October 15 – 20, 2019

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Tonya’s Talks: A Conversation with John Hill

TONYA:  You premiered your film WOLVES OF SAVIN HILL at the 2014 San
Diego Film Festival.  What was that experience like?

JOHN BEATON HILL: Just amazing… We had the best time… When I think of the San Diego Film Festival… So many emotions come to mind. All I can say is that this was one of the best experiences of my life. I just don’t have the words to express how grateful I am to the San Diego Film Festival. Everyone made us feel so welcomed and at home. That’s why it felt so personal to me. It felt like being among family. And having members of the Brinker Family, Brea and Laura attend our screening was just a great honor for us as well…

We talk about the festival from time to time and what an amazing experience it was… I always recommend the festival to filmmakers who are looking to submit their next project. To have the reception we received for “The Wolves of Savin Hill.” Just incredible… I will never forget.

TONYA:  At the festival you also won the CHRIS BRINKER award, honoring you as a first time director.  How did it feel to have actor Tom Berenger (Platoon) present you with that award?

JOHN: I was overwhelmed really… Flooded with emotions, big time. And when Tom presented me the award in honor of Chris… I was just so humbled by it all. You could see what Chris meant to Tom. It’s an incredible honor and a responsibility receiving this award. And Tom was so kind to me after I gave my speech… He’s was just great.
TONYA:  Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

JOHN: I started making films really young. Making super-8 films with my family and friends. I discovered it accidently while playing Army with friends in the neighborhood I grew up with… My buddy’s all had toy guns that you could put paper fire crackers in, they looked like square dots… I didn’t have one of those toy guns, so I improvised and used my dad’s Yashica super-8 camera as a ray gun or whatever… Running around the neighborhood causing mayhem. I didn’t know the camera was filming and recording us, every time I clicked it on. I didn’t know there was a film cartridge inside… But when I discovered there was, I wanted to see what was recorded…

When my dad got the footage developed and when we projected it… I was just floored by the images. It just took off from there… I was 7 when I made a film titled “Marked Men.” That’s the first thing I remember putting together as a film. With a little outlined script with events and effects and stuff like that… I told my older brothers about it and I asked a bunch of kid’s in my neighborhood in Milton, MA if they wanted to be in a movie. They were all game for it. A lot of the kids I grew up with, their dads served in different branches of the military and we just asked if we could wear their uniforms for the film. My dad included… We got a green light and we started sorting out uniforms, who was going to wear what… And we started shooting it. We felt like we were making an epic war film. We shot it in a day, at Presidents Golf Course in Quincy MA, for the staggering amount of five dollars. Making films like that… With your best friends, being creative, it’s just the best…

I made all kinds of films, mostly horror. They were easy and fun to make… Titles like…“Fragment of Fear” “Redrum” “Full Moon” “The Reaper.” They usually revolved around special effects or stunts. I have great memories of making these films, a lot of fun… And I made a lot… I made over 40 films as a kid. As I entered my freshman year of high school, I focused on training in competitive gymnastics. I always wanted to go to film school and I started trained long hours in gymnastics. I did well nationally and earned an athletic scholarship to The University of Wisconsin – Madison. Later I transferred to Syracuse University where I received my degree in Film. I can say without hesitation, filmmaking has always been a driving force in my life.

TONYA:  Are your other family members in the entertainment industry?

JOHN: No, unfortunately… Everyone else took a different path. I always wanted a family member or childhood friend to collaborate making films with… This is all I ever wanted to do was make films.

TONYA:  Wolves of Savin Hill has experienced a lot of success on the festival circuit, have there been challenging times?

JOHN: At a recent festival in Los Angeles we won the audience award for Best Feature Film. We had a huge audience, I think we sold out or came close to it… Which is amazing. Having people come out to see the film and enjoy it… We were all thrilled. We’re so grateful to be accepted into festivals and to meet other filmmakers and artists… You get inspired. Everyone I’ve meet at festivals is pulling for each other to do their best work and I love that… The generosity of spirit, it’s been amazing…

Making a film has its own inherent challenges and certainly getting it made, getting into a film festival is nothing short of a miracle. It’s not an easy thing to do. You have to really, I mean really love making films… So, do one thing at a time and do it well.  Let it play out where it’s supposed to… Just enjoy it. You’ll go through a tough time but if you want to be successful, have faith and just keep moving forward. Momentum in anything creative is huge. No rain. No rainbows…

TONYA:  Who have you met that made you “star struck”

JOHN: I was pretty star struck when I met Tom Berenger…  I was so nervous during my speech. I just spoke from my heart, I seriously thought I was going to faint.  When we were walking across the stage, I turned to him and said, “How’d it go…” “I don’t remember a thing” and he said “great kid” “Those are the best speeches when you don’t have anything planned.” He’s just awesome. He makes it look easy… Just brilliant, amazing actor and super nice.

