Josh Hutcherson on Making His Directorial Debut with ‘Ape’
The Big Script is comprised of five digital short films – Ape (from writer Jon Johnstone and director Josh Hutcherson), Boy in a Backpack (from writer/director Brad Martocello), Crowbar Smile (from writer/director Jamie Mayer), Lyra (from writer/director Djochoua Belovarski) and Honor Council (from writer/director Scott Simonsen) — developed, produced, and distributed by Indigenous Media, Condé Nast Entertainment and actor/producer Josh Hutcherson’s Turkeyfoot Productions. The goal of the project is to discover emerging filmmakers and help them develop their content with the potential eye of turning their material into full-funded feature-length films, while showcasing their work at www.TheScene.com.
Collider was recently invited to sit down with Josh Hutcherson and chat about this new project, which marks his directorial debut, where each script revolves around core characters in their late teens to late 20s and are of a variety of genres, chosen from over 2,000 scripts on The Black List. During the interview, he talked about his long-time desire to direct, his goals for his production company, why he wanted to tackle a short film first, how he came to direct this particular script, deciding on the camera to shoot with, and the experience of directing while acting. He also talked about his upcoming sci-fi comedy series for Hulu, called Future Man, and just how wild it is, as well as his work in The Disaster Artist, directed by James Franco and about the making of The Room.
Collider: You’ve been dabbling as a producer for a bit, but this is your first try at directing. Was directing something that you’ve always wanted to pursue?
JOSH HUTCHERSON: Yeah, it was something that I always wanted. Before I even started acting, when I was a little kid, I would try to make movies with my friends, who had no desire to be a part of it, whatsoever, and they would quit after 10 minutes of attempting to make a film. So, I’ve always had that itch to tell stories and create movies. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve been wanting to do it for a really long time. This combination of having mentorship and having support from people seemed like a really good first little baby step into it.
Had you shadowed any directors or paid extra attention when you were on set?
HUTCHERSON: Yeah. Since I was a little kid, I was always just fascinated with every element of filmmaking, from cameras and lenses and film to the lighting and grips and everything. I was the little 10-year-old on set who they couldn’t find because I was in the camera trailer, learning about lenses. I just love learning everything you can about something. So, I’ve gotten to work with some incredible directors, and being on set with them and seeing how they address issues, how they work with narrative, and how they communicate with the crew and collaborate, I’ve always been watching it from afar, so in a way, I’ve been shadowing, over my career. I did this movie, Zathura, when I was 12, and that Jon Favreau directed. I told him then that I wanted to be a director and I had just bought a video camera. He gave me a bunch of tapes and said, “Go shoot a bunch of stuff, and bring it back and we’ll use it for the B-roll.” He always took me under his wing, which was really cool.
When you decided to start Turkeyfoot Productions, was directing always the goal you had in mind, or did you have multiple goals for it?
HUTCHERSON: There were multiple goals. When I first started the production company, I knew that I wanted to direct, down the road, so that was a long-term goal. But for the time being, it was really about trying to produce things that you’re really passionate about. There are so many scripts that get put out there and that they come to you with, and to find ones that are really right for you, in a business where you’re just acting, everyone else gets to control your fate. You can put yourself out there and try to get a part, but then you don’t get it, so they tell you when and how you can be creative. So, when you take it into your own hands and you find stories that you like, whether it’s books, articles or original ideas, you can start to develop your own thing and create your own fate, so to speak.
Had you ever considered just jumping right in and directing a full-length feature, on your first try, or did you just want to dip your toe in first?
HUTCHERSON: I definitely wanted to dip my toe in. I think directing is a huge responsibility and it’s not something where you can just be like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a go!” I think it’s something you really need to focus on, and put a lot of effort and attention into. So, doing a short, for me, was always a target first. I wrote a couple of short films – scripts and stuff – but I was always too nervous to really go for it. And so, that’s why this one was cool. For the last five years, I’ve written a few shorts and my friends were like, “Dude, you have to go make this! Just pick up a camera and go shoot it!” I’m not a perfectionist, but if I’m going to make something, I want to have the best set-up I possibly can. I think I was holding out for that opportunity, and with Indigenous and Condé Nast, it came together in a really perfect way for me to feel comfortable and have a lot of support.
