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Interview: Scott Honea

It’s standard for aspiring filmmakers to leave their small towns behind and come to Hollywood. Independent filmmaker Scott Honea has found success by taking the opposite route. After spending several years working office jobs in Los Angeles while writing screenplays (two of which were optioned but never developed) and shooting short films with his writing partner Joshua Sitarz, Honea moved back to his hometown of Corsicana, Texas to direct his first full-length film. Honea pulled together a film crew made of friends and professionals and funded the production partly through sales of vintage t-shirts on EBay. The resulting film, Believe You Me, is a dark comedy about a young man who volunteers at a suicide hotline while exploring the mystery behind a family tragedy.

Drunk Monkeys’ Matthew Guerruckey conducted this interview via email as Honea prepares for the world premiere of Believe You Me on November 5 at the Asheville Cinema Festival in Asheville, North Carolina.

Drunk Monkeys: Two years ago you made the risky decision to leave Los Angeles to write, produce, and direct this film. What was the scariest moment for you, and what was the moment that you knew you’d made the right call?

Scott Honea: I still ask myself from time to time what my life would be like if I never left L.A. I think honestly, I’d still be writing, still plugging away, but probably still looking (or waiting) for success. Frankly, I left because I got tired of waiting for someone else to validate my work, which is pretty much what you have to do when you are pursuing a career as a screenwriter. Quitting my job and moving back to Texas to focus on the film was extremely cathartic in that it allowed me to finally focus on the creation of something real, not just words on a page. The moment it felt right was probably about a week after we wrapped production when I found out that The Oregonian, a previous film I had produced, had been accepted into Sundance. One in the dance and one in the can was a beautiful feeling.

DM: You’ve written many scripts in the past few years – why did you pick this one to produce? What was it about this project that stood out among the others?

SH: This was the first script I had ever written with the specific purpose of actually filming it in mind. Almost all of my previous work was written with at least some commercial focus. I wrote the script with the idea that nothing could be written into the script that I couldn’t shoot on a tiny budget. This meant minimal locations and cast, and this allowed me to focus on the story and characters more heavily.

DM: How did filming in Corsicana affect the finished product?SH: It was harder than I thought it would be. I would definitely not suggest living and working in the same house you are shooting in. It was really difficult at times. I basically kicked my mom out of her house for two weeks to shoot this movie, and my wife production designed and volunteered to do all of the catering which was way more than I should have ever asked from one person.  But as far as the actual shooting went, we had a great skeleton crew that allowed us to move fast and stay ahead of schedule. We shot the whole thing in 14 days. Shooting in Corsicana allowed us to stay under the radar and steal a lot of shots around town. By the time anyone realized there was a movie being shot in town we were done.DM: How was it for you emotionally to work in that familiar space? Did you find any moments on set that were inspired from your own life?

SH: People who knew me growing up who have seen the film assume the main character is based on me because he works as a photographer at the local newspaper, which is the actual job I had in Corsicana for about five years. But that’s really where the similarities of me and Raleigh end. I used it as a starting point for the character, and it did allow me to get into his head a little bit easier.

DM: Do you identify with Raleigh?

SH: Yes, definitely. At this point we’ve spent about two years together so I feel like he is a part of me, though it’s impossible to view him in any sort of objective light. It’s hard to be objective when you’ve created something and personally seen it through every step of the way, from casting to filming to editing to finally showing it to audiences. I was 30 when I wrote the script. I’ll be 33 in a few months.

DM: Where does this story come from? Where was the idea born?

SH: The story started with a question —  What would happen if a crisis hotline operator started a real-life relationship with one of his callers? Believe You Me is actually my second attempt at answering this question. In 2007 I wrote a script called Daysleeper that had a very similar concept but without the family angle. I abandoned it after two drafts and didn’t revisit the idea until I was attempting to come up with an idea that I could actually shoot on my own. In early 2010 I finally had the hook that I needed to make the story work, so I set out to write it.

DM: The film deals with some pretty bleak subject matter, in spite of its mostly light tone. Do you see this as a dark movie? Would you classify it as a comedy or a drama?

SH: When people ask me that, it’s easy to just say that it’s a drama because most of the film deals with primarily dramatic situations. But there are a lot of laughs in the film as well, at least in the few test screenings I have done. I find it much easier to pull something funny out of a serious situation than to intentionally attempt being funny. It’s much less forced. I certainly didn’t want to create a straight drama with no comic relief. That would’ve been pretty dreadful.

DM: What do you think Raleigh takes away from his experience at the end of the film?

SH: I don’t know. It was never my intention to make a movie that has a message or gives a lesson or tells any sort of cautionary tale. I just wanted to put interesting characters on screen and push them into troubling situations and watch them squirm. I think in the end, Raleigh has at least come to terms with some things.

