INTERVIEW – Chris Hansen Unveils 3rd Film, “Where We Started”
Chris Hansen is a busy dude. He is a husband, a father and a full time Film Professor at Baylor University, yet he somehow finds time and funding during the Summer months to shoot Feature length films. He is also a friend of mine, and a Regent University Alum, so I had a blast catching up with him and talking about his third and latest film, “Where We Started.”
Starring Matthew Brumlow and Cora Vander Broek, this film is a rich character study with dialogue which, at times, you’ll swear he’s channeling a young Aaron Sorkin. When Will (Brumlow) and Cora (Broek) meet up by accident at a roadside motel on their way back to their real lives from wherever, a shared cigarette leads to a shared evening and a connection that neither expected to happen.
Hansen grasps what so many other Christian Filmmakers do not and that is nuanced performances and bold subject matter — instead of the usual 90 minute Sermons and Christianese tripe. So we thank him for that!
WIRED4FILM: For starters, Chris, thanks for this film and for taking the time to talk with us. It’s such a bold, honest and intriguing portrait you’ve created here with “Where We Started.” It’s fascinating to watch these two talk. And it’s obviously not an action film, I’m not giving anything away there, which means there’s no cheap tricks (explosions or chase scenes) to gain audience attention. It’s all dialogue. Dialogue, and yet it works. That’s the intriguing part, because that’s one of the hardest things to accomplish.
So, well done, Roman Polanski (“Carnage”)!
CHRIS HANSEN: Thank you! I’m proud of it. I was definitely hesitant going into the film, worrying whether we could sustain just dialogue for that long. I mean, I know it’s been done, but by better directors than me!
WIRED4FILM: Let’s back up and set some of the groundwork. What did you shoot on? What type of camera? HD? 24P? All that good stuff.
CHRIS HANSEN: We shot on the Panasonic AG-AF100 – HD, 24P, with prime lenses.
W4F: Nice. And who was your crew? Professional? Hobbyists? N00bs? A mix would be my guess. I mean, as a college professor you do have a large pool of talent you can press into service, right?
CHRIS HANSEN: I hired professional crew at key positions – Director of Photography (DP), sound, producer. The rest of the crew is made up of students in the Baylor Film & Digital Media program who were taking it as course credit. I’ve done that now on all my films, and it really works out well. The students get great experience, and we get an enthusiastic crew. We teach them on the job and always make sure to recruit a few knowledgeable and experienced students at key positions.
W4F: How does Chris Hansen choose which stories he’s going to pursue? Which ones are worthy of 100s and 100s and sometimes 1000s of hours of your time? What attracted you about this story?
CHRIS HANSEN: It’s very much a gut process for me. I get story ideas from lots of places, but I don’t always follow them. But when one sticks, I find myself thinking about the characters and the situation even when I’m supposed to be doing something else. I usually know I’m going to go forward with that story. The ones I don’t write are the ones where I have a good idea but I can’t figure out who the people in the story are and why I should care about them.
W4F: I remember from Regent films that night shooting is always difficult. I see you put a light up on the building back behind Will and Nora smoking on the car in the beginning to add that sense of depth to the shot? What other considerations did you have to work around?
CHRIS HANSEN: The nights were indeed not easy. Shooting outside at night is a hassle, but it was necessary for this. Of course, if we were shooting in the daytime, we’d need a lot of extras, and those are even harder to come by for this kind of project. So I like it when we don’t need extras. That scene you mentioned with the building lit up in the background – and actually every scene in the movie – was a lot brighter when we shot.
We darkened everything down in post because we wanted more shadow and moodiness. That was always the plan – the DP, Taylor Rudd (a former student of mine who worked as a student on my previous film) knew we were going to make it darker, so he shot it with a crystal clear image – so that we could go as dark as we wanted and still retain a lot of detail. In that scene where they sit on the car and smoke, the building in the background was lit up with a couple of our HMIs – and yes, the reason was so that we’d have the requisite depth to make the shot not look too dull and flat.
