Interview: Chad Hartigan on Crafting the Big Feelings of “Little Fish”

“When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” Emma (Olivia Cooke) asks of herself midway through “Little Fish,” attempting to come to terms with the insidious memory loss that’s plaguing her partner Jude (Jack O’Connell) as the world collectively begins to feel the effects of a virus known as NIA. It was a line that the screenwriter Mattson Tomlin had tucked into the sci-fi tinged romantic drama back in 2017, yet comes as a gut punch in 2021 when the world grapples with the effects of COVID-19, robbing so many of their loved ones and compromising others in ways that will only surface in the years to come.

Yet when the story is tenderly realized as the director Chad Hartigan apt to do, following up such kind-hearted films as “This is Martin Bonner” and “Morris from America,” “Little Fish” proves enchanting as Emma’s concerns that she and Jude are growing apart brings her closer to memories of how they forged such a strong bond in the first place, meeting at a Halloween party where no costume would be an obstacle for seeing each other for who they were. When acceptance has been such a strong theme in Hartigan’s work, often illuminating the unexpected connections between strangers from different worlds, the chance to construct his own universe with Tomlin is ripe with opportunities, looking at a relationship from a fresh perspective where the fact that no one is untouched by the pandemic only seems to amplify the small-specific ways in which one’s grief feels so unique to them and how even in times that can feel overwhelming in tragedy, the greatest pillars of strength are often what’s immediately in front of us.

In pulling off the nifty feat of working on a bigger scale to achieve a greater intimacy, Hartigan, along with two of the finest actors of their generation in Cooke and O’Connell make what feels like a more real romance than most out of its fantastical premise and after a year in which “Little Fish” took a different path to audiences than originally had been anticipated, intended to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before the event was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, the film’s arrival on Valentine’s Day at drive-ins and VOD to enjoy on comfy couches everywhere couldn’t come at a better time. Recently, Hartigan graciously took the time to talk about how he put such passion into a dystopian story, the previously unimaginable relevance of the film and crafting the feel of a larger world around its edges.

How did this come about?

After “Morris from America” premiered at Sundance, it played differently than I expected it would. In my mind, it was always kind of an arthouse film, but it actually played as a crowdpleaser and as a result of that, I came back to Hollywood and was getting these meetings where it seemed like, “Oh, there were maybe executives and Hollywood people would could see me in a different light,” and [I thought] “I don’t know if this is ever going to happen again. I might as well capitalize on it. “So I made the decision then to try and direct something that I didn’t write and started reading the scripts that were around. Some I liked, most of them I didn’t and one or two I even tried to get made and was unsuccessful. Finally this “Little Fish” script came and I was really lucky that one of the guys who was the executive at the company making it used to be the assistant of my agent, so he was really familiar with me from working for her and was able to fill in the gaps between “Morris From America” to “Little Fish” because it’s not an easy sell to just be like the guy who did this can also do this. Since he knew me, he championed for me, and then I met with Mattson [Tomlin], the writer, and with Olivia [Cooke], who was already involved and we all were on the same page and got along, so we started going for it.

Was it different to be working from a script you hadn’t originated?

Yeah, it was much different. First and foremost, I loved the speed at which it happened. I read it, I loved it and then a couple months later, we were working on it as opposed to spending two or three years toiling away at a screenplay and I was really excited by how fast that went. On the flip side, [I’ve worked] knowing that [the next film] would be bigger than the last one I had done and every time, there were new challenges and sometimes things I wasn’t necessary sure I knew how to do, but I always knew that I was the person that knew the material best, so if anyone had a question about what the movie should be like, I was the expert. That’s what I drew my confidence as a director from and on this one, I wasn’t the expert at first. There was actually someone more well-versed in the material, so it was a sprint to really immerse myself in it and start making those decisions and building my way up to be the expert on the material, and that had to happen very quickly, so it was challenging, but also fun.

The world-building in this is really intricate – it’s clearly a different reality you’re walking into, but only ever-so-slightly removed. Was that part of Mattson’s script from the start or something you had to hone throughout the process?

