Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Chad Hamilton
By Travis Trew, Programming Manager
Filmmaker Chad Hamilton landed in Philly ten years ago for school, and segued into working on crews for various locally-shot productions. His thesis film at the University of the Arts, On Our Own, is the story of a little girl coming to terms with the loss of her jazz musician father.
PFS: Have you always been interested in film?
CH: Not really. Growing up, I was always interested in watching movies, but no one ever thinks you could work on them as a career, you know? You think movies just get made. No one actually thinks of the people who go out there and make them. The funny thing is, when I was growing up my dad would come up to me watching TV when I was supposed to be doing my homework, and he would say, “You watch too many movies! Movies are going to be your downfall one day!” When we moved back to the States after living in South Africa, I graduated from high school and didn’t really have anything to do. I started making weird little YouTube videos with an old webcam to pass the time. Sure enough, here I am now.
PFS: So you’ve been in Philly for ten years.
CH: Yeah. I came here for Temple, wanting to study film, but left to go into working on crews full time. I started in the locations departments, and from there made my way into the assistant director department working on various sets, like Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I also worked a couple days on Split and worked on Creed.
PFS: You left film school to work in the field. What prompted the decision to go back to school?
CH: I made the decision to go back in 2015. Mostly because at that point, I thought I had gathered up enough practical knowledge working on film sets and understood how it all works. But I knew that if I wanted to make my way towards being a director, I had to build up the creative side of myself. I made my first short film, which would allow me to have some work to send with my application, and it did really well. It went to a bunch of small festivals and it got me into the University of the Arts.
PFS: What was it like moving from the production side to having to come up with concepts yourself? Was that a tough transition?
CH: That was something UArts really challenged me to figure out. Admittedly, I went in there feeling a little cocky, since I had experience in the business. I knew how to make a film efficiently, but UArts challenged make those films good. For instance, I might have the best, most efficient options for scheduling, but am I really getting the best performances out of actors that way? Maybe I figure out the most efficient way to set up a complex shot at a location, but will it create the most emotional impact? That process of blending both worlds was quite a challenge for myself.
PFS: How did you manage to tap into that more creative side?
CH: It’s all about turning off one brain and turning on the other. So I’d have to shut down my “assistant director brain” for a little bit and turn on my “director brain” to get to that emotional impact.
PFS: Where does On Our Own come into the picture? Was that done after you had graduated from UArts?
CH: On Our Own was my senior thesis. I made it to honor my mother, who passed away from ovarian cancer when I was 18. On Our Own was very much a reflection of that part of my life, telling the story of death and grief from the perspective of those who are left behind, and especially of someone who has that experience at a young age.
PFS: Tell me a little bit about getting the film off the ground.
CH: The process from start to finish took about six months. Finding Sophie Tobias, our lead actress, allowed us to see her immense talent. She’s like a 40-year-old woman in a child’s body in terms of the way she presents herself on set. She is 100% professional all the time. There were a lot of points where I would tell here to act a certain way, and she would reply “Well, if I may, I don’t think my character would do that. That makes no sense.” And she would be right. It was challenging for me because I had very little experience working with children.
We found her on Backstage.com. I had no connection to Sophie whatsoever. I put out a casting call, her mother answered it, she auditioned, passed all of my tests, and we hired her. From the get-go she was one hundred percent professional before we met on set. We talked about what I wanted ideas she wanted to bring to the table, and she took down notes. I looked at her and said “Wait a second, you’re how old and taking down notes!?”
PFS: That is amazing. I mean, it’s amazing too that she would be able and willing to engage with material that’s obviously heavy. That you wouldn’t expect a kid to have the maturity to sort of comprehend that.
CH: Precisely. And it’s not just her, but also her family and support. What I’ve learned is when you are working with children, you are not just casting the child, you are also casting her family. Her mother is responsible for getting her to and from set, and their family is actually based in Connecticut. Principle photography took two weekends and we couldn’t have long days since we were working with a minor. So she came down the first weekend, then went back up to Connecticut until the following weekend. So her mother was as big of an asset to the film as Sophie.
PFS: Tell me a little bit about some of the creative choices you made in writing the film. Where did the decision to have the father be a musician kind of come from?
CH: At this point in my career, I really enjoy having minimal dialogue, since at the end of the day film is a visual medium. If you rely too heavily on dialogue, then you’re not utilizing the medium to its fullest potential. So that’s why I thought music would be a strong choice. It almost behaves as the dialogue of the film. On top of that, I’m of the adage that if you’re going to have music in film, it has to tie into the narrative in some way. So I started thinking about how I could do that. I’m a big fan of jazz. I love Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. So I thought, what if I made the father a traveling musician? Boom. That gives my film an identity that we could weave into the story.
PFS: Was the music used in the film all original?
CH: The music was all made for the film. I talked with a fellow UArts student named Mark Samani, who is a genius. I sent him a couple albums that I was thinking of emulating in specific parts of the film. We went back and forth about jazz, and then after we spoke, he came back with all of these musicians from UArts and made music that fit so seamlessly with what we wanted. The most amazing thing is that he and I were never once in the same room. We were able to craft this whole soundtrack and he was able to knock it out of the park with barely any notes from me. All of our correspondence was strictly over Facebook Messenger. We were never in the same room.
PFS: That’s pretty incredible.
CH: Yeah! All I could do was say “I’m thinking this.” The fact that he’s able to reach inside my head and pull that out is amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.
PFS: So you’re done with school now. Are you planning to stay in Philly?
CH: I’ll be in Philly until August. I was accepted to Columbia University, in their masters film program.
PFS: Congrats! Hopefully you’ll be coming back to Philly when you’re done.
CH: Absolutely. My plan is to take all that I’ve learned here and bring it up there, and then take the resources and connections I make up there back to Philadelphia. Even though I’ve moved around, I’ve been here ten years. Philly is my home and my goal is to continue to build up what we already have.
PFS: I am kind of curious since you’ve had hands-on experience working on productions of various sizes in Philly: what’s your overall perception of Philadelphia as a place for a filmmaker to live and work?
CH: Philly is just small enough that you can make the connections you need in film. I have another colleague of mine who started off as a production assistant on my film, and through that he was able to work his way into a larger network, doing shorts of his own. The challenge here, and what bothers me the most, is that for bigger things, people often bring their crews from outside the city to work on Philly shoots. Also, many people are moving to Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, but not coming back. I want to stop that, at least on a personal level. I’ve always said to my friends who I came up with working on crews that my dream is to get to a point where I come back with a film or production and everyone gets paid their full rates. Hopefully that will continue as a trend: Philadelphia getting work, and the work not just coming here, but being made with local talent. We have the talent, we have the facilities, and we can do it here.
On Our Own will be screening on Thursday, July 11 at the Philadelphia Film Center’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.