An interview with Sean Williamson, director of “Heavy Hands”
"Heavy Hands," Sean Williamson's debut feature film, premieres Thursday at the Oriental Theatre. TCD sat down with Williamson for an in depth interview.
Some of you may already know Sean Williamson as singer for Milwaukee indie outfit Hot Coffin, but for the last few years, Williamson has been hard at work on his debut feature film, Heavy Hands. With the film finally complete and set to debut this Thursday, TCD sat down with Williamson to talk about the film’s progression, his highly successful Kickstarter campaign, and the importance of friends and family.
Sean Williamson: Yeah, it’s been about three and a half years.
SJ: How long did it take you to more or less brainstorm the idea and then actually bring the idea to life and start developing the actual film?
SW: I wrote a script for it about three and a half years ago. When you write a script, it’s sort of a different process and it was always my intention to make a film out of it. So when I was developing the script, there were a lot of times when I had to stop and ask myself “How am I going to go about doing this?” The original script was called You’re All Alone in This, and it was sort of this…criminal Forrest Gump sort of character. It was going to be a fictional biopic. It had spanned over the course of like 20 years, and there were tons of charaters and locations, and the main character changed ages a dozen times. It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to work, so I more or less took the critical point in the film and I pretty much made that the focus of the entire film.
SJ: Is this your first feature length film?
SW: Yeah, this is my first feature.
SJ: What other things have you done prior to Heavy Hands?
SW: My background for the most part is in fiction writing. I never went to film school or anything. I helped my friend out Frankie [Latina] with his film Modus Operandi, and I kinda just watched him do it. I just saw different avenues that I could take to make it happen. So I just wrote scripts and worked on a lot of short films with friends and stuff. I just wanted to make something that was my entire vision.
Besides that, I’ve written two novellas, one called House of Will that I wrote and self published about four or five years ago, the other called The Wild Introduction that came out last year, but I never really did that much with. I’m going to have a dual release of the film and the novella and package them together. Thematically they work really well together, the stories and main characters are really similar and they kind of operate in the same universe. Once they’re released, I’m going to tour on it for a year or so, doing readings and screenings and schedule as many of those as I can. I’d like to do a reading or screening in every state in the union, and then do a couple of international events as well.
SJ: With working on this for more than three years, you obviously didn’t devote all of your time to the film, seeing how you still have a day job and play music and whatnot, right?
SW: Yeah, I mean I definitely spent some time here and there just sort of messing around, but there were always certain points where it became clear to me what I had to do and how I had to go about things. I more or less started shooting right away. I couldn’t really ask any production company for funding because I didn’t have much to show, so pretty much every time I had some extra money, I’d buy some film and shoot. Once I had enough footage for a trailer, I put together a trailer, and then another trailer just to have a few different ones. It was always in progress, really from the time that I knew what I wanted to do. The more I had to show, the better I could make it with better actors and music. That all came together with directing the Altos video (RadioMilwaukee Best Music Video award-winner “Sing (For Trouble)”) last year, and then eventually getting the Kickstarter going.
I remember the first time I watched the final edit straight through with the titles and everything. The end credits rolled, it went to black and I was just kinda like “Wow, this is crazy. I can’t believe that this is a thing now.” And then I picked up my phone and started calling people to see if anyone wanted to go get a drink, and everyone had to get up in the morning, so I just went back to work (laughs). I think once the film shows for a while, I’ll probably have a sense of accomplishment then. I’ve just been working on it for so long that I don’t really have that sense of finality quite yet.
SJ: Let’s talk a bit about the production of the film. You mentioned earlier that you shot this on film as opposed to digital?
SW: Yeah, I shot it entirely on Super 8.
SJ: There aren’t many places that even process Super 8 anymore, are there?
SW: Yeah, I sent it out to LA to Pro 8mm; I’ve pretty much always sent stuff to them. They’re really reliable so I’ve never really tried to go anyplace else. They’ve always been really helpful. If I would have shot it on digital, it probably would have gotten done faster, but it wouldn’t have ended up looking the way it does. I’m not a film snob of any sort, in fact, I don’t even know how to use a 16 or 35 mm camera.
It’s really not the principle, it’s more about the discipline. I can’t run a bunch of cameras at once because you can only fit three and a half minutes per cartridge. If the camera’s rolling and all the lighting is good, that’s really the best you have. You don’t see it until it’s been processed. Given, I edited it in Final Cut Pro which gave me a bit more flexibility when it came to that, but yeah, I’m glad that I did it.
