Hamill is a coming-of-age drama inspired by Matt Hamill, the first deaf wrestler to win a National Collegiate Wrestling Championship, who later became an Ultimate Fighting Champion. Currently on the film festival circuit, Hamill received the Audience Award for Best Breakthrough Feature Film at AFI Fest 2010 in Los Angeles last November. We recently spoke with Hamill Director Oren Kaplan and Co-Producer Catherine MacKinnon, who is also Director of the Toronto International Deaf Film & Arts Festival.
Tell me about the film, Hamill.
MacKinnon: The film is about wrestler Matt Hamill who is now an Ultimate Fighting Champion. It's about his life, how he was born deaf, his upbringing, how he learned to speak and how he learned sign language later at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I can relate to some of his experiences, because I grew up oral deaf until I was 13, and learned sign language then.
Oren, you've worked on everything from Disney projects to Comedy Central. Why did you choose this project?
One of the things that really drew me to it is that there are a few really clear audiences. Matt Hamill is a UFC fighter, which is one of the fastest growing martial arts in the world. Obviously there's the deaf audience. It's a group of Americans that haven't really been portrayed very often or accurately in mainstream media. One reason is that deaf people don't often go to movie theaters because they can't watch movies because they can't hear what people are saying unless they have subtitles. It's probably a group that's been ignored too much.
One of our main actors is Shoshanna Stern, who's awesome and been in a ton of movies and TV shows–she's on Lie to Me, she was a regular on Jericho, she was a regular on Weeds. I would talk to her about movies that were out in theaters, and she'd say "Oh, I can't watch those, I have to wait until they come out on DVD so I can watch them with captions." And this is someone who is a working actor in the industry, who is at the top of her game, and she can't even watch movies.
With Hamill, it's fully subtitled, it's two-thirds in English, and a third in sign language. Deaf and hearing people can go see this movie in the theater together. That was one of the big draws to me.
I understand there was a controversy around casting. Could you tell me about that?
Kaplan: Eben [Kostbar], he's one of the writer-producers, he actually wrote the script for himself. That's the other secret in Hollywood. No one is going to say "Hey, you're not famous but I want to make you famous." Nine times out of ten you need to create your own material to be recognized. Eben and Joe McKelheer (the other producer) knew this, and Eben wrote this movie so he could play Matt Hamill. He had a strong wrestling background. He invested a lot of time into learning sign language. He moved in with a deaf roommate, he started wearing hearing aids in public. He wouldn't speak to anyone, and he was really embracing the lifestyle.
Joe and Eben had set up auditions at Gallaudet University for all the other roles in the movie. And when they showed up, no one was at the auditions. And they were like "what's going on, where are all the deaf actors that we've been hearing about?" And they were boycotting the movie, because it was this great deaf role, and a hearing actor was playing it. It's something that Joe and Eben came to realize that, there are all these talented deaf actors out there, there are so few roles for them, and when a hearing person takes one of those roles, it's very frustrating, understandably so. Eben and Joe realized this and said, you know, you're right, we're wrong. We didn't realize that what we were doing was not just offensive, but incorrect and inauthentic. And Eben stepped down and said let's get the best deaf actor for this role. And that's how we found Russell Harvard, who is awesome.
MacKinnon: I always said, there is a deaf actor out there, you've just got to find him.
Tell me about working with a deaf-hearing production team.
Kaplan: Catherine MacKinnon was on board before I was, she was working with Eben and Joe as kind of the liaison to the deaf world. We had so many deaf people working not just in front of the camera but behind the camera. We had a deaf makeup artist, deaf production assistants, and deaf people working on catering. At least half of the extras you see in the movie are deaf. Having deaf people behind the camera, not only did they do their job fantastically, but they were constantly correcting things that we had wrong. It's just a fascinating world that all our deaf cast and crew made sure that we presented accurately in the movie.
MacKinnon: There's a lot involved. Eben knows some sign language, that helped. Oren was willing to learn, and that was really amazing. So that really inspired people, because they made so much effort in trying to communicate without relying on interpreters so much. I learned so much to become a better producer, because it's a feature film, and I'm really proud of this because it's my first feature film experience at this scale.
At the WORLDEAF Cinema Festival at Gallaudet University last fall, several panelists called for more deaf writers in Hollywood. What advice would you give a screenwriter who is deaf who wants to break into moviemaking?
Kaplan: My answer is super subjective, but with Hamill, what's nice about it is that it's not just about a deaf guy, but it's about a deaf wrestler who becomes a UFC fighter. There's something for people outside the deaf community to latch onto. If I was a deaf writer, I would try to write a subject matter that has other entry points besides just being deaf. It's always this tricky balance of how can you write this unique, specific, personal story but at the same time is relatable to everyone, and that you don't need to be you to understand what's going on. Especially for beginning writers, I think it's always good to write a genre film. Instead of a family drama, write a thriller, or an action movie. If you want to make it yourself, a low-budget, psychological thriller or horror film. Those are usually the Hollywood entry points.
MacKinnon: If the story is good, it will be a good film. I pick my projects carefully to make sure the story is really good and we can bring it to the screen.
Do you see this film as a breakthrough for more integrated deaf-hearing film productions?
Kaplan: To be honest, I wasn't afraid to work with deaf actors, I didn't know any sign language, I'd never met deaf people before. I was a little worried about the deaf crew. One of the most common tools on a film set is a walkie-talkie, which, when half of your crew can't use it, becomes scary. There were definitely some rough patches in the beginning when we were all learning. You know, we have to sign "rolling", "action," and "cut." It took a few days but once the protocols were in place, and everyone is signing, and everyone is interacting, I think it went really smoothly. So, if not a breakthrough, I think it's a step in the right direction. Don't worry about these limitations, they're not limitations at all. You just need the right tools and you can make great stuff.
One little breakthrough example is one of the producers of CSI contacted us to see Hamill and see who they might cast for a future episode with deaf characters. That alone almost makes it worth making the movie, because people are aware of these deaf actors, and deaf crew members, and just putting it out there in the world to say here's this movie, and it's made by deaf people and with deaf people, and you should consider doing this yourself.
Catherine, from your perspective as a producer, how can deaf filmmakers break into the business?
Networking. It's all networking. When I went to [Ryerson University] film school in Canada, I started volunteering at the Toronto Film Festival. That's how networking opportunities started, as a student, and from then on. Traveling, conferences, events, that's how I meet people.
Why are deaf film festivals important?
MacKinnon: They show that we – deaf filmmakers – are out there. It's not often that our films are shown in the mainstream. Each film festival has its own community, its own culture, we have that too. But hearing film festivals don't always provide accessibility, for example interpreters, or note-taking services. So we provide that for them, for panel discussions, industry specialists, people in the industry come, and they are our ears. That's another networking opportunity, learning what's out there.
Any other advice?
MacKinnon: Don't give up. Have a positive and optimistic attitude. If the story is good, you know you can do it.