At the same time, I wanted it dark.
W4F: And how dark is too dark?
CHRIS HANSEN: During the color correction process, my mantra was “Don’t be afraid of the shadows.” I kept pushing to see how things would look if we went darker and darker. Hotel rooms are often pretty dimly lit, especially cheap motels like this one. I didn’t want it to feel like the set of a sitcom.
W4F: Your lead actor, Matthew Brumlow was the same lead actor in your last film, too, right? Is he the Johnny Depp to your Tim Burton? And Cora Vander Broek was the other 50% of this on-screen power couple. What were you looking for in your actors for these two meaty roles?
CHRIS HANSEN: I will definitely be working with Matt and Cora again – they’re two fantastic actors who I consider collaborators. One of the things I’ve learned since my film school days is that directing is a process of collaboration with actors and the craftspeople who are helping to create the film. In the best cases, this means that everyone contributes and takes ownership of the project. So – if I’m lucky, these actors will believe in me as much as I do them (or as much as Depp believes in Burton) – because I certainly plan to work with them again as soon as I can.
W4F: Write what you know, they say. Whoever “they” are. Did you write with all of those locations in mind or find them later?
CHRIS HANSEN: I always write with locations in mind that I think I can use. I sometimes find I was wrong, though! On Endings, I used locations around the area that I thought were attractive or picturesque. In the case of Where We Started, roughly 50% of the script takes place inside the adjoining rooms. That was intentional – and we built that interior as a set so that we could have a location that was completely under our control. A generous alum of our program donated the use of a studio he owns, and we were able to build the set there. Then we searched for a motel exterior that would match the style of the interior we had created.
W4F: Talk about your writing process on this one — what was the nugget of idea that popped into your head that got it started?
CHRIS HANSEN: The writing process on this one was interesting – one of my best experiences. I had this idea and ran some of my thoughts by the actors. I knew from the start I wanted to work with them, so I was crafting something with them in mind. As we discussed it further and the ideas began to flow, I realized that I could draw not only from my own life and experiences (which I always do) but from those of the actors as well. If they were going to inhabit these characters, what better way to help them do that? And in doing that, the process became one of exploration for all of us – we were talking about how we would react in these situations and how our family lives impacted that.
So, right from the beginning, Matt and Cora were involved in the writing process. They helped craft their characters and contributed dialogue along the way. After I finished the script, I went out to stay with them for a weekend. They were in a show together at the Indiana Rep Theatre in Indianapolis, so we all got together and workshopped and rehearsed the script. And that process was wonderful. It improved the script and got us all working together. Having done it this way, I much prefer to engage the actors from the beginning and have them be involved in the writing process. It was true collaboration.
W4F: Wait, so Matt and Cora are married then?
CHRIS HANSEN: Yes, they are in fact married. I didn’t mention it because I was curious to see if you picked up on it. I do think it helps with their chemistry. And the fact that they were married is partially what made me comfortable pushing the intimacy on screen.
W4F: Ah ha! Well, then Wired4Film hereby dubs this acting couple, “Moralina”. Hm. Or maybe, “CorMat”. That doesn’t sound right, either. You know what? I’ll just let that soak for a while and we’ll circle back later.
So, how fun was it to spout all that John Hughes verbiage?
CHRIS HANSEN: I loved doing the Hughes dialogue. I did it as a sort of tribute to him. I picture these characters as people from a Hughes film, later in their lives.
W4F: So many great moments in the film, too, Chris. The two shot of their hotel rooms where he goes into his room and she comes out of hers. The hand sliding down the swingset chain. “Makeout music” vs “sensuality mix”. Two of the three of those stem from blocking and storyboarding, which would be crucial on a film like this in order to progress an hour and a half narrative through finite amounts of space. Talk about that. Because I was reminded of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” and that is one of the most difficult things to pull off as a Director is to keep things interesting when so much happens in a single space. But you pulled it off very well.
Okay I shut up now, you talk. Go.
