Director Joe Hahn Talks MALL, Why He Chose This Material as His First Feature, the Casting Process, His Music Video Background, and More

     October 16, 2014

joe-hahn-mall-interview

Mall, the feature directorial debut from Joe Hahn of Linkin Park, examines a group of disgruntled suburbanites – a man on a personal war campaign, a teenager whose favorite pastime is smoking pot, a housewife whose best days have been left behind, a greedy businessman whose only desire is to increase his wealth, and a depressed pervert – who find themselves at a shopping mall in the midst of a seemingly random shooting.  From a script co-written and produced by Vincent D’Onofrio (who acts in it, as well), the film also stars Cameron Monaghan, Gina Gershon, Peter Stormare, James Frecheville, Gbenga Akinnagbe and India Menuez.

During this exclusive interview with Collider, Joe Hahn talked about why he wanted to take on Mall as his first feature, staying artistically creative when you’re also handling the business side of things, how he found the casting process, his background directing music videos for the band, the tone he likes to have on set, the technical aspects of directing that he was looking to explore, how he found the editing process, changing the ending of the film, and why it was important for him to get his bandmates involved.  He also talked about how he would love to do a big effects or superhero movie, that he’s considering branching out into writing something himself, and his desire to design a comic book.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

mall-joe-hahnCollider:  From the time that you decided you wanted to direct a feature until you found Mall, how many scripts did you read?

JOE HAHN:  Over the years, I’ve read I don’t even know how many.  There have been a lot.  There was some stuff that I wanted to do, but me not having done a feature film, I was always in that catch-22.  But when I got the script for this, I was like, “Okay, I’ve gotta figure out how to get this made.”  And then, I signed on and became a producer.  I actually found the money in different spots, and we figured out how to get it made.  Luckily, we had a great script to be the blueprint for everything.  And then, from there, it was just a matter of, how do you make something awesome even more amazing?  It’s similar to how we put an album together, and then we turn that into a bigger experience through videos and concerts, and all that stuff.  Everything is all about being an experience.

How challenging is to to stay artistically creative when you’re also handling the business and financial side of things?

HAHN:  It’s all about that balance.  It’s like a dance.  You want to be as artistic as you can, but that can’t survive on its own.  When you’re able to mix the art with commerce, that means that in phase one, you’ve been as creative as you can and you’re doing everything for that self-fulfilled expression.  And then, it gets to the point where you have to turn that effort into craftsmanship, but also be cognizant of how that’s going to translate to an audience.  And then, you have to think about how this can exist in the world, and that’s where things like marketing and connecting with a wider audience come into play.

mall-movie-posterWhat was it about this script, in particular, that made you want to tackle it as your first feature?

HAHN:  I don’t know if there’s a singular element.  When I first got the script, I read it and I couldn’t put it down.  The first scene is crazy, especially on paper.  I was like, “I know that I can do this.”  And that set it off for the rest of the journey.  So, the story elements were there and every one of the characters were super interesting.  I thought they all had extreme relevance to society, and they had a lot to say about who we are, as people, and how we can be our own worst enemy.  I just thought I could tell that story in a cool way.

How does that first script compare to the finished product we see now?

HAHN:  There were some tweaks along the way.  Every person that gets added to the crew, from the art director to the camera man to the actors to the special effects, are all an added element, and everyone puts a little something into it.  I’m the captain of the ship, guiding them, but I try to extract the best out of everyone.  It’s definitely a collective effort.  The actors added a lot.  We took great care in casting the right people.  I wanted to gain their trust, but that went both ways.  When it came time to do it, everyone was ready.  Also, everyone was trying different things, in different ways, and I really wanted to create an environment where it was comfortable to do that.

Did it help that you had Vincent D’Onofrio attached to this from the beginning, since he was one of the screenwriters and producers?

HAHN:  Yeah, before I came into the picture, this was his baby.  I was very fortunate that he let me take over the reins.  He really trusted me to do it and was really there for me, to give me advice along the way.  He gave me warning signs for personalities.  So, when it came to shooting this, it was fun.

How did you find the casting process?

