E.B. Hughes is an exciting new independent filmmaker on the tip of breaking out with two edgy, character-based dramas in the spirit of the New Hollywood films of the late-'60s/ early '70s - PACING THE CAGE and TURNABOUT. A former boxing photographer turned screenwriter, and now writer-director, I talked to E.B. about his influences, his thematic concerns, the highs and lows of filmmaking and about his exciting new films.

Can you remember the first script that you ever wrote?
I've written about 25 now, so it's difficult to remember! One of the first ones I did was a revisionist slant on BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) in which at the end Sundance lives. That was the title - 'Sundance Lives'. Sundance has to live below the radar so people didn't know it was him, under different names and so on, and without Butch Cassidy.

When did you start writing?
I started writing when I was 20. Back then I was able to turn them out a little quicker than I am now. As you get older your style changes, and you become more conscientious about your mistakes.

Were you naive when you started out? Did you think you were going to sell your first script?
Yeah, I was naive to the whole process, but not as much actors. A lot of the young generation think it's going to be easy to make it. And it's not. Back then there was no Internet, no IMDB. You couldn't email an agent. I had an attorney and I would send out my screenplays to directors that I loved like Robert Ellis Miller, a great director who did THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); Frank Perry, who did THE SWIMMER (1968); Charles Burnett, who directed KILLER OF SHEEP (1977) and became a friend of mine, and David Burton Morris, who directed PURPLE HAZE (1983) and also became a friend. Some of them were kind enough to mail me back and give me comments or advice. I still have those letters. I hang on to stuff like that.

It took you a while to sell a script. Do you think this made you stronger and a better writer?

Absolutely. Rejection is a big part of the process. You learn from it and get a respect and admiration for the process. You have to pay your dues. The directors that I became friends with kind of took me under their wing a little bit and gave me pointers. Those guys struggle as well. I don't think anybody has it easy at the beginning and keeps a career going except guys like Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino. There's something to be said for the struggle of a filmmaker.

When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
It was probably in the early '90s. Before that I had been a boxing photographer and I was getting my work published in 'Ring' magazine and actually 'World Boxing Japan', if you can believe it! I was always interested in film and I got into scriptwriting. I did a documentary in 1991 on the former light-heavyweight boxing champion Matthew Saad Muhammad called ONCE A CHAMPION, and after that in 1994 I did a short film called A DISTANT CHORD. I am a big jazz fan and this was about a jazz musician - his music and his relationship with his girl, and how the two collide.

In 1997 I did another short film, called HARSH LIGHT, which won a bunch of awards. These were all shot on 16mm.

How did you get ONCE A CHAMPION financed?

ONCE A CHAMPION didn't cost much money and was pretty much just me with a camera chronicling the guy's life as a boxer. A DISTANT CHORD, for example, was financed through friends and family, and cost $13 - $15, 000. 

With PACING THE CAGE, some of the money came from a screenplay sale. The screenplay was originally called 'The Messenger' and I sold it in 2007. They shot the film in 2008 and it got released in 2010. It's called THE FALLEN FAITHFUL.

I did everything I could to get PACING THE CAGE completed. I took out a small loan and did a Kickstarter campaign.It was a two year process because I went back, reshot some scenes and replaced some actors. It should be ready to be shown in film festivals this fall.

How did you cast PACING THE CAGE and your latest film TURNABOUT?
On PACING THE CAGE, I met a lot of actors through Facebook actually. There was a project that I was going to do that fell through, and I met the lead actor Denny Bess through that. I had wanted to cast him in the other project. We auditioned some actresses in New York for the lead female but it didn't really work out, so I called upon an actress, Sayra Player, who had appeared in HARSH LIGHT. She did a really nice job. I cast the rest out of New York. We networked and branched out, and did it all over again many times. That's the way it works in this business. All the actors were experienced, coming from either the stage or from the Actors' Studio or with four or five features under their belt. 

On TURNABOUT we had a better known cast because we got a bigger budget. George Katt had been attached to the project for two years and we had gone through several producers before we were able to get the project off the ground. We got Waylon Payne, who was in ROAD TO NOWHERE (2010), through George. They are friends. I got Peter Greene, who was in PULP FICTION (1994), through my friend Federico Castelluccio (Furio in 'The Sopranos').

What were some of the advantages of having a bigger budget for TURNABOUT?
Well, apart from the cast, we got to use the RED camera, which is as close to film as you can get without it actually being film. It's a phenomenal piece of equipment. PACING THE CAGE was shot using the Panasonic HD camera, which is great quality, but the RED camera just takes it a step up.