CHRIS HANSEN: Thank you – those are some of my favorite moments, too, and I’m glad you picked up on them. You’re right, blocking was critical on this film, and most important to me – always – is that it feels natural and not forced. I had the actors come in almost a week before shooting so that we could get into the space (the motel rooms) – just us and the DP – and work through the scenes. We needed to figure out the physicality of it all. So while the actors and I rehearsed, Taylor, the DP, would watch (through a camera lens) to see what would be the best way to shoot certain things. As these things go, it was a give and take process between all of us. The actors would protest if something felt unnatural; I would have certain shots in my head that might not be achievable the way I had envisioned them; and Taylor would suggest blocking based on what he was seeing through the lens. That several days of rehearsal was really critical. I can’t imagine making this film without that, because when we walked onto the set each day, we might not know every shot we were going to get, but we knew the general coverage we needed and had signposts along the way. We knew the blocking and could adjust camera as needed.
W4F: You had a long slow dolly-in when she’s venting on the bed to Will about her husband, Steven. Good job. Very smooth. Quite the monologue, too. When did you choose to move the camera? Because other than handheld tracking shots when they’re walking along, it seems like you moved it sparingly — like your use of music. Talk about that.
CHRIS HANSEN: Yeah, one of my favorite shots in the film. I wanted you to not even realize the dolly was happening until we were already in close up – that’s partially the result of a steady move and partially the result of performance that rivets you.
Movement is one of the things I struggle with. It always takes more time than you think. I want more movement, but in this film I felt too much would be showy. For example, I love Martin Scorsese’s style – but I don’t think it would’ve been appropriate for this film. So we went with a restrained style both for creative reasons and out of necessity. With a limited budget and students as our crew, we’re not going to be able to pull off a lot of tricky shots. So I used them when necessary. And then when time was crunched for one reason or another, we would do away with movement and just let the actors do their thing. I think the combination ended up working out pretty well.
W4F: I recall from my student film “Byline” that there was maybe 1 dolly move that was usable out of the 10 dolly shots I’d planned. And on “Go Tell Mama” we never could land that “Vertigo” shot where you dolly in and zoom out at the same time. Horrible! We burned so much film trying to make that work. So, kudos! Very smooth, well done.
In the credits, “additional dialogue by Matthew and Cora” speaks to maybe some on set improvisation with the script. How big were rehearsals in the weaving together of this narrative? How much did you feel you had in the script versus how much did you “find” on set?
CHRIS HANSEN: Very little improvisation – it was tightly scripted, but Matt and Cora were very involved in the writing process, both in influencing where their characters were coming from, their histories, etc. and also writing dialogue in their voices. Any given exchange might be 50% my writing and 50% from one of them, and in some cases they wrote big chunks of dialogue that I would shape (and then they would reshape). We did this a lot over email, and then we rewrote a lot of stuff when we workshopped it a few months before shooting.
W4F: How did you secure funding for your film? Can you discuss budget? And do your financiers agree to fund on the premise? Or, on the treatment? Or, on the Script?
CHRIS HANSEN: Funding came from two places – a Kickstarter campaign that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped but still yielded several thousand dollars, and my department’s production budget, which we use to support faculty projects, especially when they involve students in significant ways, which my projects always do. I’ve made three feature films now in this manner, and while I wish I could have more money with which to work, I’m grateful for what I have and for the freedom it allows me. No one is telling me what I can or can’t do, and that’s a good feeling, creatively.
W4F: Talk a little more about Kickstarter. What happened there? Is that a valid tool for funding films, but maybe just within a certain smaller budget level?
CHRIS HANSEN: I have a love/hate relationship with Kickstarter. Like most things of this nature, when more famous people use it, it can be wildly successful. I’ve been following a $200,000 Charlie Kaufman project on there recently, and it reached its goal in less than a week. I was trying to raise 10% of that and couldn’t. Now, part of that was my inexperience with the best ways to do that. I’m not blaming anyone but myself. It’s just that there are so many people using it now, I’m not sure how you can stand out in the crowd unless you have a project that appeals to a very specific niche.