HAHN:  With every aspect of making this, it’s all about breaking it down to its core elements and looking at those things, one thing at a time.  With acting, it’s the same thing.  You break down who you want to meet, and then you meet with them and just get to know them and what inspires them.  Whoever they are, as people, is going to come out in the work that they do.  So, you get them to read for you and you can see the character coming through them, along with a little bit of themselves coming through the character.  There’s a really nice balance.

mall-cameron-monaghan-3So much of this film depends on the audience wanting to follow the character of Jeff through this journey.  What did you see in Cameron Monaghan that led you to cast him in the role?

HAHN:  There is a magic to Cameron.  He’s one of the great actors of our time.  He’s definitely a stellar actor for his age group.  He’s gonna be one of those guys that people will pay attention to, for a long time.  He’s a guy that’s delivering great performances and is dynamic.  That’s something that I see in Vincent that’s great, as well.  He knows subtlety.  He has a soulfulness to him that is not overly exaggerated.  He’s smart and he creates the impression of thoughtfulness in his performances.  I couldn’t have asked for a better person to play Jeff.  I met maybe 30 great actors, any of which would have been great for the film.  But Cameron is light years beyond them, at least in my mind.  That’s why we chose him.

When you directed that first music video for the band, were your bandmates immediately supportive of your desire to do that, or did it take some convincing?

HAHN:  When I started, I co-directed, so it was really just me giving my input to someone else.  It was cool, but it wasn’t completely self-fulfilling.  With directing, you have to know what you’re doing, but you have to actually be able to control what’s going on.  For me, co-directing doesn’t satisfy that because you’re compromising with people.  When two people have a strong vision, sometimes they don’t exactly match up.  And then, when you compromise, it’s a little bit lukewarm.  I like working with other directors, but I’ve directed most of the videos because I feel so strong about the music and I have this clear notion of what I want to do and the experiment that I want to try out.  The last video that we did, “Final Masquerade,” was with Mark Pellington, who’s one of the best directors out there.  So, I’m lucky that I get to work on the videos, but I’m also lucky that I can give it to great guys like him to do.

mall-vincent-donofrioDid having that background in directing music videos help you feel more confident on a movie set?

HAHN:  I think most people don’t exactly know what they’re doing, 100%, but they portray themselves as if they do.  I’ve been around long enough to see what’s phoney and what’s not.  I don’t like drama.  I like to cut through all of that.  The best thing that I can offer to people is just to be honest, and that’s a rare quality sometimes, in this town.  In doing so, I think there’s always a top down feeling that permeates a working environment.  If the boss is cool and he’s a certain way that’s not bullshitting, then everyone around is going to feel that comfort and try to be that way, as well.  That’s just who I strive to be, as a person.  Whether it’s through film or music, or everything, that’s how I try to be.  Crews get into it for the right reasons.  Everyone we worked with was really cool.  There’s a trust factor and a collaboration.  Making movies is like a circus.  You get together for a finite amount of time and you build the most extravagant thing you can, which requires teamwork.  Most people don’t know, but when you see something on screen, it looks perfect.  If you go behind the scenes, things are very archaic.  You only see the front of the building, not the back.

Were there any technical aspects of directing that you were looking to explore with this, that you hadn’t been able to before?

HAHN:  I think some of the visual effects in the film were really cool.  I’ve always wanted to use some of these visual effects in features.  They’re not new, in the world of video.  In features, everything is so high-end and expensive, that these big companies, like Marvel and Transformers, are doing big work and creating spectacle, and it’s gravity-defying.  There’s a soulful experience in that, but I wanted to apply visual techniques in a more subtle way, and in some ways, not so subtle.  I wanted to be different and get people to challenge their way of thinking and to guide them through what’s going on, story wise.  One of the things I used was datamosh, which I show through the drug trips and the glitching.  It’s images of these people that are soulful, that are permeating through each other.  I thought the LSD trips were the perfect avenue to use those techniques because it’s trippy and because it shows beyond what you would see normally.

mall-cameron-monaghan-4Could you ever see yourself directing a big effects or superhero movie?

HAHN:  Oh, yeah, I would love to.  I wouldn’t turn down a Marvel film.  As far as where I am now, and the self-expression that I want to show through my work, something like this felt right.  You find the content, but the content also finds you.  I’m working on developing a lot of stuff.  For the most part, most of them will probably never see the light of day, but I love the process.  I love working on stories and problem-solving.  Those things that don’t get made aren’t done in vein because I get better, both through the process and because there are elements that you can apply to other things.

Have you considered writing yourself?