Directing definitely seems like one of those things where, no matter how much you prepare, you have to just do it, in order to fully grasp it.
HUTCHERSON: I think so, yeah. You can read all the books you want, watch all the movies and get all of the advice, but until you’re actually there, in the hot seat, that’s when you find out what you’re made of. Also, you just learn so much from doing. Making this short, I learned so much form the crew, the producers and the experience of doing it, that I’m really excited to do the next thing.
Since this is a series of shorts, where everyone else wrote and directed their own, and you’re the one who directed something you didn’t write, how did Ape come to you?
HUTCHERSON: It’s actually a weird story. We partnered with The Black List, which is the organization that has all the scripts, and we read through 2,000 scripts in all. I didn’t read 2,000, but I probably read 40 scripts, after they got filtered through. I landed on one that I loved, that was kind of this horror film, but was really a physical manifestation of purgatory, and Heaven and Hell, and then the reversal of the polarity of good and evil. So, it was a cerebral horror-ish type of thing. I loved it. The other four had been selected and they were going through their deal processes, and right at the last moment, when we were about to start pre-production on this, to make the short out of the feature, the filmmaker decided to go make it on his own. I was just like, “Shit!” I was so in it and inspired, and everything. And so, at that point, it was so last-minute that we didn’t know what to do. So, I had this script, Ape, that I had read six years ago, and I was attached to act in it, with another director and producer, but it didn’t really come together. I was just thinking about which projects, in my past, I had really connected with, so we called up the agent for the script and the writes were available. So, I had a meeting with the writer (Jon Johnstone), and we were really jiving and had ideas about how to make it into a short. We really collaborated great together, and really dove in to nail down with the story was going to be, shaved down to 13 minutes.
How did you decide on the length of time for the short?
HUTCHERSON: Taking a hundred page script and trying to capture the essence of the story, or trying to find a little snippet of the script that you want to tell, is really hard. If you only had six or eight minutes, it seemed damn near impossible. When we first starting getting the scripts back from the filmmakers of the other shorts, they were coming in at 23 or 25 pages, and it was like, “We can’t do that. We have to get it down to 13 pages.” They were going crazy, trying to figure out what to cut. It was actually a really good exercise, as a filmmaker, to widdle it down to the essence and the essential pieces that you really wanted to communicate. Now, having made this short, it’s definitely informed decisions I’m going to be making, down the road, with the future.
How did you approach the way you wanted to shoot the film and the camera you wanted to shoot it on?
HUTCHERSON: I’ve always been fascinated with cameras and lenses, so I definitely had a certain look that I was trying to achieve. I did a short film with Ron Howard’s Project Imagination for Canon, and I worked with a great D.P. on that, named Andrew Palermo. He was fast, young, creative and collaborative, so I contacted him and he was available. We just went through a bunch of movies. I had an idea of what I wanted, but we talked about how to achieve it, practically. We got really lucky with the cameras. He has a connection with Panavision, so I got to shoot on Alexas, which are great. That’s how that came together. We put a lot of work into that element because I knew, on the day, when I was there acting and directing, I maybe wouldn’t have so much time to be able to play with the cameras. So, we did a lot of shot listing and really played around with stuff, to nail it down as much as possible.
Actors who direct seem to either be totally okay with directing themselves, or never want to direct themselves. How did you find that aspect of the experience?
HUTCHERSON: I have mixed feelings on it because it’s tricky. If you’re directing and acting, I feel like they both suffer, to some extent. There are so many elements to it. If you do acting and directing, at the same time, it’s not going to be as good, I believe, as if you focus on one or the other. But moving forward, I really love this character, so if we make the feature, I still want to pay it. But at the same time, it would be so nice to be able to sit back and focus completely on directing, especially when it’s the lead character, and it’s even more intense and emotional as a feature. I know, as an actor, that I need to be able to have my headspace. But making the short, I had a great team of people who would make sure I had enough time to go watch some playback and jump between the two worlds. I was luckily able to split my mind and, in the scene, not try to think about the light, the camera and the performance. The weirdest thing is acting with somebody and being present in the scene, and then having to give them direction, right after. It took some getting used to, for me to be able to separate the two. So moving forward, I definitely want to direct without myself acting in it, but with a character like this, that I really love, I have to do it.
