Flicks caught up with debut director James Napier-Robertson to ask him a few questions about his thriller, I’m Not Harry Jenson…
FLICKS: What was your inspiration behind I’m Not Harry Jenson?
JAMES NAPIER-ROBERTSON: I had always wanted to make a noir, mystery type film, as they were a huge part of my film interest growing up. However more specifically, I was reading a book about the ‘Ice Man’, Richard Kuklinski, who was one of the most prolific serial killers of his time. As I was reading it, I started becoming less fascinated with the Ice Man, and more interested in the author, who had clearly started idolizing his subject, to an almost uncomfortable degree at times. It started me thinking about what would happen if as a writer you became a little too obsessed with your subject…
FLICKS: As a young writer/director paired with an equally young producer (Tom Hern), what were your biggest challenges in trying to get this film off the ground?
JAMES: I think the biggest challenge, which would probably apply with any film really, was getting the money together. Raising a budget is an art of its own, and you have to dance around a lot of obstacles to get there. So that was a pretty grinding period.
FLICKS: There’s a very interesting financing history to the film, could you take us through your journey of rasing the money?
JAMES: Well, basically I had read about how the Coen brothers raised the $750,000 for Blood Simple through private investors, and how their technique had been simply to shoot a ‘trailer’ for the film, and then go through the phonebook under ‘D for Dentist’ — because Dentists are apparently rich and bored and might be interested in something glamorous like investing in a film. They would then sit down in the prospective investors lounge, play them the ‘trailer’, and ask if they wanted to invest to help finish the film. They did this enough times until eventually the budget was there. So, we set off down this path; I shot and cut a teaser of the film in about a week, then we started screening it for people who we thought might be interested in investing in the film. Eventually we got there.
FLICKS: No doubt one of the film’s biggest strengths is its cast – how did you managed to assemble such a fine cadre of actors?
JAMES: It was a pretty awesome process, although not really as mysterious as one might think. We had a list in mind of our dream actors we would like for each role, and then we approached one of them and asked if he was interested. After reading the script he agreed, then we approached the next one and said ‘Look at who’s already in it! Wouldn’t you love to work with them?’ And they agreed. And so on, and so on. Eventually we had a stunning cast assembled. It helped that both Tom and I had worked with some of them in the past, so there was an – albeit slim at times – already established working relationship with them. And there certainly were moments when it looked like it was all going to fall over and we’d end up with no-one. But luckily that never happened!
FLICKS: Given your limited resources and budget, what was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome?
JAMES: Time. I had to shoot it so quickly – sometimes up to 12 pages a day – that all my meticulous storyboarding went straight out the window, and I just started having to wing each day to keep up. The hardest thing about that was quite often I felt we hadn’t totally nailed the shot, but we had to move on or we simply wouldn’t make the day, and then the film wouldn’t get finished. So that was a bit dispiriting at times.
FLICKS: You shot the film in just 18 days – how did you prepare yourself for the shoot? How large was your crew?
JAMES: The crew peaked at maybe 50 people some days? And other days – for example the stuff shot in Sydney – it consisted of Gareth (the lead actor), Rhys on camera, and me directing and holding lighting boards…and that was it. And of course we never could afford permits to shoot in some of those areas, so there was always the risk of being caught and kicked out. I prepared myself by being thoroughly armed with storyboards, shot lists etc, although as I said, a week into it, I pretty much had to throw all that stuff out. There isn’t any way to fully prepare yourself for the fact that you’ll be getting almost no sleep for the next three weeks and feel like you’re going slightly insane… I think take vitamins, get lots of sleep leading up to it, and be prepared to drink far more coffee than you would ever actually want to.
FLICKS: What films creatively inspired you?
JAMES: I’m very inspired by quite a range of filmmakers; people like David Lynch, Hitchcock, the Coen bros, Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik, Kubrick, Scorsese etc. I loved the tone of a film like ‘Chopper’, and I certainly tried to memorize some of the shots that Scorsese did in ‘After Hours’, attempting to do my own version of them… Also I’m very interested in some of the mexican filmmakers who have exploded onto the scene, such as Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron & Alejandre Gonzalez Inarrituz….. As far as specifically for the film, I think the noir genre itself was certainly an inspiration!
FLICKS: I noticed that several sequences were shot in Australia – how did you manage to include an overseas location shoot into your film?
JAMES: This actually happened about a year after the original stuff was shot; Gareth had flown to Oz for some acting work, and so me and Rhys just jumped on a plane, and rode subways with Gareth all night trying to get the right shot. It was about at guerilla as you get, but I’m really happy with what we managed from it. We wanted to try and give the film a little more scope and insight into his Stanley’s normal life and environment, and the opportunity arose, so we leapt on it.
FLICKS: What’s been the feedback on the film so far?
JAMES: It’s been fantastic. The opening night at the NZFF was such a great experience, although utterly nervewracking to begin with. However to see that people had geniunely enjoyed it was such a relief. I was finally able to start enjoying it myself!
FLICKS: What’s coming up next for you? Do you have your next project in mind already?
JAMES: I’ve got two scripts I’ve written that we’re considering; one set here in NZ, the other in the between here and Australia… There’s also another couple of ideas that me and Tom are developing that could possibly have potential. So it’s a matter of seeing which one wants to be made the most! It’s been pretty hard to write whilst pushing this current film, so once Harry has finished his release, then we’ll really gonna kick into overdrive on deciding, and raising the budget for the next one. So I’ve got at least another month or two to work it all out…
FLICKS: I’m sure making your first-feature came with a lot of valuable experiences, but what – in your mind – was the biggest lesson you took away from this film?
JAMES: Be utterly determined and relentless, no matter how huge the problems seem. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that the odds seemed stacked so high against us that it felt impossible. But we somehow struggled on each time, and now they’re all just memories.