Smack in the middle of a whirlwind tour on the festival circuit with his first ever feature-length film, The Black String (2019), writer/director Brian Hanson finally had a chance to breathe. Naturally, that’s exactly when we eagerly threw a bunch of interview questions at him. To his credit, he happily carved out a chunk of his precious downtime and gave us a great interview!
First off, thanks for spending the time to answer our questions, Brian! Things must still be pretty chaotic for you these days so we appreciate your generosity.
As usual, I’ll start off with my favorite question… What filmmakers sparked your interest in becoming a director and/or have inspired you along the way?
I’ve always gravitated toward movies and TV that are off-beat, dark and a bit twisted. I give credit to my dad for introducing me to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone when I was young. Serling and his writers created such eerie and unexpected morality tales. As I got older it was a mix of esoteric and street — Kubrick, Stone, Scorsese, Lynch and Cronenberg, but it was Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) and Rebel Without a Crew book that inspired me to think I could actually make movie as a teenager with no money and a camcorder.
During the course of writing & producing The Black String were there any unforeseen roadblocks that threatened your project? If so, how did you overcome them? Or, if not, what sort of planning did you have to do to ensure smooth sailing?
The biggest obstacle my fellow producer Richard Handley and I faced was the scale of our film. We had a TINY budget, yet we had a script with thirteen locations and twenty cast members. Conventional wisdom is to make a micro-budget film with 2-3 locations you have guaranteed access too (ex Grandma’s log cabin) and 2-3 actors. This is smart because there are fewer company moves, less lighting setups, fewer actors to schedule, less everything. Keeping it simple is the smart thing to do.
Because our script created a lot of excitement we kind of had to go with what we had and try to produce a logistically complex film. We barely survived the logistics of our production, but were smart enough to plan like crazy and get input from professional UPMs and ADs. We were planning months in advance and had a contingency for everything.
Thankfully we had a few professionals that jumped in to mentor us and a lot of donated locations so we didn’t have to pay top dollar for some beautiful locations. Also, we got really lucky nothing happened like a rainstorm or police kicking us out of our location. I would not test our luck again like that so I tell first time feature filmmakers, keep it simple! Let your work shine by focusing on directing what’s in the frame — don’t get bogged down by complicated logistics.
Is there anything that you learned while making The Black String that you could see yourself refining or doing differently on your next project?
I learned that being a director is about communicating your vision or instructions as simply and in the least amount of words as possible to all cast and crew. It’s surprising how saying one word can mean the completely opposite thing to different people. Look books, photos, drawings or video clips are super helpful in showing your crew/cast exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. I’d use more visual aids in my next project and test myself to see how much more effectively I can communicate clear notes — say too much and you just start confusing people!
As an Army veteran yourself, you seem to be very involved with the non-profit organization Veterans in Media & Entertainment (VME). In fact, you help them out as their Director of Programs. Did the VME’s services come in handy during the making of The Black String.
VME was extremely helpful in the making of The Black String. Rich Handley is a Navy veteran and I’m an Army veteran, so we had access to this organization. VME felt like an alumni group – it was filled with military veterans that were eager to share their showbiz lessons and mentor newbies like us. Alan Pietruszewski is a retired Navy aviator and he had just produced an indie flick called Another Time starring Justin Hartley and he shared a lot of indie producing lessons with us. We also found actors and our music supervisor Abe Bradshaw (Navy) through VME. It’s an excellent resource for entertainment mentorship and networking.
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the VME before I started looking into The Black String. Is there anything you’d like to let our readers know about the organization and the work that it does?
VME is an awesome resource that can accelerate a veteran’s entry into the entertainment industry. VME is run by volunteers but we offer a lot, such as a job placement/internship program, class/workshops program, free movie screening program and a guest speaking program. VME has strong relationships with studios, production companies and agencies so there are many opportunities to sit in classes with producers, agents, and accomplished actors who share the type of information that can help a veteran make “smarter” career choices. Our internship and job placement program is amazing too. VME can open doors.
From what I understand, you co-wrote the original story behind The Black String with Andy Warrener. Based on that story, you then collaborated with Richard Handley to write the screenplay for the movie. Is collaborative writing your preferred method when working on a narrative or is that just how it worked out this time?