Are you already looking for the next possible thing to direct?
HUTCHERSON: Not right now. I’m focusing on Ape, and I’ve already been working with the writer to work on the feature and make some changes with that. But I definitely want to make another short, too. I really like the short film format. I think it’s so fun. You have such limited time, so you have limited elements to work with. It’s a cool challenge. And what’s cool about this is that, like with something like Whiplash, where they made the short film, and then that go so much attention, you can show someone that it works. With money people, you can pitch the idea and the tone, and what it’s going to feel and look like, but until they actually see you do it, it’s hard to get people behind it. And so, by making these into short films, it gives people something where they can be like, “Okay, so that’s what the director is going to be like, and that’s what the film is going to feel like.” And then, it’s easier for them to write checks. The world of indie films is brutal. I’ve had scripts that I’ve loved for five years and you think it’s going to happen, but then they disappear. I had a movie, not long ago, where I was leaving the next day to go into production, and then, at the last minute, the money fell out and it disappeared. So, trying to find ways to give people confidence in filmmakers to back them monetarily is cool.
You have a sci-fi comedy for Hulu, called Future Man, from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Is that as insane as it sounds?
HUTCHERSON: It’s fuckin’ nuts! It’s insane! I just had a table read yesterday (February 15th), for the next two episodes, and it’s so wild. It’s a time travel action-comedy, with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg making it. It’s nuts!
When that came your way, were you willing to sign on for a TV series that you could be doing for awhile because it just would have been too crazy not to?
HUTCHERSON: Completely! It’s just so original. That’s what’s cool about it. I think Hulu has great programming already, and they’re trying to find another edge to tap into. This is something that I haven’t really seen anything like, on TV before. It’s really cool to see a company like Hulu get behind something that’s so out there and weird and left of center. I think it’s going to be a very fresh take. Hopefully, it works ‘cause it’s insane!
Do you know when Future Man is supposed to be on Hulu?
HUTCHERSON: I don’t know. We start production in about a month, on the full season, but I don’t know when they’re planning on releasing it. It feels like a summertime release, but we’re not finishing it until July, so I don’t think it would be for this summer. I want it to get out there ‘cause it’s so weird, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve never done comedy before either, so to do something really dark, cerebral and intense like Ape, and then balance that out with the series for Hulu, it’s going a lot of different directions, at the same time, but it’s fun that way. You don’t get pigeonholed into one category that way.
You’ve also done The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, which sounds like an unusual project. What was the appeal of that for you?
HUTCHERSON: It’s a super fascinating story about how Tom Wiseau made that whole thing come together. I love The Room, and I’ve been a fan of that movie. It’s just the weirdest thing, and so amazing. I worked with James Franco and he was like, “Hey man, come work two days on my movie and play this character.” I was like, “What is it?” He said, and I was like, “Oh, shit, yes! This is gonna be nuts!” It’s so weird and great, and James is phenomenal in the movie. It’s out there, though, for sure.
Who did you play in it?
HUTCHERSON: I played Denny, the kid who’s the weird guy that comes over to the apartment. You can’t describe it.
James Franco seems like a crazy mad genius, who some people think is nuts, but some people think is brilliant.
HUTCHERSON: Totally! He is nuts, for sure. He’s insane! But he’s prolific. That guy works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen and has his thumb print on a billion different creative projects, at one time. I did two features with him last year, and then he called me to do The Disaster Artist, which is actually where I met Seth Rogen. And then, from that, they asked me to do Future Man. It’s this weird little chain of connections.
All five of The Big Script short films (including Ape) are available on www.TheScene.com, Condé Nast’s premiere digital video platform.