W4F: The music was great. Like I said, very sparse so when it came in it was the perfect little accent. Talk about your music choices a bit and your motivations there.
CHRIS HANSEN: I love good music, but I have no musical ability myself. So communicating with a composer is difficult for me. With regard to the songs that are in the film (as opposed to the score), the actors knew this band, Bella Ruse, and recommended their latest album to me. They told me right off that the band would be willing to let us use their music. So I was listening to that album while we were shooting, and it really became my soundtrack for the film, in my head. I provided those songs to the editor, Simon Tondeur, and where he placed them is generally where they ended up in the final film.
Then I sat down with Mike Hogan, the composer, who was just ending his stint as a band member in the David Crowder Band. I felt very fortunate to have gotten to know him over the previous few years, and he was eager to do this kind of work. As we discussed music in the film, he felt that much of the dialogue was really strong – that the connection between the two characters required silence in some cases. The only places we really used music was in places where we wanted to use it to emphasize the burgeoning connection. So it is mostly in places where they are still getting to know one another, or feeling each other out on sensitive topics. Mike felt it should almost be like a bed of sound rather than music. It was great to sit with him while he created.
W4F: Speaking of, I’m pretty sure that when the Academy Nominations come out, that an award for best use of “Night Crickets Chirping” will go to this film. Sound beds cover a multitude of sins do they not?
CHRIS HANSEN: Ha – well, crickets were indeed the main sound bed used in the film. The problem is that there really aren’t a lot of other sounds that would be appropriate for a motel in a small town in the middle of the night.
W4F: Were you happy with your location sound? Did you have to ADR anything in post?
CHRIS HANSEN: I will say that location sound is VERY important to me. There’s no ADR in this film. We did have to steal a line or two of dialogue from a different take to cover up wind issues or microphone rustling. But no dialogue was recorded later – which is really critical. ADR always sounds fake to me. So we work very hard to make sure our location sound is good, and we don’t wrap a shot or scene until we know that we know that we have both picture and sound.
The main issues we faced: wind, especially a few outside shoots. But also in the studio. There were some soundproofing issues, and on several windy days, we had to wait for gusts to subside. It’s a pain for the actors, but the patience pays off later.
W4F: You’re producing films under the Baylor umbrella. How does that work? How much input do they have in the process, especially the writing process?
CHRIS HANSEN: I write it on my own with no input from anyone else, aside from those whose opinions I seek out. Several of my colleagues will read the script, but solely for creative suggestions. Ultimately, I know there is probably subject matter about which I need to be careful. But I don’t have anyone telling me what I can or can’t do. I use common sense when it comes to how my work is going to reflect on the university. While certainly some may question certain elements, I can defend the reasons for everything I do. I’ve never really had to do that, though.
W4F: How do you integrate your films into your classes and student’s education?
CHRIS HANSEN: As I mentioned, the crew of my films is 90 – 95% students in our program. They take upper level credit in the major in exchange for learning the filmmaking process on the job. We expose them to what it’s like to be on a real set, with real outcomes and consequences. We’re not a Hollywood production in terms of size, of course, but the feel of it is the same – a professional set with real responsibilities and professional actors, etc.
Students will often rotate through positions, learning different jobs. Sometimes someone will be so good in a particular role that we’ll park him or her there as a de facto supervisor. But we’re always mindful of the fact that this is both a real film project and a learning experience. We hire professionals who are comfortable that they’ll have to do some teaching on the job and have realistic expectations. The results have been fantastic. Many of our students have indicated that working on one of these films was one of their best learning experiences in college. And they bond with each other, as people on film sets often do. On Endings, the makeup artist and key grip started dating. Now they’re happily married.