SJ: Whenever I see anything that’s shot on Super 8, I immediately think of a lot of the mid-90s music videos that were on MTV back when I was growing up. They all had that distinct look.
SW: For sure. Super 8 gave the film a look that I couldn’t have achieved otherwise.
SJ: Can you give us a brief synopsis of the film?
SW: It’s a metaphyiscal crime-noir movie, basically. It’s about this main character named Jimmy Lee who steals from this infamous crime family, and in retaliation they kill his girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of this huge crime mogul, and so that kicks off this entire blood feud between the two families. Eventually, the father finds out that it was the main character’s fault for his daughter getting killed, and the third act is pretty much the discovery and fall out of all that.
SJ: Any cast members that we may know or recognize?
SW: Yeah, definitely. I play one of the main characters in the film, Frankie Latina plays my best friend, Milwaukee’s own Mark Borchardt has a cameo, so yeah, there’s definitely some familiar faces for sure. In addition to those, there’s some other great actors and actresses as well. Kelly Cunningham plays the girlfriend who ends up getting killed, Jim Winship plays one of the crime bosses, my father plays my grandfather in it.
SJ: I remember reading somewhere that you were able to get Kumar Pallana from the Wes Anderson films to play a role in the film?
SW: Yeah! I actually met him a few years ago at a film screening in New York. I was kinda drunk and it was really late, but I told him that I wanted him to be in the film. A few years later I was able to fly him in and shoot it all, so It was great that it actually ended up happening.
SJ: You mentioned earlier about having the film being partially funded by Kickstarter. Was that something that you were maybe thinking about avoiding for a while? What was it that you got to the point where you realized that Kickstarter could really help you out in financing the film?
SW: I don’t think avoiding is the right word, but yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to do it. I knew that it would be a lot of work. I didn’t want to do a Kickstarter and just disappoint people. Getting to that point definitely helped by me gain confidence in the project. I also had some friends who had done it, too, and so I saw how it worked and it gave me added reason to consider it. It’s a really interesting thing. It’s polarizing because some people don’t really believe in it. I thought that if I could make things happen and do a good enough project without it that I would.
SJ: One thing I noticed is that no matter how much a person donated to the project, you made a point to thank them via email or Facebook or whatever. I really liked that because it showed that the money that you’re donating is actually going to someone, and that person is taking time to thank you for it. It almost gave it a more personal touch.
SW: That was the cool part for me, too. I’d be looking through the donations and see an old friend of mine that I hadn’t talked to in a while or something and that always made me feel great. It was such a group effort to do something this big, especially in Milwaukee. I think the really cool thing about creating art is that it gives you the opportunity to bring together all the people you care about in your life. The older you get, with jobs and families and school, you tend to lose touch with people, or they fade away, you know? Creating art gives you the opportunity to share it with all of these people and really hold them all together. If someone was important to you at one point in your life, you should try and keep it that way forever. That’s really idealisitic, but I think things like this are really the biggest reward for me.
SJ: Absolutely. So you’re going to have a launch party and screening for Heavy Hands soon, right?
SW: Yeah. It’s Dec. 13 at the Oriental Theatre. Doors are at 7 p.m., cover charge is $10. Beans and Barley and Hotel Foster were kind enough to sponsor this, and I’m super grateful for that. Any cast, crew and anyone who donated anything to Kickstarter, they’re all on the guest list to get in for free. It’ll be a blast. Then I’ll be hosting an afterparty at Hotel Foster, and that’ll be super fun as well.
SJ: Awesome. I’ll definitely be there. Now that the film is done, what do you have planned, if anything?
SW: As I mentioned earlier I’m gonna package the film and the novella together and tour on that with screenings and whatnot. I really wanna get it shown in theaters. I think that getting to sit in a theater to watch a film is absolutely night and day from watching it standing up at an art gallery. So I’m gonna do everything I can to get it in some theaters, so people can get the popcorn and sit down and get the full experience.
Heavy Hands will make its onscreen debut at the Landmark Oriental Theatre Thursday, Dec. 13. For more information about the film as well as Williamson’s other projects, visit worldwidedirt.com or heavyhandsfilm.com.