2013 Brooklyn Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: James E. Duff (Co Writer/Director – ‘Hank & Asha’)

In this modern love story, an Indian woman studying in Prague and a young New York filmmaker begin an unconventional correspondence – two strangers searching for human connection in a hyper-connected world. As their relationship intensifies, they must decide whether or not to meet face to face. ‘Hank and Asha’ is a story about isolation, identity, and the irresistible appeal of entertaining life’s what-ifs.

Husband and wife team James E. Duff and Julia Morrison wrote their first feature film, ‘Hank and Asha,’ while teaching at Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. Living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world was captivating but at the same time lonely; it inspired them to write a long-distance romance that stems from two people from different cultures yearning to make a connection. Above all, ‘Hank and Asha‘ is a boy-meets-girl love story, they just happen to be half way around the world from each other. By choosing to limit their modes of communication, they heighten the mystery and anticipation inherent in getting to know each other. Their nostalgic stance is liberating; they give themselves something to look forward to, and an opportunity to play, have fun, and discover something unexpected.

We caught up with ‘Hank and Asha‘ Co-Writer/Director James E. Duff in anticipation of the film’s screenings at the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival on June 1 & 8, 2013.

More Information & Tickets for ‘Hank and Asha’ at the 2013 Brooklyn Film FestivalHERE

Your wife, Julia Morrison, co-wrote and edited the film. The film itself is about a romance between two filmmakers. Is your own relationship reflected here? What is it like making a romance film with your wife?
The circumstances in the film are much different than the way we met and began our relationship. But the heart of it and the feelings of connection are definitely similar. The making of the film was very personal; we met in New York City and spent the year before and after our marriage living in Prague.

Prague and New York serve as very important backdrops in the film. What did those cities bring to the production that others would not?
Prague is one of the most beautiful, romantic cities that I’ve ever seen. You walk down the street and are instantly swept up in its magic; it feels almost like a fairytale. It’s an environment where anything seems possible. New York is our home and I think of it as the greatest, most diverse city in the world, but you have to create something for yourself in order to stay afloat. New York and Prague provided the perfect backdrop; two cities where anything can happen.

Asha

This is an independent film about two independent filmmakers making independent films for each other. Has the indie community noticed and appreciated these layers of affection? How has the indie community responded to the film?
The indie film community has responded quite positively to the film, and we are very grateful for the support. But the film is more of a love story, rather than a film about independent film, and that is what people are responding to.

You have said that the production was a very collaborative process. What kinds of material were the two lead actors, Mahira Kakkar and Andrew Pastides, allowed to come up with on their own? Were their any restrictions on them?
It’s never been easier to find people to connect with, but the paradox is that it seems to be harder and harder to make real connections. People aren’t making the time to slow down.  My step-sister’s high school class decided not to have their 10-year reunion because they’re all already connected on Facebook, and thought it would be a waste of time. That, to me, is tragic!  We wanted to make a film that combined modern technology with the nostalgic feeling of letter writing.

Even though the film is about two characters who communicate remotely, there’s a tremendous amount of chemistry and (even) sexual tension. How did Kakkar and Pastides go about summoning these feelings, even though they weren’t performing in the same room? As a director, how did you guide them?
The production was very much a collaborative process. We structured the script around an outline of scenes.  We knew what we needed to accomplish with each scene, and generally what needed to be said. I worked with Andrew and Mahira to find their objective in each scene, and we would do a number of takes a number of different ways. The main thing that I was looking for were the emotional beats behind the words. The only restrictions were the reality of their characters and their environment.

Andrew and Mahira didn’t meet until the last day of the shoot, so the biggest challenge in making the film was to create chemistry between them. So rather than focus on specific dialogue, we focused on what they wanted to achieve with each individual message, how they wanted to make the other person feel, and what their expectations were in creating the messages. Basically putting them firmly in the shoes of their character and situation. Again, mainly looking for the truth of the emotion. I never asked them personally what they summoned up to generate their feelings, as I believe that’s a private thing.

Hank

You and Julia have talked about the production being a “feel-your-way” process that yielded more footage than ultimately needed. And yet the final film feels very tightly structured. Can you describe the editing process? What kinds of scenes did you tend to cut? How difficult was it to pare this film down to its essence?
We did each scene a number of different ways, so editing was a real challenge. The first rough-cut was 2:45! It came down to finding the key moment of each scene, and cutting it as close to that moment as possible. The old editing rule of starting late, and getting out early.  We did a number of scenes where the characters revealed more of their backstories, which were enjoyable as Mahira and Andrew are such skilled actors, but ultimately they didn’t advance the story so we had to cut them.

– Interview Conducted by David Teich

Hank & Asha

About James E. Duff
James E. Duff earned his MFA in directing from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he won a fellowship for excellence in directing actors. His award- winning short film, “Life is a Sweet,” screened at over 40 festivals worldwide. His documentary, “The Cycle Also Rises,” was broadcast nationally on PBS as part of the POV series, and he spent two years in West Africa directing development and human rights documentaries. He has taught filmmaking in Kenya, to Saharawi refugees in the Sahara Desert, and at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. In the theatre, James has worked with New York companies such as Ensemble Studio Theatre, and has directed productions at such venues as The Cherry Lane Theatre and SoHo Playhouse, as well as the NYC International Fringe Festival. “Hank and Asha,” James’ feature film writing and directorial debut, won the Audience Award at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival.

www.hankandasha.com
Facebook: /Paperchainproductions
Twitter: @PaperChainProd

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