am I in now?” There are few obstacles that can’t be solved by dancingand throwing yourself about the room a little bit. Try it—you’ll feel better, we promise!
One of the things we hadn’t properly calculated was how the nature of the premise would impact the need to license music for the film. (Our oft-repeated mantra was, “Oh, well, that would be a good problem to have!” And… it was!) It wouldn’t make sense for the film to have a traditional score: All of the music had to either be diegetic, or chosen by the characters to edit into their videos. Luckily, our Music Supervisor Susan Dolan came to our rescue and helped us find library and indie music cues at a very low cost.
The biggest challenge was a scene where Hank lets loose, in a Risky Business homage with a Bollywood twist. The only problem was, the Bollywood song we were interested in cost $50K to license. Needless to say, that was not in the budget. Ultimately we worked with composer Omar Fadel to create an original alternative that matched the BPM of the dance moves, which ended up working out much better.
Backup the Backup of the Backup
A few days before our color correct and mix, three of our four hard drives failed. The masters, and the backups. Our movie had vanished. We didn’t eat or sleep for a week while the drives were in triage at Tekserve in New York (fun fact: There are Kleenex boxes at the customer service desks). Luckily, a hard-drive brain surgeon rescued the drives. Never again will we fail to have at least three sets of backups, all on different brands of drives, and in the cloud. Never, ever.
A Final Thought
One of our biggest takeaways from this experience was to always remain open to outside input, observation, and the contributions of the entire production team. One day before shooting, we were walking down the street and noticed a beautiful flower chain someone had designed out of paper and hung up in their apartment window. We snapped a photo and showed it to our production designer, Mimi Violette, who created something similar and included it in the design of Asha’s bedroom. We didn’t plan it this way, but the flower chain ended up being the key prop that tied Hank and Asha together in the end. MM
Hank and Asha opens April 11, 2014 with limited theatrical release, distributed by FilmRise.
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