Was there a buzz in the independent film sector regarding PACING THE CAGE that allowed you to get TURNABOUT made for more money?

Not at all. I actually had to put the editing of PACING THE CAGE on hold for about eight or nine months because the opportunity to shoot TURNABOUT suddenly happened. We finished the last reshoots of PACING THE CAGE in March 2011, and started filming TURNABOUT in December 2011.

Which filmmakers have inspired the movies you have made?
John Cassavetes has always been my favourite. I am always looking at his work. He is the pioneer of independent cinema. When I was out in California in the early '90s I attended a John Cassavetes retrospective and saw all his films, such as FACES (1968) and SHADOWS (1959). I also like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Jerry Schatzberg, all the early '70s filmmakers who, even though they did some studio stuff, always had their own vision. PACING THE CAGE was mostly influenced by Cassavetes in the range that the characters had to improvise. We had a script of course but we improvised a lot. TURNABOUT is more of a mystery thriller and very different. We had storyboards, more money and lots of tracking shots and long takes. It was more influenced by Altman.

How would you describe THE FALLEN FAITHFUL?
I didn't have a lot of say on that one, it was a straight sale. The film is a lot different from my original vision, which often happens. I wasn't involved with the rewrites. It's about a caretaker of a church who lives in the basement and is a hitman at night. Like all my scripts it has the same central themes - flawed characters imprisoned by their lifestyles and trying to escape them. I've always enjoyed films like FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) where the characters suffered tremendous alienation and didn't have things handed to them in their lives, where they had incredible difficulties and obstacles to overcome. At the very least, are all my scripts are mostly character-driven and story-driven dramas. Some of them have suspense or thriller as a sub-genre.
How would you describe PACING THE CAGE?
 It's about an ex-con, with drug problems, who gets out of jail and tries to straighten his life out but his past comes back to haunt him in the shape of some shady characters he worked for before he got busted. We shot it in locations in Manhattan, guerilla style, without permits! Very unlike TURNABOUT, where we had the permits!

It concerns two former high school students who haven't seen each other for fifteen years. One calls the other after a failed suicide attempt, and as they spend time reconnecting, an event occurs that changes their lives forever. The story takes place over the course of a single night.

Are you a director more focussed on the visuals or the performances?
I'm more of an actor's director really. I like to stick to the performances and let everyone else do their own job. I like to have my DP have his own style, but I do like to have a lot of creative input into the way the fim is shot.

What do you enjoy the most about making films?
I get an incredible adrenalin rush being on set. I enjoy the creative process of working with the actors. TURNABOUT was a 90 page script shot in 15 days. It went by quickly without many problems. I loved being in the trenches with some really dedicated people.

What are the main stresses?
Getting the money and getting the projects off the ground is always the biggest problem. But it's actually only part of the battle. Getting the projects out there in the marketplace is the next big problem. There's no secret formula. Each one's different. There's no right or wrong way to do it.

Which modern filmmakers impress you?
I'm a creature of the past! The problem I find with modern filmmakers is that they don't put out a continuous body of work, which is partly due to the fact that they are still young and in their early careers. I like Darren Aranofsky and Steve McQueen. I like some of PT Anderson and Lars Von trier's work. I like filmmakers that are willing to take risks like Larry Clark, but again, he doesn't put out enough films. I think KIDS (1995) and BULLY (2001) are brilliant. I like some of Gus Van Sant's work. To an extent, he tries to stay independent. I like the way he aproaches the medium in films like ELEPHANT (2003) or GERRY (2002).

How important is Ocean City, where you live, to your work?
Ocean City probably doesn't have a lot to do with the stuff I write. I live in a very quiet, island town where the winter population is only a couple of thousand. I venture into L.A. every now and then, and I did actually live there for a while, but I prefer Ocean City. It's about two hours from New York, and being away from the daily grind and hustle of New York allows me to concentrate on my writing and editing.

What projects are you working on now?
I have a couple in development. P.I .CAIN is at a standstill at the moment, but THE ART OF DYING, THE ACT OF LIVING will start shooting most likely March or April next year. I am collaborating with David Von Roehm on it. It's about a struggling musician who has to deal with his personal demons, his ailing father and a mystery woman who enters his life. There is another script I'm pitching heavily to a company in New York. We have two names attached, which should help financing. It's a name game. You get a name attached, you get money. I was talking to Joe Pesci about a film, but it fell through. I have a project I am developing with Robert Forster.

E.B. spoke to me by telephone on 23rd August 2012. I would like to thank him for his time.

Watch a clip from PACING THE CAGE.

Watch the trailer to TURNABOUT.

Photos courtesy of, and property of,  E. B. Hughes.

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