In the months leading up to making his directorial debut, Eric Heisserer would occasionally glance up at his cork wall, a place where he long collected inspirational images for his work as a screenwriter.
For “Hours,” a potboiler about a man fighting to protect his newborn daughter after losing his wife (Genesis Rodriguez) in childbirth as Hurricane Katrina rages on outside, bringing with it a power outage, looters and the ever-rising tide as his barely breathing baby is confined to her incubator, Heisserer needed to figure out a way to keep the film compelling even though it would rarely move beyond the hospital’s walls. Ironically, he found himself looking towards the serene paintings of French impressionist Claude Monet.
“The Series of Haystacks that are painted in different times of day let me know that I could shoot a movie in basically the same location,” says Heisserer, whose attention to potent visuals, evident even in his earliest work in scripts for “Final Destination 5” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” made it only a matter of time before he would direct. “But I could track the time by lighting it completely differently and making it feel like its own different space every iteration.”
Yet little could Heisserer know that his first film would be seen in a different light as a whole, following the tragic death of its star Paul Walker. The actor shines as the harried father who hand cranks a generator to keep his child alive and would seem to reveal a side of himself that he hadn’t before onscreen, trading in the breezy cool that made him so appealing in the “Fast & Furious” franchise for the concern of a parent that makes his selfless actions even more resonant and allowing “Hours” to grab you emotionally even as it sprints ahead as a thriller.
The emotions were still quite raw for Heisserer, who had been in contact with Walker thanks to the recent press tour for “Hours,” but still found the time to talk about what blossomed into a true partnership with the actor, adapting his 1200-word short story into a feature and how the son of an ancient history professor found himself preserving the memory of Katrina survivors in some small way.
I got emotionally invested in the story more than anything else I had ever written prior to this. It felt like the best way to justice would be to see it all the way to the finish line. I also had been trying to see how well I could communicate what I saw in the final frame as I did on the page. In the past few movies I had done on commission for studios — “The Thing” and “Final Destination 5” — I hired my own storyboard artist on the side and began storyboarding scenes from that movie to see how well it would match up with the person they brought on board for that. I worked up enough confidence to feel like I could tell a visual story, but it wasn’t until this project that I felt like it was the right time.
Your original short story for “Hours,” which can be found on Popcorn Fiction, worked so well in that size. Was it easy or difficult to expand?
Honestly, it was both. It does lend itself really well to a contained thriller and starting with that piece of short fiction, I felt like I had enough core material to expand it. At the same time, you worry about it getting monotonous for the audience in terms of using the same tricks or tools again. The challenge was to keep it inventive and realistic without undermining the real emotional heart of the film.
You actually shot the film and New Orleans and I understand you met Katrina survivors while you live in Houston, but had you actually visited the city after Katrina but before shooting there?
I had been there before the hurricane, but [shooting there] was the first trip that I had to spend any real time in New Orleans Post-Katrina. We shot on location at a hospital that had been abandoned since Katrina and that was a dose of reality, seeing what it had done and realizing that even though the hurricane stayed more as the backdrop and inciting incident to take our hero on his own journey, we had to make sure that we were being true to that disaster.
Also, my crew had their own survival stories of that hurricane. A handful of them actually stayed afterward and dealt with the aftermath of Katrina. My stunt coordinator had to help try and protect his own neighborhood from looters and from flooding. Some of their stories made their way into the film or affected it in one way or the other. Even in a minor wardrobe choice, you see one of the looters who wears an orange Orleans Parish Prison jumpsuit. That came from a story from the woman at the New Orleans Times-Picayune when we shot at their cafeteria for one of their scenes. I heard about how they got to look out their window at one point to see the bridge of I-10 and all of these prisoners in the orange jumpsuits from the prison had broken out after the power failed. That was just a terrifying moment for everybody at the paper, knowing that there are all these convicts loose in the city on top of all the other problems, so that little bit worked its way into the movie. There are a dozen more like that.
It was invigorating. It just felt like we finally got to make this a reality. There had been so much talk and such a ramp-up to that moment that it was a great relief for me to finally be on set for the first day of shooting and be able to say action and cut. The flashback scenes we filmed of [Paul Walker and Genesis Rodriguez as] Nolan and Abigail were on day one, so it was happiness. There was just a good mood among the crew and everybody.
I’ve heard that was part of a plan to schedule the film to get the most out of your actors emotionally, which was just one way you managed to do so. How did you decide how you were going to work with them beyond what was on the page?
It depended on what they needed as performers. Genesis was just a workhorse. She knew the lines and was able to get back into that emotional space over and over. I remember we had to do almost two dozen takes of that first shot [in the film] of her going down the hallway because the wheels on the gurney that we used kept corroding on us — the rubber would start to decay and we’d have to trade out wheels every time and it’d get bumpier and bumpier. That meant poor Genesis would have to be just in seemingly agonizing pain, crying a lot, desperate for some attention from Nolan over and over again and not only was she game for it, she never complained once.
I found out by working with Paul that he is someone who can connect better the closer his character is to who he is in real life and what he would do because a lot of that comes from him trying to identify with the character. So the more I could shorten the distance between Nolan and Paul, the more authentic performance I got from him. I did my best to invest him creatively and emotionally into the story and therefore, he informed the character a bit.
There’s a scene where Nolan is trying to bond with his daughter and he begins pulling artifacts from his wallet and placing those on the incubator. One of them is the little calvary card that his father gave him with the quote on the back, “There is no quit.” That was Paul’s idea. If there were any stories that he shared with me about his daughter or his parents that I knew could help him in the moment, I’d try to connect with him right before I said action and it would be a shortcut to whatever emotion he had to feel at the time.
Absolutely. It started with the two of us just getting a shorthand a few months before. I flew out to New Orleans to start prep on the movie and we made a regular habit of sitting down two or three times a week a few hours each time, just talking. Me talking about my history and my desire to make the movie and my relationship with my family and him talking about his and his hopes and fears. Sometimes we’d play video games, sometimes we’d play cards. Sometimes we’d go have lunch, but it was all just very frank conversations that weren’t really rehearsals. It was a matter of trust building between the two of us so that on the day, he and I could exchange a few words and know what we were talking about. It was mainly because you need such an amount of trust when it’s one actor [carrying the film] and a new director on this kind of movie. You need that, considering there’s a lot of risk involved in both the performance and the direction.
Does this film mean something else now to you than when you first wrote the short story?
I think it’s still a love letter to parents and that’s something I want people to take away. But to me, there’s a lot more to it now from some lines of dialogue [Paul] has in the film to the final song that I picked for the end credits. All of it hits me in a very vulnerable place now. There’s a line he says when he’s talking to the hallucination of his wife and he says, “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” [pauses] That’s just really raw for me. I hope that people just take away from it what a great performance he crafted here and that it’s all on the screen.