DM: This is the first lead performance for Matt Olsen, and he’s asked to carry some pretty heavy emotions. How did you approach that, as a director? Did you guide his performance, or did it just arrive organically?SH: Matt was the first person on board the project very early on, so we had almost seven months to fine tune the character and the script, and I certainly took his suggestions and ideas into consideration at the pre-production stage. Once we started shooting, Matt’s improv background became essential to the film. Inevitably there were things that read fine on paper but didn’t work on set. In the end, I would guess that Matt ended up improvising around 25% of his dialogue. I completely trusted him to do this because he knew the boundaries and the context for his character in each scene.DM: Can you give an example of his improv that made it to the finished film which adds a dimension to either the character or the story that you didn’t anticipate?

SH: Definitely. There is a scene between Raleigh and Adelaide about an hour into the film where they are drinking wine together, and on paper it’s maybe half a page. Well, Matt and Julie decided to actually drink the wine on set, so I ended up with these amazing 6-minute takes that allowed me to cut the scene into something even greater than I ever imagined. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. By the time we finished shooting it, they were pretty buzzed.

DM: Julie Mitchell, who gives a very strong performance as Adelaide, is also from Corsicana – was she recommended to you, or was it just a lucky coincidence?

SH: Julie and I didn’t really know each other growing up, but our families knew each other. You know how small towns go. We were a few years a part in high school. I knew she was in L.A. at the same time as me making a living as an actor, and I found her on Facebook and sent her the script to see if it was something she might be interested in. We had coffee and talked about our old hometown and set up a table read. It was there that she absolutely blew me away. I gave Julie almost no direction on set. She is an amazing actor. I feel lucky that we were able to work together on a feature film in our hometown.

DM: Chuck Houston is pretty raw as Dutch – did you coach that performance, or did he come in with that character?

SH: Chuck had an incredible energy that bounced really well off of Matt. He came in with a lot of ideas for the character and his back story. I had to trust Chuck completely because we had basically no rehearsal with his character apart from a 2-hour hang-out at Dairy Queen. Chuck has great range and we shot a ton of really emotional stuff with him that I wish we could’ve used but it just didn’t quite work in the final cut.

DM: Is Dutch based on a person you know, or just drawn from that “type” of guy?

SH: He’s based on no one in particular, but I’ve known a lot of guys like him growing up in the small-town South. Just hard-ass fathers with thick shells who hide their emotions. That was the gist, but the goal was to avoid going too far with it or falling into stereotype, and I think Chuck walked that line quite well.

DM: What films or directors have influenced your work?

SH: I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of films like some directors, so I’m not able to pull obscure names out of my hat (I wish I could). My formative years were spent falling in love with the films like Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” and Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade.” I also greatly admire the work of the Coen Brothers.  I’d say I’m equally inspired by music. I’m a huge vinyl collector. I listened to nothing but old Townes Van Zandt records when I was writing the script.

DM: Did the Townes Van Zandt records add a tone to your writing that might not have been there if you’d been listening to another artist?

SH: Maybe in a subconscious sort of way. Sometimes I would listen to an album that complimented the tone of the scene I was attempting to write. Not that any of his albums are particularly happy, but I’d listen to Flyin’ Shoes a lot when writing some of the lighter scenes, then switch over to Our Mother The Mountain when I wanted to get a little darker. Then I’d throw on The Late Great Townes Van Zandt to mix it up a bit. For a while the working title of the script was “If I Needed You,” which is one of my favorite songs on that album.

DM: After several years of writing, preparing, filming, and editing, you’ve now got a finished film and are starting to get buzz on the film festival circuit. Is this all overwhelming, or does the process of selling the film keep you focused?

SH: It’s kind of funny. I’m not even thinking about selling it at this point. At this point I just want to show it to people. That’s what’s going to make me happy. I just want it to play for an audience. Would I love to make my money back? Of course. But I’m realistic. It’s a small, quiet story with no movie stars, car chases or explosions. If it finds a home somewhere, I’m all for it. I would love an art house run and for people to be able to find it on Netflix. And I’m definitely aiming for that as a goal. I’d love to make enough off of it to allow me to shoot the next one. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s not going to break me. This movie cost me more in gray hairs than it did in cash.

DM: This story has lived in your head for so long, is it surreal now to watch the final product with an audience of people?

SH: It’s surreal and it’s a huge weight off of my shoulders. I feel like I owe so much to the people who worked on this film for nothing. The worst thing that could’ve happened was for it to not get into any festivals and have no one see it. I’m so glad that we’ve gotten into the ones we have so far.

DM: What are you working on next – or do you even have time to think that far ahead right now?

SH: I have stopped and started two scripts since finishing the editing process of Believe You Me. I decided to try my hand at writing another comedy, but it just wasn’t clicking. I have since shifted gears towards a drama/thriller project that is in the outline stage. I’d love to have a draft done before the end of the year. We’ll see how it goes.

The world premiere of Believe You Me is Saturday, November 5 at the Asheville Cinema Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. 
The Texas premiere is on Sunday, November 13 at the Lone Star International Film Festival in Fort Worth.
The film will also be a part of the Weyauwega Film Festival in Weyauwega, Wisconsin from November 10-12.