It was part of his script from the start and something that appealed to me when I read it. He did a really smart job of illustrating the complete scope of a pandemic via small moments and similarly, I thought he did a great job of illustrating the complete scope of one couple’s relationship, so it was two-handed in how it approached telling you these big stories in such an intimate way, and when I read it, I [thought] these are some cool things I’ve never gotten to do before, but I know that the approach is to my strengths, so it appealed to me right away. I’m not sure why he decided to do it that way because he could’ve easily decided to write a much bigger version of this story, but it was really smart that he didn’t.

Did ideas about lighting and color come pretty quickly? It’s one of those gentle aspects of the film that really brings you into the world?

I’ve worked with the cinematographer Sean [McElwee] on all my movies dating back to “Luke and Brie,” so we’re very much in tune with each other, and when we first mapped out the story, we [first] figured out what the actual order of events would be and then decided to try and have the early stuff — the happier memories — be warm and soft light, but as the story — and the disease — progresses, shadows becomes harsher and the light becomes harsher and we just approached the lighting as another tool to help tell the story of the outside world creeping into their happy existence.

It’s always a general approach dating back to those days when we were making movies for thousands of dollars rather than millions, that we want the movies to feel bigger than they are. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to show big stuff on the screen. It just means you have to be deliberate — so that can mean color, that can mean sound, that can be composition. Sometimes to feel the gravity and scope of a situation, it could be as simple as taking out all the sound and having it play silent, so it’s about being smart and using your tools.

Your other longtime collaboration is with the composer Keegan DeWitt and it connects to the lighting to me in the sense that there’s an intensity of sensations that seems to grow throughout the film. Was that in mind from the start?

It was on our mind in the sense that we wanted the emotions to feel big. I wanted to try and be inspired by my favorite love stories, which are “Titanic” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” where the feeling is just so sincere and extravagant and unabashed. I know I could never be Baz Luhrmann — I don’t have that stylistic flair, but my version of being unabashed and extravagant is what you see in “Little Fish,” and I really pushed Keegan to come up with a theme that was a really romantic, old fashioned love theme that we could repeat a few times, which he did. Then we conceptually took the idea of erasing somebody into the music, so one time when the theme repeats, it’ll be a full orchestration and another time, it’ll have an instrument taken out or one or two or one melody taken out, so it’s not quite exactly the same, so it’s different to varying degrees of the full version of that theme.

Obviously, Olivia connected to this quite early, but when the she and Jack O’Connell were on set, did they bring anything you weren’t quite expecting?

Even before set, because like a week in advance, we all got to Vancouver and we could start talking about the project together, going through scenes and they started coming up with great ideas that ended up in the movie. The split screen sequence, [where Jude is] touching her, that’s based on the idea of haptic memory that we came up with together just in those last three days before shooting. The part was written for Olivia, so she just knew it inside and out and could do it all effortlessly, and then Jack came in and really helped shape his character to be something more interesting to him as opposed to just your stereotypical male indie movie lead who’s irresistibly charming all the time and always has a funny line or quip to say. Jack was always interested in the version of the character that was messy, someone that even if there was no pandemic [you] would probably have ups and downs in your relationship with, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a person worth deeply loving and trying to save.

When you’re working with ideas with memory, that seems like it could make the narrative really fluid and malleable once you got back to the edit. Did you have a lot of leeway there?

Yes, the script was already nonlinear, so we took a nonlinear approach to filming it. We knew things would be cut around a lot, so that helps and in editing, we moved a lot of stuff. Anything was fair game for any part of the movie as long as it felt like the emotional journey stayed on a straight path and it was fun to experiment. Some stuff that was written to be in the last 10 pages of the movie now comes around 60 pages in and we could’ve done it forever, but eventually we settled on something [where] probably only 60 percent of the scenes in the same spot they were in the script.

It came together wonderfully. When this film itself had its own premiere sidelined by a pandemic, what’s it been like to put it out into the world? I noticed from your Twitter, you may have found a way to see it on the big screen.

Yeah, I went to the drive-in. It was great. I’m sad that I didn’t get to have a chance to have a nice festival premiere and I’ll never see it in a theater with a big crowd of people, but all the same, seeing it projected out under the stars was really nice and in the end, I think the pandemic has helped the movie in that people seem to be really receptive at this particular moment in time of a story of people just doing their best and trying to get through each day, clinging to the love that they have for each other. It’s proving to be much more cathartic than we ever could’ve imagined when we made it, so that’s the trade-off.

“Little Fish” is now available to watch on VOD and virtual cinemas.