John Beaton Hill just walked away with the Chris Brinker award - yes, a statue named in recognition of the late, great Boondock Saints producer - at the San Diego Film Festival for his crime thriller The Wolves of Savin Hill. We spoke to Hill about the film, which is shaping up to be one of the year's most acclaimed independent movies, about the film's tone, release plans, and the feedback he's received.
Is it fair to say this is a throwback to a ‘70s crime thriller?
Yes, of course. I loved the films of that period. They were so influential. The 70s was one of the greatest decades in the history of cinema. Directors like William Friedkin, Coppola, Scorcese, and Brian DePalma. The French Connection was a big influence. Scorsese’s Mean Streets was a big influence, along with Taxi Driver. These films were so important to these directors. You can feel it in the work. There’s such emotion in all of these films. And the styles were personal too. These people were interested in craft first, in story. The personal commitment was remarkable. The influence is almost visceral. I feel these films as much as anything. They make one think. I feel a responsibility to create work that honors these directors. That generation changed the way we view and think about films. It certainly has with me. You know, Cassavetes did not necessarily produce crime thrillers, aside from perhaps “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” but the emotional tenor of Cassavetes’ films was just so remarkable that it influenced me without even my realizing it. I’m such a fan of his and I’ve watched his films again and again. There was no one better when it came to truth in story and performance. He had a way of getting so much out of his actors. He made the cinema of the 70s that much greater.
How did/would you pitch it?
As a crime/horror. It’s a very nuanced film with so many elements that I have to be careful to not let it run away from me. I would pitch it with references to these films from the seventies that I just spoke about. The trick, I believe, is to distil it to its barest essence and try to bring the person I’m speaking with into the main framework of the story, which is a dialectic, a running together of two personalities with needs that become more and more apparent as the story develops. It’s a dark tale of childhood betrayal and the need to come to terms with old decisions—the things we do as kids, the regrets we experience later. Some people can live with these things. Others can’t. To me that would be a distillation of a very complex tale, a story that has many elements to it. In the end, it’s a story of two friends who must turn and look at something they never wanted to confront. They’ve arrived at each other. And here I am already trying to bring the reader into the depths of the story, when in fact you asked me to pitch it, and pitching it, as I’ve said, means that I have to bring it back to the center. So what’s the center? Two men having to come to terms with a decision they made together in childhood. Life has a way of forcing one’s hand. There are some things you’ll just never get away with, as much as you try…[that’s the emotional pitch—]
When did you shoot the film – was it a while back?
We started 18 months ago. I had some surgeries during the process. I had to have neck surgery at one point. I had to heal and of course we had so many talented actors who were working on different projects, so we had to bring them in when we could. Locations were also a bit of a problem. There were some days when it was just the few of us trying to put a scene together. We had some lonely days in which we were doing what we could to keep everybody together and ready for the next scenes, going out to film atmosphere, that kind of thing. It was truly a labor of love and no one gave up. But it was difficult at certain times. It was certainly not shot conventionally. But we never wavered.
Has the film been released anywhere else yet – overseas markets? Or was San Diego the first market?
No. Not as of yet. We’re talking to people. It’s getting interesting…
Did you sit in on the screening and watch the reactions of the audience?
We were in front, most of us. One of the producers, Sean, heard a woman behind him gasp when we revealed something at the beginning. That was interesting. Another crew member heard a woman crying at the beginning of the third act. Something very tragic goes down in the story and we were getting the response we’d hoped for. The audience seemed to connect with the emotions of the actors. Overall, the reaction was very good. We had a long and sustained applause at the end. For that I was very grateful. People appreciated the storytelling and the visual style of the film, something else I was hoping for. Their involvement was palpable. We heard about a variety of other reactions. People were in there experiencing this world we’d created. What else can a writer/director ask for?
What did winning the Chris Brinker award mean to you?
It was totally unexpected. The reactions of the cast and crew made it all the more meaningful. They were yelling my name. It was really nice. The presenter, Tom Berenger, was really great also. But most important, the family of Chris Brinker, his sisters Bree and Laura, were sitting next to me. I had no idea and neither did they. That was so meaningful for me. I’d met Chris once during one of the early screenings of Boondock Saints. He could not have been more gracious. He came over to me and talked with me. As busy as he was, he made the time. I was wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey and he called me over. And now here I am standing up there receiving an award in his name. I was very proud of that alone. To be connected with him in this way is important to me. He carried himself with such grace in such a challenging environment. The stresses of independent film production are pretty high and for him to make time to talk to me was special. I was inspired and I’m still inspired to do what Chris did. You can always make time for someone else. That’s what he taught me. That’s how I want to continue to carry myself and to be linked to Chris is incredible.
What’s your favorite scene in the movie?
I can’t say that there’s one. I love all the scenes. I really do. However, I do like the opening scene where the two leads make the initial discovery that sets the story in motion. This is the inciting incident in the story arc and it was important to get the scene right. We filmed it at Quincy quarries and the weather conditions were pretty rough. Of course the atmosphere was perfect for the film. It was raining and it was bitter cold and the scene became very stark and so it had a gravitas we were seeking. The emotional stresses on these two characters are made in this event. This scene forms the foundation of the entire story. I like it for that reason, and for the beautiful visuals it gave us on a very difficult day. The performances were also remarkable. These kids were in their first experiences as actors. Amazing. I’m fond of it for that too.
Tell us about some of the messages or emails you’ve had from people regarding the film – what’s the reaction been like to it?
The comments have been so great. Family and friends especially have been so supportive. But we also received emails from people we’d never met and that to me was really inspiring. Industry people and people who’d just come to the screening—people who love to see independent films—they were there just for the experience—and they sent beautiful messages via social media like Facebook and Twitter. We also received emails. Incredible. People on the street also came up to me. That was cool. IT was just nice to share our experiences with people who genuinely appreciated our film and who support the arts in this way.