W4F: Well, you heard it hear first, folks. Work on Hansen’s film, find your soul mate! Anyway, so the film is called “Where We Started” but the DVD icon reads “Where We Shot Ourselves” and I feel like there’s a story there and I want to know it. Long hours in a tight closed space drive you to the edge of sanity? Are all your students accounted for, by the way? ☺
CHRIS HANSEN: Oops – I didn’t realize that would show up. Um, well, we had some issues getting the finished film onto DVD. Technical glitches that really caused some headaches. On the final export, I typed that name on the file primarily to differentiate it from previous attempts. You can read about that headache HERE.
W4F: As a Film Professor, you meet a lot of bright-eyed kids who want to be the next Tarantino or Spielberg or Nolan, what’s the biggest misconception they have about the industry do you think? After they’ve been on set for one of your films, what is the biggest observation they have?
CHRIS HANSEN: That directing is hard work and mostly about collaborating, communication, and preparation. A lot of film students also don’t have the experience of working with professional actors who know what they’re doing and bring their own ideas to the film. That can be good but it can also rattle an inexperienced director, who in response might become either a dictator (“This is my film, and we’re doing it my way!”) or a puppet (“Um, okay, great idea, whatever you want to do”). The best directors know what they want but know a good suggestion when they hear it. I don’t claim I’m always on the right side of that edge, but I think my students see how professional collaborate and negotiate when they’re equally concerned with what’s best for the film.
W4F: I know as Christians and Filmmakers there’s an expectation thrust upon us to make these “Christianese Films” and I can’t help notice that there was no salvation scene, they didn’t take out the Gideon Bible to tell each other their favorite verses, there was no travelling preacher in the room next to them to work in a sermon, Kirk Cameron never showed up, I mean, if I stretched my imagination there maybe was a communion scene.
However, what you did have was an intense and honest portrayal of a moment of time between two people and the brief, common ground they found on their way back to their “real lives”. I’m not even going to ask a question, I’m just gonna let you re-read the paragraph again and again til you’ve formed some sort of answer to my non-question! Go.
CHRIS HANSEN: This is a topic on which I spend a lot of time. I’m not sure what the purpose of some of those “Christianese” films is. Are they trying to convince non-Christians to convert? They’re usually hopelessly out of touch if that’s the goal. Are they a form of ‘clean’ entertainment for Christians? I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that, but I don’t feel like it’s a great use of resources.
I think I grew up as a filmmaker when I stopped focusing on message and started focusing on telling a good story that reveals the truth of its characters. Message can be dealt with later. The message is definitely there; there’s no denying that films are about something whether the filmmakers intend them to be or not. But it was important for us, in making this film, to remind ourselves that we were telling the story of these two people – not every married person everywhere. Is it applicable to others? Of course, or at least I hope so. That’s my goal. But for the telling, it had to be about two real people.
In the workshop process in which we rewrote, we really shaved out all the abstract language that was focused not on the characters and too much on the ideas of the film. It was great on paper – really intelligent and deep stuff that ultimately no one would ever say if they were in this situation in the real world. And I think that’s one of the problems of many Christian films – they’re so focused on the message that they fail to tell a good story that feels real.
On the other hand, I really did have to avoid the temptation to have a “Gideon Bible shot” in the film. It was in the script. Just a moment where Nora would glance in the drawer and then shut it. But it was so on the nose and unnecessary. These people know what they’re thinking about doing is wrong, and so does the audience. So it’s really about what happens next.
W4F: I would guess this film lands in the PG-13ish range. It’s got some sexiness to it. How did you decide how far to go and what you would show and what you wouldn’t? Same with obscene language, where do you personally draw the line? Does it change film to film?
CHRIS HANSEN: It depends on the film and the context. I don’t know in particular where the line is. I originally intended this film to have a little more ‘sexiness’ to it. I was comfortable with that, given the context, but ultimately it didn’t develop that way, so I didn’t have to deal with that question.
W4F: As I’ve said, you spent a couple of years in Grad School at Regent University back in the day, what was the biggest thing you had hoped to gain going into film school and what did you come away with? Has it been beneficial along the way?
