Interview with Troy Hollar, director of VFF 2014 Official Selection GRACE OF A STRANGER

GRACE OF A STRANGER is a short film about a destitute man who loses the one thing that gives him hope, and an unlikely stranger who finds himself in a position to help.

Shot in Tucson, Arizona, the film stars Nipper Knapp and Matt Letscher (currently featured in Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated new film, HER).

 How did you come across the script & what drew you to the story?

I heard an interview on NPR with a professor at the University of Arizona, Erec Toso, who was teaching writing workshops to inmates in the Arizona State Prison system.  It was inspiring to hear him talk about how he’s spent every Saturday for the last ten years in prison with people who society has essentially tossed aside — and he’s helping them find their voices, helping them communicate, teaching them a valuable skill.  Then Toso read a story that really connected with me called “Acts of Kindness” by one of his students named Aaron Keel.  It was a true story from Keel’s life about an act of kindness he had experienced, and as Toso was reading it, I just saw it in my head as a film.  When the interview was over, I was struck that such a story of hope could be written by a guy in a prison cell, which I picture as being one of the darkest and bleakest places one could find one’s self.  I contacted Toso in his office the next morning, he put me in touch with Keel, and within a few weeks I had optioned the story and started writing the script.

What were some of the challenges in getting this film made and how did you overcome them?  The first challenge was getting the rights.  If you’ve ever communicated with someone who’s in prison, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s a protracted, arcane process.  You write a letter that may or may not be admitted to the prison, and then the reply has to be approved to come back out.  I wanted to get as quickly as I could to agreement with Keel, so in my first letter, I asked if he was interested, and in my second letter, I sent him an agreement.  I put all of the option and purchase terms in the agreement so purchase would automatically trigger in the event certain things happened.  He liked this as much as I did, because it ensured that once he signed that one agreement (which I had to send him twice because the first one apparently never reached him) we could just continue into production without needing him to approve anything else.  From the moment I received the signed agreement from him, we were on our way.

The other main challenge was financing.  Short films typically don’t make money.  Even if they generate revenue from festival awards or distribution, they usually don’t break even.  And as for the argument that micro-budget shorts can make money, my view is that they generally don’t factor in the fair-market costs for your people, and to me, that’s the most valuable part.  If you’re factoring all of those costs in, even if you’re making a 5-minute narrative short on a union contract in the U.S. with 10 professionals, yourself included, that’s at least $10,000 just for production talent and labor, not including equipment and supplies and post-production expenses.  And that’s if you plan really well and have a bare minimum number of shoot days.  In our case, we had a production budget of about $30K and a post-production and marketing budget of about $10K.  We raised a little over half our total budget with a Kickstarter campaign, which was successful because we planned and executed it very carefully and had a pretty extensive network.  The rest we raised through friends and family and colleagues.  We actually still have a few thousand bucks to go to cover all of our marketing costs, but we’re optimistic.

Music plays an important role in your film, what advice do you have for filmmakers regarding the music element?   Geez, I think any answer I give here is going to be totally subjective.  For me, the approach depends on the production.  In some projects there’s a lot of diegetic music that drives the sonic world you’re creating.  At the other end of the spectrum are projects with no diegetic music, in which case it’s all up to you and how you go about working with your composer and sound designer and music supervisor, if you have one.  So I’ll give you the straight advice and then I’ll describe my experience on GRACE.

My straight advice:

  1. Well before you go into production, take a copy of the shooting script and cross out all references to music, then reread the script and listen for anything new you might hear.  With all due respect to screenwriters, this is a great way to test whether the music that’s written into the script matches your vision.  If it doesn’t, think carefully about whether the source of the dissonance is the music or your vision.  If you’re not sure, then there’s a good chance you’re misunderstanding the writer’s intention, in which case you’d better talk to her or him.
  2. As a matter of course — and just to enhance your life — listen to tons of music from all different genres.
  3. Make very careful and deliberate choices about the music — think about how themes or motifs in the music relate to the characters or the action or the story.  Think about the structure of the songs or how pieces relate to the structure of the scene or sequence under which they’re playing.  Make sure the music holds together intrinsically, and then make sure it feels “of a piece” with the film.  Above all, think hard about whether the music is getting in the way of the picture or the other audio.  Especially in our present-day cinema of overproduced sound, in some moments the best and most powerful choice can be silence.
  4. Unless you know for sure a piece of music is definitely going in the film, try to avoid getting too married to anything until you’ve had good and thorough input from your collaborators.  They’ll likely hear things you never imagined and expose you to sounds you never thought possible.  If you already have a bias for something you’ve had in your head, you’re less likely to be open to these new ideas.

With GRACE, we were kind of in the middle of the spectrum — there were a few pieces of diegetic music that informed but didn’t define the sonic world.  From the start, I knew I wanted to use jazz and hip-hop, because I saw the two main characters as devotees of those genres.  I wrote three diegetic cues into the early drafts of the script based on these characters and their taste.  But beyond that, it took a series of lengthy discussions with our composer Shelby Gaines, who is an amazingly talented collaborator, to figure out how to score the film.  Shelby and I started out working from the script on a very conceptual level even before we started shooting.  I made a spotting script for him — a version of the script with handwritten annotations for where music cues might occur and how I imagined them sounding — very early on so that he could understand what I was hearing in my head, to the extent I was hearing anything at that point.  Once we started shooting, I just sent Shelby footage and a few cuts of sequences so he could see the characters in action and understand the tone and pace and tension of a given shot or scene or sequence. When we started editing in earnest, Shelby was concurrently in the very early stages of working on themes for the score, so I deliberately avoided using music in the audio other than the diegetic cues, and for the first couple of weeks in post I even made an effort to avoid listening to music at all just to keep my head clear — which wasn’t easy in my family.  Shelby sent me his first concept tracks when we were nearly done with our first cut, and I listened to them incessantly for a few days before I started trying them out as temp tracks under some of the sequences.  A couple of these really worked, and I gave Shelby some notes, and we went back and forth in an iterative process like that for a couple of weeks, edging closer and closer to the final score, until it was finally done.  Shelby then did a pre-mix of the score with the other songs in the film before handing it all off to our sound designer.

About Troy

Troy is an entrepreneur with over 20 years of diverse experience in launching new ventures, developing technologies, and producing media and entertainment.  In 2012, he founded LoveMakers, a content development and production company. Current projects include GRACE OF A STRANGER, SEE YOU IN A HUNDRED YEARS (based on the memoir by Logan Ward), STONE, and “Gentrification,” winner of the Best Writing award at the New York Television Festival. Troy is also a producer on Darious Britt's debut feature, UNSOUND, premiering at BAM's New Voices in Black Cinema on March 28.  His career in the arts spans two decades.  He has produced more than 70 plays and live events and managed theaters in New York including Workhouse, the award-winning Soho Rep, and Malaparte, where he produced new American plays with Artistic Director Ethan Hawke. Troy founded the digital agency MetaFoundry in 2002 and sold the company to Archaea Mass in 2012.  In 2009, he cofounded Medical Referral Source, a healthcare technology company that was acquired by The Advisory Board Group in 2013.  He currently serves on the board of directors of the Vail Film Festival. In 2007, he was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanity Award at the United Nations for his community service and efforts in promoting positive social change.  A Michigan native, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

Click here to read the complete article on Troy Hollar.