Also, meeting Michelle Monaghan and Allison Pill… Just fantastic meeting them both. Incredibly kind and generous… And recently at a festival in Los Angeles meeting Malcom McDowell. That was great…  So… You can be both super talented and incredibly kind… And that was Chris Brinker. And Chris Brinker’s a role model for me.

TONYA:  Who do you admire as a director?

It’s a long list… Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes… John Ford, Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean Renoir, Werner Herzog, Orson Wells, Andrzej Wajda, David Lynch, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Altman… Hitchcock, Antonioni, Godard, Kurosawa… All of these images and memories come to mind when I think of seeing their films… They are just seared in my mind. There are so many great filmmakers, that I admire… They all changed the landscape and language of cinema. And you can see and feel how much they love the art of cinema, expressing themselves personally through their images…

And there are so many more filmmakers that I love… They all had passion for cinema… And or course, Steven Spielberg. Seeing “Jaws” for the first time as a kid, simply changed my life. Cinema can do that…

TONYA:  This was your directorial debut, you had a number of veteran actors in your film.  What was that like?  Were you ever intimidated?

JOHN: I love the cast. Everyone in the film was great… Everyone brought something of themselves to the role and the process. They were all generous and they all came to play. Kurt Fuller, Jack McGee, Michael Massee, brought so much to the film and their enthusiasm on the set was contagious…

Most of the shoot, it was a one person crew… Which inherently makes for a more casual atmosphere  and greater intimacy working moment to moment between the filmmaker and cast. I was never intimidated on the set because we all came prepared to make something happen each day we were shooting. We always jumped in and did the work and didn’t have time to second guess our choices… They are so much fun to work with and are great examples on how to work on a set.

I honestly cannot say enough great things about them. I love these guys. They’re a pro’s, pro… They always want to bring out the best in everyone around them. You can’t ask for anything more.

TONYA:  You wrote and directed this film.  Usually having different people in those roles creates a check and balance on a film.  How did you manage that?  Who did you turn to, to make sure the film was staying on course?

We had a great team from the start… We all had each other’s back and what was needed for the film. Producers Sean Ireland and David Cooley, who also played one of the leads, are good friends of mine and a constant source of inspiration to me. From the initial stages of the script all through production to final edit. They’ve been brilliant in supporting each phase of the project. And Post Production Supervisor David Atamian who is just amazing, helping with the final edit and sound mix…

Their commitment, enthusiasm and talent is unmatched. They are just the best. I look forward to working with them on future projects.

TONYA:  The film is about a murder that took place decades before.  There were a lot of disturbing scenes.  Was that difficult for you or the actors involve?

JOHN: I keep thinking about the day we filmed in a quarry in my hometown in Massachusetts. And the two young actors finding the body in the freezing cold. That day was tough. And because of the nature of the scene itself… But the weather was brutal… It looked great on film, but the rain and sleet and bitter cold… Just brutal. And the camera got soaked… The monitor started shorting out on me… We put it in a bag of rice overnight and like a magic trick, dried it out and the monitor worked, thank God…

There was another scene with Brian Scannell and Tiprin Mandalay. I don’t want to give it away in the film but I loved the way they worked. They were so gentle together and it’s a brutal, violent scene between the two. It was difficult to shoot because of the nature of the scene.  And Brian and Tiprin were amazing…

Another scene involved Tonya Cornelisse and Megan Davis and we were shooting under the 6th Street Bridge in downtown LA. And I mean, it’s the real thing down there… Scary as hell. For the scene… We were in our element. Location is king. And for this scene, it all worked… Brian Scannell is playing a veteran cop who is about to commit suicide. He’s visited by two “ladies of the night” that don’t have his best interest… We had all kinds of “bad elements” walking all around us, where anything in this environment can happen. It was just scary. Plain and simple. I remember Tonya saying “hey, if it works for the scene.” Tonya’s the best…

And we shot a scene underneath the Santa Monica Pier with David Cooley where David’s character is in a state of madness, walking out into the ocean, the waves crashing all around him, I’m filming him, trying to negotiate the next wave, hoping I don’t get taken out and ruin the camera… David’s in the scene, playing the role, I’m moving around him, lifting the camera up over the waves, getting drenched, getting the shots, doing my best to protect the equipment… And it’s incredible moment to see all the madness come out of him in the role and to see all the internal violence spill out. The commitment and that moment of epiphany and capturing it on film. Sometimes you have to know how far is far enough when you’re filming. And you won’t know until you are in it… I believe true talent is in the doing and David’s talents were on full display. And the camera survived. No bag of rice needed this time to dry the camera out.

TONYA:  You are  ____  years old.  What advice would you give “you” at 18?

JOHN: Well, I just had my birthday as a matter of fact… Trust me, I’m young for my age. “What advice…” Follow your heart and believe in yourself. Have faith and just surrender to it.

Thank you so much Tonya… You are awesome!