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Writer-director Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America, which opens theatrically this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, has emerged as one of the year’s most anticipated independent films since winning two awards at Sundance. This poignant coming-of-age tale, the director’s third feature, follows the misadventures of its eponymous thirteen-year-old hero and his widowed father as they move from the U.S. and adjust to their new lives in the quiet German town of Heidelberg.
Back in June, Hartigan paid a visit to Criterion just before Morris from America’s New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest. I sat down with him for a conversation about his eclectic inspirations, his early acting ambitions, and his unique approach to movie watching.
How much of the film was informed by personal experience?
The dynamic between Morris and his love interest Katrin is based on a real relationship I had with the first girl I fell in love with. I started to get excited by the idea of a movie about a totally unrequited first love that still illustrates how important that first love is for the person who doesn’t get loved back. I thought that might make it different from other first love movies. Then the idea to make the characters black really clicked it into another gear, and it felt like a movie I hadn’t seen before at all. It was more exciting just to have the challenge of taking my personal experience and trying to make it more universal and make the film less autobiographical.
Aesthetically and technically, Morris feels more playful than your previous movie. Do you find that your characters and the world they inhabit dictate your style from film to film?
I usually try to come at it from the point of view of the protagonist. I like to have the style be dictated by that, but it’s also a product of what I’m watching. Before This Is Martin Bonner, I was watching a lot of Romanian New Wave, and during the time leading up to making Morris, I was watching a lot of American mainstream comedies and stuff like Tomboy and Girlhood. But the biggest influence of all is Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story, my favorite movie. It’s incredible.
What was the first movie that made you want to become a director?
The easy answer to that is Jurassic Park, which I saw when I was ten. That was the first movie that made me curious about how it was accomplished, because to me it seemed like they got real dinosaurs. That was the first time I started reading about the actual making of a movie. It didn’t automatically translate to that’s what I want to do, but it immediately became an interest. Then in high school at some point I was making little videos with my dad’s camcorder, and I enjoyed that, but I still wanted to be an actor at that time. It was 1999, 2000, and I wanted to be the next Freddie Prinze Jr. But I went to film school because I wasn’t interested in theater acting, only in film acting, so it was there that I really fell in love with making movies.
Did you try to pursue acting?
No, I moved to Los Angeles right after film school and was very aware of what the life of an aspiring actor is like. I felt like I had the energy to pursue one thing and one thing only, because you have to do it 100 percent. So I decided it should be making movies. I’ll still act in friends’ movies if they ask me.
So do you have a better understanding of your actors because of that?
I do, but I’m one of those directors who thinks that 90 percent of the job is in the writing and casting. I really feel like, if on the set you’re doing a lot of work with the actors, then maybe you’ve done one of those two things wrong. That has kind of been my experience with the films I’ve made so far. On set I’m mainly making tiny tweaks or trying something new that I haven’t thought of before. But I think that if you asked the actors I work with, they would say that I’m quiet or that I don’t ask a lot of them.
Was Morris influenced by any of the teen movies you grew up with in the ’90s?
One of my favorite movies is Can’t Hardly Wait. I know it by heart. It’s a dream to make something like that, but I don’t know if I’m capable, so this is maybe as close as I’m going to get. Morris was always intended to be a mix of what I like about those kinds of movies and what I like about Céline Sciamma’s movies. I think in the end it kind of came out tilted more toward the American side, and I’m fine with that. I love those movies, and I was in high school in the late ’90s. That was the golden age.
Do you tend to watch movies while you’re writing?
I’m always watching movies, but the agenda isn’t to find inspiration for the movie I’m writing. It’s nicer when that just happens by accident. I feel like that’s better anyway because it’s untraceable. No one would watch Morris and be like, “He stole that shot from René Clair!” I would always say that Martin Bonner was most inspired by Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which is true, even though no one can really trace that. I was just so in awe of Hunger when I saw it. It was his first movie, and it made me realize there’s no excuse not to be formally precise.
Tell me about the last movie you watched.
I do this really nerdy thing . . . It started when I was twenty-seven. I’m really OCD about things like Netflix queues, and I just couldn’t put a bunch of random movies in there. There has to be some rhyme or reason. So the idea came to me that I’d watch movies by important directors when they were twenty-seven and just see if there was anything I could learn. I watched Boogie Nights, The 400 Blows. There isn’t really a common denominator, but it was still interesting. People thought it might be depressing, but I found it inspiring because, yes, there’s Truffaut and Paul Thomas Anderson—and I’m okay with never being those guys—but the bulk of the movies I saw were bad, or the directors weren’t even active. I’ve kept it up for six years. Now I’m watching movies made by people when they were thirty-three.
So what are you watching now?
I just watched Spielberg’s 1941, and next is Escape from New York, which I’ve never seen. It’s a way to dictate my viewing, and it’s cool because I watch a lot of movies I ordinarily wouldn’t watch and then revisit some movies I haven’t seen in a long time. I’m thirty-three, I’ve been out of school for twelve years, and I’ve had some success and made some movies, but it would be easy to think that’s not enough or that I’m going slowly. But when you really see where all these people were at this stage in their careers, you really feel like it’s a lifelong process. Woody Allen hadn’t even made a movie yet when he was thirty-three, and now he’s got, like, sixty movies. Blake Edwards didn’t direct a movie until his mid-thirties. Lots of people had other things going on and lots of people were making bad movies, and then a handful of people were making masterpieces. So I do that, and it’s continually inspiring.