CHRIS HANSEN: I think I went in with the wrong attitude – “I know how to tell stories, now teach me how to do it on film so I can be a famous filmmaker.” What I really needed to realize was that I had a lot to learn about telling stories, not just on film. And I really needed to learn about working with others to create something valuable. I was so focused on being an “auteur” that I missed out on working with other creative people.
What I DID come away with, thankfully, was a solid understanding of the fundamentals of visual storytelling.
W4F: Back at Regent, sometimes it was frustrating for me to juggle Grad School, 2 jobs, a wife and a newborn baby. I envied those who were just out of college and could just concentrate just on film film film for 2 years straight. But later I grew to appreciate the balance of not being totally immersed in one space, but being stretched into a fuller individual by the different hats I wore.
How do you balance family and filmmaking and dream building and daily routine and bread winning?
CHRIS HANSEN: I wasn’t juggling quite as much as you when I started – but I understand that frustration because I was juggling school, a job, and a new marriage when I started out. When we met, I had two kids, worked full time, and was doing my second degree part time. And now, as a filmmaker, I have a wife and four kids and a demanding full time role as a professor and director of the film program. Fortunately, the job is tied in with the filmmaking, but even so, it’s hard to juggle the filmmaking and the family. I don’t have any great answers, and if I said anything to indicate I did, my wife would probably dispute it. I get fairly obsessive when I’m working on a project, whether in the writing, production, or postproduction phases. I try to put it to rest when I’m home in the evening so that I’m just being with my family. But it’s not easy. And when I’m shooting a film, it’s admittedly hard to have any quality time with them. Since so much of this film was shot at night, I was coming home just as the sun was rising, falling into bed, and sleeping until noon or later.
I’m lucky that my family is very supportive of my filmmaking, and that my colleagues are as well. My department expects me to make films – it’s my form of scholarly activity (just like other professors write books or publish articles). So there’s some space for creativity in the workplace.
W4F: Even back in 2002 when we met, you had a gift for bold filmmaking as your student film “Keeping Up With the Joneses” rocked the Naro Student Film Festival and rumor has it might have even gotten a Professor fired. (And we thought “White American Jesus” was gonna get all the heat! That film looked like a tame SNL skit compared to the others).
CHRIS HANSEN: Yeah, I created a little controversy there, unintentionally. It’s not like I didn’t know the film had some controversial elements, but since the faculty chose it as one of the films to showcase in the festival, I assumed everyone was okay with it. And you’re right, it wasn’t just my film that year that caused issues. There was a serial killer mystery that had some pretty disturbing imagery, as I recall.
W4F: Not to mention Cris Cunningham’s Ouija board scene. Pat Robertson almost ex-communicated our whole class. And that’s how you KNOW you’re going the right direction! Good times!
Anyway, talk to young filmmakers out there…what’s the secret to great filmmaking?
CHRIS HANSEN: The secret of great filmmaking? Wow, when I figure that out, I’ll have it made. My goal is to tell stories that resonate with people – I think that’s the secret, if there is one. If you’re focused on spectacle over story, I think you’re making a mistake. If you’re focused on an agenda over the story, I think you’re making a mistake. I think the reason Where We Started works is that I stopped trying to be a clever filmmaker and stepped out of the way. I told the story in the most direct way possible. I watched the actors to see how they saw the story unfold, and I responded to that.
W4F: Have you had film role models? Directors? Films of influence?
CHRIS HANSEN: Films of influence – hmmm. The filmmakers that made me want to be a director are Fellini, Bergman, Coppola, Scorsese, and Kubrick. I ‘discovered’ their work when I was in college, and I saw them as real artists who were trying to move beyond commercial filmmaking as an end. So my goal is to be like them. But I realized a while ago that my films aren’t really like theirs. They come from who I am as a person. So I think of them now as inspirations rather than direct influences.
W4F: All right, Professor, I know you’ve got some more young, collegiate minds to warp…I mean, inspire, so we’ll let you go, but we’ll be talking again soon, buddy.
And here’s the Trailer…