HAHN:  Yeah, there’s some stuff that I’ve been talking to some writers about maybe co-writing.  But, I’ve been so busy that it’s hard to sit down and just start writing.  It’s just about keeping an open mind.  It’s very hard to make a movie and get through the whole thing.  You have to always treat every project as if you’re making it.  If you don’t treat it that way, it’s not going to get made.  And even then, a lot of those won’t get made.  It’s a numbers game that you have to play, putting it all together.

Having had a certain level of success in music, is it both nerve-wracking and exciting to start at the beginning in film, and is it reassuring to know that the band and people at your label are supporting you in other ventures?

HAHN:  The way I see it is that I’m not limited by what society tells me I should do.  The traditional way of thinking is that you find your interest, and then you think of those interests in terms of a career.  You have to learn a skill set, maybe apprentice, and then you become a master of that, and that’s what you end up doing.  But, the reality in life is that most people end up having seven different careers during their lifetime.  For me, I just want to be creative, as much as I can, every day.  I want to create art and music and film, and everything in between.  It’s all part of the same thing, and they have everything to do with each other.  As a young person, I wanted to be a comic book artist, which led me down the path to doing all of the things that I want to do, but that’s the thing that I’m not doing.  A lot of it is just keeping an open mind.  If you have a creative notion of what you want to do, how do you translate that into an experience, and then how does that experience translate to an audience?  That can take on many, many forms.

mall-gina-gershonWould you still like to design a comic book, as some point?

HAHN:  I think so.  That’s still one of the things on my checklist that I want to do.  I love comics.  I still buy comics.  The way I see it is that there’s illustration, which is a painting where you’re looking at a scene or whatever it is, and whoever drew that single picture chose to tell some kind of story in there.  In one picture, you have to encapsulate a world or a situation, and indicate what happened before and after that.  With comic books, you have 22 pages to do that, with however many panels you want, but it’s still limiting.  With film, you have 24 frames a second to do that, so the chains are completely off.  And with new technology, we’re going to be transcending beyond that with virtual reality and 3D, and people controlling the user experience.  The possibilities are endless.  It all comes down to what you want to say and how you want to say it.

How was the editing process for you?

HAHN:  When you shoot the film, you cover your bases.  You have something specific in mind and you piece it together in your head, as you did it.  And then, when you get to editing, the way I like to approach it is to try to free my mind, as much as possible, so I can treat it as if I’m making the film over again.  I like to give the editor the opportunity to his version of it.  If something is bothering me, as far as my vision of what it should be, then I’ll start moving things around.  I love collaboration.  I love working with people to come up with something better than what I initially thought.  With directing, you have to be controlling in a lot of ways, but I find myself trying to battle against that, to not be controlling, because that’s when great things can come about, beyond how great you think you can be.

Are there a lot of deleted scenes?

mall-vincent-donofrio-2HAHN:  I pretty much used what I shot.  In the original ending in the film, the dog was attacking the corpse of Mal.  On paper it worked great, but we shot it really quickly and, when we put it together, it seemed a little cheesy, so I took that out.  But pretty much, what we shot is what you see.

Were you bandmates always on board to provide music?

HAHN:  Yeah, they were on board from day one, before we shot the film.  A lot of what we do musically speaks to the spirit of the film.  The frustration that’s in the music and the liberation that you feel, simultaneously, through the frustrating moments, is a core feeling that’s common between both.

Watching Linkin Park perform, you guys seem like six pieces of one organism.  Is that something that’s important to you?

HAHN:  Yeah, the greatness of the band is the sum of all parts.  When we do our own thing, it’s not as great as it is when we’re with each other.  That’s one of the reasons why I really wanted everyone to be somehow connected to the film.  We’re all great friends, and that’s not easy to do, especially with us growing as people and becoming adults.  Our lives change and we grow with each other.  It’s because everyone is putting in the effort.  I have a huge respect for everyone.  The guys I’m in the band with are the smartest people I know, as well, so I feel really blessed to be working with them, on a daily basis, on everything.  If I have something that they can be involved with, I’m always going to offer it up to them.  I think if any one of the guys ceased to exist in the line-up, it would greatly affect what we’re doing.  As insignificant as someone might seem outside of our group, there’s a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that make it what it is.

Mall is available in theaters and on VOD on October 17th.  For more details, go to www.mallthemovie.com.

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