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SxSW 2017 Interview: HOT SUMMER NIGHTS director Elijah Bynum

by Jason Whyte

THE PITCH: American flags wave as fireworks light the sky, it's 1991 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and summer is in full swing. A lonely teenage boy is taken under the wing of the town rebel, falls in love with the prettiest girl in town, and gets entangled in a drug ring, all as the deadliest hurricane in New England history barrels towards the coast. -- This is HOT SUMMER NIGHTS at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.

Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes it is my first time at SxSW, or any film festival for that matter. I'm incredibly excited and honored to be here. SxSW is quickly becoming the coolest film festival in America and I am very glad to be a part of it. And yes, I will certainly be making time to check out other films.

So how did you get into this movie business?

I came out to Los Angeles days after graduating from college with some vague hope of working in movies. I grew up in a place which was incredibly removed from Hollywood so it seemed more like a myth than a real industry. I really didn't know what to expect. I loved movies and I had what I thought was pretty decent taste so I figured I'd get into producing. I interned at Mandalay Pictures for a summer and then somehow got myself a job as a floater at CAA. I tried desperately to land a desk on an agent's desk but nobody would take me. All I could do was watch as many films as I could and read as many scripts as I could get my hands on so if/when the chance came I could at least be educated on what I was talking about and be able to formulate well informed opinions. Along the way I read enough scripts, good, bad or otherwise, that I got the feeling that "Hey, I think I could do this". I wrote a script, put a fake name on it, and gave it to a buddy of mine at the agency. He thought it was great and thought he might be able to sell it. Of course at this point I told him I had written it. The script ended up selling and it led to me landing a manager and so forth. Hot Summer Nights is only the second script I had ever written so with regards to what I have worked on in the past this is the only thing that has seen the light of day.

How did HOT SUMMER NIGHTS come together for you?

I have to be careful describing it as a long process because I know in relation to many other filmmakers I have been very fortunate. With that said, it does feel like it's been a bit of a journey. I first wrote the script back in 2012 as it was the second script I had ever written, so I was just using it as an exercise to learn how to write and hopefully try to get a writing career off the ground. Luckily it was well received around town and landed on the Black List. I figured that would be the end of it. But as time went on, I caught the directing bug. The script had bounced around a few production companies and never got off the ground. Since I had never directed anything before (no short film or music video or commercial) I didn't think anyone would allow me to direct a feature, but a good friend of mine told me if I had a script that was good enough and I was stubborn about not giving it up, then I had a shot at directing it. Once the rights to the script came back to me I grew enough courage to tell people that I wanted to direct it. I met with Bradley Thomas at Imperative Entertainment for a general meeting. He pretty much told me that I'd be crazy not to direct it and by the time I was walking back to my car I was the director. When put like that it sounds simple but the first draft of this script was written during the end of Obama's first term in office and now here we are!

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

As long and, at times, arduous a process making a movie is I never really felt like I had to do a lot of self-talk to keep going. I have completely fallen in love with the aspect of making movies and I am so god damn lucky to be doing it so that was enough to motivate me day in and day out. I had never directed anything before making this movie; not a short film or music video or commercial, so the entire process was surreal and exhilarating and most the time I was just fighting to keep my head above water. With that said, during production, I lived on a consistent diet of Red Bull, Gatorade and cigarettes. Between that and the muggy Georgia heat I ended up losing nearly 30 pounds. I put it all back (and then some) in the edit room.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

I learned very quickly how fast a 12 hour day can pass by and just how many things can and will go wrong during that day. On top of that we had a very aggressive shooting schedule which only exacerbated this. At first it felt like little dreams I had were dying every 15 minutes which was very frustrating. But I knew if I let it get to me we would be heading down a very dark path. I learned that I had to make decisions faster and couldn't get hung up on Plan A because so often what you end up shooting is Plan B or Plan C. This was tough at first because at times I would be very precious about something and found it hard to let go but I think the truly great directors find a way to turn setbacks into opportunity. I don't think I'm there yet but I'm working on it...The most rewarding moment was showing the finished film to the actors. At the end of the day they are the reason I want to make movies. Acting is a really hard thing to do and good acting is even harder; I have so much respect for what they do. An actor has to put so much trust in their director -- pour their heart and soul out and then go away and wait a year and hope things turned out well. I felt a great responsibility to not let them down. So when I finally showed it to them and their faces lit up it was very rewarding.

I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Javier Julia, or as I like to call him The Argentinian Mad Man, shot the film and did a wonderful job. He was in a very tough position. This was his first English language film, he had none of his crew and he was 5,000 miles from home. On top of that we had a very aggressive shooting schedule which left him with little time to light each set up. It was a stressful shoot and we yelled at each other a lot as his hair went completely white over the 6 weeks we were there, but the movie looks great and we're still friends. We shot on the Alexa.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

So far the movie has existed in a bubble. The only people who have seen it so far have been related to the movie in one way or another; either cast or crew or friends of the producer, agents, and so forth, so it's time to face the music so to speak. It's a rite of passage. It's no longer a project, it's a movie now. Fewer and fewer people are watching movies in the theater these days which is really sad. So the idea that my little movie will get it's day in the sun and be seen by a real audience, an audience that loves movies, is truly special. Plus Austin is such a cool movie town that showing any movie here is a treat.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

I actually don't know. Sadly, that's not up to me.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

That's an interesting question. I suppose I would have to say my hometown theater. It's where I first fell in love with movies so it only feels appropriate. Not to mention I imagine the reception would be rather warm.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking and texting, through one of your screenings?

Thomas Jane is going to fuck you up.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Oh boy, I wish I was wise enough to bestow some sort of wisdom on people. I guess my advice would be familiar and cliche but nonetheless true: just keep going. Don't be deterred, stay focused and stay resilient, and eventually a break will fall your way.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I have never been to a film festival so I guess I will have to leave you with my favorite movies of all time. It's a tie between APOCALYPSE NOW and THE LION KING.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/14/17 01:45:59
last updated: 03/15/17 02:42:47
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