I would like to write a script solo one of these days, but so far I’ve enjoyed the process of co-writing. Because I always take on heavy producing, directing and editing duties in my projects going back to my short films, I find having a co-writer is the best way to get the writing process moving while also having another person inject a different POV and voice into the script.
Andy Warrener has a great voice when writing dialogue and Rich is a doctor (in real life) who can bring incredible expertise to the world of medicine in a screenplay. It was also so helpful to bounce ideas and structure off these guys. It accelerates the process! If somebody doesn’t have a writing partner, then I hope they have a friend who is willing to do script analysis with them. Another set of eyes is so important.
What was your favorite scene in The Black Screen to shoot and what made it so great?
My favorite scene is at the end of Act Two when Jonathan storms into the convenience store with the dagger in his hand and frantically tells his buddy Eric all about where he thinks Dena is and this whole conspiracy about cults. Frankie Muniz and Blake Webb did a phenomenal job acting this scene out on the first or second day of filming and our screenplay came to life as I hoped it would.
This scene epitomizes the theme of the film — if you were targeted by some sinister occult plot, how can you explain yourself without sounding like you’re having a nervous breakdown? You really can’t. That’s the beauty of the scene – Jonathan is convinced he’s cursed, but Eric thinks he’s mentally ill — who’s right? You’ll have to watch the movie!
Now that you’ve completed your first film, how did the reality of being a director on a feature-length film match with your expectations?
In my experience it’s the same as directing a short film, but you have to do it 5-10 times longer so you have to be really well planned and have mental endurance. When you also take on producing duties and wearing all the other hats that come with micro-budget filmmaking, it gets harder to focus on just directing.
Clint Eastwood was quoted as saying his best advice to a director is, “Get sleep.” I agree, but a first time director probably won’t get much sleep, so make sure you know your script intimately and have a solid but simple game plan to get all your shots. I thought I’d have more time to just be a director, but reality will pull you in many different directions while you’re on set.
Since there are undoubtedly lots of would-be writers and directors among our Scariest Readers, do you have any words of wisdom to help them along?
I remember my film professors always saying, “write what you know” and “keep it simple.” That sounded so limiting to me, as if they didn’t want me to try and do anything challenging. So I tried to make the biggest projects I could because I was ambitious and wanted that challenge, but I learned that there is wisdom in “writing what you know” and “keeping it simple.”
Steven Spielberg can make Saving Private Ryan because he has 150 million dollars and 300 top level professionals on his crew. As new filmmakers, we don’t have those resources so despite our best efforts and ability, we will likely fall short of the standard we have in our mind. If you write what you know and keep it simple, the material will feel authentic. It will feel like it’s expertly written because you are the expert of being you! And if you keep it simple, then you can focus on making the composition and performance the best it can be without worrying about moving to 10 different locations and finding costumes for 20 background actors. Focus on the actors in the frame and tell an authentic story. Do that a few times and you’ll impress professional producers and agents. Then one day they’ll give you 150 million to make Saving Private Ryan.
What’s next for writer/director Brian Hanson?
We are finishing up the script to another occult paranoia film about a single father whose son disappears during a backyard magician’s magic trick. It’s similar to The Black String in how it flirts with what is real and what isn’t and takes this troubled protagonist on a dark and twisted journey into some unknown places. I am also working on a military script about Army Rangers deploying to Afghanistan. It’s Whiplash meets Full Metal Jacket.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Writing is free! Write often and write what you know. There’s still room to get creative with what you know. Filming is free! The iPhone in your pocket is all you need to film something. Editing software is inexpensive and there are endless tutorials on YouTube. And don’t spend too much money! Don’t go into debt on a short film or feature. If the movie really is exciting enough to people, it will get funded. Until then, don’t spend too much money, just be creative with a few bucks.
And there you have it! Thanks, again, to Brian Hanson for spending some time with us and answering all our questions.
For those of you out there who haven’t seen The Black String yet, the movie will be released in the U.S. on Digital HD and DVD this September 24th from Grindstone Entertainment (a Lionsgate company). The Black String DVD includes an audio commentary, making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and alternate takes.
And for those lucky enough to be near one of these showings, you can still catch the film on the big screen! The next three festival screenings will be: