“Ostentatious” isn’t necessarily a bad descriptor, especially when discussing a feature debut. With Too Late, writer/director Dennis Hauck has crafted a movie most artists with ten times his experience wouldn’t even attempt. Channeling Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme (or, possibly, Tarantino doing these directors), his John Hawkes-fronted LA noir is a high wire act without even a semblance of a safety net, as each of the picture’s five 35mm reels is done in one, continuous twenty-plus minute take. It’s utterly thrilling on a pure cinema level.
As if unsatisfied with utilizing only one audacious narrative device, Hauck then rearranges the reels in non-sequential order, resulting in a jagged, emotionally jarring crime picture. It’s an incredible feat; one that demands to be viewed on 35mm with a crowd of cinephiles just as drunk on motion pictures as Too Late’s somewhat insane craftsman.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Dennis Hauck, and what followed was a lively conversation that covered many bases – from his own work to why he thinks shooting and exhibiting films on 35mm is still vital to our film culture.
Too Late is a work that is madly in love with movies, integrating numerous reference points within the text. Did you mean for the mentions, visual and otherwise, to be so overt?
Those are meant to be there, but I also hope people are picking up on what I think is a true emotional core I worked really hard on. The references inadvertently seeped into the film because, like you, I watch a ton of movies, and conversations revolving around them happen a lot in real life.
For example – in the beginning of the movie, Dash Mihok’s character is talking about his whole theory on Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. As a child of the '80s and '90s, there were movies where things just went crazy. And it was always teenagers, so you know they’re going to get in trouble, and their mom’s coming home to a disaster. The kids are like “but mom, you don’t get it – it all started out so innocent.”
I always thought it’d be great if one of the characters could just hand her a copy of the VHS tape of the actual film they’re in and say “just watch this, it’ll explain everything.” It’s a real thing that I felt while watching something, so I just wrote it into the movie.
You even have an Abel Ferrara Ms. 45 poster in a character’s projection booth after this long jangly follow shot. So the references are visually ingrained in the text, as well.
Well – you know – it was a projection booth, and there are always movie posters in a projection booth. We actually had a bunch of other movies I thought that the Jill character [who owns a drive-in] would be into. She’d be into a bunch of badass vigilante/revenge flicks starring women. We had They Call Her One Eye and things like that, too. Those are just the kinds of movies she would’ve dug. She’s kinda bitter; a man’s done her wrong, and she gets into that subgenre to help cope.
What was the picture playing at the drive-in?
There were two! Carnival of Souls on Screen One, and a movie called Choose Me on Screen Two. Choose Me is an Alan Rudolph movie, and we unfortunately don’t get too good of a look at it. But Carnival of Souls does a good bit of the heavy lifting for us, as its score essentially becomes our score by the end of the scene. It just provides this beautiful, eerie atmosphere that was perfect.
Now you utilize two narrative devices that are undoubtedly going to become big talking points when discussing the movie. You have the 35mm single takes, and the non-sequential reel changes. How did you come to the decision that this is how you wanted to make this movie?
It just seemed like a fun, interesting way to make a movie that hadn’t been done before, and I just wanted to challenge myself. I had been out in LA for eight or ten years at that point, trying to get my first feature off the ground with various other scripts thinking “oh hey, this is going to be the one.” And, of course, they weren’t. So I was getting bored with the ones I had been trying to get made.
I made a short film that we had shot in Techniscope, and I didn’t realize the benefits of using this format – you can get twenty-two minutes out of a roll of film as opposed to eleven in the 35mm format. You don’t have to change mags as often and can save money on stock. That’s when I realized you could do a twenty-two minute [single take] in this format. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie – on film at least, you obviously can do this with digital – where someone has done a take that long. So I did a short film that was all one take. Then I started thinking, “you put four or five of these together, and we’ve got yourself a feature.”
I thought it was something I could do quick and cheaply. Quick did not end up being the case.
It was shot over the course of several years, correct?
Exactly. It’s kinda crazy.
But the one-takes were just a device that I wanted to use to make this film. It was something fresh when all my other scripts seemed stale at that point.
Now let’s talk about the time period. Because it was 2012 when production began?
That’s when we began shooting. The full developmental period isn’t exactly defined. 2010 was about when I wrote the script.
And it was all written as one script? Or did you write it as you shot the various “reels” over the years?
Well, I was writing all five scenes concurrently. When I would get frustrated with one of the five, I’d move on to the next. But I didn’t have any idea what order they were going to be put in at first. It wasn’t just that I wanted to do something non-linear, too. I had five scenes and I wanted them to come together to paint a portrait of [John Hawkes’ character]. It’s a character study, so at the end of these five scenes, I hoped [the audience] had a sense of who he was.
The scene order is really about revealing who he is, and not necessarily the story in a linear fashion. Because, essentially, the case is solved very early, and then we delve into who these characters really are. A lot of detective fiction contains such complicated plots, and that’s not really what you walk away from any of them thinking about. Hopefully, you walk away with a sense of the worldview, seen through the detective’s eyes. And frankly, I wasn’t sure I could write one of those detective stories – following clues and everything like that. That seems really hard.
But that’s possibly the best thing about the movie: you’re not writing a Raymond Chandler story. It’s very much about [John Hawkes’ character] and the emotional journey he embarks upon with this one girl’s brutal murder.
Now – how did John Hawkes get involved?
I wrote it for him!
Oh yeah – there was no one else in my mind for the role. I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. He was “the guy”. In addition to the structure and the format, I wanted to write something for John Hawkes. I had met him once before – he was a friend of a friend, and I hardly knew him. I had his number but was afraid to call.
Well, he’s a genius. It’s hard to just dial up a genius.
That was the thing. This was my first feature, and all of these roles were written for people I either knew or had a connection to. I knew we weren’t going to have much money, and I was going to struggle with all of the obstacles a first time feature director faces. It’s hard to get talent attached under those circumstances.
I wrote something I hoped he would find compelling. This was about a year or so after I had met him, and didn’t expect him to remember me. We went through his manager with the script and, after a little time, we got a polite “no”. But I wanted to know what he thought. Did he actually read it? What was the deal?
So I took a few shots of bourbon and called him up and left a voicemail saying: “hey, I met you a few years ago and don’t expect you to remember me. I sent your manager this script and, if you don’t wanna do it, I totally get it. But I need to hear it from you, because I know you’re the guy for this. Call me up and tell me you’re not right for this and I’ll leave you alone.”
But he called me up and was like, “of course I remember you. I did read the script, but wasn’t sure if it was for me. If you feel that strongly about it, I’ll give it another read.”
Your ballsiness paid off.
You gotta ask, right? There are too many people who don’t. There’s no harm in asking to try and get what you want.
But we had a bunch of meetings. He kept sitting down with me to ask a bunch of questions. Then he’d go off and read the script again. This went on for several months even after I called him. He wanted to make absolutely sure that the movie was for him.
There’s a glorious imperfection to the film that gives it a high wire feel. Actors flub lines. We see the camera shake as you transition inside of the scene. But you kept it all in.
We had to!
Trust me, there was always a dark moment when getting the dailies back from the lab. There’s no perfect take. If we were going to edit this together in a traditional style, it’d be great because I could cut around different takes. And there was a little devil on my shoulder telling me to hide a cut or digitally seam two takes together…whatever they did in Birdman. But…I just couldn’t do it. The idea took the wind out of my sails.
There’s something magical to watching actors work. It’s almost like this little time capsule you’re creating – not even of the characters’ lives, but their lives. This is John Hawkes, for twenty minutes, just working and doing what he does. There were other takes that might’ve been overall “perfect”, but [what’s in the movie] were the most interesting, imperfections and all.
It’s the Kubrick method to approaching performance – you don’t look for the “best”, you look for the “most interesting”. But that’s what gives the movie such a visceral sense of cinema. You’re unafraid to fall off that tightrope.
Well…you always “care”. Just sitting there, watching the takes live was enough to give me stomach issues. Because we’ve got one day to get this twenty-minute take. You’re watching the sun move in the sky, wondering how many hours you’ve got left in the day. You’d get into the middle of a really magical take and something would go wrong at the end and you’d just feel the heart attack coming on.
It’s very much a quintessential LA Noir. You’re showcasing parts of the city that you never get to see. Did you write the movie with certain sections of LA in mind? It almost has a “Tarantino in the Valley” feel.
It was all pre-calculated. I knew what I had at my disposal and, from living in LA, there were a few spots that I found “cinematic” and thought would make for a great set piece.
Now I didn’t have the overlook – where we open the movie. I needed to find a great hilltop that was close enough to the city, but that we could also exploit with the lenses for those long zooms. That took some searching.
It’s your De Palma moment! Split screen and everything.
There’s also the moment where John is driving around back and forth, and we see his car from the rooftop. I was so scared that he was going to get pulled over by the cops and everything would just be ruined.
My favorite reel in the film is the third. It honestly moved me to tears with the way it integrates music into the text of the picture. It reminded me of Jonathan Demme, and how songs can become a part of our souls.
John [Hawkes] was so great there. He walks this dicey line amazingly and then picks up that guitar.
It’s magic, man.
Now – you’ve said that you really don’t want to work with any distributor who cannot put the movie out on 35mm. Is that correct?
We want to do a traditional theatrical release. No day/date iTunes stuff. But yeah – I want to get it into as many 35mm theaters as possible. It’s part of the experience. We want to partner with someone who is excited about the format. Find out which theaters – outside of Drafthouse, who are wonderful – still have 35mm projectors at their disposal and can make an event out of it.
Do you think film as a format is important to preserve?
I do. Absolutely.
The simple answer: it looks better. Cinema jitters and shakes when projected. You don’t want to have scratches on prints, but sometimes it adds character. I’m not real happy when Too Late plays on DCP. We have one – but I’m not as thrilled about it as I am about our print.
You lose a bit of the “life” on DCP – the vibrancy. 35mm is very much a living format.
Exactly – cinema has been around for one hundred and ten years, and in the past few its been wiped out. Every cinema is digital now and it depresses me. Even in LA, there are so many theaters that have done away with it. I find myself driving across town to catch a movie I’m not even that excited for, just because I’m craving the format itself.