James MacDonald is a busy guy. On top of his busy acting schedule, he’s managed to find time to not only write, but also direct his first short film, titled Heavy Lifting. What started out as a passion project has turned into an award-winning short film not only winning a couple of Best Short Film awards, but also scoring him a Best Director award, as well as a Best Screenplay award. The film’s stars, Chuma Hunter-Gault and Jenny O’Hara have also received awards for Best Actor and Actress respectively.
I interviewed Jim a couple of years ago for an independent film he did called Fissure. We had a great conversation, and when the opportunity arose to interview him again for Heavy Lifting, I jumped at the chance. Jim’s an easy-going guy and lucky for me, is very easy to talk to. Our conversation lasted for almost 90 minutes and ranged from weather to the pros and cons of Twitter. Mainly we focused on his film and the interview that follows gives quite a bit of insight into the brains behind the whole operation.
RG: You wrote this story, so I was wondering, where did the inspiration and the idea originate for this. Was this something that you had off the top of your head or was it something that had been festering?
JM: It was actually a newspaper article. I saw this little article in the L.A. Times probably, or maybe the New York Times, but it was basically this little thing about how they found this woman living in an apartment in a big city. They found out that she had body in her apartment for like a year that had mummified and she was living with it and cashing the social security checks. And I just thought about that and I thought there’s a story there you know. That was the jumping off point. That was literally all I had. I wanted to explore who you are when you get into that situation. Who is that person that does that? How does this happen to someone?
I’ve always been interested in the elderly population. With aging, nursing homes, and people who get marginalized because of their age. That’s kind of always been an interest of mine since high school. So when I saw that article, I thought I should try to write something about this and it was actually a play I wrote first.
It was about a 40 minute play and I used the same actors who ended up doing the film. So that was kind of the journey of how it came to be. And you know, I actually forgot this…before it was a play, I wrote it as a short story.
RG: Oh wow, so it’s been through the gamut then.
JM: Yeah, you know sometimes I find that writing and telling a story as a short story, I like that format. It seems easier than trying to jump into a film for me, I find that hard. So I wrote it as a short story and I didn’t even think of writing it as a play or movie. Then I had this place where I write with other playwrights and I read them the story because I thought, maybe there is a play here and they said, “Oh yeah, write that into a play.” So I wrote it into a play, then I wrote it into a movie. It had a few incarnations .
RG: How long did it take you to write it?
JM: Which, the story, the play or the film?
RG: Let’s go with the film since that’s what we’re focusing on.
JM: The film didn’t take that long. My biggest concern was that I’ve never made a short film and I did quite a bit of research on what makes a short film acceptable. What’s the length, that whole thing. Basically shorter is better. There’s a better chance to get into festivals. The play was about 35-40 minutes and so my real goal, since it was already long, I thought if I could get this down to 15 minutes I’d be really happy. So I wrote the film in probably a month a two. It was pretty quick. Then it had a rough draft and I kind of tweaked it and I got it under 15 pages and I thought the film would be under 15 minutes. Turned out those 15 pages, once edited came up to 23 minutes. So it was longer than I originally thought it might be, but I was ok with that. For me, I thought that 15-23 minutes, I don’t know, I wasn’t’ crazy, thinking I had to get it to a certain time to get it into film festivals. I wanted to make something that I was happy with first and foremost. The length ultimately didn’t matter to me too much.
RG: Well I think it’s pretty incredible to be able to tell a complete story in 23 minutes.
JM: I love short stories. The short form just, it’s really its own little world. You can’t compare it. I just finished 2 one-act plays and I keep torturing myself thinking I need to write a feature film or a full length play and it really is a different animal. Maybe I’m just going to be attracted to this short form for a while before moving one. It’s funny you say that to be able to tell a story in 23 minutes is amazing. If I added on one more hour, I’d have a feature. If you look at it that way, an hour more of material, that’s nothing. So it’s not as daunting as you think, because to me it’s funny, the way I view things, in a sense going from a short to a feature is really overwhelming. But in a sense it’s not. It’s just extending something a little longer. I’m telling myself that to keep myself confident. But we’ll see because I would like to eventually do a feature story. I’ll be forcing myself to break out of my short style mode.
RG: You titled the film Heavy Lifting and obviously it applies to the task that Alice needs done, but I also found that it applied to the characters as well. Like Chuma’s character, you look at him and he’s pretty unassuming. He seems like one of those genuinely nice guys, but once he starts talking you get this feeling that he’s got an underlying dark side to him. When he tells Alice that he’s done some terrible things doing anything for a friend it lends itself to the complexity of his character. What was it about him specifically that made him a good fit for this part?
JM: With Chuma, it was happenstance how I met him. He’s a member of this theater company that I’m a member of and we hadn’t met yet. He came on when I was looking for an actor that was black or Latino and was around Chuma’s age. He came into the reading and I thought he was perfect. What I love about Chuma is there’s a vulnerability to him, but on the other side of the coin there is something that could be dangerous about him. He’s a big guy too and he’s a really good actor. That character, there’s a lot going on with that guy.
What I liked about Chuma is that I really wanted someone who could be very childlike and at the same time be almost insightful and wise in a way but in a very like, almost….he’s almost like Chance in Being There with Peter Sellers. Chuma was just perfect. There are so many qualities. I was really lucky and when you have a good actor, you feel like you can really talk about what happens in the scene and try different things. I was really lucky in that we got to rehearse the piece. When you shoot, you don’t really have time to rehearse. You get a couple of takes, and if everything looks good, you move on. I was really lucky that both actors knew the part and knew who their characters were. It was all right there when we set up to go. I was very happy with him overall.
In New York we won the best short film of the short film festival (the PictureStart Short Film Festival) and Chuma and Jenny both won best actor and actress so it’s pretty cool because they really did a wonderful job.
RG: Alice is one of those characters that radiates happiness and joy and just seems so perky but on the flip side of her, there’s this really heavy loneliness that comes through that she masks with this perky exterior. She was able to nail that I thought.
JM: Jenny is also a wonderful actress. If anyone gets the chance to work with her they’re lucky. If you get a chance to see that movie Devil, she’s in it. You’ll recognize her. She works all the time. She’s doing a play here in town and she goes from theater to film to TV. She’s been doing it for a long time. She’s just such a generous soul. She’d come off these other films where she had a trailer and craft services and she came to work on mine and I’m thinking “Oh my God, Jenny, I don’t even have anywhere for you to be, can you just sit in this section when we’re not filming.” You just worry, because you know I’m an actor, I know. All actors are different and some of them can be more difficult than others and with Jenny, it’s all about the work for her and I think if she likes a project, I don’t think she cares if anyone sees it. She could be in an Oklahoma dinner theater for all she cares. She’s an artist. She just does it for the love of it.
RG: The breakthrough that happens in the film when Chuma’s character tells Alice that he knows how she feels. I thought that was a really incredible scene and the revelation that they both experience because of one small statement, you can see it expressed in visible relief in the look onAlice’s face. But Chuma’s reaction was so subtle, yet it speaks volumes. Was that a difficult scene to film?
JM: I’m really happy to hear that you really nailed it as far as seeing the point in that scene and understanding it. That’s really great. If anything, that is where the film really comes together and I’m just really…it’s so cool to hear that you really got that. That was a hard scene to do and it was a hard scene to make people understand. It’s a little different from the play and I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to show the breakthrough and the whole thing of how he can’t connect with people and that’s where there’s this gap in his life, who he is, and that he hasn’t been able to relate to people. That’s why he doesn’t want to go further with the sex with her because then it would just be another sexual experience for him that turns into some weird thing that he never understands. It just happens with him because he’s a good looking guy. So I thought, like you saw, that it’s more interesting that the sex doesn’t happen.
The people who read the script, nobody understood that and they questioned why he stopped her. It didn’t make sense to them. I was kind of surprised by that because I thought it was clear and I had to really explain it. It was because he wants this relationship to go further, he really cares about her and so stopping it, he’s hoping it won’t be like every other sexual encounter where he doesn’t talk after. This is really the heart of the film.
I was really happy with the takes we got of it. He got to do it a few different ways. Some he was stronger in his emotion and confusion, some he just simply stated and so it was nice when we got into editing that I had a couple of options to work with. Because Chuma’s such a good actor, I felt we got the chance to explore the kind of delicate, confusing element and he really got it. I was excited when I thought that moment worked. It’s great you brought that up because people don’t even mention that scene.
RG: It just stood out to me that, that was the part that encompassed everything about both of their characters. He was so subtle and it was more of something in his eyes and that twitch of his face. She was just glowing and was just very happy with his decision to help her. It was very powerful and I actually watched it a couple of times. It just spoke volumes to me about the tone of the film.
JM: That’s really nice to hear. It really is
RG: I also really loved the smile on his face when he finished his task right at the very end. He just looks like the clouds have parted and a burden has been lifted and he’s just much more free.
JM: That’s so cool. It’s a nice moment
RG: Now I have to ask, because I was wondering about this. Jenny’s character’s name is Alice, but Chuma’s character doesn’t have a name. Was that a conscious decision? Was it something to keep the viewer at arm’s length or did it just kind of work out that way?
JM: It was actually kind of a conscious choice. I played with giving him a name a couple of times and when I wrote it he never had a name. He was always just “the man”. And I liked the ambiguity of him not having a name. Because the piece is about people who live just under the radar. That we don’t really notice everyday that almost kind of remain unseen in a certain sense. I liked that quality about it and I also liked the mystery it brought to it. It just didn’t feel necessary. It became almost stronger that he didn’t have a name and that she never says his name but he says hers.
As the piece went on, it became very clear that was a stronger choice because I actually think he did have a name at one point but he didn’t even want to use it. It was ridiculous. It worked without one.
RG: It sure did. I actually noticed in the beginning when she gives him her name, but he never says his. So I kept an ear out, but never heard it.
JM: Ahhh you were looking for it.
RG: I was looking for it but didn’t find it so I had to ask. So what’s next on horizon for the film? You just did the PictureStart Film Festival. What else is coming up?
JM: This whole process is all new for me. So it’s been interesting and it’s been quite a journey. There’s so many movies out there these days. For a short film festival they’ll have 3000 entries. It’s really something so, just to get in is just a really big deal. Because what I am finding is that the bigger festivals, like Sundance, Slamdance, Seattle and Tribecca, with the big ones I think there’s a lot of politics involved. I know that with Sundance, people who’ve had films in before already get to show their film. They get a pre-screening. There’s a lot of politics and you really just have to submit your film everywhere.
I’m learning that some of the festivals aren’t as good or well attended so doing that whole process has been a cool learning experience. I’m trying to get in some more festivals and it’s been really great meeting people and getting to talk to them about what their experiences have been. Then, after that maybe I’ll post it online somewhere.
I love to get as many people to see it in the theater because that’s the most exciting way. Down the road maybe, I have a website for the film which is where the trailer is, and I think that I could post it there. At some point I’ll have it out there for people to watch on their computer. Ultimately you want people to see what you’ve filmed and get their feedback. You made this thing, you want it out there in the world. I’m just really exploring. There’s so many ways people are experiencing films these days. It’s kind of wild.
RG: So what’s next for you acting wise? Do you have anything going on?
JM: I do I do. I’m really excited, but I just got a call yesterday and am now currently in negotiations for a new horror film. If everything works out, I’ll be playing the local sheriff. I’m really, really excited. So hopefully, I’ll be going down to Shreveport, LA.to start shooting. It should be a lot of fun.
RG: Is this your first step into the horror genre?
JM: Actually, one of my first jobs when I was starting out, the Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, he did a movie called Two Evil Eyes and I’m in that. I was in the story with Harvey Keitel and I play this detective. It’s a riff on an Edgar Allen Poe story and it was pretty cool because it was before Harvey’s career really took off.
RG: It seems like filming a horror movie would be a lot of fun.
JM: Oh yeah, because it’s so silly when you’re doing it. I think it’ll be a lot of fun.
RG: I can’t imagine trying to act scared and scream and act like you’re running for your life when some Joe Shmoe is off-screen to the left eating a sandwich or something like that.
JM: Exactly. That’s what it’s going to be. It should be a lot of fun. And I’ve also got a little part that’s recurring right now. They just started airing the series this summer called Love Bites on Thursday nights (10pm on NBC). It’s an anthology comedy by a Sex and the City writer and I play the chef in one of the stories when they go to New York. I’m in 4 or 5 episodes. So yeah things are ok at the moment. I’m pretty busy right now.
RG: You’ve got quite the resume so it seems like things are going well, so I’m happy to hear that.
JM: Thanks, I think like anything, if you don’t leave the room, if you just stick at it, something has to just keep coming.
RG: And you’re like the go to guy for the law enforcement characters.
JM: Oh totally. That is my bread and butter, my god. I’m just waiting to be 3rd banana on some cop show. I don’t want to be the main guy, I just want to be one of the guys in the office. That would be my dream. Military or detective, you can’t beat it with me. You know it’s funny, I was riding up an elevator going to an audition in an old building in downtown L.A.and the elevator woman looked at me and said “are you the police?” I was auditioning for a role as an FBI guy in this suit and she didn’t know. She literally just thought I was an FBI guy. She asked me if I was with the FBI. I said no but I play one on TV. It was so ridiculous. I thought ‘oh my god, even the women on the elevator thinks I’m a cop’. Once in a while they let me be the perp though.
RG: Well that’s all I have for you Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
JM: Hey, it was great talking to you and thanks for doing this.
That concluded the bulk of our conversation but we did continue on for a tad longer talking shop about Twitter and Facebook and other random topics. If you find that a theater near you is showing Heavy Lifting, I highly recommend checking it out. In the meantime, you can check out the website, or watch the trailer below.
Many thanks to Jim for giving up his time and giving me the opportunity to watch his film and to talk with him about it. It’s much appreciated!Chuma Hunter-Gault, Heavy Lifting, Interviews, James MacDonald, Jenny O'Hara